Education is indeed a noble calling. Among and between the frustrations, red tape, glacial speed of change, monotony, and normal emotional fallout of “crucial conversations,” there are those wonderful, magical moments when we know exactly why we do what we do.
But, like anything, we sometimes find ourselves falling into a catatonic routine of stand up and deliver, of sit down and correct, of coloring within the lines. In essence our routines dominate and demotivate.
I had the luxury of spending two hours with the staff at an incredible startup technology company. I was brought in as a consultant to provide some insight to a group of talented, motivated Millennials. Yet I was the one who walked away with the insight.
The lessons I learned can be applicable to educators and change agents in every industry.
- The company is flat. Clearly, there was a pecking order in title and responsibility, yet I could not tell who was in charge of anything. People collaborated in one large open space without cubicles or doors separating people or preventing access. The energy was palpable; the structure of power or chain of command was not.
Someone once told me that the legendary headmaster at Deerfield Academy had his desk in the main hallway of the school. Even if this is urban legend, it makes us wonder if school leaders may be missing an opportunity to be more accessible, more in the fray.
Several years ago, I worked at a charter school where all the teachers worked in “pods,” where several desks were pushed together in grade teams in one large room. The energy was amazing.
- Questions are the drivers. I sat in a meeting where I was peppered with questions—specific ones, general ones, hypothetical ones, probing ones. Clearly, the work of these entrepreneurs is to seek solutions. Looking for the next big question seemed like a part of the ethos, the mission-led approach to providing outstanding customer service.
Framing questions also helps organize the impressive amount of qualitative and quantitative research that goes on in this company. Honest feedback from experts, ordinary users, and “power” users is critical.
Walls were covered with whiteboards, which in turn were covered with running conversations in marker—ideas, diagrams, more questions, some answers. The incessant scribbling was like an organic exhibit of mission, action, and collaboration on a canvas of dreams, hope, and sweat.
Might asking clear, specific questions help educators improve the student experience? Might students be a great resource, since they are the ones “living” the educational experience?
Maybe education leaders should set question goals per day and per week to gather as much data as possible. One must know what is going on to be able to change what is going on.
- Professional trust—not rules—is key. At this company, I saw staff putting golf balls on synthetic turf and wearing jeans and rock band t-shirts. The office would not have won any neatness awards. The creative energy in the place was overwhelming, and in between their short mental breaks from work, serious work was being done.
It was as if the boss had said to the staff, “You are talented, you are trusted. Do your work well, and be who you are. Work hard and long. Have fun. Solve problems. Let me know when you want feedback.”
Talk about motivating!
In Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan address many of the same ideas: trust, expertise, autonomy. Perhaps there is a way to make education more entrepreneurial, to capture the spirit of the world I witnessed and recruit and hire some of its brightest people.
Jason Larocque is middle level director at St. John’s Prep School in Danvers, Massachusetts. www.stjohnsprep.org
A new survey sheds light on keys to successful implementation of Common Core State Standards.
Think about the Common Core State Standards as an ambitious remodeling project happening all over the country. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted new shared goals for what their students should know and be able to do in literacy, and middle grades schools all across the country are figuring out how to bring instruction “up to code.”
Will schools take a “pre-fab” approach to the remodel, dropping in off-the-shelf components and hoping they will fit and function? Or will they take a custom approach, relying on the skilled craftspeople on the front lines of instruction to make adaptations to suit the needs and contexts of their schools?
Exciting new survey results from the National Center on Literacy Education (NCLE) demonstrate the power of the custom approach, and in particular the power of teacher collaboration, in driving Common Core State Standards (CCSS) implementation.
The survey was conducted online in October 2013 among members of organizations in the NCLE coalition (which includes AMLE) and garnered responses from almost 5,700 K–12 educators, including more than 3,000 classroom teachers (nearly 900 in middle grades schools). The survey was limited to respondents in states and roles actively implementing the CCSS in ELA/Literacy.
Successful Transitions to CCSS
The transition to the CCSS seems to be most successful when teachers are highly engaged in the process and have time to collaborate to leverage their collective professional expertise to bring all students to higher levels of literacy. This is great news for middle grades schools, where teaming structures provide a framework for doing the kinds of interdisciplinary work called for by the CCSS.
The nearly 900 middle grades teachers who responded to our survey reported a wide variation in how their schools are approaching the change, but send four clear messages for making the transition a success:
1. Accelerate the changes by keeping front-line educators engaged in designing how literacy skills can be taught differently.
Middle grades schools across the country are taking a range of different approaches, some dependent on purchased materials, some much more teacher-driven.
We asked middle grades teachers how engaged they are in several aspects of the CCSS transition. Is this a change they are driving, or a change that is being done “to” them? We discovered that three specific kinds of teacher engagement are crucial to how well the CCSS transition is going:
- Planning how their school will implement the standards.
- Having time with colleagues to work on the standards.
- Identifying and/or creating their own materials and approaches.
From having a voice in planning how their school would implement the standards, to having time with colleagues to dig into the meaning of the standards and implications for classroom practice, to being trusted to exercise their professional judgment in terms of what materials will best help their particular students reach the standards, engaged teachers are making more progress at every step of CCSS implementation: supporting the standards, feeling well-prepared to help students meet the standards, and actually making changes in their classrooms.
2. Make collaboration time purposeful professional work by focusing on real instructional tasks.
One of the most powerful predictors of progress with implementing the standards was teachers having time to work through them with colleagues. Middle grades teachers have an advantage here compared to teachers at other levels, reporting more built-in time for team work than elementary school or secondary school teachers.
Compared to teachers who are doing it on their own, teachers who participated in collaborative work with colleagues around the standards were twice as likely to rate themselves as well-prepared to help their students meet the standards and also much more likely to report having already made moderate or significant changes in their teaching in response to CCSS goals.
Table 1 illustrates the impact of collaboration on CCSS implementation, showing that teachers who have opportunities to collaborate around the standards report being better prepared to implement the standards and are already making more changes in their practice. Clearly, with fewer than half the teachers who responded feeling well-prepared, we are at an early stage in this transition. Providing time for teachers to work through the standards together is one of the most powerful ways to raise the level of preparedness.
Middle schools across the country are investing huge amounts of time and money in professional learning around the new standards. But what kinds of learning experiences do teachers tell us really make a difference in their ability to implement the standards? As Table 2 illustrates, among middle grades teachers in the NCLE survey, hands-on planning time with colleagues was the clear winner.
The survey also provides a window into what teachers do during that time that makes a difference for student learning. Teachers who reported that they frequently engaged in the following CCSS-related tasks with a collaborative team were making the most progress:
- Co-creating lessons
- Co-creating assessments
- Examining student work together.
For example, teachers who reported that they frequently had the opportunity to spend time with a team looking at real examples of student work relative to specific standards were twice as likely to rate themselves well-prepared to help their students meet the standards.
Research suggests that this relationship is so strong because professional learning that is embedded in the real work of instruction is far more likely to lead to desired changes. Such tasks let teachers pool their insights and experiences and adjust their practice in real time. Investing in the time to do this kind of practical, applied work will pay off in remodeled instruction that is more coherent and structurally sound.
3. Bring educators in all disciplines and roles together in shifting literacy practices.
Middle grades teachers have always understood that literacy is central to student success across the curriculum. In the 2012 NCLE survey, 80% of middle grades educators in all job roles and subject areas agreed that “Developing students’ literacy is one of the most important parts of my job.”
The Common Core builds on that existing shared ownership of literacy development by providing a structure of common goals, a more concrete description of what it means to be literate in the 21st century that educators can work toward together.
Our data show that middle grades teachers across subject areas are shifting practices in response (see Table 3). Majorities of teachers across subject areas report shifts, but teachers of natural and social sciences were more likely to report an impact on how they teach than on what, suggesting they are getting the message that CCSS are not asking everyone to become English teachers, but rather to be more conscious of and strategic about literacy development within their own content area.
4. Build teacher ownership of the change by providing space and support for them to innovate and design the lessons and materials that are right for their students to meet the CCSS goals.
Some of the most striking findings in our survey have to do with the role of textbooks and other materials in the transition to CCSS. When asked if the “main curricular materials” (presumably textbooks) they were currently using are well aligned with the new standards, 59% of middle grades teachers say they are not. Under a model of educational change driven by teachers sticking to a script, this would be a problem, the assumption being that without an aligned textbook to follow, teachers will not shift their literacy practices in the desired direction. In fact, just 25% of teachers rated finding instructional materials aligned with the standards to be a major challenge.
It seems that teachers have a much broader definition of materials than purchased textbooks. As envisioned in the standards document, teachers are drawing on a wide array of resources from classroom libraries to newspaper and magazine articles and especially lessons designed by other teachers near and far. The transition to the new standards coupled with digitally literate teachers has led to an explosion of sharing and adapting of instructional materials, some on education-specific platforms but many more through the use of broader technologies such as YouTube, Pinterest, and Twitter.
Last fall, almost 90% of middle grades teachers reported that in their district, teachers are identifying and/or creating their own materials and approaches to meet the standards. This is exciting news: sustainable change comes from the bottom up, powered by the insight and ownership of those on the front lines.
A Teacher-Powered Transition
Data from the 2013 NCLE survey suggest that most middle schools are taking a “custom” approach to this huge remodeling job, drawing on the talents of teachers to bring the general code of the CCSS to life in ways that make sense in their specific context.
District and school leaders can continue to support a successful, teacher-powered transition by:
- Involving teachers in planning for the change.
- Protecting time for teachers to collaborate on standards implementation.
- Focusing collaboration time close to the classroom: on designing, testing, and revising lessons and assessments.
- Keeping the collaboration interdisciplinary.
They can also give networked teachers the autonomy to create and design the materials that will get their students to the shared goals of the standards.
Catherine Awsumb Nelson is an evaluation and research consultant for the National Center for Literacy Education. email@example.com
This article was published in AMLE magazine
, March 2014.
Most of the headlines following the latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) focused on the fact that the performance of 15-year-olds in the United States has remained flat for the past decade while the performance of their peers in other nations improved. As a result, the United States is now ranked 26th out of 34 industrialized countries in mathematics, 17th in reading, and 21st in science.
At first glance, it might seem as if the PISA results are not that instructive. After all, U.S. educators don’t need yet another test to tell them that their students rank below their international peers. But PISA doesn’t just tell us where U.S. students rank internationally, it also offers important insights into policies and practices that can inform educational policy going forward.
One specific challenge for the United States that emerged from the PISA results is the nation’s declining performance in an important area: the proportion of students who performed at the top levels.
As an Alliance for Excellent Education report (http://all4ed.org/?p=18019) that analyzes the PISA results finds, 8.8% of U.S. 15-year-olds performed at the top levels in mathematics, compared with 10.1% in 2003; 7.9% performed at the top levels in reading, compared with 12.2% in 2000; and 7.5% performed at top levels in science, down from 9.1% in 2006 (that decline was not statistically significant).
By contrast, several high-performing nations had far higher proportions of students at the top levels, and many increased the proportions of students who scored high. Shanghai-China had far and away the most high performers, with 55.4% at top levels in mathematics, 25.1% in reading, and 27.2% in science. Singapore, Korea, Japan, Canada, and Switzerland, among other nations, all had considerably more students at the top levels than did the United States. Poland’s proportion of top performers rose substantially, from 10.1% to 16.7% in mathematics and 5.9% to 10% in reading.
The fact that so few U.S. students reached top levels—and that the number who have done so is dropping—is worrisome. These levels indicate that students can use their knowledge to think critically, solve complex and
novel problems, and communicate effectively—precisely the deeper learning competencies that are essential for their future. Unfortunately, they are also the skills that far too many U.S. students lack—a fact that the nation’s teachers already understand and are working to correct.
What the PISA results do not capture is all the hard work that educators, administrators, and students are currently doing to improve U.S. performance in the next round of PISA exams, in 2015. The Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics place a strong emphasis on core content knowledge as well as the ability to use knowledge to think critically, solve problems, and communicate effectively.
The challenge for the United States is to implement the Common Core State Standards and assessments effectively so that teachers receive the support they need to teach those abilities effectively, and all students have the support they need to learn them. Improving PISA performance, and more important, improving the nation’s civic and economic strength, depends on whether the nation can meet that challenge.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, D.C. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was published in AMLE Magazine
, March 2014.
A basic plan of action can help education leaders ensure success for all students.
Today’s school leaders are challenged to ensure their schools are effective—providing a quality education for every student—but they must do that with fewer resources than in the past. They need an action plan that ensures success for all students.
In the past 15 years, research studies have identified the characteristics of effective schools. Those characteristics that seem to show up in all the findings include high expectations for students, a safe and orderly school climate, frequent assessment of student progress, parental involvement, collaboration among faculty and staff members, and focused and sustained professional development.
Attending to these basics can go a long way toward creating effective schools that meet the needs of all students.
Three factors stand out from the research that guide implementation of this component of effective schools.
Faculty and staff must truly believe that raising the bar will increase student achievement. The teachers in the classroom must be willing to increase the rigor of instruction and the administrators must be willing to support these efforts. Just saying you have high expectations for students is not enough; faculty and staff members must put their beliefs into action.
Faculty and staff must communicate their high expectations to the students on a daily basis. Teachers do this by raising the bar for all students in the classroom and then doing whatever it takes to help the students succeed. Raising the bar without additional support is setting students up for failure. Administrators support the “culture of high expectations” by providing staff development, resources, and support for the efforts of the teachers.
- Faculty and staff must have high expectations for themselves as well. This means faculty and staff members must increase the rigor of their instruction, be willing to learn and try new instructional strategies, and be available to provide additional support for students to ensure their success.
A Safe and Orderly Climate
It is important to create an environment where all stakeholders feel secure. A safe and orderly school has a positive impact on student achievement.
- An effective school safety program focuses on prevention, intervention, and emergency response. School leaders can take several steps to create this type of learning environment.
- Make sure students have a clear understanding of the behavioral expectations on the campus. Students also should be taught proper behavior. This is a responsibility of all faculty members.Establish personal relationships with students. Personal relationships are especially important on campuses with large numbers of economically disadvantaged students.
- Have regular emergency drills and be able to respond quickly to reports of unsafe conditions or emergency incidents. All staff members should feel confident in their ability to deal with multiple forms of emergencies. Students should also be instructed in proper response to multiple forms of emergencies.
- Establish a school-wide program to deal with bullying, violence, and harassment. An effective program is proactive and emphasizes prevention. A safe procedure for reporting incidents should be in place.
To create and maintain an effective school, education leaders should guide teachers in the use of multiple forms of assessment. Teachers should use data to inform their instructional decisions. And, they should have opportunities to work in teams to develop pre-assessments, formative assessments, and summative assessments.
Pre-assessments are one of the most important elements of differentiated instruction. Pre-assessments can inform teachers not only about what concepts the students have already mastered, but can also bring to light misconceptions students may have about the concepts. This knowledge allows teachers to differentiate instruction based on student readiness.
Formative assessments are given during instruction to determine how well students are meeting the learning goals of the lesson. Teachers use formative assessment data to determine if they need to adjust their instruction.
Summative assessments assess how much of the content the students mastered at a certain point in time; summative assessment data is usually an important part of the grading process. Summative assessment can help evaluate instructional effectiveness and determine if re-teaching is necessary.
Schools cannot sit back and wait for parents to come to them. Parents should be invited onto campus and involved in decision making when appropriate. Parents who feel welcome are more likely to become involved.
Communication between school and family should be consistent and it should involve school administrators as well as teachers.
Teacher collaboration creates a culture of high student expectations, promotes sharing of best practices, and cultivates a sense of belonging.
The first step in developing a culture of collaboration is to build a core team to begin the process. The core team should include teachers and administrators who have a collective commitment to improving student achievement and are well-respected on the campus. This group will be responsible for developing the implementation plan for the campus.
The next step is to build the collaborative teams. Team members must be compatible and willing to work together. All team members must understand that they will be expected to fully participate in the collaborative team. Once the teams are built, they establish individual member roles and team norms.
Because it has a direct, positive impact on student achievement, principals should promote collaborative opportunities for teachers by building a master schedule that gives teachers time during the school day to meet together. In a perfect world collaborative teams would meet every day. However, if that is not possible, the teams should be provided opportunities to meet at least weekly.
Focused, Sustained Professional Development
For many years staff development was presented in a “one and done” method, presented only at the beginning of the year. To positively affect student achievement, professional development should be an ongoing learning experience.
Determine areas of need for the campus. All staff members should have input into this needs assessment to ensure the staff development plan is focused and effective.
Find experts who are well respected to present the staff development. Some staff development will be presented by campus personnel, some by district personnel, and some by outside vendors.
We know now that effective staff development is continuous and provides faculty and staff members many opportunities to learn about, discuss, and implement the new ideas.
There’s no one-size-fits-all method for creating effective schools, but research has identified common characteristics of effective schools. Schools that aspire to improve instruction and student achievement should embrace these characteristics. It is the role of campus leaders to determine how these characteristics look on your campus.
Kenneth Cummings is the principal of T.H. McDonald Junior High School in Katy, Texas. email@example.com
The article was published in AMLE Magazine, February 2014.
Technology has made nearly everything in modern life more efficient, accessible, richer, and faster, yet students are frequently asked to check their smart phones, laptops, and other devices at the door when they enter a classroom. That will change on Wednesday, February 5, when millions of students join tens of thousands of teachers, librarians, principals, and other educators across the nation for the third annual Digital Learning Day.
Started by the Alliance for Excellent Education in 2011, Digital Learning Day is a national celebration of innovation in education, centered on the belief that every child deserves the opportunity to learn in a robust digital environment that supports quality teaching every day.
Every child deserves a sound education foundation, and Digital Learning Day promotes the concept that technology joined with teachers is, and will continue to be, a key part of that foundation.
Digital Learning Day is not about technology for technology’s sake—simply slapping a netbook on top of a textbook will not move the education needle very much. Instead, Digital Learning Day is about combining innovative teaching and digital learning—any effective application of technology that raises student outcomes—in America’s schools to support teachers, improve learning, and help students achieve at their highest potential.
The Alliance recently profiled school districts that have shown bold leadership using technology effectively to improve learning for their students, including Cajon Valley Union School District in California, Quakertown Community School District in Pennsylvania, Dysart Unified School District in Arizona, and Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina. The time has come for many more districts to follow their lead, and many are taking the challenge.
No matter the approach, grade level, subject, geographic location, or teacher’s comfort using technology, Digital Learning Day will enable education professionals and policymakers, explore new strategies, make supporting proclamations, improve lessons, and create plans to use technology to improve teaching and learning.
Take the Challenge
There is a growing national consensus that commonsense, effective applications of digital learning in the classroom can provide students with a rich, personalized educational experience and dramatically improve student outcomes.
I urge you to add your voice to the emerging numbers of parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers who are embracing digital learning in the classroom. Digital Learning Day is a great opportunity to use the attention from national and state awareness campaigns to highlight local digital learning efforts to media, community leaders, and local policymakers.
Here are three meaningful ways to participate in Digital Learning Day:
Add your voice in support of digital learning in schools at http://digitallearningday.org/join.
Plan an event at your school and add it to our national map at http://digitallearningday.org/events/state-and-local-celebrations.
- Spread the word; invite friends, family, and colleagues to join the movement at http://digitallearningday.org/participate/spread-the-word.
The nation has a moral and economic imperative to ensure that every child graduates from high school with the skills necessary to succeed in college and today’s highly competitive job market. Let’s help teachers “power up” learning through effective application of technology.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, D.C.firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was published in AMLE Magazine, February 2014.
For years, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has
demanded that our nation pay ever closer attention
to school evaluation (Schmidt, 2008; Stanik, 2007). Never before have the stakes of evaluation been so
high. School and district jobs, funding, and local
control of educational policy and practice are all more
directly jeopardized by unfavorable evaluations than
at any other time in our country’s history (Schmidt,
2008; Stanik, 2007). These high-stakes consequences
demand that educators be evaluation experts, fully
prepared to take part in the debate about U.S.
education and school evaluation.
Choosing which objectives are evaluated and which
are not is a particularly contentious point in this
debate, especially when considering the unintended
and often negative impact these decisions can have
on schools. High-stakes NCLB school evaluation
has successfully focused national attention on what’s
being evaluated—math and reading scores, initially—
but may have done so only at the expense of other
top priorities (Stanik, 2007). Examples of these
important, but now frequently overlooked priorities,
include efforts to meet the broader developmental needs
of the whole child, and school social services designed
to support struggling or disadvantaged students.
Although many examples show that heightened
attention to NCLB evaluation has directly contributed
to some schools' redoubling of their efforts and
successfully improving student reading and math
scores, many equally valid examples can be provided
in which focus on NCLB outcomes has resulted in a
diminishment of other critical parts of the curriculum
or school services (Stanik, 2007). Many of these
priorities may have been rightly determined to be
outside the scope of national evaluation efforts but
are still deserving of adequate attention and resources
from local stakeholders.
This article describes one middle school’s efforts
to use model building and school self-evaluation to hold itself accountable for its own priorities. These
priorities were established by local administrators,
teachers, and students, in addition to those
established by NCLB. Further, this article discusses
this school’s efforts to make evaluation a more
valuable and meaningful part of the work of all
school professionals—particularly their efforts to
use evaluation to enhance outcomes related to the
whole student—and to develop a strong “rigor-in-practice”
culture within the school. It concludes
with a discussion about the role of evaluation in
middle schools and recommendations for evaluators
interested in implementing similar practices.
Published in Research in Middle Level Education Online, 2013
The Nature of Middle Level
Kudzu is a vine that was imported to the United States from Asia many years ago, and it remains a steady feature of the southern landscape today. It was brought to our shores because people were drawn to its broad, shade-giving leaves and hardy nature.
And while kudzu’s green leaves provide plenty of relief from the sweltering southern sun, its vines, which can grow almost five feet in a day, offer something completely different and wholly harmful. Kudzu wraps around branches, climbs up trees, engulfs bushes, and even swallows up entire houses if left alone.
When I lived in Georgia, kudzu and I spent many hours battling in the backyard. As it tried to envelope and destroy my trees, I ripped at its vines and tore up its roots, despite the fact that the leaves themselves provided comfort from the sun. I had to be brutal with my foliaged foe in order to rescue everything else. Is this same kind of “courageous gardening” necessary to create great schools in the middle level?
Just as kudzu looks beautiful and appears to be helpful, there are programs in our schools that look and act the same way. They may be big events that we’ve always done because of long-held traditions. They may be celebrations we’ve always had because certain parents have always wanted them. They may be extensive field trips we repeat every year because we’ve just always done them.
The roots of these programs run deep. And while we all need events, celebrations, and field trips to keep us excited about learning, do they also take away from learning? Like kudzu, do they look beautiful but behave brutally—climbing through our schools and taking away vital time, resources, and attention?
To create sustained change in our schools, we as middle grades teachers and leaders need to be courageous, to look critically at these events and programs, and to do some essential “courageous gardening.” Examine the leaves. Check the vines. Boldly rip up the roots when necessary. And do all of this work collaboratively.
It takes a team to deal with kudzu because it grows quickly and vigorously. Therefore, doing this work begins by bringing together some important resources: your school’s vision/mission statement, strategic plan goals, school calendar, and leadership team. The vision/mission statement and strategic plan are two critical documents that should be guiding the growth of your school’s “garden.” Any program, initiative, or event should align with them before it is planted.
Likewise, your school calendar should be the looked upon as the garden plot for the year, and its “rows” should be filled with choices that promote and improve the educational lives of your students and teachers.
Finally, your leadership team should be your master gardeners, who should collectively decide what needs to be planted in the garden so every one in the school benefits. And their hands must be boldly and courageously in the work, so they can prune, shape and rip out any program that inhibits the overall health of the school no matter how beautiful it is on the surface or how long it has been a tradition.
So what are you planting in the garden of your school to improve the educational lives of your students and what are you willing to pull from its soil?
This We Believe Characteristics
- Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.
- A shared vision developed by all stakeholders guides every decision.
- Leaders demonstrate courage and collaboration.
- Leaders are committed to and knowledgeable about this age group, educational research, and best practices.
Cherished plants we know
With their roots running deeply
Courageous hands pull.
While looking at the night sky one evening, I saw a starry man looking down at me. Orion, with his familiar belt of stars, and his arms and legs outstretched in the darkness, hovered above me just beyond the urban glow. In that moment, I realized that I had taken him for granted—until I put him in the frame of middle level education and leadership.
I had a conversation recently with a good friend about “teacher superstars,” and in the midst of that chat, we questioned certain educational gurus who posited that an educational leader’s prime responsibility was to populate his or her school with these superstars.
While we chatted, I thought about Orion and stars in general. Orion, as a constellation, is not made of “superstars,” instead it is an enduring image of unified points of distant light created by a visionary mind, an artful heart, and keen eyes. This kind of creativity and visionary leadership is what will keep our middle level skies bright. In fact, I declare a new theory of middle grades educational leadership: Constellational Leadership.
Constellational Leadership begins by knowing our stars. We can list the characteristics of a superstar middle grades teacher. We can dream of a school with classrooms festooned with pedagogical brilliance. And we can and should try to hire those stellar instructional individuals. But the reality is this: Everyone who works to improve the lives of young adolescents is a star. Anyone who shines a light for others in the name of adolescent progress is an essential point of light, even if he or she isn’t a superstar.
But how well do we know our teaching stars? Can we say that the same amount of time and care has been afforded to the study of the pedagogical stars around us? A Constellational Leader in the middle grades knows what makes their stars burn—the incendiary contents that make them shine. And to be clear, this goes beyond knowing a teacher’s content area specialty, knowing where his or her classroom is located, or which club he or she sponsors. The Constellational Leader reaches past surface knowledge by cultivating a relationship with each star in the school.
So how do we do that? Just like an astronomer collects data, the Constellational Leader observes his or her stars. We listen, and we talk, not as administrators, but as caring people interested in other people. We ask about their lives, remember what we are told, and follow up. We use our feet to move to places—and then we use our hearts, our words, and our patience when we get there.
And we do this every day; not just on spirit days, not just on teacher appreciation days, and not just when the mood strikes us.
Constellational Leaders observe, collect, connect, and reflect every day because that is how we know our stars. When we know our stars and what makes them burn, we can better support them when the burning becomes difficult.
The Constellational Leader also works to connect his or her stars into a consistent, enduring vision, working together for young adolescents. The early astronomers used their vision to create constellations like Orion. They found points of light and used their minds to string them together. They did not look only to superstars; rather, they used every star to complete their designs. And just like the early astronomers did when they looked at the night sky, the Constellational Leader can step back and see the critical patterns amongst all stars.
So what pictures do the stars in your school create? How do they complement, co-exist, and support one another in their efforts to shine? The Constellational Leader must be able to recognize the naturally occurring groupings and networks that happen in the school. The leader must see which teachers connect for student relationships, which teams work together for student engagement, which content areas connect most for interdisciplinary learning, which teachers complement for inclusion, and more.
Searching the horizon of the school house and looking for those patterns are essential tasks. Just like astronomers see clusters of stars grouped together in the darkness, the Constellational Leader recognizes similar patterns in school and works to connect them or strengthen the connection they already share.
Finally, a Constellational Leader has a picture in mind that answers the question, “What do you want the stars in your school to create?” It is not enough, then, to know our stars and to acknowledge the patterns they form. Leaders must also marry that knowledge with their own passionate, artful vision for what the stars can create together. Great constellations, like Orion, did not form on their own. Likewise, great teams of teachers and glimmering middle schools are not necessarily naturally occurring. Both take visionary, Constellational Leadership.
This We Believe Characteristics
- A shared vision developed by all stakeholders guides every decision.
Leaders demonstrate courage and collaboration.
The school environment is inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive of all.
build and form burning art
that guides and inspires
Principals at all levels know—and research supports—that fostering effective collaboration among their staff is one of the most powerful things they can do to elevate the level of learning for adults and students. But as administrators, supporting and participating in collaboration can be tricky. Finding the time and other resources for educators to engage in deep conversations around teaching and learning is only the beginning. Beyond those structural issues of budgets and schedules lie even more challenging cultural questions. The graphic below summarizes some of the most important things that principals can do to foster effective collaboration in their schools.
Fortunately, experience with teaming has given middle grades principals some important advantages when it comes to building collaborative culture. Recent research from the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) reveals that middle grades principals are the most active of principals at all levels in participating in collaborative teams. Forty percent of middle grades principals report spending three or more hours per week working with teams, compared to 27% of both elementary and high school principals.
Take any kind of team and middle grades principals are active participants:
The flip side of all this team activity among middle grades principals, however, is that their time with teams is spread thin over many different groups. Middle grades principals reported participating in an average of 4.5 different teams at least monthly, compared to 3.4 for elementary and 3.3 for high school principals.
Middle grades principals try to be a presence in a variety of teams, but report that they mostly end up playing a supervisory role, not contributing to collaboration as a colleague.
For middle grades leaders trying to build a culture of collaboration, these data raise interesting questions about leadership roles. How can principals play more of a collegial role, honoring teacher-driven dialogue and supporting the development of trust that is necessary for challenging conversations to happen, while also maintaining some accountability that the collaboration stays focused on the school's teaching and learning goals?
These are some of the important balancing acts for principals to consider:
Being present in many teams
Focusing on school goals
Engaging substantively in the work
Certain conditions show up in the literature over and over again as fostering collaboration that makes a difference for teaching and learning: for example levels of trust among teachers and administrators and the extent to which teachers are comfortable making their practice public.
In the national survey, we asked respondents to what extent those conditions for effective collaboration exist in their schools. We found a clear pattern: principals are much more optimistic about the conditions for collaboration. Interestingly, although this perception gap between teachers and principals existed at all levels, it was largest in the middle grades, where principals tended to answer like elementary principals (who are most optimistic about collaboration) and teachers answered like high school teachers (who are least optimistic about collaboration).
If principals are going to build truly collaborative cultures, a conversation about how staff in your school perceive the conditions for collaboration might be a good way to start. For example, consider questions like these:
What does a ‘hard conversation’ about teaching and learning look like?
When have we had those conversations in our school and when have we avoided them?
When has a conversation with colleagues had an impact on your practice?
Based on the research on conditions for effective collaboration, NCLE has developed a quick, free survey tool schools can use to open up such a dialogue.
With the coming of the Common Core State Standards, giving teacher teams the time and space to engage in deep, shared learning is more critical for middle grades leaders than ever. Our data suggest that to foster the most productive collaboration, middle grades principals should take a hard look at the supporting conditions in their building, including their own role as both supervisor and colleague. What experiences or insights do you have about how principals can pull off this tricky balance?
Full results of the National Center for Literacy Education’s 2012 Survey on Collaborative Professional Learning Opportunities.
Don’t forget to complete the NCLE professional learning questionnaire sent by e-mail to AMLE members on October 7. This survey will identify recommendations for collaborative learning and literacy standards for our profession.
Catherine Nelson, Ph.D., is an evaluation and research consultant for the National Center for Literacy Education.
This article appeared in AMLE Newsletter, October 2013.
There was a time when the nation thought two-lane roads would meet all of its transportation needs, but when demand exceeded capacity, the federal government acted to expand to interstate highways and ease congestion. Similar action is needed today for the nation’s schools and libraries, where far too many teachers, librarians, and students are facing congestion of a different kind: Internet connections that are slow or nonexistent. That’s something you probably have experienced firsthand.
Thankfully, change is underway. As I mentioned in last month’s column, President Obama announced ConnectED, a plan to provide 99% of the nation’s students with next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless in schools and libraries within five years.
Shortly thereafter, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it is accepting public comments on a proposal to expand and modernize the E-rate program, the federal government’s program for connecting the nation’s schools and libraries to the Internet. When the public comment period closes in mid-October, the FCC could take major action that does not depend on congressional action. This is the first real opportunity in years to achieve genuine improvements in access to modern education for all students.
Since its creation in 1996, the E-rate program expanded access to the Internet from 14% of classrooms to 94% by 2005. Ten years ago, access to the Internet was enough; web pages were largely text-based with a few images; YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter had not even been created; and in schools, a single dial-up connection met the needs of schools that were lucky enough to have a computer lab.
Today, teachers and students use laptops, tablets, and smartphones to connect with much more interactive content on the Internet. The combination of richer content with more devices vying for access slows Internet connections to the point they aren’t useful. According to a recent survey from Project Tomorrow, only 15% of schools say they have the bandwidth needed for instructional purposes. That means the nation’s teachers and students are stuck on the old two-lane model.
Broadband connectivity in schools and libraries is critical to achieving the higher college- and career-ready goals that have been set for students across the United States. Technology exists to make this implementation possible and lead a significant transformation of the nation’s education system, but much more must be done to increase the infrastructure to ensure a smooth transition.
Whether located in an urban or rural setting, all students should be afforded access to robust digital learning through streamed video, online courseware, virtual field trips, and safe and reliable connections to appropriate Internet research. Teachers and librarians need high-speed connections to personalize content, video chat with mentors, and interact with online professional development communities.
To meet these exploding education and technology goals, the Alliance for Excellent Education has launched a “99 in 5” campaign urging the FCC to upgrade the E-rate program to provide 99% of the nation’s students with next-generation broadband and high-speed Internet connections in schools and libraries within five years. You can add your name to the effort and share your experiences—both rewarding and frustrating—with the Internet connection in your school at www.99in5.org.
By expanding high-speed Internet in the nation’s schools and libraries, the federal government can ensure that teachers and students have access to tools that help personalize learning and make it possible for all students to reach their learning destinations.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, D.C.
Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2013.