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February 10, 2016

In Pursuit of Simplicity

by Chris Lindholm

Leading with FocusMike Schmoker’s new book Leading with Focus has given me the kick I needed to return to this blog in an effort to ensure our staff in ISD 186 has the clarity that strong leaders provide.  Pulling from one of my favorite authors and researchers on organizational effectiveness, he quotes Jim Collins in his book Good to Great – “The real path to greatness, it turns out, requires simplicity and diligence… It demands each of us to focus on what is vital – and to eliminate all of the extraneous distractions.”  While I know and believe we are focusing on the right things in our district, I need to be much more intentional about providing ongoing clarity for staff.  Quoting Marcus Buckingham’s 2005 work Schmoker states, “Clarifying the organization’s priorities is the leader’s single most important job.”

So what is our current main priority in ISD 186?  Implementing the 2020 Vision for Pequot Lakes Schools first requires focused, intentional, and ongoing work to clearly articulate our district curriculum.  Our District Leadership Team has purposefully set aside time during our inservice days and routine collaboration time to develop our Digital Curriculum Library starting with clear Learning Goals and Scales aligned to MN Standards.

Take the case of curriculum.  There is considerable agreement that no method of teaching, however effective, can make up for the absence of a curriculum: a clear guide to what teachers should teach, and the approximate order in which they should teach it, for every course (Darling-Hammond, 2010).  No new pedagogy or technology can succeed where the default curriculum consists largely (as too many do) of short-answer worksheets and aimless group activities.  In almost every school, there is an urgent need for coherent curriculum; it is the quintessential “first thing.”  It is foolish to pursue any improvement initiative until work is under way and deadlines are set for completing it (Schmoker, p. 17)

So there it is.  Our current priority is on developing the “quintessential first thing” that researchers agree has the largest effect size on student achievement.  I expect our principals to first ensure that clear learning goals and scales are developed for every course and grade level. Our leadership team is providing support to move this effort along through work time during inservice days, substitutes for identified teams to collaborate, paid work time during summer days, clear supporting documents for using Moodle, and individual support as needed just a phone call away.  Ignoring the research on effective schools is educational malpractice and not something our leadership team will knowingly do.  We are committed to putting “all hands on deck” for this first priority, and we are already celebrating some excellent progress due to the hard work of our great teachers.

In Chapter 2 of Leading with Focus, Schmoker identifies three key opportunities for effective leadership:  CurriculumLiteracy, and Instruction.  With excellent work on the Digital Curriculum Library now well underway, our leadership teams have begun training to implement instructional rounds and peer coaching.  This is a purposeful effort to prepare our teacher leaders and principals to drive ongoing professional dialogue to improve instruction in the years to come.  As clear district curriculum comes to fruition, I expect our instructional staff to have a laser like focus on studying the most effective instructional practices that result in higher student achievement.  Again the obvious question is – why wouldn’t we do this?  The research of Robert Marzano and John Hattie offer a seemingly bottomless field of information to guide this exciting and rewarding work to improve our effectiveness.

Teaching is a performance art; it requires hands-on training and practice (Pondiscio, 2014).  The same is true of properly implementing curriculum and establishing literacy practices.  We can only attain mastery in our performance of these core elements through repeated practice (p. 21).

Implementing the 2020 Vision for ISD 186 starts with the development of a clear district curriculum and that is the first priority for our instructional staff.  As that work unfolds and comes to fruition, our focus will shift towards the ongoing learning, practice and continuous improvement work that results in improved student achievement.  It’s an honor to work with such dedicated teachers who are focused on delivering the best for our students.  Go Patriots!

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