From Best Practices to Strategies and Tactics

Over the five-year i3 New England Network project, CSSR discovered that a number of activities were particularly effective at planting the seeds of change providing the focus, momentum, and the mechanisms that drive transformation:

Exploring the Possibilities Through Site Visits and Classroom Observations
It’s easy for school leaders to get caught up in the day-to-day details of running a school or classroom.  As a result, they may not be able to see the forest through the trees and may feel enervated, as opposed to energized, by their work.  The mere idea of change often stokes fear, along with the mindset of “we can’t do that here, with these kids.” By participating in the i3 New England Network, stakeholders were given the time and space to step back and imagine the possibilities of how a different kind of learning environment might better support student learning and development.

One effective method for helping teachers, students and administrators dream is to participate in structured school visits, conversations and authentic learning activities so that they can fully experience the components of a student-driven learning environment.  Visits to schools that are already deeply engaged in the change process allow stakeholders to determine what is most relevant to them. It provides the foundation for a different way of “seeing” their school and a basic blueprint for taking the first steps.  The i3 New England Network provided multiple opportunities for teachers and students to travel to New York City and visit with two lead educators from the New York Performance Standards Consortium1—Joanna Dolgin (ELA) and Avram Barlowe (Social Studies).  During these visits, teachers and students took part in: 1) moderation and calibration studies; 2) roundtable conversations; and 3) inquiry-based classroom performance assessments. Access the CSSR Site Visit Protocol and Guidelines here.2

At the conclusion of the second year of the grant, CSSR partnered with inquiry specialists from the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School – a small secondary school focused on performance-based assessment and personalization of student learning, founded by the late Ted Sizer, founder and long-time director of the Coalition of Essential Schools. Diane Kruse (STEM), Ruth Whalen-Crockett (World Languages) and Lorin Hill (Science) – all current classroom teachers – became mentors and content experts for the i3 New England Network.  Through their mentorship, teachers were able to connect inquiry theory with content specific best practices.  Diane and Ruth allowed teachers to visit their classrooms at Parker and provided training both at Parker, and at the project sites.  They helped teachers build skills to look at student work, facilitate structured conversations using protocols, and evaluate core competencies. 

School Generated Readiness Assessment
As CSSR School Change Coach Tony Ferreira says: “You can’t tell people that everything they have been doing is wrong and expect them to move forward.  They need to have some affirmation that they have done some really purposeful things for kids, and that their entire career has not been wasted.”  In other words, entering a district with an attitude of respect for a school’s history and traditions is a more effective method for engendering change than is a “fixer” mentality. Shining a light on what IS working creates a sense of hope for schools so that they can set priorities, and create strategies and structures that both honor and build on their successes.   As CSSR School Change Coach Margaret MacLean said: “Knowing what that fertile ground is, helps you be authentic around where to start.”

In 2010, CSSR created a Readiness Assessment to better understand what is working purposefully and well in schools, and uncover areas for growth and improvement. The results of a Readiness Assessment were used in the i3 New England Network to create a Network-wide professional development plan that balanced school-specific best practices with practices that could generalize to the project as a whole.  The Readiness Assessment process revealed that the professional development opportunities that were most essential to school change were in the areas of student voice and choice, collaborative skills and practices, performance assessments, and project-based experiences like Extended Learning Opportunities and Senior Projects.

Student Shadowing
It is one thing to read what best practices look like in other schools and districts, but quite another to understand your own stakeholders. Student shadowing is a highly effective method for understanding the daily experience of the “customer.”  The shadowing experience creates a set of faculty/student pairs for a day, during which time the faculty member’s job is to follow the designated student as he or she goes about the day—in the classroom, in the cafeteria, in the school corridors, etc.  This exercise builds a deep empathy for the student experience that is otherwise unattainable.

When student shadowing takes place early in the change process, it typically reveals evidence that much work remains to be done. The experiences ground constructive conversations about the need for change, and allow stakeholders to point to “live” examples of success, as well as inequities or areas for growth.  It organically lays the groundwork for all of the work that follows because it’s grounded in the reality of the school environment.

For example, in the spring of 2014, Chris Motika, Principal of Manchester West (NH) High School, initiated Student Shadowing after having seen it work well at his previous post in a different i3 New England Network site. It turned out to be a transformative moment and a turning point for the school. “As students and teachers, we were amazed at how irrelevant the school day really was.  No wonder people were asleep by period eight.  It was an eye opener from so many perspectives. We saw that the school was not personalized; it was boring.” 

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Student Shadowing is the debriefing at the end of the day.  At Manchester West, for example, the debriefing stimulated substantive conversation about the workings of the school and enabled those most resistant to change to examine the facts on the ground.  

Initiative Mapping: Assessing Capacity
Virtually every school in the country is spread too thin.  Initiatives and mandates pile on over the years, and there is rarely an opportunity to step back to reflect on what’s working and what’s not. The goal of Initiative Mapping is to help key stakeholders identify, focus on, and allocate the appropriate energy and resources to those efforts - programs, initiatives, and best practices - that drive positive learning outcomes.

The activity’s purpose is to identify where time, resources, and energy are being spent.  Initiatives are defined here as any activity that is new, or reflects efforts to enhance existing processes, programs, or practices.  The Mapping process provides a clear snapshot of how well programs and practices are aligned toward a common purpose.  It also reveals the amount of time spent on efforts that may not be delivering on their promise, which often jumpstarts a much-needed conversation about priorities. 

The Initiative Mapping process asks school stakeholders – including students – to examine all activities/initiatives currently on their plate and question the following:

  • If done well, what is the impact on student achievement?
  • Is the practice high yield?
  • What is the current level of performance?
  • What is the current level of resistance?
  • What level of energy is needed to implement?
  • Is the initiative mandated by local or federal policy?
  • Who “owns” the initiative’s ultimate success?

After groups answer these questions, the Mapping process takes place where each one is ranked, prioritized, and graded against its current level of proficiency.  The findings are always eye opening.  Schools and districts begin to better understand that they are not managing their influence and energy in ways that will benefit students.  Of the more than 100 initiatives that are usually in front of school leaders, very few are advancing learning outcomes to the degree necessary for student success. Analysis and reflection forces a discussion about time, energy, and attention—enabling schools to become more purposeful. 

Creating High-Performing Teams
Teams are critical for shared leadership and an important engine for change. Most schools have too many teams, and they often function at a mediocre level at best.

There is an enormous difference between a high-performing team (HPT) and an ad hoc task team, or a team that lacks a formal structure and charter.  HPTs are characterized by the discipline that comes with a formalized structure, policies, and procedures.  By this definition, most schools do not have HPTs.

Below is a sequence for creating HPTs that CSSR finds to be highly effective.

  • Create the Team & Develop the Purpose:  In each school of the i3 New England Network, two high performing teams were created to serve the redesign process.  The Change Leadership Team’s purpose was to develop and implement key organizational processes and structures that would help support the implementation of change.  The Authentic Assessment Team, consisted of teachers and students, and was tasked with examining student-driven best practices and classroom strategies to improve learning via inquiry-based instruction and competencies.
  • Develop the Infrastructure: Each team developed charters identifying core values and actions, behaviors, and practices around which to organize themselves.  Team facilitation was important, and a set of skill-building sessions around facilitation ensured that the work got accomplished.
  • Check Alignment and Prepare to Get to Work:  The HPTs were a strong mobilizing influence in each school.  In some cases, a small and isolated group of practitioners was able to plant the seeds in such a way that invited their colleagues to the table.  In other cases, schools decided to create one leadership team consisting of representatives of both the Change Leadership Team and the Authentic Assessment Team.  Across the i3 New England Network, schools realized the value of HPTs to align and integrate their work.

1 New York Performance Standards Consortium -

2 CSSR Site Visit Protocol and Guidelines