Over the past 10 years, I have visited dozens of schools with significant populations of students of color and students living in poverty that demonstrate high achievement on state assessments.
The schools are different in lots of ways -- they are big, small, urban, suburban, elementary, secondary, integrated and racially or economically isolated, traditional and charter, high-tech and low-tech.
The only thing they seem to have in common is the fact that they are high-achieving under very difficult circumstances.
But when I think about what they all share, the word coherence comes to mind -- that is, all the systems in these schools work together in a coherent way to support teaching and learning.
At the recent Education Trust national conference in Baltimore, I had the chance to explore this idea further with a panel of three educators who think about coherence every day. To facilitate the discussion, I invited each of the panel members to talk about one single system in their school to show how they ensure that everything they do is aligned to instruction.
Cecilia Sanchez, principal of Finlay Elementary School in Florida's Miami-Dade School District, talked about how Finlay ensures that all the professional development activities in the school build the knowledge and expertise of teachers in line with school goals and in light of school data.
For example, when the state's writing standards changed, the school's data showed a drop in the percentage of students who met standards. "We were humbled," Sanchez said, adding that the school adopted a goal to improve writing instruction and then planned schoolwide professional development that helped teachers and para-professionals develop common ways to talk about rigorous writing using evidence throughout the building. The goal was that as students progressed through the grades, they would hear common themes as their writing grew in sophistication. In addition, every single teacher had individual professional development (pd) goals tailored to what they needed. Some teachers' students had been so successful in writing that they were tapped to help their colleagues. Others needed to start at the beginning. (But that didn't mean those teachers were bad teachers. They might be tapped at another time for their expertise in math or science.) "If your pd is aligned to the...school improvement plan and all your resources come together, that professional development plan has a purpose and it's obvious across the entire school," Sanchez said.
Frank Lozier, who just left the principalship of Laurel Street Elementary School in Compton, California, to take on the challenge of a middle school, talked about how Laurel Street uses data to, as he said, use "meaningful information to make meaningful decisions."
By using a shared document program that all teachers can access, Lozier made it possible for all teachers to not only see where their students' strengths and weaknesses are but also their colleagues' strengths and weaknesses as well. Through regular meetings of grade-level teams and subject-specific teams, teachers look at the data together to allow teachers who are having trouble to seek help from their colleagues. "The data doesn't just represent a bunch of numbers," he said. "For us those numbers are symbolic of the life paths of all of the kids in the school."
Finally, Diane Scricca, former principal of Elmont Memorial High School -- a high-performing, mostly African American middle-high school in Nassau County, New York -- talked about the discipline system she instituted at Elmont, which had as its purpose getting kids into class with their teachers rather than pushing them out of class or school. "A lot of students who came to Elmont came...with very poor preparation but most significantly, they came unloved. There's nothing worse than kids being in a school and being unloved and knowing that their teachers don't like them...and don't believe they can learn." She talked about developing a "pro-active approach" to preventing discipline problems by providing more instruction and more time. Kids who cut class or school or didn't turn in their homework or acted out in class were required to come to school on Saturdays. "We said we love you, here's breakfast, and gave them more instruction," Scricca, who is now assistant professor of educational leadership at Mercy College, said.
Each of these school leaders led very different schools, and yet the same themes kept emerging as they talked -- that every system in a school needs to be aimed at improving instruction and engagement of students and teachers.
This goes straight to the heart of what schools do. All schools provide professional development, analyze data, and mete out discipline for student infractions. Too often though, each system is independent and without reference to how it affects teaching and learning or how it affects other systems.
Take, for example, professional development -- far too many schools and districts choose professional development provided by an organization that a principal or superintendent happened to see at a conference. Such professional development often has nothing to do with the learning needs of the schools' students, and as such often frustrates teachers.
Similarly, in far too many schools, data doesn't necessarily align with instruction and ends up inundating teachers rather than helping them improve their practice.
And the discipline system too often is used as punishment of students rather than as a way to continue students' education, serving to alienate students who may already feel disengaged. "We suspend kids for cutting [class]!" Scricca said. "That makes no sense to me."
Scricca, Lozier, and Sanchez demonstrated how expert school leaders ensure that all the systems work together to focus on teaching and learning. If you're interested in hearing the whole conversation, an audio recording will be available here under the title, Bringing Order Out of Chaos. (The sound quality gets better right around the eighth minute.)