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Seize the Moment for Structural Change

As published in the Education Experts blog

The following comment was coauthored by Education Resource Strategies Founder Karen Miles and Managing Director Karen Baroody.

Do the Common Core Standards raise the bar for already struggling districts? Absolutely. Is that challenge overwhelming? It could be. But how can we instead turn it into an opportunity, as the Carnegie Report suggests, to “redesign how schools actually work for students and teachers?”

Many states and districts are thinking hard about how to provide more professional development for teachers around the Common Core, and how to ensure the technical infrastructure is there to administer the assessments. But as the authors and all the respondents to date seem to agree, those efforts, while important, only scratch the surface for what is really needed to bring all students up to these new standards.
There is renewed and welcome national energy around efforts to improve teaching quality. But even the best teachers cannot bring a student who enters high school three years behind grade level up to standard in a single 45-minute instructional period each day.

Instead, we need to radically rethink both how schools are organized and how school systems are structured to support them. The schools that we have studied who are succeeding with the highest need students do not rely on a single strategy or program. They define a clear instructional vision and then very intentionally organize all of their resources – people, time, technology, and money – in order to support those resources in four important ways:

  • They Prioritize Teaching Effectiveness by organizing and growing teaching talent to maximize student learning and continuous teacher improvement. This is about more than just hiring the best and firing the worst teachers. It is about structuring their jobs to promote ongoing development and to leverage individual strengths (through structures like job levels, teacher teaming and teacher leadership, and other differentiated roles).
  • They Target Individual Attention by create targeted individual and small group instruction and personal learning environments. Sometimes schools achieve this through being small; but often they are larger and take advantage of that size to continuously group and regroup students with teachers (or technology) according to their immediate learning or other needs.
  • They Maximize Academic Time by organizing time strategically and varying it based on student needs. This looks very different than the standard 7-period day. It may include extended time for struggling students, and progression based on mastery instead of seat time.
  • And they Minimize Non-instructional Spending by investing efficiently in non-instructional supports. High performing schools assess every position and dollar spent to ensure it supports the instructional vision and look for creative ways to deliver non-core subjects and services including partnering with community organizations.

Without making these structural changes, schools will not be able to achieve the design principles that are laid out by Hamilton and Mackinnon. And unfortunately, current state and district rules and collective bargaining agreements do more to constrain schools from moving in this direction than to encourage this new vision. But school systems can help. To create sustainable systems of high-performing schools, districts and states need to:

  • Build school leadership capacity in strategic resource use by providing principals with better data about students and teachers; training on the strategic use of resources; and state-of-the-art strategic designs that include course offerings, staffing and teacher team configurations, schedules, student grouping, and interventions.
  • Give school leaders flexibility in the use of school-level resources by easing typical restrictions on funding, hiring, staffing, and time allocation.
  • Create joint accountability for strategic resource use and school performance by clearly defining standards and measures and providing tools and support for ongoing evaluation, adjustment, and improvement. District supervision must be less about enforcing a specific use of resources and more about supporting schools in creating effective designs within their individual resource contexts.

Making these changes is not easy. Implementing them means dismantling structures, processes, policies, and regulations that have, in many cases, existed for decades. It means changing the way teachers, school and district leaders think about and perform their jobs. It means changing the way we all think of a “class” or even a “school.” It will be messy, politically charged and emotionally difficult. The good news is that we are seeing maverick leaders in traditional districts and charter schools reinventing how schools look even now - the challenge is to find ways to scale and continue improving these designs and we owe it to our nation’s children to figure it out.

Read the online version of the story here.

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