Sunday, 15 September 2013

Aligned Impact for Student Learning, Staff Learning, and School Improvement

There is significant and compelling research on what works and doesn't work for student learning, staff learning, and school improvement.

One problem is that these three areas of development are often treated in isolation and are frequently not aligned for optimum performance in schools. Why is there such dramatic separation around conversations about student learning targets and assessment, conversations around needs and expectations for staff learning and performance, and conversations around school improvement benchmarks?

A second problem is that schools often try to serve different and contradictory masters, and therefore it is essential to clarify the main purpose for the school so as to establish unity of purpose and effort. Is a school focused on student learning and growth or is a school focused on achievement and proving itself as one of the leading schools in the world?

To be a leading school in the world requires a school to establish compatible benchmarks with other schools, so as to establish appropriate comparisons. Does this striving to exceed compatible benchmarks of other schools take a school off its main mission of what it values and sees as most important? Does the continual attention on compatible benchmarks start to make a school more like other schools where the contextual uniqueness of a school and perhaps a higher vision become compromised or lost? Is there perhaps greater educational value for "like-minded schools" to create networks and alliances for learning and sharing, rather than competition fields for rankings?

How does a school reconcile a major goal of learning and another major goal of achievement? Some will say that all of this is not an either-or situation, but what really is the priority? Do educators feel divided or confused about their real purpose? Remember when a data point of technology prowess was the number of computers in a school per student? This was simply a data point about inventory, but had no deeper meaning about learning. Comparisons are often full of superficial data points that mean nothing without deeper probing for context and meaning.

A third problem is a lack of genuine inter-communication across stakeholder groups (e.g., students, teachers, administrators, classified staff, parents, Board) so as to create a school culture that has multiple and genuine opportunities for input and deep understanding for the direction of the school. Perhaps the typical structure of how schools are organized is inherently flawed. We have all seen how teachers develop agendas for their classrooms and teams, how administrators engage in identifying agreements on current and future agendas, and how school Boards may have their own agendas on what constitutes a successful school. Meanwhile students and parents have their own ideas about what school should be. The problem with this structure is that it creates agenda competition and distrust across stakeholder groups.

If a school is focused on 1-3 robust and long-term goals that it believes can substantively advance student learning for all students, perhaps there needs to be greater attention to the structure that coherently supports the advancement of these goals. Research would suggest that rather than layers of stakeholders in a school talking among themselves and cementing separate agendas, there is value in an integrated team of students, parents, teachers, administrators, classified staff and Board members who are fully cognizant of the directions of the school and who can engage in meaningful and transparent conversations about implementation from different perspectives.

It is fairly common practice for schools to pull together diverse ad hoc committees for different topics, but building a guiding coalition of diverse stakeholders who are committed to the development and accomplishment of long-term strategic objectives and who find the ways to productively extend the conversation among all other stakeholders is a way to bring a school together for a common purpose and enhance school culture. The execution of this requires strong leadership and facilitation, but the learning, trust, and thoughtful decision-making and actions that can emerge from this process outweigh the challenges.

Sometimes a diverse guiding coalition can be perceived as an "inside or elite group" with everyone else as outsiders. Therefore it is important to also provide avenues for other members of the school community to have a voice and to also be responsible for contributing to thoughtful ideas and school directions. A high functioning school is an inclusive environment that embraces diversity as a strength, rather than creating conditions where people seek each other out because of similar beliefs, similar job roles, or similar backgrounds.

We have all seen examples of different "point persons" being the messengers for different agendas and how these messages can feel like they are being hammered out to everyone in the school. A more integrated and interactive structure potentially offers improved opportunities for a school to truly clarify and communicate the brand of education that it believes is most important and that can have the best success in aligning student learning, staff learning, and school improvement.

A guiding coalition needs to have the interests of the whole school in mind and heart, and not diverge into private agendas. While the concept of a guiding coalition is not a new idea, there are a multitude of examples where there are guiding coalitions in schools and then there are also different individuals or strata that continue to have their private conversations and plans about what will really take place.

While some people would argue that a diverse guiding coalition with different perspectives is not efficient, I would argue that it is not effective to have isolated conversations by different groups of people who will be impacted by how decisions are made, interpreted, and implemented. Stratified structures are like the the story of the blind men who each experience their separate parts of the elephant and believe it is the whole elephant.

If we believe in the concept that "it takes a village to educate a child" and that all of us are responsible for quality education, then it is incumbent on us to figure out how to best build the village (not a bunch of competing villages) and ensure success for ALL of our kids.

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