By Julie Kalt
“Aspir(e)ing Profiles” is a series where we feature leaders in education, child and human development and health and wellness connected to the Wheelock College Aspire Institute. Look out for our monthly profile. You might be next!
Ross Wilson, Assistant Superintendent in the Office of Educator Effectiveness for Boston Public Schools, is in the midst of implementing a relatively new educator performance evaluation system that came to Boston through the national Race to the Top initiative and state regulations. His goal is not only to serve the city’s 58,000 students, but to effectively connect new teacher development, school leadership development and performance evaluation in a way that fosters professional growth and demonstrates a commitment to human capital across the district.
“I am excited to begin leveraging the educational reform happening to support student learning. Race to the Top is a historical initiative with paramount changes that we want to use to support teachers.”
Based on personal experiences in high school, Ross’s first career goal was to open a school for students with extreme disabilities. He began his career on the ground as a special education teacher in Shrewsbury, MA and came to Boston to be a first grade teacher and literacy coach. He moved into an Assistant Principal position on the North Shore and then went through a principal training program for a year before becoming Principal of the Healy Pilot School in Roslindale.
“My mission hasn’t changed that much, just the way I achieve it. I know being a teacher and school leader is incredibly hard and important work, and our role at central office is, first, to not impede their work and, second, to support them in meeting the needs of their students.”
Admirable goals, however, are rarely achieved without challenges along the way. The day we spoke was the same day the new evaluations were due, forcing BPS into an accountability role.
“BPS should be accountable to use this data, from the educator evaluation system, to drive teacher improvement. We should be held accountable for making sure that we support schools with structures and resources for student learning. We have a responsibility to help evaluators feel like it’s a prioritized part of their school improvement plan.” The long-term goal is to implement the system alongside other initiatives to ensure clarity and support throughout the year. This would make the process less stressful for teachers and school leaders and more useful for BPS.
"Nothing can replace the impact of adults problem solving together and the inclusive culture created by a high level of collaboration. This directly impacts teachers’, administrators’ and students’ belief that they own their school and have the power to influence positive change, despite challenges and pressures from the outside world."
“I want to make sure that every child has access to a high quality education. We must ensure every child develop a voice and have the ability to choose their path in life.”
What Ross has found both working in and visiting dozens of schools, is that culture is what makes the difference. No matter what they do at a central office level, it won’t make a difference unless school leaders are able to use it to support learning and problem solving at the school. As a principal, he explained, nothing could replace the impact of adults problem solving together and the inclusive culture created by a high level of collaboration. This directly impacts teachers’, administrators’ and students’ belief that they own their school and have the power to influence positive change, despite challenges and pressures from the outside world.
Ross believes BPS should be developing tools and resources to improve a school’s ability to problem solve. “We don’t want to continue to provide isolated, one time professional development offerings, which keeps teachers and school leaders from learning together.” However, with such a huge range of schools, finding the right balance of services and support can be tricky.
The Aspire Institute is currently working with Ross’s team to develop a competency-based professional development model, which includes an interactive rubric that teachers, parents and administrators will be able to access online. This is just one example of how Ross hopes his office can begin to function more as a responder and broker of services rather than a provider of all services.
“The standards of effective teaching include a number of elements, such as differentiated instruction, that will hopefully help teachers better meet the needs of all students. We have a rubric on paper, but it’s unclear to a lot of people how to access the resources to improve their performance in that competency. The interactive rubric will be housed online and will actually show what good teaching and school leadership looks like through videos of actual BPS teachers and resources for teachers to delve into each competency. We hope that teachers and schools look at these videos together so that they can unpack and discuss the content as a community.”
BPS will launch the first draft of the interactive rubric at the end of summer featuring the filmed educators who exemplify the kind of teaching and school leadership they hope to spread throughout the district. With his children attending Boston schools next year, Ross is truly committed to the school system.
“We want to create the right conditions where our leaders, teachers and our students feel supported.”
1. What is your quote to live by?
“...education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That's my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet.” – Sam Seaborn, West Wing.
2. What was the last movie you saw?
“Silver Linings Playbook”
3. What is your favorite place?
Florida – I met my wife there, and my kids love going there.
By Jake Murray
The most critical element to the success of any school or organization is its human capital – the talent, knowledge and skills of its leaders and staff. Schools and organizations – and the professionals within these organizations— often follow one of two types of training to maximize talent, expand knowledge, and strengthen skills. These two types of training are in many ways polar opposites – one is short-term and low cost; the other longer term and higher cost. Unfortunately, both approaches share one key factor in common: too often they fall short of improving staff performance, and ultimately, organizational performance.
On the one hand, schools and organizations spend significant resources every year on a range of traditional short-term professional development activities—workshops, conferences, consultants, and contracted coaching. For example, it is not uncommon for a large school district to spends anywhere from $30-$50 million annually on professional development and professional support services. Yet while large-scale investments in these types of approaches can reach large numbers of employees, they frequently yield marginal results. These approaches lack the rigor, intensity, and continuous support to improve practice. Thus, schools and service organizations still struggle to improve performance outcomes or sustain initial gains over time.
On the other hand, many leaders and staff pursue more in-depth training by enrolling in college continuing education courses or certification programs, often with tuition assistance from their employer. While this more intensive training frequently results in greater content knowledge and skill development, it comes at higher cost, both in terms of money and time. Many professionals are challenged balancing work, family and college-level coursework. For example, the College Board reports that just 34% of full-time certificate-seeking students at two-year colleges graduate in four years or less.
Both types of professional development are also undermined by another key factor: they are process-based, rather than outcome-based. Too often the goals and impact of professional development begins and ends with covering a range of content, completing a requisite number of hours, assignments and assessments, or receiving a credential. There is little focus on whether training improves actual work-place practice, and even less on how training impacts the participant’s student or client outcomes. For example, a school might send a team of teachers to a two-day institute to learn a new math curriculum. However, upon training completion, the school has no plan in place to assess the new curriculum’s impact on instructional events in classrooms and student performance in math. In other words, attending and completing the training was enough.
A Middle Path
If these two professional development approaches often fall short, what then is the alternative? The answer lies somewhere between these two approaches – a middle path. In other words, not all professional development should take place over a one or three day workshop or several semesters, as with a certificate program. More professional development should be designed based on what it will take a participant to successfully demonstrate new knowledge and skills, rather than on the amount of material to be covered, the hours and work to be completed, or the type of credential to be awarded. For instance, this type of training might include several rigorous sessions completed over two-three months.
Further, this middle path would include the following components:
Learning cycles. Training should allow for a cyclical learning process that includes: (1) introduction to new knowledge/skills, (2) application of this knowledge /these skills, and; (3) clear evidence of mastery of this knowledge /skills.
Learning both outside of and within context. Training should include both time to learn content (e.g. literacy development and assessment theory research) outside of the demands of one’s job (this could be through online or through face-to-face lessons), and time for applied learning in the work-place (e.g. conducting literacy assessments, analyzing results and developing individual student literacy plans)
A focus on outcomes. The end result of training should be mastery of knowledge and skills that improve work-place practice and outcomes. Thus, professional development should seek authentic ways for participants to demonstrate that they are applying what they learn, and that this is changing their practice. Technology—videos, online assessment tools, etc—increasingly allow for this type of documentation.
There have been several recent, encouraging shifts towards this middle path – see competency-based training, badge programs, etc. What we call this training is not important. What maters is that more of it is accessible and of high quality, and that schools and organizations understand is value in addition to other professional development approaches.
Jake Murray has served as the director of Aspire since February 2009. Prior to joining Aspire, he served for four years as a child and youth planner for the City of Cambridge, overseeing strategic planning, quality improvement, and program development for early education, out-of-school-time, and youth development services. He also served for five years as a director of community partnerships for the Harvard Children's Initiative, leading a range of collaborative efforts to improve education outcomes in Boston and Cambridge. His research interests include professional learning models, new teacher development, and school-community partnerships.
By Erika Alvarez Werner and Jesse Dixon
School turnaround is characterized by dramatic and rapid improvement. We know it can be done — schools are doing it around the country and here, in Massachusetts, half of the turnaround schools are on track to meet ambitious student achievement goals within three years, and many achieved double-digit increases in proficiency rates after just one year. Mountains of studies and reports point to the practices that these schools are using to get these results (effective leadership, a well-orchestrated assessment system to drive tiered instruction, etc.), but how schools develop the expertise to implement these strategies is less clear, especially in the face of countless challenges including those identified in Turnaround Schools Struggle with Staffing, Time, and Climate (staffing, time, and climate). A fundamental challenge in school turnaround is the simple fact: if schools had the specialized tools, capacity, and expertise to turn around performance, they would have done it already!
This question of how to inject the expertise and implementation know-how into school teams is a critical one with no easy answers. Many district leaders would like to snap their fingers and be able to recruit great teachers and leaders who could parachute in with all the solutions, but that’s not realistic. In the schools that are turning around, we usually see one or more instructional leaders relentlessly driving a culture of continuous improvement. But how can schools without access to these experienced turnaround leaders acquire the expertise and capacity necessary to transform a school?
Using the various levers we have as a state education agency, one principle that has guided our assistance efforts is simple: proven third-party turnaround partners are an essential part of the complex equation. In fact, we subscribe to the theory of action that if the state can effectively vet, identify, and bring together partners with a demonstrated track record of effectiveness, districts will be able to accelerate school improvement through strategic use of these partners. The challenges identified in Turnaround Schools Struggle with Staffing, Time, and Climate certainly apply in Massachusetts. While external partners are not the silver bullet, we are seeing that they can be leveraged to effectively inject the expertise that existing school teams need to become effective turnaround leadership teams and build school-wide capacity to realize dramatic and rapid improvement
There is no shortage of qualified partners. The challenge for districts—and where we believe the state can add value— is “cutting through the noise”. When major philanthropies like the Gates Foundation or the Broad Foundation invest in an organization, they conduct a “due diligence” process to make sure the organization consistently delivers measurable results to the districts and schools it serves. Districts and schools would do the same if they could, but who has the time?
Massachusetts has begun assuming this role and has identified a selection of partners who have a demonstrated track record of accelerating district and school improvement across the state and country. These Priority Partners for Turnaround help build the capacity of districts’ human resources systems to address staffing challenges, maximize learning time in support of desired student outcomes, and/or address students’ social, emotional and health needs and help create conditions for success through a positive school climate and culture (among other things.) They convene as a Network to build a culture of collaboration, information sharing, and shared accountability in this high-stakes work.
No matter how many additional dollars a school may be benefitting from, the urgency of a turnaround situation requires strategic allocation of resources — there is no time to lose or funds to spare. All across the country, significant funds are being allocated towards partnerships with external providers – most of it to no measurable end. Recognizing the important role that partners with proven experience can bring, holding a high standard for how external providers should measure the impact of their interventions and pointing districts to partners that are most likely to help them succeed is a valuable role that states can play. As fewer resources will be available to support and sustain turnaround, targeting the areas of greatest challenge (staffing, time, climate, or otherwise) knowing what and who to invest in to effectively address these challenges will be essential.
Erika Alvarez Werner and Jesse Dixon work in the Office of District and School Turnaround at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Written by Diane Levin
Bravo to California Governor Jerry Brown for his decision to reduce the number of standardized tests students take in school, and to develop a more child-centered, rather that test-centered, approach to evaluating education. I could not be more heartened by this news and hope it is the start of a new trend away from high-stakes testing and teaching-to-the-test that has taken over so much of education in the US today. And here’s why this reversal is so sorely needed.....
Teachers are spending more and more time involved with what I have come to think of as “remote control teaching and learning," i.e., rote teaching to the test at the expense of the classroom practice they know is in the best interests of children. Engaging children in rich and meaningful learning, through creative play and hands on experience is disappearing in many classrooms. At the most extreme, some states have taken almost all materials out of kindergarten classrooms so children can focus on the lessons, facts, and skills teachers are mandated to teach.
Never in my 40 years in the field of early childhood education have I met so many teachers who voice such despair about their work with children. Over and over around the country I hear highly experienced and competent teachers say they are looking forward to when they can retire. Why? Because the joy and satisfaction of working with children in meaningful ways and nurturing their development and learning has disappeared.
And then there are all the parents who tell me that their children start crying when it’s time to go to school and when they get home from school too. Many who have the resources to do it are turning to private schools or home schooling. What about all the families who don’t have such resources and find that their children are getting turned off to school and learning?
So Governor Brown, as I work to help bring about a reversal of current educational trends using the best knowledge we have about how all young children learn best, you give me hope that the voice of reason can succeed. And for that I thank you very much.
This posting is written as a reaction to the Washington Post's recent article on the California governor's decision to reduce the number of standardized tests taken by students. The article is available here.
Diane Levin, Ph.D. is Professor of Early Childhood Education at Wheelock College. She teaches courses on play, action research, children and media, and the impact of violence on children. She is the author or co-author of 8 books related to how various forces in society affect children. She is currently working with DEY (Defending the Early Years), a project rallying educators to speak out about how new policies and reforms are impacting early childhood education.
Her website can be accessed at dianeelevin.com.