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Reform, the Adams 14 way

Posted by Jan 11th, 2011.

Editor’s note: Susan Chandler, Ph.D., is superintendent of the Adams 14 School District.

Last week, Adams 14 was featured in an article written by Education News Colorado reporter Nancy Mitchell entitled Census shows education gaps by district, highlighting a variety of challenges that Adams 14 students face daily. While we cannot control challenges at home, we can strive to control teacher quality.

I appreciate Nancy closing the article with a description of the Adams 14 strategy:

But the key emphasis for Adams 14 – while some other struggling Adams County districts have implemented dramatic structural reforms such as Mapleton’s small schools and Westminster’s standards-based system – is improving teacher quality in a traditional setting.

“We believe, regardless of where our students start on the achievement level, they will still realize growth over time if we have highly effective teachers in our classrooms,” Albright said. “We’ve built all of our work around that.”

Adams 14 arrived at its strategy in 2008, after an external review team concluded that a systemic approach to reform was necessary to improve student learning. The review team found that Adams 14 was a district of schools as opposed to a school district. In a medium-sized, demographically homogeneous district with 13 schools and 7,500 students, it was evident that we could improve results by adopting initiatives that would be implemented with fidelity across all schools.

From this work, we arrived at the Adams 14 strategy: to improve student achievement so that 80 percent of students assessed will be on grade level by 2014 by ensuring that each classroom has a dynamic, standards-based teacher who provides powerful 21st century learning experiences to all students.

A system cannot improve what it cannot measure, so we selected the Balanced Scorecard as our performance management tool. All parts of the system must be measured to determine strengths and opportunities for growth. Through the Scorecard, we measure instructional quality throughout the year. This allows us to adjust teaching practices through professional development and coaching before it’s too late to make midcourse corrections.

To measure improvement in instructional practice, we first had to define effective instruction in Adams 14. In the spring of 2009, Adams 14 adopted a set of research-based teaching practices to set a baseline for high quality instruction in all classrooms. Every teacher receives training and feedback regularly. The baseline Adams 14 teaching practices – adapted from West Ed’s Teach for Success (T4S) – include three main elements:

  • Aligning instruction to the appropriate level of rigor to address the standards as outlined in the District curriculum, and including formative assessment in each lesson to gauge student understanding;
  • Gradually releasing responsibility for learning to students through explicit explanation and modeling (I Do), teacher-led practice (We Do), student independent practice with teacher support and monitoring (You Do) and small group instruction; and
  • Making engagement in learning mandatory for all students through a variety of teacher strategies.

As we have learned through our work with Teach for Success, any question that is important enough to ask one student is important enough to ask all students. With mandatory engagement, teachers instill accountability for learning in every student.

Our strategic plan outlines initiatives for increasing effective instruction, effective use of data to inform instruction and collaboration. Our most important reform thus far has been the implementation of weekly walk-throughs. As a walk-through team leader, I conduct weekly spot observations with two purposes: to measure the state of instruction in all classrooms, and to provide specific, timely and relevant feedback for each teacher observed. I am encouraged that the walk-through process we began in August 2009 is now accepted as standard practice in our district. This didn’t happen overnight, and launching this initiative was difficult; but our latest teacher feedback shows that teachers now understand the process and the purpose of walk-throughs.

To date, student achievement gains lag behind the improvements we have made in teacher practice; however, that does not shake my confidence in the work. And while this type of reform may not be considered revolutionary, we are excited to have long-term strategies in place to ensure consistent, quality instruction.

Realistically, we have just scratched the surface of the comprehensive reform necessary to improve results in our schools, but I am pleased with our instructional improvements thus far.

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