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student outcomes don't change until adult behaviors change

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Why School Systems & School Boards Exist

School systems exist to improve student outcomes. That is the only reason for which school systems exist. School systems do not exist to have great buildings, have happy parents, have balanced budgets, have satisfied teachers, provide student lunches, provide employment in the county/city, or anything else. Those are all means -- and incredibly important and valuable means at that -- but none of them are the ends; none of those are why we have school systems. They are all inputs, not outcomes. None of those are measures of what students know or are able to do. School systems exist for one reason and one reason only: to improve student outcomes. 

An immediate challenge is that throughout the community there are many ideas about which student outcomes -- which measures of what students know and are able to do -- should be focused on (I refer to this as the community’s “vision”) and which means should/shouldn’t be used to accomplish this (I refer to this as the community’s “values”). A school system can’t be effective if it’s trying to pursue a myriad of incoherent visions while implementing a cacophony of conflicting values. So the decision was made to select a group of individuals who would collectively represent the community’s vision and values. We refer to this group as a school board. The function of the school board is to represent the vision and values of the community.

Goals & Guardrails
Even though the school board has far fewer members than the community as a whole -- typically around 5 to 9 members -- the school board members may still disagree on what the community's vision and values truly are. If school boards aren't intentional, they can start focusing on the wants and wishes of individual community members rather than the vision and value of the community as a whole. To resolve this and to create a way of holding the school system accountable, the school board as a whole adopts two special types of policy. It adopts goals that reflect the community's vision. And it adopts guardrails that describe the community values that must be protected while in pursuit of the goals.

Because the intention of goals is to reveal the community’s vision for its students’ outcomes, goals are only about student outcomes -- what the community wants its students to know and be able to do. Ideal goals will be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, results-focused, and time-bound), will describe what the community wants its students to know and/or be able to do, and will number between one and five (I generally recommend three). Goals describe what the school system is trying to accomplish over the next three to five years. Examples of goals include:
  • The percentage of kindergarten students who enter kindergarten school-ready on a multidimensional assessment will increase from 21% on August 1, 2019 to 65% by August 1, 2024 
  • The percentage of graduates who are persisting in the second year of their post-secondary program will increase from W% on X to Y% by Z 
  • The percentage of free and reduced lunch-eligible students in kindergarten through 2nd grade who are reading/writing on or above grade level on the district’s summative assessment will increase from W% on X to Y% by Z 
  • The percentage of students at underperforming schools who meet or exceed the state standard will increase from W% on X to Y% by Z 
  • The percentage of males of color who graduate with an associate’s degree will increase from W% on X to Y% by Z 

The community will also have other things it values beyond the vision. These other items relate to what the adults are doing to cause the goals to happen -- they are the inputs, not the outcomes. They are about the means, not the ends. I refer to the written version of these values as guardrails. Ideally a school board will adopt one to five such overarching statements (I generally recommend three). Guardrails describe how the school system will avoid behaving -- what it won't do -- as it seeks to accomplish the goals. Examples of guardrails include:
  • The Superintendent will not allow underperforming campuses to have principals or teachers who rank in the bottom two quartiles of principal or teacher district-wide performance 
  • The Superintendent will not propose major decisions to the Board without first having engaged students, parents, community, and staff 
  • The Superintendent will not allow the number or percentage of students at underperforming campuses to remain the same or increase 
  • The Superintendent will not allow the inequitable treatment of students 
The more clearly defined the school board’s adopted goals and guardrails are, the easier it is for the school board to ensure alignment not only of the school board’s work, but also of the superintendent’s work (the function of the Superintendent is to implement the vision and values of the community once they have been defined by the school board). These are the first and most vital steps the school board can take to create the conditions for improving student outcomes.

Blog Posts:  

    Everything Has Changed... Except This

    Below, I posit nine different instructional models that school systems might choose to pursue while their school buildings are temporarily closed.


    learner expected to lead their own learning using educator provided tools/materials

    parent expected to lead their student's learning using educator provided tools/materials

    educator expected to lead their students' learning using educator provided tools/materials

    less than 25% of instruction occurs in real time between learner and educator
    Option 1
    Option 4
    Option 7

    26-74% of instruction occurs in real time between learner and educator
    Option 2
    Option 5
    Option 8

    more than 75% of instruction occurs in real time between learner and educator
    Option 3
    Option 6
    Option 9

    Pop Quiz:
    • Which of these nine options describe the most ideal instructional model your school system wants to pursue while buildings are closed?
    • Which of these nine instructional models most describes where your school system is today?
    • If your answers to the above are different, what are the most significant barriers between the two that need to be overcome?

    As I've visited with students, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members nationwide over the past month, I hear a nation's worth of people working hard and working collaboratively to confront the daily realities imposed by a global pandemic. In that regard, almost everything that we know to be normal about school systems has operationally changed. But in those same conversations, what I have yet to hear is anyone make a strong argument for why our aspirations for our students should be any lower today than they were two months ago. While everything circumstantially has changed, our collective desire to see improvements in student outcomes has not. Our collective expectations for what our students should know and be able to do at the culmination of their PreK-12 experience remain unaltered.

    I take from these conversations two things (shared in reverse order).

    Second, the next big challenge for school systems will be about how best to prepare for and make appropriate modifications for the return to in-school instruction. There will likely need to be significant changes made and planning for that should be ongoing right now. There are opportunities for innovation here; the future need not look like the past.

    But first and more immediately, school leaders need to confront that how they address instruction today largely determines the circumstances their return to in-school instruction will face. And that if your ideal or realized instructional model today is anything other than blended schooling (option 8) or online schooling (option 9), you are likely setting your students up to fail because they will lose relational time with their teaches and will have already fallen so far behind in their studies.

    Unfortunately, most of what I'm seeing right now looks more like offline enrichment/homeschooling (options 1 and 4).

    Blog Posts:  

      Not a time to fear; a time to adapt

      This is not something to panic over or fear. It is simply change that we can confront and will overcome. The first step: understanding and accepting what we're facing.

      Regarding Society: It sounds crass to say in the face of such a massive tragedy, but we got lucky this time and we've gotten lucky every time before. Mother nature is a creative murderer; imagine if this had been 5x more virulent or if it had been fully airborne. We'd be counting losses in another order of magnitude. This is our chance to learn how to be a 10B person species. I've long believed that some solutions emerge from a sufficiently critical mass of human power (if coronavirus requires a 7B-mind solution, imagine what a 14B or 21B-mind human species can solve!). But to experience them, we have to figure out how to do our species at scale. This is mom taking off the training wheels. It's on us to embrace our teetering and from it learn balance.

      Regarding Education Systems: Hinging on our willingness (because I know we are fully capable) to adapt is the educational welfare of a generation. We are entirely up to this challenge -- of figuring out what a no longer pre-Covid globe does to keep it's children safe while educating them effectively. It kinda puts the struggles of before into stark perspective. But if there's anything I have experienced to be true of our species, it's that when we come together, when we pray together, when we work together, we can cause tremendous blessings for our loved ones. That is now at stake for our children. Take a few minutes to grieve yesterday, certainly. But remain not in pining for a past that will not return; seize the new possibilities for our children that circumstance will challenge us to create.


      Blog Posts:  

        Ideas for Online Instruction

        In the days and months ahead, educators nationwide are likely to be called upon to adapt some of their instruction to an online format -- many for the first time. While this won't always be ideal, there are ways to try to improve that experience both for the educator and the learner. Here are some ideas that may help with the journey:


        Blog Posts:  

          Science of Early Learning

          Deans for Impact is at it again, this time with a wonderful (and updated) primer on developing agency, literacy, and numeracy in early learners. As it turns out, there is both art and science to early learning. Here's some of the science:


          Blog Posts:  

            School Boards Can Make A Difference!

            Educational policy leaders, philanthropic leaders, business leaders, and more often suggest that school boards can't make a difference regarding student outcomes. Increasingly, however, the academic and professional literature disagrees with this notion. There are behaviors that school boards engage in that can create the conditions for improvements in student outcomes. Of course, the behaviors suggested only work if school boards implement them with fidelity, so many boards will need support and coaching. But my experience suggests that most boards are willing to change if they see an opportunity to improve student outcomes. Here's a sampling of the growing evidence base:
            • Factors That Influence School Board Actions to Support Student Achievement: A Multi-Case Study of High-Achieving Rural School Districts, Colleen Timm (2012): https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED549096

            Blog Posts:  

              TEI + ACE Showing Improved Student Outcomes

              Quality of instruction is the single most important factor school systems control relative to improving student outcomes. So identifying/developing/retaining the most effective teachers must be among the highest priorities of school/district leaders. A strong strategy for improving schools is ensuring our most effective teacher teams are working with our students with the greatest needs. Dallas ISD has taken aggressive action on these fronts through its Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI) and Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) work. These are not always popular efforts as they break with the usual adult behavior of many school systems and change is often uncomfortable. Acknowledging that teachers are not one-size-fits-all widgets, that they bring varying levels of effectiveness to the classroom, and that we should structure compensation in a way that helps keep our most effective teachers and that incents them to serve where student needs are the greatest are all controversial ideas. But the student outcome improvements born of these adult behavior changes speak for themselves in Dallas.

              Blog Posts: