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I’ve taken a long reprieve from blogging. Since my last post my wife and I had our second baby girl (Ruthie), I’ve started a new initiative at Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) for blended learning and whole school improvement, and our outreach work in Haiti continues to be incredibly successful and growing (more on that soon).  Things have been busy.

My last post was arguing for the merits of blended learning.  But the proof is in the pudding.  Last year I worked along side of an ACE graduate in Seattle, Kelly Surapaneni, to lead ACE’s first foray into blended learning.  We worked with St. Paul School in Seattle, WA, and conceptualized the project as a whole-school strengthening effort, including things like leadership development, instructional coaching, PLCs, data driven instruction, and efforts to strengthen school culture.  We thought that these best practices, combined with the personalized attention and differentiation allowed by blended learning, could result in significant gains in student learning and help renew a struggling school.

The early results are in… and it was an impressive success.  We are now working in six Catholic schools in three cities, Seattle, the Twin Cities, and Toledo, and continuing plans to expand the model for next academic year.

See below for a summary from the ACE news release.

Seattle students achieved 147% of growth targets in math and 122% in reading during the first year of the program

Students at St. Paul School in Seattle, a school that serves lower income Asian Pacific Islander and African-American students, are achieving impressive academic gains using an innovative blended learning and school improvement model developed by the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame.

As measured by the Northwest Evaluation Association Measurement of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP), students achieved 147% of growth targets in math and 122% in reading during the first year of the program, similar to a school wide average of a year and a half of growth in math and a year and a quarter in reading. The average eighth grade student achieved 233% of growth targets in math—akin to two and one-third years of growth—over the past academic year.

stpaulstudents

“The initial results are particularly promising,” Rev. Timothy Scully, C.S.C, the founder of the Alliance for Catholic Education, said. “St. Paul students are performing remarkably well—we are thrilled by the promise this model shows, and believe it can be a powerful tool that more schools like St. Paul can deploy to continue the Catholic school legacy of providing students with an excellent education.”

TJ D’Agostino, who directs the project at Notre Dame, said the success St. Paul students are experiencing is due to teachers more effectively meeting the needs of each child with the benefit of powerful blended learning software, and school leaders continuously strengthening teachers with targeted professional growth in high yield areas like the use of data and deepening a culture of high expectations, key areas of focus for the training and support that ACE provides.

“Blended learning can be a powerful driver for schools to provide a customized education for every child,” D’Agostino said, “though it is most impactful when paired with other best-practices, like data driven instruction, professional learning communities for teachers, and ongoing instructional coaching.  We work closely with the principal and a team of lead teachers to implement these comprehensive strategies.  The results have been transformative.”

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I have been reading some great books in the past few months that are shaping the way I think about education reform and renewal. I’d like to share the hit list and offer some brief comments for each.  Some of you may have already read many, but if you haven’t read all, I’d jump on it.  They are worth your time.

Topping the list is the much acclaimed Paul Tough book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. A wonderful read in the tradition of the Malcolm Gladwell books – integrating research in a lively nonfiction narrative – Tough weaves together stories and examples that depict the importance of non-cognitive skills on student outcomes. Drawing heavily upon work in psychology, neuroscience and innovative school leadership, Tough makes a compelling case for the importance of cultivating character strengths to allow students to flourish. I found the idea of the KIPP Character Report Card to be particularly fascinating. The concept involves providing students and parents with regular feedback on students’ character strengths and areas requiring improvement, focusing on observable indicators, to facilitate student improvement.

The next at the top of my list is Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, a leader of Uncommon Schools, a charter school network on the East Coast. This book is a treasure trove and detailed guidebook for what high-performing schools do and what school leaders must do to achieve superior results. The videos, sample documents, and planning tools make the book an outstanding resource for creating professional development and enacting school change. The chapter on data-driven instruction was awesome, peaking my interest in Bambrick’s other book, Driven by Data, which goes further into this area.

Third on the list is Sal Khan’s book, The One World Schoolhouse. Sal Khan is the founder of the now ubiquitous Khan Academy, an online library of 10 minute instructional YouTube videos and practice programs, especially strong in Math and Science. A thoughtful and quick read, One World Schoolhouse is a clear and thoughtful articulation of a lot of new thinking at the front lines of re-envisioning k-12 education.  Though neither the first nor only person to express these ideas, Schoolhouse is a good and fun read that captures  a lot of the thinking within this explosive area in k-12 and higher education.  With a particular focus on the role of technology in allowing mastery learning, anytime learning, self-paced learning, and adaptive instruction, Schoolhouse also explores basic assumptions around the role of homework, summer vacation, and the role of internships.  I am convinced that certain approaches to technology, particularly blended learning, will become predominant within the next 5 to 10 years. This book is a pleasant way to enter into that dialogue, and begin thinking about how education will be transformed with the emergence of new technologies. Read this book and visit The Khan Academy website, it will be worth your while.

Next on the list is a wonderful book about change management called Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. Also in the Malcolm Gladwell style, Switch offers a simple, clear and compelling formula – with numerous examples and interweaving research – on how to effect change.  The book uses memorable metaphors and stories to explain certain principles and rules of effective change management, such as “scripting the critical moves,” a less is more mentality to change that recognizes that simple and clear direction is of paramount importance, complexity is the enemy of effective change, and confusion and being overwhelmed or exhausted by change is often the source of people’s resistance.   For any leader attempting to facilitate the change process or implement a new vision, this is a must read. Catholic schools in the U.S. are woefully in need of change. Therefore, this should be on all of our reading lists.  I’ll be bringing it as a gift to some leaders in the Haitian Ministry of Education on my next trip down there.  They’ve got a massive change agenda and could use some tricks from this play-book.

Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov, is next on my list.

If anyone else has recommendations, please share!

An interesting New York Times article on the challenges in rating and evaluating teacher effectiveness.  Evaluating teacher performance to provide greater accountability and to retain the most effective teachers has been a major push of late by the Gates Foundation, the Race to the Top, and experimental policies in many public school districts.

Though few if any Catholic school systems are using similar teacher ranking systems, this may be the way of the future for measuring and ensuring academic quality for schools in the U.S.  It is worth staying up to speed on the challenges and innovations in this policy area.

Archbishop Dolan of New York (the newly-elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) recently wrote in Catholic New York on the decision to end subsidies to thirty-one schools, effectively forcing them to close.  In his standard take-neither-prisoners-nor-guff style, he sums up the challenges facing Catholic schools and expounds on possible solutions – which, if you ask him, include closing some schools:

Simply put, if we do not close, consolidate, and merge some of them, all will eventually be at risk. To do nothing is actually to do something: accept the decline and eventual demise of our schools. That we will not do.

Amen.  Specifically, he presents “4 R’s” Catholic schools need to adopt in order to continue: realism, resignation, respect, and resolve.  It’s a straight-forward, unblinking, and unapologetic assertion of the reasoning in Pathways to Excellence.  Whatever concerns or praise there is for the plan, the man in charge intends to follow through with every bit of his integrity.

While Archbishop Dolan is assertive, I am picky.  I appreciate the archbishop’s alliterative efforts in the tradition of “Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmatic”, but his choice of “resigned” makes me about as uncomfortable as “’rithmatic” (though for different reasons).  I’m sure he meant something akin to realism, something like “acceptance”, and in that was referring specifically to the practical necessity of discontinuing the archdiocesan subsidy to those thirty-one schools.  In other words, it is what it is.  Still, “resigned” connotes giving up, the exact opposite of the commitment he’s trying to encourage.  In context with realism and resolve, there’s not much danger, but likewise in that context, it might have been left out.  Resolve and realism are the keys to the argument.  Just me?

Meanwhile, most attention-grabbing was this brief throwaway line:

We want to avoid the “blame game.” Yes, some blame those Catholic parents who do not send their children to our excellent schools. (If only 10% more of them did, by the way, our schools would be filled)

Pardon my stating the obvious, but considering the current national enrollment of Catholic schools, if just 10% more would fill our schools, that means a really small portion of Catholic parents are sending their kids to Catholic school now.  We know that, of course, which is why we’re seeing more efforts like the campaign Archbishop Dolan summarizes:

  • aggressive marketing;
  • intense improvement of test scores in math and science;
  • reinforcing vigorous Catholic identity;
  • recruitment, training, and retention of first-rate principals and faculty;
  • robust regional collaboration;
  • higher enrollments, especially among our Latino students;
  • development of pre-and after-care programs in our schools;
  • looking into longer school days and a more extended school year;
  • expanding availability of scholarships.

Whatever misgivings there may be about the Pathways to Excellence plan, it’s encouraging to see a leader take an unmistakable stand and force his Catholic schools out of the status quo.  What might happen if more bishops followed suit?