School improvement processes were not built for the 20–21 school year

This post was originally shared in an email on October 23, 2020. If you would like to receive my next email update, you can sign up here.

I have been so impressed by my kids’ ideas about how we can celebrate Halloween safely this year. My little dinosaurs’ creativity reminds me of every child’s awesome genius. Just this week, we learned about remarkable achievements of young people:

  • Anika Chebrolu, a 14-year-old from Texas, was named the winner of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge after discovering a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-COV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.
  • Sarah Moorman, a 17-year-old from Texas, created a campaign, Day2Vote, that has so far led 52 companies representing a total of 14,889 employees to pledge full- or half-day paid time off for voting.
  • Zoë Jenkins, a high school student in Kentucky, designed a free antiracism curriculum based on her and her peers’ lived school experiences.
  • Avery and Jackson Ausmer, elementary students from Ohio, created Hey Black Child: The Podcast to teach people about Black history, with their parents’ help.

We will need the contributions of each and every student to advance our country. It is our job and privilege as educators to give them the foundation that brings forth their genius. How are we doing at that job?

As a way into the answer, we are working continuously with partners on five questions:

  • Are students attending?
  • Are students connecting?
  • Are students given worthy work?
  • Are students completing their work?
  • Are students learning?

These are the answers I hear most right now:

  • Students are attending, though attendance is down in pockets (sometimes quite dramatically).
  • Teachers are trying hard to forge relationships and seeing success in person, but virtual relationship-building does not yet feel authentic or consistently effective.
  • Whether students are given worthy work seems to have a great deal to do with the degree of focus on worthy work before COVID.
  • Assignment completion varies dramatically based on how much it is being watched.
  • Student work analysis is providing teachers more answers than large-scale assessments, but without rolling it up into a larger trendline, it is hard to tell how much students are learning.

Now the question is: What will change by January? How well we serve our brilliant students depends on how well we come together to improve these answers.

When I ask state and system leaders what they are doing to help schools improve this year, they often point to formal school improvement and accreditation processes. Hearing the words “school improvement” brings me back to the Opelousas Junior High School Improvement Committee meetings of 2005. We spent hours together in the library looking for “research-based actions” that would increase achievement. We decided to focus on teachers using better “higher-order thinking” questions. We made posters about HOT skills for every teacher and led professional development. Unfortunately, it didn’t change much.

No doubt these processes have improved in many places but, despite the best intentions of framework designers and policymakers, something about the act of filling out a form so often turns good questions into compliance exercises. Educators and students are full of ideas about how to improve their schools, but these processes can lead teams to a feeling of “lets just get through the paperwork.”

School improvement processes were not built for the 20–21 school year. They have long time horizons, rely on data we don’t have, and can limit solutions to strategies that are already proven. This year calls for rapid-cycle, qualitatively-informed problem solving, and it calls for creativity to find and test new ideas rather than rely on methods that worked in the past.

This week, Instruction Partners released the Continuous Improvement Toolkit. Working with our partners, we honed in on the questions and resources that help leaders focus on the key improvement areas of the moment.

It includes tools to help guide the improvement journey, like:

It also provides resources to support solution-building, like:

You can download the full toolkit here, and watch a video on how to get started here.

The schools that I have seen improve over time make continuous improvement a habit, even an obsession. And more than anything else, the leader’s level of focus on improvement sets the pace. I hope these tools can help focus the improvement energy in the coming quarter.

This is a hard year. Keep solving problems; keep making it better. Brilliant students are counting on it.

One step at a time, together,


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Instruction Partners CEO, former AssistCommish for TDOE, library lover, Sunday afternoon chef and head of the Jan, Owen and Liam fan club.

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