Education Opinion

Creating the Capacity for Teachers to Design High-Performing Schools

By Sam Chaltain — April 29, 2013 5 min read
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Guest post by Kim Farris-Berg

Quality-improvement experts maintain that every system is designed to get the results it gets. If the results we’re getting are not the desired results, then the system needs to be redesigned to achieve what is desired.

So, if we want our system of schooling to be able to generate, replicate and sustain innovation, then redesign may be in order. Just ask third-grade teacher Ananth Pai.

As documented in this video, Pai had just 20 students in his classroom in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Reviewing all of his students’ test scores, he learned that some were achieving below the 10th percentile while others were achieving above the 90th. Even with the small class size, Pai sensed conventional instruction wasn’t allowing him to give each student individualized support so each could advance to his or her own next level of achievement. He found himself moving forward when some students weren’t ready, but long after others were. Pai was not comfortable maintaining the status quo. He wanted to provide different avenues for students to learn, and he was convinced that technology could help.

School administrators turned down Pai’s request to use the $6,000 that was allocated for a Smart Board in his classroom and buy computers, voice recorders, Nintendo DS’s, and games instead. But Pai was determined, and he purchased them anyway. He and his wife invested their own money, secured a matching grant from his wife’s employer, and later received an additional grant. After acquiring the devices, he created personalized digital profiles so his students could make learning choices at their own academic levels and began customizing the kinds of support he gave each student.

The result? Pai and others have reported that in a matter of four months, the class’s reading and math scores went from below average for third grade to mid-fourth-grade levels. Students are engaged in their learning. And today, with a few years under his belt, most of his students are achieving scores that are two to three times higher than expected on NWEA math tests. Parents and students are thrilled. State education leaders, media, and policymakers regularly visit and applaud Pai as an innovator.

But what’s happening at his school is another story.

Is Pai getting support from his teaching colleagues or his school and district leaders? Nope.

Are any other teachers in his school taking up his methods to differentiate learning and raise test scores? Zero.

Is the school allocating more money to technology that allows for differentiating student learning and less to technology designed for teachers to do conventional instruction better? Zilch.

Are district leaders studying “what works” and opening opportunities for other teachers interested in taking on this innovative approach in their own schools? Nada.

Quality-improvement research suggests that none of that happens in cases like this because the system isn’t designed for it to happen. At Pai’s district and school, like most districts and schools, almost everyone sees their job as carrying out the central office’s district-wide plan for continuous, incremental improvement developed mostly in response to state and federal laws. It’s not the teachers’ job to question or improve the plan, or to customize it for the individual students in their schools. Instead it’s their job to carry out the plan to the best of their ability in their own classrooms.

Teachers who want to take up work like Pai’s, or innovate themselves, are discouraged from doing so. Policymakers and central office administrators deal with improvement.
But Pai, like most innovators, believes he can help make a better plan. Pai knows the state and district student achievement goals and is creating a different means of realizing and surpassing them. But within a system designed for everyone to carry out “the central plan,” there is little value placed on what Pai has done.

People who behave differently in a culture committed to carrying out “the plan from the top” are viewed as risky outliers. They often work in isolation. Despite any gains, they’re eventually pressured back into the dominant culture. Whether Pai will be able to sustain and spread his innovation in this culture remains to be seen, but it’s doubtful. The system isn’t designed to encourage and sustain radical innovation like Pai’s.

Contrast this system design with the one you’re seeing in Chapter 7 (and every other chapter) of the ten-part video series A Year at Mission Hill. Boston Public Schools created pilot schools with the intent that the people in the schools would be able to try new ways of operating with support from the district central office. At Mission Hill, teachers have authority to collectively make the decisions influencing whole school success, and they accept responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions. The improvement plan comes from the bottom-up. There are incentives (autonomy and accountability) for everyone to work together to get it right.

Chapter 7 documents that the professionals working at Mission Hill see it as their job to collaborate with and learn from one another to create a high-performing culture throughout their whole school. That’s because it IS their job.

Mission Hill teacher James McGovern explains the central obstacle to this sort of professional culture in Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots. “At my previous school,” he says, “there was no culture of learning [and collaboration] among the staff. It wasn’t the people. It was the structures preventing any real change. We had a progressive principal, but we couldn’t move ahead. People didn’t want to create something that would just be pulled back.”

For principal Ayla Gavins, the freedom Mission Hill has around its own structures and procedures has helped create new dynamics among the people working at the school. “Everyone [at Mission Hill] is paying attention to how we can improve. Whenever necessary someone can call for a discussion, and if change is needed we can make it right here, right away.”

Had Pai innovated as a teacher in a school with the dynamics present at Mission Hill, it seems likely that his colleagues would have -- could have -- taken great lengths to learn from and replicate his success for the benefit of their whole school. It’s time to take a good look at whether a new system design could provide the capacity for teachers to create the high-performing schools we all want. There are many, many great teachers who have the know-how, willingness and determination to take on this difficult task. But why would they without a system design that encourages and supports them?

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent education policy consultant based in Orange County, CA and a Senior Associate with Education Evolving.

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools 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.