Julia McBride, NTN Director of School Leadership
Kris Williams, NTN Publications Specialist and School Development Coach
Over the past 5 years, New Tech Network (NTN) has become more explicit in its aim of supporting each network- member school in developing the capacity to adapt to the learning needs of its students through disciplined adult learning. NTN uses a Learning Organization Framework to describe how a school organizes its adult learning for ongoing improvement of student learning. This case study, published in February 2016, is intended to explore the approach to learning that is underway at one New Tech Network school, with the hope that sharing their story will help other schools and organizations better understand the efforts required to become a learning organization.
School History and Context
A New Tech Network school opened in Ohio in 2010 in a school-choice district, allowing students to choose the program they’d like to attend from over 30 different options, including 4 that use the New Tech model. In its 5 years of implementation, the school has called 3 different buildings home and is still in search of what will hopefully be a long- term location. They are currently working closely with their district and area neighborhood representatives to find the best possible fit.
Due to their changing locations, the school’s student demographics have fluctuated and will likely continue to change until their location is fully stabilized. Even though families are not restricted to only neighborhood schools within the district, the school’s student population has changed with each move of the school in alignment with public transportation patterns and the surrounding community demographics of the school at any given time. The school is currently located within a former elementary school building in a neighborhood a few miles from a large metropolitan city. The local area is historically known for being home to a significant number of city service families, especially those on the police and fire fighting forces. The school’s Director acknowledges that when the school makes its final move it’s highly unlikely that this portion of the student population will follow, as families in this area rarely leave their own neighborhood school system.
As part of NTN, the school uses Project Based Learning (PBL) and Problem Based Learning (PrBL) as the primary mode of instruction in all classes. All teachers and students use NTN’s proprietary learning management system, Echo, to communicate with each other, to engage with curriculum resources, and as a grade book. Four of their core content classes are team-taught, with three ELA and social studies combinations and one combination of math and science, Physical Science / Algebra I.
One constant at the school over the past 5 years has been the retention of its leadership team and core teaching staff. The Director and over 85% of her original team have remained with the school since its launch, despite the changes in location.
An Arrival at a Specific Student Learning Focus
The school’s journey toward a focus for learning began at the start of the 2011-12 school year when data from the previous year’s state tests revealed that two at-risk segments of their student population were significantly underperforming: English language learners and students with special education support needs. After some analysis of the data, the staff determined that these students appeared to share a common deficit in reading comprehension. In addition, when the staff factored in ACT / SAT scores and recently completed student work from classes, it further confirmed that literacy was an area of need for a significant number of their students. That same year, the staff implemented a reading support class using a purchased curriculum to target this deficit, with the hope that evidence of this course’s impact would be reflected in their future test scores. Over time, as described in “The School Improvement Process” section of this study, their focus has continued to evolve as they have worked to improve their understanding of their students’ needs.
Looking more closely at the process that was used to find an initial focus, a few elements of their approach stand out as significant. First, they used several forms of data (state test scores, ACT/SAT scores, student work) in an attempt to more fully understand the problem they were trying to address. Then, as the focus evolved, it shifted to be more applicable to a greater number of students while also becoming more specific. They went from identifying English-language learners and students with special education support as “underperforming,” to describing a more specific set of skills that could be improved for all students. And, finally, by avoiding some common areas of focus that are one or two steps removed from the actual learning needs of students, such as student behavior or teacher strategies (i.e. “time-on-task” or “implementing word walls”), the staff was able to remain in touch with the actual problem that they were trying to solve. This approach has allowed them to continue to deepen their understanding of their focus without getting distracted by the surrounding symptoms of that focus or the promise of a “silver bullet” strategy.
The School Improvement Process
After the team implemented the reading support class to target the reading comprehension needs that the initial data analysis suggested, they saw some incremental improvements in their next round of test scores at the start of the 2012-13 school year. Not satisfied with the pace of growth, however, the staff dug into the test data and brought in more student work to determine whether they were truly targeting the correct focus. Through this next round of analysis, the staff realized that while students were showing some improvement in reading comprehension, greater improvement was being held back by the students’ inability to communicate their ideas through writing. This analysis led them to revise their focus for learning as a staff to center more specifically on improving student writing.
Once they identified student writing as their new focus, they now had the difficult task of figuring out how to go about improving this outcome. At nearly the same time as they identified this need, near the middle of the 2012- 13 school year, the school was inviting veteran schools to join their first cohort in implementing College Ready Assessments. College Ready Assessments (CRAs) are curriculum-embedded performance assessments of students’ written communication, and disciplinary knowledge and thinking skills, in relation to an externally developed college readiness standard. The CRA process and tools were developed by NTN, in collaboration with Envision Education and the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity (SCALE). The team saw this new NTN cohort as an opportunity for them to get the extra help they needed in order to target the writing deficiency they were seeing in their students. Teachers and leadership attended the CRA Cohort 1 track at the New Tech Annual Conference (NTAC) in July of 2013 and prepared to bring their learning home to the rest of their staff.
During the 2013-14 school year, the team committed to the CRA Cohort goal of implementing 2 CRAs in each core content area. While that school year was largely animated by a commitment to CRA implementation and the learning that required, their work that year established the foundation for the deeper learning that is currently taking place for the staff. In combination with some shifts to their structures for adult learning, the Director and staff believe that these College Ready Assessments created the conditions and impetus they needed to look at their students’ work as data in order to better understand their students’ ability to articulate their knowledge in writing (Director, personal communication, January 13th, 2016).
As the school engaged in this rigorous implementation process as their vehicle for testing their writing focus, they began to notice that students continued to struggle with using information from content-based texts to support their writing. This realization led to another shift in the school focus and theory of action as they continued the CRA work in the 2014-15 school year. The staff decided that if they wanted students to improve their writing, they needed to also provide them with specific strategies to help them understand what they are reading. Eventually, the staff developed a new theory of action: If their students can gain better strategies to help pull evidence from a text, they will use that evidence more effectively in their writing. This became their new focus for learning as a staff.
In this current 2015-16 school year, the school continues its CRA implementation and its commitment to individual performance tasks in every project as key components of the data cycles used to help them pursue their focus. During the first semester of the school year, they met in grade level teams and identified 1 or 2 specific literacy strategies that they will test out in the context of IAKT scaffolding and in alignment with their focus on gathering evidence from a text. To support their strategy implementation, and to build collective capacity, they are engaging in a book study of 20 Literacy Strategies to Meet the Common Core (McEwan-Adkins & Burnett, 2011). This book is also being leveraged as the next step in digging into the challenging question that has come up for many staff, “How do I teach reading in my content area?”
The staff is currently testing the strategy, “Read, Decide, Explain,” across the majority of their classrooms. To explore if the strategy is influencing student work, they are looking at high, middle, and low samples of student work coming out of IAKTs where this strategy is being applied. Teachers are reviewing how different content areas are adapting the strategy to suit their needs. They’re then analyzing whether students actually used the provided strategy-related organizers to support their work. In a recent round of looking at 9th graders’ work, there was clear evidence that the strategy was being applied by students, based on how the writing was structured as compared to writing samples on the same task that were produced last year.
Addressing Adaptive Challenges
In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, (Heifetz, Linsky, & Grashow, 2009) the authors describe the significance of diagnosing your system to better understand the loyalties and alliances that the individuals hold within your organization, as well as the risks and losses they might face, as you undergo change. With that guidance in mind, Heifetz and others would’ve likely predicted that every staff member at the school would experience this improvement effort differently. In fact, the Director states that while several teams truly believe that this effort is going to help their students, others are driven a bit more in this effort simply by compliance and a possible fear of accountability for not following along. She also has a staff member or two who are generally struggling to remain confident in the school’s adopted approach to instruction, Project Based Learning, when it comes to meeting the needs of a challenging group of kids, many of whom are reading at a 2-3rd grade level. While several staff members have been deeply invested in this focus from the start and have worked hard to win over those that may still be unsure of this approach, not everyone has been so easily convinced (Director, personal communication, January 13th, 2016). This is the reality of adaptive change and the school is no different than many other schools or organizations in this regard.
Following the guidance offered by The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, a diagnosis of the school system offers some evidence of the loyalties and risks that may be at play for some of the staff. At the start of the process, the majority of the staff recognized reading support as a need in their discipline and could point to several examples of students struggling to access content information as a barrier to learning in their course. However, as it became clearer in the data that their students also needed significant support in the development of their writing skills, and that each teacher would need to provide support in both reading and writing practices, fewer staff members were willing to see that as something that they should spend time developing in content areas outside of Language Arts. Not only did teachers express concerns about the amount of time it would take to add writing support to their curriculum, they also worried that they might lack the necessary teaching skills to help students improve in these areas. To some staff, this work seemed to represent a threat to loyalties they held around their content area as well as a risk of potential failure.
In response to these adaptive challenges, the Director took a strategic and personalized approach to tackling these issues by identifying the different issues that each of her staff members were struggling with. To help those that wanted support from peers in the teaching of writing, she restructured staff collaborative work time to allow teachers with a range of confidence in this area to work together. She also identified specific professional development opportunities that would help individual staff members who preferred a more formal level of support for their needs. And, in some cases, she made efforts to help teachers see the significance that these skills hold for individual students and their future success, creating an emotional and purposeful appeal to the work.
While she admits that this adaptive work continues, the Director is quick to credit her staff for their efforts to engage in this learning and overcome their personal challenges. However, those same staff members have pointed to the shifts in structures that are outlined in next section, the personalized support they have each received, and the relentless pursuit of a focus as key ingredients that the Director has championed and that have greatly contributed to their ownership of this work (Director, personal communication, January 13th, 2016).
The Adult Learning System
As the staff’s focus for improving student learning became clearer over time, the structures for adult learning also became more aligned with both the adaptive and technical support that the staff needed to properly address their focus. The Director states that their monthly adult learning structures, depicted in the table below, are “sacred,” meaning that she makes every effort to protect the schedule and the intended use of each component (Director, personal communication, January 13th, 2016). This commitment allows for consistent and recurring conversations without excessive gaps in-between.
Critical Friends Groups for Project Feedback Protocols
Afternoon Staff Meeting: Grade Level Teams
Critical Friends Groups for Looking at Student Work Protocols
Critical Friends Groups for Project Feedback Protocols
Afternoon Staff Meeting
Book Study: 20 Literacy Strategies to Meet the Common Core
Critical Friends Groups for Looking at Student Work Protocols
Critical Friends Groups Project Feedback Protocols
Afternoon Staff Meeting Grade Level Teams
Critical Friends Groups for Data Driven Instruction Protocols
Critical Friends Groups Project Feedback Protocols
Afternoon Staff Meeting Committees
Critical Friends Groups for Instructional Rounds
To honor the varying experiences of staff while also addressing some of their adaptive needs, the Director has shifted much of the collaborative effort to an emphasis on content areas, using the goal of helping students “read and write like a ___ (i.e. historian)” as a strategy for bringing teachers together around a common goal. In these groups, they explore a strategy, share how they could see themselves implementing the strategy in their classrooms, imagine how they could see it used in another content area, and then go out and test it.
Revisions were also made to the staff’s use of the Critical Friends feedback protocol and a book study was implemented to introduce new knowledge and strategies related to the area of focus. And, perhaps most significantly, the staff began to regularly employ protocols for looking at student work in content-area teams as a way to share and understand the impact of specific instructional strategies on the area of student development that they’re trying to address.
While the Director concedes that she is fortunate to work with a district and union that will support such a large amount of staff meeting time, she has also put forward a lot of effort toward the engagement of the staff, union, and district while developing these structures to ensure that all stakeholders feel connected to the schedule’s purpose (Director, personal communication, January 13th, 2016). This seems to be consistent with the Director’s general orientation to leadership, in that she regularly looks to those that will be most impacted by a particular decision to play a role in determining the best path to take.
The Broader Leadership Implications of a Singular Focus
When asked about how this improvement effort has helped her with “all the other things” in the life of leading a school, both inside the school and externally, the Director talks about how this work has allowed her to be much more thoughtful about how she supports adult learning. Early in her leadership career, she admits to having a more reactive approach to designing staff development. Now, this recent effort at improvement has influenced her approach to professional development to be more purposefully designed in service of strategic growth. She regularly reflects upon what has led them to their current learning as a staff, where her team is developmentally, what they can look at next in order to understand the impact of their work, and how to make sense of this all while tending to a culture she deeply values. Along the way, she acknowledges that she leans on key staff members as thought partners and supports when the work gets especially difficult (Director, personal communication, January 13th, 2016).
As she mentioned when describing the freedom she has in creating the schedule for her staff learning, the Director is very thankful to be in a district that is willing to listen to their schools. Not all districts are able or willing to support the types of variance that the school has requested over the years to help them engage in this kind of work. For her part, the Director says that this targeted improvement effort has also helped her communicate with district leadership in a different way. When the school was presented with a district-led benchmark system that would’ve been difficult to implement within a PBL approach, she was able to show district staff how their use of literacy tasks and CRAs would provide a similar level of access to student performance data without negatively impacting their instructional model. To the district’s credit, they listened and allowed the school to opt out of their benchmarking system. However, the Director and staff got the district to listen by doing something that not many other schools can do. Through the staff’s deliberate focus on learning how to improve student writing and reading, they can now confidently talk about what their school is getting better at and how. This confidence and specificity should continue to put the school staff in a position in which they can more effectively advocate for their needs and the needs of their students in a variety of contexts (Director, personal communication, January 13th, 2016).
Heifetz, Ronald A., Linsky, Marty, & Grashow, Alexander (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
McEwan-Adkins, Elaine & Burnett, Allyson J. (2011). 20 Literacy Strategies to Meet the Common Core: Increasing Rigor in Middle and High School Classrooms. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.