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 this – a child eager to explore, willing to take risks, enthusiastic about engaging his/her peers, and earnestly willing to respond to prompts from teachers. Image this same eager beaver experiences schooling experiences constructed day after day, year after year by adults who have made a series uninformed judgments and decisions about this learner’s intellectual capacity based, even partially, on his/her race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, family structure, or residential zip code.

Not one conscientious educator or policy maker reading this blog 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 too often met by adults who harbor low expectations for the same children whom they have taken a pledge to serve to the best of their ability. This assertions is far from true about the vast majority of educators in our nation, but if it is true about one of us, it is true about one too many.

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. So as a result, that same eager beaver can –

over time – turn inward, disengage, refused 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 exception, 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 statewide curricular standards. The unit of change for student achievement and school improvement is the classroom. It’s where the real magic of school improvement takes transpires.

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.

Note: [I have used aliases to protect the identity of the students who participated in the research].

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 educational 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.educaitonalepiphany.com.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

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 educators 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.

Permit me to use grades 3-5 as an example. Essential tier II vocabulary words include, but are not limited to the following words and phrases:

  •     analyze
  •     author’s purpose
  •     author’s argument
  •     cite
  •     claim
  •     concept
  •     compare
  •     contrast
  •     determine
  •     key detail
  •     format
  •     identify
  •     integrate
  •     inference
  •     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, educators 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? Without exception, the predecessor of content mastery is deep conceptual understanding of the academic language of the content. 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.” These practices seldom result in the language being engrafted into students’ academic lexicon.

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 reading issues, actually have meaning (conceptual understanding) issues. When they are locked out of the meaning of too many words in a given text, comprehension will not take place. In other words, when students do not associate sounds with written letter patterns 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 (think critically) – which is one of the main purposes of reading, whether for literary experience or for the purpose of performing a task.

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.

Need some inspiration for your day? Check out the conversation with @DonyallD on the #3PsinaPod Podcast. Listen closely as they dive into student achievement, instructional leadership, opportunity gaps, and far more! Listen: bit.ly/3psinapod  #edchat @ScholasticEd #Arizonaed #edpod

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.

During my career as a teacher, principal and district administrator, I have seen firsthand that many secondary students experience difficulty reading. Why is this? In trying to answer this crucial question, I’ve come to propose that secondary literacy development must be at the center of districtwide improvement efforts.

To confirm my hypothesis and help school and district leaders to formulate authentic, pre-K–12 literacy development action plans, I made it an effort to engage with elementary, middle school, and high school children across the country for the purpose of having them read to me while I noted their miscues for strategic analysis. Literacy experts refer to this data collection process and instrumentation methodology as taking a “running record,” which should be utilized every 6 to 8 weeks with children who are striving to read fluently.

One student I met in particular stood out for me and I am forever marked by my interaction with him. He is a high school upperclassman who said a few words to me that I will not easily forget.

He said, “Dr. Dickey, I have never liked to read because I am not good at it, but I will read for you if it will help you to help other kids.” He continued, “I don’t read well because I see the letters on the page, but I don’t know how to say them.”

What was the 15-year-old trying to tell me?

He was simply trying to tell me that he has difficulty decoding. He was trying to tell me that he does not understand the relationship between the smallest unit of writing and the smallest unit of sound. He was trying to tell me that he is unfamiliar with the relationship between the 26 letters in the alphabet, the 44 correlate phonemes (sounds that the 26 letters make), and the 144 graphemes (total number of ways to represent or spell the 44 phonemes).

This 15-year-old was trying to tell me that he never attained phonemic awareness, nor did he master phonics—the ability to correlate sounds with letters or groups of letters in the alphabetic writing system. He was trying to tell me tell me that he doesn’t know what sounds are produced when he sees letters and letter combinations in writing.

Unfortunately, he is not alone. I meet children everyday with this same debilitating and pervasive academic deficit.

My time spent with this student and current empirical research supports the argument that if most of his “during-reading brain power” is focused on decoding, that it will be very unlikely that he will be able to subsequently: (1) recall what he reads, (2) conceptually understand what he reads, and (3) use what he reads to ascend the pyramid of cognitive demand (i.e., think critically, write effectively).

For instance, as he read to me, he paused several times with a look of fear and embarrassment on his face, noting, “I told you that I am a terrible reader Dr. Dickey.” Each time, I allayed his concerns and took note of when he paused to express his feelings about reading. Without exception, each instance was correlated with: (1) his inability to decode, (2) understand what he was reading, and (3) use what he was reading to make sense of what the author of the text was attempting to communicate to him as the reader.  His “during-reading brain power” was in a constant state of imbalance and he knew it, which resulted in never-ending frustration about reading and ultimately impacted his academic confidence.

Imagine this student’s daily experience for 180 days, each year, in school. Imagine having to sit in English, social studies, science, or even a mathematics course each day, week, and month besieged by the paralyzing fear of being called upon to read aloud.

Unfortunately, each day, millions of children are sitting in our secondary classrooms with the same anxieties and incapacitating knowledge gaps. As a result, children who most need access to high-quality instruction are locked out by action and inaction of the very institution that was designed to, with all deliberate speed, give them what they need to thrive.

Permit me to issue a call to public educators who serve in the interest of children and families! Let us separate ourselves from the busy work of school and district leadership; that work will always be par for the course. Let us focus on the cornerstone of student achievement, which is literacy development. Let us, once and for all, refrain from “rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic” in the name of school reform. Instead, let us meet them where they are with what they actually need.

As I have maintained, my volunteer readers’ knowledge and ability gaps are not uncommon. In whichever state I find myself supporting schools and districts, it is widely known that vast numbers of children read multiple grade levels below developmental expectations, with poor and minority children at the bottom of every distribution. How long are we going to sit with this problem? We have to solve it with a finite number of actionable, measurable, and replicable commitments to our children.

What are those commitments?

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

Now, let us collectively produce a schooling experience for our children that is worthy of consumption. After all, underperformance is not about the zip code. Underperformance is about the instruction in the zip code.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.