Professional Educators

Massachusetts: State, Districts Look to MTA as School Improvement Provider

By Kathleen J. Skinner, Ed.D.

I know many of us quote  that revered philosopher Pogo. ‘I have seen the enemy and he is us.’  I would rather say, ‘We have seen the solution and it is us.’  I think that’s sort of a refrain that we walk into this work with. Eight or nine years ago Massachusetts became involved with the Priority School Initiative.  And we used the initial opportunity to work with middle schools over a three year period in what we called the PSI KEYS Initiative, because we used KEYS as sort of a baseline to help identify the one or two big problems that – if they weren’t solved – made what else they did irrelevant.  And we had a lot of success with some schools and we learned a lot from our mistakes with others.  And I always think, quite frankly, failure is a better teacher than success.

The Center for Education Policy and Practice has four professional staff, support staff and a field of 12 professional development associates who work across the state on professional programs.  Based on that experience and with a lot of encouragement, we made a decision to found an education management organization, The Priority School Redesign Center.

We had to do a lot of paperwork because in Massachusetts in order to work with what we call ‘level four schools’ or SIG schools, we have to be an approved provider.

We decided to go for approval in (all) three areas; Lead Provider, Design Advisory and in all 11 of the Conditions of School Effectiveness that low performing schools have to address, including instruction, curriculum, collaborative decision making, using time, budget, principal staffing authority.  It’s about a 50 page RFP.  I’m more than happy to send it anybody that can’t get to sleep at night.  But we essentially had to prove that we knew what we were doing.

Our model is based on labor-management collaboration.  We’ve been doing that consistently for the past decade.  So now (as an approved provider for SIG and Race to the Top) we’re having meetings with the department commissioners to determine what is it specifically that we could be doing in these schools right away.  And we think that it’s probably going to start with our helping to develop labor-management collaborative teams at the school level, helping them to look at KEYS surveys and other kinds of measures, you know, test scores and whatever other metrics they choose to help them to formulate the plan that they will then submit for the funding and then how to implement it going down the road.

We have to help schools build their internal capacity to solve their own problems.  And so that’s our goal.  We commit to three years and our goal is when the three years are over we want you to be able to carry on without us.

And we charge for everything. The folks that are doing the work for us in the field are really skilled educators whose time and expertise is worth something.  The expertise is within the profession.  And we aggressively go after government grants.  So in the past decade, we have provided districts with significant professional learning and support through cumulative grant allocations from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that are close to $1 million.

We’ve learned that in many low-performing schools the  principals are really good managers of buildings, so that you know they can make the bells ring on time, the buses come and go, the materials are in the classrooms, the school is clean, the kids are fed, it’s a safe school environment, so all of those kinds of issues are taken care of, and I would never underestimate the importance of all of those issues, I mean, they need to be.  But there isn’t anybody who’s really doing instructional leadership.

So you have a school manager as opposed to an instructional leader.  What we try to do is identify a group of instructional leaders within the school, not one, but rather the administrators and teachers, who have the skill set and willingness to take on the work of looking at a variety of data sets and coming up with one or two overarching objectives that the school really needs to achieve in order to move forward.

And then through a lot of two-way communication work with the faculty to get ownership of those objectives, formulate a three-year plan to achieve them, identify what the adults need to know and be able to do in order to achieve the objectives, develop a professional growth plan for the adults in the building, reorganize time so that educators have big chunks of time together as opposed to like 45 minutes after school, three day a week make that two and a half hours one day a week, so that we have a big chunk of time where we can really kind of sit down and figure out what we’re going to do.

And then what we’ve learned is that there is kind of a linear progression in terms of what people need to do.  They need to have an aligned curriculum, they need to know what they’re supposed to be teaching and when – which a lot of these schools don’t have, especially where they have scripted curriculum, which means that at nine o’clock on Monday we’re all saying the exact same thing regardless of whether the kids sitting in the front of us understand it or already know it.  So those are kind of two big barriers.

Educators have to rely on the curriculum, map it, and then they have to learn how to develop standards-based units and lessons that are tied to that mapped curriculum. And then they have to learn how to tier their instruction so that kids with different levels of independence or readiness can gain access to what it is that they’re trying to teach.  And then they have to figure out how are we going to assess this using really an array of assessments, not just ones you know – tests and quizzes – but really performances, informal, very formal.  So there’s a linear progression through that.

Some teachers are very skilled at some of this, so what we try to do is recruit from among the faculty eight to ten people that we then train as facilitators and coaches, so that as people are learning new knowledge and skills, their home grown facilitators are working with their colleagues within the school when we’re not there. Then these folks in the school are really working with people during common planning time or in these after school sessions that they have to implement the new knowledge and skills that they’re acquiring.

It’s a very kind of simple, elegant plan. And then we use the NEA KEYS survey at the beginning as a baseline and then every year, so they compare how they’re doing throughout the three-year process.  So it aligns kind of well with the SIG stuff because it’s a three-year plan; you have to use evidence. One of the two questions we ask them is ‘What will success look like?’ and ‘How will we measure it?’  So that’s kind of basic program evaluation.  So what are the behaviors that the adults and the kids in the school will evidence and how do we know that they’re doing that?

What we’re trying to do is get people to realize that the power to articulate what ‘our solution’ lies with them.  But they have to be pretty honest about what is it that they don’t know and can’t do and be willing to learn how to do it.  Our members are the experts about teaching.  So what we have to do, I think is create mechanisms by which they can share their practice, help colleagues, help people to think more strategically about capacity building, but you know there are a lot of education gurus out there that don’t teach, never have.

I think that educators are coming to realize they need more time, they need more time with kids, they need more time with themselves that the work is far more collaborative, it has to be far more collaborative than it has been, so this notion of the egg crate school, where everybody’s in her own little egg crate; you kind of have to kind of abandon that; you can’t stay in your classroom and close the door.

Kids who come from high poverty homes need a lot more social and emotional support within the schools.  So it’s making people look more strategically at what is a school to high need populations.  It’s very different than a school where parents can invest a lot of capital in their own children.  I mean, poor kids come to school with less social capital than middle class kids.  And so the school and the community have to, in some way, make up for that lack of social capital.

Dr. Kathleen Skinner is the Director of the Massachusetts Teachers Association Center for Education Policy and Practice which works with MTA members and other stakeholder organizations to craft research-based, field-informed policies to improve teaching, learning, leadership, and student achievement. She is a National Board Certified teacher who worked in Somerville public schools as a high school English and Journalism teacher and dropout prevention specialist and a Reading Specialist in grades K-8. Formerly assistant principal at Gloucester High School and the Professional Development Director of the Lawrence public school, Dr. Skinner is the president of the New England affiliate of the National Staff Development Council.

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