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January 9, 2011

Anyone for the KISS approach?

by Chris Lindholm

Just before winter break I asked all of the principals in ISD191 to read Learning By Doing by DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Many and to participate in a two month conversation about what it says and how to best apply the framework in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district.  I have heard a great deal this fall about the work of PLCs and the intense professional development taking place.  Indeed, teachers are working very hard to learn about differentiating instruction, literacy interventions, developing Response to Intervention practices in our elementary sites, and how to be more culturally responsive in our practices.  Hard work is happening.  Learning is happening.  Unfortunately, practices true to being a real PLC are largely absent – thus the book study with principals.  This is not a blaming statement.  It’s an observation regarding where this organization is at in the journey to being a PLC and a decision about how to direct our work to accelerate our progress in that direction.  Indeed ISD191 will be a PLC, and I am prepared to change structures and variables as necessary to get that done. 

By far, the most powerful message in DuFour’s work on PLCs is the cry for keeping the entire organization focused on student learning.  How we schedule time, meet, act, think, talk, be, and expend resources needs to be zeroed in on student learning.  This is a great statement on paper, but anyone inside a public school district knows it take incredible discipline to execute on this day in and day out.  It begs us to wrestle with what we purchase, how we staff buildings, how we use our precious time with students, how we use our precious time for staff to collaborate, how we use technology, how we schedule classes, etc…  To use this as a filter for analyzing all adult behaviors begs us to change how we do business a great deal.  Should secondary students spend upwards of 2 hours every day outside of an academic focus if we only have them for 6 1/2 hours (add up passing times, lunch, and the start up/wrap up exercises of each class period)??  How can we carve out more time for teachers to compare student achievement results, to observe each other, and to have disciplined dialogue about improving their practice?  What about the need for the operational practices of running beauracratic organization?  It seems these could be incredibly complicated discussions involving some sacrifices…

Well, I don’t like complicated.  I subscribe to the Keep It Simple Stupid philosophy mostly because I’m not bright enough to think complicated and keep it all straight.  DuFour tells us that teachers working in meaningful teams, looking at student work, comparing results, and collaborating for better overall results is the KISS recipe for increasing student achievement.  Makes sense to me.  It makes sense to me that teachers should meet in course alike or grade level groups (horizontal teams) to look at common assessments and student work.  It makes sense to me that those teachers should also meet in vertical teams by content areas embracing a “backwards design” approach to developing the best resources, strategies, and differentiated lessons to get students ready for the capstone courses in high school.  As it pertains to the whole child, staff should meet as a group that services specific kids to make sure emotional needs are being met.  DuFour simply asks that the teams/groups are focused on student learning and are assigned in a meaningful manner (common connections are the students and/or the curriculum). That’s it.  That’s the recipe.  A simple focus on what students should know/be able to do, how we know they know it, and what to do if they don’t get it.  That’s the whole conversation. 

In the weeks/months ahead, ISD191 principals will be rolling out a district wide structure for teacher teams that are meaningful.  These teams will focus on, well, the questions stated above.  All teachers will be asked to participate in both horizontal and vertical teams and have disciplined conversations about student work, common assessments, and how to differentiate instruction to improve student achievement.  The vertical and horizontal framework will serve as the vehicle for managing and implementing the district scope and sequence – and to meet student needs.  Real teacher leaders will drive the process – and students will benefit. 

So…  To eliminate a bunch of silos and a zillion committees (and for us more simple minds), I’m asking that we “Keep It Simple Stupid” and embrace one common structure that focuses our work on student learning.  Stay tuned for more from building principals…

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