Leading for Improvement Part 9: Celebrate the change-big or small.

When we press for change, we have to be sure we don’t take on a deficit mindset. It means we must focus on securing small wins rather than thinking about what we are yet to accomplish. These opportunities to celebrate, small or large, are critical to the process of continuous improvement. It is in these moments, that we affirm the hard and challenging work of others, we uplift and encourage them, and we say with our words and actions that the work matters. Our acknowledgement of effort and improvement creates a sense of pride that can only come from working toward a goal and accomplishing it. That sense of pride is what helps us believe in what we’ve yet to achieve and keep going on days and moments when we realize that in spite of all the effort and desire we put forth, there are no guarantees that our work will result in the changes we are hoping to see.

Celebration doesn’t have to be massive, but it must be for the masses. That means we celebrate the efforts of everyone because we approach success collectively, the same way we approach the hard work. As a young principal, I can remember being so excited about making certificates for our entire school staff. I made them to celebrate the improvement of academic achievement we experienced after embarking on the Professional Learning Communities work for two years. Each certificate had a picture of each staff member along with his or her name and a line describing the reason for the recognition. What I did not realize until much later, is how much those certificates helped sustain our improvement efforts. Years later, I saw those same certificates hanging behind the desks of teachers, in the nurse’s office, and the custodian’s closet. That small token of celebration had sustained folks on days far beyond the day I handed it to them.

We must never underestimate the joy that comes from winning. In the school improvement arena, winning means our actions translate into all students learning, improved teacher practice, and that our schools and the people we serve are better because we were willing to do our jobs with love, care, dedication, and commitment. When we win, when we meet our goal, when we make positive progress, we celebrate to acknowledge the hard work of all who serve. Plan on winning and don’t forget to celebrate!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!


Let’s Stop Weaponizing Assessment

It seems that using a balanced approach to do our work as educators is an overlooked perspective these days. It’s almost as if we have been conditioned to choose an extreme to support our position on literacy, accountability, and assessment. This either/or mentality in place of a both/and approach is troubling. When we fail to honor the continuum of concepts and pedagogical methods by forcing others to choose a position, we lose the opportunity to honor the fact that all of our children come to us with different and unique needs and gifts. What they need, when they need it, and how they need it simply can’t be so stringently defined. Simply put: it depends. There are far too many factors that contribute to each child’s learning journey for us to narrowly define our approach to instructing and assessing them.

With such extreme thinking, we’ve been forced into two camps when it comes to assessment. Camp A: We give too many tests. Tests are stressing our students out a great deal and our teachers are only focused on teaching to the tests. We are constantly assessing students to try and predict how they’ll perform on the big high stakes tests, and many of our students still aren’t demonstrating college and career readiness. Camp B: We have to know how our children are comparing to others in our schools, districts, state, and across the nation. These tests help us hold the educators accountable. We can see who is getting the job done, and who isn’t. We can see where large achievement gaps exist. If we don’t tests our students, how will we know how they are doing? Both perspectives are problematic, in my opinion, and it’s because we’ve weaponized assessment.

Assessment is an essential tool for effective teaching and for learning. When used as a tool rather than a weapon, it can help educators guide their instruction, create formative learning opportunities, diagnosing student misconceptions, and serve as evidence of mastery. It can also prove to be just as useful to students, building their agency in knowing what it is they know and are able to do and identifying areas where they need more deliberate practice and support. Instead, assessment has become a weapon in the accountability arsenal, a far cry from its’ original intent and purpose I believe I’ve outlined here.

Why? Why has assessment been weaponized? Why has its’ weaponization forced us into two camps of thought, neither of which is balanced? I believe there are many reasons for this. 1. It makes accountability easy to measure. It’s a convenient way to articulate the impact of teaching on learning. 2. It’s makes comparing student performance much easier than it would be if we used an assessment approach that wasn’t so easy to quantify, such as performance assessments. 3. It’s a big business. A 2012 article from Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institute estimated that states spend about 1.7 billion annually on standardized testing, and in 2015 Chingos wrote a follow up article noting that in the grand scheme of things this was minimal, considering that our public education system spends an estimated 600 billion per year. He went on to explain how if the 1.7 billion was repurposed it would do little to improve teacher salaries, class size, supply budgets, etc. His conclusion is simply that we shouldn’t retreat from assessment. It helps inform policy makers and shapes their decisions, helps measure the performance of schools and educators, and enables scholars to take on research targeted at increasing academic outcomes. There is, however, a follow up to this, the growing evidence-based intervention products that are consuming the budgets of schools and districts in their attempt to improve student learning on these weaponized assessments. I wrote about the intervention overdose in an earlier blog. If you’re so inclined, give it a read and let me know what you think.

I can’t help but think what might happen if we invested the dollars in intervention materials in a different way, and I’m not referencing salaries here. We can professionally develop our teachers to build their assessment literacy capacity, to work with and coach them on how to use the information from the assessment to shift their practice in a way that leads to student mastery. We can help our students develop agency, and support them in being able to speak clearly to their strengths and opportunities and their plan for growing their knowledge and skills.

I believe that the ultimate job of the teacher is to be a diagnostician. They must identify and correct misconceptions in thinking and understanding early on and this is a skill that takes practice and development. Instead, we continue to invest in outputs, gathering more results to compare, rank, sort, and hold schools and educators accountable, rather than focusing on inputs-developing the capacity of teachers to be masterful diagnosticians and improving the agency of students. That’s where our efforts and investments should be in my opinion. Thus would help end the weaponization of assessment.

I want to be clear. I don’t believe assessment is a bad thing. This isn’t an all or nothing issue. We need assessment in the educational process. No doubt about it. We just need to return to a more common sense approach. One that honors the teacher as diagnostician and the student as an agent of his or her own learning.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!


Leading for Improvement Part 8: Fuel the charge with actionable feedback.

High-quality feedback is critical to a system of continuous improvement. With the critical eye of others affirming or correcting our work, we can grow exponentially. This is especially true when it comes to school and district improvement.  Just as learners need affirmation and diagnostic feedback that leads to correcting misconceptions of thinking, teachers need the same to enhance their practices and course correct before things go too far off track. Our responsibility as leaders does not end with the charge to change we place upon others. Instead, we must keep efforts moving in the right direction by providing supportive and actionable feedback that is specific, actionable, targeted, and helps improve the capacity of those we have charged with changing. 

Without feedback, our push to ask others to improve is nothing more than words without work. We must do more than articulate why there is a need for change and what changes need to happen. Our explanation of how members of the organization can make the changes we are advocating for must accompany our feedback. People want to know if they are getting it right and if they are not they want to know how they can get it right. Everybody needs feedback to grow and to thrive. When we fail to provide feedback to those we serve or ask for it from those we are serving, we create a one-way communication system in which our decisions, actions, and direction is driven by our personal perspective. A lack of feedback is the ultimate barrier to increasing the capacity of others. 

Often in the conversation regarding high expectations and the necessity of those to drive improvement, the critical element of feedback is missing. Our expectations alone do not serve as a catalyst for change. They only help us move our organization in the direction we desire if we provide feedback to support those we serve in their efforts. Feedback is leadership in action.  The power it has to enhance improvement or inhibit it when missing is undeniable.  Keep the feedback loop open, transparent, and collaborative. As leaders, we need feedback as much as we need to give it to others! That’s transformation on the inside and the outside!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!


Leading for Improvement-Part 7: Lead the learning before you set the expectation.

Serving as a leader and focusing on improvement requires a great deal of learning. In order to be able to lead improvement efforts effectively, one must be sure to learn a variety of things: about the organization, the needs, strengths, and challenges. Further, the leader must equip him or herself with the knowledge, skills, and processes to lead the improvement effort. Dedication and commitment are only effective if coupled with the necessary skills and knowledge to make a positive impact in outcomes. High expectations also matter, but before the leader can set the expectation, and hold others accountable for meeting it, learning in depth about what you are about to ask of others is essential. Leaders go first-in their learning, in accountability, and their actions.

Learning as much as you can about school improvement means taking the initiative to learn as much as you can by reading peer-reviewed journal articles, books, and investing in your professional development in ways that produce a positive return on investment. That means being strategic regarding the conferences you attend, and perhaps not attending a conference that you’ve always attended any longer because it actually does not meet your needs when it comes to improving your organization. Leaders who learn before they try leading don’t look to others to serve as the architect of their professional development. Instead, they accept full responsibility for their professional growth and understand the necessity of it if they are going to lead the charge of school improvement and develop a set of expectations for all members of the organization, including themselves.

When leaders set the expectation before they learn about the practices they are expecting others to execute, they create a false dichotomy that effective leaders are effective solely because they have communicated and held others to high expectations. What I know for sure is that the most impactful leaders hold themselves to high expectations before they place expectations on others, and one of those is that they are lifelong learners. Those charged with leading improvement efforts must equip themselves with the knowledge and skills to be effective in leading change. Only then, can they set the expectations for others to meet!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!


Leading for Improvement Part 6: Pull the team together to start and sustain the improvement process.

We’ve all heard it. Teamwork makes the dream work. There is no I in team. These things have absolute truth to them, but the idea of working to improve a school or district requires more than a mental belief that teamwork matters. It requires work, and as much as I have heard those charged with leading improvement efforts talk about the importance of teamwork, I have heard less talk about the last part of that word: work.

As a leader of a change initiative, our communication must be clear to those we serve. We have a responsibility to be transparent with others about the work that is required for change. That work includes the need for collaboration, meaning members of the team must work together, think together, struggle together, and win together. It is messy and it’s challenging, but if we can get the work part and the together part right, it is quite rewarding.

Our improvement journey must always commence with a focused effort on the collective. That is, we start with making sure everyone on the team knows, understands, and believes they are a valuable part of the change that is about to occur, their efforts matter, and their work is critical to accomplishing organizational goals. Once we have reached this level of consensus among the team, we can begin the work of making sure everyone has clarity regarding what needs to change and why change must take place. Clarifying and communicating the what and why of change should happen often. The work of change is always accompanied by the how of change when improvement efforts are successful. This work of focusing on the collective, the team, should not end once the school or district has met its’ goals. Instead, it should remain at the very essence of the organization’s efforts. This is what starts and sustains improvement-an understanding that it takes work and that work must include everyone on the team.

Finish what you start by being sure to start the way you wish to finish. This means bringing the same energy, effort, and focus consistently to the work. A lack of consistency can sabotage well-intended plans for improvement, and result in a strong start only to be followed by a weak finish. The key is in being disciplined enough to understand that your quest for improvement is directly related to the consistency of your efforts. Steady wins the race!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Leading for Improvement Part 5: Develop talent to optimize performance.

If we want to improve the overall effectiveness of our organization, we have to be sure to consider ways we might optimize organizational performance. In other words, we must think strategically about how to increase the positive results exponentially while minimizing any areas of weaknesses as much as possible. To do this, we recognize the importance of developing the talent in those we serve. It means we have a willingness to stretch, yet encourage, push yet support, and challenge those who have great potential to reaching the highest levels of effectiveness. Organizational improvement is about collective effort and because of that optimizing the performance of all is a necessary task.

Developing talent in others does not simply translate into empowering them to act, rather it is essential that we start by equipping them with the knowledge, skills, and processes needed to improve their effectiveness. Only after we have properly equipped them should we empower them to take action to help move the organization forward. When leading improvement efforts, it is important to recognize the strengths of individual team members, the interconnectedness of each person’s talents, and then work purposefully to create a sense of collective belief in the talent of the team. Establishing a sense of mutual interdependence is a powerful catalyst for improvement. It means team members think of their work as an integral part of the team’s success and express a willingness to own the successes and the setbacks. 

Organizational improvement rest on the shoulders of all members of the organization, and while leadership is critically important, the leader cannot do it alone. To think that one individual can create all the energy and execute all of the effort needed in leading change is an indication of naivety, inexperience, and poor judgement. As you are working to improve your school or district, you must also work to improve yourself and those you serve. Without a concerted effort to develop the talent and build the capacity in others, you may find yourself feeling similar to a hamster in a wheel-moving fast, but going nowhere!

Leading for Improvement Part 4: Anchor the core.

Sometimes when I talk with school level leaders about the critical importance of instructional leadership, I have to be careful not to scare them. If I don’t explicitly state that it doesn’t mean you have to be a subject area expert in every content taught in your school, folks walk away thinking just that, but that’s not at all what I mean. Instead, I believe that as instructional leaders we must know and familiarize ourselves with learning science, high-leverage instructional practices and pedagogy, and then set an expectation that those practices will serve as anchors to core instruction in every classroom, at every grade level, in every subject, every day. The research is clear and we know that there are powerful things teachers can do to improve student outcomes: focus on metacognition, developing and articulating clear learning objectives, focus learning on the critical content, etc. Those things should anchor teaching and learning in our classrooms, schools, and districts.

If you have been a school leader or you are one currently, you may be familiar with the parent who calls to ask for a specific teacher or calls to ask specifically that their child is not assigned to a particular teacher’s classroom. This variation in teaching quality leads to a variation in academic output among students. When we anchor instruction in a set of evidence-based strategies and practices, we can reduce the variation in teaching quality and potentially increase outcomes for all students. We can also develop our ability to recognize successfully implemented practices and provide feedback to help teachers enhance, refine, and improve their instructional skills. Anchoring core instruction in a set of evidence-based practices and strategies that we expect to take place in every classroom can be a powerful catalyst for improvement. The key here is to be certain we have anchored the core in the right practices to meet the needs of our students and our improvement goals.

Variety may be the spice of life, but it can be the enemy to improvement efforts if not managed appropriately. Some instructional concepts, practices, and strategies must become non-negotiables if we want to ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to receive teaching of the highest quality.Anchor the core!

Until next time, be you! Be true. Be a hope builder!