My work in education runs wide. I began as a teacher of middle and high school students and of Chinese adults. Then I was hired to to create and find funding for programs and services that would build the skills of teachers to reach all different types of learners--fast learners, slow learners, highly energetic learners, learners with emotional needs, learners with academic needs, learners that learned easily, learners that didn't. I loved this work--the problem solving, the creativity, the solutions, even the two-steps back. This work always happened collaboratively, ideas merging and turning into something you couldn't always touch but something you could almost always, in some way, measure.
When I married and moved to a new state, I was hired into administration of a large district. There, one of my tasks was to work with the superintendent on an examination of the system's offerings against its needs and resources to inform its direction. They called it strategic planning, which I remember thinking I was not qualified to do because, well, didn't they offer degrees in that or at least certifications? I had neither. I had degrees in English and secondary English Education, with an administrative certificate on the way. I knew how to bring people together to share ideas and emerge with specific actions and steps that would solve a problem, meet a need, or maybe even replace something that was pretty good with something that was even better.
I wasn't sure what strategic planners did, but I was certain I did not do it.
I did, however, identify some gaps in resources, supports, programming, and instruction in certain schools that were not making the same gains as others. It seems so common sense now, but at that time and in that district, the practice of differentiating supports and services (instructional, leadership, human resources) to schools was anything but common. We convened a great team of educators to figure out to make it happen and then we did. We called it our strategic plan and at the center of this plan was collaboration on multiple levels. District leadership, principals and leadership team members, teachers, coaches. Our aim was to find and support implementation of the best instructional, leadership, hiring, and culture-building practices in every school that was struggling in our district. We trained, we analyzed, we collaborated and cross-collaborated. We improved. In practice, in performance, in morale, in motivation, in perseverance. Mostly though, our students improved their learning.
I was hired to help build something similar at the state level. Something that would support low achieving districts better support their low achieving schools. That work also involves collaboration on multiple levels as well. It's not officially called the strategic plan, but it's definitely the outcome of a collaborative analysis of needs, opportunities, and direction.
The reliance on collaboration and use of specific instructional and leadership practices is exactly what drew me to the purpose and promise of Indistar: a place that gives trusted guidance to teams on the continuous cycle of instruction, assessment, and changes to instruction. Most of those practices are driven by the collaborative work that is done in teams--leadership teams, instructional teams. Strategic means conversations about student data and instruction and how best to support the improvement of both; planning means teachers that are researchers--studying patterns of student learning and effective instruction (their own and their peers'). Data are current, maybe even that day's with a child's name scrawled across the top. Educators are thinking hard about individual student needs and receiving lots of expert-teacher/teacher-researcher feedback about how to meet them.
A colleague sent me an article today (I had mentioned what I was writing about) and in it, the author quoted Michael Fullan who quoted Judith Warren Little who had this to say about the importance of teams talking about instruction:
"..school improvement is most surely and thoroughly achieved when teachers engage in frequent, continuous and increasingly concrete and precise talk about teaching practice, adequate to the complexities of teaching, capable of distinguishing one practice and its virtue from another," in this scheme, "teachers and administrators teach each other the practice of teaching."
I am more convinced of this (and of the impact that Indistar is having) after interviewing several schools--urban, rural, elementary, middle, high--that use Indistar to plan, guide, and implement their improvement efforts. If there is one common theme that runs through those who are experiencing positive shifts in culture, instruction, and learning (which happens to be all of them) it is that precise, collaborative talk about teaching practice, student assessment, and the subsequent adjustment of that teaching practice--regularly, frequently, methodically.
One other related theme that is emerging from these conversations (and that Indistar keeps our foot on the pedal to achieve) is the emphasis on ALL. To quote one interviewee and Indistar user,
"We are in a better place. Our teachers are collaborating and supporting one another to improve but we are not at 100 percent of all teachers implementing the indicators of effective instructional practice. We won't stop til we are, and even then, we won't stop."
To bring this article full circle, I will tell one more story. I was asked recently, given my experience, to help a small school with limited resources assess and build a strategic plan against standards and benchmarks established by their district. It's a seemingly large task; I can understand why the staff are daunted by it. Completing it the way it's always been completed will probably take away from their time to plan and teach and assess and improve. But I'm proposing a different way, which includes a pretty simple and obvious crosswalk of the indicators of effective practice that are used in Indistar. So instead of gathering lots of evidence for a standard that reads, ...."the school has clearly articulated rigorous curriculum aligned with relevant standards, 21st century skills implemented through effective instruction" we will ask, to start (the list of indicators of effective practice leave no stone unturned when it comes to assessing and instruction--every single part of it from preparation all the way to communication with parents):
--Do instructional teams develop standards-aligned units of instruction for each subject and grade level?
--Do units of instruction include standards-based objectives and criteria for mastery?
--Do units of instruction include pre-and post-tests to assess student mastery of standards-based objectives?
--Are the unit pre and post-tests results reviewed by the Instructional Team?
--Do teachers individualize instruction based on pre-test results to provide support for some students and enhanced learning opportunities for others?
And on and on through all of the indicators of effective practice related to assessing, instruction, and adjusting instruction with leadership and instructional teaming structures operating on full tilt.
Among the advantages are precise conversations, common vocabulary, measurable indicators, and a place to not only assess "where we are in these indicators" but to start tasking out the actions that will get you where you need to be.
Tipping Point: From Feckless Reform to Substantive Instructional Improvement Phi Delta Kappan February 2004 85: 424-432