The Parable of the Blind Squirrel

by THOMAS W. MANY

One warm autumn afternoon, a grandfather and his grandson watched a squirrel frantically search the ground for acorns. The squirrel, obviously preparing for the long winter ahead, randomly headed in one direction or another until finding the much-sought treasure. This squirrel was very old and nearly blind, but he made up for his lack of knowing where the acorns might be with hard work and determination.

As they watched, the boy heard his grandfather exclaim, “Will you look at that . . . even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while.” When asked to explain, the grandfather said that the old expression means that if you work hard enough and are persistent, good things will happen. As the story goes, every once in a while something good would happen and the blind squirrel would stumble upon an acorn.

At times, I have felt like the blind squirrel when guiding school improvement efforts. Our teachers and principals are dedicated and determined to make a difference, and they work hard to help students learn. As a staff, we were doing all the right things, but performance levels sometimes were uneven from grade to grade, and sometimes when we were not sure why we were successful.

Like many school districts across the country, we were living the parable of the blind squirrel. We needed to find ways to work smarter, not harder.

In their book, Professional Learning Communities at Work, Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker identify the essential elements of a professional learning community. After studying their work, we realized much of what they talked about was already in place. By consciously focusing on becoming more of a professional learning community, we found our school improvement efforts have been accelerated. One only has to look at our recent initiatives in mathematics and reading to find encouraging evidence of the power of professional learning communities.

Uneven Standing
District 96 comprises seven schools: one early childhood/kindergarten center, four elementary schools and two middle schools. In 1996, the district established a goal of improving student achievement in mathematics. Achievement levels were solid but not spectacular, and there was subtle pressure from the high school to increase the number of students who completed algebra in 8th grade. To accomplish that, the math curriculum would need to change.

Using traditional approaches to school improvement, a curriculum committee made up of teacher volunteers agreed to study alternatives and recommended a new mathematics curriculum. After years of careful planning, the revised curriculum was fully implemented and achievement levels reached new highs. More than 90 percent of the district’s nearly 2,000 elementary students now meet or exceed state standards in math.

But the news was not all good. While achievement in math was soaring, the data showed a 5 to 10 percent difference between math and reading achievement levels. This gap had persisted for nearly 10 years and begged the question, “Why were children who could exceed state standards in math falling far short of the goal in reading?” None of our research could explain this gap in student achievement.

In 2001, the district established a goal that by the end of the 2003-04 school year 90 percent of all 3rd graders would meet or exceed state standards in reading. At the same time, administrators studied DuFour and Eaker’s model of professional learning communities. In keeping with their model, we clarified goals, created common planning time for collaborative teams, added a standardized curriculum framework and compiled data from multiple sources throughout the year. Teachers joined in collective inquiry that included book studies and summer institutes. We encouraged action research projects as the focus shifted from teaching to learning.

Behaving Professionally
After just one year, the district began to see results. Two schools already have achieved the 90 percent reading goal and two others are nearly there. The data demonstrated what we intuitively knew: Our children could reach consistently high levels of student achievement in both math and reading.

The approach we used to improve reading achievement differs dramatically from the one we used to meet the math goal. While it took six years to reach the mathematics goal, student achievement in reading showed marked improvement after just one year. We attribute our success to becoming more of a professional learning community, evidenced by the fact that those district schools that most readily embraced the idea have shown the most rapid progress.

As illustrated by the parable of the blind squirrel, no substitute exists for hard work and persistence, but the impact of a professional learning community on a school’s culture is obvious. In improving mathematics achievement, we were truly “unconsciously competent”—fortunate that the committee chose a curriculum that closely matched our students’ needs and abilities. However, in improving reading achievement we have been much more effective and efficient.

Behaving as a professional learning community, our school improvement plans now show greater alignment and focus. By consciously working to become a learning community and building deliberately on our shared mission, vision, values and goals, our confidence has grown to the extent that we now expect to succeed.

Thomas Many is superintendent of the Kildeer Countryside Community School District 96, 1050 Ivy Hall Lane, Buffalo Grove, IL 60089. E-mail: tmany@district96.k12.il.us