Larry Kugler is volunteering in a South African school this month.  This is a reposting of a previously published blog.

If research is so clear about the things we need to do in schools to improve teaching and learning, why is this work so difficult?  Perhaps the reason is because it’s hard to know where to start. Everything seems important, but we can’t accomplish everything at once.  But we have to start somewhere.  So which issue is most important and needs to be addressed first? How do we decide? Do we deal with the behavior problems and school culture first?  Or do we reorganize the master schedule to provide more time for collaboration?  We probably need to do both (and other things), but each one requires a huge investment of time and energy. Where to start!

 This is the dilemma Karin Chenoweth alludes to in her article “How Do We Get There From Here?” in the February edition of Educational Leadership (VOL. 72 NO. 5, pp. 17-20). She begins with a listing of five practices that research says lead to improvement:

  • Focus on what students need to learn (standards)
  • Collaborate to coordinate standards, curriculum, unit development, and assessments to measure student learning
  • Use classroom and district formative assessments to determine student progress and the needs for remediation and enrichment
  • Find patterns in data to improve instruction
  • Develop trust between students, teachers, parents, and administrators

 I hope you see a link here to the organization of the indicators within Indistar. We’ve organized them by Categories, Sections, and Subsections that roughly correspond to these five areas. But Indistar does more than that. It helps break down broad areas into more manageable and achievable chunks.  In addition, Indistar assists in prioritizing the indicators so that you can achieve some quick wins and build momentum.  However, even with this assistance, there are strategic decisions to be made based on realities and the unique strengths and needs within your building. Now back to the article.

 Although Ms Chenoweth thinks each of these five practices is simple in itself, she suggests that it’s the organizational and intellectual challenges that stand in the way of successful implementation.  The organizational challenges include aligning the master schedule, curriculum, materials, routines and traditions, and the physical space to support teaching and learning.  On top of that, finding the time to collaborate is an additional organizational challenge and knowing how to effectively collaborate is an intellectual challenge.

 Ms Chenoweth provides two examples of principals entering dysfunctional elementary schools and how they approached improving their schools. Both had large percentages of students struggling to learn and high percentages of students that qualified for free- and reduced lunch. 

 In school #1 behavior was a significant problem and “The school was notorious for angry parents and difficult staff.” The principal identified another significant problem- students were bored because teachers were overlying on worksheets and the curriculum was not aligned to the standards. I’m guessing that the district assessments also were not aligned to the curriculum being taught.  

 In school #2, the demographics of the population had shifted from a white middle-class school to a predominantly Spanish-speaking population. In this school the reading and mathematics achievement gap grew the longer these students attended the school. Staff complained that the positive results they had achieved with their white middle-class students showed they were doing their jobs properly and they blamed the lack of success on the families of the students.

 Which again brings me back to the question, “Where do we start when confronted with so many issues that need to be addressed?”  It seems like an overwhelming task, yet these principals immediately addressed some of the issues while deferring others.

 Ms Chenoweth reports that the principal of school #1 recognized that she needed to address the instructional issue of what the students needed to know. Interestingly, the author did not report that the first thing the principal did was address the behavior issue.  This is often the approach taken when discipline is a major problem. I think the belief is that by clamping down on students and enforcing strict rules, behavior will improve and then teaching and learning can take place.  My experience tells me that too often behavior may improve, but unless teaching improves learning does not. 

 So this principal assessed the situation and determined that improving teacher collaboration was an organizational task that needed to be addressed.  She reorganized the master schedule to provide grade-level common planning time and moved classes around so grade-level teachers were clustered together.  Ah, the grumbling that took place!  But she believed that these changes would ultimately lead to better relationships between teachers and improved collaboration.  Which it did, to some degree, in time.  However, the principal also dealt with the discipline issue by roaming the halls to maintain order. And she utilized the new opportunities for team collaboration to engage everyone in the development of schoolwide expectations for behavior.

 This principal also addressed the discipline problem in another way.  She concluded that students were bored during reading instruction, which relied too heavily on textbooks and worksheets, and this created discipline problems.  So she sent some staff to district training and had them share what they learned.  In addition, they used their teacher collaboration meetings to develop supplementary or substitute curriculum that matched the standards.  When teachers expressed concerns that their students couldn’t achieve these higher standards, she took them to other similar schools where students were succeeding.  And finally she encouraged them to use other books to teach reading, include writing in their instruction, and substitute math games for worksheets in math.

 If you wish to read about how the principal in school #2 addressed his challenges, check out the February edition of Educational Leadership.

 Now that you’ve had a chance to consider ways in which these two principals dealt with making significant changes in their buildings, we, the IndistarConnect community of learners, would like to know what were your first steps improving teaching and learning in your building.

      What changes needed to be made?  How did you assess the current condition?  How did you decide which issue(s) to address first?

      Were they organizational – master schedule, classroom assignments, space utilization, routines, etc.?

      Were they intellectual, like knowing how to collaborate and how to work as a team?

      And finally, how did the use of Indistar help you achieve your goals and make the necessary changes?

 Click here to go to the Share Your Stuff section of IndistarConnect, and let us know about how you began the journey toward improved teaching and learning.   

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Paul Axtell

With more than thirty years of experience helping organizations and individuals be more effective, Paul Axtell has honed his insights in executive offices and training programs for everyone from office staff and line workers to managers and team leaders.

A large focus of his work is how to run effective and productive meetings—to turn them from something people dread into useful, productive sessions with trackable results.

Paul is the author of multiple books, including Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, Being Remarkable, and Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids. He can be reached at <a href=""></a> and via email at
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