Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for School Improvement

June 10, 2015
Geoff Krall

Geoff Krall

These past couple school years have afforded me the opportunity to stretch a bit beyond my math-y world. I’ve had the opportunity to coach entire schools and facilitate whole-staff PDs. It’s definitely invigorating lest I become too myopic in my approach to instruction. I’ve also had the luxury of seeing many different types of school of varying grade levels, demographics, and physical spaces. Yet, what’s most interesting is just how similar these different-looking schools are.

We all play the “build your ideal school” game in our heads from time to time. This post isn’t exactly that. It’s more about the starting blocks that will allow for schools to be successful (understanding, of course, that the term “successful” is pretty loaded). Regardless of whether you’re an public urban high school in Detroit or a charter middle school in Colorado there are several things that schools can do to ensure the best outcomes for students.

In other words, this is a “call me when you’ve done these things” list.

Analysis of work the students are producing.
You want a PD plan for the year? Start with looking at student work and go from there. In fact, if all a school is doing for their PD time is looking at student work and using some sort of student work analysis protocol, then they’re probably a high functioning staff. It takes great courage and truly high-flying teachers to look at artifacts students are producing. These artifacts suggest so much (everything?) about task design, instruction, student understanding, and expectations. If you’re giving low-level tasks that’ll become readily apparent. If students aren’t understanding the concepts with any particular depth, that too will become glaringly apparent. A staff that can and has the time to analyze student products in a critical but supportive manner will improve their practice.

At least one additional period of prep time for teachers to spend time coaching other teachers or developing PD.
In other words, teachers-as-coaches. Find your highest capacity, best organized, most creative, strong teacher and give him or her the time and space to work on the professional development for the school. The larger a school, the more teacher release time you’ll need. During this time, a teacher may develop professional development, protocols, a year of PD schedules, classroom learning walk schedules, etc.

Regular student input panels: what’s working at the school / what’s not.
Students have a much better idea of what’s really happening in the school. If you’re not tending to the student culture at a school, don’t be shocked when the culture deteriorates. Student culture isn’t something that just gets better with time, nor is it something that can be solved by a day of trust falls.

PD for teachers designed largely in house (that is, at the school, not the district).
Your district doesn’t know your kids or your classroom and school context. They know their student IDs and probably some quantitative data about them, but not much beyond that.

Teachers spending time in one another’s classroom.
There’s so many reasons to unsilo teachers in this way. The obvious is that you get to see neat little facilitation moves. More subtle ways this improves a school include developing consistent practices and structures and identifying certain students that you may struggle reaching but others are having success with. Also, it’s pretty funny when kids are like “hey Mr. Krall, what are YOU doing in here??!?!” It’s pretty conducive to modeling a professional culture for students. Even if you’re just a warm body: a colleague once told me that her staff spent their prep periods prepping just as usual, but in one another’s classroom. They just sat in the back and graded papers, wrote assignments and all that other good stuff, but in a peer’s class. Even by osmosis you’ll pick up stuff.

The time and financial investment by the school to make these things happen.
I understand the monetary constraints districts are facing “these days.” It’s cumbersome for schools to find that time for an additional prep-period, that substitute for teacher release time to observe other classes, that allowance of a school to attend a school-focused PD, rather than a district-led PD. A school might not be able to hit the mark 100% of the time, but these are the hills I would die on as an administrator. This is where a director or principal ought to fight tooth and nail. And truth be told, these investments can pale in comparison to, say, a consultant brought in at the beginning of the year, or a smart board.

Really a lot of this is just your classic Data–>Analysis–>Strategy cycle, just with a focus on teachers and students.

The two umbrellas that these fall under could be broadly generalized as teacher capacity building and student input: how can we as teachers continue to learn from one another and by what our students have to say and are producing? While I’m not going to go so far as to say these things are magic bullets that’ll solve everything, I will say that in the many schools I’ve been in, the ones that are doing these things consistently are getting better every month. And I have no counterexamples.

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