As the new school year approaches, I have been thinking about some of the high-performance, high-expectations schools in which I’ve been privileged to work.
What is particularly striking is that these schools, public elementary and middle schools across Massachusetts, are truly joyful places; you can see it in the enthusiasm of the students and the smiles of their teachers!
It’s very hard work, teachers say, but it’s worth it; they are seeing their students perform at previously unimagined levels. These outstanding schools share seven key elements.
The first is differentiated instruction. The teacher needs to address each student at her appropriate level. With the ever greater range of student proficiency in today’s schools, this is virtually impossible if the teacher is standing in front of the class addressing all the students as a single group.
Inevitably, some of the students will be frustrated because the lesson is over their heads, and others will be bored because they’ve already mastered what’s being taught. Instead, the teacher should be working with small groups of students – teaching them at their level – for the greater part of the day. The students not with the teacher should be working in small groups, with expectations set appropriately for each student.
The bottom line is that the more time each student’s mind is engaged (he is being taught or is practicing at his appropriate level), the more he’ll learn.
Students learn best when their mind is in gear all day long, making student engagement the second element. At the teacher table it means calling on students even when they have not raised their hands and having high-level, two-way student-teacher dialogue. When they are not with the teacher, it means students talking with each other – reading aloud, asking each other questions, searching for evidence. And in math, solving problems, comparing solutions and coming to an understanding of why some answers are correct and others not.
It means teaching students what really good writing looks like, and then having students review and edit each other’s work. Instead of one teacher and 25 students, in a truly great classroom there are 26 “teachers”.
As students progress, teachers should be constantly looking for ways to raise the ante, by channeling the third element: rigor. At our BSRI partner schools, students are expected in first grade to be able to differentiate fact from opinion (a skill, alas, in scarce supply these days!). By third grade, they are debating complex topics, like genetically modified foods and the ethics of testing human drugs on animals. Students do their own research and conduct the debates in groups of four or six, while the teacher is across the room working with other students. Here’s the thing – whatever their backgrounds or challenges, all students love high-expectations, high-engagement classrooms. There is very little disruptive behavior in such classrooms, because the students are so deeply engaged in their work. There may be student tears in June when students have to go home for the summer.
Teacher collaboration comprises the fourth element. In an outstanding school, teachers understand that they have the capacity to help every student excel, and they work collaboratively to make this happen – they share and discuss individual student data with their peers and with the principal; they observe each other’s classrooms and ask for each other’s suggestions.
The fifth element is school leadership. A school cannot provide students an outstanding education over several years unless virtually every teacher is on board. This only happens when the principal articulates a strong vision for the school, visits classrooms constantly, knows the pedagogy he or she is looking for, occasionally makes specific requests for changes in teaching and – most important – provides teachers room to apply their own teaching insights and creates a climate where teachers feel safe to take risks. It’s hard for a school to excel without an in-house instructional coach – a teacher whose job is to help her fellow teachers improve their teaching. I’ve found that a solid working relationship between principal and instructional coach is a sure signpost for a successful school.
Use of data comes in sixth. Systematic discussion of individual student data (short, regularly administered, formative assessments given to all students) between the principal and her grade-level teams is essential to identifying students who are falling behind, to empowering teachers by helping them know exactly where each child needs help, and to making sure that the interventions used to help struggling students are working. Regular no-blame, student-centered discussion of this data is a key step in promoting a collaborative school culture.
Last but not least: a supportive superintendent. Just as teachers need support from their principal, the superintendent has to have her principals’ backs if change is to occur. In the end, it is the superintendent who selects principals and gives them their marching orders.
The key step in creating this kind of school is changing the way the principal, teachers and students interact with each other. Teachers at our partner schools tell us that having a principal who respects and cares about them, who is helping them succeed and who understands that when they try something new it may not always work out is critical to creating a climate of teacher collaboration and empowerment. In the same way, students will blossom when they feel supported and respected by their teachers.
Changing these relationships and putting the seven crucial elements in place will unlock the potential for excellence that has been there all along in the great majority of principals, teachers and students.
Edward Moscovitch is the executive director and cofounder of the Bay State Reading Institute, a Massachusetts nonprofit education group currently working with 50 middle and elementary schools and 20,000 students across the state. As a consultant to the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, he helped draft and pass the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Law.