Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Greatest Challenge Facing Education

The challenges facing education today are vast and the solutions are just as broad. The answer to solving a particular problem rests largely in who you ask. Many times it depends perspective or ideology. Because varying degrees of perspective exist, it is often difficult or even impossible to come to a reasonable [lets say collaborative] solution. If you have ever read the comment (or editorial) section of the newspaper, you quickly realize that everyone has an opinion. Those who espouse a particular viewpoint believe wholeheartedly they are right and offer the only true answer to the question.

Our point of view is shaped by a variety of factors. A person who works inside schools will certainly have a different view than one who works in the private sector. Those who attended public school will have a different perspective than those who attended a private school. And someone who works in school administration will have a different view than someone in the classroom. What about that parent who had a bad school experience as a student? Certainly they may view public school with skepticism and distrust if they perceive their child is being treated unfairly. Sometimes I wonder if we are so entrenched in our worldview that it makes it difficult to view these challenges from an alternative perspective.

I ask the question: What is the greatest challenge facing education? Indeed it depends on who you ask. Some of the more immediate challenges that come to mind include meeting the needs of students with mental health issues. Schools aren't equipped to handle these type of complex needs from students. As highly trained as our guidance counselors are, they are not trained to deal with mental health issues in our schools. 

Poverty is another challenge in our public schools. There are reams of research that suggest students living in poverty are at a disadvantage when it comes to their academic achievement. Ensuring those students are on par with their peers is an incredible challenge. Further, the creation of arbitrary benchmarks to ensure that students are on track only adds to the challenge.

Measuring the success of our students against a test that doesn't align to the state adopted Iowa Core standards is another significant challenge for our schools. And speaking of testing, does it seem like we do a lot of it? I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky, after all it is not as bad in Iowa as it is in some other states--of course one could reasonably argue that is in they eye of the beholder.

Since I mentioned the Iowa Core Standards, we should briefly discuss this challenge. The implementation of the Iowa Core Academic Standards is a flash point of controversy for many people. It would seem that any type of learning standards that either use the words "Core" or "Common" are met with controversy and resistance. Some content standards are met with deep skepticism and downright anger because of a belief that they either are inappropriate for the grade level in which the concept is introduced, or they are based on a fantasy.

How about ensuring that our students are career or college ready? Prepared for the 21st Century?

Then there are the many schools in Iowa facing significant budget cuts this year, after making significant budget cuts last year. A continued austerity plan for Iowa schools isn't going to solve the multitude of challenges that were mentioned above. Some schools have lower per pupil allocations than others, while carrying reserve fund balances they can't touch because maximum spending authority won't permit it under current Iowa law. Some districts spend an inordinate amount of capital on transportation because although they have consolidated, now instead of a school district that encompasses 200 square miles they now encompass 400 square miles. At the same time enrollment continues to diminish.

We could certainly go on. There is no doubt there are other challenges that appear equally insurmountable that didn't even get a mention above. Indeed, the catalog of challenges described here rests largely in the eye of the beholder. I further admit that some of these issues are not critical at this time in Hudson schools. And what I view as a challenge others may view as a non issue or a mere nuisance. That is kind of my point. Everyone comes from a different perspective and lives in a different reality. Perspective.

However, I would argue the challenges mentioned above are not the real problem. They are instead symptoms of what really ails us. I submit the challenge facing education: our political divide. Unfortunately it seems as though the Iowa Legislature has become a microcosm of Congress: complete gridlock based on partisan politics.

Since education is the biggest piece of the state budget, it tends to grab the most headlines. The more polarizing the issue, the bigger the news story. These stories tell the tale and explain the challenges that we are facing in education. But when you read these stories the real fireworks can be found in the comment or blogging section at the end of the piece. The tone and context of these comments is many times vicious, mean, rude, and in some cases narcissistic. Compromise is pretty hard to find when it comes to these issues. The position on both sides is, in many cases extreme and inflexible. There seems to be no real sense of urgency, and while the prime example is the never ending saga of supplemental state aid, it is only one of many issues that leaves school districts to wonder if there are solutions to these problems. Or the political will.

The rubber meets the road in the legislature. That is where the decisions will ultimately be made. I might suggest that gridlock and inaction itself is a decision. Taking positions that are inflexible do not solve problems, but only serve to exacerbate and anger people.

What is your perspective?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

FFA Teaches a Broad Range of Skills

A favorite component of my job is attending a variety of student activities in our school district. In this very blog I have iterated the importance of these activities in the development of the whole child. Extra and co-curricular programs are designed to teach young people skills that are not easily developed or nurtured within the confines of a regular classroom experience. The fact is if programs are not striving to provide these type of lessons, one should question why we are making the investment. Providing young people with authentic learning experiences has a lasting effect that not only improves their performance in school, but prepares them for success outside the school when it really begins to count. 

Front row: Rachel Bauler, Morgan Kegebeing, Noah Mills
Collin Luck, Cole Luck, Travis Carolan. Back row: Witney
Galbraith, Kayla Carolan, Lane Marlow, Wes Geisler,
Tannor Wulf, Maddie Herring, Maria Geisler
I have shared many of these lessons and examples through the lens of our athletic teams and our music programs. I lamely argue that my excuse for this injustice lies in the fact that this is where my experience both as a student and teacher rest. I have missed the boat on perhaps one of the purest examples of providing students with authentic, real world and experiential learning experiences: the FFA. I deeply regret this omission! Unfortunately (which I have now realized much too late) I was never in the FFA as student in high school in spite of the fact that I grew up not too far from here and attended school in a district much like Hudson. We had an active FFA, but I erroneously believed the organization existed only for those students who lived on a farm. Because of that, I missed out on something pretty special. There should be no mistaking the fact that FFA exists and operates within the paradigm of agriculture. Yet to assume that farmers or kids that grow up on farms are the only ones that can participate seems to fly in the face of the inclusiveness in programming options at Hudson schools. Indeed our FFA chapter honors and recognizes the engine that drives the Iowa economy: agriculture.

In my visits to classrooms in the district, one of my favorite places to stop is the Ag room. This time of year is especially enjoyable because our kids are preparing for the annual plant and flower sale. A stop in the greenhouse reminds me that spring is upon us bearing witness to the colors of flowers and plants coming to life. Our greenhouse is quite a gem and a pure example of a laboratory of learning and experimentation. I enjoy interacting with students while questioning them about how and why they are getting results they are with their crop. It is not uncommon for these students to share a problem they were having, and explain in detail the steps they have taken to remedy that problem, or even more impressive: they have not yet solved the riddle but have an arsenal of strategies yet to be attempted. All while Mr. Deppe stays off to the side and lets his students explain what they are learning.

Monday evening we had the opportunity to hear a presentation from the Ag. Issues team at the regular board meeting. These students recently competed and won their district competition, earning a right to compete at the state convention in April. The caliber of their performance was second to none. In fact, it would surprise me if they didn't end up qualifying for the national competition. The issue they discussed was water quality and centered around the lawsuit filed by the Des Moines water works and three north Iowa counties. The students had an excellent grasp of the topic and were able to navigate the complexities of this issue, not only through their prepared remarks, but they were able to thoughtfully answer a myriad of questions that were posed by the board and members of the audience. 

Ag Issues team presents on water quality in Iowa in front
of the Hudson Board of Directors on March 21
Last night was the annual FFA banquet. This annual event recognizes the accomplishments of our FFA and pays tribute to the senior members of the chapter. It is a great event (with a fantastic meal), and one that I have come to look forward to attending. Part of the program includes an address from a parent of the chapter president, and he remarked that one of the attributes that he found most impressive about our chapter was the volume of awards on display when he first visited the room four short years ago. Ironically, when we were on spring break last week I found myself in that very room for some reason, looking at all those awards. District champions, state champions, even national champion awards and recognition adorned the walls and hung from the ceiling! Yet to us, these awards and recognition are ingrained in the culture of our FFA, and in many cases have become an expectation. This is a testament not only to the strength of our chapter, but the commitment, dedication, and insistence on excellence that Mr. Deppe has come to expect of his students. In spite of the accolades and success in competition, that isn't really the point of our FFA. Instead, it is about the learning that is taking place in our program.

As the evening was closing down Mr. Deppe took time to honor his seniors. It was very clear to me and those in attendance that the students cared deeply for their teacher, and he for them. It reminded me of how a parent feels when their child goes off to college! In closing, they were asked to remember the door to the Ag room would always be open for them. While thanking them for their service and contributions to the program, he stressed that their accomplishments were not only a testament to the Hudson FFA program, but to themselves. These young adults have learned skills that will enable them to be leaders in our community, to be engaged in state and nation, and to have the business skills and acumen needed to be a successful and productive member of society.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Student Centered Learning Labs

Model teacher Miranda Adams prepares to demonstrate
an instructional strategy for peer teachers.
The week before spring break we reached a significant milestone with our teacher leadership system. Our vision and goals for teacher leadership in our school district took a giant leap forward. I have written often about how our core purpose in Hudson is to Create Effective Learning Environments That Result in Success For All Students, and how we believe leveraging the power of teacher leadership will help us realize this purpose and vision. There must be no mistake that a big part of creating effective learning environments requires teachers to differentiate instruction and instructional strategies for a broad range of learners in their classrooms. Without a multi-faceted approach, we can't very well help every student be successful. Our teacher leaders are tasked with providing teachers a vast array of strategies, creating mechanisms for delivery, and providing a network of support to ensure they are implemented with fidelity. This is accomplished through the districts professional development plan.

Classroom teachers observe as an instructional strategy is
employed during a student centered learning lab.
The Iowa Professional Development Model provides a framework with which to carry out the work of improving practice in Iowa classrooms. I would argue that prior to the development of teacher leadership systems in 2014, and in spite of herculean efforts of many education stakeholders and leaders, the realization of the Iowa Professional Development Model in many Iowa schools has fallen short. This is simply because the support didn't exist to implement quality professional development the way we know it must be in order to ensure it becomes a part of routine practice in our classrooms.

To do so, professional development needs to be embedded within the context of regular instruction, with real students. An opportunity for practitioners to observe the strategy must exist, and feedback and coaching are a critical component of the process to ensure the strategy is improved the next time it is utilized. 

That is where student centered coaching labs have provided that vehicle for us at Hudson. The idea behind these labs come directly from our teacher leaders and the work they have done with educational consultant Diane Sweeney. The utilization of these coaching labs are designed and employed in a way that makes the Iowa Professional Development Model relevant. I had an opportunity to observe and participate in one of these experiences last week and was very impressed with what I saw.

Teachers debrief with instructional coach and model teacher
following the demonstration of a teaching strategy.
Essentially a group of practitioners were invited into a model teachers classroom to observe the delivery of an instructional strategy that has proven effective in our setting. We know this strategy works because formative assessment data has been collected that illustrates success. In this case, the strategy was number talks and is used to help students think about mental math in a different way. Prior to the observation, the model teacher and instructional coach met with the practitioners to explain exactly what they would be seeing in the classroom and why the strategy works. They were asked to look for specific things that would be occurring within the context of that instruction and to reflect on what they saw. Following the observation, the instructional coach and model teacher met with the practitioners to debrief what they observed during instruction. The final component of the debrief discusses next steps for instruction and how that practitioner will take what was learned from the coaching lab and implement it into their own practice with the assistance of the instructional coach and model teacher. 

Hudson school began their teacher leadership system during the 2014-2015 school year as one of the first 39 districts in Iowa selected in a competitive grant process. While it is expected to take between 3 and 5 years to fully implement, Hudson is already seeing positive results in student achievement. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Teacher Leaders, Principals, and the Firewall

Last week we spent time discussing the role of the principal in this new era of teacher leadership and how it has changed their paradigm. One reader commented that teacher leaders are a resource for building principals. I thought this was a great way to look at the relationship between the building principal and teacher leader--but we need to make sure that resource is used in the right way. Recalling this idea that the principalship has become more complex, that it had not 'taken anything off the plate', another reader agreed stating, "it doesn't take items off the plate, it makes a more 'balanced diet'." I was appreciative of both comments and want to take some time to further explore the principal-teacher leader relationship, and to remind principals to use these resources wisely.
Let's remember first the original premise of this discussion. Unless the principal is supportive of teacher leadership and willing to partner with these teachers in collaboration, the system is doomed to failure. This starts with open lines of communication and clearly articulated roles. Without these fundamental building blocks in place, it can lead to roles being re-invented in ways that were not intended, which can lead to disastrous consequences such as mistrust and resistance to teacher leadership from practitioners.

We begin by providing clarity to one incredibly important aspect of teacher leadership: Teacher leaders are not administrators. But make no mistake, those who are currently serving as teacher leaders or aspiring to one day will be viewed differently by their peers. A good reason indeed to ensure that you have a clearly defined role that ensures no crossover into 'No Mans Land'!
It also shouldn't be assumed that practitioners are going to welcome teacher leaders with open arms into their classrooms, even if well-intentioned. A more likely scenario is that teacher leaders will be viewed with skepticism, and in some cases downright resistance. If teacher leaders are unsure of the role they play in the school or how they fit into the organization, it will only exacerbate the problem. Or if there is a perception that teacher leaders exist to fulfill a more sinister role: Spy for the principal.

Principals, it is important to remember that you are the administrator! As such, you are the only person licensed to conduct evaluations of teachers. Please, do not ask your teacher leaders to report on how a particular teacher is 'doing' in their classroom, or how well they manage the students. I would suggest that if you want that information, by all means walk down and check out the classroom!
Teacher leaders, don't allow yourselves to be trapped into this role! A clearly articulated and well written job description can be helpful. You can check out Hudson's description of teacher leadership roles right here. As you read our job descriptions, please take special note that nowhere in this document is there a discussion about providing data to the principal to be used for the purpose of evaluation. If you have additional questions about how we have worked to ensure this firewall exists, I might suggest you contact our building principals, Mr. Schlatter or Mr. Dieken. They have not only embraced teacher leadership, but have worked incredibly hard to make certain everyone stays in their lane!

Nevertheless, it will take time to build trust, Even when this firewall exists, you may be met with skepticism or resistance. I would encourage you to continually remind the teachers that you work with of your role....and theirs!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Principalship in the Era of Teacher Leadership

When I was in school the building principal was a mythical creature. It seemed as though the principal had an uncanny knack of showing up at the most inopportune time, inevitably foiling the mischievous plans that had been hatched by scheming students. Not my plans of course, but I knew some people! Indeed, if you met the principal in the hall, the best course of action was to not look directly at them or make eye contact. After all, they could see into your soul and ruin the plot of any well planned malfeasance. Yes, on a few occasions I had the misfortune of meeting the principal on his turf. Although the outcome of those encounters wasn't the 'stuff of legends', those interactions did exacerbate the myth of the principal.

Even today the thought of being sent to the principals office sends waves of panic through the student populace. While the building principal continues to encompass the duties of Chief Disciplinarian for the school; the role of building principal is much more complex. It includes such duties as Master Scheduler, Employer and Evaluator of Staff, Communicator and Advocate. Yet none is more important than Instructional Leader.

The concept Instructional Leader as Chief Academic Officer began to emerge as a concept in the mid 1980s with the research of S. J. Rosenholtz. In this research, it was suggested the primary role of the principal should be to supervise classroom instruction, coordinate curriculum, and monitor student progress. However, as many educational researchers have since discovered (Marks, Printy, Quinn, Nuemerski), principals have continued to fall short in this Utopian view of the principalship. But we know unequivocally the impact that the principal can have on student outcomes! We need look no further than the 2008 study conducted by Leithwood, Harris, and Hopkins which found that school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on student learning. 

Instructional Coaches Owen-Kuhn and Lewis share
implementation strategies at a conference in Des Moines
with Principals Schlatter and Dieken.
Obviously this begs the question: If we know what it takes, why aren't we doing it? As a simple answer, refer to the first and second paragraph of this article. As one example, a single discipline issue involving only a handful of students can consume days of a principals time. Throughout the course of a single school day, principals are pulled in many directions. An IEP meeting one moment, returning a phone call from an angry parent the next. Yet that would be much too simplistic of a way to think about this phenomenon. Schools are incredibly complex and nuanced organizations. In fact, schools are far too complex to be left to the leadership of one individual, which was found in the research conducted by Uhl-Ben, and Lichenstein in 2006. A better approach is to distribute that leadership among many in the organization (see Spillane, 2004), relying on the talents and strengths of those outside the traditional leadership structure to move the needle on student learning. That became the framework under which I situated my research into the implementation of teacher leadership systems in Iowa.

However, it is never as easy as just asking your building principal to share leadership or the decision making process with their teachers. In Barth's 2001 article on teacher leadership, we are reminded of the fact that principals have worked long and hard to achieve the goal of building principal. To assume they will just automatically want to share leadership with teacher leaders is patently false. There may be a feeling of giving up something or losing control of the school, and that those matters of instruction will somehow become lost to the principal.

It can swing the other way as well. If we maintain our paradigm discussed above, that principals are busy, then it may stand to reason the addition of teacher leaders to a system may in some way 'take things off the plate' of building principals. A belief may exist that, 'Now I finally have some help, I can shift some of these responsibilities to my teacher leaders and really focus on the stuff that I want to focus on'.

Principal Dieken observing instruction and discussing
learning objectives with a student.
Here is what I found in my research, and what we found out in our own teacher leadership system here at Hudson. First, lets discuss this idea that principals are somehow relinquishing the leadership of their schools. That is not true. What I actually found is that the skills of the principal as instructional leader have strengthened as a result of implementing teacher leadership. This is because of the regular collaboration that is occurring between the building principal and the teacher leader. In our district, teacher leaders and building principals have formalized meetings a minimum of one time a week. In those meetings, they discuss matters of instruction, strategies that are working, and how successful their efforts are at scaling those strategies district wide. They are discussing the alignment of curriculum, student data and learning targets. These are conversations that should have been happening prior to teacher leadership, but the system wasn't built in a way to facilitate such a conversation. Principals longed for these conversations! Here is what I know: our building principals are better instructional leaders today than they were before teacher leadership. If there is any question about what a game changer this is for our students, refer to that Leithwood article I mentioned above.

Principal Schlatter observing instruction during a learning
lab with our instructional coaches. 
Second, what of this idea that teacher leadership enables principals to somehow 'take things off their plate'? Unfortunately (and depending on your perspective) this is untrue, and one of the surprises I found in my research. In fact, what we have found is that the addition of teacher leadership systems to schools have added to the complexity of the building principal. But here is the bright spot: it is the right kind of complexity and one that most principals welcome with open arms. Principals have expressed that they are attending more meetings, engaged in a greater number of conversations about instructional practice, and observing more instruction than ever before. These are the very things that Rosenholtz and other researchers were suggesting with the idea of instructional leadership!