Six Things Achieving Schools Do

Last week, the Center on Innovations in Learning hosted the fifth annual Indistar Summit in Rogers, Arkansas. Somehow, I ended up with the coolest job there. I got to interview state and district coaches, school principals, and classroom teachers about leading, teaching, and learning; about grit, making change, and about that moment when they knew that a point had tipped—when teachers talked excitedly about how to help “our kids” instead of “their kids”, when a leadership team started talking about what their achieving school would do instead of what their low-achieving school could not do, when educators felt comfortable speaking up if they didn’t know something and others stepped in to help them.

I’m in the midst of writing these stories now, but I didn’t want to wait to give you some of the highlights. Here are six things that real, Indistar-using, ACHIEVING SCHOOLS DO:

1.     Achieving schools get together and talk about their teaching and student learning, formally and informally, all the time.

These schools make time for the Leadership Team to meet (at least twice per month for a minimum of two hours per meeting) and for Instructional Teams to collaborate (weekly in some cases, but at least twice per month in most—and in large chunks). These structures also serve as critical communication mechanisms for decision-making and feedback. One of the biggest outcomes principals have noticed (in addition to improved communication, decision-making, positivity, and engagement) is the conversations that happen outside of these meetings about teaching and learning among teachers.

 2.     Achieving schools move a muscle to change a thought.

In these schools, residual feelings of skepticism and fatigue are overcome with praise, encouragement, and empathy. The focus is placed on what can and will be done to keep getting better. The on-going development of tasks—small steps that will lead to achievement of larger goals—has made all the difference in the outlook of what can be accomplished. Lifting up individual and team successes and recognizing individuals and teams is commonplace in these schools. Rewards are verbal but they are also professional: teachers or teams demonstrating expertise in a particular skill or area are called upon to develop that ability in others. In these schools, everyone has something to contribute; the leaders take the time to identify what it is and lift them up. They move a muscle to change a thought.

 3.     Achieving schools get friendly with data and ask questions about it.

This could have been included in finding number one, getting together to talk about teaching and learning, but both practices deserve their own boldface acknowledgement. Teams aren’t just meeting to catch up on the weekend or check off administrative announcements (though that is important and they do make separate time for that). These schools look at data and ask questions about it, even if it’s to say, “I’m not sure we’re collecting this the right way”, or “I’m not even sure what these data mean!”. Even if they were a little nervous about how to do it, they started somewhere and it fell into place (Everyone bring your most recent lesson plans to the meeting; Leadership Team members, bring grade level formative assessment data to discuss. No formative assessment data for third grade? That is a need and we will have it in place within a month). One principal talked about the Leadership Team’s discussion of individual students who were not performing at grade level…at each weekly Leadership Team meeting! It didn’t start out that way, but as the practice of examining student data and asking questions about it became routine, they were soon using it to plan professional development and create targeted intervention and enrichment plans for every student.  Here's a PDF that discusses what data to collect and how to talk about it. 

 4.     Achieving schools offer encouragement and opportunity in NOT knowing.

It doesn’t happen overnight, but when you are a school that meets regularly, that communicates openly and honestly, that demonstrates genuine interest in helping everyone succeed (teachers, staff, students, parents), and that use data (not suspicion) to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses…then soon walls start to crumble and exposure suddenly means an opportunity to grow, not a reason to feel defensive or shamed. As one interviewee put it, “There is no scoffing or scolding. When someone doesn’t know something, there is only encouragement and the opportunity to lift them up.”

 5.     Achieving schools read the research (again and again).

Every principal or Leadership Team member that I interviewed stressed his or her reliance on the research of the Wise Ways in Indistar. Whether it was to build support for a change they were instituting in scheduling (e.g. more time for teacher collaboration), or to identify the tasks they would need to accomplish to meet their goal, or to get everyone on the same page about what needed to happen and why, these schools used the research to keep their discussions focused, their efforts aligned, and their decisions justified.

 6.     Achieving schools celebrate and acknowledge hard work along the way.

It can’t be said enough. These schools work hard, sometimes they stagger, but they always persevere. These achieving schools make time for celebration and acknowledgement; not often in big ways, but in ways that say, we see what you are doing, we know it isn’t easy. But it is making a difference; you are making a difference—for our students and our community. We appreciate you. It might be as simple as a note left on a desk, an opportunity to lead other teachers in professional development, recognition at a staff meeting, a prime parking spot. It’s simple, it’s sincere, and it doesn’t have to cost a thing. In fact, money has very little to do with the motivation of teachers in achieving schools. One interviewee said that her teachers could easily go to a bigger district and get paid more money. But they stay. They stay because they love their school community and know that they play an important role in its success. In fact, here is a great three-minute video of a teacher responding to the question, “What do teachers make?”

Six emerging (but probably not surprising) practices of achieving schools using Indistar.  Stay tuned, there is more to come from these interviews.

Call to Action

What would you add? Tell us about the achievements of your district(s) or school(s). What are the people in them doing that we should know about? Leave a comment below or better yet, start a blog post in Your Reflections.

photo credit: September 13, 2013 at 08:03PM via photopin (license)

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