Tag: school culture

The Crucial Factor in School Success is School Culture (Part 1 of 3)

July 18, 2017 by

Alison Hramiec, Head of School, Boston Day and Evening Academy

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center Hub on June 16, 2017. It is the first of a three-part series. 

School reform is more than incorporating tech tools, being competency-based, or implementing student-centered practices. It’s more than opening the walls or focusing on core competencies. School reform starts by transforming school culture, and reforms flourish when we allow adults to be creative and compassionate human beings.

At Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), we’re lucky to have a regular flow of visitors interested in learning about our unique student-centered, competency-based, trauma-sensitive learning model, and are eager to share their own best practices with us. While it’s our model that initially intrigues visitors, the conversations inevitably shift to what they see and hear in the building. They remark first on how happy the students appear to be, then on how calm the learning environment is, and finally on the respect adults and students convey to one another.

Visitors also know these are not your traditional motivated, happy, independent learners. Our students often have a lifetime of reasons to be angry, depressed, and disengaged. Before enrolling at BDEA, 97 percent of our students had already dropped out of high school or were at risk of doing so. Almost all are living in an ecosystem of poverty, food and housing insecurity, mental and physical health challenges, and suffer from various forms of violence, abuse, anxiety, and other traumas. Seventy percent of our students were suspended at least once in their previous schools. It’s no surprise, then, that many struggle to build healthy relationships, bridge gaps in their learning, and make healthy life choices that lead toward graduation and adult opportunities. But once at BDEA, students tell visitors they feel safe, respected, and free to be exactly who they are without judgment.

SO WHAT’S GOING ON HERE? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? WHY ARE THE STUDENTS HAPPY AND LEARNING?

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3 Innovative Tips for Tackling School Culture

July 14, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on June 20, 2017. 

On the heels of a series of PR nightmares facing Uber’s executives, headlines and speculation about what’s next for the company abound. Some investors have continued to defend the company’s evidently toxic culture, suggesting that once successful entrepreneurs have built a successful product or service, they then can afford to worry about factors like company norms. Others, like Freada Kapor Klein have been less willing to let the company off the hook.

Both sides, however, seem to agree that Uber now needs to commit to fundamentally reshaping its culture. This, of course, may be easier said than done. Company culture is not something that can change over night, which begs the thorny question that USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava put best: Can Uber really change?

Although many school systems’ woes may pale in comparison to allegations permeating Uber, the question of whether entrenched systems can “really change” rings true through education circles today. All too often, new efforts die on the vine if a school culture isn’t lining up around those efforts. And in most reform circles, discussions about change management or school transformation inevitably circle back to nailing school culture. But we often remain short on the specifics of how to do so.

Luckily, innovation theory can help to surface insights on how schools might both measure and change culture. Here are three tips on what we’ve learned about culture, process, and change inside and outside of education:

  1. Find recurring problems

More often than not, discussions of school culture can feel vague. Successful leaders can rarely pinpoint the alchemy of what’s working, and culturally fraught schools can, like Uber employees, feel that all is not well but may struggle to find their way to a solution.

The first step for changing culture is realizing that it can indeed be broken down into something cognizable and measurable. Perhaps counter-intuitively, culture rarely presents itself through well-meaning mission statements or strategy documents. Rather, it manifests itself in repeated processes that are so common that they become virtually unconscious.

This means that measuring the actual components of culture cannot be accomplished merely through school climate surveys that offer self-reported data from staff or students. Although these instruments may help to take the temperature of school culture, they rarely reveal the factors actually contributing to it.

School culture, rather, should be identified through leaders and teachers gaining clear sense of the processes guiding day-to-day practice. Culture results from students and teachers solving problems in a certain way; that solution becomes repeated over and over until it is so ingrained that no one has to think anymore. Schools have many processes and priorities that can coalesce over time into a shared culture. If these processes themselves are broken or routinely marginalize certain actors or priorities, then so too will the culture be broken. (more…)

National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education

June 29, 2017 by
Chris Sturgis

Chris Sturgis

I’m still processing. I find myself waking up several times a night with my brain spinning through conversations and the notes from the Summit. Here are just two of my personal reflections on the Summit. There will be more to come as I work through all of the notes.

Who is in the Room Matters

In the musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr sings about wanting to be in the “room where it happens.” In advancing any social or education effort, there are many rooms where vision, ideas, goals, and strategies are shaped. In the world of competency education (like many other fields), the people in the rooms have often been all or mostly white. We were super-intentional and goal-oriented in how we planned the Summit to bring in four types of diversity – regional, perspective (teacher to national), expertise, and racial & ethnic. The mix of knowledge in the room was extraordinary, with participants actively listening to stretch across their own perspectives.

In terms of the mix based on race & ethnicity, the first Summit was about 95 percent white. The second one was 59 percent. In order to do this, we had to learn to approach the criteria and process of inviting people as well as the agenda differently. We took a “diversity lens” to just about every decision – what is the impact, how would others interpret, feel, and engage. It all paid off – so I was told by many of the participants. It shaped not only the ideas that were introduced, but the comfort of pushing us forward in thinking about what it means to have equity as the core of competency education.

We all want to be in the room where it happens. What I’ve come to realize is that it really matters who is in the room. Yes, we want people who have power and influence in the room in order to commit to making things happen. But unless we have the right mix of people, it’s likely that we are not going to make the best decisions about what will happen.

What is Competency Education?

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Transparency and Trust

March 14, 2017 by

Transparency1

This article is the tenth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Opportunity to Learn

Like most districts, transparency hasn’t been a strong point at D51 in the past. Thus, with transparency being a core value of performance-based education, there are trust issues that will have to be worked through. D51 knows it is important to provide teachers with the chance to understand and learn how to use the T&L Framework and effective practices. Any tools being developed are being designed to support growth – not evaluation. Rebecca Midles, Director of Performance-Based Learning (P-BL), noted that, “We are moving step by step and need to constantly communicate about our timelines and sequencing. Understandably, educators are wondering how the performance-based system will impact them. We are trying to be very clear about whether something is going to be evaluative or not. Eventually the T&L Framework will help us create the foundation for strengthening our human resource processes. But only when we are ready and only after teachers have had the opportunity to learn.” Opportunity to learn standards: an important piece of competency-based education for students and adults.

Preparing for Angst

Bil Pfaffendorf, a professional learning facilitator, mentioned the double edges of transparency. “The sense of trust is changing in D51,” he said. “There is more dialogue, people are sharing their opinions, and they are starting to feel confident that those at the district level are listening. We are all trying to be transparent, which is difficult in the midst of so much change. Transparency is important in building trust. It can also lead to anxiety. If teachers understand the expectations but don’t have the skills yet to do it, anxiety and angst are totally understandable feelings. So we are thinking about the the social and emotional learning of our teachers as we design the labs.”

Angst and anxiety came up several times during my visit. In a discussion, one teacher emphasized, “The level of professional engagement of our teachers is very high. Some are anxious because they recognize they have a lot to learn. Some may even be in cognitive overload as they wrap their heads around what it means to personalize their classrooms. Their can-do attitude is a beacon. It’s inspirational.”

Midles explained to me later that when educators start to feel anxious, it is often for one of two reasons. First, they may feel the expectations of their job are changing or they may not have the skills to excel. Thus, the trust-building response needs to be an assurance that there will be supports provided and that adults will not be evaluated until expectations are clear and they have had an opportunity to learn. Please note, this is the same principle used for students.

Second, anxiety and angst may build up when teachers feel out of control or that new expectations of compliance and control are being layered on top of their jobs. Midles referred to the Csikszentmihalyi model of flow in thinking about the mix of challenge and ability to strengthen educators’ and students’ relationships to learning. A middle school teacher, Darren Cook, explained to me that teachers have endured at least a decade of sweeping new reforms only to be replaced by the newest sweeping reform. With the introduction of the state-teacher evaluation policies that are not rooted in the culture or strategies of the district or their schools, teachers have become even more suspicious of changes. The trust-building response here is to make sure that teachers understand that as the district creates a more intentional common Teaching and Learning Framework, teachers will actually have more autonomy and opportunity for creativity in the strategies and learning experiences they use to help students learn. The other response is to offer opportunity to learn about performance-based learning not through memo or lecture, but through engaged reflective learning as well as opportunity to participate in creating the new system. (more…)

Laying the Foundation with Culture and Climate

February 21, 2017 by

This article is the sixth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Steve Schultz and Rebecca Midles from Getting Smart

The first of District 51’s five phases of implementation is Laying the Foundation. The foundation they are speaking of is the culture and climate in which personalized, performance-based learning can take root. They describe this as “a culture where each student has ownership of his/her academic, social and emotional learning resulting in readiness for success in life.” This description helps you understand their vision for a personalized, performance-based system – the policies, procedures, school design, schedules, learning experiences, supports, and instructional cycle – that is going to help students build the skills they need to become lifelong learners.

D51 has focused most of their attention on creating a robust, empowered culture of learning with the growth mindset, social and emotional learning, and Habits of Mind at its very core. It’s important to remember that the features of their system and their process are also shaping the creation of the culture and climate. (See The Vision of Performance-Based Education at D51.)

There are three things that stood out for me about their efforts that are different than I’ve seen in other districts:

  • Integration of the sixteen Habits of Mind into a Social & Emotional Learning Framework that is organized into developmental bands that will stretch from K-12.
  • Focus on growth mindset that emphasizes helping students learn how to be aware of self-talk and how to create productive self-talk.
  • Growth mindset is also influencing the efforts of designing the elements of the performance-based learning system and personalized support for teachers.

A Culture Rooted in the Growth Mindset

D51 talks about the growth mindset constantly – in professional learning sessions with teachers just becoming familiar with performance-based learning, in meetings with principals to build a culture of reflection as they stretch themselves to strengthen their understanding of their tasks as leaders, and in presentations in the community. It starts at the top – superintendent Steve Schultz models the growth mindset through reflecting on his own learning and a constant fail forward orientation.

Building the Culture and Climate to Support Growth Mindset

D51 has identified five strategies to help people, both students and adults alike, to learn to have a growth mindset. Posters are found all over the district highlighting the five steps: Brain, Mindsets, Self-Talk, Feedback, Goal. I’ve expanded on the third strategy, productive self-talk, as it is the first time I’ve heard a district focus this specifically on it. Click here for the Growth Mindset Learning Continuum.

Growth Mindset

1.Teach About the Brain: Students need to learn about the brain and how it works. Two important points that directly relate to the growth mindset: 1) their intelligence is not fixed and it can change, and 2) their intelligence can get stronger or weaker depending on effort that actually rewires the brain. I heard a facilitator in a professional development session call out with what sounded like true joy, “LET’S REWIRE!” (more…)

Developing Self-Directed Learners

December 22, 2016 by

gsmart3This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on December 6, 2016.

“I haven’t met many self-directed teenagers,” said a frustrated high school teacher during a recent presentation.

As we contemplate the vast problem of teenage disengagement and the apparent low level of self-direction, we have to ask, “Is it our kids or our schools?”

We’ve seen enough high engagement schools where most teens were self-directed to suggest that it may be the design of American secondary schools that’s the problem—not the kids.

For a century, the primary design meme of American schools has been compliant consumption. Students read, practice and regurgitate in small chunks in siloed classes in regimented environments. Low levels of self-direction shouldn’t be surprising—it is inherent in the traditional secondary school design.

High engagement schools start from a different conception—knowledge co-creation and active production. They design a very different learner experience and support it with a student-centered culture and opportunities to improve self-regulation, initiative and persistence—all key to self-directed learning.

Why Does Self-Direction Matter?

Growth of the freelance- and gig-economy makes self-direction an imperative, but it’s also increasingly important inside organizations. David Rattray of the LA Chamber said, “Employees need to change their disposition toward employers away from work for someone else to an attitude of working for myself—agency, self-discipline, initiative and risk-taking are all important on the job.” (more…)

Nicole Assisi’s Seven Tips for Diversifying Your Organization

September 7, 2016 by
Thrive Public School for Voice of San Diego

Nicole Assisi

On Friday, August 19th I had the opportunity to talk with Nicole Assisi of Thrive Public Schools (recognized for project-based, blended learning, social-emotional learning) regarding how they have been able to diversify their staffing to represent the students and families they serve. Their site leadership is now 71 percent people of color, staff is 28 percent Latino, 8 percent African-American, and 8 percent Asian-Pacific Islanders, and the CMO staff is 50 percent people of color.

On that very same day, Education Secretary John King called out for greater educator diversity: While students of color make up the majority in our public schools, just 18 percent of teachers identify as people of color. …We must do more to support teachers of color at all points across the teacher pipeline so students today can benefit from and become the teachers and mentors of tomorrow.

Why Diversity Matters

His statement was in regards to the release of a Brookings Institute report High hopes and harsh realities: The real challenges to building a diverse workforce. The authors do report some good news: The number of minority teachers in the nation has doubled over the past few decades from about 325,000 in the late 1980s to 660,000 in 2012. But the bad news: The improvements aren’t keeping pace with the proportion of “minority” students in our classrooms (which now add up to be a majority). I think the summary of the research on why diversity matters is important to review. The authors highlight three sets of research:

1) Same-race matches between students and teachers are associated with greater student achievement. Studies of elementary students in Florida (Egalite, Kisida, & Winters, 2015), North Carolina (Goldhaber & Hansen, 2010), and Tennessee (Dee, 2004) find improvements in math and reading achievement from being taught by a same-race teacher. Effects are estimated to be stronger among low-performing black students (Egalite, Kisida, & Winters, 2015).

2) Same-race teachers are more likely to view students’ behaviors and prospects in a positive light. Black teachers have higher expectations for black students’ academic futures (e.g., perceived likelihood of graduating high school) than do white teachers (Fox, 2016); (Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016). Dee (2005) and McGrady & Reynolds (2012) find that students who have a teacher from a different race/ethnicity have higher odds of being rated inattentive than students with same-race teachers, and white teachers rate black students as having lower scholastic aptitude. A nationally representative study found that black children are more likely to be rated worse in assessments of their externalized behaviors when they have a white teacher than when they have a black teacher (Bates & Glick, 2013). Relatedly, black students in classrooms with black teachers are three times more likely to be assigned to gifted services than those in classrooms with non-black teachers (Grissom & Redding, 2016).

3) Student behaviors and attitudes are also associated with teacher race. Students assigned to a same-race teacher have significantly fewer absences and suspensions, and are less likely to be chronically absent than their counterparts who had an other-race teacher (Holt & Gershenson, 2015). Students who share racial/ethnic characteristics with their teachers tend to have a more favorable perception of their teachers (Egalite & Kisida, 2016).

The paper goes on to describe the “leaks” in the pipeline – and as overwhelming as it can feel to see it all outlined in one place, each of us has a role in expanding and tightening the pipeline. In the world of competency education, our job is to both diversify the state education agencies, national organizations and intermediaries as well as the districts and schools serving students. (more…)

Talking Equity with John Duval

August 11, 2016 by
john_duval

John Duval

This is the ninth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery CollaborativeThe Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, Flushing International, KAPPA International, North Queens Community High School, EPIC North, and New Classrooms

“Mastery-based learning can reopen a conversation about equity.”

With just these few words, John Duval launched us into a dynamic conversation. Duval leads the Model Redesign Team in the Office of Postsecondary Readiness, which houses a number of initiatives related to high school innovation around areas of whole school design, competency-based education (including the Mastery Collaborative), culturally relevant pedagogy, and effective uses of school time. Previously, Duval led the launch of the New York City Department of Education’s Expanding Success Initiative (ESI). This initiative, dedicated to improving education for African-American and Latino young men, launched the EPIC model, which will have four schools in both district and charter variations this coming September. Here are a few highlights of the conversation:

The Intersection of Culturally Responsive Education and Competency-Based Education

ESI designed the EPIC model with four core concepts, including competency-based education (CBE) and culturally responsive education (CRE), or the belief that “achievement is anchored not just in building from one’s existing strengths but in full engagement of one’s self and lived experience.” (See the EPIC Playbook for more information.) Duval explained how the intersection of these two concepts transforms the classroom and school dynamics. “Let’s start with the idea that mastery-based learning is a better way to do school,” he said. “When you focus on competencies, you are focusing on the ability to transfer skills and you are focusing on the important higher orders skills. In CBE, this is real shift for the teaching force in two ways. First, from a design perspective, it requires creating more complex learning arcs for young people. This is very difficult, especially if you’ve never been trained this way. Second, it creates more transparency and accountability for everyone involved. Once a student – especially an African American or Latino one – knows what skills he or she is supposed to develop, he or she can pinpoint what a teacher is or is not doing to help them.”

He continued, “Just knowing that grading is more objective based on progress toward standards rather than the highly variable, subjective conventional grading can bring a huge change in the student experience. Then when the practices are in place for students to have more agency and responsibility for their education, there can be a tremendous cultural shift in the school. There is more respect for students. And there is the expectation that when there is tension or conflict between a student and teacher, listening to each other and understanding each other’s perspective is the avenue for resolving it, not taking the student out of the classroom or the school. The practice of exclusion inhibits learning on the part of students and adults.” (more…)

Get the Culture Right: The Most Important New School Factor

July 27, 2016 by

GS1This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on June 28, 2016.

“Attend to your culture,” said Jim May who supports about 25 new schools each year for New Tech Network. “From certificates of occupancy to emergency plans to hiring, the list of operational realities that must be addressed when starting a new school is immense. Thus, it can be easy to overlook the importance of your staff and student culture during those early days. However, it is imperative that even amidst the swirl of starting the school that you are intentional about establishing a strong set of cultural norms and rituals that can animate your work in the coming year.”

What’s most important when opening a new school? I asked 20 experts who have collectively opened more than a thousand schools. They shared 70 hard-won lessons and it’s clear that getting the culture right is the single most important factor in the long-term success of a school.

Opening a great school is an enormously complicated project. It involves real estate, construction, financing, logistics and marketing, which most educators don’t initially know anything about.

“Most of us who want to start schools because we like instruction, but the one thing no one tells us is that when you start a school, 90% of what who do early on has nothing to do with instruction,” said Dr. Nicole Assisi, Thrive Public Schools, who has opened five southern California schools. (more…)

NYC Big Takeaways

July 14, 2016 by

Selfie ShotThis is the first post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. 

I love my job – always learning, always meeting incredibly insightful, dedicated educators, always seeing new parts of the country – it’s just one big adventure. However, the most recent trip to New York City was also fun, fun, fun thanks to the incredible team at the NYC Mastery Collaborative: Jeremy Kraushar, Joy Nolan, and Juliana (Charlie) Brown. Natalie Abel, program manager at iNACOL and project manager for CompetencyWorks, also came along to get to see mastery-based learning up close. Add on seeing Hamilton, which helped to sweep out some of the webs of racial bias that seeps into one’s head, and this trip was by far one of the highlights of 2016.

I learned so much from this trip and have done my best to capture the depth of the conversations in each of the posts:

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