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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

Rigor, Relevance & Relationships: An Interview with Bill Daggett

By Peter DeWitt — January 04, 2012 7 min read
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“Relevance makes rigor possible.” Dr. Bill Daggett

Recently there was a story in Education Week that focused on turnaround schools (Samuels). This idea of turnaround schools is becoming increasingly more popular in our present era of mandates and high stakes testing. There are numerous consulting firms that offer their services to schools by offering one size fits all silver bullet solutions. Unfortunately, those do not work.

One organization that has been working to turn around schools for over twenty years is the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), which was founded by Dr. Willard (Bill) Daggett who is also the CEO. Bill and the staff of ICLE offer professional development to schools through their Model Schools Conference as well as individualized consulting.

Bill Daggett’s philosophy of education comes down to three basic principles, which are rigor, relevance and relationships. When students find their studies relevant, teachers can increase the rigor to meet the needs of students. Relationships between all stakeholders in a school system (i.e. students, staff, teachers, administrators, parents, etc.) make a school system stronger and provide the opportunity to turn schools around.

Interview with Dr. Bill Daggett
Dr. Daggett sat down for an interview to explain his opinions on struggling learners, how educators can reach them and how his organization helps schools turnaround. It is a subject knows well because he has worked with schools from around the country.

PD: Schools are seeing an increase in the students who are struggling learners. How can we make sure they are getting the rigorous education they deserve when they are dealing with so many outside factors that seem to work against them?

BD: I think we confuse obedient students with motivated students, and many of the children who are struggling learners have not had the life experience outside of school to prepare them for school. That works against them when they walk into school.

I created the term rigor and relevance. Relevance makes rigor possible. The problem is that what is relevant to one child is not relevant to the next child, which is why the third R -- which is relationships -- is so important. Educators need to know why their students are struggling. What conditions are causing that? In order to do that they need to change how they teach. It’s important for educators to know their students. Educators need to know what is interesting to them, whether it is football, baseball or the arts. Those are the ways to engage students.

One additional way to help close the achievement gap with struggling learners is through looping, which is not a practice that all schools do. Looping is when a teacher moves to the next grade level with his or her students from one year to the next. As we (ICLE) travel around the country and work with schools, we see a dramatic difference in the schools that are practicing looping. Students who loop with their teachers show a dramatic increase in achievement in the second year with that teacher. It helps deal with the summer slump that many students experience. In addition, students who loop with their teachers already have a relationship with them when they start the second year, so they are immediately engaged in the school year.

Ultimately, teachers must find ways to drive instruction around the area of each student’s interest. What you teach doesn’t change but how you teach should be focused on the interest and skills of each individual student. Successful teachers focus on student interests, learning styles, and aptitudes - not just the content they are covering.

PD: The International Center for Leadership in Education helps many schools in the United States go from failing to success. How does the Center work with schools to accomplish this turnaround?

BD: We typically begin with a needs assessment. It’s our belief that every school has its own DNA and you really have to understand that DNA to help that school. Our needs assessment has us come in and understand a school and understand the personalities, the history and its outside pressures before we make any recommendations or implement any initiatives.

After we begin that process we go back to our twenty years of working with schools. We had a major grant with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and partnered with the Council of Chief State School Officers to find the nation’s most rapidly improving schools. In that process we have found a lot of very successful practices but also found that there is not a formula that can be used for all schools. We take the lessons we learned from those successful practices and lay them over the results of the needs assessment and then put together an action plan for the school. We believe that success starts at the classroom level but we work to create top-down support for bottom-up reform.

Overall we try to provide teachers, staff and school leaders the tools and strategies they need that appear to fit their specific situation. In addition we provide the school with professional development and put in an instructional or leadership coach for close to three years to work with the school system to turn them around.

PD: What do school leaders have to do to change the climate in their buildings or districts to make sure that all students are held to high expectations?

BD: The number one rule is “no excuses.” Secondly, school leaders should nurture their best teachers and reward them. Coach the average teachers and have a blunt conversation with failing teachers. There is no profession that has had all of their professionals successful. Education is not an exception to that but many school leaders pretend that all of their teachers are successful.

If school leaders do that they will have the opportunity to move their entire teaching staff forward and the problem of high expectations will be solved.

PD: We know that relationships are critical to student success. How do school leaders design their teacher evaluation program to ensure that they capture that?

BD: As I mentioned earlier, ICLE looked at the nation’s most rapidly improving schools in a five year initiative with CCSSO. We found that they evaluate students and staff around four different learning criteria - and relationships are essential to those learning criteria.

The first of the four is foundation learning which is what state tests are supposed to measure. State exams are written for the middle 1/3 of the student population. If states designed tests for the top 1/3, all the schools in the state would be put on a School in Need of Improvement Plan (SINI).

The second one is stretch learning. Stretch learning is designed to see if teachers are stretching the curriculum to meet the needs of all students.

The third is called learner engagement. This way teachers are not being evaluated by just their content knowledge, they are also being evaluated by their methodology. Many people may walk by a classroom filled with students who are engaged and may think the classroom is noisy. It’s supposed to be noisy. That is what engagement looks like.

The fourth one is personal skill development. Personal skill development includes respect, responsibility and trustworthiness. The best way to evaluate that personal skill development is through the use of teacher and student surveys. Surveys can tell whether the teacher’s perceptions match with the students’ perceptions of the classroom. A successful teacher looks at the surveys and discusses the results with the students. Through those conversations, teachers build relationships with their students.

Therefore, the teacher evaluation system comes off of these four different learning criteria. Our rubrics that we created were informed by discussions we had with ASCD, NASSP, NAESP, NEA, and AFT, among other education organizations and associations.

PD: What is your opinion on the explosion in the interest in and requirements around teacher evaluation based on student performance?

BD: It’s understandable but there is a knee-jerk reaction that is taking place. The entire country is trying to make assessment and evaluation a mechanical process. Those in control of evaluation are often not looking at the four learning criteria noted earlier.

The state assessment piece of evaluation is an important component but it is being overblown because state tests have always been designed to measure the minimums and not the maximum. I am fearful that the indicators that states are putting together are actually going to lower the standards in our schools and not raise them. They will be uniform but low (End of Interview).

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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.