Roundtable: Douglas Reeves — Achieving Equity & Excellence: Immediate Results From the Lessons of High-Poverty, High-Success Schools
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About Douglas Reeves, PhD
Douglas Reeves, PhD is the founder of Creative Leadership Solutions. The author of more than 30 books and 80 articles on leadership and organizational effectiveness, he has worked in all 50 US states and more than 20 countries around the world.
Welcome everyone to the January meeting of the instructional leadership directors roundtable on your host Justin Baeder and I’m honored to be joined today by Dr. Douglas Reeves author of achieving equity and excellence which I have been poring over recently and pulling out some of those as the subtitle says immediate results from the lessons of high poverty high success schools so dr. Reeves welcome to the roundtable. Well thanks very much it’s great to be back with you. Why did you write this book what did you see you know as in terms of the reaction to your previous books which which are many in reaction to the the work and the articles that you’ve been been writing for more than 25 years what brought you to this particular book?
DR: Well there are two things Justin. First of all thanks for hosting me in thanks Heather for joining us and all your other listeners as well I think you know as you know I started this work focusing on high poverty schools that were outside the mainstream that is high poverty high members of ethnic minority groups high members of linguistic minority groups but but that we’re also very successful and you know 25 years ago we thought that they were kind of the outliers and what I found is in that original study that it was not really what they bought it wasn’t their money it wasn’t anything else was a specific set of professional practices in the intervening time to finally get back to your question about why I wrote this is that I wanted to honor the scholarship of many other people who have done similar work I felt to some extent a bit of a voice in the wilderness 25 years ago but I specifically have acknowledged people like Karen Chenoweth Heather Sadowski and many other scholars who have documented even though we’re all working independently similar results and so the reason that I wrote this is that I thought it was so important to say this is no longer a voice in the wilderness this is the preponderance of the evidence this is where many different people coming together are finding very similar results.
JB: and that phrase preponderance of the evidence I recognize from one of the early chapters where where you give us a framework for deciding what kinds of research or what kinds of knowledge to trust and it’s interesting to see actually two chapters devoted to that question of what is our source of knowledge what is our source of expertise when it comes to whether this is possible whether it is possible to get sustained high performance and results even in a high poverty school that doesn’t have all of the you know the advantages of maybe a private school or a wealthier suburban district and you say one of the kind of weakest forms of evidence but probably the one that we rely on most is simply our our personal opinion and then maybe one step up from that our personal experience why does that become a trap why does personal experience in personal opinion become a trap especially for people who have not really seen successful high poverty schools.
DR: well it’s part of what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error we we assume that that what worked for us and our personal experiences can be attributable to everybody else in the whole wide world further we assume that our motives are always sincere and Noble and when everybody else messes up it’s like the Puritans that’s that’s God’s punishment on them but the truth is and not quite that easy I I do respect people’s individual beliefs and experiences but in the research business we call that a sample size of one that is not the sort of thing that you can really generalize to that to the population and so I mean no disrespect to people’s beliefs but what I am I’m requesting is that we also consider what is the evidence broadly say different researchers different locations different scenarios and and I think the evidence in this book is pretty strong that a lot of the things that people traditionally say well gee if they’re poor if their parents are not well educated then they’re just stuck I recognize that is true for some students but it’s simply not true for all because there’s too many cases of high poverty schools doing well as a result of great teaching and great.
JB: leadership but I think we need to recognize absolutely and you know that kind of to level three in your levels of educational research and that is collective experience and you know the evidence is there as you mentioned from your own work and from Karen Chenoweth’s work and and of course you know organizations like uncommon schools you know there are many examples of excellence in high poverty schools but when we think about our collective experience often if we’re working and I started my career in a high poverty middle school and probably the lowest performing high high poverty middle school not the only high poverty middle school but certainly you know there was variation within a demographic band there was a variation in school performance within you know the same same demographics so that’s that’s definitely something to keep in mind but you know if I looked at our collective experience as a faculty if I looked at my colleague next door if I looked at my colleagues down the hall the collective experience that we had and I think the collective experience that that probably the majority of people who work in high poverty schools or who have worked with high poverty schools is that as much as we would like it not to be the case demography seems to be destiny you know that if you come from a poor zip code if you if you don’t have the family advantages of wealth and real estate and opportunity that there’s this direct relationship between you know parental wealth parental education parental assets and student achievement and and if I understand what you’re saying correctly like that’s that’s an illusion or a thinking error to say that just because I personally and the people immediately around me have experienced that that direct and kind of causal relationship between poverty and low achievement that we generalize that we say that it has to be that way
DR: I think it’s a really thoughtful insight Justin it is and it is confusing cause and effect for example if I’m used to for the last 20 years being in a school their home environment poverty and that sort of thing he’s associated with low achievement I assume that the former caused the latter whereas what I found in the schools that I studied is actually the causality is the other direction if I start with low expectations because the kids are poor because they can’t do it a wonderful new study from the new teachers project I probably read showed that kids that are getting A’s and B’s in secondary school only 17% were even asked to do grade level work so the variable wasn’t poverty the variable was the expectations that the schools and the teachers had and they’re rewarding with honor roll grades terrible work it is not on grade level because we think well gee that’s just the best they can do bless their heart anyway so my respectful suggestion is let’s rethink causality it’s not from poverty to low achievement but it is rather from low expectations to low achievement that’s the causal direction.
JB: It’s very interesting you say that I was interviewing dr. Tracy Benson yesterday a professor at the University of North Carolina who did his dissertation work at Harvard graduate school with Sarah Fireman and they were talking about implicit bias the book was about implicit racial bias and obviously we think about discipline as a source of you know as a nexus of racial bias and disproportionality but one of the first examples that he pointed to in our interview was low expectations and not by giving lower grades but by giving higher grades for non grade-level work and I and it took me aback for a second because you know I realized that like that that that focus on standards and that focus on doing grade level work is absolutely critical to the achievement that we’re trying to get like we don’t do students any favors by somewhat grading on a curve for poverty.
DR: So it’s not as bad as all that it’s actually worse and here’s the evidence in a study that I did it isn’t just that poor kids wind up getting high grades from the work but I analyzed in specifically in specific rather 9th and 10th grade students who had failed literacy and math exams and yet were on the enroll they were disproportionately members of ethnic minorities and they were disproportionately girls and I say this would be perspective maybe some of you have read my article called cheating our daughters but our daughters get rewarded for being quiet for being compliant for getting along not for doing great level work and in particularly affects our daughters who are members of ethnic and linguistic minorities and uh and we do them no favors in Florida for example there was just a study published this year this week rather in Florida seventy percent of incoming college students need remedial classes and in when they have to take those remedial classes it doesn’t count for graduation they don’t get financial aid for it so we are killing these secondary school students with high grades for low-level work.
JB: so I wonder if we could talk about the the gap between the you know the the confidence that you express in this book that we can succeed and and help students achieve high levels of academic success according to rigorous standards regardless of their level of poverty how do we square that with the just the commonplace observation that the more resources the more advantages the more assets students start with you know the the larger the vocabulary the more they’ve read and been read to prior to school how do we square that with just the the gap in advantage that students start with?
DR: so so that is a very fair question and and I take a very different point of view than some of my friends who also advocate for high poverty students I have no resentment toward rich kids what I want to do is learn from them so what does a rich kid get a rich kid probably was read to in the womb a rich kid by the time they came to kindergarten had five years of literacy instruction a rich kid may still struggle reading but if they go to a $50,000 a year private school nobody says sink or swim kid you should have had that earlier they say oh my god what are we gonna do this kids rich will give them intervention will give them support will do whatever they need so seriously what I mean is if we taught poor kids the same way that we teach rich kids which is the assumption that they will always succeed they’ll always be okay and that they deserve it because they’re rich that’s what we must do for poor kids as moreover when it comes to rich kids with all the extra years as you suggest an early childhood in infancy that they why in the world wouldn’t we give them the extra support that they need later on so to be really precise about this if a rich kid is getting all this stimulus in terms of of reading and literacy and and all these other opportunities outside of school why would we think that a 60 Minutes for a 90 minute literacy Block in school is enough rich kids get more than that why wouldn’t we give that to all of our kids so I I harbor no resentment toward toward those kids I just want to learn from them and then replicate but our wealthy advantaged kids get in every other school that I see.
JB: Yeah that’s it’s a very different philosophy and I’m sure people you get very shocked reactions from people when you talk about that that $50,000 a year school and the advantages that that brings but you know if we look at what specifically is being done to make a difference for you know for kids you know I think often about my own kids who are in elementary school now and I I will say despite my my background as an educator I’m not a literacy expert I definitely did not you know use any esoteric literacy knowledge to you know to help my kids learn to read and certainly their kindergarten first grade teachers deserve all the credit for that but seeing what has actually allowed them to start reading far above grade level it was fairly simple and a lot of it comes down to time you know they read for several hours a day I’ll brag a little bit we’re a small group here so I’ll brag a little bit my daughter won the County Spelling Bee and I overheard one of her friends mom’s telling her you know you studied the words yes but Vivienne is reading novels every week like that is that is what it adds up to and it’s like that was not expensive right that was not something that is only available to people who go to private school you know our kids go to public school they they check books out of the library and read them and I think one of the the messages that we take away from from your research is that these are accessible strategies we don’t have to go and spend a fortune on some program that was specifically designed for high poverty schools to do some sort of some sort of magic with with high poverty schools.
DR: Well Justin I really appreciate you mentioning that because I sometimes my research has been misinterpreted to have people say well gee Doug is thinking that poverty doesn’t matter of course poverty matters food insecurity matters sleep deprivation matters all these things really matter all I’m trying to say is is that it’s not determinative and with respect to the money issue look I will always argue for more money for schools to pay teachers they have safe and secure facilities and so on the problem is there are really dysfunctional unhealthy schools that have a lot of money that I have twenty five thirty thousand dollars per pupil allocations and they’re still failing so money is part of the equation but it’s not sufficient and that’s that’s all I’m trying to say and in fact sometimes again bearing in mind I will always argue for resources for you money can be a curse what I’ve seen in my other research that I talked about briefly in this book he is the lack of focus every time a new grant comes in every time more funding title one state funding and so on come in people buy another program and so I see and I’m not exaggerating here not just 20 or 30 60 or 70 programs in a single school and the teachers are just buried in initiatives so yes I’ll advocate for resources but we got to spend those resources in a focused way that allow teachers to to really give our students what they need the last thing I’ll say is that money is one resource time is the other one and so it’s interesting to me how rich kids schools to come back to the to our conversation spend more time than poor kids school school I’m astounded that in some of these poor schools a kid might have a nine period day and the same number of hours a rich kid will have five periods that is they’re getting almost twice as much time per period in a rich school than as a poor school and I want to make sure that our students are getting both the money and the time that they need.
JB: Well and I think that time issue shows up in a couple of places one of course is instructional time and and the time for deep work but I also see that in that difference in the time for adults to succeed with any change initiatives and and we work with one private school in the Toronto area that’s been highly successful for generations very very expensive school and I’ll periodically check in with my contact there hey what you guys up to what are you working on that’s new and usually the answer is we’re not working on anything that’s new you know and it’s interesting you know and and we think well that’s because they don’t have urgency and I think well no it’s it’s not because they don’t have urgency it’s because they have focus like those are two ways of looking at that that lead to very different conclusions and I think certainly remembering my time working as a teacher in a high poverty school you know the the lack of focus definitely was part of what ran people ragged and led to you know fairly high turnover and just the lack of you know are we gonna be doing the same thing tomorrow much less next semester or next year well
DR: So Justin you just mentioned something that also particularly since we’re gonna have a lot of leaders watching this that’s part of the issue of cause and effect rather than assuming that the clause promote student achievement and high poverty schools is the student characteristics or their family characteristics what you just said about turnover that’s the cost turnover of of administrators for example in high poverty schools is almost five times greater than leadership turnover in low poverty schools the same is true of teachers often times and I say this with affection and respect to my Union colleagues but if you’ve got a union bargaining agreement that says with more seniority you can move farther and farther away from a high poverty school what does that mean for your system that the highest poverty school always has the newest least experienced teachers and that’s not fair but my where I hope I can find common ground with my union friends is let’s provide financial incentives let’s provide extra time let’s provide a few support so that our very best and most experienced people are willing to incentivize to remain in a high poverty school.
JB: Yeah I think if we could cut turn over to the the level that turnover II in a you know in a wealthier school or in a you know more middle-class school I think that alone would would do so much and there’s a there’s a particular quote that you had you know we can get grants for lots of new programs you know we can always get a grant to start an initiative but Amy now we’re both reading last night she was reading a novel and I interrupted here to share this quote from your book where you said something along the lines of nobody will give you a grant to stop doing something that they don’t have that right?
DR: yeah I think
JB:I think that was the quote I don’t have it in front of me but you know basically this idea that the the urgency is always around doing something new doing more and never around doing less with more focus I think our colleague Mike Schmoker deserves some credit for his book results now in his book focus and into really calling a you know calling attention to that the power of focus but you know in your paradigm of kind of looking at what the you know what wealthy schools do and what the most successful schools that work with high poverty students do that you know that isn’t that as definitely their that focus and that sustained attention on a small number of priorities which we should get into the priorities that you talked about in the book.
DR: I just want to appreciate the fact that you mentioned Mike Schmoker interestingly yeah I’m Mike and I have been friends for many many years and we were actually neighbors in Colorado and and we both published what one focus Mike’s book focused with ascd and in my focus at Columbia University Teachers College finding your leadership focus focus were published within days of each other and we were both came to astonishingly similar conclusions that that focus in my book Michael Fuller wrote the introduction six or fewer priorities is really the hallmark of successful schools so thanks for mentioning Mike you also mentioned uncommon schools and I didn’t want to let the opportunity go by to a fail to recognize Paul Bambrick-Santoyo who has written splendid new books on that as well so I I really am trying my best to recognize other scholars and not make this the Doug Reeves show but recognize people like Mike and Paul Heather and Kristen and Karen as yeah well.
JB: it reminds me of the the invention or the discovery however you want to put it of calculus right there was there was a parallel discovery around the same time was it Newton and Leibniz
DR: On the shoulders of giants.
JB: But you know like working separately came to the same conclusions and came to the same discovery of the tools that were necessary for you know for solving particular problems that were widespread but that you know the solutions did not exist you know when you see that the same discovery has been made independently in multiple places such as the this discovery around focus I think that that tells us something powerful and that it’s not just you know I think we always have a tendency to do something and then feel proud of it and then try to generalize it and say well we’ve discovered the secret that everybody should use everywhere but when you see it actually popping up independently in in different places it’s a strong form of evidence so in the in the book you describe a three-column approach to looking at factors that we cannot control our influence factors that we maybe can influence but not directly control and factors that we can control things that are under our control as educators. What do you think is happening or what do you what do you think we lose when we fail to distinguish between those three categories of factors?
DR: well I I think just at the heart of your question is is a really thoughtful analysis of what evidence he needs unfortunately a lot of people are talking about efficacy these days you know certainly John Hattie has found efficacy to be very powerful Robert Marzano is latest meta-analysis efficacy powerful the problem is we don’t operationalize what this efficacy mean in efficacy is this bone-deep belief that what we do influence the student achievement but the problem is you don’t achieve efficacy with this kind of inspirational song and dance you achieve efficacy rather with as you suggested this three column approach hey there’s stuff I can’t control it’s three o’clock in the kids are awake on the internet checking their likes and dislikes I can’t control that they have access to alcohol tobacco guns drugs I can’t control that so that’s that’s this pile over here stuff I can’t control but there’s also this middle pile things like attendance things like tardiness which I think people used to think we can’t control and maybe they can’t control it but we can’t influence it because I’ve seen too much evidence that things like attendance parental engagement tardiness can be influenced by what we do and then over here in this column is stuff we absolutely control and that is stuff like like relationships with students like effective instruction like checks for understanding like good assessment like fair and accurate feedback that’s stuff we absolutely control so so we got got these three piles I can’t control I can influence and I do control efficacy is all about the right hand column is there more stuff that I influence and control than what I can’t control or influence that’s all it is in in so I sorry for the little mini lecture here but but all I’m trying to say is is don’t give your teachers a lecture about efficacy ask them instead what causes student achievement and then put those causes in three piles I can’t control it or influence it I could influence can’t control it and I can absolutely control it and then look at how much paper is in those three piles an efficacious school has all the paper you know eighty ninety percent of it in the I can control it or I can influence it.
JB: I was thinking about a book that I read last year that that made quite a splash I called the knowledge gap I don’t know if you saw that by Natalie Wexler appeared in the Atlantic and there are pieces published all over and and knowledge
Natalie Wexler argues really is the the thing that other knowledge sticks to write the the knowledge is cumulative and I think that’s represented in Bloom’s taxonomy and you know we’ve have known that in the technical literature for a long time that knowledge sticks to other knowledge that accessing students prior knowledge is a big deal and it seems to me that one of the one of the factor it’s one of the factors that makes closing the gap harder you know when you have students who start on third base so to speak they’ve been read to they’ve been exposed to National Geographic they have all this content knowledge they have all this understanding of the world and vocabulary and and that to me seems to be one of the harder gaps to close you know when when some students are reading a couple million words a year other students are reading very minimally what do you see as our opportunity you know what’s in our either we can control or we can influence knowing that what students have read prior to kindergarten or what students are reading outside of school maybe maybe less under our control what do you what do you see on the knowledge front there okay
DR: This is so yeah that’s a big big question that I want to unpack what several different levels first of all yes I respect Natalie Wexler’s work and I want to kind of amplify on that before I get to the big part of your question I think she’s got it half right which is the the background knowledge contributes absolutely to reading comprehension and to student success the scholar to read in my judgment on this is is Daniel Willingham who’s got a wonderful blog and I and I really recommend professor Willingham University of Virginia’s work on this or I think Miss Wexler is maybe wrong is attributing all this to charter schools that that’s a piece of the action it’s not all of the action the label if we’ve learned anything of a school doesn’t matter it’s the practices that really matter so put that aside I just don’t want your listeners who have one strong opinion or the other on this to be put off let’s instead of accepting or rejecting a scholar say here’s four they’re right and I hope they’ll probably say the same thing about me here’s four Doug’s right here’s one that’s wrong I really respect the fact that she acknowledges background knowledge is important I would disagree with her on some other things similarly another scholar that she cites Robert Pondiscio fabulous in this great book how the other half learns and I think he’s so honest in so forthright witnessed the fact that he’s been criticized by every side of the educational debate that tells me that you’re doing something right so shout out to Robert. Now back to the issue of of all the prior knowledge you’re right I can’t control what happened in the previous five years but what I can do is to say what do i what do I do to level the playing field so so one of the things you mentioned you know your children as mine did literally we can’t have a breakfast table conversation because they can barely get a spoon in their mouth because there’s a book like this I love that you know I’m never upset about that they’re reading all the time as I’m sure your kids do as well but a lot of kids who come from a home that doesn’t have any books in it don’t get that so instead of complaining about it that to me suggests what do we do during the school day to get them more opportunities for literacy and and I want to be really specific about this if you’re only having kids read 60 or 90 minutes a day and you know that they’ve got a literacy deficit that is the hundreds of hours maybe thousands of hours before they came to you why would you settle for 30 90 60 minutes a day moreover it’s not just about reading it’s about writing as well writing in response to text and finally here’s the thing that I just saw this week Justin that that really bugs me kids have got the headphones on and they’re being read to like they were three years old instead of learning to read and so technology is not always your friend here we got to make sure that our students really are reading and not just zoning out in in silent reading time. I have a article that I wrote that some of your listeners may may be interested in called rethinking sustained silent reading that frankly is in my judgment oftentimes sustained silent sitting there not really reading and so we if we want to close that literacy gap you need more time and you need more focus.
JB: Time and focus again yeah so I was thinking about that I was pondering that issue a little bit and I drew myself a little you know factors I can control factors I can influence and factors I can’t control chart for this this particular issue as you as you recommended and obviously students prior background knowledge prior experience reading their vocabulary when they start with us is something that we can’t control but you know it’s it’s always interesting to me to hear people say well our kids just don’t have the background knowledge they just don’t have the vocabulary I think we’ll wait a minute which which column does that go in if we’re teaching a unit we you know we’re we’re introducing a concept we have some big ideas for for a unit I mean obviously what is the first thing that we’ve always known we need to do and that is explicitly teach the vocabulary and help students you know master that vocabulary and not just act as you know as you as you indicated earlier and I think you say in the book you know like well you should have you should have learned that before you got here you know like what what sense does that make to say well they don’t have the vocabulary they don’t have the background knowledge like that is our that is our job and we know it’s something that we can do we know for a fact that we can teach vocabulary we can teach background knowledge
DR: Well it’s just not I just want to make sure that that we add a morale issue here that is affecting a lot of your listeners this is not when we talk about vocabulary for example that’s not just an ela issue I watched a masterful science teacher in a 100% poverty school this week explicitly linked vocabulary from one lesson to the next from one subject to the next yo you probably heard about this in social studies you probably heard about this in English and we’ve really complex vocabulary into a science class and and I’ve seen our ESL schools linked vocabulary vivid visual imagery and so my request for listeners is please for goodness sake don’t put this in the back of the teachers and tested grades in tested subjects all of us own this art in music and science and social studies and yes LA and math I know I know those the people who feel under the microscope but all of us on this the other thing just as a footnote on vocabulary development is we got to start early I mean great schools that I was studying in this book are all about what do we do in kindergarten in pre-k shout out by the way to the University of Washington in University of Pennsylvania for an amazing study of the lifelong impact of early childhood development when we do early childhood pre-k and K well if not only these scholars said influenced how those kids did in 4th grade in eighth grade it influenced how their own children did 30 years later and so we got to make sure that even though it as leaders I’m talking to you board members superintendents who are watching this broadcast if you leave out kindergarten in pre-k from your accountability report you’re leaving out some of the most important things that we do does that’ll have literally a multi-decade influence.
JB: Absolutely and I think about the the importance of universal pre-k and how Oklahoma of all states which has some of the most dismal funding at the moment for education you know we have huge problems with with teacher recruitment and retention in Oklahoma because the the salaries are so low and a lot of these stories about teachers taking weekend jobs at Home Depot are coming out of Oklahoma because the salary source like they just do not have the money in public education but one thing that I don’t want to say it’s an accident of history but because it was very intentional but one thing Oklahoma has been very strong in is universal pre-k and that’s that’s one of those things that maybe as individuals we might not be able to pull off but it’s an example of how when we take responsibility for what we can influence what we can control you know I might not be able to control how much parents read to their kids from from birth to age 5 but we can do pre-k at least it with the sufficient level of the of political will we can.
DR: And just one footnote from these scholars and I’m terribly embarrassed I can’t remember the names the authors University of Washington in a pen but nevertheless please give them credit for this not me it’s not just big here pre-k and kindergarten and what I do want to acknowledge that I can the Scholars on is Glenn Maleyko in in Jill Chochol in Dearborn Michigan we’re in the same school you can see kindergarteners writing sentences and there’s other places that I go or they’ll say oh gee that’s not developmentally appropriate matter near born where that were its high poverty high second language kindergarteners writing sentences so it really is all about our expectations things that you can do
JB: yeah that you mentioned writing I think is a great excuse to get into some of the specific strategies and you know which make up kind of the center of the the book here so you talked about a number of specific instructional strategies so you talked about collaborative scoring nonfiction writing and data analysis and formative assessment which I want to make sure we talk about each of those three in particular but again back to to refer to our colleague Mike Schmoker who talks about the importance of this why is nonfiction writing so critical?
DR: so this is interesting in in thanks for letting me again acknowledge not just my work but somebody else is working this Steven Graham and now at Arizona State formerly at Vanderbilt has written masterfully about this what what I originally documented was the relationship between nonfiction writing and increased scores in math science social studies and in my original work said that the hypothesis is gosh if you spend time in writing and during math science and social studies I don’t have time to cover the curriculum so my scores are gonna go down and the truth is that when I looked at the actual data the teachers in math science social studies who spent more time in writing had scores go up it was exactly the opposite of what their hypothesis was so so writing King says is thinking through the end of a pen now why nonfiction versus fiction what I specifically compared in this research were schools that had identical demographic characteristics high poverty high minority high ESL populations and what kind of writing were they doing the low performers were doing fantasy fiction high cues you know poetry hey I’m all for haiku is a poetry people please don’t send me angry emails you can have all the haikus you want but writing to describe ready to compare ready to evaluate one of the things you see in a lot of state tests claim evidence reasoning this is not just by the way k12 i’m helping universities these days we do their stat classes to say how can i look at an advertisement in education week in ED leadership in the wall street journal you know wherever it happens to be how can i look at an ad and say is the claim supported by the evidence that’s the kind of critical reasoning i want all of our students and frankly all of our graduate students to have as well so so that’s Justin why I think nonfiction writing is particularly important and that does not in any way diminish my appreciation for fiction and for literature but I want students to write to show that show they’re thinking
JB: Yeah I mean it really seems like a direct window into student thinking student reasoning and then thinking about my background as a science teacher a window into misconceptions you know misconceptions are a huge part of rigorous science instruction because if you know if you’re if you’re just talking generally about a topic and you’re not getting into what students misconceptions are you know some of the the details of how a system works in the human body or how a system works in the cell or how plate tectonics work in in earth science like if we’re not accessing students prior knowledge and understanding their misconceptions we’re going to waste a lot of time teaching and I think you talked about this a little bit in the the section on PLC’s which are the first strategy talk about where we don’t really spend very much time figuring out what students already know and what we’re going to do with that right.
DR: I don’t want to lose the opportunity it’s a science teacher for you and a math teacher for me know to to not acknowledge our listeners who are thinking wait a minute how does a science teacher how does the math teacher do writing and I and I don’t you know shoot I written 39 books but there’s a lot about writing that I don’t understand my English language arts colleagues do so the best thing that I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks and I’ll see if I can get this in screen here okay it’s this big I saw a science writing rubric that was literally two inches tall like that so they weren’t asking the science guys to do voice but what they were asking for is don’t just settle for filling in the blank don’t settle for a worksheet right the lab report explained your conclusions tell me how the conclusion stems from the evidence that’s the sort of thing that in mind geometric proofs and they’re just in science classes but they need to need to be able to do so look let’s make clear that we we get writing established whether whatever the subject is not of us believe elaborate five paragraph essay but in something that that is better than a worksheet and too many people are defaulting to worksheets so sorry for that little diversion but I thought it was really important that for our science and math teachers who are watching
JB: Well I think it’s a perfect parallel to our work as instructional leaders because honestly you know and I primarily spend my time thinking about instructional leadership teacher evaluation teacher observations feedback conversations and we kind of do the worksheet thing with teachers as well or for ourselves we you know as instructional leaders often the task we give ourselves is to go into a classroom with a worksheet and fill it out about the teacher and my analysis of what that gives us is that it gives us something that is fairly high inference and fairly low evidence and I and I always am you know admonishing people to think you know if you want to change teacher practice write it as an instructional leader you you want to get into classrooms and change teacher practice you have to understand you have to know and access the teachers thinking right like practice does not change without thinking changing and if I’m just going in and filling out a worksheet or a walkthrough forum or whatever about the teacher I’m not really getting evidence of the teachers thinking so I don’t really know what my job is in helping change that teachers practice because I’m not even sure what thinking is behind that practice and that’s that to me is really where where practice lives is in thinking and to hear that we do the same thing with students and fail to access their thinking in the form of writing and we instead give them worksheets where they fill in the blank the blanks like that to me is a clarion call to align both what we do as instructional leaders and what we have teachers to do with students around that first-hand evidence that comes through I can certainly come through conversation you know and I absolutely recommend that administrators have conversations with teachers ask questions you know get their insights and explanations of their thinking and then certainly in writing as well we see that with with student learning and misconceptions and their their current understanding .
DR: Yeah so so I just want to highlight what you said a minute ago about asking students I’m I want to encourage our so we have a lot of assistant principals and principals watching here be careful about the way that you do observations too often the model that maybe we had as teachers is the administrator all dressed sits in the back of the you know classroom like this and we’re watching don’t do that what dico more at Harvard says is look down don’t don’t watch the performance by the teacher they’re there already for you every preachers got a great sermon right there they’re all ready for you there look down see what what I was do is I sit with the kids and I ask two very non sophisticated questions question number one what are we doing question number two what comes next this is not a big worksheet to fill out right it’s it’s not this giant 30 page you know evaluation form just what are we doing what comes next and if a student could tell you that then you know that they’re on task and they know that there’s not a minute of downtime and if they can’t I don’t care how great the lesson plan looks I don’t care how great the performance by the teacher is if they can’t tell you what are we doing then what comes next you’ve got a problem so seriously let’s make sure that we have our observations down to those essential questions
JB: Absolutely and then I love the the opportunity that you know non-fiction writing gives us to to look at that evidence after the fact you know and not just not just collected anecdotally as we’re in the classroom which certainly is valuable in its own way but to actually take that student writing and use it to plan instruction to identify gaps that we need to close with our teaching and and one of the the practices that that you identify in chapter 5 of the book is collaborative scoring and I would love to have you have you take us into that but I just have to share a personal recollection from being a principal I remember sitting in second grade team meetings when I was a principal we had an extremely strong second grade team that would give periodic writing prompts and they they had a you know particular prompt that they would give at different times of the year and they would you know flip the cover page or put a post-it note over the name they’d shuffle they’d mix them all up they would score each other’s they would have covered the score pass it to the left and then someone else would score that same paper and then like basically their entire PLC was talking about those scores you know what did you see in this paper I gave it a different score than you did and by the way we don’t even know what student we’re talking about yet so there’s there’s you know we’re looking for a very specific set of things we have a rubric and then we’re constantly calibrating our assessment of that work and then ultimately figuring out what to do about what we’re seeing so I just have to say I can’t take credit for what that team was doing but I witnessed it and there was a there was a magic and a power to it so so take us into that a little bit what is collaborative scoring why does it work so well.
DR: I’m smiling so broadly because there are several things that you said that just resonated with me so much number one the fact that we disagree and we always will we’re professionals what we disagree about things but the hallmark phrase that I use these scoring sessions as you described is the enemy is not each other the enemy is ambiguity if you think it’s a four word I think it’s a two that’s not because you went to a better college than I did although you probably did it’s rather that the the rubric is ambiguous and I and what we have to do is to make sure that we that we resolve the ambiguity when the ambiguity is not you against me the ambiguity is this inanimate object over here scoring guide or the rubric so that’s number one number two I really appreciated what you said about teachers kind of gaining momentum one of the things I’ve done so to the leaders watching this broadcast consider doing I certainly timed how fast people got and it was great so I have two graphs what is what’s the level of agreement and it goes from like 20 percent 30 percent 90 percent 95 percent never 100 but it’s pretty darn good so so the agreement gets higher but the other thing that a graph that I concealed was speed and the time it took to reach consensus got shorter and shorter and shorter man when was the last time you had a staff development meeting where you could say I’m gonna improve quality but I will save you time teachers resent the fact that that they don’t have enough time they got too much time too much to do and not enough time if we can approach them and saying this process of collaborative scoring is as you just said just now will save you time and that is the hook that I think teachers really respect and appreciate.
JB: You know the the recapturing of time that you know that’s being spent anyway I think yeah absolutely so in that scoring you know and when we have you know we we have standards that were working toward we have you know shared criteria help us think about the the formative assessment system that this is part of because you talked about in Chapter 7 using frequent formative assessment with multiple opportunities for success so how does the the collaborative scoring relate to that that frequent formative assessment practice?
DR:So I want to offer your listeners a consumer warning here there’s a lot of stuff being called formative assessment that is what I have described in another book that I wrote called uninformative assessment right it it’s teacher say you know thank goodness that’s over now we can go back to what we were doing that’s not formative it’s only formative if it informs teaching and learning so be really clear about this a lot of things called formative assessment publishers are trying to sell you stuff and I hope that everybody knows I’m not aligned with any publisher I’m completely independent people are trying to sell you stuff that is called that is not formative so it’s only formative if it informs teaching and learning so that’s kind of big idea number one big idea number two is sorry you don’t have to sample every Content domain what you want to be able to do is to say how are things that that I can learn about what will help me next week so some formative assessments are literally 40 and 50 items friends you don’t need that four or five items a few things on what’s most important that you can grade the same day you can give students feedback immediately that’s what effective formative assessment is so III didn’t mean to go into a big diatribe here but but I worry about the term formative assessments being misused it’s short its immediate and most importantly it informs me informs me as a teacher what what helps me inform teaching and learning.
JB: yeah and I think I think there are some critical distinctions there that that we often do lose because the you know the the pressure I don’t want to say pressure but you know the the amount that we get from our test vendors often causes us to pay attention to what the test vendors are giving us and not what we might need to make ourselves you know nobody is coming into our school with money that we’ve spent on them to make us you know to give these kind of curriculum based assessments the you know the the pattern that I’ve seen with some of the the more commercial assessments is you know stepping away from those curriculum based and standards-based and mastery based formative assessments and toward things that are useful but in a different way and I want to give a particular example that I’m that I hear a lot about that I experienced a great deal of as a principal but I think have some misconceptions around and that is the map assessment from NWEA which is a criterion or excuse me a norm-referenced assessment it’s often given three times a year in elementary and even middle schools and it’s one of the few things that both I experienced as a principal and my own kids experience as students years and years later and I think it’s a very high quality assessment for what it does if you know it is a norm-referenced test and you get a rich score that tells you where your kid is relative you know where each student is relative to the the norm for their grade level but of course and this is a common complaint of teachers you don’t get to see the items as an educator as a teacher you don’t see the items and it’s not aligned to you know the unit that you’re teaching right now it’s aligned to important content I don’t think anybody argues that but it’s not aligned to what you’re teaching so so what what’s your thought on that and what gaps does that leave that we need to fill in terms of formative assessment that is linked to our curriculum and our standards
DR: So Justin you’ve nailed the essence of the issue and that is there’s always trade-off I understand and respect the fact that test vendors whether nwea or for that matter the a CT and the SAT they want to have security over their items so that’s why they they don’t disclose them the problem is if you don’t have that kind of disclosure you lose the link between the the test item and the curriculum did the student miss it because I was a bad teacher because the directions were ambiguous because maybe the item wasn’t related to the curriculum that I taught so there’s all these things that remain so all I see is math low reading high that doesn’t tell me anything about how to improve as a teacher so back to what I said earlier about formative assessment it’s only formative if it informs teaching and learning let’s me be a better teacher let’s my students be better learners and so here’s my consumer advice to our leaders and policy makers who are watching this don’t buy stuff that is not transparent if teachers can’t say if that means excuse me if that means that we create them ourselves so that the assessment items are open and transparent great so what what’s the trade-off you lose some item security I think that’s a potential loss but honestly not that big of one the gain in terms of how does it help me inform teaching and learning is much greater so I I’m not trying to take potshots at SAT, ACT, NWEA or anybody else I’m just saying that that their concerns about test security I think are overwhelmed by my concern about teaching and learning how do i how do i as a leader as a teacher use these data to better inform my practice
JB: yeah and you know if this strikes me as a as a teacher you know the I think there’s been a good a good effort among educators to recognize and respond to the fact that like it’s if a question can be memorized or googled you know there was a lot of concern maybe five years ago about students googling the answers to their homework when that became kind of broadly feasible when students universally started to have smartphones at the secondary level you know and some some leading educators started to say well wait a minute maybe if you can google the answers to your homework maybe it’s not very good homework you know maybe we need to you know if we have to keep it secret for it to be useful maybe we need to look at you know the kinds of tasks were giving students so that it’s it’s not homework that you can cheat on it’s you know it’s an assignment that I want you to know what you will be asked to do on the test you know the test is not locked in a vault I will tell you what’s gonna be on the test you’re gonna have to write an essay or there’s some opportunities there.
DR: so Justin you were inspiring me to brag on to great teachers that I so admire I’m just in their fan club one in San Bernardino California Michael Dahl another one happens to be in in Lima Ohio these are both very high poverty systems and in contrast to our stereotype of the students sullenly sitting in their places either going through homework or listening to a boring lecture on why the quadratic equation will make them wealthy and successful in life what they’re doing instead is they were all 100% out of the chairs doing the work in the board correcting each other’s work getting real-time support that’s what great homework is my principal Mr. Robinson used to tell me that homework has nothing to do with the word home and and I love these two teachers in in different parts of the country in very high poverty systems but they they had the homework done where it really mattered on the wall right in front of the teachers writing for their peers you know I just don’t wanna miss the opportunity to tell these teachers in both Lima and San Bernadino you know how much I respect and appreciate their work.
JB: And it’s funny you mention that because I referenced the elite private school in Toronto that had that sustained focus for years and years and that was one of their sustained focuses the the board writing especially in math to to solve those problems publicly and to get feedback and you know prompt discussion so again it’s interesting to see the same things popping up independently being in different places um so as we start to run out of time here I wanted to make sure we asked asked about an accountability system which you have the the fourth section of the book is on accountability is learning system system level accountability give us some some you know kind of kind of key thinking points for a topic.
DR: So I want to acknowledge for our United States listeners we’re governed by ESSA, the every student succeeds act for our Canadian you know the listeners I realize that every province it’s got its own jurisdiction with respect to accountability but nevertheless if I’ve learned anything from the North American continent and abroad it is that nobody no country in the world does the satisfactory job of saying what is the world what what is the word accountability really mean and so I’m asking you as leaders to say let us redefine them and what I tried to say this book is most systems around the world focus on effects test scores attendance discipline what I’m asking you to consider is to focus on causes teaching leadership parental engagement in other words what do we do that we own that we take responsibility for so maybe the best illustration I can offer for your consideration is what I’ve called the science fair now we all know what a science fair looks like you probably had them in in third and fourth grade with but but in this science fair there’s no red and purple ribbons okay just plain a display over my challenges or my interventions or my effects that is my results so challenge intervention results that kind of science fair display is what really good accountability looks like in other words it’s the difference between accountability as a Gacha system so here’s gonna be your your rating in your rank and your in your brand that will stay on you to humiliate people or accountability as a learning system here’s what we learned about the relationship between a challenge and intervention your results I’m an advocate for accountability to be learning and that’s I say with deep respect to all of our ministers of Education and policymakers who are watching here I I want to respectfully request you rethink this it’s not about labeling it’s all about learning
JB: well and I love the the role of it that you’re essentially casting system-level leaders in there as kind of organizational scientists right as chief scientists of practice you know and looking at the evidence looking at the the practice that is being employed and looking at the results that’s getting and leading continual cycles of inquiry I think we’re so quick to look at data we’re so quick to look at our numbers but it takes courage to look at practice and to look at first-hand evidence and look at student work and talk with students about what they’re learning and to talk with teachers about what they’re doing but I think we get the most out of that and I have to do a little internal commercial here so for our members of the instructional leadership directors Roundtable one program if you remember that you have access to is the organizational learning intensive so you will find that in your member dashboard and I strongly encourage you to go through that whenever you’re about and a new initiative whenever you on board a new cabinet member maybe you have you’re hiring an assistant superintendent have them go through that and get that that vocabulary and that scientific way of thinking about change because you know obviously we want data we want to use our data in smart ways but we also want to make sure that we are using the other evidence that’s available to us especially the qualitative evidence about what people are actually doing what people are thinking about their work and how that’s impacting students I think that in that firsthand qualitative evidence really got short shrift in a lot of our fervor over quantitative data which which has its place but it doesn’t give us the whole story so just wanted to make an internal kind of a cross-promotion there for something you already have if you’re a member because what Dr. Reeves is saying here is you know is essentially that we do need to be that that chief scientist for the the organization if the organization itself is going to continue to learn and get smarter and get better at what it is that we’re here to do. So I think we are out of time today and Dr. Reeves I just want to thank you again for for spending this time for for being here to to talk about your work and I certainly want to encourage people to to check out the book achieving equity and excellence and I have to say one of the things I love about this book is that you know as it says in Ecclesiastes there is nothing new under the sun you know there is nothing in this book that you invented two months ago I don’t think but it just the clarity and the you know as you said the preponderance of the evidence and the the you know increasingly sharp focus on what we need to do I think is much needed so you know I think it would be a mistake for someone to say well nonfiction writing I’ve already heard about that I read about that ten years ago you know that in some ways that’s kind of the point isn’t it I don’t know what’s what’s your thought on that nothing new under the sun aspect?
DR:As I said just two quick things that number one you’re right it’s we are famous in education for always going after the shiny new object what’s the new new thing when in fact what you want to say is what are the things that have endured over the course of time and and I think that endurance is one of the things that is really important for our listeners to consider I’ve attempted the second thing is my favorite graduate school a professor always said that she would read students work backwards that is start with the reference list so this is absolutely not about me this is about the preponderance of the evidence about other researchers that I’ve tried to acknowledge so yeah you know I’ve tried to be a pebble on the mountain of research here but look at the mountain don’t look at my pebble look at the mountain of all the research that’s there it says we can succeed in high poverty schools that non-fiction writing is effective you know the last book that Rick and Becky DuFour wrote before they passed away they co-wrote with me called responding to the ESSA with professional learning communities you know these are things that are not new that are the preponderance the evidence over time and it’s not just me it’s multiple scholars so I’m not asking anybody to read this book because I wrote it I’m asking you to look at the reference list and see what everybody else has done.
JB: Very well said well Dr. Reeves once again thank you for for joining us thank you for your time today if people want to get in touch with you and and see what you’re up to and and maybe reach out about doing some work together where’s the best place for them to find you online
DR:so to be clear the lots of free stuff it’s all that creativeleadership.net so creative leadership that you’ll find free videos articles and just if you don’t mind there’s a couple of new volunteer projects that I’ve got that I’d like to highlight as well also free I’m not well many of your listeners may be working on a dissertation so I have a group that I started in a church basement in Boston called finishthedissertation.org finished the dissertation at org I started it because 69 percent of graduate students never finished their dissertation we have helped them for the last six years cross the finish line you don’t have to be their own boss we have students on six continents all over the world finishthedissertation.org and then the newest one is called the Marsh Writer’s Collaborative you can go to marshwriters.org and it’s about helping people who are writing their first book their first article and it’s just writers encouraging articles I had writers and encouraging writers so if you’re a writer or you aspire to be a writer please consider going to Marshwriters.org and will help you also get your first book or your first particle published that’s our mission.
JB: I love it and and I have to say for for many of our listeners who are superintendents assistant superintendents or maybe on that track those those are two projects that often are running on a parallel track maybe on the backburner depending on what else is going on but yeah thank you for for sharing those so Marshwriters.org and finishthedissertation.org you know I think one of the nice things about both of those types of projects is that you know if you have been away from them for a while you can always come back to it you know you can say okay maybe there was a season where health or family or you know organizational factors interfered with with that happening but I just want to encourage anyone who is who maybe has an unfinished manuscript or has half an outline or has an unfinished dissertation to pick that up again because you know the the world needs your work to you know to reach the light of day so thank you Dr. Reeves for your commitment to helping people with that well
DR: Thanks it’s my pleasure and I want to be clear you don’t have to live in Boston either one of these we have people joining us on the internet from all over the world so wherever you happen to be joining us but these are offers are free and available to you.
JB: well thank you so much and thank you for your time today and we will we’ll be in touch soon thank you thank you so much to everybody for for tuning in and we’ll see you next time take care