Results:  The Key to Continuous School Improvement

by Mike Schmoker

In one hundred twenty pages, Mike Schmoker makes a persuasive case for teacher-led instructional improvement through small teams focused on goals for student achievement measured by all types of data (results). (See Lesson Study for a framework for this approach.)  But first, he recognizes the political insight and  courage required by policy leaders to develop and support such a system.  Quoting Fullan and Miles, he notes:

" Reform often fails because politics often favors symbols over substance.  Substantial change in practice requires a lot of hard and clever work "on the ground," which is not the strong point of political players."

p.1.  In other words, policy leaders who have previously "launched initiatives . . .and spent untold hours drawing up visions and mission statements" must now focus on creating a system characterized at the teacher level by meaningful, informed teamwork; clear, measurable goals; and the regular collection and analysis of performance data.  (This should also be the character of the central office, as Dr. Schmoker mentions.  Click here for an example from Baltimore.)

Dr. Schmoker provides examples from research, the business world, and research of how and why this approach not only can, but has produced rapid, significant improvement in important areas of student achievement.  And, as a wonderful but appropriate correlate, professionals involved in such a system find themselves enjoying their work and eager for continuing efforts and the achievement of more of their goals.  According to one study, "people who are members of effective teams 'consistently and without prompting emphasized the fun aspects of their work together.'" p. 14.

However, changing to such an approach requires explicit support, direction, focused resources, continuing encouragement to the participants and frequent recognition and celebrations of successes.  That's because, presently, "schools have an almost cultural and ingrained aversion to reckoning with, much less living by, results." (p.3)  Further, there is a "tendency in schools to avert the confrontation that is at the heart of a true results orientation." (p. 6)  The key to change is to help teams select doable, important goals and see short-term progress.

Teams

Teacher-led instructional improvement teams conduct action research.   "Effective teamwork that leads to results is a discipline -- and requires a scientific disposition." (p.16).  Chapter 3 suggests some guidelines for teams:

  • Listen Before You Leap: brainstorm , then judge possible actions against the team's knowledge of pertinent research and sense of probable and potential impact on student learning.
  • Follow-up: Rigorously assess the results of actions decided on at the last meeting before moving to the next round of brainstorming and action planning.
  • Use Structured Processes: Teams need agendas for meetings, for roles within the team, for assessing results, etc.  Dr. Schmoker provides a sample 30-minute  meeting agenda in an appendix.  Some of the forms which Lesson Study efforts around the country are developing could also be useful here.  I believe that, while there may be no magic in particular structures, there could be great power in a district from common vocabularies and methodologies for team work.
  • Administrative Teams: See above.
  • Hope and Optimism:  Recognize, publicize and celebrate success.  Tell the stories of successful teamwork constantly to all audiences.  This is a discipline; it is rigorous and demanding, and everyone will need all the encouragement they can get.

Measurable Goals

"Goals are the stuff of motivation, persistence, and well-being." (p.23), but they have to be measured in student achievement.  No more goals to "implement X program" or "train all teachers in Y methodology."  Criteria for effective goals include:

  • Measurable
  • Annual (with shorter sub-goals)
  • Achievement-focused
  • Standards-based
  • Simply written
  • Few enough for any particular grade or subject to allow those teachers to concentrate their efforts
  • Safe (made in an environment and culture that keeps them from being overly threatening to individual teachers)

It is interesting to think of the effect of such goals on Philip Daro's definition of standards as "What it takes to get a 'B' in Ms. So-and-so's class." (Click here for more.)  Further, such goals are inherently "public" and "accountable".

What types of measures?

Dr. Schmoker argues for a broad array of data including rubrics developed and used in common by groups of teacher teams, running records for reading, assignments completed, books read, percentage of students engaging in class discussions, etc., etc.  Recognizing that such specific data carries with it a certain risk, and noting the need for personal safety before teachers, individually or in teams, will be willing to take the risk of setting measurable goals (and, in many cases, be the data gatherers), he also suggests the following threat-reducing strategies:

  • Do not use data primarily to identify or eliminate poor teachers.
  • Do not introduce high-stakes for students prematurely.
  • Collect and analyze data collaboratively and anonymously by team, department, grade level, or school.
  • Be cautions in implementing pay-for-performance schemes.  (See also, True Professionalism.)
  • Allow teachers, by school or team, as much autonomy as possible in selecting the kind of data they think will be most helpful.
  • Inundate practitioners with success stories that include data.

Research and Development

Chapter 5 focuses on the application of the best research information to the efforts of teacher teams.  He suggests that a growing body of solid, reliable research (Daubert standards?) points the way toward effective teaching, and that this body of knowledge needs to be readily available to teacher teams.  My experience in continuing legal education and specialization suggests:

  1. Create mini-courses, probably available to teachers in distance learning formats over the web or an intranet, on core pedagogical, assessment, class management, data analysis, and similar competencies.
  2. Track teacher participation via transcripts.
  3. Offer limited-term but renewable certifications in particular areas to teachers completing groups of courses and going beyond them through original research, application, mentoring of others in them, etc.

Leadership

Finally, Dr. Schmoker returns to the issue of leadership.  Bottom line, the political leadership in a community striving to create an environment favorable to teacher-led instructional improvement will have to resist the temptation to dictate too much from the top.  Instead, they must focus on whether the environment is right for teachers to focus on improving instruction for improved achievement, or, "Quality Learning Through Quality Work, Every Student, Every Day."