Who’s the leader?

One of the greatest issues facing public education is the abdication of instructional leadership.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon is all too common in our school systems. It is a silent, but deleterious factor of underperformance with a complex, compound impact on low performing student groups, schools, and districts.

It is not my goal indict my colleagues who are working diligently to support children and families. I would never do that. However; I would like to broadcast a clarion call for a paradigm shift from abdication of instructional leadership to a stalwart focus on instructional due care – defined by (1) caring so much for our students’ intellectual development that we (at all levels of district leadership) consciously and consistently make it our top priority as educational leaders and (2) remain plugged into what is happening each day for children inside of the unit of change for school improvement – the classroom.

When we step into leadership roles (site-based or central office), we become responsible for the schooling experience of an expanded student body, beyond the classroom of children we formerly served as teachers. In effect, as leaders, our classroom expands. With that expansion comes amplified responsibility. The public expects leaders to (1) produce teaching and learning opportunities for children worthy of consumption; (2) take a strategic approach to refining the quality of instruction that children consume; and (3) ensure access for all children irrespective of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, English language proficiency, and exceptionality.

To accomplish the aforementioned, school and district leaders (at all levels) must ensure that we provide clinical supervision of teaching and learning, high-end professional learning opportunities for all those who impact the student body’s instructional ecosystem, as well as a system of checks and balances to ensure that every instructional moment is characterized by excellence.  This is no small order – such a charge calls for an all-hands-on deck approach to instructional due care.

So, here is the epiphany for all level of instructional leadership.

Superintendents: Governance and board relations are vital to your survival as a superintendent, but do not take your eyes of off that which children are receiving in your classrooms. Make time and space to visit classrooms once a week; not as the chief evaluator, but as the chief advocate for children. Take a one or two staffers with you who know deeply understand content, pedagogy, and the local context. Use what you observe to set expectations for direct support to schools.

Academic Officers: You are the chief teacher (and in some cases, the chief principal) of the district. Your decisions must remain child-centered, informed by data, and shaped by that which teachers are faced with each day to support students and families. Do not get too far removed from the classroom – it will be evident in your decision-making.

Assistant Superintendents (Principal Supervisors): You have enormous influence. School leaders will study you to determine what is important to you and they will shape and reshape their leadership foci to match yours. If your focus is unfettered access to instruction aligned to the nuanced expectations of developmentally appropriate standards, therein will lie their focus.

Principals: You are the chief teacher and learner on your campus. You must, at all costs be the leader of instruction-related professional learning opportunities for your faculty. A sideline approach to instructional leadership is all too common in this role. Refrain from giving your instructional leadership responsibilities to instructional coaches and other teacher leaders. You must be viewed as knowledgeable of the content, ever willing to roll up your sleeves to co-plan, co-teach, facilitate demonstration lessons, and identify instructional resources.  Teachers expect you to lead. They won’t say it to you, but their respect for you is diminished when you are not at the helm of the most important work of school leadership – instruction.

Assistant Principals: You are the next generation of school leaders. Be careful not to allow your contribution to be limited to behavior management, ancillary duties, and master scheduling – it will cost you your credibility later. Yes, each of the aforementioned functions is important, but you have a responsibility to impact instruction. Just as it is for the principal, instructional leadership is your primary responsibility. Never lose sight of that. You will have to wear many hats in your role, but never take your eyes off the north star – improved instruction.

In short, we must be the change that we want to see in our classrooms, schools, and districts. The instructional leadership cavalry is not coming. You are the cavalry.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed. D.

To read more about my work, follow me on Twitter at @DonyallD and subscribe to this weekly blog, Dr. Dickey’s Epiphanies.

We Must Foster Mutualistic Collaborative Opportunities in the Classroom

Nobel Peace Prize recipient and civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said it well, the true goal of education is intelligence plus character. I agree with his 72-year-old assertion. Today, I present adding a third element to the formula—interpersonal aptitude.

Interpersonal aptitude, defined as one’s ability to engage with others in a symbiotic exchange of intellect and character is an accelerant of becoming a better self. There are cases in which an intelligent, moral individual has an interpersonal bottleneck. Fortunately, interpersonal aptitude is not a constant and can therefore be taught and refined. To that end, we must infuse opportunities to foster interpersonal aptitude into our curricula and instructional practices; not as an artificial set-aside or afterthought, but as a part of our collective strategy to build not only an enlightened citizenry, but an affable one.

So it is through equitable access to learning environments that classrooms become viable laboratories that cultivate individuality, collectivism, curiosity, and maturity. Laboratories characterized by opportunities for children to develop interpersonal aptitude through authentic engagement with peers of diverse cognitive abilities and from a diversity of cultural and ideological backgrounds. It’s not enough for students to collaborate with peers of diverse abilities and backgrounds—such an approach would be tantamount to machinated, garden-variety collaboration. Collaborative opportunities in the twenty-first century classroom must not be contrived. Rather, they must be authentic—in a way that the byproducts of collaboration are mutual respect, not tolerance; debate, not rancor; empathy, not sympathy; civic mindedness, not misanthropy.

Schools would benefit from taking another look at what it means to be a collaborative classroom. Much of our practice has become informed by a constricted view of collaboration, which invariably manifests itself in classroom and lesson design, student grouping, problem solving opportunities, and technology integration. We need a look at the philosophy of collaborative classrooms—that which informs our behaviors as educators and our interpretation of instructional excellence. It is in the examination of our philosophy of collaborative classrooms that we might collectively engineer a more modern approach to programming and practice.

All collaborative classrooms are not created equally. What might appear to be modern collaboration to the naked eye, might just be hollow group work with little or no subsequent impact on the development of intelligence, character, and interpersonal aptitude because of flaws in its design and philosophical underpinnings. To that end, a focus on collaborative activities and protocols (e.g., think-pair-share, assigning group roles, establishing group norms, the jigsaw method of organizing student groups) absent of a deep analysis of the philosophy that underpins the activities or protocols may inadvertently result in denied access to genuine collaboration.

There are three types of symbiotic collaboration, each of which can be found in nature and empirical study on the survival of the fittest: parasitism, commensalism, and mutualism.

We must ensure that our collaborative practices and protocols aspire to reach the north star of collaboration—mutualism.

In a parasitic collaborative opportunity, one member of the engagement benefits and eventually the other member is harmed. One child becomes the host of the engagement and the engagement cannot persist without the host. This is demonstrated every day in our classrooms when we place a gifted or highly-able student in a group with a student struggling significantly to read, think, and write consistent with developmentally appropriate expectations. How balanced is the exchange of intellect, character, and interpersonal aptitude in this pairing?

In a commensalistic collaborative opportunity, one member of the engagement benefits, while the other is neither helped nor harmed. This is demonstrated every day in our classrooms when we randomly place students into groups without using student outcome data to make the pairing meaningful. It’s a shot-in-the-dark approach to collaboration. One student might get what he/she needs from the paring inadvertently, but it won’t be as a result of strategy.

To the contrary, mutualistic collaborative opportunities are characterized by both members of the engagement benefiting from exchange. This symbiotic relationship should be evident in our classrooms each day through a pervasively intentional approach to grouping as a means to ensure that every precious instructional moment is carefully crafted. These collaborations then support opportunities for students’ intellect to be strengthened and challenged; for their character to be developed by exposure to faces, cultures, ways of knowing and doing inconsistent with their own; and opportunities to play nice in the sandbox.

The gold standard of collaborative classrooms is not about the protocols employed to engender collaborative behavior among students. Instead, the quality of a collaborative classroom should be measured by the philosophy from which activities and protocols are conceived. The offspring of collaboration will not be greater than their DNA.

 

I am excited to announce that this blogpost was featured in Scholastic Education’s EduBlog on February 11, 2019! I will also be speaking at the ASCD Empower19 conference on March 18, 2019. To read more about my work, follow me on Twitter at @DonyallD and subscribe to my weekly blog, Dr. Dickey’s Epiphanies.

How did public education become so reliant upon programs?

In my travels across the nation supporting schools and districts, it has become apparent that teaching and learning has become “over-programatized.”

There is a “program” for practically everything. Programs, programs, and more programs. Unfortunately and to the detriment of student outcomes, these “programs” do not always allow teachers to teach. These “programs” do not always allow teachers to do that which is in the best interest of children. These “programs” are often built upon false premises about educators’ knowledge of content and pedagogy. These “programs” do not always provide teachers with the resources they need to get children to the proficiency finish line and beyond.

Here are my three epiphanies about the “over-programitization” of teaching and learning.

Epiphany #1: These “programs” do not always allow teachers to that which is in the best interest of children.

To relate this epiphany to you, allow me to take you into an elementary mathematics classroom that I visited in a Northeastern state. Please be advised that this illustration is not meant indict the teacher. I am a teacher. Rather, note that I am sharing what I observed in an attempt to call attention to a pervasive issue facing America’s teachers and school leaders.

So, gripped tightly in the teacher’s hands was a scripted mathematics curricular resource.  She read directly from the script the “teacher words” without inflection and expression. Next, she read the scripted prompt to induce a student response. Not a single student was able to respond to accurately respond to her question. They did not possess conceptual understanding of the mathematical concept under study and not a single student was conversant in the academic language of the concept under study.

Wait! What did the script “tell” the teacher to do when this happens?

She flipped the pages of the script in a frightened and flustered fashion only to discover that there was nothing in the “script” to address students’ lack of conceptual understanding. She panicked! And instead of serving the needs of children, she did what teachers do when they succumb to “over-programitization.” She read the next line in the script that she had been told repeatedly (by teacher leaders and administrators) to follow with fidelity. In fact, she verbalized the tension between the script and that which was in the best interest of students with these words to students, “Class, I can’t go off script, I have to follow the script.” So instead of doing that which was in the best interest of students, by taking advantage of an old-fashion teachable moment, the teacher was boxed in by compliance. This tension between fidelity to programs is impacting our teachers’ ability to fills gaps that so many children have that prevent them from meeting and exceeding developmental expectations. This issue cannot persist. Too much is at stake.

Epiphany #2: These programs are often built upon false premises about educators’ knowledge of content and pedagogy.

One simply cannot transfer that which one does not possess. Getting children to the proficiency finish line and beyond requires that teachers and school leaders posses deep understanding of content; that they possess a command of concepts and ideas embedded in the content standards; and hold tight to tried and true approaches to planning and delivering needs-based instruction and formative assessment.

In far too many districts, there is a debilitating phenomenon at work that is intertwined with a content and pedagogy imperative. Suspend disbelief for a moment and go with me on this one. Though we live and lead in the age of differentiation and individualized learning, there is a cog in the wheel of the same.

It’s simple, many educators have misunderstood differentiation and have consequently made a bad name for it. The lynchpin of differentiation and meeting the individual needs of students is expert level knowledge of the content and expert level ability to build a bridge to provide access to striving learners all while challenging and stretching proficient and advanced learners. A “program” alone cannot differentiate, only a teacher with deep knowledge of the content, equipped with a tool-kit of strategies for delivering the content to students who represent diverse learning preferences simultaneously can truly differentiate.

Programs that fail to consider the content knowledge and pedagogical prowess of its front-end users are programs built on sinking sand.  The conditions necessary to support intense, parallel pathways of learning for all ability levels must be built into curricular resources that procure and promote.

 Epiphany 3: These “programs” do not always provide teachers with the resources they need to get children to the proficiency finish line and beyond.

There is a litany of “programs” for this and for that available to schools and districts. Unfortunately, teachers are introduced to new programs each year through an assembly line approach to adult learning. That’s mistake number one.

We must give teachers, those who are closest to the work of teaching and learning, adequate time and space to consume new learning, to digest it, to question the program, to identify gaps in the program, and to consider their students’ response to the program given their sometimes complex and unique needs before requiring teachers to make use of it to serve children. As a former, school and district-level leader, my litmus test for the goodness of a “program” always included a tripartite analysis. We judiciously analyzed: (1) the alignment of the resources with grade level content standards; (2) its approach to building academic language (no matter the content area); and (3) the extent to which teachers on my team would have to search for resources to supplement the “program.” If teachers have to spend their time looking for resources to teach a program, why do we need the program?

In closing, there is nothing wrong with a “program,” as long as it is a “program of study.” What places a program in the top tier and qualifies it as a program of study? In its fabric the following is insisted upon by its architects:

  •  it allows for student-driven opportunities for teachers to do that which is in the best interest of children;
  •  it acknowledges and responds to the fact that all educator to not have the same content and pedagogy foundations or philosophies;
  • and  it insists upon respecting teachers’ limited time and capacity for searching for resources they need to challenge every child.

If your program, fails to meet each the three aforementioned criteria, it might be just another program.

For more about my ideas, read The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement –Second Edition. The book is available exclusively on our website: www.educationalepiphany.com.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

How do you leverage professional development to drive student achievement? (Part 2)

This week, like each week over the past two years since I became the full time Chief Executive Officer of Educational Epiphany, I facilitated professional development for teachers, school leaders, and central office senior leaders in multiple cities. Often time, I begin my keynotes,  workshops, and breakouts with this caveat, “Professional development ought to be professional and you ought to get developed as a result of participating.” Sound simple? But it’s an unspoken, authentic concerns for educators each time they convene for “professional development.” Teachers, school leaders, and central office leaders are all too often required to participate in professional development that is not worth the cost of the gasoline that it cost to get there and they are expected to grin and bear it. We should have a national standard for the quality of professional learning for adults. Think of it this way. Time is one of the few resources known to man that is not renewable. Once we squander it, it’s gone, never to be replenished. Time is far too precious a resource to misuse. We must be ever-cognizant of how we use time as a teacher and leader resource for promoting student achievement.

I earnestly believe that site-based and central office professional development opportunities must be representative of what I refer to as the 6 Elements of Exemplary Professional Learning. Professional learning must: (1) edify participants; (2) be relevant to the work and responsibilities of participants; (3) challenge long-held beliefs and practices (pedagogy) against student outcome data; (4) build content knowledge; (5) result in new learning; and (6) foster calibration. I will discuss the first three in this post and the second three in next week’s post.

Here is the epiphany for the first three of the elements of exemplary professional learning. (Part 1)

Professional development should edify participants. I have seen it with my own eyes and have been subjected to it. Teachers, school leaders, and even senior level school administrators are summoned to a room for professional learning, all too often only to be lambasted and lectured. Simultaneously, those same educators are encouraged to subsequently go above and beyond the call of duty, sacrificing for an organization that fails to see professionalism as a bi-directional engagement.  Those same educators are expected to innovate in a culture that rewards relationships over impact. Those same educators are expected to remain faithful to an organization that allows them to be regularly summoned, only to be spoken to in a manner below reasonable expectations for professionalism and standards. Really? Be careful whom you allow to address your staff. At all costs, protect them from being denigrated by those who are supposed to edify them and renew their confidence in the organization.

Professional development should be relevant to the work and responsibilities of each participant. Yes, you want members of your team to be cross-trained. Yes, you want the left hand of your organization to be familiar with the work of the right hand. Doing so results in valuable organizational efficiencies and reductions in duplication of effort. But there is a fine line between cross-training and squandering time. Faculty and staff should not be required to participate in professional development that does not directly speak to or align with their responsibilities.

It’s actually an act of unprofessionalism to require someone to participate in professional development that does is not relevant to their responsibilities.

Impactful professional learning should be differentiated for adult learners in the same way that we expect teachers to differentiate instruction for their students. School leaders, let’s not be guilty of requiring teachers to do something that we do not consistently model for them. Central office leaders, if you expect school leaders to differentiate professional learning for their faculty and staff members, you should model the same practice with your professional development for school leaders. Everyone on your team does need the same professional development. When we treat everyone like a member of the same treatment group, they resent it; and they should. You resent it. Instead, make every effort to ensure that mandatory professional development meets the criteria for mandatory status.

Professional development should challenge long-held beliefs and practices (pedagogy) against student outcome data. John Dewey made this statement more than a century ago, “Knowledge is not only born out of consensus.” In translation, we can learn from those with whom we fundamentally disagree. The gold standard of professional development must include opportunities for participants to challenge that which is known and widely accepted. Without these constructive and authentic opportunities, participants are likely to push back on the “new learning” and consequently miss out on the message because they resent the messenger for not permitting them to both voice and iron out their dissent. Moreover, professional development that fails to have a foundation built upon trustworthy student outcome data is akin to shooting an arrow at a target in the dark. You might hit the bullseye, but it will be 100% luck and 0% strategy.

Here is the epiphany for the next three elements of exemplary professional learning. (Part 2)

Professional development should build content knowledge. To the detriment of student outcomes and organizational effectiveness, there is an imbalance in the foci of professional learning leaning towards pedagogy. As public educators, we must be reminded of the value of access to professional learning opportunities characterized by a dichotomous focus on (teacher and leader) knowledge of the content and as well as pedagogy. All too often teacher and leader learning opportunities are characterized by an excessive focus on pedagogy and an equal focus on administrivia. Instead, I urge public educators to consciously invert the professional development paradigm by insisting on providing both teachers and school leaders with access to professional learning opportunities designed to strengthen knowledge of core content concepts. From my work across the nation, I consistently notice that a great deal of assumptions are made up and down the organizational hierarchy. These assumptions made about teacher and leader knowledge of the content are inherently dangerous. When folks are honest about their knowledge of core content concepts, opportunities for student achievement abound. To the contrary, where folks work in fear of reprisal (if they admit they don’t know), these opportunities to improve student achievement are greatly diminished.

So what’s the epiphany here?

We have to provide teachers and school leaders with professional learning characterized by dual intensity-equal parts content knowledge and pedagogy. We have to make sure our teachers and leaders are working in an environment where they feel safe to say they don’t know.

Professional development should result in new learning. For educators, there are few things worse than being required to participate in professional learning bereft of an opportunity to acquire new knowledge. Yet, every day, every week, every month, every school year, teachers and school leaders sit for hours upon hours in passive compliance in an attempt to show respect for the unrespectable. Those responsible for adult learning (school level and central office) must be cognizant of and responsive to the individual needs of faculty and staff. Professional development offerings must be driven by the needs of the intended participants and likewise, it must be driven by anecdotal, formative, and summative student outcome data generated by the organization’s balanced assessment system.

So what’s the epiphany here?

How would you feel if your superiors required you to consistently sit through professional learning that you don’t need? Would you feel respected? Would you feel engaged? Would you feel energized? Permit me to answer these questions for you.  No, no, and no period.

Professional development should foster calibration. By nature, teaching and leading are both isolating professional pursuits. Unfortunately, as a result, opportunities for teachers and leaders to learn from one another are few and far between. The profession creates natural barriers and we have to find ways to bring these barriers down. Public educators, we cannot permit walls between classrooms, bell schedules, and other contractual obligations to erode the spirit, structure, and function of an authentic professional learning community. Learning communities that become contrived and inauthentic defeat the very purpose for forming them. They don’t feel like authentic collaboration opportunities but more like a boxes being checked. In order for true collaboration to be true collaboration, the spirit of the engagement must match the purpose of the engagement.

So what’s the epiphany here?

Real collaboration is not forced or contrived, it is organic.

To read more about my ideas on the gold standard for professional development for America’s schools read The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement-Second Edition. The book is available exclusively on our website: www.educationalepiphany.com.

 

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

 

How do you leverage professional development to drive student achievement?

This week, like each week over the past two years since I became the full time Chief Executive Officer of Educational Epiphany, I facilitated professional development for teachers, school leaders, and central office senior leaders in multiple cities. Often time, I begin my keynotes,  workshops, and breakouts with this caveat, “Professional development ought to be professional and you ought to get developed as a result of participating.” Sound simple? But it’s an unspoken, authentic concerns for educators each time they convene for “professional development.” Teachers, school leaders, and central office leaders are all too often required to participate in professional development that is not worth the cost of the gasoline that it cost to get there and they are expected to grin and bear it. We should have a national standard for the quality of professional learning for adults. Think of it this way. Time is one of the few resources known to man that is not renewable. Once we squander it, it’s gone, never to be replenished. Time is far too precious a resource to misuse. We must be ever-cognizant of how we use time as a teacher and leader resource for promoting student achievement.

I earnestly believe that site-based and central office professional development opportunities must be representative of what I refer to as the 6 Elements of Exemplary Professional Learning. Professional learning must: (1) edify participants; (2) be relevant to the work and responsibilities of participants; (3) challenge long-held beliefs and practices (pedagogy) against student outcome data; (4) build content knowledge; (5) result in new learning; and (6) foster calibration. I will discuss the first three in this post and the second three in next week’s post.

Here is the epiphany for the first three of the elements of exemplary professional learning.

Professional development should edify participants. I have seen it with my own eyes and have been subjected to it. Teachers, school leaders, and even senior level school administrators are summoned to a room for professional learning, all too often only to be lambasted and lectured. Simultaneously, those same educators are encouraged to subsequently go above and beyond the call of duty, sacrificing for an organization that fails to see professionalism as a bi-directional engagement.  Those same educators are expected to innovate in a culture that rewards relationships over impact. Those same educators are expected to remain faithful to an organization that allows them to be regularly summoned, only to be spoken to in a manner below reasonable expectations for professionalism and standards. Really? Be careful whom you allow to address your staff. At all costs, protect them from being denigrated by those who are supposed to edify them and renew their confidence in the organization.

Professional development should be relevant to the work and responsibilities of each participant. Yes, you want members of your team to be cross-trained. Yes, you want the left hand of your organization to be familiar with the work of the right hand. Doing so results in valuable organizational efficiencies and reductions in duplication of effort. But there is a fine line between cross-training and squandering time. Faculty and staff should not be required to participate in professional development that does not directly speak to or align with their responsibilities.

It’s actually an act of unprofessionalism to require someone to participate in professional development that does is not relevant to their responsibilities.

Impactful professional learning should be differentiated for adult learners in the same way that we expect teachers to differentiate instruction for their students. School leaders, let’s not be guilty of requiring teachers to do something that we do not consistently model for them. Central office leaders, if you expect school leaders to differentiate professional learning for their faculty and staff members, you should model the same practice with your professional development for school leaders. Everyone on your team does need the same professional development. When we treat everyone like a member of the same treatment group, they resent it; and they should. You resent it. Instead, make every effort to ensure that mandatory professional development meets the criteria for mandatory status.

Professional development should challenge long-held beliefs and practices (pedagogy) against student outcome data. John Dewey made this statement more than a century ago, “Knowledge is not only born out of consensus.” In translation, we can learn from those with whom we fundamentally disagree. The gold standard of professional development must include opportunities for participants to challenge that which is known and widely accepted. Without these constructive and authentic opportunities, participants are likely to push back on the “new learning” and consequently miss out on the message because they resent the messenger for not permitting them to both voice and iron out their dissent. Moreover, professional development that fails to have a foundation built upon trustworthy student outcome data is akin to shooting an arrow at a target in the dark. You might hit the bullseye, but it will be 100% luck and 0% strategy.

To read more about my ideas on the gold standard for professional development for America’s schools, please read next week’s part two post.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

What does it mean to support literacy development?

In October, I was preparing to take the stage to facilitate a keynote speech at the National Scholastic Literacy Summit in National Harbor, Maryland. I addressed 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.

For more of Dr. Dickey’s thoughts on this topic, read The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement– Second Edition. The book is available exclusively on our website: www.educationalepiphany.com.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

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, follow me on twitter @DonyallD, and read 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 does conceptual understanding of academic language have to do with student achievement?

Conceptual understanding of academic language is arguably the most significant accelerator of student achievement. But why is there such a lack of attention to conceptual understanding of language in classrooms across our nation? It’s a matter of exposing teachers and school leaders to the value of and strategies for building conceptual understanding and infusing the essential practice into instructional planning, delivering, and feedback as a default, rather than as an annoying top-down add-on.

Let’s take a look at English/Language Arts as an example of the significance of academic language. There is a finite number of tier II vocabulary words that students will encounter as they read and perform tasks related to grade-level content. These vocabulary words are typically the same words within grade bands (i.e., prek-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12), shifting somewhat in complexity between grades 2 and 3, between 5 and 6, and between 8 and 9.

Now let’s go a bit deeper.

For grades 3-5, these essential tier II vocabulary words include, but are not limited to words and phrases such as:

  •      analyze
  •      author’s purpose
  •      author’s argument
  •      cite
  •      claim
  •      concept
  •      compare
  •      contrast
  •      determine
  •      key detail
  •      format
  •      identify
  •      integrate
  •      inference
  •      idea
  •      main idea
  •      media/medium
  •      phrase
  •      point of view
  •      procedure
  •      reasoning
  •      textual evidence
  •      text feature
  •      text structure
  •      topic
  •      summary

Students should be exposed to a single, operational definition of these vocabulary words so that they can subsequently and readily transfer their knowledge of the words across content areas and grade bands as they read, think, write, take formative assessments, and sit for annual standardized assessments that will undoubtedly use the aforementioned words.

The approach to teaching these vocabulary words and their definitions must become “transdisciplinary.” In order to become transdisciplinary, students must be consistently exposed to instruction that ensures the use of operational definitions that transfer across disciplines (content areas) so that students are able to demonstrate that they are “literate”irrespective of discipline. No longer can we use what some folks with low expectations refer to as “kid-friendly” language as definitions of these key vocabulary words. “Kid friendly” is often low expectation code for watered-down and misaligned with the standards. I would argue that it is unfriendly to kids to refrain from exposing them to the academic language of the standards, knowing well that these words will be used to pose the questions that can subsequently lock them out of proficiency and close doors in their face for years to come.

Likewise, teachers should ensure that students have deep conceptual understanding of tier III vocabulary/academic language. Tier III academic language includes words that students will encounter while reading content-specific texts in an individual discipline, such as: metamorphosis, mitosis, and meiosis in a science course; or words such as: emancipation, declaration, egalitarian, and monarch in a social studies course; or words such as: gestalt, impressionism, and panoramic in an art history course.

Deep conceptual understanding of tier III words is the bridge to content mastery.

To the detriment of student outcomes and in far too many classrooms, instruction on a particular concept begins and ends without students ever being exposed to the words and definitions of the words that comprise the content. How can this be? The predecessor of content mastery is deep conceptual understanding of the academic language of the content—period.

And by the way, asking students to copy the content-related vocabulary words from the back of the textbook is passé and does not build students’ deep conceptual understanding of unfamiliar words and phrases. The same is true for asking students to use a vocabulary word in a sentence in order to assess their deep conceptual understanding of a word or phrase. It is also worth adding that vocabulary language development is not about a “word of the day.” Often, the only person who cares an iota about the word of the day is the poor soul who is sharing the word of the day via the morning announcements; so help me to help them to save their time and energy. Consider a cease and desist to that antiquated practice.

Here is the epiphany.

Students do not conceptually understand what they have read in multi-paged texts:

  •     because they did not understand what they read on a particular page(s),
  •     because they did not understand what they read in a particular paragraph(s),
  •     because they did not understand what they read in a particular sentence(s), and
  •     because they did not understand individual words or phrases as they encountered them in a given or self-selected text.

Vocabulary development is about consistently taking advantage of curriculum-driven and in-context reading opportunities to make sense of words, as opposed to treating vocabulary development as an instructional add-on, disconnected from an authentic reading, writing, or thinking opportunity.

Many students who appear to have decoding (reading) issues, actually have meaning (conceptual understanding) issues. They can decode (read) the words they encounter; however, they are locked out of the meaning of a significant number of words in a given text. When they are locked out of the meaning of too many words, comprehension will not take place. In other terms, when students do not decode and create meaning on a parallel pathway as the encounter texts, they are often unable to use the texts they consume to ascend the pyramid of cognitive demand – which is one of the main purposes of reading outside of literary experience.

For more of Dr. Dickey’s thoughts on this topic, read chapter 4 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.

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.