Does your school’s/district instructional ecosystem support student achievement?

Highly regarded, of ill repute, or lackluster, all schools/districts have a culture; however few schools/districts have a clearly understood, agreed upon, consistently communicated, and strategically supported culture of instruction.

So, you might ask, “Why is it important for schools/districts to have a clearly understood, agreed upon, consistently communicated, and strategically supported culture of instruction?”

Well, it is the culture of instruction of a school or district that members of the learning community, either consciously or unconsciously reinforce or undermine through their thoughts, words, and behavior.

The culture of instruction is the proverbial goal post or standard of service by which each member of the learning community (mature and immature) must judge the impact of their contribution to the realization of the mission and vision of the local school(s), but also their contribution to the broader, aspirational goals of the organization as a unit.

It is a clear understanding of the culture of instruction for every individual that comprises the organization that allows for collaboration and reflective practices. It is agreement regarding standards of engagement among the leadership, followership, and end user of the education that we produce for children to consume that allows for instructional norms and expectations to be established and institutionalized. It is consistent, multi-tiered communication of the elements of the culture of instruction that drives the long-term professional development agenda and variances in structure, function, frequency, and duration of growth opportunities. Lastly, it is the strategic support of the culture of instruction that precludes members of the organization from being overexposed to the doom loop (start this, stop this, start that, stop that) approach to organizational development and school improvement.

So what is the epiphany? This week’s epiphany comes in the form of a pair of rhetorical questions.

Do children in your school/district believe that every adult whom they encounter is knowledgeable enough to be of support to them instructionally? Or do they hear adults utter these deleterious words, “Don’t ask me about math…English is not my thing?” These utterances and the spirit (philosophy) behind them have a negative impact on your school and district to accomplish its academic goals. When we step out of the classroom teacher role and into a teacher leader or administrator role (site-based or central office) we are not absolved of the responsibility of knowing content and direct service to children!

What makes this discussion timely and relevant to you as a conscientious educator?

Last week, I had an opportunity, as I regularly do, observe teachers in schools implementing my ideas for promoting student achievement and school improvement. As I entered a sixth grade math classroom, a student looked at me in a peculiar way, as to size up my content knowledge and said without pause, “Do you know math?” I replied, “Yes.” Then she said, “Well come here and help me.” Happy to be of service, I approached her desk hoping that I had the knowledge necessary to be of support to her acquisition of new knowledge and ability. And thank heavens, I was. She was having difficulty with the order of operations and the distributive property. We worked a few problems together and I gradually released her from dependence upon my knowledge of the order of operations and the distributive property to dependence upon her own knowledge and capacity. She dismissed me by saying, “thank you” after she realized that she didn’t need me anymore.

What is the epiphany?  

With so many of your children struggling to reach the proficiency finish line, we must take an all-hands-on-deck approach to teaching and learning. Your culture of instruction must be reinforced by a clear understanding that each member of the learning community must view himself/herself as a part of students’ instructional ecosystem. Your culture of instruction must be built upon the premise that all new and returning members of the community must agree to a relentless focus of “what’s strong in the organization,” rather than lamenting about “what’s wrong.”  Your culture of instruction must be continuously strengthened by a commitment to developing capacity and recognizing merit. Your culture of instruction must be stabilized by the constructive effect of strategic planning that artfully employs systems and structures to forecast the future and readies the organization for its impact.

Children rise to the level of our expectations and our support.

Does your culture of instruction promote a thirst for knowledge? Does your culture of instruction celebrate inquiry and intellectual curiosity? Do children see instructional leaders as teachers or managers of people and stuff? Public education (traditional, charter, and parochial) as we know it is on life support and we must act now to preserve our future as a nation. In order to improve the future of public education, we must act now by providing children with schooling experiences born out of a clearly understood, agreed upon, consistently communicated, and strategically supported culture of instruction designed not to build the capacity of students to memorize content specific facts, rather to teach children to use their content knowledge to build their capacity to become independent readers, writers, thinkers, problem solvers, and creators of information for others to consume.

For more of my thoughts on building a school-wide/district-wide culture of instruction, read chapter two of The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement – Second Edition. The book is available exclusively on our website www.educationalepiphany.com.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

What do high expectations have to do with authentic student engagement?

School is one of the most influential systems in a child’s ecology and it is that ecology that almost irrevocably shapes a child’s subsequent disposition toward learning and the pursuit of new knowledge. So imagine a child eager to explore, willing to take risks, enthusiastic about engaging his/her peers, and earnestly willing to respond to prompts from teachers, whose schooling experience is constructed day after day, year after year by adults who have made a series uninformed judgments and decisions about his/her intellectual capacity based on race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, family structure, or the zip code in which the neighborhood school resides.

Not one conscientious educator or policy maker reading this post would allow their offspring to be knowingly subjected to adults who would, even in the slightest, underserve their child for any of the aforementioned reasons. Yet every day, in America, children are met as they step off the school bus onto campus, as they enter the schoolhouse, as they open their lockers, and as they enter their classrooms by adults who harbor low expectations for the same children whom they have taken a pledge to serve to the best of their ability.

And you know what?

Many of our children can sense the low expectations that adults have of them. They often know and can sometimes articulate how adults with low expectations make them feel, but are we listening? Equally disconcerting is the fact that many of our children do not have a mechanism for processing or confronting the intangible, low expectations to which they are subjected frequently. So as a result, they turn inward, they disengage, they fail to be available emotionally to receive the education that they deserve and inadvertently their subsequent behavior reinforces the stereotypes projected upon them by the adults who should have known better than to judge children by their covers.

My scholarly research and experience as a teacher and school administrator (at the elementary, middle, and high school level) has shown me, without fail, that outside of expert-level knowledge of the content and effective delivery of instruction, the greatest catalysts of improvements in academic outcomes is a student-teacher relationship characterized by care, mutual respect, and high expectations. After all, the unit of change for student achievement and school improvement is not central office; it’s not a new textbook or basal; and it’s not even a new set of state-wide curricular standards. The unit of change for student achievement and school improvement is the classroom.

Wanting to better understand the impact of student-teacher relationships and teacher expectations on student achievement, I extensively interviewed eight African American middle school boys in a high-poverty, urban middle school in the Northeast. Each pupil reported the existence of a strong relationship between respectful interactions, high expectations, and their demonstrated ability to achieve academically. Without reluctance, the boys explicitly stated that it was their teachers who had the greatest effect on their desire and subsequent ability to achieve academically. Anthony and Andrew were specific about how their teachers motivated them to achieve academically. They described the motivating force as teachers’ concern for them as students. Anthony stated,

“The teachers care about your learning. They want you to get it. I know the teachers and they know me. They make me pay attention. They get on me [when I don’t]. They tell me to stay focused and pay attention.”

Andrew argued vehemently, “They give you a chance to do better…to hand in your work even if you are absent. They care. They make sure that you know what you need to know and need to have in your head. And even if the work is hard, they tell you that you can do it if you try.”

When asked to identify and discuss that which has the greatest influence on his desire to achieve, Earnest said without hesitation, “It’s the teachers. They make you want to learn.” Harold responded similarly, “The teachers make me want to achieve. They care about your attendance.” When asked how the adults in their classrooms regarded them, the boys overwhelmingly described their teachers’ treatment of them with one phrase—“With respect.” The boys also argued that the respect they are shown held them accountable for their behaviors and academic performance and subsequently required them to interact with the teachers in a comparable fashion.

Anthony said, “The teachers treat me with respect. That makes me want to allow them to teach what they have to teach. The respect that they show me requires me to do their work. It makes me want to hear what they have to say and teach. If I ruin the respectful relationship, the teacher will care less.”

On the same accord, Keith said, “The teachers treat me with respect. If I am doing something wrong, they tell me. Then I will straighten up. They take me to the side to correct me. They don’t put me on the spot to embarrass me. That helps me to get back on track and keep on learning. It makes me want to show respect back by learning and not talking or interrupting.”

Charles agreed saying, “The teachers are respectful. They don’t say bad stuff to me. They tell me ‘good job’ when I do well and if I am acting up, they correct me, which makes me want to learn from my mistakes and do well in school.”

Daniel offered this quote to explain how a caring, respectful, teacher with high expectations translates into willingness to learn, “They treat me with respect and fairness… no difference in how boys and girls are treated. Since they don’t take sides, I can learn from them and participate in class.” When describing how his relationships with teachers influence his desire to achieve academically, Harold said, “They are nice and welcoming. They say good morning and good to see you. They even hug you. And because I look up to them, that makes me want to come to school every day and learn more.”

Earnest responded similarly, saying, “They treat me well and it impacts my grades because they treat me so well that it makes me want to achieve.” Lastly, Andrew stated, “The teachers have manners. They don’t do bad things to students. When they [the teachers] treat you well and believe in you, it makes you think that you can do well on a test.”

So here is the epiphany.

In short, the middle school boys with whom I spoke, overwhelmingly linked student-teacher relationships and high teacher expectations to their willingness and capacity to achieve academically. They reported that because teachers were caring, respectful and believed in their intellectual capacity to achieve, it became incumbent upon them to: (a) respond in-kind by engaging in instruction authentically; (b) refrain from engaging in disruptive behaviors; and (c) demonstrate the acquisition of new knowledge and skills whether through classwork, homework, or performance on quizzes and tests.

The boys also regarded the constant reminders to focus and remain focused as useful and reflective of their teachers’ concern for their wellbeing. Equally significant is the notion suggested by the boys that their teachers’ high classroom expectations transferred to expectations in non-classroom settings reinforcing the importance of exercising executive functioning to maximize access to instructional time. Lastly, the boys described a link between the quality and rigor of classwork and homework and high teacher expectations. The boys purported that their classwork and homework assignments supported their abilities to perform academically, think critically, and problem solve as opposed to regurgitate information in the same form it was presented by the teacher. They believed that access to this level of instruction was directly connected to their teachers’ belief in their intellectual capacity to do the work, which fueled their engagement and drive to achieve.

For more on my research on the link between high expectations and student achievement, read chapter 1 of The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement – Second Edition. It is available exclusively on our website – www.educationalepiphany.com.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

Exactly what is leadership? (Part II)

Last week’s post on leadership was so popular that I  thought it appropriate to follow up with a second post on the same topic.

Since leadership is, at its core, an interpersonal waltz, veteran and novice leaders must recognize that leadership is not one-dimensional. In simple terms, leaders must take a multifaceted approach to the act of leading. A leader who acknowledges that the complexity of one’s leadership style must complement the situation in which he/she finds themselves as a leader, possesses a distinct and lasting advantage. One’s leadership style must be flexible and responsive to the environment in which the leader practices leadership.

Allow me to use a metaphor to illustrate the multi-dimensional nature of leadership. I often compare leading with a parochial focus on a single leadership style with driving a vehicle with a manual transmission on the interstate in first gear. Not only will the driver become the immediate recipient of a great deal of feedback from the machine in the form of noise, smoke, and an overwhelming burning smell, it won’t take very long to burn the clutch and cause irreparable harm to the transmission. Leadership is the transmission that drives the organization toward its desired outcomes. For that reason, organizations benefit from having a leader who drives the function of the organization through a variety of leadership approaches, shifting from one gear/style in a judicious manner with a focus on organizational capacity and productivity. So, what is the distinct and lasting advantage for the leader who both acknowledges and practices multi-dimensional leadership? He/she is able to drive the organization toward its desired outcomes without burning out and disenfranchising the follower-ship.

The professional literature on leadership cautions leaders and “textbook students” of leadership of the inherent danger of leading with an unyielding devotion to a single leadership style. Because one’s leadership style must be as multifaceted as the complexity of the leadership challenge itself, an effective leader must be conversant in a variety of leadership approaches in order to advance organizational progress. In the next few pages, I will present eleven leadership approaches which conscientious leaders might practice at appropriate phases in their leadership life cycle. Each leadership style, its description, and theorist will be presented with correlating benefits and drawbacks.

At its core, authoritarian leadership, coined by Larry Lezotte, is about the position/title held by the leader rather than the leader’s knowledge or capacity to lead the organization toward its expressed goals/outcomes. The function of the organization led by an authoritarian leader is driven by a top-down approach to managing the follower-ship. Consequently, the work environment is characterized by a militaristic culture, wherein followers adhere to established policy and procedure without challenging the status quo. Although, on the surface, the organization appears to function properly, a closer look might reveal a culture of fear and frustration among the follower-ship. To the detriment of organizational progress, there is often no audience for innovative ideas, resulting in the organization becoming increasingly unable to adapt to an ever-evolving external environment. Over time, organizations with an authoritarian orientation become outdated relics representative of an era gone by.

Authoritative leadership, not to be conflated with authoritarian leadership, was theorized by Ron Edmonds. An authoritative leader is viewed, by followers, as an expert able to clearly define the goals that will lead the organization toward its outcomes. The expertise of the leader is foundation of his authority and drives the function of the organization. An authoritative leader is able to establish clear roles and boundaries that help followers to become and remain focused on the work. Although an authoritative approach to leading can promote on-task behaviors, the organization’s momentum can easily become a function of one person, breeding co-dependency and instability. The organization can weaken precipitously should the follower-ship begin to doubt the leader or when a new, less knowledgeable leader takes the helm.

Charismatic leadership, coined by Max Weber, is an approach to leadership wherein the personality of the leader drives the function of the organization. The leader’s nature and temperament inspires the people; and as a result, productivity typically occurs rapidly.  Morale and creativity is spurred among the follower-ship, even in times of crisis and uncertainty. Unfortunately, the leader and followers can easily become reluctant to share the truth out of a fear of displeasing the beloved leader. Likewise, organizational momentum does not typically survive the tenure of the compelling leader. In the absence of the well-liked leader, followers often enter an apathetic phase, demotivated and often excessively anxious about the disposition and proclivities of the incoming leader.

Contingency/Situational leadership, posited by Hersey and Blanchard is an approach to leadership wherein the leader engages in behaviors that complement the circumstances in which he finds himself as a leader. The leader’s actions are a function of the current condition and hierarchical needs of the organization. With a steadfast focus, the contingency/situational leader addresses the immediate needs of the organization. Unfortunately, the momentum of the organization and the command of the leader may not survive beyond the temporary situation that seemingly gives the leader superhuman status. Some may even view the contingency/situational leader as a chameleon whose leadership style is unpredictable, variable, and as a consequence, breeds organizational instability.

Distributive leadership, advanced by Richard Elmore, promotes the act of dispersing decision-making and leadership authority to competent individuals and groups within the organization. The distributive leader recognizes the heft of the lifting to be done and strategically enlists followers to become leaders of progress through authentic participation in planning and implementing change. Distributive leadership allows the leader to give the work back to the people who are closest to the work and most impacted by decisions related to the work. Although distributive leadership exposes followers to professional growth opportunities, the rate of organizational improvement can slow dramatically due to the consensus-building nature of shared decision-making.

Human Resources leadership, conceived by Bolman and Deal, is an approach to leadership wherein the leader views the follower-ship as an extended family comprised of individuals whose strengths are a resource to the well-being and function of the organization. The leader actively and purposely promotes a culture of empowerment among the follower-ship. Innovation and loyalty are often inspired through the followers’ sense of belonging. When faced with fiscal or best-fit challenges, the leader is likely to go to great length in order to retain each member of the workforce. Whether by securing a source to fund positions in jeopardy of being lost or by identifying a better fit for an individual’s professional assets, the Human Resources leader believes that each member of the team has a unique contribution worth salvaging. To the detriment of the organization, the Human Resources leader’s attention to relationships may result in the interests of the organization being sidelined in exchange for meeting the needs of individuals.

Learning Organizational Theory, coined by Peter Senge, is an approach to leadership that views the organization as a living entity that must keep learning in order to survive and thrive. The leader’s focus on continuous learning for the leadership and follower-ship can promote a culture of responsiveness to the external environment, driving the evolution of the organization and its ability to recreate itself toward an extraordinary end. The Learning Organizational Theory leader views the future as something than can be created through ingenuity and strategic action. The future does not happen to an organization led by a Learning Organization Theory leader. The organization creates its own future. And since the future can be created, the Learning Organizational Theory leader pays a great deal of attention to the function and health of the organization relative to its position in the larger ecosystem. Unfortunately, the leader’s excessive focus on a survival of the fittest approach to leadership can result in excessive shifts in organizational philosophy and practice, inadvertently promoting a sense of chaos and burnout.

Political leadership, postulated by Bolman and Deal, is an approach to leadership wherein the leader’s decisions are significantly influenced by politics, alliances, and/or interest groups. The organization is viewed as an arena, contest, or jungle characterized by relentless competition for power and scarce resources. Those who are well connected are more likely to have access to the decision-making table. Individuals and groups lacking political leverage will invariably find themselves and their agenda marginalized and consequently, largely overlooked.  Although a strategic political leader can make use of conflict and advocacy as a strategy to expedite change and encourage collaboration, meaningful and necessary progress can be thwarted or stalled by the myopic interests of a small number of politically connected individuals or groups.

Transactional leadership, coined by McGregor Burns, is a leadership style through which the leader approaches followers with an eye for trading one action for another. The leader’s approach to engendering organizational momentum is characterized by actively seeking tradeoffs to engage and motivate the follower-ship. A skilled and resourced transactional leader may be able to sustain a steady flow of transactions to motivate the troops. The organization may benefit from this approach to leadership in seasons of surplus; however, progress may slow or falter in the absence of exchanges between the leader and followers.

Transformational leadership posited by McGregor Burns, is an approach to leadership wherein the leader’s style is characterized by evoking a sense of higher purpose, linking organizational outcomes to the common good. The leader serves as symbol of maturity and morality for the organizational community. The follower-ship rallies behind the transformational leader and is driven to go the extra mile for the organization by an intrinsic desire to contribute. Transformational leadership engenders an organizational culture that, results in the strength of the organization being tightly associated with the personal strength and personal stability of the leader. If the leader falters, so does the organization.

In servant leadership, theorized by Robert Greenleaf, the leader is viewed as the steward of the resources necessary to assist followers in their effort to meet performance expectations. The leader’s attention to the needs of the follower-ship stimulates and spawns productivity and high morale. The organization can easily become unstable in a crisis, as the follower-ship is susceptible to becoming reliant on the leader to coddle and cater to them, which may not be situationally possible or feasible.

Here is the epiphany…If your approach to leading is one-dimensional, so is your organization’s potential.

Switch gears.
Donyall D. Dickey

Exactly what is leadership?

Leadership is a complicated pursuit; therefore, anyone who desires to become a leader, also seeks to be undervalued, misunderstood, and criticized relentlessly. Leaders have the unenviable responsibility of vision setting, strategic planning, making tough decisions about resource allocations, and synchronizing effort, all toward a desired end without the promise of being the leader at the conclusion of change process. In many cases, the leadership effort is under the microscope of public opinion, which: (1) inserts a layer of complexity to the leadership effort that is often conflated with accountability; and (2) inadvertently decelerates the change process that the leader was charged with promoting upon accepting the leadership challenge.

Leaders who survive the leadership challenge and live to lead again, learn quickly how to both anticipate and distinguish personal attacks from professional attacks. They learn how to distinguish co-workers from confidants and allies from friends. If the aforementioned roles (co-workers…confidants and allies…friends) are still ambiguous for you as a leader, keep leading. People will show you which one they really are at the most inopportune times. One quick tip: co-workers and allies work with you; confidants live with you; and friends do not typically work with you, unless you hired them. Keep the lines clear.

Since the primary purpose of leadership is to strategically use one’s expertise and influence to maximize organizational effectiveness, exercising leadership is no small task. It is important to note that leadership is not a position. Some of the most powerful and impactful leaders often do not have the lead role in the organization, yet they impact the organization in significant and enduring ways. Do not discount non-positional leadership. Non-positional leaders (those who are knowledgeable and savvy enough to guide and influence persons with decision-making power) can be more impactful than those who hold the power of the pen. Effective leaders know the value of non-positional leadership and they find ways to tap into it. Moreover, leadership is not a title. Titles do not define leaders. In fact, a bona fide leader cannot be encapsulated by a title. For as long as I can remember, I have met individuals with titles who did not possess the depth of experience nor wisdom to lead; however, they held the title and therefore the power to lead – if only they had the capacity. Titles are a dime a dozen; leadership is rare.

Leadership is not for the faint of heart. Effective leaders must be calculated, decisive, and in some cases unapologetic. In my experience, most of us desire to be led by a courageous leader with a backbone, able to make thoughtful decisions and stand behind them with resolve, even when others do not fully understand or agree with their decisions or envision the future in the same way that the leader does. To the detriment of organizational effectiveness, many leaders succumb to political pressure, making decisions in the interest of self-preservation and coalition building. Successful leaders relentlessly search for pathways to do that which is in the best interest of the organization; they take healthy risks; and posses an uncanny ability to appear unflappable in the face of political posturing. True leaders lead with a focus on organizational effectiveness and leave the rhetoric to the sidelined cynics.

Furthermore, leadership is two-way relationship between the leader and the followership. A very wise woman once told me that a drum major without a marching band is nothing more than a fool dancing on the football field. Leaders must be sensitive to both the needs and capacity of the followership or risk finding himself abandoned by the very team he has been charged to lead. I learned early on as a leader that everyone does not have the same commitment to the work and aptitude to do the work. An effective leader is interested in the strengths as well as the critical weaknesses of the team. Furthermore, an effective leader actively works to compound the strengths while systematically supporting individual growth opportunities to diminish the followership’s vulnerabilities. People are the capital of leadership and should be treated as such. Since leadership is a bi-directional relationship, a conscientious leader is equally interested receiving feedback from the followership on his strengths and critical weaknesses as he is in providing feedback to the followership regarding theirs. To that end, leaders interested in engaging and inspiring the followership should develop mechanisms for procuring and responding to the followership’s feedback relative to the leader’s performance. Parenthetically, followers are wiser than conventional knowledge might suggest. They can distinguish perfunctory acts from careful attempts to gain access to their perceptions and ideas.

Here is the epiphany.

Leading is more difficult than it appears to be. If you have a leader whom you respect, support him/her. They need you more than you know and sometimes more than they admit.

For more of my thoughts on leadership and organizational effectiveness, look for my new book (coming this summer) entitled, “Seismic Leadership.” It will be offered exclusively on our website: www.educationalepiphany.com.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

How should we conceptualize professional feedback and support?

When I think about teacher and leader capacity, I think of the Bell Curve, which is commonly used to indicate how a particular characteristic of a group varies from the mean.

From my research in 30+ states, I have found that the capacity of the vast majority of America’s teachers and school leaders to serve children well is no more than two standard deviations from the mean. That’s fancy for… most educators have the capacity to learn both content and pedagogy. Likewise, most have the ability to plan and deliver quality instruction aligned to the expectations of curricular and developmental standards; especially when exposed to high-quality, ongoing professional learning opportunities offered in a culture characterized by support and collegiality.

We cannot fire our way to our site-based dream team, instead, we have to support and edify team that we currently have – with a few exceptions of course. School improvement must not be characterized by reform by pink slip; rather we must implement a targeted-feedback-and-support approach to school reform. We cannot scapegoat teachers and school leaders who have not had equitable access to high-quality professional learning, consistent feedback, coupled with the time necessary for the impact of “implementation” to take root.

School improvement is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.  

Now, with that said, there is a small number of teachers and school leaders on every campus who are exceptional as it comes to their individual capacity to promote student achievement; that is – they are exceptionally adept or inept at receiving constructive feedback and incorporating coaching content into their teaching and assessment practices.

What does this mean?

There are a handful of teachers and school leaders who do not need constant feedback and support – and they have the data to support it. Their capacity is three standard deviations from the mean in the positive direction. Leave them be; consider using them as a resource to other teachers; and do everything possible to retain them.

And then, there are a handful of teachers and school leaders who desperately need constant feedback and support – and they have the data to support it. Their capacity is three standard deviations from the mean in the negative direction. You must give them access to content-specific and pedagogy-focused professional development; unfettered access to appropriate academic resources; frequent (near daily), constructive feedback; and opportunities to understand, reflect upon, and discuss the feedback.

What’s the epiphany?

Do yourself and everyone a favor and refrain from a one-size-fits-all approach to supervision. They don’t have the same needs. Instead, take a tiered (needs-based) approach to providing members of your team feedback and support.

Doing so will give you the time that you need to expedite student achievement and school improvement by focusing your, sometimes, limited resources on those who have the greatest need as expressed by student outcome data.

For more information on this topic, read chapters 3 and 7 of my most recent book, “The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement” – Second Edition.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

What does academic language have to do with student achievement?

As you might imagine, the core content standards for English/language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science are dense in academic language. For this reason, it is inappropriate to expect the vast majority of our students, let alone students who are “striving” to read and comprehend consistent with developmental expectations, to demonstrate proficiency without access to instruction characterized by a focus on conceptual understanding of the language of the content standards.

For example, in English 11 and 12, students are expected to analyze U.S. seminal documents of historical and literary significance with a focus on themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.

But what in the world does that mean?

Here is the epiphany.

There is an imperative that students, teachers, as well as those supporting and evaluating teachers to have calibrated understanding of the terms that comprise each content standard. Why? The writers of high-stakes end-of-grade and end-of-course assessments make use of their common understanding of the academic language to compose content-specific exams (grades 3-12) that yield valid and reliable scores that are subsequently used to make assumptions about our students’ aptitude (whether we like it or not).

Now back to the academic language in the aforementioned eleventh/twelfth grade standard:

  • Analyze is defined as the process of separating material into its constituent element or parts.
  • Seminal does not refer to the absolute first of its kind. Instead, it refers to documents that strongly influence documents that follow it of a similar nature and function.
  • Historical significance refers to the extent to which individuals, events, and ideas referenced in a document (from the past) impact the subsequent presentation of information regarding the same or related individuals, events, and ideas.
  • Literary significance is defined as the extent to which style, word choice, and literary elements employed by an author to accomplish his/her purpose for writing influences future works of literature or informational texts.
  • Theme is defined as a dominant or unifying idea of a given text or portion of a text.
  • Purpose answers the question, “Why did the author compose the text?”
  • Rhetorical features is defined as aspects of a text aligned with the fulfillment of the purpose of a text and its author’s real-time awareness of and response to composing for a particular audience.

I know exactly what you are thinking right now, and you are right! We have work to do to ensure that students have equitable access to the academic language of the content standards. And why? It’s the language of the assessment and therefore the chief barrier to improvements in student achievement.

The language of the content standards is finite; and since it is finite, we can resolve the access gap. But how:

  • Your curricula K-12 should include operational definitions of tier II (general) and tier III (content-specific) academic language.
  • Teachers and school leaders should refrain from making assumptions about students’ knowledge of academic language. You would be surprised by the number of students who do not are not conversant in the academic language of the standards. Just randomly select a few students to define a term or two in the objective posted on the board and see what they say.
  • Teachers should refrain from watering down the academic language and instead, expose students to the language. The children can handle it. They are sponges. I met an African American kindergartener in Louisiana, in a school that I supported last year, who told me that she was composing and decomposing composite figures. When I asked her to define the academic language, she was spot on!
  • Reinforce and reassess students’ conceptual understanding of the academic language of the posted objective each day. If you have taught for any extended period of time, you know that you relate information to students on Monday, and ask them to recall it on Tuesday, only to find that they did not retain the information. And by the way, reinforcing students’ knowledge of academic language cannot be done by using the unfamiliar word in a sentence or copying terms and definitions from a glossary – that’s instructional malpractice.

Let’s continue the conversation.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

How is it that so many secondary students have difficulty reading?

To confirm my suspicions and help districts to formulate authentic, K-12 literacy development action plans, I have made it a point to sit down with elementary, middle school, and high school children across the country for the purpose of having them read to me while I record their individual miscues for analysis. Literacy experts refer to what I have described as “running records,” which should be a key component of the standard of service for students having difficulty with reading every 6 to 8 weeks.

One student in particular, stood out for me this week…a high school upperclassman…15-years-old who said a few words to me that I will never forget, “Dr. Dickey, I have never liked to read because I am not good at it, but I will read for you if it will help you to help other kids.” He continued by making another compelling statement, “Dr. Dickey, I don’t read well because I see the letters on the page, but I don’t know how to say them.”

What was the child trying to tell me?

He was trying to tell me that he has difficulty decoding. He was trying to tell me that he is unfamiliar with the relationship between the 26 letters in the alphabet, the 44 correlate phonemes (sounds that the 26 letters make), and the 144 graphemes (total number of ways to write/spell the phonemes). This high school upperclassman was trying to tell me that he never attained phonemic awareness, nor did he master phonics (the ability to correlate sounds with letters or groups of letters in the alphabetic writing system).

He was trying to tell me that he has tremendous difficulty comprehending what he reads because the vast majority of his “during-reading brain power” focuses on decoding.

He was trying to tell me that very little if any of his “during-reading brain power” focuses on creating meaning (understanding what he has read) and ascending the pyramid of cognitive demand (i.e., analyzing, applying, synthesizing, evaluating).

He was trying to tell me that the imbalance of his “during-reading brain power” results in constant, never-ending frustration about reading; which impacts his academic confidence. In fact, he stopped reading several times throughout the read-aloud to tell me, “Dr. Dickey… I told you, I am a terrible reader.”

So what did I discover during his read-aloud? The teenager has reading skills consistent with those of a fourth grader. He was right. He cannot sound out words in a manner consistent with his physical development. He cannot blend vowels and consonants. He inserts words in the text that simply aren’t there. He omits words that are in the text which severely interferes with creating meaning. He substitutes unfamiliar words in the text for words that do not make sense in the passage. He reads without intonation and regard for punctuation, which is a red flag for rolling comprehension.

America. We have to better than this by children. His knowledge and ability gaps are not uncommon. We know that the vast majority of children read multiple grade levels below developmental expectations (with poor and minority children at the bottom of every measure of achievement). How long are we going to admire this problem? We have to solve it.

Here is the educational epiphany.

  1. Provide teachers and everyone on our students’ instructional bench with ongoing training on delivering and supporting K-12 instruction characterized by attention to phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, fluency, and comprehension strategies;
  2. Know every students’ data and develop an informed plan of action to fill any and all gaps. No child should be permitted to languish in illiteracy; and
  3. Ensure that every member of our students’ ecosystem exercises “instructional due care” by never allowing children to be underserved – not even for a moment.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

How does one know whether a curriculum or program of study is worthy of being implemented with “fidelity?”

We are forever and a day asking teachers and school leaders to implement curricula/programs of study with “fidelity.” But all curricula are not created equally and are not deserving of being utilized with blind fidelity.

How does one know whether a curriculum or program of study is worthy of being implemented with “fidelity?” And furthermore what is “fidelity?

Let’s have an epiphany!

One can be certain that a curriculum or program of study is worthy of being implemented with fidelity when:

(1) the structure and function of the content and of the formative assessments are aligned to a finite set of correlate student outcomes as well as the nuanced expectations of the standards that we know will be assessed;

(2) the content and structure are responsive to the developmental needs and knowledge deficits (foundational skills and grade-appropriate concepts) of the student population being served by the implementation;

(3) the content and structure are designed to develop not only student capacity, but also support the development of teachers conceptual understanding of the content and concepts;

(4) the content and structure are paired in a manner that promotes reading (over lecture); speaking opportunities for students (over teacher-directed instruction); independent, critical thinking, and problem solving; and writing for the expressed purpose of demonstrating mastery and transfer; and

(5) the content and pedagogy are supported by a longitudinal examination of its impact on student outcomes in schools/districts with populations similar to the proposed treatment population (i.e., below grade level readers, students who read and process information multiple grades below expectations).

Fidelity and pacing are not synonymous.

Teachers across America are told to implement with “fidelity,” but what they actually hear from administrators is this, “Teachers, you should be on or near the same page as your same grade-level, same content-area peers…You need to cover every standard in the curriculum prior to the close of the marking period, semester, or school year.”

There are several issues with this interpretation of “fidelity.”

(1) In many cases, it’s almost impossible to consistently be on or near the same page in the curriculum as ones’ same grade-level, same content peer.  Why? Pacing is constantly impacted by at least two factors: (a) individual teachers’ content knowledge (which can expedite or slow student acquisition of new knowledge and ability); and (b) the rate at which individual students and groups of students acquire new knowledge and skills — both of which are often unable to be anticipated before teachers deliver initial instruction.

(2) Coverage of the curriculum should never be the bar for the standard of service. Rather, the standard of service or what I like to call “instructional due care” is not about getting to the end of the curriculum guide by the close of a given marking period. Have you ever seen someone speed up to a red light at an intersection? You are not thinking genius are you? It doesn’t make sense to hurry up and teach, so that you can hurry up and assess, only to find out that students needed more time with the teacher teaching;

(3) I must lift this important caveat. I do not intend to blow a dog whistle here for those who are content with teaching one objective or one standard for 5 weeks. Such behavior is tantamount to instructional malpractice. There ought to be some sense of urgency relative to pacing. There has to be a middle ground when it comes to fidelity and pacing.

America, I know that we can work together to find a compromise and free our effective teachers from the pressure associated with “fidelity” of implementation and the faulty coverage-driven approach to pacing.

Let’s talk.

What does it mean to support literacy development?

This morning I am preparing to take the stage to facilitate a keynote speech at the National Scholastic Literacy Summit here in National Harbor, Maryland. I will address hundreds of superintendents, chief academic officers, and other district-level leaders concerned with an issue that plagues public education: illiteracy.

With only an hour to deliver the speech on such an important topic that could subsequently impact millions of children, I thought it would be worthwhile and meaningful to leave a memorial of the conversation informed by more than 20 years on the ground replicating significant gains in student outcomes.

As much as educators, business leaders, and philanthropic community purport to be advocates of literacy, we have yet as a nation to formalize and finalize two critical instructional leadership acts: (1) operationally define literacy and cement the constituent elements of a true, diagnostic and prescriptive literacy development program of study; and (2) make available to all teachers the tools and training they desperately need to help their students to read consistent with developmental expectations and beyond.

What does it mean to be literate? How is literacy being defined in your district? How do we describe the finish line that we want students to cross? How do we know when students have crossed it? And by the way, literacy attainment cannot be defined by Lexile score or a standardized test score.

Literacy is characterized by a set of behaviors. A successful reader demonstrates three distinct behaviors, with automaticity — without being prompted.

A literate individual can (1) decode or pronounce words fluently and encode or spell fluently; (2) go beyond decoding and encoding and make sense of words conceptually; and (3) consume a variety of informational and literary texts and consequently engage in a evidence-based conversations about texts through speaking and writing.

With literacy and literacy outcomes defined, I have just a few more questions. Has your district identified and provided teachers with the resources and training they need to successful get their students to the literacy finish line? We must. Too much is at stake.

What are these resources?

I strongly believe that teachers must have unfettered access to key “reading to learn” materials necessary to transfer knowledge related to: (1) the relationships between and among the 26 letters, 44 phonemes, 144 graphemes; (2) word families (3) sight words; (4) Latin and Greek word parts; and (5) point of use annotation. It is equally critical that teachers have access to “reading to learn” resources aligned to grade-level expectations so that students have opportunities to learn the universal concepts of literacy (i.e., citing textual evidence, inferencing, determining main topic, determining main idea, summarizing, identifying text structures, determining author’s purpose, analyzing author’s argument).

What about training? Teaching children to read is as much as science as it is an art. Once teachers understand the science that underpins the process of effective teaching of reading, their unique and artful approaches will emerge and children will not only meet expectations, they will exceed them.

If we want to build teachers’ knowledge and capacity relative to the science and art of teaching children to read, training cannot be episodic. It must be ongoing, personalized, and deliberative. America, let’s align our human and capital resources with our goals and objectives for literacy.

Are you ready to join a pragmatic, next-generation conversation about school improvement?

In my service to public education, teachers, school leaders, and superintendents have asked me repeatedly, “Where can I go to read a collection of your thoughts on improving student achievement, literacy development, and district effectiveness?” So I had an epiphany…Share my epiphanies (aha moments) with those interested in equitable access to high-quality  instruction for all children. A blog was born — Dr. Dickey’s Epiphanies!

You might ask, “Is this another education-related blog composed and published by a theorist or policy wonk, without the benefit of having practiced educational leadership in real schools, with real students, with real impediments to improving student achievement and other organizational outcomes?”

My retort is a resounding, “No.”

This blog will be different.

This next-generation blog will be authored by a practitioner of PreK-12 school leadership whose approach to instructional and organizational leadership is characterized by a paradoxical blend of theory and practice… an educator who understands how a healthy balance of both (theory and practice) must be used to catapult underperforming schools/districts to unparalleled gains in student achievement and effectiveness.

This blog will be different.

The foundation of the observations and recommendations for public educators presented in this blog will be rooted in my 20+ years of proven instructional and organizational leadership as well as my ability to help districts to replicate record-breaking gains in urban, suburban, and rural systems irrespective of factors related to race, English language proficiency, socioeconomic status, and exceptionality.

This blog will be different.

The foundation of the observations and recommendations presented in this blog will be rooted in my experience as a teacher (primary and secondary grades); school leader; assistant superintendent;  chief academic officer; and chief schools officer – of some of the nation’s most prominent school districts; as well as my experience as a national thought leader and thought partner for superintendents, other central office leaders, principals, and teachers on matters related to literacy, curriculum development, and organizational effectiveness.

This blog will be be different.

If you are interested in hearing more about my Educational Epiphanies and engaging in an ongoing, solutions-oriented dialogue with me about public education, subscribe to my blog — and follow me on twitter @DonyallD.