A colleague asked me recently to share the ways in which we are using Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap with our faculty this fall; this post is my answer. The book has been hugely valuable for us this year as a guide and foundation as we seek to further advance St. Gregory as a 21st century school and as a “School that Works” to teach the “new survival skills.” I think that often schools assign faculty summer reading, and then do very little with it– maybe a meeting/discussion or two– but we have deliberately erred in the other direction: I am seeking to infuse the ideas of the book into many different arenas of the educational work we are doing at St. Gregory, even at the risk of overdoing it.
Some of the ways we are using it include, with full explanations after the jump (more):
- Rich reading discussions
- Describing the St. Gregory Wagnerian Classroom.
- Respecting and applying the four principles of Schools that Work
- Implementing new Measurements of student learning: the Egg, CWRA, HSSSE, PISA, and dashboards.
First off, we have not just read the book as a faculty, but we are really deeply discussing it, as a professional learning community. By this I mean we have been convening cross division/cross departmental discussion groups, providing discussion questions, and then providing an hour for our teachers and administrators to delve deeply into the ideas of the book, and debate the implications of the book.
We have spent together now three separate faculty working hours (or well over 100 “person-hours”) in these discussion, and the discussion topics, and notes emanating from these discussions, can be found here: Chapter 1, The New World of Work; Chapter 2, The Old World of School; Chapter 5, Motivating Today’s Students. These conversations have been rich and provocative, and by no means entirely accepting of Wagner’s advice and point of view. But I think they have lifted up the issues and concerns that Professor Wagner identifies, and I am very sure, from my observations, that these conversations are continuing, regularly, in other places among our teachers as they and we work together for curricular reform. I think by the time we have spent with these chapters, their ideas will live on and inform our work far more than would have happened with a simple reading and quick, one-time discussion.
Second, in our discussion of Chapter 2, “the old world of school,” we have taken a close look at the “learning walks” Wagner describes through many ineffective, and one effective, classrooms, and in response we have sought to articulate a St. Gregory “Wagnerian” classroom. By his observation, 19 out of 20 classrooms are not working: they are not places where teachers “use academic content as a means of teaching students how to communicate, reason, and solve problems.” On page 65, however, Wagner does take a few hundred words to describe one classroom, an Algebra II classroom, where these things are happening brilliantly. I have asked each St. Gregory department chair to prepare for me a 300 word narrative description of an actual classroom environment, representing a current reality, which fully exemplifies what Wagner is calling for, written in a format much like what he writes on page 65 about this Algebra classroom.
They are now starting to come in, and what I will be doing is reading and revising them modestly to bring them into a consistent tone and format, and then publishing in various formats, and distributing them accordingly. I hope to use them externally as marketing tools: this is how we at St. Gregory are living and implementing what Wagner is calling for. We will also use them internally as exemplars for ourselves, as the models of what we aspire to achieve on regular, even frequent bases. Look for these “Wagnerian” classroom narratives to be published here on the blog in the weeks to come.
Third, we have paid close attention to the four criteria Wagner describes on pages 258-259, the things which happen in the schools that work which are “strikingly different from what we see in most schools today.” For each of these, we are trying to take one or more steps to advance and strengthen our school’s effectiveness, as explained in the following
Wagner’s first category is the “Learning and Assessment Focus:” the main purpose of teaching is the development of students’ core competencies for lifelong learning… these competencies are clearly articulated.. and students are expected to regularly demonstrate mastery of these core competencies.” We have jumped on this project with great energy: we have reshaped our now weekly (formerly monthly) all school faculty “meetings” into sessions exclusively (or nearly so) devoted to a learning and assessment focus. We have defined and are now loudly articulating the core competencies we think are most essential for our students, (the “essential goals for Gregorians”, or the Egg), and we are immediately adding them to our semester report card, for “expanded reporting of learning.” In doing so, we know we are placing a new emphasis on learning and assessing for these essential skills, competencies, and habits of mind.
The second category is “Student Motivation:” “students are motivated to learn in all three schools through a combination of three distinct interrelated incentives.” These three are having an adult in close mentoring relationships with each student; having opportunities for students to explore their interests and questions; and having more hands on, personalized, and real world tasks. At St. Gregory we are indeed, most certainly, proud of the fine mentoring and close teacher-student relationships which already occur here, and which were highly praised as an outstanding St. Gregory strength in a survey we did of parents. But we are working to make them even stronger next year by doing exactly what Wagner recommends: form “advisory groups with a teacher who meets with them several times a week.” We are also have regular, frequent even, discussions about how each teacher can advance their classrooms to make more opportunity for exploring questions and interests, and to connect to the real world (and real-world problem-solving skills is something we have added to the report card Egg as well.) And finally, we are also working harder to post and publish student work, as Wagner recommends, that students “produce public products that reflect who they are– what they believe and care about.”
Third, is “Teacher Development.” There are many different facets of effective teacher development which Wagner articulates over pages 259 and 260, but we are prioritizing a professional approach this year at St. Gregory which reflects the best principles of contemporary “professional learning community.” As Wagner writes, “rather than working in isolation, teachers in all three schools [schools that are “working”] are organized into teams that have explicit responsibility for the success of the group of students…[and] have significantly more planning and professional development time built into their schedules.” By and large, this is not professional development via conference-going, nor is it PD by in-service (with some exceptions). Instead, it is about taking the time, structuring it into the week every week, for teachers to meet together, talk together, reflect together, analyze together, brainstorm together, and improve together. We are doing this both in discussion groups (like the ones about Wagner’s book), and in our new and very important, very meaningful Critical Friends Group, which currently meet each month for an hour (plus). This approach I think many of us are finding highly meaningful, and which we will seek to expand in some for or another in the future.
Fourth on Wagner’s list is “School Accountability:” “the three schools hold themselves collectively accountable for quality student work and student success in college and beyond.” This is a very high priority for us to advance upon, and it is our firm intent to conduct comprehensive surveys of our graduates and their success, academically and otherwise, in college and beyond, and use the data on their success in college and beyond as tools for our curricular planning.
But we are already putting in place important new measurement tools to hold ourselves “collectively accountable for quality student work” in ways beyond and in addition to “the results of a standardized test.” Indeed, I believe one of the most lasting legacies of this first school year for me here at St. Gregory is having put in place, or in development, so many important and valuable new measurements of the learning we are creating. These include our swift deployment in spring/fall of 2009 of two of the most important next-generation school assessment tools, the HSSSE (the High School Survey of Student Engagement) and the CWRA (College and Work Readiness Assessment) (the CWRA is specifically, and strongly, advocated for by Wagner on pages 115-117). I have written about both here frequently, and just last week published a piece sharing our results in our first administration of HSSSE. We are serious about using these data sources, and using them to refine our program, as Wagner suggests; we are also trying to begin exploring use of two other standardized tests Wagner suggests considering, the PISA and the ISkills.
We are also working to develop a school “dashboard” of learning. This is an intent to collect and publish an annual audit of sorts reporting on our school results across a wide breadth of critical indicators, including SAT scores and college acceptances AND also the many other data sources we wish to manage, such everything discussed in the preceding paragraph and more in development. We also intend to put onto our new dashboard a measurement of our students’ attainment of performance mastery (“Demonstrations of learning”), as Pat Bassett calls for in Independent School magazine.
Wrapping up, I think I should point out that all this is what I promised in the interview and appointment process; 14 months ago, when I spent three days interviewing with the St. Gregory community as they searched for their next Head of School, I was very much abuzz with the ideas and importance of Professor Wagner’s work, and promised in every interview that my leadership would be marked by advancing St. Gregory further upon the trail and in the direction Wagner’s book charts (just as it was a mutual dynamic: I also said sincerely that I was attracted to the St. Gregory opportunity by the many ways in which they school is already a “Wagnerian” school!)