Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Have the courage to do

In our professional and personal lives one very clear truth exists.  We often know what to do, but we don't do it.

People know not to text and drive, or do the other myriad of distracted driving tasks we see every day, but they still do it.

We know that we should eat fewer carbs, lower our salt and sugar intake and exercise every day.  Yet few do it.  And every year in January, new year resolutions are made, yet few are sustained.

How about our work as educational leaders?  What do we KNOW that we should change?  How often do we do it systemically and with sustainability?

Many of us are involved in the important work of improving our schools to improve student learning, whether as an educational consultant, teacher, principal, district administrator or superintendent.  Think of your own building or district.  What are those things that you know need changed?  Are there sacred cows that inhibit student learning that have been in place over time?

Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour present the four essential questions of a Professional Learning Community in On Common Ground (15).  If we, as educational leaders, examine our practices through the lens of these four PLC questions, we clearly can identify what we know needs changed every day in the classrooms of our respective buildings and districts.

Graphic courtesy of Stuart Miles via free digital photos

PLC Question1: "What is it we want all students to learn?"

Too often, we know that in many classrooms, every student is not learning essential identified learning targets.  Teachers who work in isolation often end up teaching what they know or what they like.   There is the hidden curriculum, intended curriculum, and the delivered curriculum. The result is that students are often left behind, and when this lack of learning compiles over the course of a year, students actually lose any learning gains they may have had with a more effective teacher.  Are we certain that the teacher in the classroom is the best teacher for that grade level/subject area? Or are they there because they have been there the longest?  We know this may be the case, but how do we respond?

PLC Question 2: "How will we know when each student has mastered the essential learning?"

How to measure student learning is a widely discussed topic in professional development sessions, workshops, conferences, and on social media. Why? We know that every assessment that is given in every classroom is not a valid and reliable measure of student learning.  Certainly assessment creation and data analysis are now essential teacher skills.  But we also know that in every building there are still teachers who do not utilize student assessment as feedback on their instruction. We know this, but how do we respond?

PLC Question 3: "How will we respond when a student experiences initial difficulty in learning?"

This is indeed the separator of good teachers from great teachers, good teacher teams from great ones, good buildings from great ones and good districts from great ones.  Excellent teachers, teams and buildings support re-teaching and providing students multiple learning opportunities.  If in our buildings we do not have a systemic focus on intervention, and if our districts do not value and support time and staffing for intervention, this is the question on which we fall short the most.

Most students are either lucky or unlucky on which teacher they have if learning becomes the constant or time.  How do you respond, how do your teachers respond, and how does your building/district respond when students are not learning? Many good instructional leaders know what gaps on student achievement and growth they have, but they often do not address it systemically or systematically.  We know, but we don't do.

PLC Question 4: "How will we deepen the learning for students who have already mastered essential knowledge and skills?"

As educational leaders we have often interpreted this as the enrichment we provide at the building level. Particularly at the high school level, we have often identified our enrichment as our honors or advanced courses, such as AP and IB classes.

But just having students in these courses does not mean that students are learning what they are supposed to be learning or that the instructor is providing enrichment. We know that differentiation should occur in every class we have, as students are unique in their ability to learn.  We also know, however, that it is not occurring, and that the best students in regular or advanced classes are often unchallenged.

Certainly the most encouraging work going on in America today is the monumental shift in many schools from teaching to learning.  Indeed schools committed to  Professional Learning Community principles work on this every day, and many students are more successful in learning than ever before.  Richard DuFour states in many sources that the four PLC questions should be answered collaboratively by teachers in teams and that buildings, districts and administrators must strive to support teachers in this best practice work.

Graphic courtesy Stuart Miles via free digital photos

But truly, even in the best schools, and certainly those schools in challenging circumstances, the problem of doing, not just knowing, is not being addressed in many cases. Sometimes educational leaders are not even fully aware of their students achievement and growth data.  But certainly, we also have educational leaders who know their data, but lack either the professional development, the motivation, the support, or the courage to make the changes in their schools to improve student learning.

Indeed the problem is that the knowing/doing gap is one of the largest gaps we have in American schools.  We know what needs to be done, but for varied reasons and barriers, many of them our own making and keeping at either a building or district level, we lack the courage to make the changes we know we need to make.

Graphic by Stuart Miles via free digital photos

And until we have the "courage to do," we will never embrace or reach our goal of ensuring learning for every child in every classroom in every school every period of every day.

Dufour, Richard and Robert Eaker and Rebecca DuFour, "Recurring Themes of Professional Learning Communities and the Assumptions They Challenge." On Common Ground. eds. Bloomington: National Educational Service, 2005. Print.