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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the epiphany here?

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

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

So what’s the epiphany here?

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

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

So what’s the epiphany here?

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

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

 

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

 

How do you leverage professional development to drive student achievement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

What does it mean to support literacy development?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are these resources?

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

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

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

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

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

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

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

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

My retort is a resounding, “No.”

This blog will be different.

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

This blog will be different.

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

This blog will be different.

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

This blog will be be different.

If you are interested in hearing more about my Educational Epiphanies and engaging in an ongoing, solutions-oriented dialogue with me about public education, subscribe to my blog, follow me on twitter @DonyallD, and read The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement– Second Edition. The book is available exclusively on our website: www.educationalepiphany.com.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

What does conceptual understanding of academic language have to do with student achievement?

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

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

Now let’s go a bit deeper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the epiphany.

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

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

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

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

For more of Dr. Dickey’s thoughts on this topic, read chapter 4 of The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement– Second Edition. The book is available exclusively on our website: www.educationalepiphany.com.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the epiphany?  

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

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

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

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

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

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

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

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

And you know what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here is the epiphany.

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

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

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

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

Exactly what is leadership? (Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Switch gears.
Donyall D. Dickey

Exactly what is leadership?

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the epiphany.

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

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

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

How should we conceptualize professional feedback and support?

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean?

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

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

What’s the epiphany?

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

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

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

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.