Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Want to Improve Student Learning? Look at your “Instructional Environments”

Standards Don’t Teach. . . Teachers Do!  How to Improve Classroom Success

Dear Colleagues,

   It’s easy to get personally overwhelmed in today’s day and age.  We are bombarded by the 24/7 news cycle, constant e-mails, social media, and a world (for good and for bad) that is literally “at our finger tips”- - or, at least, our “mouse clicks.”

   The same is true in our professional lives.  Relative to school improvement and maximizing student learning, new national (or international) reports are published daily, new experts seem to emerge weekly, and new approaches are marketed constantly.

   And then, there are the “mixed messages”- - especially from the U.S. Department of Education and many state departments of education.  These messages come in the form of guidance instructions, white papers, websites and webinars, state-wide professional development programs (paid by the taxpayers), and even targeted grant proposal requests. 

   While our state and federal leaders say, “This is voluntary”. . . they typically communicate, “We know better than you”. . . and they often mean, “You would be well-advised to do this.”

   I have seen this recently- - and for too long a period of time- - as it relates to the “options” for school improvement, PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), identifying and treating dyslexia and learning disabilities, and RtI and multi-tiered services.

   The result, for many harried and overwhelmed educators, is to just assume that the “experts” sending us e-mails or in our state capitols have field-tested and validated their approaches.  However, even when their approaches don’t make sense, many educators often accept them anyways, because they either want to be “in compliance,” or they don’t have time to research and vet the alternatives.
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Staying Grounded

   Educators need expertise that provides specific “evidence-based blueprints” (or road maps) that guide effective teaching, steer differentiated classroom instruction, and address students who are not learning, mastering, or applying the information that is being presented.  These blueprints must flex with different student and staff conditions, while maintaining the integrity needed to accomplish functional and real student outcomes.

   And just like the blueprint to a house that provides exact dimensions, plumbing and wiring locations, and decorative details. . . the blueprint for an effective school and classroom needs to look at the intersection of curricular factors, teacher-instructional factors, and student factors.

   And why?  Because teachers and administrators are dealing with real students, real situations, real resources (of the lack thereof), and colleagues who are doing the best that they can with the information and skills that they possess.

   While I constantly “live” this reality in the schools I work with across the county, it was even more evident than usual during the past two weeks as I traveled from Michigan to New Jersey to Kentucky to Ohio.

   For example, in one school, I found myself restraining a third grader who decided to turn over every desk in the in-school suspension room, and begin to use pencils as darts.

   In another day treatment school, I watched as the local police handcuffed and arrested an adolescent boy and girl who had brought a box cutter and a butter knife to school in what staff thought was the beginning of a gang-related act of violence.

   And in a third school, I had to argue with a new and inexperienced vice principal who did not have the knowledge and skills to recognize the limitations of the state’s PBIS training that she had just attended.  At the same time, her building principal (with whom I have worked for over a decade) knew that the evidence-based approaches we have collaboratively implemented in her school do work- - it is just that her staff stopped doing the work.
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Another National Survey on Literacy Standards:  Classroom Implications ?

   Last week (October 13th), the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) released a report, Building Literacy Capacity:  The Conditions for Effective Standards Implementation.  This report summarized a May, 2015 on-line survey of over 1,400 building-level educators who disproportionately (50% of them) taught at the high school level. 

   Critically, the survey was sent only to building-level educators in public pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 schools in states that had recently adopted or revised their literacy standards (that is, a limited, pre-targeted sample).  While educators with different school roles (principals, librarians, instructional coaches) were originally surveyed, this Report analyzed and focused only on the “findings specific to classroom teachers.”

   Significantly, the Report’s author noted that those responding to the survey represented a “sample of convenience.”  It was also noted that, given the disproportionate number of high school respondents, “sample weighting procedures were used to increase the relative weight of responses from elementary teachers in all summary statistics.”  All of the data were reported in percentages with no grade-level differentiation.

 [CLICK HERE for Report]
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   While I am not criticizing the motivation behind this Report, it is concerning that:

   * The survey questions seem to be tailored to the mission, focus, and “theory of action” of this organization (which consists of stakeholders that include over 10 national education associations).  Thus, the results appeared to be biased toward supporting most facets of the organization’s model of literacy learning.

   * As noted above, there were a number of methodological weaknesses in the study which likely impact the validity and generalizability of the results.  As an Editorial Board member and reviewer (over the years) for half a dozen refereed professional journals, I have my doubts that this study would have been published in any of them.

   * Regardless, the Report was unveiled through a national Press Release, a social media deluge, and coverage in a prominent Education Week Teacher blog.  The media coverage emphasized only the summary and primary outcomes of the study.  It was left to the individual professional to read the Summary of Findings document where the methodological limitations and statistical transformations noted above were discussed.
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   Once again, my point is that this study represents many studies that, over the years, have been commissioned or sponsored by different governmental agencies, national associations, coalitions, foundations, university institutes, and others - - and have been released into our media-saturated professional worlds. 

   Ultimately, it is our obligation as responsible consumers to decide when (a) the “research” questions are self-selected to produce self-fulfilling results; (b) methodological and other weaknesses are present and de-emphasized; and (c) a study’s conclusions support an educational or political agenda favored by the sponsoring group.

   All of this puts the “burden of proof” on the individual to determine the quality, importance, and generalizability of any study and its outcomes.  And yet, there just isn’t enough time.  Given the speed and demands of our professional lives (see the Introduction above), we sometimes accept the results of studies that confirm our beliefs, rather than analyze them in an objective and discerning way.

   And, sometimes, this is exactly what some sponsoring groups depend on.
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Getting Back to the Classroom

   All of the critique aside, the NCLE Report’s conclusions were anchored by the group’s “Theory of Action,” and organized in five blueprint areas:  Assessment, Instruction, Leadership, Professional Learning, and Curriculum. 

   While all of these areas potentially impact classroom instruction, the Report’s findings and recommendations discussed the kind of global, school-level, top-down strategies that sound great, but are open to interpretation and misinterpretation.

   For example, the Report’s Press Release discussed the characteristics below as part of the “emerging” standards-based literacy instruction blueprint:

   * Assessment needs to be used to provide feedback on the learning process.

   * Instruction needs to be aligned with standards.

   * Leadership needs to provide clear direction accompanied by teacher ownership.

   * Professional Learning should be an investment where time is available for teacher collaboration.

   * Schools need to provide the time and support that allows teachers to review, adapt, and even create their own curricular materials to reflect instructional standards.
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   While this is all well and good, for our “how-many-e-mails-did-you-get-today” educators, we have got to target their classrooms, instruction, and students. 

   That is, if we truly want to improve student learning, we need to stop inundating and overwhelming educators with top-down generalizations, and give them clear and explicit guidance that focuses on the Instructional Environment.
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   The Instructional Environment involves the integration of curricular, teacher-instructional, and student characteristics and factors.  Expanding briefly:

   * The Curricular Characteristics and Factors . . . involve the different academic curricula taught in a classroom, as well as their connection to state standards and benchmarks, and district scope and sequence objectives (i.e., “What needs to be learned?”).

   Among the questions that teachers need answered in this area are the following:

  1. Does my curriculum specify the particular objectives that the student is expected to master for each instructional unit?
  2. Does my curriculum specify the particular skills that the student must possess as a prerequisite to meeting the instructional objectives for each unit?
  3. Does my curriculum task analyze specific skills, when appropriate, such that sequential and mastery-oriented learning results for all students?
  4. Does my curriculum provide a range of levels to accommodate the different cognitive and language levels that might exist within an integrated classroom?
  5. Does my curriculum introduce new skills such that students have a high probability of success and provide sufficient positive practice opportunities for students to attain mastery?
  6. Does my curriculum have built-in opportunities for students to transfer new training to other academic situations, applications, and contexts?
  7. Does my curriculum have horizontal skill books and other materials available for students who need extra instruction and/or practice to attain mastery?
  8. Does my curriculum follow research-based methods of instruction relative to student mastery and other relevant outcomes?
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   * The Teacher-Instructional Characteristics and Factors . . . involve the teachers who are teaching specific academic curricula, and how they organize and execute their classroom instruction (i.e., “Are appropriate instructional and management strategies being used?”).

   Among the questions that teachers need answered in this area are the following:

  1. Does my instructional environment support the learning/educational process?
  2. Am I being effective with all students?
  3. Can I adapt or modify the curriculum such that there is an appropriate student-curriculum match?
  4. Is my instruction programmed for student success?
  5. When students are not responding to effective, differentiated instruction, is there a problem-solving process available to determine the root cause of the problem, and can the assessment results be linked directly to intervention?
  6. When academic modifications, accommodations, or interventions are needed, do I have the knowledge, skill, confidence, objectivity, and/or interactional skills to maximize success?
  7. When academic modifications, accommodations, or interventions are needed, are there appropriate resources, support materials, and staff available to me to maximize success?
  8. When academic modifications, accommodations, or interventions are needed, are the recommended interventions acceptable, socially valid, and able to be implemented effectively and realistically?
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   * The Student Characteristics and Factors . . . look especially at whether students are engaged in learning; are responding to effective instruction and sound curricula; and are motivated and able to learn, master, and apply academic material (i.e., “Is each student capable, prepared, motivated, and able to learn, and are they learning?”). 

   Among the questions that teachers need answered in this area are the following:

  1. Do all of my students have the prerequisite skills for the required/desired academic tasks?
  2. Do all of my students have the self-competency, cognitive/metacognitive, motivational, social/interactive, executive, and other supportive skills or strategies needed to for successful academic engagement and execution?
  3. Do all of my students have and/or use the appropriate learning styles and approaches needed to successfully complete all academic tasks?
  4. Are all of my students motivated to learn, dedicated to independent learning, and able to work individually, in small group settings, and in whole-group instruction?
  5. Are all of my students able to evaluate their own academic performance, or respond to formative and summative feedback that reflects on their progress, accomplishments, and goals?

   These are the questions that teachers and administrators need answered when we approach them with new studies or national reports that describe (sometimes) new strategies, programs, or initiatives.

   As working practitioners dealing with real students in real classrooms, these educators need fewer global, school-level, top-down strategies, and more direct, practical, step-by-step, field-tested, and student/staff friendly strategies and interventions. . . especially when they have academically struggling or behaviorally challenging students.
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   If we are really committed to better, high, and achievable outcomes for all students, we need to focus more on characteristics and factors that are directly related to our classrooms- - our Instructional Environments.

   This is what our research tells us, and this is what our educators- - especially our teachers- - want and need.

   National surveys and reports are important.  But they sometimes get more media attention than they should. . . and sometimes, this attention persuades district and school administrators to begin professional development initiatives that are misapplied, misguided, and doomed for failure.

   This is especially problematic when the studies and reports are flawed, when they are published anyways, and when their flaws are not transparently acknowledged.
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   I hope that you will reflect on this message’s information and thoughts.  Know that I appreciate everything that you do as educational leaders in our country.  I look forward to YOUR thoughts and comments.  Let me know how I can help your state, regional cooperative, district, or school to move to the next level of excellence.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Is Your Strategic Plan Focused on Outcomes… or Just a Direction?

There are “Many Roads to Rome”—but You Need an Address and a GPS to Get There

Dear Colleagues,

   As the saying goes, “There are many roads to Rome.”  And that is true.

   But after traveling in Italy this summer, I can assure you that you do not want to go to Rome.  Not to be coy. . . you want to go to specific places in Rome.

   To expand this metaphor:  if you are traveling to Rome from, let’s say, Florence, you want to travel South/Southwest.  However, that is only a direction that will leave you (hopefully) somewhere in Rome- - or, if you are unlucky, just on the outskirts of the city.

   In contrast, if you are traveling to Rome- - instead of a global direction, you really want to go to a destination, a specific place, in Rome.  For that, you need an address and probably (if you know Rome’s topography and lay-out) a GPS.

   So. . . what does this have to do with education ? 

   Too often, when doing strategic planning, schools and districts end up with global goals that only reflect a set of directions.  The best case scenario here is that they end up going in the “right direction,” but they never reach their student-specific destinations.  Another typical result is that their successful students maintain or extend their success, but their needy or unsuccessful students stagnate and remain the same.

   In contrast, what schools and districts need to do is to identify their specific, desired destinations- - that is, the objective and measurable academic and social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes that they want for all students from preschool through high school.  These destinations should reflect the content, skills, processes, and subject-specific and trans-disciplinary applications that students need to learn and master at every grade level.

   If “outcomes-based” strategic planning is used in place of “standards-based” strategic planning, schools and districts will be able to set their strategic “GPSs” to the path of least resistance.  The clear result is that they will then have a much better chance of meeting their goals and attaining their outcomes.

   As they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
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Using a Top-Down “Standards-Based” versus a Bottom-Up “Outcomes-Based” Approach to Strategic Planning

   Earlier this past week, I was on a conference call with some district-level colleagues discussing the emerging strategic planning directions in their large urban/suburban county school district.  Together, we discussed their superintendent’s interest in developing social, emotional, and behavioral standards for their students.  Critically, we could have just as easily been discussing the district’s academic standards in literacy, math, and/or science.

   My colleagues shared that their superintendent wanted to develop district-wide standards to guide the implementation of a whole-district, multi-tiered approach.  My assumption was that these social, emotional, and behavioral standards would be connected to the district’s academic standards, creating vehicles toward the county’s strategic commitment to increase high school graduation and all students’ “college and career” readiness.

   After the first minutes of the call, my first response was to ask my colleagues:

“What social, emotional, or behavioral competencies and skills do your students need- - from preschool to high school- - in order to facilitate graduation and help them to be college and career ready?”

   My second question was:

“Wouldn’t you be better off identifying the specific outcomes that you want, and then generating your standards based on and aligned to these outcomes?”
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   As alluded to earlier, while most school districts employ a top-down “standards-based” approach to strategic planning, my work in the field has demonstrated that a bottom-up “outcomes-based” approach works better- - relative to actually achieving the desired student-based outcomes.  This is true whether we are talking about academic or social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes.

   Consider the following:  When the national Common Core State Standards (CCSS) website first went on-line, there was a prominent statement on its Home Page.  The statement basically said:

 “These are just standards.  Individual school districts will need to (a) operationalize these standards, (b) drill them down to academic scope and sequence progressions, (c) identify specific and measurable outcomes, (d) ensure that they are taught effectively using sound curricular materials and differentiated instruction, and (e) assess them formatively and summatively with reliable and valid measures.”

   Unfortunately, many districts, schools, and teachers have not done this. 

   Instead, they are using the CCSS as their curricular, instruction, assessment, and evaluation templates.  Moreover, they are compounding this problem as teachers in the same school at the same grade level are creating their own different CCSS lessons, teaching them “their own way,” and evaluating their outcomes using vastly different approaches.

   This inconsistency ultimately undercuts instructional fidelity and accountability, and we do not get the collective student outcomes that we want.

   Critically, the same thing has happened in states that have social, emotional, and/or behavioral standards- - largely because specific outcomes have not been described and defined.  This has been left to the districts, schools, and staff- -  resulting in a standards-based mess.
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   My point again is: 

   If districts, schools, and teachers need to eventually identify students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes, why would we not START by:

   * Identifying the outcomes first;
   * Then writing the standards to fit the outcomes;
   * Then generating the additional standards that might have been 
          missed; and
   * Finally, “looping” back down to finalize the specific outcomes ?
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Examples of Academic and Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Outcomes

   From an academic perspective, a bottom-up outcomes-based approach would focus on, for example:

   * The specific content, skills, processes, and subject-specific and trans-disciplinary applications that students need to learn and master- - from preschool through high school- - in identified academic areas (e.g., literacy, math, oral and written expression, science and civics, the arts and humanities).

   To accomplish this, an integrated scientific, developmental, and pedagogical perspective is needed.  For example:

   * The current research and practice in literacy, identifies five functional, interdependent skill areas- - phonemic awareness, phonetic decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. 

   * Each of these areas needs to be operationalized- - for example, what types of comprehension skills and questions do we want students to learn, master, and apply (in different types of texts) at the preschool/kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school levels? 

   * Then, each of these areas needs to be developmentally validated- - for example, at what age and/or development range or levels can students learn different types of comprehension questions?  

   * Then, instructional progressions need to be developed where prerequisite knowledge and skills are identified, differentiated instruction templates are developed, formative and summative evaluation indicators and criteria are detailed, and available accommodations and modifications are embedded.
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   Critically, and consistent with this discussion’s theme, the guiding focus is on what we want students to be able to independently demonstrate. 

   For example, integrating science, literacy, mathematics, history, and ethics, we may want high school students to be able to (a) read and understand the purpose and steps of a chemistry experiment on pollutants in the atmosphere; (b) predict and prepare for the different phases or events that will occur during that experiment; (c) anticipate, respond to, and measure the outcomes of the different phases of the experiment; (d) generalize the results to a theory or set of universal principles; (e) apply these principles to one or more past historical events; and (f) frame the principles into an ethical dilemma contrasting the present benefits of an company that produces an important product, but that nonetheless releases small amounts of pollutants into the air, versus a boycott that might put that company out of business but benefit future generations.

   While my example is complex (isn’t life?), the identification of the different science, literacy, mathematical, and ethical outcomes (and their prerequisites and progressions) is not.  This is not rocket science.  In fact, many schools, districts, states, and national professional associations have already done this work.
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   From a social, emotional, and behavioral perspective, a bottom-up outcomes-based approach would focus on competencies and skills that I have discussed in previous Blogs.  That is, among the competencies that students- - from preschool through high school- - need to develop are the following:

          Social Competencies
            Listening, Engagement, and Response Skills
            Communication and Collaboration Skills
            Social Problem-Solving and Group Process Skills
            Conflict Prevention and Resolution Skills

          Emotional Competencies
            Emotional Self-Awareness, Control, and Coping 
            Awareness and Understanding of Others’ 
                Emotions and Emotional Behavior
            Positive Self-Concept, Self-Esteem, and 
                Self-Statement Skills

          Cognitive-Behavioral Competencies
            Self-Scripting, Self-Monitoring, Self-Evaluation, 
                Self-Correction, and Self-Reinforcement Skills
            Social, Interactional, and Interpersonal Skills
            Classroom and Building Routine Skills
            Instructional and Academic Supporting Skills

   Drilling these competencies down to a more functional level, below are twelve social, emotional, and behavioral skill clusters that all students also should learn and master progressively and before they graduate from high school:

   Listening, Following Directions, Staying On-Task
   Accurately interpreting Non-Verbal Cues and Voice Inflection
   Being Positive, Motivated, and Persistent
   Communicating Clearly, Constructively, and Courteously
   Knowing how to Discuss, Interrupt, Debate, Agree, Compromise, 
       and Disagree
   Cooperating with and Accepting Others’ Opinions
   Respecting Others, Being a Team Player, Taking on Different Group 
   Knowing how to Ask for Help, and Accept Frustration or 
   Knowing how to Accept Failure, Losing, and Being Wrong
   Showing Confidence, Dealing with Peer Pressure, Standing up for 
   Controlling and Expressing Emotions, Responding to Others’ 
   Demonstrating Goal-oriented Planning and Time Management

   Once again, these skills need to be taught in a developmentally- sound way, using effective differentiated instruction, and sound, field-tested curricular and pedagogical approaches.  Moreover, once learned, we know that these skills will positively affect students’ academic performance, teachers’ classroom management, and schools’ climate and outcomes.
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And so, Back to Strategic Planning

   PLEASE hear me clearly:  I am not saying that we do not need standards.  I am simply questioning the directionality of how we generate standards while recommending an approach that will result in better outcomes.

   In summary, when districts and schools begin their strategic planning process from a bottom-up outcomes-based perspective, they will identify the multi-tiered curricular, instructional, assessment, and evaluation outcomes that students need to demonstrate from preschool through high school.  But in addition, this bottom-up approach will more directly and immediately connect the professional development and training, coaching and supervision, resource and technology, and services and supports needed so that the student-focused outcomes can be attained for all students.  

   Critically, we have pretty much proven that the top-down standards-based approach does not work.  For example, the Institute of Education Sciences released two new reports this past week describing surveys of Race-to-the-Top (RTT) versus non-RTT states, and School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools- - analyzing their implementation of the policies and practices promoted by the U.S. Department of Education as a condition of receiving the billions of tax dollars awarded.

[CLICK HERE for these Reports]

   While it is important to read the specifics in these (and earlier) RTT/SIG evaluation reports, the “bottom line” is that:

   * The states and schools that received grant money implemented more of the recommended policies and practices than unfunded states and schools- - but they did not implemented all or even most of the policies and practices;

   * Most of the practices were incredibly global in nature (see below)- - reinforcing the earlier point about vague strategic directions versus laser-focused student outcome destinations; and

   * The results from the RTT states and SIG schools thus far are unimpressive- - with, for the SIG program, a third of the schools showing worse student achievement results over time, and two-thirds of the schools showing just marginal levels of academic improvement.

   And, once again, what are some of global, top-down RTT and SIG practices recommended by the U.S. Department of Education?  To:

   * Use data to evaluate instructional programs
   * Use data to inform and differentiate instruction
   * Use benchmark or interim assessments at least annually
   * Implement strategies to ensure that ELL learners master 
         academic content
   * Require student achievement growth as a component of teacher 
   * Provide multiple-session professional development events
   * Replace the principal
   * Use financial incentives to recruit and retain effective principals
   * Change parent or community engagement strategies
   * Change discipline policies
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   If we are really committed to better, high and achievable outcomes for all students, we need to rethink our strategic planning processes and how we identify our needed and desired goals and outcomes.  To a large degree over the past decade or more, we keep “doing the same things” somehow expecting “different results.”

   But we are not getting the different results.

   The results we are getting include frustrated students, parents, staff, and schools.

   Moreover, we keep looking at new “Band-Aids”- - charter and magnet schools, eliminating teacher tenure, creating “smaller” schools- - when we need to focus, once again, on student outcomes and the services, supports, strategies, and programs needed to get to the outcomes.  [Note that there are lots of charter schools, work-at-will staffs, and small schools that do not produce positive student outcomes- - because these are not causal factors that directly affect student achievement.]

   For those of us who did not grow up with GPSs (never mind MapQuest), we continue to be amazed by this phenomenal technological innovation.  For those students who are growing up in schools that are not working, we need to apply the strategic approaches and innovations that DO work, and reset our GPS's.

   It is time to get to our destination- - instead of just wandering in the “right” direction.
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   I hope that you will reflect on this message’s information and thoughts.  Know that I appreciate everything that you do as educational leaders in our country.  I look forward to YOUR thoughts and comments.  Let me know how I can help your state, regional cooperative, district, or school to move to the next level of excellence.