The Path to Quality in a School: Grow It or Lose It
Jun 17, 2009 Teaching 2885 Views
There is an effective process for pursuing quality or continuous improvement in any school. This description of the path to quality is based upon the author's fifty years of direct involvement and observation in public education. Here are the steps in the path:
Step #1: Adopting Concept Models. - - If a school formally adopts researched concept models,continuous improvement is encouraged. Let us look at an actual example.
In a Massachusetts high school I supervised for 28 years, the faculty became interested in two powerful basic concepts - - USE OF RESEARCHED BRAIN-FRIENDLY TEACHING/ LEARNING TECHNIQUES IMPROVES LEARNING. and CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT IS FACILITATED BY EVERYONE IN A SCHOOL USING A QUALITY MANAGEMENT PROCESS. The first of these concepts had been given impetus by presentations on brain-based learning from consultant Eric Jensen. The second concept grew from our study of the profound knowledge principles of W. Edwards Deming. These concepts were expanded in a mission statement then formally adopted by the School Committee. Here are some excerpts from that two-page mission statement:
a. Have each student discover unique interests and talents and develop specific improvement and career goals.
b Provide each student with . . . a focus on continuous improvement documented in individual portfolios and based on W. Edwards Deming?s principles of profound knowledge.
Compare the potential impact of this formal adoption of major concepts with an I-hope-you-will-use-this-workshop approach. A consultant gives a workshop or series of workshops on a major concept. Some teachers might use what was taught. Many might not use what was taught. The pressures of daily teaching and testing are such that there is considerable natural resistance to important major changes in teaching/learning techniques.
Step #2: Informing and Training - - Once a concept model is selected as so important that it is included in a formal mission statement, progress on continuous improvement in implementing the concept depends heavily on informing and training. Let us look at my high school example again. From about 1990 on, the school administrators and teachers pursued these actions:
a. Implemented training sessions on both brain-based learning and quality management as part of the annual required and optional professional development programs, including required sessions for new teachers.
b. Established teacher task forces to direct annual evolution and improvement of both brain-based learning and the quality management process.
c. Financed annual benchmarking activities for teachers such as attendance at major conferences on brain-based learning and quality (The Brain Expo, the National Conference on Quality in Education, etc.), visits to other schools, and access to internet resources. This annual benchmarking is important so that projects evolve (or even disappear) as new information becomes available.
d. Constructed a strong parent/community information program (literature, meeting presentations, web site articles).
e. Provided freshman year training to all new students on brain-based learning including learning styles and different intelligences or talents and how to capitalize on same.
f. Established an integrated (part of existing courses) four-year curriculum to ensure that every student developed a full understanding and skills in total quality management as practiced in business and industry.
Compare the potential of this extensive and annual training program with a one-shot workshop or even one annual series of workshops. The latter approach is not persistent enough to overcome the inertia that blocks real change, is not an approach that keeps evolving with new information, and does not ensure that new teachers are helped to adopt the culture as they join the district.
Step #3: Institutionalizing Use of Concept Models. - - Given teacher and administrator turnover, even annual and evolving training in use of a concept will not ensure continuous improvement growth in effective use of a powerful concept. Certain additional actions are needed to "institutionalize" or to make a concept model a relatively permanent part of a school's culture.
Here are some of the example high school's actions taken to institutionalize use of the concepts discussed above:
a. Teacher task forces were formed to help everyone grow in use of the concepts. For example one of those task forces designed and conducted or arranged related annual training for new teachers. It also scheduled after-school sharing sessions in which teachers could visit demonstrations of successful brain-friendly learning activities constructed by peers. Put simply, once teachers took ownership, wonderful events took place.
b. Constantly improving learning results (state test scores, reading gain growth scores, histogram records of median scores and standard deviation on project rubrics, etc.) were documented and published and praised.
c. Relevant contract clauses were negotiated in partnership discussions between teachers and administrators. For example, here are some of the items inserted in a revised teacher evaluation instrument:
(The teacher) shows strong 4MAT or approved equal unit/lesson planning for attention to different learning styles and options.
Plans and offers different ways of students showing learning results and building strong portfolios.
Works with students in accumulating data useful in documenting and improving learning processes (TQM).
(Observations show the teacher) Providing well-planned different ways of learning (A, V, K).
Introducing units with a motivating experience.
Encouraging student use of a PDCA cycle (plan, do, check, act).
This modification of the evaluation process was a fundamental action for institutionalizing attention to adopted concept models.
Again, compare these sample actions with those in a school where someone promotes major improvements by mandating details rather than asking teachers to design same. Or, compare them with a school where evaluation standards are not changed to make expectations clear to everyone.
Step #4: Using Measurement. - - If a new major concept is adopted and details are implemented by teachers and students, the final step needs to be taken - - measuring progress to see whether improvement is taking place. At our high school teachers and students were trained in use of assessment techniques and comparisons. Questions like these were addressed annually:
a. Did the percentage of students passing state tests (or a particular standard on a test) improve over last year? Why? What can we do to improve more next year?
b. On major learning project X, did our use of new accelerated learning techniques lead to better histogram scores than those achieved last year?
c. How can we use more formative assessments in classrooms to help students use measurements to guide their individual improvement efforts?
d. What percentage of seniors completed a portfolio that met school standards, and how did that compare with last year? What can we do to reach 100% (which the school did)?
Annual results were presented to the School Committee by different divisions or departments as the Committee monitored progress on the concepts it had adopted.
A major point here is that a school cannot promote continuous improvement as effectively as it should if students and teachers are not continuous partners in using measurement to improve daily learning.
Learning results at our high school continuously improved from 1990 through 2004 as the faculty and staff used the four major steps useful in growing quality. Before and after that time period, I have had the opportunity as a consultant to observe efforts at improvement and innovation in many other school districts. Some or all of the four general growing factors described in this article were conspicuously absent when I saw schools lose their battle for a high level of quality. The reverse was true in the schools that were successful in maintaining and growing quality.
Of course, there are other important factors that impact on quality - - resources and leadership for example. However, I have come to believe that in one way or another, the most successful school leaders are those who help their school teams use the four factors for growing quality.
Hopefully, you can answer "yes" to each of these four questions for any major effort on instructional improvement:
1. Have you adopted researched concept models and incorporated them in a mission statement used to guide everyone's efforts?
2. Do staff members conduct annual information and training programs designed to support effective use of adopted models?
3. Have actions been taken to institutionalize pursuit and evolution of the concept models, actions like inclusion of relevant standards in the school?s evaluation program?
4. Is measurement used at every level including formative assessment in each classroom to guide and, where appropriate change improvement activities?
Positive actions in each of these four areas can be especially important in preventing one of the most common events in a school - - gradual or even relatively abrupt loss of a path to quality when a supportive administrator or key teachers leave the school. Paths to quality often disappear when key educators leave unless the four steps for quality have been taken and replacement educators are then expected to begin on the existing path. Such a loss of investment can be an unnecessary tragedy. So, remember this theme - - when a school creates a path to quality, it can grow it or lose it. A major responsibility of every superintendent and school board is to ensure that each school makes the growth choice.