Curriculum Opinion

Successful Leaders Will ‘Find a Way’

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 10, 2013 6 min read
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We are the beneficiaries of a national reform agenda. Changes in curriculum, assessment, and professional evaluation have arrived at our doorsteps. We need leaders who are capable of taking the changes, making sense of them, and understanding how best to reinvent schools. We cannot do that alone. Simply passing on edicts or mandates does little to help teachers know how to do their work in a new a different way. What teachers need are leaders who understand how to pair current best practices with the new work that has to be done. Leaders have to know how to create and maintain an environment in which continuous learning is encouraged and the opportunities provided. The goal is to make adapting and reinventing the way things are done neither painful nor frightening.

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the implementation of the reform agenda is to prevent it from reinforcing a ‘cage for every age.’ The expectations set by the way the Common Core Standards are spelled out for each grade level bolster an environment in which children are below, at, or above expectation. Simply taking the standards and placing them into practice may create even more winners and losers, achievers and non-achievers, celebrated learners and learners for whom we are concerned.

In order to follow the mandate to implement the Common Core Standards and to honor children, leaders have a lot of work to do. In the elementary years, children in every school present wide ranges of abilities. The best schools have figured out how to be flexible enough to meet children where they are and help them grow and develop as learners. This new system raises the bar that is already high for some children. It also redefines what should be accomplished by what grade or age. If we allow this to fortify our already stratified system of expectations for achievement, we will have reinforced a system that has not made successful progress. This is not a good idea. The challenge to leadership is enormous.

What does our system need in order to support teachers’ efforts to bring children from where they are to where the mandates say they should be? How can the system respond to the reality of the variable skills and abilities, the social and emotional needs of students, and the other factors that contribute to a child’s ability to learn or not learn? As the students get older and the grades get higher, the achievement gap increases, and the challenge remains. In the middle and high school, how does a teacher learn about including the reading of more and more complex texts when students remain challenged by reading? This wasn’t in their job description before these standards were adopted. Mandating that middle and high school teachers teach using complex texts and changing the content of high school math courses are just two of the challenges our teachers are facing. The ‘cage for every age’ is a behemoth we can either ignore or conquer.

How can we limit the segregation of those who hit the mark and those who don’t? How can we accelerate the closing of the learning gaps from the beginning of the school experience? How can we determine how to best meet the needs of those who are not able? These questions are not new. These concerns have always weighed heavily in the hearts and minds of teachers and leaders.

A renewed opportunity for addressing these questions arrived with the Common Core Standards. Rather than adopting the Common Core Standards into a system that has failed to close these frustrating gaps, a moment for new questions emerges. This is a leadership moment. We need ‘all hands on deck’ and our teacher leaders are essential. These moments never seem to arrive when things are calm and going well. They usually arrive in times of great difficulty. So here we are.

Mandated changes don’t fit into the local environment without thoughtful consideration. The Common Core example we are using is only one example of changes ‘from away’ that become our responsibility. The political reach into our schools is one that is not changing. So we must do our best to make the changes fit our local environment.

Teachers in every grade are being asked to change their practice. Principals of schools on every level are being asked to recognize, coach, and evaluate those practices. In the words of Diana Nyad, we must “find a way.” We need to listen to what the teachers are saying and respond by holding their frustrations and observations as possibilities. If our minds remain closed to possibilities, the cage doors will slam shut. Not one of us has come to this field to file and categorize children. We must not allow our compliance to extinguish the passion that brought us to this work. A challenge for leaders now, more than ever, is to carry the weight of the mandate while working with faculty to create the best implementation for each school while remembering the children.

A brief New York example is in the new Algebra assessment. This is the first year the new curriculum is being assessed. Topics had been released but examples of what New York’s State Education Department is calling ‘modules’ are just being rolled out now. The state is allowing both the old assessment and the new assessment to be given to students taking Algebra for the first time in the 2013-2014 school year. However, students whose schools have opted to give the ‘old’ assessment must also take the ‘new’ one. The higher grade will be placed on the transcript.

From a political perspective, we suppose this seemed like a good idea. However, on the local level it is not such a good idea. In high schools when students are studying for final exams, having students take two Regents Exams for the same course seems patently unfair. Having them take an assessment in a curriculum that shifted in ways that may have left them with unintended gaps is also unfair. This is an example of a local decision that must be made but will be one from which the students will bear the brunt. How to come to that decision as a community is today’s leadership opportunity.

We need to invite our teachers to continue to reveal the difficulties the students are having as they change their practice to one of empowering students with learning responsibilities. Those words can provide the path toward understanding the need for local change. We have already heard about the need for more learning for teachers and principals, more time to collaborate and learn together, more opportunities to fill the learning gaps for students and more opportunities to challenge students who are ready.

Now is the time for us, as leaders, to find the time, take the time, and encourage our teachers to join us. Parents also have perspectives we need to hear. Although focused on the amount of testing their children are exposed to, they have other experiences to share that can help inform our possibilities. Schedules can be changed. Teaching assignments can be changed. Planned learning experiences for the faculty can be arranged. Encouraging teacher leadership now is essential. Inviting parents to the table is key. This is not a job for a leader alone. The best way to keep faculties from collapsing under the weight of these changes is to engage in the work of possibilities. Something can be changed. Keep the vision of the ‘cage for every age’ in the forefront of everyone’s’ mind as a deterrent and the vision of engaged learners as our goal. Perhaps we can keep positive energy flowing as together, we ‘find a way.’

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.