John Simmons tells a story about a nine year-old boy named Jesse who had some bar charts he wanted John to see. He was a student in one of Chicago's troubled West Side schools. We're talking here about a third grade boy who's proud of a bar graph -- something utterly remarkable -- but to put it all into perspective, let me offer a little background.
I've known John since we were classmates in high school. He went on to work for the World Bank as an economist on education policy when Robert McNamara was in charge, and has had a brilliant career. Over twenty years ago, he decided to devote himself to improving the quality of K-12 public education in this country by applying high performance systems he saw in private firms and successfully tested at the World Bank.
Simmons is now a dedicated educator and innovator. His nonprofit, Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI), has integrated the principles of Total Quality Management with K-12 education strategies for transforming the process of school improvement. SLI's support team has partnered with school and district leaders to apply the strategy around the country, and at a low cost per school.
When schools work with Strategic Learning's model and their on-site team, the combination unleashes remarkable levels of energy, creativity and performance from the existing staff. In the course of only six months, school leaders have coaxed teachers, administrators, parents, and students to jump-start both their teamwork and a laser focus on instruction that none of them had ever thought was possible. As a result, both the State Test scores rose significantly and the culture of the school became more collaborative, open and trusting.
SLI doesn't impose anything from above. Instead, their process offers choices that are connected to the model they have chosen to implement through an 80 percent confidential vote of the teachers. Teachers are respected as professionals and aren't commanded to do anything. On-site training and coaching offers instructional and organizational strategies based on systemic research to get proven results.
SLI's transformational model supports the Common Core Standards, a U.S. education initiative that allows states to tailor educational standards to a common curriculum dictated by standards-based educational reform that began in the 90s. The SLI Process encourages teachers and administrators to decide which standards they think are the most relevant for their student's needs. It can take a while. Some teachers may wait a year before they ask for coaching -- and that's part of the key to how motivating the program is. Once teachers adopt the SLI Process, they're astonished by the results.
Some of the SLI principles:
1. Drive out fear in the organization.
2. Voluntary, not mandated, on-the-job training focused on staff-defined needs.
3. Everyone is encouraged to lead: administration, teachers, parents, and students.
4. Teamwork and sharing of best practices at all levels.
5. Continuous improvement based on measures of what works and what doesn't
6. Recognition and celebration of success.
A core driver of transformation is to create a culture of trust, problem-solving, honesty, and mutual support. A school becomes a community of empowered and energized learners, not a top-down culture of compliance to central office mandates. Everyone participates in problem-solving and decision making. Parents not only show up for workshops to help them better support their children, but also volunteer to teach other parents on how to nurture learning in their families.
The Strategic learning model integrated the 40 years of systemic research on organizational behavior of high performance firms with the systemic studies on schools. They include, Charting Chicago School Reform: Democratic Localism as a Lever for Change, written by Anthony Bryk and his team at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, 1998 and, Breaking Through: Transforming Urban School Districts, Teachers College Press, 2006, by John Simmons.
We met recently in Chicago, John's home town, to talk about what SLI has been achieving. John said: "Charter schools in Los Angeles Skid Row were failing and they were going to be de-certified because their scores had been steadily declining over five years. We partnered with the staff of Para Los Ninos, the charter operator, beginning with planning in November, training in December and teaching in January. The state tests were in May. The teachers and principals only needed six months to turn around the scores. When the scores came out, the elementary was the second most improved charter in L.A. The PLN middle school was the most improved middle charter school in the city. Our team had trouble believing it, because our schools had turnaround quickly before, but not that fast."
Over the following two years, the Para Los Ninos Charters, sustained and improved their gains of the first year with less support from Strategic Learning.This indicates that the schools have internalized the strategies of the model.
In Chicago, a network of eight failed K-8 schools in the lowest income neighborhoods had turned around their state reading scores in an average of a year and a half. "Now both elementary and high schools that had been failing were turning around in six months."
SLI schools are getting impressive results, not only in Los Angeles, Chicago, and four other Illinois cities, but their teams have begun to work in Tucson and Baton Rouge.
"SLI'S Illinois teachers were using state standards and now the Common Core, but didn't necessarily focus on all of them the same year. With our help looking at their student data, the teachers determined which standards they believed were the most important for their students. They taught them until most reached mastery, rather than a strategy of doing everything a mile wide and an inch deep.
Teachers asked themselves: "How many of these standards can we teach well in a year? They would say, "Out of the thirteen Standards in reading , we'd like to focus on ten or eleven. The teachers and principals are feeling empowered to provide the leadership necessary to think out of the box was a tipping point for accelerating change!"
This brings us back to Jesse. When John showed up in the classroom where SLI had been implemented, Jesse led Simmons over to a spot on the floor where he had laid out bar charts that measured his weekly formative performance on the reading standards out of a possible five points, "This Nine-year-old is on the floor, and all the STUDENTS are watching Jesse show me his bar charts. 'See this, John, there's no bar. Zero! This next one? Zero again. This one? Zero too.' And then he says, 'Look, John, what do you see?' I see a bar. 'Yeah, I got a one!' I say 'Jose that's great." "Look at this next one. I got a two!" And with his finger, he's pushing on the top of the bar on his drawing to get it a little higher.
"'You know what John? I'm making progress! I've never made progress BEFORE!' The teacher is standing behind Jesse and she is jumping up and down. It's so electric."
For more information, see www.strategiclearning.org.
Our educational system needs Strategic Learning Initiatives. I salute John for committing his life to the common good by finding better ways to make the future brighter for generations to come. He's a good man.
Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. Follow him on Twitter.