Learning What Works

learn 2Whereas the first principle of school improvement asks a school to consider what is not working, this principle examines what is working. The book Learning to Improve puts it this way:

“Achieving improvement at scale is not about what works on average. It is about getting quality results under a variety of conditions. Understanding the sources of variation in outcomes and responding effectively to them lies at the heart of quality of improvement. (p. 35)”

What does this mean for our schools? Effective schools are designed around educational practices that reliably “move the needle” toward academic achievement and positive development of the whole child. Reliability is important. These are trusted practices that are tested in various educational settings and circumstances and anchored by evidence of success. This is especially true in the education of economically-poor and marginalized students as uniform use of educational practices that consistently yield results is an effective counter to the unpredictable instability of living in poverty.

This does pose some challenge to school improvement across a network, district, or coalition. First, there often is not much agreement at the macro-level as to what works. Even if a practice or set of practices has shown short-term promise, it is often short-lived as opposition is typically ready to dismiss it.  Second, educators generally do not appreciate mandates of new standard practices from a central office as the perception is that it demeans their professional ability to teach.

Learning to Improve addresses this challenge:

“The concept of standard work is central to quality improvement, but it is also a multifaceted and carefully nuanced idea. It can be easily confused for example with efforts to de-skill professional practice. Its goal is exactly the opposite. The development of standard work aims to better support the activities that professionals engage in so that they are more likely to achieve positive outcomes reliably over and over. (p. 47)”

For a small, independent school like a NativityMiguel school, this presents an incredible opportunity. The school community itself is responsible for identifying and implementing the practices that best support the educational mission. For a faculty and staff of approximately 10-12 persons led by a capable instructional leader and guided perhaps by an education committee on the board, the charge is “Let’s figure out what works best our students and for our school specifically, and then make certain that our entire team is trained and prepared to carry out its implementation.”

These practices are often referred to as high-leverage since they raise the level of learning, growth and achievement. So how does a team determine what high-leverage educational practices should be standard process in the school?

Research Scan: A vast body of research is easily accessible on every component of education. Googling “social-emotional development”, “literacy”, “STEAM”, or any relevant topic can retrieve an overload of information with often contradictory findings. A trusted university partner or educational consultant can help narrow the sheer volume of research and articles to identify and recommend practices and programs that work for your school and your students, families, faculty and staff.

Learn from Experts: Who best to ask about how students succeed? Ask experienced teachers. In addition to qualified teachers in your school, reach out to educators who work in like-minded schools with similar populations. Make certain to spend time in high-performing schools and classrooms in action to observe these experts in action.

Once a school community has identified the specific problem (what is not working) and aim (what do we want to improve), it is charged with identifying the educational practice that will yield the desired outcomes (what is working). Leaders, faculty and staff in our member schools are actively engaged and invested, as an individual and as a team, in deciding and adopting the educational practices that will drive school improvement. This opportunity is best captured by our charter school partners, “One team, one vision, together we are on a mission.”

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