Unfocused Accountability of A-F

Clear accountability motivates us in the right direction.  It focuses effort on improvements related to the checklist.  School accountability, at it’s core, is a good thing.  A decade ago, ratings were relatively comprehensible as the percentage of students meeting standard on a series of assessments.  Labels of Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable, or Unacceptable were based on the performance of all demographics (African-American, White, Economically Disadvantaged, etc.).  A system with flaws, but generally understood.

The pursuit of accountability standards caused schools to make good on important conversations.  Why are minority students underperforming compared to white, affluent students?  Why are economically disadvantaged students struggling to meet standards?  What can we do differently?

TAKS gave way to the STAAR/EOC era.  Once many schools met the challenge of TAKS, the logic was to make assessments tougher in order to “raise the bar.”  As educators adapt to complex assessments, learning complexity should evolve.

The rating system also changed.  Four labels were replaced with distinctions in seven possible categories.  Additionally, schools no longer operated under a universal standard for all schools.  In order to earn a category distinction, school competed for a Top 25% placement of 40 demographically alike schools.  This system is explained through this LEAD4WARD resource.

The distinction system acknowledged a correlation between affluence and overall achievement.  It also held schools accountable to the percentage of students meeting passing standards AND advanced levels of performance.  Educators studied the strongest performing schools in their group because “they were like us” and to “out-compete” at least 30 of the 40 schools.

The absence of an overall rating left a void legislators felt compelled to fill.  The new A-F ratings fill that void, but the method isn’t explained easily.  The first 20 pages of this TEA document describe the system.  “Ratings” are a more accurate description than “grades,” because grades mislead one to believe a letter is awarded based on a simple percentage out of the whole.   Many, many, many, stories describe the frustration of operating under two conflicting rating systems (distinctions and A-F), as well as concerns A-F labels correlate to affluence.

Where does this ultimately take students?  Despite the intent of accountability, SAT scores hit a 22 year low in 2014 and have stayed there.  Texas ranks #43rd in the nation on average SAT score.  The format of STAAR/EOC does arguably little to prepare for the SAT.

Where does this ultimately take schools?  Schools ignore a degree of test prep at their own peril.  Enough takes place that legislators limited the days students take district benchmarks.  Unsuccessful students commonly lose elective classes (ex: fine arts) for assessment intervention.  Additionally, labels negatively impact recruitment and retention of quality teachers in our most disadvantaged schools and in the profession.

Texas educators endure ratings-based criticism and show up ready to serve students.  Yet, A-F labels do not inform educators to better serve students.  A system that started with clear intent lost it’s focus on students.  School accountability is healthy, but only with clarity and purpose.

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Accountable To Whom?

Andrew* never passed a state assessment from grades three through seven.  During eighth grade, we made seemingly logical changes to help him pass his exams and promote to high school.  We eliminated electives to provide additional support classes.  During advisory time, we grouped him with students needing intervention while others enjoyed enrichment activities.  His teachers cared for him and Andrew was eager to please.

In May, his teachers celebrated the news Andrew passed all four assessments.  His story became a testament to student and teacher determination at our school.

Four years later, I was Andrew’s high school Principal.  He struggled to pass classes and displayed apathy towards school.  The idea of making money overruled staying for tutorials.  Like some disadvantaged teenagers, he was seduced by the gratification provided by tangible status symbols instead of the potential his grades provided.

Unchecked, a fixation on accountability contributes to the post-high school divide in a graduating class.  College bound students were more involved in activities at our school and identify with electives/extra-curricular activities.  Their experience included a more creative curriculum, greater use of technology in classrooms, and advanced elective courses.

In general, economically disadvantaged students do not arrive to school on equal footing with their affluent peers due to factors including home support, educational materials (books) in the home, and even nutrition.  Seeking to improve achievement as defined by accountability standards, I unintentionally starved under-achieving students of even more experiences high-achieving (and typically affluent) students experienced regularly.

School accountability serves an important purpose.  Yet, it is not compelling enough to serve as a compass.  It is a leader’s responsibility to define “true north” in a manner including accountability as part of a bigger picture.

This is the crux of accountability age leadership.  The results of the test shapes school ratings the general public consumes.  One day, four hours, and 60 bubbles determines graduation plans, teaching assignments, principal tenure, and school reputation.

Ignore accountability demands and the school perishes.  Great teaching, unfortunately, is not enough.  School leaders make tough decisions and implement structures to achieve results.  Yet, a sole focus on accountability robs a school and students of experiences that matter.  Coupled with accountability, leaders can help a community define their greatest aspirations for students.

The inaugural work at Lebanon Trail is an example.

Accountability matters because it draws focus to student growth and excellence for each racial and economic background.  Yet it is worth asking:  to whom are we accountable?  I am ultimately accountable for the school’s performance.  However, I am also accountable for Andrew.  Same, but different.

*pseudonym

A Leader’s Vision and Ideas

Helping people towards a common goal makes you a leader.  Leaders are coaches, drum majors, teachers, directors, principals, den mothers, superintendents, captains, or any other formal or informal positions.  No title required.

Strong leaders considers the direction and performance of the “followership” as more important than their own performance.  However, the success of the followership is bolstered or hampered by the quality of leadership.

The idea represented by a leader are more important than personality and disposition.  Either consciously or subsconsciously, the members of a group/organization ask themselves, “what idea(s) does this leader represent?”

The vision of a leader is how the leader articulates her/his ideas.  After understanding those ideas, the group asks, “what does this person want us to accomplish together?”

Everything begins with the leader’s vision.  No matter the project or endeavor, the vision and ideas of a leader hang in the air as a perennial preamble.

Developing and articulating a vision are the first steps of intentional leadership.  When these words are spoken and written, they become real.  Others push back, ask questions, and ultimately help refine.  A vision becomes stronger and the way forward is clearer.

Ideas and vision change over time.  The visions of the group blend and influence each other.  Yet, it is difficult to determine which is worse for the followership:  a leader not articulating their vision/ideas or never developing them in the first place.

Without a clearly articulated vision, the group is forced to fill in the gap and is prone to conflict and confusion.  With clarity, the group moves in the same direction.

What’s the point of evaluation? T-TESS and Evaluative Consciousness

The following is an extension to the TASSP/TASA Summer 2016 Workshop Presentation on Leadership Strategies for Successful TTESS Implementation

The challenge for school leadership is twofold:  help teachers see evaluation as a physical examination, not an autopsy AND believe that every teacher can develop their own sense of evaluative consciousness.

Consider the concept of “evaluative consciousness” as the goal of the evaluation process.  Evaluative consciousness describes how accurately an individual sees themselves within an evaluative process, demonstrated by reflection and a growth mindset.

Coaching.png

As an evaluator, our goal is to enhance evaluative consciousness.  As evidenced by the graph above, relatively few individuals require a directive approach.  If strong performance or strong evaluative consciousness is evident, why not start with questions and opportunities for reflection?

Asking open-ended, positive pre-supposition questions upholds a high expectation, mutual respect, and shows a coaching mindset.  A coaching mindset strengthens evaluative consciousness.  A stronger sense of evaluative consciousness leads to self-directed and more lasting change because it comes from them, not us.

Here are the slides from the Summer Workshop Presentation: TASSP 06.16.16

Credit to Lead Your School for the quote and Anthony Muhammad for his work on educator frameworks.

Please contact me at devin.padavil@gmail.com if I can help you.

Hiring

In the throes of summer, school leaders pore over picking the right people to serve kids.  Never a perfect art, I’ve sat through rigorous hiring processes engineered to successfully picked the wrong people.  I’ve also seen improvised question protocols find true diamonds for schools and students.  All things considered, here are factors I (currently) believe are important when it comes to hiring and getting hired.

It’s About Attitude:  For the most part, you can teach someone the skills and knowledge necessary to be effective in the classroom.  Content knowledge is important, but you can’t teach attitude.  Hire for attitude and you’ll have someone who enjoys kids, has a desire to be better, wants to teach to influence lives.

Don’t Undervalue Small Talk:  Coming from someone that isn’t naturally good at it, I’ve learned to be intentional about small talk.  Talk about kids, past moves, likes, dislikes.  All of these things show unique glimpses into personality and ATTITUDE instead of the well-formed questions most people expect and rehearse for interviews.

Situations instead of Answers:  “How do you handle students with challenging behavior?” is a less effective question than “Tell us about a time you handled a student with challenging behavior and got him/her learning again?”  The example the candidate presents tells a far greater story than a formulated answer.

Mental Toughness:  Working in a high school isn’t pink lemonade and sunshine.  Small to large degrees of unpleasant parents, pessimistic colleagues, disrespectful student behavior, and nonsensical bureaucracy plague every school.  Ask situation questions to gauge whether the candidate can withstand these issues, stay optimistic, and stay the course.

Extra Credit:  Conversely, if you want to get hired, all of these factors matter.  The candidate that does the best job of “connecting” with the interview committee has the greatest chance of landing the job.  Instead of rehearsing answers to expected questions, think of brief and concise examples/stories that illustrate your answers.

Hiring is the most important thing school leaders do.  When we hire someone new, our school essentially becomes more like that person.  Picking the right attitude, mindset, and skills helps move the school closer to its vision.

Leveraging Relationships for Effectiveness

Think of a doctor or caretaker you’ve trusted.  How did this person make you feel?  How did that person leverage their connection with you to help you?

An effective doctor invests time into building a connection with their patient.  A relatively effective doctor “connects” to help the patient openly communicate about their health and/or behavior.  A highly effective doctor speaks candidly about what the patient needs to do in order to improve.  “Relational capacity” is the strength of a professional connection to create vulnerability and safety through open and honest conversation.

I’m an amateur at building relational capacity with my peers.  Yet, this is a gap I see and strive to eliminate.  I walk the halls, I stop to talk, I listen…and listen some more.  I tell myself to ask questions, paraphrase, and listen.

What is that appropriate professional distance?  Who does that distance really protect? A Principal shouldn’t be friends with staff, but ought to be their authentic  and vulnerable self with colleagues.  If they see the real you, will they not respect you?  Does distance strengthen command and power?  Is it easier to be more direct if you don’t need to worry about damaging the relationship?

Caveat:  A caring and professional doctor does not tolerate dangerous behavior from a patient.  Just as a patient would be addressed directly and seriously if he were smoking, obese, or abusing drugs, a Principal addresses behaviors that are non-negotiables in the classrooms.  Sleeping students, use of profanity, and unchecked unruly behavior are just a few examples of things that don’t wait for relational capacity.  Placing students first, we address these egregious examples directly.

Ask the Right Questions

As an aspiring school leader, I once heard  “real school improvement happens through the small 3-5 minute informal conversations that happen everyday.”  Unfortunately, it didn’t totally sink in until years later.  I saw school improvement and conversations centered around change within the arena of formal meetings and group discussions.

Connecting with staff members on important issues of student learning is crucial.  Doing so informally adds a level of effectiveness not afforded in large group meetings.  It allows us to engage our colleagues without the anxiety of jostling with one’s peers and the ability to disappear into the background within a large meeting.  It gives the administrator the pulse of the campus and refocuses those strained by variables constantly calling for attention (most having little to do with teaching and learning).

Rather than walking the halls with dictums, it’s more helpful to ask the right questions.  Observe the following reminders and declarations any well intentioned administrator might use during the school year.

  • “Remember to do give your students the review schedule.”  
  • “Don’t forget to send me a list of your free and reduced lunch intervention students.”  
  • “Tell me what you’re doing to address the kids that failed the quadratics benchmark.”  

Just as we want teachers to behave with students, administrators are served well modeling effective questioning with our colleagues in the classroom.

  • “How do you feel about the progress of your students on the quadratics benchmark?”  
  • “What strategies have you used to address the needs of your free and reduced lunch intervention students?”  
  • “How can I help you with your students during the review sessions?”

Each addresses the same need, yet the owner of the thinking is the teacher.  As I write this, my “wonderings” focus on our Algebra students and the work of our dedicated Algebra team.  I owe it to those teachers to use positive, open-ended questions when I speak to them about learning.

A focused leader finds the right questions.  What is your vision for instruction at the school you serve?  How about the vision for the department you’re worried about today?  What is the current reality?  You see the distance between the vision and reality.  As you mix with key players in that area, what are questions to ask them to help bridge the gap?  In the end, classroom teachers do the most important work in the building.  As school leaders, our most important role is supporting their work for students.