August 29, 2019
Using Research to Drive Educational Change

Don White and I have been conducting a new academy for IASA titled “Evidence-based Leadership – Using Data to Drive Immediate and Lasting Improvement.” When we are working with superintendents and other educational leaders at these academies, we discover the variety of ways that leaders are using data to make informed decisions for their school districts.

I recently read an article in September 2019’s Educational Leadership titled Focusing on the Essentials .” This article was written by Mike Schmoker. The opening paragraph states “We’re on the brink of a ‘Golden Age’ in education. To get there, teachers must master these three indispensable competencies.” The competencies are 1) Clear, Coherent Curriculum, 2) Sound Instruction, and 3) Authentic Literacy (Reading, Discussion, and Writing).

What impresses me about this article is that Schmoker backs up these competencies with research. This is exactly what Dr. White and I are stressing in our data academy. Whenever a decision needs to be made in education the first step in the data-driven paradigm is “What does the research say?” The second step is to decide what goal the district is going to set and then what steps will the district take to reach that goal. The third, and most often ignored, step is to determine what the outcome will be as a result of implementing the steps to reach the goal. The fourth step is to use data collected from the result and determine if the desired outcomes were met or not. If they were met, we celebrate and continue. If they were not met, we make adjustments and maybe determine that the goal is no longer viable for our district.

One of the ways I illustrate this goal-setting process is to use collective bargaining topics as an example. Recently a school district’s teachers were making public comments about why they had not agreed to the school board’s terms for settlement. The teacher union was making the statement that they would not agree to the board’s proposal because the board had not agreed to lower class size. The district could have taken the approach (I probably would not have done this if I were their superintendent) and responded to the union request by saying this, “What are the student achievement outcomes we can expect by lowering the class size?” This would have addressed the third step noted above about proper goal setting.

The union answer to this request would have been interesting. My guess is that they would have refused to answer this question and to commit to student achievement growth results. However, from a data perspective my suggested approach is exactly what should have happened. School districts are similar to any entity in that there are a finite amount of resources and, if resources are spent reducing class size, there needs to be some return on investment for the school district.

Back to the article I mentioned earlier, some of the research based factors that would lead to Schmoker’s Golden Age are the following:

  • A "mountain of evidence" attests to the fact that a reasonably coherent curriculum, liberally infused with reading, discussion, and writing assignments, is the single-largest factor affecting student learning (Marzano, 2003; Sahm, 2017). 
  • Write clear, student-friendly learning targets, which clarify how the target will be assessed. By themselves, these ensure appreciably higher rates of success on daily lessons (Hattie, 2009).
  • Employ simple procedures (such as proximity) for ensuring that every student is attentive during instruction—with their eyes on the teacher, ready to learn (Lemov, 2015).
  • Develop a compelling introduction for each lesson: a one- or two-minute preview or "pitch" to help students see the relevance of the day's lesson.
  • Deliver explicit, step-by-step instruction—in multiple, briskly paced cycles. For each step, teachers must learn to:
  • Introduce or model new knowledge or procedures in small, "bite-sized" chunks.
  • Follow with an opportunity for students to practice a procedure or to process new information.
  • Quickly circulate while students practice—to determine if the class needs additional clarification or modeling—before moving on to the next step.
  • For E.D. Hirsch, literacy is integral to curriculum and "the most important single goal of schooling" (2010, p. 31).
  • Phonics Instruction: There has never been more agreement that every K–1 teacher (at least) must be taught to provide systematic phonics instruction (Pimentel, 2018).
  • Moreover, a larger proportion of this instruction should be taught to entire classes, all at the same time. Our current overreliance on teaching to small, ability-based groups is not only less effective, but it can "exacerbate achievement gaps" (Sparks, 2018). It has also greatly reduced the instructional time students receive during the all-important K–2 literacy block (Ford & Opitz, 2002).
  • Quantity of Reading and Writing: No educator should ever be allowed to forget that literacy requires that students read (and are read to) "a great deal more [emphasis added] than students read today" (Gewertz, 2010); that they must consume "a huge volume and range of texts," including grade-appropriate texts (Pondiscio & Mahnken, 2014); or that struggling readers must "read voraciously" to catch up with their peers (Gallagher, 2009, p. 43).
  • Students should read and/or be read to for a minimum of 60 minutes daily, across the curriculum, at every grade level. And they should write for at least 40 minutes (Allington, 2011; Shanahan, personal communication). In such amounts, reading and writing would have a game-changing impact on all learning.
  • Reading to Learn: Every teacher should know how to:
  • Scaffold to introduce every text with a brief review of the difficult vocabulary students will encounter, along with some amount of background knowledge. This simple step increases students' ability to comprehend text by multiple grade levels (Schmoker, 2018).
  • Craft a higher-order "guiding" question for the text (whether a book chapter, textbook section, poem, or article) to provide purpose—and promote concentration and comprehension.
  • Model and instruct students in how to underline, annotate, and take notes as they read (the frequency of which depends on the text; for example, novels typically demand less annotation than poetry or short nonfiction) (Gallagher, 2009). Notetaking itself ranks near the top of the most effective teaching strategies (Marzano, 2003).
  • Discussion: Virtually all text-based learning should be punctuated with—and then culminate in—focused talk, sometimes in pairs and at other times in extended full-class discussions or debates. All teachers should be able to instruct students in how to speak clearly, audibly, logically, and with civility. When I do demonstration lessons, it is often apparent to me that students aren't learning these essential communication skills, which rank at the top of what employers want (Gewertz, 2018).
  • Writing—and Writing Instruction: English classes are the primary province of writing instruction. But every teacher should know how to (1) incorporate appropriate amounts of writing into their subject area, and (2) teach students to write a claim, cite evidence to support that claim, and then satisfactorily explain how their evidence supports the claim. These simple skills, implemented regularly, have had a dramatic impact on both test scores and authentic writing ability in multiple schools (Schmoker, 2018).

I think every school leader should examine these research-based best practices and compare them to what is being taught and how it is being taught in his/her schools.

Teachers Giving Feedback to Students

In the August 30, 2014, edition of the Marshall Memo 550, authors John Hattie and Gregory Yates define feedback to be “information allowing a learner to reduce the gap between what is evident currently and what could or should be the case” – in other words, guiding students to the next step they need to take. Hattie rates teacher feedback to students as one of the top 10 teacher activities that make a difference for student learning. Hattie writes “Effective feedback, on the other hand, can double the rate of learning and is among the top ten influences on achievement.”

When teacher evaluators are recording observational evidence for 3b, Questioning and Discussion, the evaluator should keep track of the feedback that is given to students during a lesson. Generally teachers claim they give lots of feedback to students, but students do not agree. Evaluators should keep track of the type of teacher feedback and also to what degree each student in the room is learning and growing from the feedback.

Feedback reminds me of a quote from a middle school teacher in Eureka who was using a “flipped classroom” approach for her Algebra I and 8 th Grade Math classes. The teacher told me that using the flipped approach allowed her to give specific feedback and comments to every one of her students every day. Prior to using the flipped approach, she told me, on a normal day she may only have talked individually to four or five students.

Communication Now – Prevents Big Problems Later

In the School Administrator , author Jim Buckheit writes about the extraordinary number of adverse actions against Pennsylvania superintendents. “The first thing a superintendent considers upon realizing something is amiss is the need for legal help. But in the early stages it is often not a legal problem, but rather a relationship or communication breakdown with one or more board member, a district staffer or community members. These problems, if tackled early, can be resolved.”

Buckheit’s advice is spot on. Relationships and communications are major sources of potential conflict. I recommend that new superintendents spend time with each board member individually. These board members need to get to know you and you need to get to know them better. The same could be said for all members of your staff, both professional and support staff.

Of course, there still is the possibility that some rogue board or staff member will be out to get the superintendent for any number of reasons. However, if you work on building relationships with others then your relationships should prevail. A metaphor I have used in the past to explain this is the following: Imagine putting pennies into a savings container on a regular basis. You would soon fill up the container. You just hope when you ultimately make a decision that will result in people being upset with you, when the container is taken off the shelf and turned over, somebody will stop the spilling of the pennies, right the container, and some pennies will be left. You then start depositing pennies again into the container to withstand the next conflict.

Tip of the Week

Social media continues to be an important way citizens of today communicate. What are you doing as a school leader to communicate to your community about the great things that are going on in your school district? Do not miss this opportunity to communicate to your public.

Some administrators in the past have told me they stay off social media because of some of the negative aspects, including reading criticisms of the district by members of the public. This reminds me of a situation I saw unfold in a school district. A principal was telling the superintendent that she read on Facebook how a citizen was criticizing the district claiming the school schools were dirty and teachers did not care about the students.

The superintendent decided to contact the citizen via the Facebook link. She invited the citizen to call her and she would take the citizen on a personal visit to the schools. The citizen took her up on the offer and they visited several schools. This particular parent had been home schooling her children and decided to enroll the students in the school as a result of this communication and visit with the superintendent. I was very impressed that the superintendent had a practice of communicating to citizens if they posted negative information about the district. The superintendent told me she had used this same strategy several times in the past.

A good strategy for you to implement is to monitor social media communication and respond positively to its message. Some believe that you can just ignore the negative social media communications. However, if you do this then the negative impression may become a “reality” in the eyes of the readers. This is the main reason you need to develop a positive media communications plan for your district’s schools.

For more information, please contact:

Dr. Richard Voltz
Associate Director
Professional Development/Induction-Mentoring
2648 Beechler Court
Springfield, IL 62703
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