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Initiating & Sustaining the Change Environment in PK -12 Schools (5/3/14)

The current era of accountability in education has placed an emphasis on achievement for all students. With this emphasis has come the realization that many schools are not adequately meeting the educational needs of all the students that they serve. As a result, over the past 15 years, many school districts across the United States have been engaged in intensive change efforts to reform curriculum and instruction.

In approaching change efforts to reform curriculum and instruction, there are three school community stakeholder groups that must be included if the efforts are to be complete. The stakeholder groups are school staff, students and their families, and the total community that the school serves. Each of these is an essential and necessary component that must be addressed in change efforts. If each of the three is not addressed and integrated into the planning and execution during a change movement, diminished if not failed results can be expected.

In addition to the three school community stakeholder groups, there are stakeholder groups within the school system that must be engaged in the change process for it to be successful. These include the board and superintendent, central office personnel, school leadership personnel, and school staff. Again, all must be included in the work and share a common vision if change efforts are to succeed.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on change at the school level which is driven by school leadership personnel and school staff. The school level is the critical level in curriculum and instruction reform efforts in a district because it is the level of implementation and as a result, significantly impacts whether or not students have an improved learning experience.

To initiate change at the school level, the principal of the building must first have a vision of what the school can be. This vision should be directly connected to the larger vision of the district and the needs of the school community.  If the vision is based on these goals they will be aligned to the aims of the school system and the community, leader and teacher actions to achieve the goals will be supported, and the results will impact school and district level student achievement targets.

To achieve the task of setting the appropriate vision, school leaders must be in tune with the relevant needs. This is a necessity for new or incumbent principals, for indeed, incumbent principals in schools that are consistently failing academically need to look at their buildings with fresh eyes. To this end, I suggest thoughtful discussions with the school superintendent, parent and community leaders, staff, and students to determine what is needed. The personal interaction of discussion, or several discussions over a period of time, provides far more useful evidence than a survey which might be used to for the same task.

Once the needs are identified they have to be prioritized. Priority must be given to the needs that will have the biggest impact on student achievement. Research as well as practice can inform these decisions. Finally, leaders need to clearly communicate the vision to staff. This is achieved through: all instructional meetings with staff, curriculum documents including the school improvement plan, and through other promotional media published and used in the school. School leaders should revisit the vision often to ensure that it remains the focus for the work of the school.

Next, school leaders must mobilize the assistant administrators and teacher leaders around them. Incumbent principals should know their staffs. New principals will have to learn them. For new principals, if they have been effective in thoughtful discussions with staff, they should have a good idea of the strengths and dispositions of the assistant administrators. Assistant administrators must be assigned to change tasks, like public relations or a school wide PBIS program based on their strengths. Also, identified teacher leaders in the building must be mobilized. These staff members must be given a meaningful share of the responsibility for “bringing along” their peers during the change effort. It is also a good practice to place these same teacher leaders on the school leadership team to establish their formal role in the building and to provide a regular forum for the principal to dialogue with them.

Staffing is the third area that must be addressed in school reform. Changing the achievement of a school is as much about getting the right people who share the principal’s vision as it is about changing instructional practices and the school’s culture. In fact, all three are inextricably linked because the staff executes the instruction and the tone of the staff significantly impacts the school culture. For this reason, principals must invest significant time in observing their teachers. A principal needs to know his or her staff members and what their instructional strengths and weaknesses are. Marginal teachers must be given support to improve. If they are unable to make the necessary improvements then principals must be willing and able to make tough decisions so that the most effective teachers available are in place at the school. Principals must actively recruit, interview, screen and hire the strongest teachers available.

Successful school reform also requires constant monitoring of student progress. Not only must teachers know where their students are at in regard to knowledge of the curriculum, but school leaders must know as well. Stated differently, schools that make significant gains in student achievement are data driven, all the time. One school in a district that I was superintendent of had an exceptional practice in this area. The building leadership team, composed of the school administration and teacher leaders, reviewed data from district assessments at its regular meetings. There was a specific template and protocol for the presentation of the data as well as for discussion of the results and planning for remediation. In addition, the school also had a well-articulated model for its PLCs, which promoted teacher collaboration, common planning and assessment, and data review at the department level. As a result of the close monitoring of the data, planning for intervention, and PLC structure, the school was able to make significant student achievement gains.

Finally, school change is not all work. You have to have a little fun too! Every school that I have ever been associated with that made real changes in their practices, culture, and achievement, always took time to celebrate the small victories along the way. School reform work is heavy lifting, not for the faint of heart. Sometimes practices and the workload change but the data payoff does not show up for about two years. It is during these times that teachers need the most encouragement and recognition for the hard work that they do. Teacher of the month celebrations, raffle giveaways where tickets are earned for exceptional practice, “this (flower) bud’s for you” initiatives, surprise staff luncheons, and holiday “sweet treat days” are just a few of the many strategies that can be implemented to recognize the hard work that teachers do to help keep the encouraged about the gains they are making and the significant changes that they are about to see. Principals who are serious about school reform must make staff recognition a priority effort.

To close, initiating and sustaining change is hard work, but it’s doable. It takes a commitment by a whole school and its community to do what is right instructionally and to see the tasks through to their end so that students learn. Principals have to be at the forefront of this effort, because the school is the site where implementation takes place. By focusing on best practices for reform and maintaining a focus on instructional excellence with a “we are all in this together” approach, gains can be made.

Shawn McCollough President & CEO ABCTE

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