Stop Doing These 4 Things That Aren’t Helping

by John L. O’Connor

Book_TurningAverageInstructionO’Connor is the author of the book Turning Average Instruction into Great Instruction, from AASA and Rowman & Littlefield Education. AASA members save 25% when you order the book using promotion code 6S10AASA until June 30, 2010.

Our charge as school leaders is to radically increase student achievement. The good news is that how we reach that goal is simple. If we are going to improve student achievement, then we must improve classroom instruction. There is no other way to increase student performance. There is no short cut.

Across our schools and classrooms, we have to work on improving and enhancing the practices of our teachers so that every student in every class participates in outstanding instruction. That is not to say that our teachers bear the entire burden for providing great instruction. They play a part – a big part. The greater responsibility lies with us, the educational leaders for our districts and schools. We have to develop contexts and processes in which our teachers are systematically improving their instruction. We have to build effective professional development systems and enriching contexts in which teachers are continually studying their craft and implementing ever-improved instructional practices.

Unfortunately, we often waste energy in completing activities that are hurting our cause. In fact, many of the activities that we are leading actually contribute toward less effective classroom teaching. Countless hours are spent completing activities that steal effort and energy away from improving instruction. Therefore, we must stop doing four specific things that aren’t helping.

1) Discontinue Ineffective Professional Development Activities

There are two ultimate goals for professional development activities: to improve adult practices and to therefore increase student learning and performance. Changing adult practices is actually harder than changing well-ingrained bad habits. Just as a cigarette smoker needs an enormous amount of support to quit smoking, teachers need tremendous support when transitioning from less effective instruction to more efficient practices.

School leaders must provide an ongoing system of training, support, dialoguing and problem solving for teachers if we can realistically expect them to implement preferred practices. School leaders must create a school context in which teachers systematically reflect on their classroom practices with one another to determine how students are learning and brainstorm how to continually tweak instruction toward more effective practices.

Unfortunately, educators often default back to one-shot workshops when they consider implementing training activities. We develop flashy training activities that may be engaging to the audience, but are ultimately without follow-up, coaching, or support. We constantly provide a barrage of one-shot training activities that cover a wide range of classroom practices instead of allowing for deep studies and investigations of a few high-leverage instructional practices that will have the greatest impact on student learning.

If we are going to systematically improve the practices of our teachers across all classrooms, we must limit our initiatives for a given school year to a few high-leverage practices and delve deeply into the implementation of those practices. We must discontinue the cycles of ineffective, one-shot professional development activities and implement job-embedded, ongoing, sustained support for select instructional practices. A principal must unite his/her assistant principals, instructional coaches, department chairs and teacher leaders in order to provide ongoing support to all teachers across the school.

2) Stop Developing Massive Annual School Improvement Plans

Many schools have three-ring binders filled with exhaustive School Improvement Plans. In many instances, these plans were developed by select individuals who worked in isolation and then combined their efforts for the submission to the school district’s central office or the State Department of Education. Once they are developed, many of these plans sit on the shelf in administrators’ offices and are only pulled down when they have to be updated.

Many School Improvement Plans essentially include an expansive laundry list of the programs and initiatives within the school. Priorities are not evident. Nor program or activity seems more important than any other. With that type of planning, all activities in a school be implemented in the same way they were the previous year – with the same results.

The strategic planning process should clearly designate the priority areas for improvement based on student achievement. The areas of weakness should be precisely defined and a few specific and meaningful initiatives should be completed to address those weaknesses. Any reader should be able to connect the specific areas of weaknesses with the logical and specific actions that will be implemented to address those weaknesses. The plan should include how job-embedded professional development systems will be implemented so that teachers are more competent and effective at implementing the prioritized initiatives.

Annual School Improvement Plans are truly a case where less is more. In most cases, the final draft of a School Improvement Plan should be limited to one page. This simple document should clearly describe the priorities for the year and what activities will occur throughout the year. There will be lots of pages of analysis and brainstorming to support this one-pager, but the final document should be clear and concise.

That one-page School Improvement Plan can then propel action. Every adult in the school can post a copy of the plan and it can drive actions in meetings and trainings throughout the year. The simplified and targeted School Improvement Plan will actually be more powerful in improving the practices of the adults in the school than the three-ring binder that took much longer to develop and yet sits on a dusty shelf.

3) Stop Focusing on Structural Changes as the End Goal

Over the last decade many middle and high schools have transitioned from a schedule in which the students spent approximately one hour in each subject area to a block schedule in which students have extended time, perhaps 90 minutes to two hours, in each academic period. The rationale for this change was that students would have more time to delve deeper in the subject matter and complete more complex and rigorous activities.

In the schools where block scheduling changed instruction in that way, student achievement increased. In many schools that adopted block scheduling, however, classroom instruction did not change. Teachers provided the same instruction just for longer periods. Therefore, there was no significant increase in student achievement.

Even though there are some other benefits to block scheduling, such as a reduction in the amount of time students spend in the hallways, it is reasonable to ask whether the shift toward block schedules and all of the person-hours then went into that effort were good investments.

When implementing structural changes, whether converting to block schedules, re-mapping the organization chart, or changing the graduation requirements, for example, consider the structural change as a means to another end. Structural changes should ultimately improve classroom instruction, or else they are not worth the time and effort. The evaluation of structural changes should not be limited to how well those structures are being implemented but how much they fostered improved instruction.

In the case of block scheduling, for example, do not merely evaluate whether teachers and students are adapting to their new schedule. Make sure that you evaluate the corresponding changes in classroom instruction and student achievement. There is nothing inherently good or bad about block scheduling or traditional scheduling. The value in block scheduling is determined by it results in improved classroom instruction.

At the end of the day, the importance of structural changes rests almost solely on how well they contribute to improved instruction and therefore increased student learning. Structural changes will not ultimately improve student achievement if there is not a consistent improvement in classroom instruction.

4) Stop Focusing on Changing “Culture”

Many books have been written about our need to improve the culture of our schools. Administrators in schools that have traditionally shown systemic weaknesses discuss how they must change the culture of their school before they will see significant improvement in student achievement. This line of thinking dictates that culture must change before changes in instruction and student learning can be expected. The problem with this reasoning is that it is based on the premise that educators must somehow change the way they think before leaders can expect changes in their practices.

Another problem with this line of thinking is that a school’s culture is very difficult to define. Some administrators will say that the culture of their school has improved when there is not a corresponding improvement in student achievement. The truth is that a culture changes after adult practices are improved. A school’s culture changes when teachers change from implementing weak instruction to great instruction and when the school’s leaders spend their time building and implementing layers of support for that instruction. An improved culture is a side effect of drastically improving what happens in classrooms. Instead of focusing on changing culture, focus on improving instruction, which will ultimately lead to a more desirable culture.

John O’Connor is the executive director for special services with the DeKalb County School System in Atlanta, Ga. His book Turning Average Instruction into Great Instruction provides a road map for radically improving student achievement through effective leadership and GREAT instruction.