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Teaching Opinion

Response: Leaders Can Support Innovation by ‘Listening More & Speaking Less’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 28, 2017 18 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can school leaders (directors, principals) support curriculum innovations?

In Part One, Dr. Sanée Bell, Mark Estrada, Sally J. Zepeda, Adeyemi Stembridge, Kenneth Baum, David Krulwich, and Daniel Venables contributed their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sanée amd Mark on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, PJ Caposey, Amber Teamann, Matt Renwick, Paul Barnwell, and Mitch Barnes shared their ideas.

The series will be wrapped-up today with responses from Cheryl Dobbertin, Pia Lindquist Wong, Fred Ende, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin and Rachael George. I also include some responses from readers.

Response From Cheryl Dobbertin

Cheryl Dobbertin was co-designer of EL Education’s 3-8 ELA curriculum. She is now the program director for the organization’s Teacher Potential Project, a grant-funded project supporting district’s in piloting the curriculum and research its impact, specifically on novice teachers and their students:

There’s no doubt that the current high-stakes atmosphere makes it challenging for school leaders to encourage and support innovations in curriculum. Certainly the “gut check” move has been to more narrowly define curriculum to be seemingly aligned with testing. But test prep-focused curriculum has over and over again proven its failure to lead to meaningful gains in learning and therefore, results. What then, can school leaders do to support curriculum innovations?

1. Fundamentally believe that great curriculum can help teachers “teach beyond the test.”

In 1991, educational researcher Martin Haberman wrote an article challenging schools to change, and change drastically. In his paper, Haberman called on schools to move away from practices he provocatively called “the pedagogy of poverty"—giving information, assigning seatwork, marking papers—and toward “deeper learning"—engaging students in solving real problems, explaining human differences, applying ideas of equity and justice, and polishing work for an authentic audience.

Twenty-five years later, innovative curricula like that described by Haberman are still not the norm. Why? Because unexamined assumptions stand in our way. The pedagogy of poverty is often preferred by many constituencies, including parents and politicians, Haberman wrote, because from the outside, it looks orderly and functional. It is sometimes even preferred by students because “it absolves them of the responsibility for learning and puts the burden on the teachers[1].” Even though there is no educational research that proves that this way works, it’s deep within our educational paradigm.

So first and foremost, educational leaders gather the courage to lead away from the pedagogy of poverty, even when tests loom (or perhaps because they do, since this new generation of tests are much more about critical thinking than ever before). When teachers are given permission and support by leaders to give up the routines created by workbooks, daily tasks, unit tests and the like, they can design and implement learning experiences that help all students learn more, and more deeply.

Innovative curricula come in many forms. The students at Envision schools help map out self-created projects and defend their work to an external audience. At High Tech High, students develop and create projects using advanced technologies to make a difference in the world. At EL Education schools (formerly Expeditionary Learning), students complete “learning expeditions” through which they address authentic issues in their communities by completing fieldwork and interacting with experts. In all of these schools, students do well on tests. In fact, it is not uncommon for students in EL Education high schools—which are held to the same testing requirements as their peers, and many of which are located in urban centers—to have a 100 percent graduation rate. (Here is a video of a learning expedition in action).

2. Innovate, but tightly align to standards.

Innovative curriculum, whether project-based or any other, must be deeply and carefully aligned to the learning standards it is designed to teach in order to be effective. In EL Education schools, curriculum teams consider four fundamental aspects of any given chunk of curriculum that they call the “4 Ts.” The Targets are the standards to be mastered. The Topic is the content of the curriculum—what will students learn about the world? The performance Tasks are how students demonstrate their learning. And the Texts engage students with the content. This planning is quite circular, with each decision having an impact on the other decisions. (Here is a video of an EL Education curriculum team in action).

Once general ideas about the Ts are developed, teams complete Standards-Targets-Assessment Planners to ensure that the plans stay true to the standards and are actually assessed. These seemingly simple charts help school systems see if all standards are actually being taught and assessed (not just “covered.”) Below is a portion of a Standards-Targets-Assessments Planner for a unit focused on the ancient civilization of Egypt. By carefully tracking whether each standard has assessment aligned to it, designers of innovative curriculum can ensure that their work in fact, works.

3. Avoid the “curriculum is finished” trap.

The new standards movement and resulting assessments have brought tremendous pressure to school leaders to get things changed, and get things changed now. But this is definitely a time to go slow(er) and more strategically. Build a recursive process of iterating curriculum rather than a “let’s get it done” mentality. One option is to set up several small-scale pilots, which provide the opportunity to make data-based and stakeholder-informed decisions. Piloting can be inexpensive as well, since many pilots are part of grant-funded research projects. For example, thanks to the US Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), EL Education currently offers an opportunity for districts to pilot its ELA curriculum with a substantial package of professional development support at nearly no cost.

Build in feedback loops. Feedback can come in many forms, but many have benefitted from using the National School Reform Faculty’s Tuning Protocol as the basis for tuning plans. For example, a group of teachers might work together to develop new curriculum. Then additional colleagues from outside of the project would be involved in a Tuning Protocol, perhaps grounded in a rubric that describes quality curriculum, such as the EQuIP Rubric. Then the curriculum would actually be taught, and samples of student work would be used to discuss what students were learning and what gaps might need to be closed. Curriculum would be revised along the way to ensure its quality. In this way, school leaders keep curriculum development robust and ensure that innovations come to life where they need to--with the students.

[1] Phi Delta Kappan, v73 n4 p290-94 Dec 1991

Response From Pia Lindquist Wong

Pia Lindquist Wong is a professor in the Teaching Credentials Department at Sacramento State University. She has been a teacher educator since 1995 and focuses on urban teacher preparation. She is active in local education politics (co-chaired a successful bond campaign for a local school district) and state educational policy-making (she is on the Board of Directors for the California Council for Teacher Education and is also co-chair of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s Committee on Accreditation.) She has co-authored two books, one on Paulo Freire’s tenure as Secretary of Education for Sao Paulo public schools (“Education and democracy: Paulo Freire, education reform and social movements”) and another on urban professional development schools (“Prioritizing urban children, their teachers and schools through professional development schools”):

I was asked to comment on what school leaders can do to support curriculum innovation, but instead, I am going to comment on what school leaders can do to support teachers in a continuous improvement cycle. While continuous improvement is jargon just like innovation, innovation, in my experience, can sometimes cause us to abandon what we are already doing well. So, rather than focus on innovation, I’d like to focus on continuous improvement!

Before the teachers shut off their computers muttering about unrealistic expectations, let me clarify what I mean by continuous improvement. First, what are the goals? The intentional creation and sustained use of teaching practices (instructional strategies, curriculum content choices, etc.) that engage the maximum number of students possible and further their learning in ways that are substantial and generative (learning on day one leads to more learning on day two). Second, why continuous...that sounds so...exhausting!? The continuous part of this acknowledges the dynamic and complex nature of working with groups of young people, where each day is different and poses a variety of challenges and victories because they are human beings in the process of “becoming.” They change, their environment changes, their needs and interests change, and thus teachers must continually adjust as they seek to become expert with that set of teaching practices that connects with their students.

What can school leaders do to engage teachers in this kind of a process? First, make sure all the basics are in order with respect to teachers’ working conditions. The physical plant, classroom conditions, materials and supplies, support staff, information systems - all of these need to be in working order so that the teachers have the “basics” they need to do their job.

Second, work closely with teacher teams to define the school vision for student learning and achievement; translate that back into what needs to happen in each classroom, the hallways, communal areas, front office, teachers’ lounge, staff meetings, and playgrounds/athletic fields to make that vision a reality. Agree upon what progress towards the vision will look like and feel like, for teachers, for students, for families, and so on. Create systems and processes that can serve as feedback loops so that the teachers know if their efforts are generating results. And then do the very best you can to safeguard that vision from educational fads, district mandates, a teacher’s favorite activity, student grumbling, and other kinds of distractions. Don’t spin a cocoon around your school, but do provide your teachers with the conditions they will need to stay focused on this collaborative vision and to make and measure progress towards it.

Third, work together to create a culture of transparency and collaboration where open door policies are the norm, teachers are recognized for effectiveness, effort, and growth, teachers work together and share their expertise and experiences, and teacher professional knowledge is sought, acted upon, and affirmed.

Fourth, seek out additional resources that might provide your teachers with additional (but vision-aligned) professional learning, release time that may facilitate teacher leadership and innovation, new ideas from partners and/or new experiences (e.g., teacher externships in industry, shadowing at other schools), and materials and aides for the classroom (e.g., instructional technology, lab equipment, musical instruments, etc.).

Finally, like any effective teacher, a true instructional leader forms trusting relationships with his/her teachers, understands what motivates them, builds on their strengths, provides support for their growth and development, and advocates for them, for their students, and for the school as a whole.

Response From Fred Ende

Fred Ende is the author of Professional Development that Sticks: How do I create meaningful learning experiences for educators? (ASCD). Ende is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES, one of New York’s 37 regional education service agencies. Connect with Fred on Twitter @FredEnde:

One of the most important aspects of innovation is that it doesn’t have to be an “entirely” new idea. Often, innovation stems from rethinking an older idea, or looking at current practice through a (slightly) different lens. One way for leaders to support curriculum innovation is to listen more (and speak less) when it comes to identifying needs for their staff around professional learning. Too often professional development focuses on misplaced development and not enough on the necessary professionalism. Leaders need to design learning to fit a given audience; “one size fits all” never really fits anyone.

So, if we want to make sure that we support curriculum innovation, we have to first determine the type of innovation support that is going to be needed (and that may be different for different groups of staff members), and then include the voice of educators in how that learning is designed. At the other end of the innovation timeline we have to make sure that we are in it for the long haul. Professional learning needs to have follow-up built in. Since innovation is never easy, once leaders have identified the necessary learning and provided it to team members, leaders need to make sure that there are opportunities to keep that learning going over time. Think of it a bit like driving cross-country. At some point you’re going to need to refill your gas tank; it would be a miracle if you could make it all the way on one tank of gas! So too with learning. If we really want to innovate, then we are going to need to be the gas stations along the highway (or local road); leaders need to make sure opportunities are there to take learning further, or provide support for those who are struggling with the change!

Response From Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin is the author of Engaging & Challenging Gifted Students: Tips for Supporting Extraordinary Minds in Your Classroom, published by ASCD. This award-winning educator teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at University of Cambridge after a K-12 career as teacher, administrator, and chief education & research officer:

From the onset of any curriculum development project, school leaders should embrace the fact that curriculum adoptions are rarely the golden solutions they are marketed to be. This is particularly true amid the relative newness of Common Core State Standards (CCSSs). For example,

- Only 64-69 percent of social studies teachers found their digital instructional resources to be sufficient for helping students master CCSSs, and there were many gaps where some standards were not covered (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2015).

- 85 percent of “CCSS-aligned” K-8 math instructional materials were found to not be truly aligned to CCSS (Heitin, 2015).

- There are not many available materials truly aligned to Next-Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and there will not be for some time; some developers and publishers claim materials are aligned when they were actually created for older standards (Roseman & Koppal, 2015).

- None of the “CCSS-aligned” textbooks and curriculum on the market for math and English were found to meet a large school district’s needs in a review, particularly where the needs of English learners (ELs) were concerned (Zubrzycki, 2014).

For school districts in states that did not adopt CCSS, materials are often developed to meet multiple states’ standards (so they can be marketed more widely) and then “stamped” with a particular state’s standard-alignment after the fact. Thus too much material is present and standard-specific depth is often lacking.

Even when materials are standards-aligned, there is often limited regard for special populations. For example, how can teachers supplement lessons with enrichment activities for gifted students, and how can they provide lesson-specific support for ELs? Teachers should also find opportunities to celebrate the cultures of their students, so they need to find stories and examples that reflect the diverse spectrum of their particular student populations. The same goes for appealing to their specific students’ interests and learning preferences.

School leaders can support curriculum innovations among three key stakeholders: staff, researchers, and vendors:

- To support curriculum innovations among staff, school leaders can provide adequate technology tools (a curriculum management system, collaboration tools, access to large and well-organized lesson banks), collaborative time for professional learning communities (PLCs) with guidance in how to make the most of PLCs, tools and time devoted to identifying gaps and needs before a school year or unit begins, and connections with other schools and districts to share the workload.

- To support curriculum innovations among researchers, school leaders can contact universities with schools of education and other research facilities to make their interest in a curriculum-developing partnership known. Many universities and organizations are pursing grants for which they need to partner with school districts, and any curriculum innovation that involves feedback from current, practicing teachers will be superior to one without such input.

- To support curriculum innovations among vendors, school leaders can forge a close relationship with a current or probationary curriculum provider. Key school staff can then work with the vendor’s team members to create new and revised curriculum that involves closing gaps (e.g., in standards covered, in needs of particular student populations considered, in rigor levels reached, etc.).

Regardless of with whom a school leader works, he or she can play a crucial supporting role in ensuring that effective, comprehensive curriculum is developed. With a school leader championing such a development, students and staff are in capable hands.

Response From Rachael George

Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and is currently the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary school principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School,” as recognized by the Oregon Department of Education. She specializes in curriculum development, instructional improvement, working with at-risk students, and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26:

School leaders can support curriculum innovations by being lead learners within their building or district. While some leaders think they need to have all the answers, it is in fact quite the opposite. Leaders need to be willing to take risks and put themselves out there and learn right alongside the teachers and students. The first thing a leader needs to recognize is that they can do this is by stepping outside their comfort zone and say “yes” when approached with a new idea or strategy within the classroom. Often times leaders are too scared of the impact curriculum innovations will have on their test scores and this is a valid concern, especially in a district or community that puts a lot of value on the results. However, it is up to the leader to support these risks and innovations as kids deserve to have the best education possible and our practices can’t remain stagnant. Teachers need to feel supported and encouraged to take risks as they work to be innovating and positively disruptive with their practice.

As an educator, I often fall back to the questions that if we can’t model how to be innovative and take risks, how can we expect our students to do so. We have to be willing to walk the walk and talk the talk as we look to reframe the discussion on education. This carries over to the public in that as a school leader we need to be communicating with our stakeholders about the various ways schools teach to the whole child and monitor their learning and growing. Being innovating, fostering creativity and problem solving is just one of the ways that we need to be supporting our students.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Cheryl, Pia, Fred, Jenny and Rachael, and to readers, for their contributions!

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