Instructional Equity is an Essential Element of Improving Student Achievement

Dr. Donyall Dickey, Ed.D. will lead a keynote session at the National Alliance of Black School Educators 47th Annual Conference in Dallas, TX. For more information and to register, visit: https://www.nabse.org/conference-registration.

All children deserve access to instruction of the highest quality, taught in an environment fully conducive to the process of teaching and learning. And yet, equitable access to such instruction remains unrealized for millions of pupils nationwide. Likewise, teachers hear a common refrain, “Be sure that your instruction is more rigorous.” But what does that mean? Rigor has yet to be operationally defined for many teachers.

Daily instruction characterized by rote memory was widely accepted 30 years ago as rigorous, but views of instruction have shifted, and so must our collective approach to teaching and learning. So, how do we ensure that students have unfettered access to ‘rigorous’ instruction?

In short, in order for the quality of instruction in schools and districts to be improved, we must change how we think about student learning and the provision of standards-informed instruction. Developmentally appropriate rigor resides in the standards.

Students must be introduced to instruction that is designed to develop their conceptual understanding of academic language and concepts so that they can independently: (1) apply the knowledge they have acquired, (2) analyze information, (3) synthesize what they have learned, (4) evaluate the content, and most importantly, (5) create new knowledge and new understandings for others to consume.

By changing our expectations for all students, we can remove the biases that create inequities in instruction. The most significant predictor of underperformance is the absence of common instructional language and tools. This absence inhibits the provision and facilitation of rigorous, standards-informed instruction in our classrooms. But, there are tools available to help advance progress.

The core content standards for English language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science are dense in academic language. I believe it is unrealistic to expect the vast majority of our students—let alone students who are striving to read and comprehend at a level consistent with developmental expectations—to demonstrate proficiency without instruction that is  focused on a conceptual understanding of core content standards language.

There is an imperative that students and teachers, as well as those supporting and evaluating teachers, understand the terms that comprise each standard. We have work to do to ensure that students have equitable access to the academic language of the content standards. Why? Because the language of the assessment can be a chief barrier to improvements in student achievement.

For example, in grade 3 students are expected to determine the main idea of a text, recount its key details, and explain how those details support the main idea. But what does that mean to our students? And how do we ensure that every student under our care understands what this actually means?

Rigorous instruction aligned to the aforementioned standard should produce the following results:

  1. Students should be able to determine what the text is mostly about.
  2. Students should be able to distinguish between the main idea and the topic/subject of the text, which is too broad to be the main idea. “Too broad” as a concept must also be taught, and it must be associated with the topic of the text.

Students should be aware that:

  1. The main idea of the text is not always found in the first sentence of a text. In fact, it is seldom found there.
  2. In some cases the main idea is not stated at all.
  3. Key details are too narrow to be the main idea. “Too narrow” as a concept must be taught, and it must be associated with key details in the text.
  4. To support their determination of the main idea, students will need a great deal of practice with distinguishing between ancillary and important words or phrases. This will help them explain how the key details support the development of the main idea.

The language of the content standards is finite, so we can resolve the access gap by ensuring that:

  1. K–12 curricula includes operational definitions of Tier II (general) and Tier III (content-specific) academic language.
  2. Teachers and school leaders refrain from making assumptions about students’ knowledge of academic language. You might be surprised by the number of students who are not conversant in the academic language of the standards.
  3. Teachers refrain from watering down the academic language. Instead we should bring this language to the students. They can handle it.
  4. Teachers reinforce and reassess students’ understanding of the academic language for each day’s posted objective. When we relate information to students on Monday and ask them to recall it on Tuesday, we typically find that they did not retain the information. Reinforcing students’ knowledge of academic language cannot be done by simply using the unfamiliar word in a sentence or copying terms and definitions from a glossary. We need to embed it in our everyday conversations.

We need to provide educators and students across grade levels with tools that have common, agreed upon language built into them.

Supporting educators and staff with curricular materials that define important academic language in a single, streamlined way will result in students having much needed access to consistent definitions of these terms, without the conflation that is currently pervasive in daily instruction and assessment opportunities.

There is no substitute for coherent instructional materials aligned to the true and nuanced expectations of the standards. There is no shortcut to proficiency in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. There is but one pathway. Access.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D. is the lead author for Scholastic Literacy and Chief Executive Officer of Educational Epiphany. For more, follow him on Twitter @DonyallD.

Unraveling the Meaning of Reading Proficiency

Because reading ability by the end of grade 3 has been empirically linked to important adult outcomes, literacy development is a national imperative and must be treated as such.

So the question becomes, what is the foundation of reading proficiency? My response to this critical question can help teachers, teacher leaders, school leaders, curriculum writers, and central office personnel produce educational experiences for children that are worthy of consumption.

The answer is remarkably simple: Decoding + Creating Meaning = Reading.

Students must have diagnostic and prescriptive (needs-based) learning opportunities across the grades and content areas characterized by opportunities to fluently decode and encode. Decoding is defined as understanding the relationship between the smallest unit of writing and the smallest unit of sound; that is, seeing written words and knowing, with automaticity, how to pronounce those words.

Encoding on the other hand, is the inverse. Encoding is defined as understanding the relationship between the smallest unit of sound and the smallest unit of writing. Having the ability to encode means hearing spoken words and, with automaticity, representing that in writing with appropriate letter combinations.

Let’s go back to decoding. To decode fluently, students must also understand the relationship between and among the: (a) 26 letters of the alphabet; (b) 44 phonemes and the seven categories of phonemes (i.e., the 18 single consonant sounds, the seven double consonant digraphs, the five short vowel sounds, the five long vowel sounds, the two other vowel sounds, the two vowel diphthongs, and the five vowel sounds influenced by the letter “r”); and (c) the 144 different ways to represent the phonemes in writing. Although there is some inconsistency in how phonemes are represented by their correlate graphemes, the knowledge needed to be able to decode at developmental expectations is finite and therefore decoding can be taught to mastery.

So how does creating meaning, defined as associating word parts with micro-units of meaning, influence the ability to read fluently?

The ability to read is contingent upon the ability to decode and create meaning on a simultaneous, parallel pathway. Students do not always create meaning with the same level of intensity and accuracy with which they decode, and vice versa. Many students who may appear to be illiterate, aren’t actually illiterate. They may be able to successfully decode (pronounce the words they encounter in text) but have difficulty conceptually understanding the words that they decode.

Reading is not just decoding. Reading is decoding and creating meaning at the same time with similar degrees of accuracy.

Ninety-seven percent of the words that students encounter when they read, irrespective of grade and content area, originate from 30 prefixes, 30 root words, and 30 suffixes. If given access to curriculum-driven opportunities to develop a calibrated understanding of these 90 commonly occurring word parts, students will become better able to create meaning as they read; that is, they will be able to move beyond saying the words on the page to actually understanding the words on the page. As a result, they will be able to read on grade level and beyond.

For example, when properly decoding the word “transportation,” a student pronounces each syllable of the word and blends the syllables into a fluently spoken word when they see it in writing (i.e., trans, por, ta, tion). Creating meaning is completely different pursuit, one that involves a reader’s ability to understand, with automaticity, the meaning of the prefix, root word, and suffix that comprise the word “transportation” (i.e., trans-, port-, -ation). Successful readers decode (pronounce) and create meaning (understand micro-meanings or parts of words) at the same time and rate.

So what is the instructional imperative? What is the leadership imperative? If students must: (a) understand the relationship between the smallest unit of writing and sound and (b) conceptually understand the micro-meanings or word parts to read at developmentally appropriate levels, then we as educators must strengthen the knowledge and capacity of our students’ instructional ecosystem to produce a “learning to read” teaching and learning experience worthy of consumption.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D. is the lead author for Scholastic Literacy and Chief Executive Officer of Educational Epiphany. For more, follow him on Twitter @DonyallD.

How do we eradicate gaps in student outcomes?

School is one of the most influential institutions in a child’s ecological system. Award-winning developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner placed school in a child’s “microsystem,” also defined as his or her immediate surroundings and a concept which also includes immediate family. Bronfenbrenner understood that schools, like families, shape children’s development. So the mission to ensure that every child has the school experience that supports their growth and prepares them to meet their future with vigor, is paramount.

To support that goal, throughout history, scientists have looked at the connection between the science of psychology and the practical application of learning theory in educational settings. Instructional theories are still evolving today; however, the belief that all students deserve instruction of the highest quality remains constant. And yet equitable access to instruction remains one of the many barriers faced by students today. At least partially because of the research of today is slow to reach the classroom and teachers are without the bandwidth for professional development. For instance, the delivery of instruction characterized by rote memory was widely accepted 30 years ago, but views of instruction have shifted, and so must our techniques. In my experience, I have found that teaching to help students achieve a basic understanding and memorization of content-related facts is still taking place. But, memorization is not enough. How do we support a raising up of instruction?

The quality of instruction in schools and districts can be improved by changing how we think about student learning and teaching the standards.

Students must develop conceptual understandings so that they can apply the knowledge they have acquired, analyze information, synthesize what they have learned, evaluate the content, and most importantly, create new knowledge and new understandings.

By changing our expectations for all students, we can remove the biases that create inequities in instruction. The most significant predictor of underperformance[SB1]  is the absence of common instructional language and tools. This absence inhibits the provision and facilitation of rigorous, standards-informed instruction in our classrooms. But there are tools available to help advance progress.

The core content standards for English language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science are dense in academic language. I believe it is unrealistic to expect the vast majority of our students—let alone students who are striving to read and comprehend at a level consistent with developmental expectations—to demonstrate proficiency without instruction that’s focused on a conceptual understanding of standards’ language.

There is an imperative that students and teachers, as well as those supporting and evaluating teachers, understand the terms that comprise each standard. Why? We have work to do to ensure that students have equitable access to the academic language of the content standards, because the language of the assessment can be a chief barrier to improvements in student achievement.

For example, in grade 3 students are expected to determine the main idea of a text, recount its key details, and explain how those details support the main idea. But what does that mean to our students? And how do we ensure that every single one of our students understands what this actually means?

Rigorous instruction aligned to this standard should produce the following results:

  • Students should be able to determine what the text is mostly about.
  • Students should be able to distinguish between the main idea and the topic/subject of the text, which is too broad to be the main idea. “Too broad” as a concept must also be taught, and it must be associated with the topic of the text.
  • Students should be aware that:
  • The main idea of the text is not always found in the first sentence of a text. In fact it is seldom found there.
  • In some cases the main idea is not stated at all.
  • Key details are too narrow to be the main idea. “Too narrow” as a concept must be taught, and it must be associated with key details in the text.
  • To support their determination of the main idea, students will need a great deal of practice with distinguishing between ancillary and important words or phrases. This will help them explain how the key details support the development of the main idea.

The language of the content standards is finite, so we can resolve the access gap by ensuring that:

  • K–6 curricula includes operational definitions of Tier II (general) and Tier III (content-specific) academic language.
  • Teachers and school leaders refrain from making assumptions about students’ knowledge of academic language. You might be surprised by the number of students who are not conversant in the academic language of the standards.
  • Teachers refrain from watering down the academic language. Instead we should bring this language to the students. They can handle it.
  • Teachers reinforce and reassess students’ understanding of the academic language for each day’s posted objective. When we relate information to students on Monday and ask them to recall it on Tuesday, we typically find that they did not retain the information. Reinforcing students’ knowledge of academic language cannot be done by simply using the unfamiliar word in a sentence or copying terms and definitions from a glossary. We need to embed it in our everyday conversations.

We need to provide educators and students across grade levels with the tools that have all of this common language built into them.

Supporting educators and staff with guides that define important academic language in a single, streamlined way will result in students having consistent definitions of these terms without conflating concepts and ideas. Equipping educators with guiding questions and differentiating instruction will help students develop the knowledge and language they need to meet the expectations of the standards. Providing students with materials that are inclusive of these definitions and explanations will also help. These are strategies we can work towards for advancing progress and achieving instructional equity for student success.

To read more about Dr. Dickey’s work, follow him on Twitter at @DonyallD and subscribe to his weekly blog, Dr. Dickey’s Epiphanies. To learn more about his work with Scholastic Education visit http://teacher.scholastic.com/products/literacy.

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.