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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

8 Ways to Prevent Within School Variability

By Peter DeWitt — July 24, 2015 4 min read
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Ahh...Summertime. The time of year when school leaders get together and plan out the new year. Many times it’s who will take what district meetings, figure out the board of education meeting schedule, which teachers will truly teach which grade level (that changes even if there is a contractual date to notify), and start looking at the shiny new supplies that come in to the main office that need to be distributed around the school.

Summer is a great time to reflect on our practices. Contrary to popular belief, many teachers are actively searching for new lessons, scouring over resources, reading educational books that they couldn’t read during the year, going in for a week of professional development around some topic, and trying to relax with family before the new Staples commercial about Back to School hits the airwaves.

Among the conversations that need to take place during the summer, and again every single day of the school year, centers around what “good learning looks like.” How can all students achieve good learning, and define it on their own? Equally as important to student understanding is that their teachers can define it as well.

I know that sounds like common sense...

But it’s actually a bit more complicated than you may think. As a Visible Learning trainer who works with John Hattie, I see teachers who define good learning by the behavior of the students. I’m sure you can think of one or two, because they are the ones who sit and talk about student behavior in the faculty room or when they are standing in the hallway. To them, good learning is about students sitting in their seats, raising their hands and doing what the teachers say. Their focus is more on behavior than learning. And in a time when we are all a little tired of compliance, I think we need to blow the doors off this discussion from time to time.

There are many teachers who clearly understand what good learning looks like. They talk about it with students, look for it on a daily basis, and can hone in on those times when it’s not happening. The difference between teachers who look at it through the behavioral lens and those who look at it through a pedagogical one can be quite significant, and I’m not referring to teachers who work in one school as opposed to another. I’m referring to teachers who work in the same school with one another.

Within-School Variability

In What Works Best In Education: The Power of Collaborative Expertise, John Hattie writes,

If we are to truly improve student learning, it is vital that we identify the most important barrier to such improvement. And that barrier is the effect of within-school variability on learning. The variability between schools in most Western countries is far smaller than the variability within schools (Hattie 2015). For example, the 2009 PISA results for reading across all OECD countries shows that the variability between schools is 36 per cent, while the variance within schools is 64 per cent (OECD 2010).

Hattie goes on to write,

There is every reason to assume that by attending to the problem of variability within a school and increasing the effectiveness of all teachers there will be a marked overall increase in achievement. So the aim is to bring the effect of all teachers on student learning up to a very high standard. The 'No Child Left Behind' policy should have been named 'No Teacher Left Behind'."

So...as leaders sit in those long summer meetings they should begin discussing how to harness the special power in the school. Hattie suggests,

So, my claim is that the greatest influence on student progression in learning is having highly expert, inspired and passionate teachers and school leaders working together to maximise the effect of their teaching on all students in their care. There is a major role for school leaders: to harness the expertise in their schools and to lead successful transformations. There is also a role for the system: to provide the support, time and resources for this to happen. Putting all three of these (teachers, leaders, system) together gets at the heart of collaborative expertise."

The Power of Collaborative Expertise is a 2-part paper that Hattie wrote. The first part focused on the Politics of Distraction, which I wrote about here. The Politics of Distraction was about what we should stop doing. The Power of Collaborative Expertise, which you can read in its entirety here, is about what we should be doing.

We should be doing the following:

Shift the Narrative - Politicians, policymakers, and school leader behind closed doors talk a lot about fixing the teachers. Hattie says we should shift our focus “from fixing the teacher to collaborative expertise.” The power is within the school already. We should use it.

Agree on what a year’s progress looks like - We know this is not easy. Hattie gives examples in the paper, but many teachers look at progress differently. The only way to get everyone on the same page is to have dialogue around a year’s progress.

Expect a year’s worth of progress -Hattie writes,

In the course of my Visible Learning research, I have found that the greatest influence on learning is the expectations of the students and the teachers. Further, recent research by Rubie-Davies (2014) shows that a teacher typically has high, medium or low expectations for all the students in their class, with the students of high-expectation teachers being very successful in achieving their teachers' expectations and the students of teachers with low expectations being similarly successful at making lower gains."

Develop new assessment and evaluation tools to provide feedback to teachers - How many of us have said state tests do not provide the feedback teachers need? Exactly. Shouldn’t we make sure that we are using assessments and evaluation tools around the country that provide effective feedback?

Know Thy Impact - Hattie writes, “Schools need to become incubators of programs, evaluators of impact and experts at interpreting the effects of teachers and teaching on all students.” Each and every day we should know our impact.

Ensure teachers have expertise in diagnosis, interventions and evaluation - to get at least an effect size of .40, which Hattie refers to as the Hinge Point, he writes,

To get these effects requires listening to the learning happening in the classroom. It requires less talk by teachers and more listening to student dialogue; it requires more evaluation of surface and deep understanding and knowing when to move from one to the other; and it requires teaching that builds on a deep understanding of what students already know."

Stop ignoring what we know and scale up success - Look at what works, during the most optimal, but also most stressful times, as scale up for success. Build on what works and make it better. Go from surface to deep and good to great.

Link autonomy to a year’s progress - Teachers who have a class full of students who make a year’s growth for a year’s input should have more autonomy than those teachers who struggle. It doesn’t mean the teachers who struggle are bad, but it may mean they need help. We should collaborate more, and stay in our classroom silos less. Share the expertise within the school.

In the End

Too often the teachers who stick out for good reasons are the ones who keep to themselves. No one wants to be the highest weed in their school, because at some point there is someone who wants to cut the weed down. That is flawed thinking! We should be highlighting those people and using their expertise to make everyone better.

We already know that there is power in collaborative expertise, and now that we have some time during the summer, we should be figuring out ways to harness it.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.