Transforming underperforming schools is not easy. Such schools often contend with rapid staff turnover, high absenteeism, and sometimes growing morale problems (Lawson, 2002). Addressing challenges such as these takes time.
When we at Partners in School Innovation establish a partnership with a school district, we know that supporting the transformation of their struggling schools is going to be a three- to five-year engagement. Our partnership is intentionally designed so that there will be enough time for schools to develop and sustain the skills they need to thrive on their own. During that time, staff members from Partners work shoulder-to-shoulder with teachers, administrators, and coaches to strengthen teaching, learning and achievement. We use an equity-focused, continuous-improvement approach that builds on school and district strengths.
Our Theory of Impact states that with consistent, high-quality delivery of our school-transformation approach, we will build adult capacity, which will produce breakthrough student achievement results. We monitor delivery of our approach with a Program Implementation Tracker and assess school and district capabilities with detailed, research-based rubrics that we have developed. Results from local and state assessments have served as our gauge of progress in student achievement.
This report describes the improvement made in three schools with which we have had multi-year partnerships. Two of the three cases offer some confirmation of our theory of impact, and one shows mixed results despite a comprehensive implementation of our approach. Before that discussion, however, the report explains in detail how we work with schools.
HOW WE WORK
Our staff members are educators with experience in urban schools.
To carry out our work, we assign a District Transformation Director to work with a school district’s central office staff and a Director of School Transformation to oversee our School Innovation Partners (SIPs), who provide support at school sites and facilitate networks.
SIPs come to the job with several years’ experience as teachers in urban school districts or charter schools, with many having served as teacher-leaders, instructional coaches, or school administrators. Our district-level directors have generally worked as SIPs for a few years or come to Partners with a wealth of experience as education leaders.
The level of support that a school receives from SIPs depends in part on the school’s needs and in part on the resources available. In some cases, a school district contracts with Partners to provide only “light touch” support, which can take different forms. However, with most of our partner schools, we provide “intensive” support. Under many intensive-support arrangements, two SIPs spend a total of 3½ days per week on site. In other cases, just one SIP provides support for 3½ days per week. The latter model will likely become the most common approach going forward.
Partners in School Innovation focuses on three domains.
When SIPs partner with a school, they concentrate on three domains of effective practice:
1. Results-Oriented Leadership.
2. Systems for Professional Learning.
3. The Core Instructional Program.
Our focus on these three domains arose from Partners’ 2008 analysis of research on best practices for transforming schools. Below is a discussion of our methods of bringing about improvement in each domain.
To ensure that new systems and ways of working will be established—and sustained—we work with school leaders on developing a clear and compelling vision, setting rigorous goals, developing clear strategies and plans, distributing leadership, monitoring implementation and adjusting practice based on deep understanding of results. Effective leadership is not achieved by completing this simple checklist of actions; rather, leaders must develop particular mindsets and leadership qualities as well as content knowledge. Leaders must be results-oriented, equity-focused, strategic and committed to continuous improvement for themselves and their schools.
Partners starts by learning about the school leaders’ values, sharing our own, and together articulating an inspiring call to action for the school staff and community. We help leaders communicate strong beliefs about social justice, teaching, learning, and the use of data to motivate others. Partners then supports leaders in developing a shared long-term vision for student achievement and works with them to develop a framework that specifies student learning objectives, teaching methods and how student learning will be assessed.
Distributed Leadership: Partners also supports principals in developing an instructional leadership team, which includes teacher representatives of each grade and/or department, as well as any instructional coaches and other administrators. “Distributed leadership” is an essential part of school transformation not only because principals cannot do this work in isolation, but also because the reforms are more likely to be integrated into teacher practice if teachers have a part in shaping the instructional focus and are able to advocate for changes with their peers.
Student Learning and Instructional Quality: One of our key methods for helping a school improve its instruction is the inculcation of a process called Results-Oriented Cycle of Inquiry (ROCI). The process includes five steps designed to help individuals sharpen their focus on results and develop habits that fuel continuous improvement. ROCI focuses everyone’s attention directly on student-learning; stimulates people to learn from their successes and to diagnose and address their shortfalls; and then leads them to implement and monitor their provisional solutions. In this way, ROCI helps teachers and other instructional leaders bring about sustained organizational learning and improvement.
Systems for Professional Learning
Research indicates that successful schools have systems in place to support the continuous improvement of teaching. Such systems include a professional learning plan that aligns the content of professional development, the agenda of grade level collaboration, and the focus of instructional coaching.
Partners helps instructional leaders within schools to design and implement collaborative professional learning systems. Teachers must regularly work alongside their colleagues toward common goals and get support in developing responses to the everyday dilemmas of practice. In our School Transformation Approach, the three primary factors in professional learning are:
Protected and effective teacher collaboration time. Regularly setting aside time signals that collaboration is important, and it allows teachers to share best practices, plan meaningful instruction, and use data to understand what is working and not working in the classroom.
Strong instructional coaching. Instructional coaching ensures that all teachers have the individualized support they need to continuously improve their instruction in alignment with the school’s vision and goals.
Relevant and actionable professional development. Educators benefit from professional development that is tailored to their specific circumstances and that can be readily applied in the classroom.
The Core Instructional Program
Research shows the importance of having a curriculum aligned to state/district standards; rigorous instruction that is culturally responsive, differentiated, and that reflects a growth mindset; and a system of summative and formative assessments aligned to standards. Partners works with schools to strengthen all three components of their instructional program:
Curriculum. We work with teacher teams to prioritize essential skills and knowledge and determine a common standard of proficiency for their grade level or course, create backward maps and unit plans aligned to the Common Core State Standards, and plan lessons using culturally responsive materials and instructional strategies.
Instruction. Through systems of coaching, collaboration and professional development, we support teachers to improve their pedagogical practice and build their skills around lesson planning and delivery, including differentiation, learning environment, student investment and support for English learners.
Assessment. We also support schools to develop comprehensive assessment systems, including diagnostic, formative, benchmark and summative tests. We work with leaders and teachers to disaggregate student achievement data along lines of ethnicity, English proficiency or gender to unearth trends and make targeted adjustments to instructional programs and lesson delivery.
Download the full monograph here.
This is the first year that children of color outnumber White students in United States public schools. It is therefore a good time to ask how well we are meeting the needs of students of color. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that this country continues to have significant race-based achievement gaps. At Partners in School Innovation, we believe that this disparity in achievement is a justice issue; all students deserve a high-quality education. It is our responsibility as educators to organize around students’ personal and cultural strengths to ensure that all students excel.
When Partners works with school leaders and teachers to transform schools and districts, we help them enhance their culturally responsive teaching and learning (CRTL). As defined by Geneva Gay in Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, & Practice, CRTL means using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively. It is based on the assumption that academic knowledge and skills are more meaningful, have more appeal, and are learned more easily and thoroughly when situated within students’ experiences and frames of reference.
The research on CRTL bears out this assumption. In Cultural Responsiveness, Racial Identity and Academic Success, Drs. Mary Stone Hanley of George Mason University and Georg Noblit of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill summarize their review of the research literature as follows: “Some 36 studies lead us to conclude that culturally responsive pedagogy and positive racial identity can play major roles in promoting academic achievement and resilience for African American, Latin, Asian, and Native American youth.”
The experience of our School Innovation Partners in the field has shown us how CRTL helps make the school environment better for staff and students and improves instruction generally. We have found that doing CRTL work with our partner schools has helped teachers get to know each other and their students better, which has allowed for more authentic interactions, improved communication, more openness to feedback, and greater collaboration. This is part of what we have learned through facilitating more culturally responsive instruction. Below are six lessons learned from this work:
- A key building block for CRTL is trust. Ralph Ellison, best known as the author of Invisible Man, stated that the foundation of culturally responsive instruction is not technical, but relational. It is rooted in authentically caring about our own and each other’s success. Mutual caring leads to trust. This trust—among teachers, between the administration and teaching staff, and between the staff and students—is imperative for high performance. Partners believes that trust is built by working shoulder to shoulder with administrators and teachers and facilitating improvement in leadership, professional learning systems, and core instruction to meet students’ needs.
- CRTL requires individuals and teams to do “inside-out” work. When Partners works with schools on CRTL, we create safe spaces for educators to examine their own views, define terms together, listen and learn together, and better understand interconnections among people. We call this “inside-out” work; we help educators work on themselves in order to better understand and serve students. We not only facilitate this work in our partner schools; we do it ourselves. For example, our team in Grand Rapids, Michigan dedicates time each week to sharing resources and ideas in order to learn together about race, class, culture and power.
- CRTL is both art and science. We meet school staff where they are in their own development; thus, applying CRTL strategies and building cultural literacy looks different from school to school. Whatever a school’s starting point, we strongly encourage staff to have courageous conversations about race that cause teachers to reflect on their personal views, identity, and broad cultural dynamics. CRTL also involves proven instructional strategies such as analyzing and modifying instructional materials to ensure that they are culturally reflective, and taking into account the preferred learning styles of students, which are often culturally specific.
- Committing to CRTL requires dedicated time. Finding time for professional learning is an age-old challenge, but the schools we work with dedicate time to developing their CRTL skills. It can take a variety of forms such as holding monthly sessions on race, class, culture and power; focusing on specific instructional strategies in meetings of professional learning communities; or opening every administrative meeting with a question such as “how have I disrupted inequity or furthered equity since our last meeting?”
- Making space for adults to learn makes us all better practitioners, which helps students learn. Adults need opportunities to learn about a new strategy, set goals, plan the execution, try it out, reflect on the effectiveness, make adjustments, and try a modified approach. We call this set of steps Results-Oriented Cycle of Inquiry (ROCI). This process is a mindset and a practice, and it helps us continually improve. Staff at Partners engage in ROCI internally and with educators at our partner schools. We aim to model the learning culture that we want to instill in students.
- CRTL is a journey, not a destination. This journey has multiple starting points and no real finish line. For many schools, a good place to begin is understanding that we view other cultures through our own cultural lenses. One helpful concept is the iceberg concept of culture, which helps us learn about visible and invisible culture. Some schools begin by learning together about implicit bias while others begin by building deep relationships with students. Yet other schools start by increasing their understanding of growth mindset (cultivating a learning orientation by encouraging effort, persistence and problem solving) or by developing culturally relevant instructional materials. Regardless of where a team starts, there is always more for members to learn about themselves and each other.
Partners views CRTL not as an add-on but as integral to sound instruction. The words of Gloria Ladson-Billings, education professor at the University of Wisconsin, resonate with us when she describes fairly typical interactions that she has with educators around the concept of CRTL:
Instead of some “magic bullet” or intricate formula and steps for instruction, some members of my audience are shocked to hear what seems to them like some rather routine teaching strategies that are a part of good teaching. My response is to affirm that, indeed, I am describing good teaching, and to question why so little of it seems to be occurring in the classrooms populated by African American students.
Partners in School Innovation supports educators in transforming schools and districts to facilitate breakthrough student achievement, and we believe that CRTL is key to those transformations. Our students deserve nothing less.
Alexandrea Creer is the principal of Leadership Public R&D School in Oakland, CA. She holds a B.A. in English from UC Berkeley and an M.A. in Education from Stanford University and is a Partners’ alum. In her past role as a School Improvement Partner at Partners, Ms. Creer coached educators on how to use the Results-Oriented Cycle of Inquiry (ROCI) model to provide access and instructional support for underserved students. We recently caught up with her to get a better understanding of how her Partners’ experience continues to help guide her work today.
Interviewer: You came to Partners as part of the AmeriCorps program and were with us for three years. Are there learnings from that time you still carry with you?
Alex: Basically, I started Partners the year after I graduated from college, and in my second year, we definitely transitioned to a model of more direct coaching and more school-wide data support; for example, helping support leaders and the literacy coaches in developing specific goals. I was lucky to work with two really amazing school partnership directors, Belinda Liu and Poonam Singh. They both taught me everything from how to strategically design an agenda for a meeting to the importance of some of the basic foundational elements that new teachers who are really trying to support learning in their classroom need, like lesson planning.
It doesn’t sound very sophisticated, but I think Partners did a really good job of teaching me how to be a strategic thinker. Also, the professional development we had every Friday gave me tools around what the elements of effective instruction were so I could be effective. I think the other thing just on a more conceptual level that was really helpful was some basic results-oriented thinking around goal setting and really having a strong implementation plan. I think that’s something that definitely has helped me today in my work supporting the turnaround at my own high school. I drew upon that training in being able to set ambitious goals but break them down into sub-goals in clear manageable steps, and really using data to drive my actions as a leader. Being able to really look at students on an individual, sub group and class level was really helpful—and I also took that lens from my time at Partners.
Interviewer: We all want students to do well, but we might ask how to get there because we face many challenges. What was one hurdle you were able to overcome?
Alex: One of the best stories I have about that comes from my first year at Partners. I was working in Gardner Elementary, and I was working with a team of two fourth grade teachers, and they were both brand new teachers in their first year. The idea of having focus students and specifically focus students who were scoring in the Far Below and Below Basic bands of the California Standards Tests really resonated with them. But what was really a neat thing is that over the course of the year as we worked together (it was myself, the literacy coach, and the two teachers), by the end of the year after they took assessments, 100% of their Far Below and Below Basic students moved up a bit, which was exceptional in that context.
While sometimes there is a perception of teachers being resistant, and I find especially with that example (or just the work that I did with that), that resistance can really be just a lack of clarity. When you are able to support a teacher and get students to feeling successful, anything is really possible.
And so I think about my first year at Partners as very similar to my first year as an academic dean at my current school (I went from being a teacher to an academic dean, and then to the principal). In my first year as an academic dean, our API was pretty low; we were in the 590s. I used data to help paint a picture that said, “This is where we are as a school, and this is where we need to be.” We were up for charter renewal, and I just laid out a plan. Initially, there was some resistance to doing weekly lesson plans, for example, but we were able do backwards planning from our goal and create interventions for some of our most struggling students. Our API jumped 90 points in one year.
So I just think that being able to introduce some basic foundational elements with being really smart and using data is important. Again, when you feel clear about the path and feel successful and feel supported, you can accomplish a lot. Because we were able to really build relationships with each other and support each other, we made it happen; and I think that that was one of the things that I definitely also took away from my time at Partners, which is being a team and importance of that in terms of supporting turnaround work.
Interviewer: Are there key nuggets of wisdom that you would want to tell people, or you do tell people, who are interested in this work?
Alex: Actually I was just thinking about that. I think the first thing is it’s really important to not reinvent the wheel. Somebody has always done some work on the thing that you are trying to achieve, and so doing your research or homework first is always really important. I think the second thing I would say is really always looking at data and multiple types of data for the same concern or issue, really drilling down to the root issue or concern. And the third thing I would say is taking one thing or identifying the highest leverage area to work on and not trying to tackle all the problems at one time so that you can really ensure that there is implementation of whatever strategies you are using.
Interviewer: Is there anything about Partners’ work now that’s exciting to you?
Alex: Yes, I think your middle school work is amazing. A lot of times people look at high schools or middle schools as more difficult to turn around, and to some degree they can be, but as I have shared with my own experience at the high school level (with our school growing 130 plus points in two years), it’s possible to turn around a high school. So I am really glad to see that Partners is expanding their work into these really high need areas.
Interviewer: Any final thoughts?
Alex: You might be surprised that I haven’t gone through a traditional administrative credential program. But one thing that I do really feel powerfully about, at least from my time there, was that Partners really gave me an opportunity to grow as a leader and to know what it really took, or what it was going to take, in order to transform instruction at a school site. I think that’s an opportunity that all leaders should have.
Interviewer: Thank you, Alex, for your time, and from all of us at Partners, we wish you continued success!
2014—Year in Review: Partners in School Innovation begins our 3rd decade of work transforming education, continues to execute successful national expansion and is named a Top-Rated Non-Profit for second year in a row.
Working to improve the quality of instruction for over 30,000 students in the 2013-14 school year, Partners in School Innovation continued to drive quality and equity in public schools and districts with achievement gains in partnerships that have faced the exciting opportunities and significant challenges in the move to the new Common Core State Standards. In addition to demonstrated growth in building the capacity of teachers and leaders to serve every student regardless of background or ZIP code, Partners also celebrated its third annual Expo this past spring, and was again named to the GreatNonprofits.org list of Top Nonprofits.
“Partners’ staff and board have a deep belief in our communities’ ability to transform themselves. We invest in the teachers and leaders already tasked with student success because supporting them means supporting a legacy of achievement,” said Derek Mitchell, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer of Partners. “We are proud of our work to eliminate the achievement gap, and we see a powerful story emerging for low-income students of color at many of our partner schools; we know that transformation is not only possible, but likely when we invest in building the capacity of those already tasked with the teaching of our most challenged communities.”
In 2014, Partners’ corps of 35 results-oriented change agents—School Innovation Partners—helped drive transformation in school and district offices across four states. “We are proud of our work to provide critically necessary coaching and collaboration sessions with teachers and leaders that impacted students,” noted Lisa Andrew, Regional Executive Director for the Bay Area. “Our teams were able to help support achievement gains in partner schools and districts through authentic, data-driven cycles of improvement.”
- At Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Academy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, African American student achievement in reading grew by 7.0%, as compared with 3.4% at other schools in the district.
- English learners at Franklin Elementary School in Battle Creek Public Schools in Michigan improved in reading by 9.5%, compared to 6.6% at other schools in the district.
- Two of Partners’ schools in Alum Rock (East San Jose, CA) achieved student gains on the California Standards Test-English Language Arts between 2010 and 2013 at three times the annual growth rate of the district overall.
- In San Francisco, we saw a 10.4% gain in the number of students reading on grade level across our partners schools this past year and, demonstrating strong growth, the number of African American students reading on grade level increased by 10.5%.
“Our work with Partners has resulted in a true partnership that has allowed us to develop strong structures for collaboration,” says Jason Sorich, Principal on Special Assignment, Educational Technology at Alum Rock Union Elementary School District. “Through our joint efforts we have witnessed the birth of authentic PLCs, the refinement of teacher collaboration and professional development centered around meaningful analysis of data, and an intentional focus on issues of equity and race in teaching and learning.”
Partners’ successful approach to school transformation has received the attention of school districts across the country and the organization has also had success beyond California. “The early promise of the partnership between Indianola and Partners in School Innovation was unequivocally and effectively fulfilled,” said Dr. Earl Watkins, Conservator, Indianola School District (Mississippi). “School and district leaders were pushed to take on new learning, to plan more effectively with student outcomes at the center of our decision-making, and to use our data not just to understand student needs, but to improve our pedagogical practices. I repeatedly heard leaders describe their work as the best supports they had experienced in, what has been for some, many careers.”
Partners is pleased to be able to facilitate peer-to-peer exchange with opportunities in providing dialogue between principals and school leaders from successful schools that we have helped turn around and schools with which we are beginning to work. This past summer, Richard Curci, past principal of Everett Middle School in San Francisco (now working at the district level in SFUSD), visited with our partner schools in Battle Creek, Michigan. Richard spoke with principals and district leaders there about the profound trajectory of Everett from low-performing to transformational achievement and participated in a discussion about local school transformation insights and learnings in the work with Partners.
Partners will continue critical work in building educational capacity across the country with the support of stakeholders and key funders like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the William Penn Foundation, who see the impact of Partners’ proven school and district transformation approach. Indeed, there is growing recognition of the work Partners does to transform under-performing schools and districts. As a non-profit organization, Partners is delighted to have been awarded distinctions by premier non-profit rating companies like Philanthropedia, Guidestar, and GreatNonProfits.org.
These distinctions are what savvy individuals, philanthropists and investors want to see in order to ensure their contributions will have the most impact. “Partners is progressing from a regional leader in the Bay Area to a reformer creating national scale benefits,” says Harry Turner, Partner at the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2). “I admire the organization and its leaders for building infrastructure and initiating operations in school districts in cities beyond California to support thought-leadership in education reform.”
Partners in School Innovation is excited to advance its mission to transform teaching and learning in the lowest-performing public schools so that every student, regardless of background, thrives. In partnership, we are renewing the promise of public education.
A district’s central office plays a critical role in school transformation. Ideally, central offices create the conditions that accelerate the transformation of under-performing schools. Under less than ideal conditions, however, the central office can impede school transformation by creating inefficiencies, confusion and competing priorities. In our partnerships, district leaders have indicated a strong desire to help schools meet their short- and long-term goals. We work with district officials to translate those intentions into productive action and monitor their progress.
To gauge whether central office staff are providing the needed support, they need to know whether school administrators: feel part of establishing the district’s priorities, are involved in collaborative structures that create a space for them to solve challenges and have effective feedback and communication loops with the central office. In this blog post, we tell the story of how four central office leaders in one of our partner districts came together to inspire success in their schools and district headquarters.
During the past five years, Partners in School Innovation has supported the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District (ARUESD) to transform its schools and central office into spaces where high-quality teaching and learning occur. ARUESD is in east San Jose, where the community is largely Latino and low-income, with a very high percentage of English learners.
Our partnership began in close collaboration with Alum Rock’s Chief School Transformation Officer, whose role is to facilitate major changes across all schools and provide support and supervision to all site administrators. From 2009 to 2013, we supported transformation efforts at various sites and cross-school networks.
By 2013-14 (four years into our partnership), we had School Innovation Partners supporting five schools intensively as well as teachers and leaders from all 28 district schools via networks. In addition, we worked alongside the central office staff tasked with providing instructional support to sites. The 2013-14 school year marked the first time we intentionally supported the district’s alignment of its instructional departments.
Informing our work with central office staff was an assessment that we performed in the spring of 2013. Partners piloted our District Transformation Review process utilizing our preliminary District Transformation Rubric (DTR) to gather data on the state of district practices. The team conducted a series of interviews, observations, focus groups, surveys and school visits to learn more about how district practices were supporting teachers and school leaders to improve teaching, learning and achievement. The DTR itself specifies research-based best practices in leadership, professional learning, and instruction and defines levels of intentionality, quality, consistency and ownership. The practices are assessed according to the rubric and placed on the following scale:
What we found in ARUESD during this analysis was that most of the practices were in the Emerging stage. Five key themes for the work ahead were brought to light:
- Staying the Course through Focused Effort and Intentional Capacity Building: ARUESD was significantly transforming the district and improving student achievement and adult practice through implementation of key systems and structures related to instructional improvement. Transformation efforts were gaining traction because intentional efforts to support teachers and leaders were becoming more aligned and widespread. In order to sustain this effort, teachers and leaders needed to stay focused on deeply implementing a small number of high-priority initiatives that stay stable over multiple years. In addition, planning and facilitation of key structures needed to shift to internal staff whose capacity was being built through the partnership.
- Building Further Coherence with a Shared Vision and Strategic Plan: A unifying and inspiring vision and strategic plan would further drive transformation coherence. We found that sustainability of transformation efforts could increase if there were shared ownership among stakeholders regarding the district’s vision, goals, initiatives and actions. A unifying strategic plan would also bring clarity and purpose to the district’s initiatives, show how different pieces of the work were aligned and might help clarify what expectations were tight (meaning there was little flexibility around accountability) and which were loose.
- Deepening Key Cultures and Mindsets: Equity, Collaboration and ROCI: Equity, collaboration and ROCI as values and ways of working were expectations for teachers and leaders who participate in Professional Learning Communities and networks. However, these practices were only found in pockets in the district and not fully internalized practices in Alum Rock. Our partnership needed to work on cultivating these culture shifts and mindsets. We also needed to model collaboration and equity-centered dialogue with one another, across departments, and with site leaders to help create the ideal conditions for teacher collaboration.
- Continuing to Improve the Instructional Core and Monitor What’s Important: The shift to Common Core was an ideal opportunity to develop a clear instructional framework that wove together expectations around curriculum, instruction and assessment, especially for English learners. We saw that combining more frequent and consistent classroom and school visits and talking to school leaders about the work would deepen the connection of district supports and strategies to the classroom. This would also allow district leaders to continuously assess the impact of district supports, school leadership and teacher practice on school transformation and student learning.
- Improving Communication Systems: As ARUESD leaders thought about moving forward with their transformation work, we saw that it would help to establish key message points and channels for communication, increase intentionality about using similar language, and ensure that the same key messages were understood by all stakeholders.
With these results in hand and working alongside ARUESD’s Chief School Transformation Officer, in fall 2014 we identified the following ten areas to address at the district level:
Our District Partnership Director (DPD) was assigned to work on strengthening the coordination, calibration, collaboration, communication, and alignment of central office instructional departments. The DPD then worked with four key central office instructional leaders—the Chief School Transformation Officer, Chief Academic Officer, Director of State and Federal Programs, and Principal On Special Assignment—to help them guide their respective teams toward success in achieving these objectives.
During the first month of 2013-14, the DPD met individually with the four district leaders. However, as the work developed, this proved inefficient. The first step in supporting the central office to align itself in support of schools, we learned, was to bring the four district leaders together on a frequent basis. They, not Partners, had to coordinate with one another—about goals, focus, talking points, and calibration, among other priorities and needs that arose. Our role was to help the team organize itself so that it would be proactive rather than reactive.
One important lesson we learned while supporting central office transformation was that district leaders must be vigilant about focusing on their most important work—teaching and learning. Given the demands of their roles, including interacting with various stakeholders and adhering to numerous initiatives, policies, and regulations, they needed help with stepping back and reflecting on what their priorities needed to be.
We also coached the district leaders through the communications they made to their school sites to help provide clarity and guidance to administrators. To do this effectively, we had to know the district calendar intimately; for example, when management was meeting, when site leaders and teachers were attending professional development sessions, when deadlines for state and federal plans were, and so on. This awareness let us help central office leaders plan far enough in advance so that the upcoming work could be aligned, and planning for the short term would be effective. This had the benefit of ensuring that each session or event was meaningful, allowing us to engage in reflection afterwards to inform our future plans. By increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the four leaders and helping them coordinate their work, we helped them become a sum greater than the parts.
Finally, because the work of a facilitator is to attempt to tease out the conversations that need to happen, we learned that combined weekly meetings were the best way for us to stay connected and current. Our two-hour meetings helped ensure that all facets of the work were attended to and the central office leaders were clear about how their efforts fit within the larger scheme of things, as well as with one another. Individual meetings then became more focused on continuing to think through their individual pieces of the collaborative work they had developed. One example was around the professional learning structures.
In the beginning of the year, our discussion focused on each individual structure—we would discuss the Resource Teacher Professional Learning Community (PLC), or the 2nd Grade PLC, or the Instructional Leadership PLC, individually. As the year progressed, we were able to start with the teaching and learning needs that the district leaders were observing and discuss how all of the PLC structures could address those needs and identify implications for PLCs going forward. This was a critical turning point in the team’s progression. It was at that moment that the team truly began to embody the type of support from the central office that helps to align and bring clarity to sites. To do so required the four district leaders to see their work as of a piece, and to see their role as supporting all central office work that impacted sites.
In the spring of 2014, we again collected data on the state of district practice, utilizing the same District Transformation Rubric and review process as before. The following describes the results on the practices we were specifically trying to improve.
The above data illustrates two learnings for our team in 2013-14:
- The central office began functioning much more as a team because of their increased collaboration, calibration, planning, reflecting and adjusting. This positively impacted the district’s focus, communication, stakeholder input, and systems for teacher professional learning. This same point is validated in data from Partners’ evaluations of networks and surveys of site leaders.
- Areas where little to no progress was made (and in some cases where there was regression in practices outside of our 10 key focus practices—for example, Student Achievement Goals, Monitor Student Achievement, Comprehensive Assessments/ Data Reports/ Data Analysis and Reflection) were largely impacted by the lack of a robust system for collecting and processing data, and supporting district departments and sites to use data meaningfully.
The district team has applied these insights to its work in 2014-15. First, they acknowledge that becoming a high performing team cannot be isolated to a few central office leaders; it must be a way of working that permeates all central office departments and sites. Toward that end, the district team has begun its efforts to broaden and deepen the practice of focus, alignment, communication, and collaboration among all central office departments and sites. Second, while becoming a high performing team is foundational in meeting any set of goals, that alone is not enough. Without a robust, efficient data system and set of protocols for analyzing data in a timely way, teams cannot ensure their work is positively impacting students.
Therefore, much of the team’s focus in 2014-15 is on establishing a data system and set of protocols for reflecting upon and adjusting site and central office work in response to student learning. Third, while the team members experienced improvements in their communication strategy in 2013-14 as a result of their collaboration and alignment, communication continues to be an area that the team must pay close attention to. In a time of so much change (e.g., shift to Common Core State Standards, a new data system for the state and district, new district leadership, etc.), the team is committed to improving its effectiveness in clearly communicating with sites so that they experience clarity in priorities and direction.
As we (Partners) approach the end of our partnership with Alum Rock, our role at the central office level continues to be one of facilitation, but more and more of that facilitation is being handed off to district staff every day. Although the district has room to grow in its transformation efforts, we believe that it is well-positioned to sustain the improvement it has already achieved and will continue to progress without our direct support.
Although there are many components to training new School Innovation Partners (SIPs), our key change agents, one of the main ingredients is how our Program Development and Support (PDS) team prepares them to be successful in their new roles. In addition to leveraging their experience and talents, PDS also provides one-on-one coaching. Team member, Tiara Grayson, shares some of her experience:
“I was fortunate to be a coach and thought partner to three new SIPs this year. In our weekly meetings, we would look back on the prior week and look forward at the coming week with our overall goals in mind. For example, a new SIP and I would together monitor progress toward the specific coaching goals she had established with her school principal and teacher partners.
“In this instance, there were a lot of obstacles to establishing regular and effective time for teacher collaboration, which we knew was an important objective that needed to be met if we were to reach our overall target of increasing student achievement outcomes. By looking back on the successes and challenges from the previous week, we were able to replay difficult conversations and practice language the SIP could then use to interrupt inequities that were stifling momentum for students. I shared examples and resources from other schools in which we’d had similar challenges, helping the SIP discover multiple pathways forward.
“From there, we would consistently debrief the progress she had made in pursuing those entry points. In looking ahead at the coming week, we would then strategically plan our ‘must do’ actions, staying connected to the SIPs’ cycle plan and our goals for building teacher and leader capacity to achieve results for every child in their classrooms. By getting clear on our strategy to build a strong system for collaboration, we were able to turn the corner mid-year, build leader and teacher investment in professional learning communities, and realize a lot of growth in teacher practice by the end of the year.”
Coaching SIPs in this way is now a vital part of the PDS team’s ongoing support to new program staff. Maintaining a weekly space for new SIPs to reflect, reprioritize, and plan purposefully proved to be a key lever in building their confidence and toolkit during their first year. Tiara concludes, “Personally, getting excited emails or texts from the SIPs I worked with saying that they had had a successful conversation or that the plan we made for the next leadership team meeting at their school really worked was one of the most gratifying parts of my year. It’s been a privilege to see our new SIPs grow and make a real difference for the adults and students we serve!”
The following article is re-published from the November / December 2014 issue of Leadership. The magazine is published by the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), an umbrella organization serving more than 14,500 school leaders. You may download the full article as a PDF here.
California’s students hold vast potential. With the proper academic support, they will become college- and career-ready and go on to help the state’s businesses, farms, non-profits and local governments succeed. Unfortunately, too many of California’s public schools are struggling to bring out their students’ talents. This is especially true among schools serving low-income students of color.
In some cases, external support providers can help a school transform into a place where staff and students excel. Partners in School Innovation is one such provider that facilitates the transformation of underperforming schools. Using a continuous-improvement, equity-focused approach, Partners works to help schools eliminate achievement gaps and create an environment in which every student, regardless of background, thrives. In the schools that we serve, where 84 percent of students are low-income and 94 percent are students of color, the need for accelerated learning is urgent.
Partners helps schools align their leadership, professional learning systems and instruction around the goal of such accelerated learning. We do not address all of the factors that influence student achievement, such as parental involvement, but our approach does include explicit conversations about equity. The conversations are substantial and informed by regular monitoring of student achievement data.
To assess a school’s progress, we regularly conduct assessments called School Transformation Reviews. These reviews are done in the fall of the initial year of a partnership (which generally lasts three to five years) and in the spring of each subsequent year. They consist of interviews and classroom observations and are guided by our School Transformation Rubric.
The rubric is grounded in research and has been refined based on our experience with fostering systemic change in schools during the past nine years. The rubric and review provide school leaders with the language needed to gain agreement on what constitutes powerful instruction for each student. They are valuable tools for promoting equity in achievement among all students.
An even more important tool, however, is the continuous, on-site support. Below, the rubric and school-review process are described, and a detailed example of on-site support is provided to demonstrate the level of progress that is possible.
School transformation rubric: Equity focus
The rubric describes 76 practices deemed by researchers to be essential to transforming schools, particularly those serving low-income students of color. These essential practices are organized into three domains: results-oriented leadership, systems for professional learning, and the core instructional program. Of the 76 practices on the rubric, 20 relate directly to equity. Thus, when staff members conduct a review of a school’s program, they do so through an equity lens. The set of equity-focused items on the rubric pertain to school culture, aspects of instruction that can make schools more equitable environments, and explicit examinations of race, class, culture, and power.
Download the full article as a PDF here.
An excerpt from Partners in School Innovation’s monograph which describes how we work to help our partner schools and districts increase students’ academic achievement in middle schools. You may download the full paper here to read more.
A student’s transition from elementary to middle school is significant. It generally includes going to a school farther from home, having multiple teachers instead of one, and having to manage complicated homework assignments from several teachers rather than a small amount of homework from one.1 Typically, a student must navigate these shifts in school structure while undergoing major physical and emotional changes.
For many students, the challenges of transitioning to middle school are compounded by skills deficits that were not sufficiently addressed in their underperforming elementary schools. These students enter middle school classrooms well below grade level, but they may sit next to students with high school-level skills. Thus, teachers are often challenged to address a broad range of academic needs in their classrooms while also managing the socio-emotional demands of adolescents.
Given all this, middle schools face a challenging set of responsibilities. In the past two decades, a number of researchers have recognized this and have written reports stressing the importance of the middle grades.2 However, middle school is often neglected in education reform discussions. This is likely because great attention is devoted to early literacy efforts in elementary schools and attempts to increase students’ college- and career-readiness in high schools. As a result, there is still a great need for many middle schools to retool their approaches in order to maximize learning for all students.
PARTNERS IN SCHOOL INNOVATION HAS ADAPTED ITS SCHOOL-TRANSFORMATION APPROACH TO MIDDLE SCHOOLS
In 2010-11, Partners in School Innovation (Partners) began working with a small number of middle schools to implement such a retooling. This represented new work for Partners in that the organization had engaged with only elementary schools for the prior 15 years. Partners entered this new space after carefully considering whether its school transformation approach could successfully be adapted to accommodate some of the most evident differences in middle school environments. Considerations included the larger staffs, the organization of middle schools into subject departments and the more complex developmental needs of the students. But our prior success in elementary school bolstered our confidence in piloting a middle school approach. For example, in 2009-10, elementary schools in San Francisco that worked with Partners achieved an average annual gain of 6.1 percentage points on the California Standards Test in English language arts, considerably more than the 0.5 percentage point growth districtwide. Similarly, African American students in our Oakland partner schools improved by 8.5 percentage points that year, far more than the 0.8 percentage point gain statewide.
Partners’ School Transformation Approach focuses on three domains.
The School Transformation Approach that we implemented in our partner elementary schools was codified in 2008. It targets three domains:
- Results-oriented leadership.
- Systems for professional learning.
- The core instructional program.
Along with our specific actions in three domains are four key mindsets that permeate all that we do: a focus on social justice, a commitment to continuous improvement, systems thinking and an orientation toward results. Partners’ approach to bringing about improvement in the three domains is described on the next page.
Partners believes that school transformation begins with the leader. We start by learning about his/her values, sharing our own, and together articulating an inspiring call to action for the school staff and community. Partners supports leaders’ communication of strong beliefs about social justice, teaching, learning and the use of data to motivate others. Partners then supports leaders in developing a shared, long-term vision for student achievement and works with them to develop a framework that specifies student learning objectives, teaching methods, and how student learning will be assessed.
Distributed leadership: As leaders develop their capacity to guide their schools, Partners also supports principals in developing a leadership team. “Distributed leadership” is an essential part of school transformation not only because principals cannot do this work in isolation, but also because the reforms are more likely to be integrated into teacher practice if teachers have a part in shaping the instructional focus and are able to advocate for changes with their peers.3
Student Learning and Instructional Quality: One of Partners’ key methods for helping a school improve its instruction is the inculcation of a process called Results-Oriented Cycle of Inquiry (ROCI). The process consists of five steps designed to help individuals sharpen their focus on results and develop habits that fuel continuous improvement. (The results referred to here are generally students’ performance on formative and benchmark assessments.) ROCI focuses everyone’s attention directly on student-learning; stimulates people to learn from their successes and diagnose and address their shortfalls; and then leads them to implement and monitor their provisional solutions. In this way, ROCI helps teachers and other instructional leaders bring about sustained organizational learning and improvement.4
Systems for professional learning
Research has shown that the quality of the core instructional program cannot be improved without ongoing teacher learning. Teachers must regularly work alongside their colleagues toward common goals and get support in developing responses to the everyday dilemmas of practice. In Partners’ School Transformation Approach, the three primary factors in professional learning are:
- Protected teacher collaboration time. Regularly setting aside time signals that collaboration is important, and it allows teachers to share best practices, plan meaningful instruction and use data to understand what is working and not working in the classroom.
- Strong instructional coaches. Instructional coaching ensures that all teachers have the individualized support they need to continuously improve their instruction in alignment with the school’s vision and goals.
- Relevant and actionable professional development. Educators benefit from professional development that is tailored to their specific circumstances and that can be readily applied in the classroom.
The core instructional program
Partners works with schools to create an instructional program that includes the following elements: identifying learning goals that are based on state standards and the results of regular assessments; adapting lessons to individual student learning needs; making content culturally relevant to students; and gauging effectiveness regularly in order to improve constantly.
With encouragement from our school district partners, Partners began the work of expanding to middle schools.
As a result of the success we had with the School Transformation Approach described above, our partner districts wanted us to work with some of their struggling middle schools. Underachieving middle schools have long vexed school districts because there has been a dearth of information about how to transform them. Our partner districts were willing to bet that the approach we had developed could be adapted to higher grades. In addition, philanthropic foundations that had worked with those districts were willing to support our work financially.
In concept, expanding into middle schools appealed to us. The work would align well with our goal of ensuring secondary and post-secondary success for all students. In addition, we did not want to see our students’ accelerated growth lose speed in underperforming middle schools. If we succeeded in middle schools, it would further validate the practices we had honed and make a big contribution to the field of school reform. It would also promote our goal of scaling up our work to be increasingly relevant in an education landscape committed to 21st century skills.
However, we wanted to enter the new space only if we thought we had a good chance of succeeding. We created a team of former middle school teachers and assistant principals from among our staff to explore the feasibility of working with middle schools and entered into the discovery phase of our work.
The study team spent much of its time on two topics: systems for professional learning and school culture. Professional learning was an issue worth considering because the systems that Partners helped set up in elementary schools could not be easily replicated in middle schools. In elementary schools, teachers generally teach multiple subjects to students in a given grade, which means that teachers can form collaborative learning groups around grade levels. And focusing on literacy among teachers produces spillover benefits in other subjects. Thus, grade-level teams in elementary schools become forums for teachers to analyze data, share insights, and generally support one another. However, in middle schools, most staff members teach a single subject. This means that in one school there might be only one or two teachers who teach a specific subject to a specific grade. Thus, we had to consider whether we would organize middle school teacher teams by grade and cover multiple subjects, or organize by subject and cover multiple grades.
School culture—in particular the tone of adult/student interaction—was an issue for the study team because transforming middle schools requires more buy-in from students than transforming elementary schools does.
In addition to grappling with these two issues, the study team reviewed the research on raising student achievement in middle schools.
Partners developed a research-based theory of action for its work with middle schools.
One study that influenced our thinking greatly was an EdSource analysis of 303 middle schools in California called, Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better, published in 2010. This study examined district and school practices as they relate to student performance on standards-based math and English language arts (ELA) tests, and determined which practices were more effective in producing academic improvement for all students, regardless of socio-economic background, parent education level, and ethnicity (p. 1).
The study found that higher-performing schools shared with their districts a culture that placed its, “primary focus on improving academic outcomes for all students, from the lowest performing to the highest; [and] designed its instructional program to prepare all students for a rigorous high school education” (p. 1).
According to the study, effective strategies to improve academic outcomes for middle-grade students include setting measurable goals for improvement on standardized tests; having a shared school mission to prepare all students academically for the future; implementation of standards-based curricula; targeted strategies to strengthen student learning of English language arts and mathematics; and use of data by the district, principal and teachers to monitor student academic outcomes. Early identification of, and proactive intervention for, students below grade level also played a key role in supporting students to be successful (pp. 7-10).
Two additional EdSource reports further informed our thinking on strategies to raise student achievement in middle schools. The first was the transcript of an interview with the principal of KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy, a middle school that had helped its low-income Hispanic and African American students achieve strong test scores. The principal believed that a strict discipline system, high expectations for all students, use of data to monitor acquisition of skills, and use of small group work to fill in skills gaps most impacted her students’ academic success. A second report identified approaches that increased the academic performance of African American boys in California. It found that informing students of their achievement goals, addressing students’ academic and socio-emotional needs, welcoming students and making them feel wanted in school, and telling students they are scholars and are college-bound all had a positive impact on students’ academic success.5
Click here to download the full monograph.
Partners in School Innovation had the great honor of being invited to conduct a panel discussion on September 4th at the Fall 2014 Conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness in Washington DC. Derek Mitchell, CEO of Partners, led the panel entitled “Leading Complex District Transformation Efforts: Integrating Research, Performance Management and Evaluation to Ensure Quality.” The presentation included information and insights about how Partners transforms districts and how the organization uses research and evaluation to measure effectiveness and ensure quality of implementation.
The panel included William Hill, Partners’ District Transformation Director for the Michigan region; Kimberly Parker-DeVauld, the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment for Battle Creek Public Schools; Mary Jo Kuhlman, Assistant Superintendent, Organizational Learning for Grand Rapids Public Schools; and Dana McCurdy, Partners’ Research and Evaluation Manager. The panelists addressed a very engaged audience composed primarily of educational researchers who were eager to hear about how Partners translates research into practice. They were particularly interested in how our district partners from Grand Rapids and Battle Creek adopted and implemented Partners’ school and district improvement methods and tools.
“This was an incredible opportunity for Partners to come together with district colleagues in Battle Creek and Grand Rapids to share the impact of our partnerships,” said Derek Mitchell. “Both district leaders framed the value and the challenges in the work, and informed our efforts to get the word out about how districts can (and must) do the transformation work themselves.”
Partners coaches, collaborates and consults with school and district partners to help in the work of transforming underperforming schools. The organization is unique in that it generates practice-based evidence using a Results-Oriented Cycle of Inquiry (ROCI), which is its continuous improvement methodology made relevant to the realm of education. The opportunity at this conference to share with researchers and hear what they believed to be effective only served to solidify Partners’ belief that in order to change the system of public education, we need to implement slowly and thoughtfully, while also learning quickly along the way.
The evidence Partners generates through cycles of reflection, and that we enable districts to generate, is what will actually change the system in the long-term. Partners’ approach was developed through careful research of what has already been proven to work in the field, as demonstrated by a wide-variety of published studies in educational research, in addition to internal research and evaluation studies that Partners conducts. The synthesis of this outside research together with a robust internal measurement system allows Partners to continuously improve and get results in our partner districts.
The current status quo method of operating in education is to change the system all at once based on new research findings from academia and hope that implementation of the findings yields the same results seen in research settings. Partners advocates for districts to implement changes slowly and with a razor-like focus until they generate their own evidence for what works and what does not work in their own context. This calculated approach to reform negates the typical problem of translating research to practice, because the research is grounded in and generated through practice.
This approach and success allows Partners to continue to scale the organization across the country. For reform to be sustainable it must work in multiple contexts, and Partners has seen its approach successfully transfer from California to Michigan because of the willingness to adopt a ‘ROCI mindset’ by district leaders and engage in the process of generating practice-based evidence. Derek Mitchell concluded the panel by noting, “We have excellent partners in Michigan committed to ensuring that every student thrives in school. I am grateful for this opportunity to collaborate.”
View the slide presentation deck from the conference here.
Despite decades of public policy aimed at closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color, we still have a long way to go. Studies reveal that the United States’ efforts to increase our international status through policies like No Child Left Behind and high stakes tests have not been successful. As Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond notes in a recent article (“To Close the Achievement Gap, We Need to Close the Teaching Gap”), “U.S. performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) declined in every subject area between 2000 and 2012—the years in which these policies have been in effect.”
Darling-Hammond suggests that if we are to close the achievement gap, we must close the teaching gap. The teaching gap refers to disparities between the working conditions and level of support for teachers in the United States and their counterparts in other industrialized nations. A recent survey of teachers in 34 countries, the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), revealed that teachers in the U.S. have larger class sizes, spend more time directly teaching children (27 hours per week vs. the TALIS average of 19 hours), and work more hours per week than the international average. U.S. teachers also work in schools with a higher rate of economically disadvantaged students. As Darling-Hammond explains, “nearly two-thirds of U.S. middle-school teachers work in schools where more than 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. This is by far the highest rate in the world, and more than triple the average TALIS rate.” Poverty rates are important to note because research shows that income is a strong predictor of student achievement, signaling that work needs to continue to create equitable opportunities for all students to receive an excellent education. Perhaps most importantly, U.S. teachers have less time for planning, collaboration and access to quality professional development when compared with teachers in other countries. This is unfortunate because researchers have found that school achievement is much stronger when teachers work in collaborative teams.
Darling-Hammond suggests that four policy recommendations arise from the TALIS findings:
- Address inequities that undermine learning. This includes providing universal programs such as Head Start, health care, and before- and after-school care to ensure all students get what they need to thrive and learn.
- Value teaching and teacher learning. Investing in top-quality professional learning for both pre-service and in-service teachers, and paying teachers a competitive salary, are two ways to demonstrate respect for the teaching profession.
- Redesign schools to create time for collaboration. Organize schools such that teachers’ workloads and schedules allow for substantive planning and learning together.
- Create meaningful teacher evaluations that foster improvement. This includes feedback from principals and mentors that enables teachers to reflect on their practice and make changes for continual growth.
Partners in School Innovation addresses two of these four areas—valuing teaching and teacher learning and re-designing schools to create time for collaboration. Below are examples of Partners’ efforts and success in this work.
Valuing teaching and teacher learning“Specifically, those students outperformed
all other grades on the district’s
end-of-year writing assessment.”