In Results Now, Mike Schmoker (2006) excites us with his talk about the "opportunity to create schools better than anything we've ever seen or imagined" (p. 2). All we must do is be willing to see and imagine ourselves generating these pinnacle schools in our own districts and communities. That a society needs good schools and quality education is not revolutionary thought by any means. In a letter to James Madison in 1787, founding father Thomas Jefferson, who knew a thing or two about revolutionary thought, urged the infant U.S. government to "educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." And in the late 1830s, Horace Mann, education reformer and advocate of normal schools (the original teacher-training institutions) illuminated an argument still put forth in the 21st century: "Jails and prisons are the complement of schools; so many less as you have of the latter, so many more must you have of the former." Who among us doesn't wince at that thought?
In 1966, when sociologist James S. Coleman and his researcher team produced what has since become known as "the Coleman report," a document with the central tenet that schooling has no effect on student achievement and that background factors are all that matter, the light shone brighter than ever on our educational shortcomings. Less than two decades later, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform sent us into yet another tailspin with the assertion that the American education system is a mediocre operation (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). These reports served as scathing appraisals that upstaged the United States' self-perception as the world's best educated nation.
Data Don't Lie
Even today, international data point out the need for increased output from U.S. schools. The most reliable, border-crossing assessment tools are the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), both of which house their data on the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Web site (http://nces.ed.gov). According to PISA data, students in the United States showed no gains in reading, math, or science between 2000 and 2003, barely achieved at the average rate of counterpart nations in reading and science, and scored below average in math. Results from TIMSS corroborate these findings, noting no measurable change in the average math and science scores of U.S. 4th graders between 1995 and 2003. The PISA data further suggest that scores of U.S. 4th graders in math and science dropped from 1995 to 2003 relative to the scores of students in the 14 other countries participating in the study. (Dossey, McCrone, O'Sullivan, & Gonzales, 2006).
Within our own borders, high dropout rates, low student achievement scores, and decreases in other school effectiveness indicators shine a spotlight on areas of distinct need. The sheer number of schools failing to make adequate yearly progress for five consecutive years under No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—1,200, according to a study by Editorial Projects in Education Research Center and
Education Week (Hoff, 2007)—raises eyebrows from Capitol Hill to the most remote schoolhouses in rural Everytown, USA.
Regardless of your political affiliation or your affinity for NCLB, however, the data don't lie. Despite growth in 4th and 8th grade math proficiency during the 1990s, core scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are leveling off well below our targets. In fact, "the nation's report card" is spitting out results that are dramatically undramatic. According to the NCES, between 1992 and 2003, the percentage of students scoring at or above proficient in the 4th grade reading test rose almost indiscernibly, from 29 percent to 31 percent. This prompted the recent barrage of literacy emphasis under NCLB, which resulted in essentially no result: The percentage remained 31 percent in 2005. Eighth grade reading followed the same trend at the same levels, even dipping down from 32 percent proficient or above in 2003 to 31 percent in 2005. In 12th grade reading, the evidence is even more difficult to swallow. Where 40 percent of students were proficient or above in 1992, only 35 percent scored at those levels in 2005 (Grigg, Donahue, & Dion, 2007). No, NAEP scores are not the end all, be all of assessment, but the NAEP still reigns as king of the mountain of American educational testing, and it has produced one crystal-clear conclusion: There is ample room, and a dramatic need, for school improvement.
Change: The Nature of the Business
There is no shortage of literature available to school leaders, politicians, and citizens touting the very secrets to school success that we seek. If only it were that simple. As Zmuda, Kuklis, and Kline (2004), no strangers to school improvement, poignantly ask, "If we know better, why don't we do better?" (p. 5). The gap between knowing and doing is more famously vast in education than in any other profession. Think about it: In what other line of work could you walk into the place of business and not really discern whether it's 2008 or 1908? In a jabbing piece for Time magazine, Wallis and Steptoe (2006) posit, "Kids spend much of the day as their great-grandparents once did: sitting in rows, listening to teachers lecture, scribbling notes by hand, reading from textbooks that are out of date by the time they are printed" (p. 50).
While society has evolved (read: wireless phone technology, wider Internet access, intensive brain research, and so on), school responses have lagged, sometimes with heels dug deep in the trenches of tradition and comfortable experience. Yet everything about education screams, "Change now!" Students enter our schools with the primary purpose of getting in, getting smart, and getting out. Class rosters change, sometimes daily. Curricula change, federal mandates change, laws change, textbooks change, instructional styles change. Our understanding of learning changes as we take in research-based findings on how the brain develops and processes information. The world has become both broader and more accessible, and the global market demands new and different skills from both workers and consumers. In short, everything changes. So why aren't we, in education, changing?
Conventional wisdom, centuries of experience, and countless research studies provide us with reams of excuses: Change is difficult; change is scary; mandated change strips us of our power; change implies a devaluation of our current teaching practices; change challenges our competence; change adds to the workload; a previous change brought disappointing results; we wonder if the change is really necessary; change alters relationships; the risk of change is greater than the risk of staying put; historically, change has often had spurious origins; and change yanks us into the unknown (Bellinger, 2004; Fullan, 2003; Richardson, 1998; Schuler, 2003; Wasley, 1992). Nevertheless, common sense tells us that in order to improve, we must change. Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Change, then, is a prerequisite of improvement.
A reasonable first step is to embrace Fullan's realistic advice: "We can begin by not trying to resist the irresistible, which is relentless change" (2003, p. 24). We must step beyond merely welcoming the notion of change and accepting its presence as a constant reality; we must become active agents of change, creating it and nurturing the rate at which our context changes. We must mold the changes to create new, better, more positive realities. If we want better schools, we must act accordingly.
The Root of All Evil?
The education system is accountable to the greater society on a number of levels. For the time being, we are going to concentrate our attention on four key levels of public accountability:
- Input. Are we providing an appropriate and challenging curriculum? Are we offering a high-quality educational experience? Are we welcoming our community's students into a positive environment of schooling?
- Effectiveness. Are our students meeting basic proficiency levels in core subjects? Are our students learning what they are supposed to be learning?
- Output. Are our graduates ready to enter the real world as productive citizens? Do our graduates have the skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to contribute to and thrive in our society?
- Fiscal management. Are we using our funds and resources wisely? Is the citizenry getting a reasonable rate of return on its educational investments?
The fourth level of public accountability listed is an often-debated subject in both public and private spheres. Government halls and neighborhood barbecues ring with discourse about education funding, and with good reason: The administration of education funds determines the success of the first three levels. If we spend our money well, we should be able to demonstrate growth, progress, and success in our input, effectiveness, and output.
Schools with high percentages of disadvantaged, or poor, students receive Title I funding, which is federal money distributed to schools for programs for targeted students (just those who are eligible for receiving free or reduced-price meals) or schoolwide programs for all students (which generally occurs when the student poverty rate is quite high). For 2008, the U.S. Department of Education's budget for Title I funding was $1.5 billion (Hoff, 2007), a hefty sum. The voting public quite understandably needs assurance that this money is being wisely spent.
Still, school districts and state departments of education decry the lack of funding. Every year, there is a call for increased education spending. Yet in 2005 alone, U.S. education spending surged beyond the $300 billion mark. Again, with that high a bill, it makes sense for us to demonstrate our fiscal responsibility.
Underperforming schools receive additional monies, usually in the name of school improvement, reform acts, or other grant-tied funds. These millions are intended to help schools drag themselves out of the quagmire of underachievement. But how are the schools actually using this money? And, more pointedly, is the money resulting in higher student achievement? Are the schools meeting the first three levels of public accountability? Is the influx of funding indeed effecting positive change?
There's No Silver Bullet
When money is introduced to our schools, we often react with, "Ooh, what can we spend it on?" rather than, "Perfect—we've needed another $10,000 to fully fund our professional development plan in math." And when we are asked for innovative thinking, we work backward: The windfall precedes a session of frantic brainstorming, rather than the other way around. We should have our ideas laid out and ready to go, constantly seeking ways to fund and deliver.
As school or district leaders, we have done some of our most unimaginative work in the very situations that require us to be at our focused, creative, intuitive best. Where we have needed to be calculating trailblazers, we have instead opted to follow the beaten path, preferring the comfort of the familiar over the vast unknown even though research, professional judgment, and common sense urge us to do otherwise. When facing a challenge, we look for a panacea—a golden ticket—that can answer our urgent needs. Usually, we take hold of a technical "fix," something we can do right now to solve the problem, when in reality what we need is to embrace an adaptive change. The challenge, outlined by Ronald A. Heifetz in Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994), is to change the philosophical mind-set of the stakeholders. We have to discover, and then embrace, what is really the most important thing.
Gambling vs. Stewardship
Ultimately, principals and school leadership teams have to determine how to spend their resources and how to make the appropriate changes to improve education in their schools. Choosing to fund stuff or programs—and hoping these will be the solution to the school's problems—is a gamble, albeit one that many of us are taking. A single stroll through the vendor exhibit hall at any major education conference does a lot to explain why. Educators have been bombarded by the latest gizmos, gadgets, comprehensive programs, curricula, materials, and doohickeys for decades. Between NCLB and the furor over standards, achievement, and accountability, the stakes are high—not just for students and educators but for vendors, too. Many of the items in question are worth investigating, and some may benefit a number of children. But when we stop to think about our mission, is this stuff what makes a difference in education? Is a computer program going to radically affect the academic achievement of any individual school? Is an integrated curriculum created in Florida going to match the needs of students in a school in Maine? Where is our money best spent? How are we going to create the most meaningful and positive change? And, if we're going to gamble, where are the best odds of winning this wager?
Thus far, what consistent successes do we have to point out? We've become a profession of fads, latching onto the latest and greatest new program, idea, or thingamabob that carries guaranteed, "research-based" successes. Stacks of material related to obsolete fads gather dust in supply closets as districts and schools rush to spend more money getting their teachers up to speed on the latest fad. When the money runs out for that fad, we change our focus and seize the next published "savior."
For decades, responding to the federal government, state departments of education, school districts, and public sentiment, we have mandated change. In the eye of the hurricane of research-based schoolwide comprehensive programs, we have felt that each change we've embarked on would be meaningful and productive. But these whole-school reform models provide only "imported coherence," argues Michael Fullan (2003, p. 26). He continues, "People should be seeking ideas that help them develop their own thinking rather than programs." We've seen this with the overly prescriptive models like Success for All and even the U.S. Department of Education's homegrown Reading First. Teachers suppress their creative intellect and ignore their prior training in order to follow a lockstep, one-size-fits-all instructional program.
The effect that this approach to school improvement has on the teachers and educators in the trenches is that it creates resistance to change, which is counterproductive, because change is a prerequisite for improvement. Why tackle a fad that won't likely develop past its own infancy? Teachers are more likely to wait for the swinging of the education policy pendulum with which they are all too familiar. "This too shall pass," they say. "This is the same thing we did 20 years ago. We can wait this out."
In this high-stakes gamble, it appears we have been rather misguided in placing our bets. Rather than focusing on the heart of our mission—the instruction, growth, education, and development of our students—we've been rolling the dice on the fringes. As stewards of not only a gigantic chunk of change but also a significant portion of the population (50 million students were enrolled in U.S. public education in 2006), we must be more accountable with our resources.
A few years ago, while I was serving on the Nevada Governor's Commission on Excellence in Education, I had the opportunity to review proposals from more than 100 schools requesting additional funding. Through Senate Bill 404, signed in 2005, the State of Nevada had apportioned $91.9 million to fund creative and innovative attempts to reform education at the schoolhouse level. Governor Guinn, himself a former educator, had essentially opened the door for schools, districts, and their leadership teams to try new approaches they believed would work for their students. Also included in the process was the creation of a bank of worthwhile ideas—ideas of "Innovation and the Prevention of Remediation" on which other schools could draw.
In order to receive funding, a school was required to complete a lengthy application, which included a plan for implementing an innovative strategy that would reduce the need to offer remediation services to students. Schools' proposals earned more points if their plan was feasible and linked to their Site Improvement Plan, and the funding ratios were tied to the number of points each proposal earned.
As the proposals poured in and I pored over them, I began to cringe. Though some plans were remarkably well thought out, comprehensive, and innovative, others were desperately bland and requested the money to fund … you guessed it,
stuff—a new out-of-the-box curriculum, a new software system, a catch-all improvement program. Then, the coup de grace: The unfunded schools had an opportunity to resubmit their proposals after the first round, and rather than go back to their strategic plans and identify some creative ways to raise student achievement, they doctored their Site Improvement Plans to include the need for the very same stuff! All to earn more points on the proposal's scoring formula—but with just a wispy strand connecting their plan to possible student growth.
The Not-So-Secret Secret
What does the research say about what successful, effective schools and districts are doing to make their gains? If we are going to focus on the educational growth and development of our students, where do we start? Where do we direct our energy in order to address the first three areas of education's public accountability charge (input, effectiveness, and output)? The answer is startlingly simple: We must improve teacher quality.
Although the teacher quality factor is frequently covered in intellectual conversation regarding student achievement, it remains bizarrely unaddressed in most comprehensive school reform initiatives, in which the search for salvation begins at an online store, a publisher's warehouse, or a vendor exhibit hall. Ideally, that first quest for a solution should have an inward focus. District administrators, school leadership teams, public officials, and anyone else interested in increased student achievement should turn their lens to the most basic element of schooling: the teachers themselves.
Research has long supported the claim that better teachers lead to higher student achievement. One study showed that children assigned to effective teachers for three years in a row scored an average of 49 percentile points higher on standardized assessments than those assigned consecutively to three poor teachers (Jordan, Mendro, & Weersinghe, 1997). A study in Cincinnati, Ohio, found that teachers rated highest also showed the greatest gains in their students' proficiency exams; the opposite was true for teachers with low ratings (Miner, 2005/2006).
Some well-known educational experts have weighed in on the debate. Rick DuFour and Bob Eaker, the architects of the professional learning communities (PLC) concept, state flatly, "Schools are effective because of their teachers" (1998, p. 206). Charlotte Danielson, creator of the indispensable Framework for Professional Practice, echoes the sentiment: "High-level learning by students requires high-level instruction by their teachers" (2007, p. 15). Renowned educational researcher Robert J. Marzano concludes, "Regardless of the research basis, it is clear that effective teachers have a profound influence on student achievement and ineffective teachers do not. In fact, ineffective teachers might actually impede the learning of their students" (2003, p. 75). And Mike Schmoker, never one to beat around the bush, offers us this: "The single greatest determinant of learning is not socioeconomic factors or funding levels. It is instruction" (2006, p. 7).
The X Factor
Imagine, if you will, a garden-variety school classroom. It could be an elementary school or a high school; it could be public or private; it could be charter or magnet; it could be new or established; it could be in a poor or affluent neighborhood. First, turn off the electricity and eliminate all that technology—no computer, no DVDs. Now, remove the books. Take out the desks, the paper, the chairs, and the crayons. Picture the room barren of furniture and materials. How will the students learn? How will they grow and develop as thinkers, understand the concept of onset and rime, and make meaning of the scientific method, the writing process, the Pythagorean theorem, and the role of chlorophyll in photosynthesis?
More than likely, you have a relatively simple, succinct answer to the question of how the students would learn: The students and teacher would find a way to continue their learning by working together. Due to the innate craving to learn and the enthusiasm with which we were all endowed at birth, the paucity of materials provides challenges to overcome, not a complete roadblock. If students so desire, they will continue to learn.
Now, for the final step in this exercise, consider that same classroom. This time, remove the teacher.
No more learning.
Hurry and put the teacher back in the classroom—a classroom without a teacher isn't just a place in which no learning occurs; it's dangerous.
Silly, isn't it, that it's that obvious, that simple, and that elemental. We're not overstating the point when we say that teachers matter. Good teachers matter. The quality of the teacher is the "X factor." Everything in education depends on it.
We're willing to admit that the argument is not new. Witness this 1909 quote from the American Association for the Advancement of Science: "Given a good teacher, and locate him in a cellar, an attic, or a barn, and the strong students of the institution will beat a path to his door. Given a weak teacher and surround him with the finest array of equipment that money can buy, and permit the students to choose, as in the elective courses, and his class room will echo its own emptiness" (p. 787).
To truly make a dent in the outer shell of school improvement, we need to come to grips with the simple, elegant reality that it's the teachers that matter most. They determine each child's wins and losses, establish the standards and expectations within each class and grade level, and ultimately influence the success of the educational process. Teachers are the field agents of educational change. Therefore, we must concentrate our efforts on building teachers' capacity with a concept we've dubbed Strength-Based School Improvement.
An Idea for Today's Times
What's revolutionary about the concept of Strength-Based School Improvement? For decades, and maybe even centuries, we've been brainwashed into thinking we need to treat everyone the same. Equity, fairness, self-esteem, negotiated agreements, teachers unions, and the status quo have all banded together to ensure that we shepherd all the flock in the same way: identical treatment for identical beasts.
But teachers aren't beasts; they're unique humans, and nobody likes to be treated like "the next guy"—because nobody is like the next guy. We all prefer to be noticed for our special qualities and given a bit of special attention. That's why we like birthday cards with handwritten messages in them, the cashier at the grocery store who remembers our name, and specific compliments from loved ones. Not only does every unique and special carbon-based life-form in your school appreciate unique and special treatment, each one needs individualized handling. It is the equivalent of educational malpractice for us to usher all our teachers into neat rows, robotically interacting with them with nary a thought to the gifts they bring to their classrooms. Sadly, that's what we've been doing in essence as we've advanced the philosophy of uniformity and blandness in our educational leadership roles.
As school leaders, it is our obligation to provide that special attention to all teachers' unique attributes and qualities: their talents, goals, fears, experiences, thoughts, and ideas. With Strength-Based School Improvement, that's what we do. And we not only recognize and celebrate these strengths, we maximize them.
Maximization involves the concerted work of identifying the strengths and talents of each individual teacher. In other words, we put teachers into positions that make the best use of their talents, and then we work to help them improve their performance and reach their potential.
It's a subtle but significant philosophical approach: focusing on strengths and potential rather than succumbing to the more common deficit model. Instead of identifying areas of weakness, lamenting the lack of resources, and isolating points of failure, Strength-Based School Improvement recognizes what strengths a school possesses, what assets reside within its walls, and what successes it can build upon. Rather than pummeling ourselves by counting our losses, we begin to bolster our position by tallying our wins.
The goals of the strength-based philosophy are simple:
- Maximize the skill, potential, and self-reflective abilities of each individual teacher on staff.
- Recognize and individualize the unique supervision, professional development, and evaluation needs of each individual teacher on staff.
- Strengthen the collaborative relationships of the entire teaching corps.
Teachers are, after all, every school's most important strength. When we build their capacity for success, we improve our schools.
Who's in Charge Here?
The responsibilities of the practice of Strength-Based School Improvement rest on the mighty shoulders of those in leadership roles at the school level. These site-specific leaders generally fall into two categories: coaches and administrators. (We will use these terms for simplicity, though we understand these roles may go by other job titles.)
Coaches include instructional coaches, literacy coordinators, department chairs, grade-level representatives, mentors, teacher-leaders, or any other site-based staff developers. They possess the ability to approach each teacher and provide nonthreatening, meaningful feedback in an individualized collaborative coaching model.
Administrators include principals, assistant principals, and those in any other site-based administrative position responsible for the supervision and evaluation of teachers. Although administrators' feedback inherently packs more wallop, followers of the Strength-Based model will ensure the establishment of a trusting relationship bent on maximizing teacher potential and having a positive impact on student learning.
Truly effective school leaders, whether coaches or administrators, engage in behaviors and possess characteristics that assist them in this venture. In the next chapter, we will delineate both the distinct and overlapping responsibilities of the coach and administrator as they relate to Strength-Based School Improvement. Meaningful, positive change—a necessary condition for school improvement—is only possible within such a framework of cooperation and collaboration. The coach and the administrator are partners through and through as they undertake this critical work.