Author: Bill Zima

ReInventing Schools at the District Level

November 10, 2014 by
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Bill Zima

In 2012, Maine established policy for schools to award proficiency-based diplomas starting in 2018. As the years passed, it became clear that some districts, including mine, needed more time to get all the pieces in place. In April of 2014, The Maine Department of Education agreed to allow extensions for districts as long as they met specific criteria demonstrating the district was moving forward. There were six options ranging from no extension to taking a full three years.

My district chose option five, which required us to partner with a coach to help with the transition to a learner-centered, proficiency-based system. We decided to partner with the ReInventing Schools Coalition. This decision was made based on their affiliation with Marzano Research Labs and their proven record of supporting schools through the transition. Also, the middle school, of which I am the principal, already had a working relationship with them. We have found them to be tireless in their commitment to support us through the process of meeting our vision.

With our limited funds, the decision was made to begin the district work with leadership teams from each of the schools in the district. The groups met for a single day over the summer to talk about the ReInventing Schools framework. While it was nice to only spend a single day on this topic, I would not recommend it as the norm for the introduction. Since the ReInventing Schools Coalition is well-known in Maine, having worked with many school districts in the past six years, their framework is familiar to many educators. Add to this the catalyst of the proficiency-based diploma law, and it gave our coach the ability to move quickly, leaving only a few of the school leaders needing support in the days that followed. (more…)

Let the Lifting Begin

September 11, 2014 by
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From wikicommons

This is the second post in the series on how to get started in converting your school to competency education. See Part 1, Just Start.

Futurist author Joel Barker said, “Vision without action is merely a dream.” Once upon a time, I had a dream of being an Olympic weightlifter. My name is called. I slowly rise. I adjust my weight belt as I approach the barbell. The red jumpsuit is really uncomfortable in all the wrong places. I squat with my back straight to make sure I use my knees just like my former supervisor told me when we unloaded boxes at the grocery store. I know he would be happy that his obsession with proper lifting had finally sunk in. I make the necessary grunting sound and heave upon the rod that connects the mere 350 pounds. Unlike the Olympic athletes I watched as a child, my barbell does not even budge. Sure I have a grand vision for how to clean and jerk that weight, but a vision is only the first step on a path to the true heavy lifting.So now that you have a great purpose statement for why your school or district exists –  something just short of “To make the world a better place” – and you have determined HOW you will work to realize that purpose, it is time to get to the heavy lifting.

To help move the purpose and the vision of the school from the dream state to a reality, we needed action. We created a three-year professional plan, identified what needed to happen the first year, and then created action plans for those items. The primary activities were developing a framework of skills, scoring scales and assessments. (more…)

Just Start

August 19, 2014 by

Just startWhat do Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Bill Belichick, and Anshul Samar have in common? Sure, they all had a vision of what they wanted to accomplish. But more importantly, they got STARTED. The difference between a great idea and an idea that makes a great difference, is someone executed it. To engage in the process of continuous improvement, the crux of leadership, one needs to begin. As investor and motivational speaker Robert Kiyosaki said, “If you are the kind of person who is waiting for the ‘right’ thing to happen, you might wait for a long time. It’s like waiting for all the traffic lights to be green for five miles before starting the trip.”

The person most responsible for the construction of the path to change for any school is the principal. Too often administrators try to line up all the pieces so there is a guarantee we do not make a mistake. After all, we are working with young minds. A simple mistake could ruin their future. So we analyze, plot, analyze again, get new information, see how that informs our decision, analyze again, make adjustments, analyze the adjustments, which causes the need for more decisions. All of this is hypothetical since we have nothing tangible to adjust. Voltaire warned, “Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” We need to not worry and simply apply what we know today. The fear of hitting the magic switch and turning our students into thoughtless zombies left to wander aimlessly in a land of lost potential is unfounded. What school leaders need to do, regardless of role, is get a vision of their postcard destination, map the critical steps to get them from where they are to where they want to be, and then take that important first step. (more…)

A Tide of Understanding

April 10, 2014 by

MLately, I have been pondering how to help educators better visualize a progression of learning targets while warning them to avoid the linearity that seems so obvious. When first observing a progression, the continuous increase of complexity is hard to miss. So it is easy to conclude that students should finish the first step, then move to the next, complete that, and then the next, constantly ascending the ladder of learning. The problem with this vision is it does not represent how thinking and learning occur. Learning is not a constant. It ebbs and flows like the incoming tide on a coastal beach. Missing this can lead to using the progression as a checklist of skills and not fully using the advantage given by having a well-defined continuum of learning targets.

The power of a progression lies in its ability to make clear to student and teacher which learning outcome is centered in that student’s zone of proximal development. Without knowing what students have already mastered, been exposed to, or are just beginning, educators risk attempting to engage students in learning that is too low or too high. If we assume all students are at the same level of readiness simply because they are all in the same grade, we risk boredom or stress. In an earlier post, I talked about the stress caused by a lack of clarity in teacher expectations. Learners need the right level of stress in order to foster the attention needed to have a good performance. Too little pressure and we are bored; too much and we become fatigued and exhausted on our way to a breakdown (see graph). Learners need to be in the comfort zone. A learning progression will help identify where that is for each individual. (more…)

Piecing it Together

January 16, 2014 by

piecing it together photoLately, I have been reflecting on my past experiences. Not because of illness or a milestone, but because I read something in a Tweet. Seems as though some people are concerned about proficiency-based learning. The worry is that it can lead to the creation of “microstandards” which kill deep learning and replace it with simplistic, discrete tasks that students master and check off before moving on to the next. While I have seen schools take standards and create worksheet factories so students can demonstrate mastery of the standards by simply completing the packet, I do not blame the breaking down of the standards. I believe it is good practice to identify the foundational knowledge a learner needs to apply to demonstrate understanding of a learning target. Instead, I believe the issue lies in educators not putting the pieces back together.

This revelation is what has caused the flashbacks to my previous work experiences. I did not start out as an educator. Before finding my way to the principal’s office, I worked as an engineer, a research scientist, and an animal trainer for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Regardless of the special skills required for each job, I approached issues and challenges the same. I needed to know my intended outcome, identify from where I was starting, break down the gap to script the critical moves to get me there, execute the script, and then put the pieces back together. (more…)

The Power of Clear Expectations

November 4, 2013 by
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Brandon Busteed
Executive Director, Gallup Education

This August, the school year began with the staff watching and discussing a speech by Brandon Busteed, Executive Director, Gallup Education. We were asked to think about how his thoughts informed our work of creating a learner-centered, proficiency-based system. I had watched the video several times over the previous month to pull driving questions to guide the conversation. But on this day, in front of my colleagues, I had a thought that sparked like a transformer being hit by lightning. Brandon asked, “What is the ultimate outcome of education?” I paused the video and asked the educators to discuss it at their tables. I never thought twice about the response, “to create a love of learning.” That was until now. “That is wrong,” I heard myself say. “No. It is right,” I responded. “How can anyone argue against being a life-long learner?” Suddenly I had an argument so fierce in my neurons it was as if they were celebrating the Fourth of July again.

When my focus returned to the room, I was pleased no one had noticed my momentary, self-inflicted argument. Somehow, I managed to hold the outburst inside. As I continue to reflect on that day, I have become more convinced that preparing life long learners is not a role for education. Rather, a better response to Brandon’s question is, “The ultimate outcome of education is to nurture a student’s already implicit love for learning and keep them engaged in their formal education.” What I have come to realize is that humans naturally possess a love of learning. It is as intrinsic a quality to being human, as is having hair. In his book How the Brain Learns, author David Sousa argues that if schools stopped existing today, we would not have a land of thoughtless zombies tomorrow. Students will continue thinking and learning. He says educators should not worry about teaching how to think but about teaching how to think more efficiently. (more…)

Lens 4: Culture

August 8, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-08-01 at 3.33.40 PMIn earlier posts, I described a framework of leadership I believe is needed if the work of converting to a student-centered, proficiency-based system of learning is to be successful. I base my thinking on my own experiences and the tales of leaders gone before. The framework is built around four lenses. They are building a leadership team, action planning (both described in earlier posts), meeting facilitation, and culture. This final post looks to further describe the lens of culture.

Culture. It is not part of the game. It is the game. Does your building believe all students can learn? Do the educators have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset? Do they believe they have a say in how the school operates? What are those measurable values and truths your school emulates?  Dr. Henry Cloud in his book “Boundaries for Leaders makes it very clear, “Culture is established through what the leader creates and what the leader allows.” I have too often listened to school administrators find every reason to explain away their poor culture. They blame the Department of Education, the parents, Central Office and even the students. I too blamed the external environment until I realized that the culture of my school is the one thing I can impact directly. Once I understood that culture is the organizational values, what people believe and are willing to work for, I realized that I can affect what is happening for our students. By focusing on school culture, I can impact student achievement, graduation rates, and teacher effectiveness. This is why I assess culture early and often. (more…)

Lens 3: Meeting Facilitation

August 1, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 11.43.02 AMIn earlier posts, I described a framework of leadership I believe is needed if the work of converting to a student-centered, proficiency-based system of learning is to be successful. I base my thinking on my own experiences and the tales of leaders gone before. The framework is built around four lenses. They are building a leadership team, action planning (both described in earlier posts), meeting facilitation, and culture. This post looks to further describe the lens of meeting facilitation.

I remember the excitement I felt the night before my first team leader meeting. I laid awake visioning different scenarios of how I should act. I could sit quietly and listen to the experts discuss teaching and learning. I could share some thoughts of my own? What should I share? What do I know? Would I say something stupid and lose their respect? Did I even have their respect? The night went on but sleep did not.

The morning came. I hurried to the meeting carrying my Team Leader Binder under my arm as though I was tasked with delivering the Magna Carta. I pushed the door open and found an empty room. I took my seat and waited. People trickled in like a slow drip from the kitchen faucet. They gave me a cordial smile and took their seats. With one minute to go, the assistant principal entered the room. She did not sit. Instead she stood at the head of the conference table and opened her binder like a maestro getting ready to lead the orchestra. She watched the clock. As the clock struck eight, she began.

“Looking at the agenda, we have picture day next Monday. Any questions?” She glanced around the room, but it was clear she was not looking for any. Instead we moved to the next item. “Grades will close on January 23. Any questions?” With the same interest in hearing input, she moved onto the next item, then the next. When all the agenda items were covered, she closed her binder and said, “See you next week.” Without even looking at the leaders, she vacated the room. The leaders followed, congratulating each other on finishing the meeting in under 15 minutes. I sat in my seat wondering what had just happened. (more…)

Lens 2: Action Planning

July 10, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 9.34.37 AMIn earlier posts, I attempted to describe an overall framework of leadership I believe is needed if the work of converting to a student-centered, proficiency-based system of learning is to be successful. I base my thinking on my own experiences and the tales of leaders gone before in both education and business. The framework is built around four lenses through which leaders’ practices must pass. When the lenses are aligned and what we do passes through, our work is focused on our vision. The four lenses of leadership are building a leadership team (discussed in an earlier blog post), action planning, meeting facilitation, and culture. This post looks to further describe the lens of action planning.

A well-built leadership team must identify and share what they will do. What actions will be taken to help our organization in the process of continuous improvement. In Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt states that actions are what give strategies traction. Without well defined action steps, you have wheel spinning.

In years past, my school’s leadership team met prior to the opening of school and set goals around how we taught, assessed, and supported our learners. The vision was of a school that asked the teacher to differentiate more and more while the system continued moving students in age-like cohorts whether or not they were ready for the next year’s curriculum. Once we realized this was not improving learning for all students, we created a vision of a school that included the statement, “Students working their way through a well defined continuum of learning using their passions to create a path and choose how they will demonstrate their understanding of the learning.” Borrowing a term from Switch by Dan and Chip Heath, this new vision became our “postcard destination.” Now we needed to identify and script the critical moves to make it a reality. (more…)

Lens 1: Building A Great Leadership Team

June 7, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 3.44.50 PMAs my responsibility changed from a single classroom, to a team, to the full school, I attempted to be the expert in everything from assessment to ventilation. I assumed I was hired because I had the answers. I also felt responsible to get the work done. How could I ask others to do it if I was not willing to do it myself? The work and the stress piled up. The attempt to be the lone expert in each and every room began to deteriorate my energy, and worse, my working relationships with my colleagues.

Then I listened to Creating Magic by Lee Cockerell, the once Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World Resort. He suggested that the higher a person goes in an organization, the less of the actual work they do. He said leaders need to empower their direct reports by giving them a voice in how the job gets done. This allows for the innovative procedures and processes to be created.

Who were my direct reports? Schools are not designed as companies with departments with various levels of management. In my school, there are 61 teachers distributed amongst three grade levels: sixth, seventh and eighth, special education, and our Exploratories, with an assistant principal and a principal. Leadership teams in many schools are often constructed because someone fits a role instead of having leadership abilities. “The third grade representative is leaving, no one is interested, so I am going to do it” is not an uncommon statement. Another is, “Can we rotate the position for the year?” Both of these lead to a lack of consistency needed to build a well functioning leadership team.

I now find the leaders, and then have them assume the role. So my conversations might sound like, “Part of your responsibilities on the leadership team is to check in with the sixth grade teachers and see how they are progressing on our goals.” This also keeps the focus on the goals and the ownership of progress on the teams. (more…)

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