Need inspiration for the journey? Look to Salida’s model of faithful execution

Aloha! At Performance Fact, we believe that students will learn at high levels if instruction meets their needs, and that if students haven’t learned well yet, it’s because they haven’t been taught well yet.

Few have embraced these concepts — that students cannot achieve results until teachers, leaders and the organization itself commit to continuous improvement of their own practices — as wholeheartedly as has the Salida Union School District, led by its exceptional superintendent, Twila Tosh

Often, getting started on a plan to improve instructional practices is fairly easy. Most agree that defining a course, implementing with discipline, refining practices and developing capacity at all levels make good sense.

What’s rare, however, is to find a system that has internalized those steps as thoroughly as Tosh and her staff have done.

Like Highline Public Schools — whom we profiled in Think. Believe. Move Mountains. in June 2015 — Salida stands out among our clients in demonstrating faithful implementation of professional practices, developed collaboratively by the practitioners and their stakeholders.

Make no mistake: Consistently achieving desired student outcomes requires patience, discipline and a multi-year commitment to continuously improving adult practices. Unfortunately, for many organizations, enthusiasm wanes before sustainable results take hold.

Not so at Salida. In faithfully internalizing the steps that we (and other facilitators and consultants) have developed and recommended, Tosh and her staff have created and implemented an innovative, effective system for refining professional practices. The progress is particularly significant considering that, when Tosh assumed the superintendent’s job in 2010, Salida was mired in financial woes and internal distrust.

In one vivid example, Salida has used the Instructional Focus structure to successfully reimagine the “walk-through” — the process of obtaining and using feedback regarding teacher practices. Where heated union negotiations over walk-through aspects have dogged many districts in California, Salida sets a high bar for collaboration and accountability, translating professional practices into effective, well-honed classroom observation tools.

All Salida teachers and leaders participate in district-wide walk-throughs, using those internally developed tools to observe instructional practices in a cross-section of classrooms. Afterward, the participants convene, discuss what they saw and heard, and present their findings to colleagues. As participants gain experience and encounter realities, they refine the practices — and then refine them again.

But Salida demonstrates a long-term commitment to continuous improvement in other areas as well:

First, Salida set its course, defining an Instructional Focus plan with an emphasis on professional practices and student outcomes.

Second, Tosh has led an exceptionally disciplined implementation process. In five years, she’s never taken her eye off the plan; she even carries her marked-up copy with her.

Third, Salida continuously refines the details — working those practices and monitoring them, observing and providing feedback, and fine-tuning the details to meet reality and to reflect what she, teachers and principals have learned.

Fourth, Salida builds capacity at all levels — principals, teachers, superintendent. Tosh herself is a perpetual student. All professional development programs and even casual conversations sync with the Instructional Focus plan.

Finally, Salida has effectively integrated a range of outside services to support transformation. For Salida, the work of instructional coach Mary Camezon has been particularly helpful in devising tools for instructional feedback.

Only with patience and a long-term commitment to continuously improving adult practices will educators begin to see the student outcomes we all desire. But it’s Salida’s and Highline’s fidelity to the process of continuous improvement that sets an example.

What does Salida’s story inspire in you? Have you had similar — or different — experiences with any aspects? Please let us know!

— Mutiu O. Fagbayi

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Instructional Focus process fosters cohesion, accountability

The Salida Union School District was in disarray in late 2010 when Superintendent Twila Tosh first called on Performance Fact and Mutiu Fagbayi. With enrollment declining rapidly, Salida had to confront financial complications compounded by California’s fiscal crisis. Employee morale had hit bottom.

Now, five years later, Salida is fiscally sound and has made exceptional strides in instruction and adult practices. Teachers collaborate weekly on lesson designs, while they and administrators hold one another accountable. In every classroom, students and teachers demonstrate questioning skills, cognitive engagement, emphasis on writing, and evidence of understanding — some of the very priorities that the State of California recently outlined in its Common Core initiative.

Salida’s Instructional Focus, which the district recently updated for another five years, continues to guide “everything we do: budgeting, expenditures, professional development, curriculum, walk-throughs,” Tosh says.

Engaging Performance Fact to guide 70 stakeholders in launching the planning process moved Salida — a K-8 district serving some 2,500 students in five schools in Stanislaus County, near Modesto — in the right direction.

But first, Tosh and Fagbayi had to address pervasive anger and lack of trust. “People were disgruntled about everything from layoffs to a school closure to salary concessions,” she says.

The neutral feedback that Fagbayi delivered had a calming effect. Participants began realizing that “we all believe thesame thing: that students matter, that we can reach them in some way, and that quality instruction is paramount.”

Everyone — teachers, administration and district-level leaders — began coalescing around a renewed focus, Tosh says. Teachers in particular — accustomed as they are to typically being the only group held accountable — welcomed the framework that extended accountability to students, leaders and the organization itself.

Welcoming feedback, embracing tools

Salida’s structures for observing teachers and obtaining and acting on feedback continue to strengthen, Tosh says.

Before she took over as superintendent, however, “feedback methods were a hodgepodge,” Tosh recalls. Some principals visited classrooms daily but didn’t provide meaningful feedback on instructional practices; other principals didn’t visit at all.

Early in the planning process, Salida teachers committed to holding principals accountable for doing walk-throughs each week, Tosh says. They welcomed the opportunity to include Vital Signs and Look-Fors in the Instructional Focus as a basis for those classroom observations. The walk-throughs have evolved to include teachers as well as administrators, all of whom report back to staff.

The cooperation that marks Salida’s feedback structures is particularly notable in California, Tosh says, where collaboration, observations and lesson study carry negative implications and trigger heated union negotiations. She commends Salida teachers for “welcom(ing) the opportunity to learn from their peers.”

Common Core compatibility

The development of Salida’s Instructional Focus plan preceded the rollout of California’s Common Core State Standards and the announcement that, by late 2013, each district must begin developing a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP).

“We were ahead of our time,” Tosh says, “putting similar priorities in place before we were required to. I tell other districts: (The IF plan process) makes the LCAP process seamless. We already have a document that guides everything LCAP asks for.”

Tosh cites progress on the LCAP requirements of cognitively engaging students, developing questioning skills, checking for understanding, and emphasizing students’ social-emotional well-being. “Evidence of those skills can be seen in every classroom,” she says.

Complementary resources

Tosh credits other resources whose philosophies and tools have complemented Salida’s work with Performance Fact. The lesson designs of Mary Camezon, assigned by the state to support Salida’s program improvement, meshed neatly with the IF plan’s professional practices.

Tosh also cites the practicality of the theories, studies and approaches of Robert J. Marzano, Ph.D, in influencing Salida leaders. Similarly, she says, John Hattie’s meta-analysis “fits our philosophy and is reflected in our instructional plan.”

Still, challenges persist.

Gathering and using data meaningfully remain difficult. “We struggle with collecting evidence-based information, especially about professional practices,” she says; in response, Salida has relaxed its formal approach to the 6- to 12-week plans.

And teachers have yet to systematically develop common formative assessments to accompany the lessons they’re creating, Tosh says. “They have PLC time every week (for devising lessons), talking about the lessons they’ve taught, and developing common formative assessments. … (But) we’re not there yet.”

Driving philosophies

Salida’s work is oriented around the belief that every child can learn, Tosh says. Seventy-three percent of Salida students are classified as English Learners and/or eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. A child of modest means herself, Tosh understands the struggles and misperceptions around the impact of poverty on learning.

“Kids may not all learn at same level or same pace,” Tosh acknowledges, “but we have to find a way to address it.”

Tosh cites another influential theorist: Carol Dweck, whose book “Mindset,” to which she and others refer often, has “helped change people’s perceptions.”

In reflecting on Salida’s journey, Tosh recalls that emotional meeting in November 2010.

“It was a healing moment,” Tosh recalls. “The process had a cohesive effect and gave our district a focus.”

Tell us!

What have you experienced when designing an instructional framework? How does teacher feedback work in your district? Do you have questions for the Salida folks? We’d like to hear your ideas and questions!

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