A Little Less Conversation

OK folks, this is going to a be a long post.  Ironic that I have entitled it “A Little Less Conversation”?  Perhaps, but I think if you spend the time to read the post you’ll understand why.  I humbly ask that you bear with me today as the topic is, in my opinion, the absolute bulls eye of the work educators are doing these days.  And besides, it’s the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week, do it for them.  

Below is an editorial that was published in the Wyoming Trib.com online newspaper.  I thought it was so good that I am reposting it in its entirety below.  I hope you will take the time to read it, and then spend just a little more time to read my comments.

Somewhere, probably in Utah, Steven Covey is ticked off.  It seems like ever since he wrote the nationally bestselling self-help book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” every knock-off artist and author has discovered seven highly effective habits, traits or characteristics for one group of people or another.

The Wyoming Department of Education appears to be the latest department to ride the bandwagon with its “Seven Commitments of High-Performing Schools.”  On the face of it, gathering school leaders from across the state to talk about what schools need to ensure high performance is a good thing. But the result of an October meeting could end up taking away from students rather than improving their performance. Reading through the seven “commitments,” a reader is at first glad to hear plenty of words like “accountability,” “leadership,” and “expectations.” However, not long after finishing, you’re kind of left to wonder, “So what — exactly — are they going to do?”

The answer appears to be: They don’t know yet. That’s still being decided. What’s also unclear is how developing these seven commitments will help students, and what kind of measurements the department will use to make sure these lofty goals will be followed.  And that’s really the point: Gathering leaders, teachers and state officials together to talk about education principles is a good thing — as long as it doesn’t distract from the classroom setting. Having school districts with “laser focus” is excellent. Getting school districts to that point will take a lot more than just agreeing that it’s a good principle. Having teachers and district leaders dump a lot of time and resources into developing a “seven commitments” plan may actually eat more time that they could be spending in the classroom.

So, back to our question: Where is the value in this? How will Wyoming residents know this is more than just a lot of education fluffy-speak?  We’ve previously identified key areas that need improvement. Graduation rates in Wyoming are comparatively low. Student test data is murky. And, teacher performance relative to the amount of money we spend is unclear.  Within Wyoming schools, there needs to be standards and the bar could certainly be set higher. What’s curious is that the Wyoming Department of Education had to pull folks together to establish this list. Maybe it was more for buy-in.

Yet it seems like Wyoming has already clearly identified areas in public education that fall in the needs-improvement box. Instead of spending time discussing “seven commitments” what about looking for quantifiable, data-driven ways to measure schools’ performance in these areas that have already been identified?  The danger in meetings like this is not that zero work gets accomplished. Although that would certainly be a terrible result of pulling that many people together, there is a different concern we have.

This isn’t the first time education leaders in this state have sensed the state slipping behind academically. Superintendent Cindy Hill isn’t the first to convene a meeting that sets out to address mediocre or average classroom results.  What is being done is essentially an exercise in history repeating itself. Sure, there have been other catchphrases and trendy words. But, really when hasn’t a department of education wanted accountability? When haven’t good teachers wanted results? When haven’t districts tried to recruit and model good leadership?

The reason every new state superintendent wants to convene meetings like this is because calling meetings, and agreeing to lofty expectations, is the easy part. It sounds good when you’re speaking around the state. It looks like we’re really making headway. Getting students to achieve at a higher level?  Holding teachers to a higher set of standards?  That’s much, much tougher and not quite as glitzy as coming out with seven commitments.  Instead, we’d suggest just one commitment — better student results.  The rest of the problems will take care of themselves.

The ringtone my wife uses for my calls is Elvis’ s “A Little Less Conversation”.  Those of you who know me won’t be surprised by this and you won’t be surprised that I think this article in the Tribune.com is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.   The education world is full of this type of talk.  Much of it is functionally worthless.  We need a little less conversation and a lot more action.  However, my fear is that to the casual reader, the point the editor is making about WDE will be projected upon local school districts across the state.  It doesn’t say so explicitly, but if the editor intended to paint with a brush that broad, then I think the reasoning behind the article is ABSOLUTELY WRONG.

I know some of the districts that were involved in that conversation.  They didn’t get to be high performing school districts because they spent the majority of their time talking about getting better, they spent their time doing it!  Let me be clear and say that it’s important to have a road map to success (read strategic plan), but as the Trib.com article clearly points out, glitzy talk doesn’t “feed the bulldog”.  I think if you take the time to ask any Sublette 1 teacher they will tell you that for the past two years, life around Pinedale hasn’t been glitzy talk.  It’s been hard, research-based work.

We’ve spent the better part of  this year focused on strategies like McREL’s Classroom Instruction that Works.  Why? Because strategies like Identifying Similarities and Differences has an effect size of 1.61 and shows a percentile gain of 45% for all students.  Because Nonlinguistic Representation has an effect size of .75 and shows a percentile gain of 27% for all students.  If that information reads like it’s right out of a research journal, that’s because it is.   Glitzy, no.  Fluffy talk, hardly. Quantifiable and data-driven, you bet.

And, that’s just two of nine such strategies we are working very hard to implement.  Our administrative staff is being trained in Balanced Leadership.  A recent study in Michigan has shown that implementing the Balanced Leadership responsibilities and strategies can increase student performance within a school by 10%.  And did I mention that we are adding a ton of technology to our classrooms so that our students will be more engaged and learn 21st Century Skills?

I can assure you, and our teachers will attest, that the work to become proficient in these instructional strategies isn’t about catchphrases and trendy words.  It’s about grinding it out on a daily basis.   And grind we have.  I’ve asked a lot of our teachers over the past two years.  More than I should have, if you know your research on implementing change.  Personally, I didn’t know enough until recently.  That’s my fault and I intend to change it.  But every resident of Sublette 1 needs to know that our teachers have responded to our change initiatives with unprecedented effort and professionalism.  With a little less conversation and a whole lot of action.

Ultimately, as the Trib.com article states, this is about student performance.   Last year our efforts were rewarded with increased student performance across the board.  Will we repeat that again this year?  Candidly, it’s hard to say in the short-term.  As I stated earlier, the research clearly indicates that I have asked for too much too soon.  But I am confident in our efforts for the long-term.  Perhaps in our case a little more conversation and little less action might be appropriate for a while.  But not for too long, Elvis is calling.

About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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