Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Planning for Success

plans pix

Our intermediate unit hosted a joint meeting between our Special Education and Curriculum Advisory Councils on January 9, 2009.  We gave groups of administrators planning documents required by the PA Department of Education such as Strategic Plan, Professional Education Plan, Induction Plan, Technology Plan, Special Education Plan, School Improvement Plan...etc... These plans were from real schools in PA. We asked the teams to count up the number of initiatives listed across the plans and to evaluate the alignment between the plans.

Their analysis was telling. While some plans had alignment, others did not. One group counted 87 initiatives within the document. This did not include any grants the district had. With scare resources such as time, money and personnel... can schools realistically achieve 87 goals? What about 50? What about 20? Myself, I think the answer lies closer to three or four.

There are plenty of reasons why their is so much misalignment in plans.... multiple authors, various time frames for completion, new requirements... and the list goes on. We're like salmon swimming up stream to get alignment across all planning documents. Below are the list of solutions generated by the participants.

Plan Solutions

Mike Schmoker had the following to say about planning............

What's a good number of goals for a school to have? Can you have too many?

There is indeed a danger of having too many. It seems to me that if a goal, an annual improvement goal, is worth its salt, it's a goal for which you're willing to meet a minimum of once a month.

Now, if you have two goals, that's two monthly meetings. And even if those monthly meetings are in the area of 30-some minutes, which is really enough time to get a lot of good work done, in many cases—I've seen lots of schools do this—you're still talking about two meetings a month. Two meetings, in the economy of all the stuff that goes on in any school, is probably about as much as we can handle.

Monday, January 26, 2009

On Their Way to 100% AYP


For Shohola Elementary School, Delaware Valley School District, a 100% AYP is not an elusive dream, rather it is close to reality with a combined score of 90% proficiency for reading and 93% for math for grades 3 to 6. In addition, Shohola received top scores on PVAAS for both Growth and Achievement for 4th grade reading and math and 6th grade reading and math. Meaning their students are not entering school with exceptional abilities, rather specific curricular and instructional practices are contributing to student success. I sat down with James Purcell, Director of Elementary Education, to learn the secrets of their success.

Their story begins with dissatisfaction with their Title I reading program. Their data indicated they were not moving their students. As Mr. Purcell said, "if you can't move the bottom group of students, you can't move your scores." They met with DV Chart their numerous stakeholders, but it was the Title I reading specialists themselves that suggested they needed more instructional time and a different delivery model. In a meeting with the Superintendent Dr. Candis Finan, she suggested changing from a pull out program to a push in program. The result was each classroom had a reading specialist push into all 1st and 2nd grade rooms for one hour each day. Third and 5th grade also receives support from a reading specialist but the amount of time varies based on resources and need. The district did not add additional staff, rather they reallocated the staff they had.

The teachers and administrators persevered during the first year of implementation. Some classroom teachers simply did not want other teachers coming into their classrooms. Role clarification was needed. Improvement was noted during the first year of implementation, but the second year scores soared. Teachers complained even more instructional time was needed to obtain the results they wanted. Reading curriculum was revised to include more science and social studies content. Integration of curriculum resulted in more instructional minutes allocated to reading.

The district then partnered with the IU to initiate grade-level data meetings. As a result teachers were able to set ambitious goals e.g. with 60% of 1st grade students at benchmark for oral reading fluency, teachers set a goal of 90% by spring assessment. Data and dialogue also allowed the teachers to identify key areas for professional development. With the knowledge that more staff was not an option to address student needs, teachers lobbied to create opportunities within the core curriculum. Teachers targeted student needs within the regular education classroom through direct instruction, centers, and flexible grouping.

Interestingly, the bulk of special education students receive the core reading curriculum, targeted support within the classroom, title I interventions, as well as intervention from the special education teacher. The most struggling students in the district can receive, depending on the need, up to 700 instructional minutes in literacy per week. Their interventions are driven by constant progress monitoring and data analysis to identify and prioritize areas of strength and concern.

Success in reading lead to a parallel program for elementary mathematics. However, additional staff was necessary. The district used grant money to add math specialists utilizing a push-in model. They require elementary and middle level math certification for the math specialist position.

Today students are thriving at Shohola and the other elementary schools within the district. Grade-level data meetings are institutionalized with principals facilitating the meetings. Staff members are more comfortable using data tools such as Performance Tracker and DIBELS Reports. They constantly ask the question, "why are students not achieving?" The results speak for themselves with proficiency results into the 90th percentile and the IEP subgroup meeting AYP outright in two of the three elementaries and coming very close in the third.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Schools Close, But Learning Continues

According to Susan Patrick, President and CEO of International Association for K12 Online Learning, all secondary schools (grades 7-12) in Singapore close for one week each year, but students continue their education through online learning.

"Singapore trains all of their teachers to teach online, using a learning management system and digital content.  All secondary school teachers and students use online learning and they have 100% e-learning in their schools every day.  In fact, to ensure all teachers and students are comfortable learning any time, any place, Singapore holds e-learning week once a year.   They physically shut schools down and the continuity of learning continues through the well-developed and continuous use of the e-learning delivery model that is used in the face-to-face classrooms, too" (email communication, January 8, 2008).

e-Learning Week provides several opportunities. It forces all teachers to utilize technology tools and to teach online for a week. It gives students an opportunity to experience online learning without the commitment of doing it for a whole course. e-Learning Week is part of Singapore's emergency preparedness plan. An outbreak of Avian Flu... no problem, schools would close and move to online courses until the threat has passed.

When you consider the cost-savings anticipated by the short-term Four Day School Week one school is trying, indications about reaching a critical mass in online learning by 2019, Disruptive Innovations, both shared in previous posts, not to mention the emergency preparedness concepts.... it is an intriguing idea.

I also wonder how they phased in such an ambitious project? Did they start with one day and add on until they reached a week. What kind of training were teachers provided? What was the response from the community?

Despite the challenges and unanswered questions, the idea has merit and would make for an ambitious strategic plan.

Click here to go to my wiki to view the research study.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

10,000 Hours to Success

Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author and staff writer for the New Yorker, has a magic number for success. In his latest book, Outliers: The Story of SuccessOutliers,  Gladwell makes a compelling case for explaining success. Turns out factors such as innate ability do not factor into success as much as we might think. Turns out practice.... 10,000 hours of practice to be exact translates into success.

From Bill Gates to Mozart to the Beatles and grandmaster chess champions, Gladwell uses the 10,000-Hour Rule again and again to explain their success. It's not that innate ability isn't a factor, it just isn't a determining factor. For a sneak peek at how Gladwell unravels his theory read the excerpt below:

A research study comparing amateur and professional pianist "couldn't find any naturals that float to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor did they find any grinds, people who worked harder than everyone else, but just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't just work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder." (p. 30).

 My question is do we in schools reward or give preference to the student that "gets it" quickly or do we appreciate the student that works hard, very hard to master a task? Before you answer that question consider current grading practices and how we still tend to base grades on averages. Consider teacher comments about expectations of students? Do we even give students multiple opportunities to practice before we penalize them.... e.g.You can take a retest but can't score any higher than a 70% on the test. Clearly I am not feeling generous on this issue, but I truly want to.... help me identify ways we as schools have typical practices which emphasize work ethic over background knowledge.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Facebook: A Learning Tool For Teachers

Back in the fall I posted, Who's On Your Network, which discussed Will Richardson's article in Education Leadership entitled, Footprints in the Digital Age.  One of his recommendations was to join Facebook and to be perfectly honest... I didn't get it. What could I learn as an educator from Facebook?  As luck would have it, my husband's family is very active with Facebook, with Will's urging and their availability I decided to take the plunge.

I have to say I am impressed. I have reconnected with family members, friends from high school and college, and colleagues from previous positions. With Facebook the past and present intersect, letting me in seconds catch up with friends and family.

As an educator, Facebook gives me insight into the why and how students use social networking tools. In fact, I can see why students crave these tools. When you consider that building positive relationships is the corner stone of school improvement, how can we not investigate these tools. My mind is spinning with ideas. Kudos to Will for sharing his insight.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Controversy Over Cursive

Twenty years ago ---- eek that's how long it has been since I graduated from high school, cursive was a given in the curriculum. Teachers used it, students had to be able to read it and write it. I can remember copying copious notes from the board in cursive. Cursive

A lot has changed in those two decades. I now reserve cursive for signing checks and other documents. I rarely find I need to read something in cursive, other than perhaps a name. Typing, however, has become an absolute necessity.

How important is cursive? With all the content that has been added, not to mention accountability.... how valuable is it? Do we need to spend time as early as third grade on teaching cursive?

What do you think?

Photo from

Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Services

Michelle Davis Colonial Intermediate Unit 20 welcomes our newest consultant, Michelle Davis, to the Curriculum Department. Michelle will have a unique place on our team. Her position is designed to be a blend of special education, differentiated instruction and educational technology.

The demand for this position stems from the steady increase in requests for assistive technology support for students with learning disabilities. The increase in requests coincides with advances in technology such as voice recognition, screen readers, spell check, podcasting, smart boards...etc. Michelle will help to facilitate teams, usually the IEP team, to identify barriers students have to learning and subsequent technology tools that will support student success in the inclusive setting. The emphasis will be on using technology tools already available to support student achievement. For example, last year we had a student whose disability created a barrier to conducting an oral presentation to his class. The team identified podcasting as an alternative. The student loved it. He was able to create his presentation and deliver it to his class while circumventing his disability.

Michelle will also be co-facilitating the Differentiated Instruction Technology Academy, Smart Board training, and special education law.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Planning for Differentiation

An article in the Washington Post, Schools Look At Providing More Time For Teachers caught my eye recently which looks at teacher planning time. As you might imagine, teachers feel they lack planning time.... and they may have a point. The amount of planning time has stayed constant while requirements for inclusion and accountability have increased.

My question is do we design curriculum to address these challenges from the onset or do we expect teachers to plan lessons, adjust their instruction for a variety of diverse learners, grade assignments, connect with parents and other colleagues, make copies in a 40 minute planning period? Curriculum Planning Pyramid

Why not differentiate the curriculum from the beginning?

The graphic to the left depicts the Curriculum Planning Pyramid (Schumm, Vaughn, & Leavell, 1994) which represents how curriculum might be organized to meet the needs of all learners.

  • The base represents the most important concepts you want ALL STUDENTS to learn.
  • The middle layer represents additional facts, extensions of base concepts, related concepts that MOST, but not all students will learn.
  • The top represents complex and/or detailed information that a FEW students learn.

It's the same content, but different attainments. This coupled with "Big Ideas" differentiates the curriculum from the onset. Priorities are already established. Teachers will have a pre-established guide to help communicate expectations to parents, write IEPs, and work with other colleagues.

In a previous life, I was a teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. I had many regular education teachers I had to work with to serve my students and while I tried to help, I often wondered what the point of helping students complete a single worksheet or assignment. Teachers rarely had time to collaborate. I am intrigued by the idea of how much more effective our work might have been if I had such a curriculum to guide my efforts. What are your thoughts?

Schumm, J.S., Vaughn, S., & Leavell, A.G. (1994). Planning pyramid: A framework for planning for diverse student needs during content area instruction. The Reading Teacher, 47, pp.608-615.

Vaughn, S., Bos, C.S., & Schumm, J.S. (2000). Teaching exceptional, diverse, and at-risk students in the general education classroom. (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Four Day School Week

Southern Columbia School District in Catawissa, PA, which coincidentally is my alma mater, is moving to a four-day school week for January and February. The school will still meet the mandated 180 day requirement, but estimates it will save thousands in heating and fuel costs. Teachers will still be at work participating in professional development at the high school. The teacher contract already included these days as a requirement and according to sources all the district did was realign the calendar. Click here for the news article.

The idea appeals to me on many levels. As a professional developer having a week in between follow up sessions is ideal. I can imagine the amount of support and momentum that could be achieved with sustained support over an eight week period. As a parent, I think it would be a great time to work on larger assignments and projects that kids receive as homework not to mention the benefit of not having kids waiting for the bus in the cold. Child care could be a concern for some, but my understanding is that the school reached out to the community for additional solutions for working parents and many churches and child care programs responded.

Time will tell whether the benefits out way the costs, but with the economic times being what they are, it may well warrant consideration.