I came across this post entitled “The Belief Gap: Stop Blaming the P’s” this morning and it resonated with me so deeply given my own experiences as a student of color, a parent, a teacher, and leader. The belief gap is real.
Pedagogy. Preschool. Professionals. These things should be our equity focus as educators..
The author Chris Stewart writes of successful traditional school systems and charters: “It isn’t magic or miracles pushing them above other schools. It’s more boring than that. In these schools, “reforms” focus intently on instructional leadership, relationships with students and their families, using data to improve instruction, and fostering a culture of achievement.”
In Unit 4, I see a big need for a focus on each of these things.
Instructional leadership: All principals and instructional leaders should be able to demonstrate that they were successful teachers. How can you lead a team of teachers to successful outcomes when you can’t speak to those outcomes in your own professional past? A high premium should be placed on hiring principals and leaders who have had demonstrated success with African-Americans, English Language Learners, children with learning disabilities/special needs, and children living in poverty, given that these are the groups who have pronounced achievement gaps in our district. Principals and leaders who have deep instructional expertise and knowledge should be actively recruited and developed.
Relationships with students and their families: This is a huge area for growth. As things currently stand, there are surface-level attempts to “involve”. There needs to be a bigger focus on engaging and empowering. Parents need to be engaged to have a stronger voice in important decisions that impact the lives of their children. When parents complain, bring a concern, or advocate on behalf of their children, it shouldn’t be viewed as them trying to manipulate the system or get over. Ninety-nine percent of parents deeply care about and love their children. The thing that makes a teacher/leader great is an ability balance high expectations and rigor with a high level of relationship. Master teachers and leaders view the children in their charge as people, with feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams…not as obstacles to success, or things to control/manipulate. The beliefs that teachers and leaders hold are powerful and directly influence their ability to build strong relationships with students and families.
Using data to improve instruction: The key here is using data to do something with it, instead of collecting data, or analyzing data and continuing to do things in the same way. This should be happening at a systems level, a school level, and a classroom level. Professional development is needed so that people can build and develop skill. Time is also needed. I used to be so frustrated as a building principal because contractually (per the agreement between the district and teacher’s union), I could only formally meet with grade level teams for 80 minutes/month (40 minutes/every two weeks), which after teachers dropped kids off for specials (art, music, PE, etc.), really was more like 30 minutes every two weeks. Many teachers agreed to meet outside of this time- but it was uneven. Faculty meetings could only take place twice/month. I used to run faculty meetings from 3:30-5:00pm, on the first and third Mondays, but a few teachers complained about the length, and I was encouraged to reduce faculty meetings to no more than one hour on the first and third Mondays… Given the time constraints, it was really hard to provide the time for us to analyze and come up with plans using the data. It (time to use data to improve instruction) was a critical lever for school improvement and as a building principal, I felt like my hands were tied. These agreed-upon constraints/barriers are unacceptable.
Fostering a culture of achievement: A culture of achievement is a culture that expects all learners to achieve and all adults working in the building/district to keep this expectation central to their work. I don’t believe that there is a strong culture of achievement in the district. Foundational to the weak culture of achievement are the beliefs held by adults. I have engaged in discussion with many staff/leaders (school and district) who express deficit views to explain away the achievement gap. Let me be clear, there are some good people who lead classrooms, schools, and the district; this is not about personal attacks- you can be a nice person with a good heart and still hold deficit beliefs…you may not even be aware that you do. This is about the power of those beliefs and how they influence practice and impact children and families. One big solution that would have high impact to strengthen the culture of achievement would be to increase the rigor of the hiring process (for school/district leadership and teachers)…once strong instructional leaders are in place, decentralizing professional development to allow schools to deeply focus/engage on key improvement strategies relevant to their schools. Right now the district has a centralized professional development structure (I will speak to the elementary level, because that is what I have direct experience with). This means that central office has contracted with experts to provide professional development to all teachers on the same things (right now, guided reading and close reading). While I am passionate about literacy and the need for educators (teachers and school leaders) to improve their knowledge and skill around this, there are some foundational things that need to come before skill and knowledge building (like belief work). The centralized professional development means that principals and teachers are told when they’ll receive training and then on that set of days, they leave the building to receive training, away from their classrooms. Substitute shortages (another district system) really interrupt the flow of the school day/week/year because subs don’t always show up (this is particularly common in buildings on the north side, which serve a higher percentage of kids living in poverty/minority children…another indicator of adult beliefs about certain children). With all of the external professional development that takes teachers out of classrooms and then results in subs not showing up to take classes, what results is internal substitution (where a teacher who has remained in the building takes over the class or adds students from the class with no teacher to their class. This is incredibly expensive; would love to see a report on the costs related to that- used to be 32.50/hour for a teacher to cover a class in addition to their base pay/salary)- another union/district agreement. It also results in over-sized classes, which absolutely impacts the culture of achievement for the day/week/year. Job-embedded professional development is the best model; where teachers and leaders learn and build skill in their classrooms/buildings with the support of whoever is leading the professional development. Job-embedded professional development supports a strong culture of achievement. The current model does not.
Beliefs are powerful. They influence what we see and don’t see. What we find problematic or not. What we do and don’t do. They impact whose perspective/experience we choose to pay attention to. They impact everything. I would love to see a stronger focus on belief work in our district.