September 26, 2011
By David Chard
Since moving to Dallas four years ago, I have been concerned that the community doesn’t have high expectations or a vision of success for public schools. To be clear, low expectations are perhaps predictable because poor graduation rates signal that our public school system is failing students. When we look ahead, we see our society demanding more from us, relying on an electorate and workforce capable of attaining higher education. To map our future, we need to envision and demand successful schools. It goes without saying, Dallas schools need reform.
School reform is certainly not a new concept. Since public education was conceived, we have tried to improve it. Reforms often result in changes in the length of the school day, the number of courses teachers take to become certified or whether to use laptops or iPads rather than textbooks. In isolation, such changes are not likely to significantly improve student achievement.
In the 1980s, more significant efforts at reform were attempted in response to the landmark federal education report “A Nation at Risk.” Nearly 30 years later, little is known about the long-term impact because we didn’t systematically assess children in light of the changes.
More recently, however, significant reform efforts unfolded with No Child Left Behind, by building on state and national standards and employing standardized assessments to determine how well we meet our own expectations. Unfortunately, the answer is that our schools are performing poorly. Locally, as well as nationally, students are not meeting state expectations, even though the bar has been set remarkably low.
With this discouraging backdrop, we have to ask: What will change the course of our public schools and offer our children the world-class knowledge and skills they need to pursue their interests, be successful and contribute to our economic, social and political welfare? Fundamental improvement in schools, be they traditional public schools or public charter schools, will require a focus on three areas:
•The quality of teaching and learning in classrooms.
•The strength of the leadership in schools.
•A shared system of accountability.
All other changes in how we educate children will fail to achieve the results we need.
What matters most in improving a school’s effectiveness is what happens in the classroom. The primary key to improving teaching and learning is recruiting and retaining teachers who are skilled in effective instructional practices, including the use of data, and who have high expectations for every student in their classroom. The evidence is clear that multiple years of effective teaching can have a substantial impact on student achievement.
Do not be mistaken, teaching is a very difficult profession; many people do not have the stamina, patience and compassion required. Teachers often work in districts struggling to help students meet high standards in an environment where expectations are dismally low. Colleagues become doubtful that progress can be made, and scarce resources impede commitments to the classroom. Teaching requires courage and a sense of urgency. Every day must be optimized for students to seize the best opportunities to learn.
So what does it take to overcome these barriers? High-quality teachers must have two things: knowledge of content and effective instructional strategies. First, content: In many critical areas such as reading, mathematics and science, we under-equip teachers to give the depth and breadth of knowledge necessary to propel students into college and careers. Second, instructional strategies: Few teachers are trained to thoroughly assess student learning in a timely manner. We need to attract candidates who are highly motivated to continuously learn. While promising models of recruitment, like UTeach and Teach for America, can attract knowledgeable teachers to the classroom, we need to determine how best to keep them there. DISD’s recent partnership with TFA shows how conduits for strong recruitment may be opened.
And institutes of higher education must be responsible for sending well-qualified teachers to the classroom who can immediately have an impact on student achievement. A recent study suggests that a majority of people leaving teacher-preparation programs felt ill-equipped to meet the needs of their students. This must change. Aspiring teachers must be provided with the skills to plan and implement effective instruction, diagnose student needs, revise instruction based on student responses, and change instructional approaches when students are not making progress.
In addition, teachers need to familiarize themselves with the growing evidence of effective instructional practices. For example, our faculty at Southern Methodist University’s Simmons School of Education & Human Development has designed a master’s degree in reading instruction that reflects the latest psychological, educational and neurological evidence on how children learn to read. We want teachers to immerse themselves in the science of reading.
Outside of the classroom, the most important area for propelling schools to higher achievement is school leadership. In fact, there are no cases of schools being turned around without an effective principal. Of course, finding individuals with the ability to transform schools from mediocrity to excellence is extremely challenging. Principals need the expertise to establish and lead a culture of high achievement for both students and teachers. The principal’s most critical role is developing effective teaching through interpreting student performance data together with each teacher, and making difficult decisions based on the available data.
Principals must be bold and willing to take risks to benefit their students. They must be steeped in district, state and national policies affecting their schools — and how to implement them. And when the policies are obstacles to student success, they must have the courage to change those policies. The impact of effective leadership shouldn’t be underestimated. A robust body of evidence indicates that under the leadership of a strong principal, a school can achieve twice as highly as one led by a weak principal. However, principals cannot do this work alone; they must develop a leadership team with skills balanced to address areas of highest need and shared responsibility for achieving campus goals.
Perhaps most challenging to a school principal is being strategic about relationships outside the school. Principals must cultivate them with families and community members to ensure that the school is trusted to promote student success. Additionally, they have to maintain strong professional relationships with the district administration and board of trustees to advocate for policies and practices that strongly favor student gains.
Dallas ISD, like many districts, struggles to identify, hire and retain strong school leaders, so it is looking at innovative ways to prepare school leaders. One step already being taken is joining forces with the Education Entrepreneur Center at SMU, a partnership with the Teaching Trust, to rigorously shape candidates aspiring to be principals. By increasing the number of courageous and capable school leaders who are capable of developing effective teachers and establishing a culture of high performance, DISD has significantly improved students’ opportunities to succeed.
Accountability has become a euphemism for standardized testing. This is unfortunate because the concept in public education is much bigger than that. Effective education requires responsibility from everyone involved.
Teachers must be accountable for high-quality instruction that results in measurable outcomes. As in every other profession, educators must accept that student progress or lack thereof is a direct reflection on their performance. But that also means we need systems of assessment to improve so that the measures of accountability are valid. That data will be worthless if we do nothing with it: When a teacher’s performance is inadequate, he or she must either undergo further professional development and coaching or face replacement.
School leaders must be held accountable for the effectiveness of their schools. They must be unapologetically focused on achievement, developing expertise in measurement, data analysis and instructional observations so that they are aware when students are not getting effective instruction. Their accountability extends to their budgets, too. In order to lead a school to excellence, the school leader must also control the budget, having the latitude to reward effectiveness, pay for outside expertise as needed and make tailored decisions that will meet the unique needs of their schools and communities. This is an area where districts often rely on formulaic decision making. Many principals are held accountable for student outcomes at their schools but do not control the staffing — which represents more than 80 percent of their operating budget. Even terminating ineffective teachers is difficult. All of these things are obstacles to effective reform.
Communities and families must also be held accountable. Students need to come from safe, healthy homes, where they are cared for and loved — and that includes after-school care. DISD has remarkable options for after-school activities that supplement and enhance the school day; we must ensure that our economic challenges do not limit these options. Finally, communities and families must keep high expectations for schools. None of us should tolerate the damaging notion of expecting less from communities in low-income areas. Parents must expect that their children will work hard and that schools will work hard on their behalf.
Accountability must be shared by public officials — including school board members, district administrators and legislators. They are responsible for giving school leaders and teachers the resources they need. Even a brief review of DISD’s history reveals that what happens in the classroom has not always been administrators’ and trustees’ highest priority. Issues that have nothing to do with teaching or learning are too often a distraction. This is unacceptable.
Effective reform is no mystery; what works is well-documented. DISD officials have, in some measure, started to implement the solutions. However, it will take a focused and sustained effort from all of us — principals, teachers, families, community and business leaders and public officials — to create the system our students need.
What remains unanswered is whether we have the collective will and vision to make it happen.
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