Conceptual vs. Procedural Math at Mastery charters

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“Maths” by Chris de Kok is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There was an interesting recent the74 piece on a Philadelphia charter organization, Mastery, which takes low performing schools and works to “turn them around.”

 

Embedded within this article is the implication that a shift to a focus on the teaching of conceptual math, rather than “rote” procedural teaching, led to a swift downturn in math scores.

“So this year, the network began reintroducing teaching techniques that had been a staple at Mastery schools for years, while seeking a middle ground between no excuses and restorative practices. It’s a ‘journey of trying to find out what’s the right mix,’ Gordon said.

Specifically, the network is reintroducing procedural math instruction, which focuses on rote instruction like memorization and repetition.”

It seems worth digging into this supposition a bit more.

Is Mastery’s downturn in math scores due to the failure of conceptual math in general as a pedagogical approach? Or is it a failure of the network to attract and train teachers who can teach this type of math more effectively?

Or is it a failure in the assessments that were used as a reference? Or was it that conceptual math takes longer to “stick” and pay dividends? Or was it a failure of the curriculum they used to move in a more conceptual direction? . . .

http://the74million.org/article/at-philadelphias-mastery-charter-network-culture-is-key-to-turning-around-failing-schools

On Threshold Concepts and Experiences

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In a recent post, “On Knowledge and Curriculum,” we reviewed a few disruptive ideas from cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, with the most incendiary implication being:

a school needs to come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain and carefully sequence and reinforce those concepts across classrooms and grades.

So how can a school embark upon this quest? In this post, I will attempt to provide some guiding ideas and protocols for this work.

How Do We Reinforce Knowledge?

First off, a few guiding documents to equip you with the cognitive principles of affirmative testing, which are essential to reinforcing knowledge over time:

—Annie Murphy Paul, “Affirmative Testing” (she has designed an entire e-course around these concepts!)

—Deans for Impact, “The Science of Learning

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How Do We Determine the Knowledge that is ESSENTIAL?

Folks are going to disagree about this, including the “experts,” so ultimately, this determination should be made collaboratively within a school (and beyond). The key is that the school comes to a consensus on this essential knowledge, then teachers carefully sequence it across the curriculum and quiz it repeatedly in a low stakes manner.

There’s a useful frame, known as threshold concepts, for drilling down to this “essential knowledge” within a specific academic domain. Threshold concepts come out of higher ed academia, and it’s admittedly a bit esoteric in the literature, but I think it’s a useful lens with practical implications. Threshold concepts are very much related to Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas,” but with a few interesting twists.

I first stumbled over the threshold of these concepts in blogs from UK educators, to whom I’m indebted for starting me on this journey:

—Alex Quigley, “Designing a New Curriculum: What are your ‘Big Ideas?’

—Joe Kirby, “One scientific insight for curriculum design” (he also sums up research on affirmative testing really well here)

What we’re really trying to get here is that 20% of the knowledge that is most essential to understanding an academic domain in a specific grade. Here’s a frame for this:

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How can threshold concepts help us to determine that 20% of essential knowledge within a specific academic domain? I decided to review some of the literature for further clues:

—Ray Land, Jan Meyer, and Jan Smith,”Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines” (Land and Meyer are the rockstars who originated the concept)

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—James Rhem, “Before and after students “get it”: threshold concepts” (a useful overview)

This idea of a transformation of understanding that is essential for progressing deeper into the academic content is really interesting.

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—James Atherton, “How do people ‘get it’?” (another useful overview)

There are many other characteristics that were identified, but they don’t all seem very useful in a practical sense for K-12. I think the three outlined above are the most relevant and applicable.

—Tracy Fortune, Priscilla Ennals, and Mary Kennedy-Jones, “The Hero’s Journey: Uncovering Threshold Barriers, Dispositions, and Practices Among Occupational Therapy Students

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I love this idea of viewing a student’s passage through a threshold concept as akin to a hero’s journey. In considering this journey, what are the troublesome obstacles and bottlenecks that student will face? The idea of “bottlenecks” comes thanks for the link immediately below. In thinking through this, I also think we need to acknowledge that bottlenecks may not be purely conceptual — they can also be procedural, in the form of skills required to complete academic tasks, as well as social-emotional (this can be a tremendous and often unaddressed barrier for many kids).

In this sense, then, we can expand the notion of crossing a threshold to not solely refer to concepts, but furthermore experiences. As educators, we seek to design experiences in which students engage in an academic form of a hero’s journey, learning to overcome barriers and gain the intellectual accomplishment of mastering skills and knowledge.

—Joan Middendorf & David Pace, “Decoding the Disciplines: A Model for Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking” (they offer a useful protocol that I’ve drawn from below)

OK, So How Do We Discover These Threshold Concepts and Experiences?

But we still need some kind of process for distilling away all the cruft and getting down that 20% of the most essential knowledge within a content and grade.

Here in the US, we have a general list of skills we use as guidance in the form of state standards. And as I’ve done with the Common Core standards, we can do a deeper analysis to begin unpacking what that knowledge might be.

But this can still be at a pretty abstract level, and we want this to be relevant to classroom teaching. By focusing on the topics and texts that will be studied, we can make this more concrete.

Because English Language Arts is my specific area of expertise, I’ve focused my efforts in this area, especially since this content area is probably the most difficult to pin down in terms of a progression of knowledge.

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There’s two ways we could utilize this protocol: 1) unit of study, or 2) over the entire school year.

1) Consider the topics and/or texts that will be taught.

2) What will be the product or products that students will be expected to create that can demonstrate their mastery of learning? (This product could also be a performance).

3) What are the primary modalities that this product is focused upon? In literacy, of course we’re focused on all modalities, but it helps for a department to focus upon the one they consider most essential.

4) Now consider the standards that your district adheres to. For the Common Core, they are helpfully broken up by modality, so turn to that modality. Then, narrow down which specific, few standards you will primarily be targeting.

5) What are the bottlenecks, most especially those that are conceptual and specific to this content, that students will encounter?

6) Evaluate the list of items you have generated. Do they fit the criteria of a threshold concept or experience? Are they transformative, integrative, and troublesome? If not, they may not be essential.

7) You don’t have to do this, but I find that at this step it can be useful to phrase the threshold concept in the form of a message or lesson, akin to a theme statement.

For example, for an upcoming professional learning session I’m working on about supporting struggling middle school readers, I’ve identified the following threshold concepts:

  • Students that struggle with reading comprehension also often struggle with a lack of academic and world knowledge. An English Language Learner can also be understood as native English speakers that do not understand the language of math, science, social studies – i.e. academic, formal, domain specific language.
  • A teacher must work through a task/text in order to identify key takeaways, key vocabulary, and potential barriers to learning, regardless of whether a curriculum is provided.
  • All learners can be engaged in reading and comprehending complex academic texts through well-designed activities, tasks, and resources.
  • An environment in which a student feels safe to take risks in front of peers is a prerequisite for learning — most especially for struggling readers.
  • Learners should be explicitly equipped with strategies and mindsets for when they encounter challenging vocabulary on their own.

It’s important to note that threshold concepts will vary completely depending on any teacher’s specific set of knowledge, perspectives, and interest, and I think that’s OK. What’s most important is that once these most essential concepts and experiences have been identified and voiced, they will not only help to focus that teacher’s instruction on what they feel is most important, they will serve as a basis for arriving at a consensus as a department and as a school.

Here’s a few really basic examples at a unit level of study:

Now that threshold concepts and experiences have been identified, here’s the really hard part:

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This is where the rubber hits the road. This is the part that is so very contrary and disruptive to the norms of public education.

 

I hope some of these resources in this post are useful to your work. The slides outlined above and the protocol are accessible and downloadable here:

On Knowledge and Curriculum

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Forget the presidential debates, this is more important.

I attended a PD today that featured cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. It’s pretty rare that my employer, the NYCDOE, offers professional learning that has someone presenting from the academic research realm, so when I saw this was happening, I jumped on it.

I’ve been following Willingham’s articles in American Educator and have read Why Kids Don’t Like School, and I’ve been convinced of the importance of a strong curriculum and building knowledge for a while now, but it was nice to get a direct and clear reminder of what really matters in literacy, especially when that message is so very rare.

There were a lot of great ideas and takeaways on motivating children to read at home and on reading comprehension in general, but there were two main points that especially struck me during his presentation (the summary and phrasing is my own):

  1. Knowledge needs to be “in the mind” in order for reading comprehension to be effortless, rather than a problem-solving struggle to determine meaning.
  2. We can only build the broad, world knowledge required for literacy through a carefully sequenced and structured curriculum.

If you take these points to be accurate, then the implications are quite revolutionary in comparison to the regular practices of most schools and districts.

Let’s break down why this runs so counter to the norm.

Here’s what would need to happen:

  • If knowledge must be “in the mind” (rather than on Google) than that means the knowledge considered worth studying must be reinforced and revisited, tested, interleaved, sequenced, and spaced throughout a school’s curriculum.
  • That means across classrooms and across grades.
  • Therefore, a school needs to have come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain.
  • That means that each teacher (or at the very least, a department head or team) will have to have invested a substantial amount of time, both individually and collaboratively, into studying those texts and topics themselves in order to know how to design a learning environment, projects, activities, field trips, and interim assessments that will provide the access to and reinforce that knowledge for all students.
  • This would of course be accompanied by adjusting the curriculum periodically based on an analysis and reflection on interim assessment data and student work.

Sound pretty straightforward? No. Here’s the norm in most schools:

  • What most prioritizes a school’s focus are external assessments, such as state tests. ELA tests in this vein consist of random passages of text that are meant to focus on isolated reading skills devoid of knowledge. Therefore, what is taught and focused upon are the practice of skills devoid of knowledge.
  • That’s what constitutes an ELA curriculum for many schools.
  • A teacher is either not provided a curriculum, or is provided a curriculum but no support, or is provided a curriculum and support but the curriculum is not oriented around sequentially building knowledge.
  • Even when a curriculum might be provided and might be relatively well-crafted (this is a rarity, and if you know of such a curriculum, tell me. I can name two. Maybe three), I have yet to have seen any curriculum that still does not require a teacher to revise and adjust it substantially based on the needs of their students, the circumstances of their school or classroom, or their own particular style and knowledge.
  • Thus, in those rare schools where there is even a coherent curriculum “in place,” the point made above about investment of time still holds. A substantial amount of time needs to be spent in designing and continually molding the school around and in support of that knowledge embedded within the curriculum.
  • Most of what is taught in different classrooms in a school has little coherency across a school.
  • What is a taught in any given classroom is rarely reinforced via low stakes quizzing across an entire school year.

See the problem? From what I’ve seen in much of the professional development sessions and focus of schools and districts is a focus on individual teacher strategies and practices. But let’s get real. If a school does not come together to determine and design it’s mission around the knowledge and skills it will teach sequentially and systematically, then there will be little impact.

For ideas on how a school might begin to do this work, check out my next post on this topic: On Threshold Concepts & Experiences

Smörgåsbord: A Smattering of Politics and Science for Your Columbus Day Weekend

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Ed Politics and Policy

The UFT establishes a hypocritical stance towards NY State’s proposed revisions of the Common Core standards. Mulgrew says the revisions don’t go far enough. But the UFT supported the original version of the standards, then later criticized the state’s implementation of them. So what’s the problem, Mulgrew? The standards themselves, or the implementation? Or maybe it’s politics that’s the real problem here, eh.

Speaking of politics, the plot thickens in the Bronx, where an assistant principal has accused DOE officials and a state assemblyman of collaborating to prevent low income children from attending an overcrowded Riverdale public school. First, the superintendent rapidly resigned, then the school’s principal got demoted. Now, a finger is pointed at a top NYCDOE official.

In moving forward, one way the NYCDOE could show a stronger commitment to equity and school diversity is by supporting Manhattan’s District 1 in its efforts to implement a “controlled choice” model.

Speaking of lawsuits, a Detroit lawsuit challenges local control in public education by claiming that to be able to read and write is a constitutional right.

And the Supreme Court will examine just how much educational benefit a student with a disability should be expected to derive from access to a “free and appropriate education.” (That’s FAPE, for my fellow SPED heads out there.) Currently, it’s a pretty low bar.

Science

Some rough news for those of us who do professional development with teachers, as well as for those of us who are proponents of strong content knowledge: in a study of math teachers that were provided training,”teacher participation in the 93 hours of PD did not have a positive impact on student achievement,” even though the teacher’s knowledge of the math content improved.

We avoid people who give us critical feedback, to the detriment of our performance.

A useful primer and cheat sheet on cognitive biases.

“If all the kids in the world were to line up for a race, the average American child would finish at the foot of the field” (47 out of 50, to be exact).

So maybe we need to give all of our kids standing desks.

More education results in better outcomes. But “differences between educated and less educated people may be partially due to residual genetic and socioeconomic confounding.”

The more a mother’s voice imprints in a child’s brain, the better at communication that child will become.

Reading literature may not improve theory of mind.

Teaching cursive should go the way of the dodo. Writing in manuscript is just fine.

Groups in which all members talk about the same amount perform better.

People can be tricked into arguing for positions that are not their own.

 

Providing context for concepts may hinder transfer

“One implication of this pattern of results is that as an instructor designs their instructional materials, they should be asking themselves whether they are trying to optimize their students’ demonstrated mastery of the material itself or their ability to transfer their understanding to new materials. . . .

Simply adding richer meaningful content to in-class examples may make intuitive sense, and may have immediately obvious benefits in terms of student engagement and comprehension. But as the results of our experiments make clear, these short-term benefits seem to come at the cost of students’ long-term ability to apply their knowledge. If educators are to take advantage of these inherent benefits, they will need to give careful consideration to how such examples are designed and used together in order to plan the most effective instruction.”

—Samuel Day, Benjamin Motz, and Robert Goldstone, “The Cognitive Costs of Context: The Effects of Concreteness and Immersiveness in Instructional Examples” on frontiers in Psychology (H/T Greg Ashman)

Common Core Task Force Hearing

I went to Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force hearing yesterday evening at La Guardia Community College to share my views on the Common Core Standards. This is the first public hearing I’ve attended, and I hadn’t even thought what I would say until I was traveling down from the Bronx. I jotted down my thoughts in my journal, and here’s essentially what I said (though not quite so coherently):

We need to acknowledge the challenges that have arisen in the implementation and adoption of these standards, much of which have come as a result of hasty efforts to tie teacher evaluation and student testing to the standards before educators and parents were provided an adequate opportunity to fully understand and work with them.

But let’s not lose sight of the opportunity that they have provided us.

The new, higher standards provide an opportunity for all students to engage in a productive struggle with rigorous and meaningful concepts, skills, and texts.

This focus on a higher bar for all students has shifted our focus of instruction to “how can we provide access to all learners to this challenging, essential content–and this is pivotal for students historically denied access to college and career ready skills and knowledge.

Having a more coherent set of standards has furthermore provided an opportunity for all teachers to engage in developing aligned curriculum, materials, and resources not only across classrooms and grades within a school, but furthermore across districts and states. I have been fortunate to work with teachers across our nation in developing aligned materials and curriculum, as well as across my city. And I have seen how the standards have provided opportunities at my school to vertically align content and skills across the grades and across subjects within a grade.

As we move forward, let’s not lose sight of these opportunities as we review the standards within New York State.

I stayed for the entire hearing so I could listen to the other speaker’s testimonies, and found all of them interesting. I especially liked Council member Dromm’s opening testimony — he’s a former educator, and he gets it. There was some of the typical anti-Common Core rhetoric. Many speakers were united in their condemnation of the current form of NY State tests. However, Arva Rice of the NY Urban League offered what I thought to be an important defense of testing for the purpose of surfacing inequity. One MORE caucus retired teacher wove history into his testimony, referring back to Ocean-Hill Brownsville to make the case for a culturally relevant curriculum. There was a solid base of testimony from teachers on how the higher standards have provided benefit to the students they serve, including one educator who has witnessed the positive impact higher standards has had on students most in danger in dropping out of school. There was also a common thread on how there is a real need to empower teachers to collaborate and provide them the time to do so around the standards. A UFT representative made several great points about concerns with the standards, especially in regards to the need to continue to teach literature in ELA (a point I strongly agree with). And there was one guy wearing a gold hard hat who eloquently provided an out-of-this-world sermon on the need to teach our children respect (not sure what the link was to Common Core, but kudos to him for his gold sneakers and for coming out to expound).

The vibe from the Common Core Task Force members who were there, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and educator Kishayna Hazelwood, was that they already had a few of their own biases, but that they were interested in learning more. They seemed interested especially (unsurprisingly) in how they could change testing. There was a very strange and tense moment where Assemblywoman Nolan first verbally accused a teacher of showing disrespect during the parent’s testimony (for “smiling”), and when the teacher denied that she had done this, Nolan physically got up from behind the table and stepped right up to the teacher to say menacingly, “I saw you smile.”

First of all, I spoke with this teacher, a 20 year veteran teacher in the Bronx, and she informed me that she had not been smiling derisively, but had rather been making an unrelated connection in her mind between something said earlier. Second of all, even if she HAD been smirking, the parent testifying did not see this, and Ms. Nolan’s response was unnecessarily aggressive. I’m sure she was trying to make the point that she valued all perspectives and would stand up to ensure they were heard, which is great, but the manner in which she did this was inappropriate.

But I appreciated both Nolan’s and Hazlewood’s engaged questioning of various speakers, as it showed they were interested in learning more and valued the testimony of different perspectives and that people had given their time to come to the hearing. I hope they continue to hear from across the state on how the higher standards have provided greater opportunities for teachers and students to engage in meaningful content, while also hearing that teachers need more time to engage with the standards.

Here’s a couple of other accounts of the event:

How Would You Revise the Common Core Standards?

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NY State will conduct a formal review of the Common Core State Standards. I welcome the opportunity for a review. In my opinion, the more people talk about what should be taught in classrooms, the better.

Too often, we discuss education as an abstraction, polarizing around political issues largely irrelevant to kids and teachers at the ground level. What most impacts us on a daily basis is what is taught, and how. So while I would prefer we discussed the curriculum and content itself, talking about standards is at least a step closer to the heart of the matter.

As you may know, I’m a proponent of the Common Core Standards. I’ve advocated for them publicly, and I work with the standards in my daily practice.*

I advocate for the standards because I believe strongly in the need for shared, rigorous, and coherent standards. But that doesn’t mean I believe the standards, as written, are perfect.

If I Could Revise the Standards

Here’s what I would suggest as major points for revision of the ELA standards:

  • Provide more explicit guidance within the literary standards for the study of poetry. (See Sandra Stotsky’s Curriculum Framework for a good model.)
  • Overhaul the writing standards to include literary analysis as a genre of writing.  Merge argumentative and informative/explanatory writing, as the distinction between those two is unclear and it’s of questionable value to distinguish them. Consider broadening the scope of narrative writing to that of creative writing, to include poetry.
  • Clarify the meaning of the idea that literacy extends across all content areas, while reducing the stress on the oft misunderstood recommended percentages between informational and literary text. It should be less about pushing informational texts into ELA, and more about pushing the teaching literacy across science, social studies, and other content areas.

Others have also been saying that the Kindergarten standards need much revision. This is an area I’m less knowledgeable about, but I assume there’s some tweaking that should be done there, as well.

What aspects of the Common Core standards would you revise?

*I work (or have worked) with the standards in some of the following ways:

  1. my daily work as a special education ELA teacher, using them to develop and align my school’s curriculum and assessments, as well as to develop IEP goals (I began analyzing them more closely to break down the relevant knowledge, skills, and products for grades 6-8 to guide this work)
  2. my work with NYCDOE as a Common Core Fellow to assess teacher team submitted performance assessment tasks
  3. my work with LearnZillion to develop online videos, lessons, and resources aligned to the Common Core

The Mirage of a Mirage: On the New TNTP Report on PD

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Today I went down to DC* for TNTP’s release of their Mirage report on the (non)impact of professional development on teacher effectiveness. TNTP presented an overview of the findings, then journalist Amanda Ripley facilitated an interesting panel with USED’s John King, teacher Jennifer Corroy Parras, DC’s Kaya Henderson, and AIR researcher Dr. Michael Garet.

The big story is that teacher PD is 1) enormously expensive, yet 2) there’s no silver bullet. In other words, teaching is complex (glad ed reform world is beginning to acknowledge this), so we still are very far from knowing what improves teacher practice at scale, yet we’re investing a lot of time, energy, and money in it willy nilly.

There are a lot of aspects to explore, and the panel touched on a number of them. Ripley provided some nice framing of the systemic issues, such as that most PD (and US system of ed at large) is disjointed and incoherent, and that there is a general lack of clarity around what effective teaching looks like, accompanied by high expectations. She noted that this lack of clarity and high expectations for teachers parallels student experiences in our educational system, with both teachers and students leveling off in performance after an initial 5 years.

Both John King and Kaya Henderson pointed out that an oft missing link in PD is a focus on curriculum, a point on which I strongly concur. Curriculum provides the frame, the backbone, the structure that daily guides student and teacher experiences in the classroom. Without that structure and purpose, we are left with the incoherent gloop that Ripley first referred to.

TNTP’s report is incredibly insightful and useful–if enervating–material. I feel like it’s also important to define the kind of PD which the report mainly seems to abide by. I’ll admit that I haven’t yet dived too deep into the report, but from an initial scan of the survey questions and findings, I obtained the distinct impression that they mostly mean “PD” as in a specific dosage or frequency of a prescribed intervention that results in a change in an individual’s teacher practice within the classroom (and which should then ideally translate into improved student outcomes).

When I think of PD, I think of teachers sitting together around a table and collaborating to design common assessments, curriculum, resources, and examining student work and data. This was a component of TNTP’s teacher survey (noted as informal & formal collaboration, and peer time), but the report notes that an equal amount of such time was dedicated to this in both “improvers” and “non-improvers.” But I think there’s one key aspect of such collaborative time that we need to delineate, and which I believe could distinguish between those two populations: how teacher collaboration and planning time connects to a school-wide system.

Let me give some specific examples of what I mean to make this tangible:

  • A bi-weekly 8th grade-level team meeting working to horizontally (within the grade) align curriculum and assessments and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills
  • A weekly ELA department team meeting working to vertically align curriculum and assessments (and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills)
  • A PBIS system of agreed upon (developed both school-wide and via grade-level teams) infractions, consequences, and rewards
  • An established vision for utilizing advisory time to provide social-psychological interventions, accompanied by planning time to design these interventions, and time to analyze and assess their impact

You could go into both an effective and ineffective school and witness such use of collaborative time–but the key is how that teacher collaboration ties into a coherent, school-wide system.**

Admittedly, though, this all goes back to the great complexity not only of teaching, but of working in a school. There are so many variables behind what goes into anything remotely approximating either “PD” or “teacher practice” that it is difficult to define what we’re looking for, and even more difficult to do well consistently and to replicate and scale across different contexts.

I came back to NYC with three takeaways that best summarize my thoughts from the TNTP report . We would do well to consider the following in education reform:

  1. Coherency (in curriculum & assessment, first and foremost)
  2. Clarity (in expectations, feedback, and roles for teachers and students)
  3. Hard work (and more hard work)

*Thanks to Educators 4 Excellence for this opportunity

**I think this is what may have contributed to the differences between the charter and district schools in this study. The charter network was more effective in supporting their teachers effectiveness and growth over time. Charter schools often have much tighter and coherent school-wide structures and systems tied to assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.

A New Approach to Sustainable School Reform

Will and I co-wrote the following essay a few months ago and submitted it to the Goldman Sachs Essay Contest for Innovation in US Education. It didn’t make the cut, so we are sharing it here with our readers. We would like to thank the various teachers who read over our essay and shared their insight and feedback on it with us during the process of revision. My thanks especially to Wade, Freeda, Barbara, Richard, and Jesse.

Schools as Ecosystems: A New Approach to Sustainable School Reform 

Many efforts at education reform, though well intentioned, have demonstrated little in terms of substantive, sustained, and scalable student achievement at a national level. We believe that the reason for this failure is not a lack of effort, but a limitation in vision.

Reformers have focused largely on short-term, piecemeal improvements, but schools are not machines made of easily disassembled parts. In fact, schools are far more like ecosystems, defined by dynamic, interdependent relationships and interactions grounded in unique local circumstances. Positive, sustained change cannot be brought to such complex systems by focusing on any one component. School ecosystems must be addressed as a whole. This can only be achieved through an approach that combines field-based expertise with policy-level understanding.

Our “schools as ecosystems” framework offers a way forward for school reform. Rather than simply concentrate on quantitative measures such as student test scores, we propose focusing on qualitative measures of a school’s environment, curriculum, and culture. We recognize that these factors are critical not just for student learning and well-being, but also for teacher retention and school stability.

Whole School Accreditation 

Transforming school environments is difficult work. We should begin by establishing a national standard for schools to aspire to, much as National Board Certification serves as a prestigious professional achievement for teachers. In other industries, certifications such as LEED (in construction) and organic (in agriculture) signal to consumers that products are manufactured according to rigorous, socially responsible standards. An independent, voluntary national certification process could incentivize school change by offering an authoritative verification of school quality.

This national agency would use a variety of measurements to assess school excellence. Indicators would include: school infrastructure and design; academic curriculum and extracurricular offerings; and school leadership and culture. When schools are successful, these factors interact and reinforce each other, forming healthy school environments conducive to positive academic, social, and emotional development.

Beyond assessing schools, this national agency would support schools and communities that seek certification by connecting them to resources, experts, and funding. Local and state branches (affiliated with the national agency) composed of teachers, parents, administrators, and community leaders would work to connect schools to the resources needed to achieve certification. These same branches would also assess and monitor school quality, based on the following three assessment areas.

Physical Infrastructure

Most educational reforms have ignored the need for physical environments that promote student learning. This disregard for school infrastructure ignores a growing body of research demonstrating the impact of physical environments on learning, productivity, and well-being.

If our goal is to create a first-class nationwide public school system, we must treat our children as first-class citizens. This begins by providing them with well-designed learning spaces. Incorporating greenery, harnessing an abundance of natural light, providing access to outdoor spaces and fresh air, and coordinating tranquil lighting and color schemes should be primary design considerations in public schools. Therefore, when evaluating school environments, these factors would take precedence.

We propose building new schools and retrofitting existing infrastructure based on creating sustainable environments with the health and development of children at the forefront of design. While this requires up-front investment, economic projections from the Economic Policy Institute demonstrate that such school construction will ultimately reduce school districts’ operating costs over the long-term.

Content & Curriculum 

Within a school ecosystem, curriculum provides nourishment for student growth. Yet in all too many schools, the content delivered is anemic and haphazard. Students need a curriculum that provides an enriching depth of knowledge. They also require exposure to diverse experiences and opportunities to pursue their interests.

We know that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. School districts must incorporate the desired outcomes and unique needs of their local communities as they design their curricula. We propose assessing school content not only through test results, but also by how sequentially curricula builds knowledge, aligns topics across content areas and grade levels, incorporates rich and rigorous texts and materials, and provides diverse extracurricular opportunities and experiences.

School Leadership 

While many recent reforms have focused on teacher effectiveness, we believe that a school’s culture has a tremendous effect on both teacher and student performance, in addition to teacher retention. School cultures are determined primarily by school leadership.

A school’s leadership, moreover, is not composed solely of one person. Given the complex ecosystem of a school, cultivating distributed leadership is paramount. A matrix of parent, teacher, and student leaders collaborating and engaging in decision-making processes strengthens a school community and provides opportunities for developing resilience and social networking.

State or local branches would assess school leadership by observing and measuring factors such as: parental involvement; the quality and quantity of collaboration between teachers; teacher retention rates; and distributed decision-making processes among faculty, staff and students.

Summary and Implementation 

By setting a recognized, respected, and rigorous national standard for schools to aspire to, and cultivating state and local branches that can best connect individual schools to the resources they require to achieve those standards, we wish to focus school reform where it needs to be: on diverse schools with vibrant and dynamic social interactions and focused academic learning.

Such schools cannot be mandated from afar; they must be cultivated, built, and redesigned from the ground up with the support and collaboration of the local community. For this reason, we believe the most effective way to address whole school transformation is to create a prestigious and voluntary certification process. As parental and community demand grows for schools that have gained certification, the incentive for schools to obtain accreditation will similarly increase. This ensures that a school is motivated as a collective, and must collaborate both internally and with external agencies.

Viewing schools as living, complex environments rather than static, mechanical systems requires that we shift our focus and approach to reform. Ultimately, student outcomes will benefit from sustainable, resilient, and responsive schools that not only adapt to their local community to meet its needs, but also strive for a recognized standard of academic rigor in a caring environment.

The Curricular Dimension of Effective Teaching

Thomas Kane, director of the MET Project at the Gates Foundation, penned a recent piece on Education Next (Capturing the Dimensions of Effective Teaching) in which he discusses the viability of   using multiple measures in the evaluation of teachers. It’s a thorough introduction to the topic, well worth reading through if you are interested in this highly contentious area of education policy and research.

I’m a believer in the necessity for feedback from classroom observations and student surveys, in addition to curriculum based assessments and progress monitoring. I want to know what it is I need to do to improve my teaching practices and better serve my students. After finishing Kane’s piece, however, something struck me as astoundingly absent from his account, especially given that he chose to title it “Capturing the Dimensions of Effective Teaching.” He is in fact calling for capturing mostly one dimension, while ignoring an absolutely essential dimension of effective teaching.

That dimension is the content that is taught.

When we subtract out the curriculum, we are left with a mechanistic series of causes and effects. Such information is highly valuable. Mechanistic processes can be observed, replicated, and taught. Doug Lemov, in How to Teach Like a Champion, for example, recognizes this mechanistic power and attempts to catalog and perpetuate effective practices. I am not someone who is hysterically opposed to such efforts at classifying best practices, nor will I make dubious claims that teaching is a high art that relies solely on intuition and spontaneous creativity. A strategic, scientific approach to effective pedagogical practice is a powerful way to improve (as you can witness in the success of Greg Jackson, trainer of cage fighters, as one tangential example).

But beyond pedagogical practice, at the heart of effective teaching is the content that is taught. You can teach shallow drivel to great effect with pedagogical savvy, in the same manner that Hollywood transforms shallow drivel into blockbuster fare. Unfortunately, the converse also holds true; you can cheapen deep and enriching content, leaching it of relevance and engagement. An effective teacher, therefore, is someone who can do justice to challenging content, drawing out its beauty in a coherent and structured manner, knowing when to support learners with explicit guidance and scaffolding, and when to step back and allow the experience of wondrous terror from venturing out into the deep water on their own occur. Such teachers are both pedagogically skilled, and deeply knowledgeable of the content they teach.

It’s strange that we would subtract out something so fundamental to the act of great teaching — the curriculum that the teacher wields — and elect to focus blindly upon only one aspect of it. Curriculum, like pedagogical strategies, can be researched and replicated. It seems to me like what is most worth knowing is not simply that a teacher was effective because of how he taught, but that he was effective because of how he taught what he taught when he taught it where he taught it. Yeah, that last sentence sounded funny, but you can see what I mean. The multiple measures that Thomas Kane is advocating are focused upon only one dimension of teaching. We need multiple measures of multiple dimensions to get a truer gauge of what an effective teacher is doing.

In closing, I’d like to note that my addition still only gives us two dimensions of effective teaching. There are more, such as the personal style of the teacher, and the type of learning environment that she creates both in the physical space and in social/emotional/intellectual space of the classroom (which I will acknowledge Kane’s recommendation of student surveys captures some of). But if we can at least begin to talk about effective teaching as a combination of both pedagogical mastery and content expertise, we are well on the way to defining something complex yet concrete that can be replicated in a diversity of contexts by a diversity of individuals.