School Improvement Summit: Final Thoughts & Reflection


If you haven’t had the opportunity to read the daily summary of the SIIS this past week I encourage you to read the daily summaries before you read this final reflection.  They can be accessed by clicking on the following links: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

There are a couple of key elements I’m walking away from this summit spending a great deal of time reflecting on: the importance of attitude, the radical change required to fully implement common core, and the importance of building equity into our school system.  If you read my daily summaries you know that I attended sessions on more than those three issues, but those are the ones that stick out.  Let’s look at them each individually, including my thoughts on what they mean for me in my current position as well as for us as a district.

Attitude

Attitude is one of the most important aspects of our jobs.  Right now we are facing a lot of changes in education as a whole and those are all trickling down to us here in PCS: Race to the Top, Common Core, implementation of PD360 and Observation 360, a fairly new teacher-evaluation model, new leadership in several schools and in several key positions at central office (well, once the vacant positions are filled!)  That’s a lot of change.  And too often we allow ourselves to have negative attitudes towards change.  So let’s look at some of these changes together and talk about where we’re headed and how we can have a positive attitude about them.

RttT – I’m not sure how much any of us fully understand the implications being a RttT state and district will have on us.  But know that RttT is driving many of the changes we are experiencing – and most of them are for the good of our students (I’d say all but I have learned that one of the few constants in the universe is to never say all or always!).  One of the key components of RttT is to look at teacher effectiveness – yet teacher effectiveness is often times difficult to define.  The best thing we can do as educators is consistently strive to do better at honing our craft – and that is what the new teacher evaluation tool, PD360, and Observation 360 are all about.  They are empowering us to reflect on our teaching, learn how to teach better, and then put into place a system by which we can monitor those changes which will lead to improved teacher effectiveness and, ultimately, student achievement.  Jim Knight reminded me this week that teaching is a highly personal endeavor – criticizing someone’s teaching is like criticizing someone’s parenting – it is a reflection of who we are.  So one of the things we need to learn to do as observers is better communicate a desire and intent to help teachers grow in their craft, offering prescriptive feedback as well as specific praise.  One of the things teachers need to better learn is to accept that suggestions are given with a desire to help and improve and not a “gotcha” intent.  This takes trust and honesty on all our parts – and trust is built over time.  One of the things PD360 and Observation 360 will empower us to do is to have open, honest, constructive conversations on teaching and learning.  The question remains: will we?  My job is to prepare everyone to be ready to use these powerful tools the way they are intended.

CCSS – The Common Core State Standards, like the new teacher evaluation rubric, are forcing us to look at how we teach and not just what we teach.  They are going to require students learn both knowledge and skills.  Next week a team from PCS (which will include administrators, teachers, central office personnel, and instructional coaches) will spend two days at a training to begin looking at the CCSS in depth as well as develop a comprehensive plan to provide staff development to our district as we prepare to introduce the standards in 2012.  Additionally, with the passage of the budget last month we now will be using five of our staff development days this year to specifically look at, learn, and prepare for the transition to the CCSS and the NC Essential Standards.  The goal here is to offer as much training and support as is humanly possible so that everyone is ready for this transition.

After my initial post on attitude (which was day 1) I received several emails responses, which opened up an electronic conversation with several educators I know from around the country.  One of the things I talked about was how when I do classroom observations I observe, as best I can, for how attitude is communicated in the classroom.  Statements such as “The teacher smiles during the lesson” and “The teacher communicates a belief that all students can learn” are questions I look to answer in practically every room I enter.  When I was in graduate school I did an action research project with two other classmates (who are now administrators) looking for trends in students who failed the EOG.  We looked and analyzed at all sorts of data – but the one thing that stood out to me was that every single student who failed the test reported they could not agree with the statement, “My teacher communicates a belief that I can learn.”  That was powerful to me – and it was the only item we could find 100% correlation on!  We need, as educators, to do a better job of communicating confidence in our students.  Attitude is everything!

Common Core

I’ve touched on this above so I won’t spend a lot of time on it, but I do want to say that after attending the Summit I discovered that NC is actually in a pretty good situation in regards to the CCSS implementation.  While it will require a shift in thinking about how we deliver education, I can also say that part of that shift – a big part of it – has already taken place because of the new teacher evaluation instrument.  The new teacher evaluation instrument has forced us to look at areas such as critical thinking skills, 21st century skills, and integrating literacy across the curriculum – something the CCSS require as well.  In talking with educators from states from all over the nation I discovered many are far behind in these areas, so the transition to CCSS is going to be even more difficult for them.  Our focus as a district (translation: my focus as the one who helps design and schedule professional development J) is to prepare and plan trainings for teachers so they are confident and competent to teach to these new standards.  One of the first steps will be the five PD days we have scattered throughout the year to address this – so be looking throughout the year for PD sessions, online trainings, and the such!

Equity

Inequality in education is something that has bothered me ever since the beginning of my career: why is it teachers will have different standards for students who look or speak differently than they do.  I know that no teacher will readily admit out loud to this, but the fact of the matter is we live in a society where we see thing through our own cultural lens and that impacts how we interact with and communicate with people of other cultures and races.  I want to share two quotes with you.  The first from a guy named Scott Williams, a diversity expert from Oklahoma (who happens to be black):

Let me share a little more of my personal story…  I spent 11 years, 44 days, and 8 hours of my adult life in the prison system.  It was as crazy as you can imagine: 8×10 cell, razor wire, bad food, pent up anger…PRISON.  Relax, I was actually a warden in the prison system.  Why does a brother always have to be in the prison system?  Unfortunately, some people did not even make it to this sentence as they said to themselves, ‘I’m not reading a book from a convict.’  For everyone else, the curious nature of human beings propelled you to read on.”

The second is by Bruce Reyes-Chow from San Francisco, California:

“If I had to choose one struggle, it would be around the issues of ‘color-blindness’ that many well-meaning people have.  The ‘I don’t see you as [insert ethnic group here]’ perspective, while noble, does two things that are not helpful.  One, it assumes that one’s race is something that the person wants someone to see beyond and, two, too often the ‘beyond’ we are striving for is simply a generic ‘white’ culture that, in the end, perpetuates a ‘lesser than’ understanding of people of color.”

The problem with addressing the issue of equity (or inequity) is we always try to find a program, book, or professional development training to do it for us.  While those things are not bad in and of themself they don’t bring about the radical reformation that is required to truly address the problem.  The only way to address this problem is to have a transformation in our thinking and our attitudes (there’s that “a” word again!)  This is more than implementing Culturally Responsive Teaching in our classrooms and this is more than looking at test scores by sub-group.  For those of you with PD360 access watch this link with a video of Dr. John Covington from Kansas City Schools.  If it doesn’t convince you of the importance of this issue then I’m not sure what will.  This is not a black problem, a white problem, a Hispanic problem, or an Asian problem.  This is a human problem that needs to be addressed – and the ones who are suffering because of it are our kids.  If you don’t think it’s a problem at all I challenge you to read Curtis Linton & Glenn Singleton’s book Courageous Conversations About Race.

How will I address this in my job?  One of the areas is by drawing attention to it for our teachers, administrators, and district at large.  Another is to start developing a platform to hold those long-term conversations regarding the issue of race and equity among people in our district – be it face to face or even online.  Watch for more of this as the year roles on.

So there you have it: my reflection on the 2011 School Improvement Innovation Summit.  Feel free to comment below to share your thoughts and feelings.  I know I’ve opened up some hot-button issues, and I’m not claiming to have all the answers – but I do know they are questions which need to be addressed.

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