Individuals may sincerely want to change their practices; however, systems are often not designed to support the desired changes. In some cases, systems may work in ways that frustrate change efforts. In the high-performing schools we studied, systems were developed in ways that led to five outcomes. These outcomes, illustrated below, supported educators’ efforts to establish positive transformational cultures, ensure access to challenging academic curricula, and provide effective, engaging instruction for all students.
First, educators recognized the need to work toward common understandings of what they would expect themselves to teach their students. If they were to offer a guaranteed and viable curriculum, educators needed to agree upon the learning expectations associated with grade levels and subject areas. They had to decide which standards every student would learn and which ones would have lower priority. They had to decide and agree upon what each standard meant and what each standard implied students should know and be able to do. Furthermore, they had to agree how they would coordinate across grade levels and course sequences to ensure that students would have a logical path to the attainment of the specific concepts and skills. The system had to be structured in a way that helped educators establish a common focus on specific concepts and skills. As well, the system needed to work in ways that continuously refined the focus so educators became increasingly clear about what they needed to help their students learn. In the absence of such a system, it would have been difficult for teachers to develop and sustain many of the teaching practices described in this book. As well, student access to challenging academic curricula would have been severely limited.
Once educators in high-performing schools began to establish clarity about what they wanted their students to learn, they needed to develop clear, common understandings of how they would assess understanding and mastery. They needed agreement about what mastery looked like for students at the grade levels they taught. They needed to determine what they would accept as evidence that their students had developed deep understandings of concepts and skills. The system needed to yield common formative assessments that teachers would use at approximately the same time. The formative assessments needed to provide students and teachers useful information about the depth of a student’s understanding of a specific concept, rather than a general sense of a student’s understanding of a variety of concepts (DuFour & Marzano, 2011). Additionally, the system needed to help teachers develop even more immediate ways of determining what students understood. Teachers needed multiple strategies for gauging student progress and rapidly adjusting instruction. In the absence of such support, it is difficult to imagine teachers experiencing a high level of success implementing the teaching practices described in this book. For example, it would have been difficult for teachers to check understanding, provide feedback, and adapt instruction if they did not have clarity about how they might assess their students’ understanding of specific academic concepts.
Perhaps, most importantly, teachers needed a system that would help them develop high quality lessons through which their students would have a high likelihood of learning challenging standards. While it would have been great to have clarity about the standards students were expected to learn and the tools that would be used to assess learning, teachers still needed support in determining how they might create engaging, powerful lessons that would lead all students to understanding and mastery. In many schools, such a system does not exist. In many schools, teachers are limited to the guidance provided by the teacher’s manual or the worksheets in the file cabinet. In the absence of a strong system for improving initial instruction, schools must rely heavily on intervention strategies to improve learning outcomes. In too many schools, students receive initial instruction, fail, and, only then, get access to instruction that is more likely to respond to their strengths and needs. In high-performing urban schools, the system is focused in a manner that helps ensure initial lessons have a high likelihood of leading students to understanding and mastery.
Even with improved initial instruction, there will always be some students who need additional support. In high-performing urban schools, the system is designed to promptly identify students who need extra support and intervention, provide support in an efficient and highly effective manner, and continuously improve the quality of intervention efforts. As well, because there will always be some students who achieve understanding and mastery more quickly than anticipated, it is important for the system to ensure the provision of enrichment in ways that build upon student strengths and maximize student interest in learning.
If schools are to succeed in creating positive transformational cultures, all of the previously described system outcomes must be pursued in a manner that results in all stakeholders feeling valued and capable. For example, if the pursuit of improved initial instruction occurs in a manner that leaves teachers feeling punished and humiliated, the effort is not likely to produce the intended result. Similarly, if intervention strategies are constructed in a way that leaves students feeling punished and humiliated, the efforts will not be effective. A positive transformational culture is central to any sustained improvement effort. Therefore, all of the system outcomes must be pursued in a manner that leads stakeholders to feel valued and capable.
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