Six Don’ts of School Improvement…and Their Solutions (page 2)
Hugh Burkett, director of The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, recently was asked to give the keynote speech at On the Right Track 4, an annual school improvement symposium for California school practitioners. In this month’s newsletter, Dr. Burkett shares highlights from his remarks.
When I accepted this invitation, I was told in no uncertain terms that my speech should not be about “what research says” or “the characteristics of high-performing schools.” This speech had to be practical. I had to talk about how to do what we know works to improve schools. After 30 years of experience as a teacher, a principal, an assistant superintendent, and a superintendent—working in large districts and small—I should have collected a lot of wisdom that I could share. But honestly, after 30 years, I often think that I know a lot more about what not to do than anything else. So this speech will be about six don’ts of school improvement—six things that should never be done if you’re trying to improve schools and what I’ve learned from doing every one of them.
Don’t Depend Solely on the Principal to Lead the School
As a superintendent and a former principal myself, I was convinced that a school was only as good as the principal running it. I expected that an outstanding principal would be able to turn around a struggling school single-handedly, preferably overnight. A good principal was a strong person with a considerable ego who would be organized and decisive. My mistake? I defined leadership very narrowly. I assumed that school leadership was a job for a single person.
This time around, I would rethink what leadership means, and I would make sure that every person in the school saw himself or herself as a leader. As a principal, I always respected and admired good teachers, but I always thought my job was to get roadblocks out of their way so they could “just teach.” But I’ve come to realize that teachers who are involved in leadership roles are actually better teachers. They are more engaged in their profession, more likely to innovate and experiment, and more likely to feel responsible for the school’s success and for the success of its kids. There are all kinds of leadership roles for teachers, from speaking up at a faculty meeting to helping decide how the budget gets spent. Good principals don’t protect teachers from leadership; they encourage them to lead.
Don’t Rely on Selection Strategies to Build a Teaching Staff
As an urban superintendent, I was always on the lookout for outstanding urban teachers who would love our kids and teach them well. We were strategic in our searching, using a research-based screening tool to identify hundreds of teachers with high affect, strong dedication, and a desire to work in an urban setting; we hired many of them. But we found after a short time that these new teachers felt negative, pessimistic, and ready to quit. What was my mistake? We paid a lot of attention to screening and hiring teachers but not nearly enough to inducting them, mentoring them, and nurturing them. A good initial match just wasn’t enough.
What should I have done? I should have paid more attention to follow through with new teachers. Where were they teaching? How were they assigned? Were their schools following tradition by assigning the least experienced teachers to the most academically needy students? How were they inducted when they got there? Did they learn everything there was to know in the teachers’ lounge or was there a purposeful program of induction in their school that explained “who we are, what we believe in, and how we do business here”?
I should have paid more attention to mentoring. Like most districts, we had a mentoring program, but it wasn’t very strong. We didn’t systematically identify outstanding mentors or pay attention to whether they believed in the core vision of the district. We didn’t give them time to mentor. New teachers often felt alone and overwhelmed. No wonder so many of them grew sour; we threw them in the deep end of the pool and yelled, “Good luck!”
Induction, mentoring, and ongoing nurturing through support, feedback, and meaningful learning opportunities. They all need attention.
Don’t Assume That Writing an Aligned Curriculum Will Improve Teaching
One of my first challenges as a new superintendent was to make sure the district had a curriculum that was aligned with the new state content standards. So I got people to work on the task. Our target was the creation of a written framework that identified what we taught at every grade level. I did it right—involved teachers, had the drafts looked at by experts, and built a review cycle. I was very proud of this project and talked about it all the time. My mistake? I focused on the document and not on the teaching. Writing curriculum doesn’t guarantee that teachers will know how to use it.
I know now that building a curriculum framework is only the first step. We thought that by defining what to teach, our job was done. It would be up to each school and each teacher to choose the how. For a master teacher, that might have been a gift. But for rookie, unproven, or struggling teachers (and every district has a lot of them), we needed pacing guides and other resources—tools that would help them understand what should happen when and how. We needed solid professional development to help staff make the transition from content to lesson. We should have cared more about creating formative assessments and helping teachers use those data to shape their instruction. And, most importantly, we should have been more forthright and honest in appraising instruction. Our observation feedback often was politely vague. Our “critical friends” teacher groups were long on the “friends” part and short on the “critical” part. Nobody wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings or make judgments. Our kids suffered from our hesitation.
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. © 2008 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.
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