Leadership is 90 percent pulling weeds and 10 percent planting seeds.- Austan Goolsbee
Common Core Reading: Difficult, Dahl, Repeat by Cory Turner (nprED, November 15, 2014)
National Public Radio profiled a fifth grade classroom and their use of Common Core-aligned texts and practices. Turner described one lesson on close reading, with the teacher getting the students started by asking them a text-dependent question (“Are all of these native peoples nomadic?”). The reporter documents that a lot of the students participated in the learning, “combing the text, line by line” for evidence to support their response.
The teacher acknowledges that this is “tiring work”. She balances the exertion required of close reading with leveled books and the classics. It is worth noting that this article garnered almost 300 comments by readers, either extolling the benefits or admonishing the change of instruction initiated by the Common Core and, by default, the high stakes tests that assess students’ performance on these standards.
How and How Not to Prepare Students for the New Tests by Timothy Shanahan (The Reading Teacher, November 2014)
This retired professor from University of Illinois at Chicago provides a straightforward approach to preparing for the upcoming computerized assessments:
- Read extensively within instruction,
- Read more without guidance or instruction,
- Make sure texts are rich in context and sufficiently challenging,
- Have students explain their answers related to the text and use evidence to support their responses, and
- Write about the text, and not just answer multiple choice questions to assess comprehension.
He concludes his piece by noting that the solution is not “having students practice items like those you will find on the PARCC and SBAC tests, but by teaching students to read.”
Why Change Management Fails by Ray Williams (Psychology Today, November 27, 2014)
Williams summarizes the current research on organizational change in this article. He starts by noting what doesn’t work, such as addressing change as “an outside-in process, moving about parts of the organization, rather than an inside-out process which focuses on change within individuals”. Williams also clears up misconceptions about change in organizations, such as “Leaders and change managers are objective”.
This article then delves into what does work when trying to help a larger group of people move forward collectively. First of all, individuals in the organization need to change their “thinking, beliefs, and behavior”. They have to “think differently about their jobs”, as well as consider “fundamental changes in themselves”. Just as important is that leaders “act as role models for change” through strategies such as aligning the change individuals are experiencing “with their own life purposes”.
Do Schools Really Need Principals? by Peter DeWitt (Education Week, November 30, 2014)
Former principal Peter DeWitt poses this provocative question on his regular blog Finding Common Ground. His rationale for raising this issue seems to stem from a lack of school leadership, such as “principals who don’t provide much feedback, don’t seem to know a great deal about learning, and focus on test scores more than anything else in the school”. DeWitt highlights specific schools that are led by teacher leadership teams. In these buildings, staff members divvy out different administrative responsibilities. One of the benefits is a “powerful normative structure” that puts peer pressure on low performing teachers to improve.
Letting learning technology flourish in schools by Tim Goral (District Administration, December 2014)
Goral interviews Scott McLeod, Founding Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE). The topic of discussion revolved around how schools need to adapt to an economy that is knowledge-based, in comparison to the industrial model of school in the 20th century. While McLeod is pro-technology, he doesn’t believe putting digital tools into a classroom is all that is needed, noting that some schools “are proud because they are 1-to-1, but they are not really using it to best effect”.
Instead, McLeod believes leaders are the key in ensuring that schools and districts are using technology to our advantage. He acknowledges that there are obstacles in the way, such as standardized testing and a lack of knowledge in how educators employ digital tools in the classroom. A key is to get everyone on board with what school can and should look like today, including policy makers and board members. Until then, collective change is not going to happen.
Bringing it all together…
I have a healthy respect for perennial plants, such as the false sunflower and bee balm that you see in the image above. Regardless of how harsh a Wisconsin winter might be, they come back every year. One of the most impressive things about perennials is their root system.
As you can see, their taproots can go down several feet into the soil. This allows the perennial to access water and minerals that annuals cannot. Also of interest is that perennial root systems die back a little bit each year. This allows for new root growth the following year.
Perennials serve as a good metaphor for the beliefs and values that a learning organization owns (or lacks). When a group of educators come together to examine their instructional beliefs, it isn’t just about adding something to their value system. It’s about getting rid of outdated practices, as well as finding consensus regarding what works for student learning. Like the switchgrass pictured above, we should be shedding what’s unnecessary in order continue growing. There is difficultly in the process, but the end results show it is worth it.
To use another analogy, sharing the good work schools are doing is as much about writing obituaries as it is about developing headlines. Once schools have a set of shared beliefs, just about anything can infiltrate a school’s collective practice. As you read in the first article, close reading and leveled texts can become a way teachers do business, instead of just a few strategies in a teacher’s instructional toolbox. We become forgetful about the harm that test prep can have on our students’ learning and their well-being in the long run, even if we might see short term gains.
When schools have a set of shared instructional beliefs that aligns best practice and professional values, teachers have a basis that drives their actions and guides their decision-making for selecting resources. In my experience as both a teacher and a principal, knowledgable and level-headed administrators are critical to schoolwide success. These types of leaders are able to direct the energy that exists within an organization and allow new leaders to bloom and flourish. This instructional foundation can withstand almost anything negative that comes a school’s way that is not aligned with a school’s beliefs and values.