For students to succeed, adults FIRST must reflect on and alter our own practices

Aloha! Can students achieve sustained, continuous improvement if their teachers and school leaders do not first improve their own practices?

In nearly 20 years of working with thousands of educators and scores of school systems, we at Performance Fact contend that the answer is a very clear: NO. We remain firm in our premise: that student learning flows from the quality and effectiveness of our professional practices.

The cause-and-effect relationship between professional practices and student learning is unambiguous: Students who have ALREADY learned something well have done so because they’ve ALREADY been taught that piece well; therefore, when students have not learned something well YET, it must be because they have NOT YET experienced teaching and leadership that meets their needs.

Teachers and school leaders care deeply about student learning, which is why we focus intently on analyzing student data (the EFFECTS we produce). But do we also pay enough attention to clinically examining day-to-day professional practices (the CAUSE of those EFFECTS)?

Do we struggle to internalize this crucial reality: that continuous improvement of teaching practices, leadership practices and organizational practices is the PRECURSOR to continuous improvement of student learning? Have we fully accepted that the result our students achieve is a reflection of our progress in mastering our craft?

Rekindling our own power

Will you try a brief experiment with me? Please think back to the moment you decided to become an educator. How did you feel? What motivated you? What outcomes did you imagine you were capable of achieving?

In that long-ago moment, did you declare your desire to make a difference in the lives of only certain children? Did you imagine you would feel fulfilled if, for example, only half of your students made progress? Probably not.

Fast-forward years or decades later, and discouragements and fatigue probably have taken their toll. Rationalizations start to seem OK. Even the most devoted among us may be viewing those exciting early goals as unrealistic. As reality bites again and again, we begin to lose faith in our own self-efficacy or agency – the personal conviction that we can CAUSE strong, positive outcomes for our students, regardless of those students’ background, “condition” or circumstances.

But where is the evidence that those long-ago goals were folly? What facts “prove” that a bumpy, crooked road is the wrong road? We have no such evidence.

Keeping the faith

No matter how dire the circumstances, we all retain the power to experience what we truly desire professionally and personally. But that doesn’t mean progress will be straightforward; challenges are inevitable.

When dark days occur, however, might we consider another experiment? What if we viewed those so-called disappointing results as merely information pointing us to another approach for achieving that future we once envisioned passionately?

And what if that fond desire were still as compelling as it was when we entered the profession? Bolstered by those rekindled passions, might we find new energy for critically evaluating and adjusting our practices — the CAUSES we control that are essential precursors to student learning?

And, lest we put too much faith in one set of student results, let’s remember that continuous improvement is a process. Whether wonderful or disappointing, today’s results tell us only how far we’ve come to date; they don’t indicate how far we can go.

I suggest that, as long as each of us chooses to remain an educator, our ultimate aim never changes: to become the kind of teacher who can teach ANY student, or a leader who can lead ANY school.

To realize that dream — that EVERY student will learn, grow and succeed — what are we willing to change?

And now it’s your turn. What are you thinking? What has reading this made you feel? I welcome your comments and ideas!

— Mutiu O. Fagbayi

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Spotlight on Practices

At Wilson Elementary, embracing a culture of data to strengthen professional practices and drive student progress

The teachers at Wilson Elementary in San Bernardino, Calif., are hungry to learn and dedicated to student achievement, says Principal Dennis Wolbert. Working with Performance Fact to create and embrace a culture of data has given them the framework to achieve improvements across the board — in teacher openness and trust, professional practices and student progress.

Wilson Elementary, in the San Bernardino Unified School District, educates 440 students. Eighty-two percent are Hispanic/Latino, 35 percent are English learners, and 97 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Since bringing in Performance Fact about two years ago, Wolbert says, “we’ve seen growth in student achievement across all demographics and subgroups. Teachers are reflecting on their practices and making changes based on data.”

Where a teacher might previously have relied on a “feeling” that a student was struggling, he or she now has the data to verify it — and the tools and motivation to change his or her approach to reach the child more effectively.

The Data Summitprocess introduced by Performance Fact has given teachers a structure for regularly reflecting on data, looking at teacher practices and results, and collaborating across grade levels on maintaining or accelerating positive results and diminishing negative results, Wolbert says.

Where the staff used to shrink from data, scouring it in private, Wolbert says, the opposite is now true. “Every six to nine weeks, teachers look at the data together, (determining) how changes in our approaches to student engagement led to certain data results.” The data typically come from frequent STAR assessments in reading and math.

But teachers don’t wait for Data Summit in order to work on their professionalism. Walk into the staff room any day, Wolbert says, and you’re likely to hear teachers discussing data, their practices, and the effectiveness of their Rigorous Curriculum Design (RCD) units.

From those discussions may flow changes in instruction — more emphasis on hands-on activities, for example, small-group instruction and/or varied presentation levels based on students’ needs, he says.

In addition, the SMARTE goals that Wilson teams developed with guidance from Performance Fact “are posted in our staff room so we can stay focused on what we’re all about,” Wolbert adds. SMARTE stands for specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, time-bound, equitable.

The trust and closeness among teachers has risen, Wolbert says, and regularly meeting with teachers has strengthened his relationships with them as well.

“Our previous culture,” Wolbert says, “wasn’t as open and sharing. Working with Performance Fact and ‘The Speed of Trust’ (by Stephen M.R. Covey) has opened us up. Teachers now feel it’s OK to share. Their professionalism is shining through.”

Very significant, Wolbert says, is that the professional learning communities (PLCs) at Wilson are working as they were designed to work. Teachers are relying on one another for help in refining their professional practices — and the support to believe that even the most difficult goals are achievable.

“When particularly difficult challenges arise — for example, with the Common Core math — teachers may have to create even more changes in instruction to obtain the desired results,” Wolbert says. “But, whatever the goal is, we have the tools to get there, and we know how to use the tools correctly.”

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