Helping Schools Engage in Collaborative, Strategic Problem Solving (page 2)
Problems With the Planning Process
Earlier this year, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence released a report highlighting practices in Kentucky’s high-performing, high-poverty schools. Researchers collected information using the same audit tool that the Kentucky Department of Education uses to diagnose problems in schools identified for improvement, then compared those results with similar information amassed by state-conducted audits of low-performing schools.
The analysis yielded some unanticipated results. While the successful schools scored well on some areas of the audit, they did not score well on indicators related to comprehensive planning. Indeed, the data revealed no Planning That Matters: Helping Schools Engage in Collaborative, Strategic Problem Solving By Craig Jerald significant difference between high- and low-performing schools on any of 16 indicators measuring how well schools had followed the recommended process for creating Comprehensive School Improvement Plans.1
What can this mean? Do high-performing schools really not bother to engage in systematic planning? Is there no real relationship between good planning and measurable school improvement?
The answer, of course, is no. The same study revealed that high-performing schools engage in more collaborative decision making, work harder to connect professional development to student achievement data, and make more efficient use of time and resources. None of those activities is possible, or at least possible to do well, without serious and thoughtful planning. When asked to comment about this apparent paradox, an audit team member said of one school, “Their [Comprehensive School Improvement Plan] was not exemplary, but their school was. They are planning, but it did not get captured in that document, not formally.” Another recalled having seen the reverse situation when participating in state audits of schools needing improvement. Some low- performing schools had crafted “model” plans and documentation, this team member said, but “did not appear to be doing much of it in the classrooms.”2
Instead of dismissing this finding as a bizarre anomaly, policymakers and assistance providers would do well to ponder its implications. Too often the formal planning process required by state and federal policy is perceived as a bureaucratic exercise resulting in written plans that do not drive real change efforts for the day-to-day work of schools. And too often it is disconnected from the kind of planning that can lead to significant, measurable improvement.
The problem is not that states have done a bad job in explaining the requirements for formal planning or providing tools to do the job well. Most states, Kentucky included, have put considerable energy into creating materials to assist comprehensive school improvement planning. Washington, for example, now offers an interactive Web tool that walks schools through a guided, eight- step planning process, along with a 170- page guidebook that includes everything from sample meeting agendas to document templates. Many independent organizations have published excellent tools and guidebooks as well.
The real problem is that schools can follow all of the recommended steps for formal planning, engage in all of the activities and meetings suggested, and even craft excellently written plans, yet—even with hands-on assistance—still not engage in the kind of deliberate activities that propel real change and drive professional work in effective schools.
Problem Solving That Is Strategic and Collaborative
Formal planning and documentation are important responsibilities under state and federal law, and we certainly want schools to approach them seriously and conscientiously. However, if we are to realize success in helping all of our low-performing schools get onto a path leading toward sustained improvement in student outcomes, we also must find ways to isolate and understand the kind of real-life planning that matters most, provide compelling examples of it, and deliberately build the capacity of all schools to engage in it. A glimpse into that kind of planning can be gleaned from the full findings of the Kentucky study as well as other recent research on high- improving schools elsewhere in the United States. The picture that emerges is one that sometimes has to do with the formal planning process with which we all are familiar, but almost always has to do with a deeper layer of planning that can best be called collaborative, strategic problem solving.3
What Do We Mean by “Problem Solving?”
Last year, the principal of New Mexico’s Roswell High School told a team of visiting researchers that he attributed part of his school’s success to the school’s philosophy of improvement. “[We] have a credo here: Dinosaurs disappeared because they did not change. We assess things regularly. If something doesn’t work, we change it.”4 If that sounds like the very essence of simple common sense, it is. But it is a kind of common sense that is all too uncommon in American education and all too rarely understood.
- Establish a results-based orientation focused on tangible student outcomes. First, staff members firmly believe that whatever other functions schools might perform in a community, they are at least and primarily responsible for making sure that students learn. Second, they take direct responsibility for student achievement. They do not get mired in the belief that family and social problems present insurmountable obstacles to learning. Instead, they believe that what children experience within schools and classrooms can have a decisive impact on whether and how much they learn.
- Relentlessly analyze data and other empirical evidence at all levels—student, grade, subject, and schoolwide—to identify problems. Then they gather additional evidence to identify internal weaknesses that are causing or abetting low outcomes and obstructing improvement.
- Identify possible solutions to problems and opportunities for making changes that will lead to greater success. They use common sense, creativity, and extensive investigation of research- and evidence-based practices to decide among those possible solutions.
To understand how these three things might work together, consider a hypothetical example based on a challenge all too common in U.S. high schools. A high school improvement team identifies a problem with particularly low achievement and high retention rates in the ninth grade. Rather than simply assuming that most 14-year-olds naturally struggle because of “hormones,” they collect additional information that might explain the problem and find that high ninth-grade failure is partly due to low literacy levels among entering freshmen.
Although the problem at first seems “outside their control,” team members take responsibility and seek solutions. After examining the research and seeking examples of schools that have addressed the problem, they consider working with a handful of feeder middle schools to craft “transition standards.” The standards could include implementing diagnostic assessments as part of an “early warning system,” creating a “fast track” literacy program to provide immediate and intensive help for students who need it, and changing the master schedule to reduce class sizes and assign more experienced teachers to ninth-grade classrooms.
New Mexico’s Roswell High School offers another example. As improvement team members investigated factors behind high rates of classroom absenteeism, they found that a large number of students were visiting the school’s health room complaining of headaches, stomach aches, and dizziness. Digging deeper, they discovered that many students were not taking advantage of the federally subsidized breakfast program because there was not enough time. The school decided to expand first period by 10 minutes and later even began delivering breakfasts to classrooms to make sure students had eaten and were ready to learn. Visits to the health room dropped by 80 percent.5
Of course, all schools that go through a formal planning process engage in a similar set of steps as part of a required needs assessment. But problem-solving schools approach the task from a more powerful perspective—one that confronts problems more openly and deals with them more aggressively in the following ways:
- They diagnose problems and solutions from an “inside-out” orientation that first considers classroom instruction, schoolwide policies and arrangements, and finally external family, community, and social factors—instead of “blaming” nonschool factors first (e.g., “parents are uninvolved, so students don’t do homework and can’t learn”).
- They “dig deeper,” examining a full range of internal practices and conditions that might be causing low achievement and impeding improvement, including areas that often are ignored or glossed over because it is uncomfortable to talk about them. For example, these schools examine “opportunity gaps” within the school to determine if poor, minority, and low-achieving children are less likely to have access to qualified teachers, demanding classwork, and rigorous curricula. (See The Center’s January 2005 policy brief, Establishing a Strong Foundation for School Improvement, for a more extensive discussion of the inside- out orientation and why schools should commit to examining opportunity and practice gaps.)
- They treat practices, policies, and arrangements as “variables rather than givens” and are much less likely to believe something cannot change simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Because they have less respect for the inflexible traditions and sacred cows of the past, they benefit from an expanded sense of what can be discarded, adapted, or changed within their schools.
To illustrate why this notion of strategic problem solving is different from traditional needs assessments and planning—as such activities often play out—consider a discrete, concrete example: the vexing issue of teacher quality and classroom assignments.
A number of recent studies have confirmed that novice teaches are far less effective at raising student achievement over the course of a school year than their more experienced colleagues.6 Yet low-achieving, high-poverty, and high-minority students all are more likely to be assigned to inexperienced teachers. The fault does not lie only with forces outside a school’s or district’s control, either. Researchers in North Carolina recently found that nearly two thirds of the statewide black-white gap in exposure of elementary school students to novice teachers is due to the inequitable assignment of students to teachers within districts, with between one quarter and one third exclusively due to inequitable assignments across classrooms within the same school.7
Such patterns persist at the high school level, too, where the strongest, most experienced teachers are often assigned to teach Advanced Placement (AP) and honors subjects to “the best” juniors and seniors, while novice teachers assigned to ninth-grade classes struggle to help low-achieving freshmen get caught up.
Yet teacher-quality gaps are seldom, if ever, documented in formal needs assessments or addressed in written plans. Even though most schools and districts have ready access to information that could easily be used to analyze staffing patterns, these inequities largely have remained hidden from view, in part because schools take student assignment for granted and have not traditionally considered it related to student performance and school improvement. Some schools ignore it because they do not want to upset middle-class parents who often push administrators to assign their children to more experienced teachers.
However, some problem-solving schools and districts are finding ways to intentionally match their strongest teachers with their weakest students.
In Hamilton County, Tennessee, teachers who demonstrate high effectiveness in raising student achievement are eligible for significant bonuses and other incentives if they transfer to one of nine persistently underperforming elementary schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The district also has worked with local foundations to improve leadership, provide intensive teacher support, and reward success in those schools, making them better able to retain excellent teachers in the long run. Some of the nine schools have gone a step further and have begun to use achievement data to match students who are weak in a particular mathematics or reading skill to teachers who are especially adept at teaching that skill.8 Together, these efforts are paying off. Last year, the state of Tennessee judged all nine schools to be achieving at above-average or exceptional rates of annual growth in student learning.9 Are these isolated examples? There is some evidence that high-performing and steadily improving schools in general are more likely to have confronted difficult staffing issues. For example, audit teams participating in the Kentucky Prichard Committee study heard descriptions of more purposeful teacher assignments that deliberately tried to match teacher strengths with student needs. One audit team member observed, “They move teachers into grade levels based on teaching strengths, [even the] veteran teachers. One 27-year teacher is moving to another grade.”10
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. © 2008 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.
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