Today's blog is published on the AASA, the School Superintendents Association's School Administrator Magazine.
How schools using a longer day are raising instructional efficiency through a faculty’s joint planning and sharing of student data
Greg Fox could not contain his enthusiasm. As principal of Dr. Thomas S. O’Connell Elementary School West in East Hartford, Conn., for the last three years, Fox led a school redesign that, beginning in September 2013, added 300 more scheduled hours to the school year for his 315 students.
“There’s no question, teaching and learning are different now,” says Fox, an educator for 19 years. “For the first time, we feel like we can meet the needs of every student. For the first time, we’re able to really integrate inquiry-based learning. Having not only more class time, but three hours of common planning time each week, makes what we do possible.”
O’Connell Elementary is just one of a rapidly growing group of schools that have added substantial time to their school schedule with the underlying goal of bolstering student learning. From Chicago to New Orleans to Elizabeth, N.J., educators in school districts across the country have come to understand that more time in school can make an enormous difference in students’ education, not simply by increasing the quantity of time on task — a proven strategy to boost proficiency — but by substantially enhancing its quality. Put simply, adding school time, alongside effective planning, can make all the moments spent in school better.
And the pivot point upon which this rising quality turns is how the expanded schedule opens up more opportunities for teachers to collaborate. Meeting for extended periods at least twice a week, teachers are together to reflect upon their instruction, continuously viewing each lesson through the focal prism of what students have learned. From these honest discussions, teachers then seek to make smart adjustments to their instruction with two aims — deepening the learning of all students and, simultaneously, addressing individual student needs.
The teachers at Frank M. Silvia Elementary School in Fall River, Mass., know this dynamic well. Eight years ago, the school serving 600 students, more than two-thirds of whom qualified as low-income, had a day that ran from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. They struggled to get much more than a third of students to be proficient. In more recent years, however, with 800 students and an eight-hour day, the school has seen its proficiency rate double, and the school is one of only a handful in Massachusetts with growth rates in both math and English language arts within the top 15 percent of all schools statewide each year for the past five years.
The secret to Silvia’s success is actually no secret. The administrators and faculty have leveraged their longer day to spend countless hours talking about and then acting upon ways to raise expectations for what should constitute high-quality work.
Teachers at Silvia Elementary School in Fall River, Mass., redesigned the school week schedule to allow uninterrupted, 45-minute common planning periods twice a week.
Teachers at Silvia meet in uninterrupted common planning time twice each week, 45 minutes each for math and literacy. (During this period, students are in specials — music, art or physical education.) There, they focus intensively on boosting instructional quality. The dean of teaching and learning, Sherri Carvalho, describes how the teachers have collaborated to set a norm for expectations using an example from 4th-grade literacy.
“In the past, teachers would just come up with their own open-response questions. Students would answer them, but when they’d come back to common planning there was no coherence on the team level,” says Carvalho, who reports to the school principal. “But now that they’re creating those questions together, teachers share similar student work that they can have conversations about and, most importantly, they’re coming up with good questions for their students to answer that will really make them think.”
Essentially, teachers at Silvia prod each other, holding each other accountable to make their instruction more challenging. Meg Mayo-Brown, superintendent of the 10,500-student Fall River district, explains the progression as generating a “common understanding of what a rigorous task looks like and sounds like. Working together has this tremendous effect of raising the bar.”
The advent of Common Core State Standards has driven the movement even further toward greater rigor, but Silvia teachers have been ready for the transition because they already had a lot of experience figuring out new ways to push their students. Now they are engaged in aligning all classroom work across the school to the Common Core, a process Principal Jean Facchiano describes as complex but achievable specifically because each teacher team has committed considerable time to content selection and the subsequent mapping of lessons to the standards during common planning meetings.
Teachers at O’Connell Elementary face the additional challenge of reshaping their classrooms to meet the robust requirements of the International Baccalaureate curricula, with a deliberate focus on inquiry-based and cooperative learning. The school made the transition to an IB school the same year it expanded its schedule, so teachers spend much of their two 90-minute common planning sessions each week examining how they might incorporate many more hands-on and group projects in classrooms, all of which are based on the IB units of study.
The change in educational approach is obvious. Where the 4th-grade math class used to tilt heavily toward the training and practice of arithmetic operations, students now regularly partake in lessons that revolve around the application of math skills and creativity toward solving real-world problems, like organizing a grocery store and determining product prices.
The teachers readily acknowledge that the transformation of their individual classrooms — a transformation that aspires to build in coherence and a standard level of excellence across the school — began in the conference room, where the whole faculty advanced together toward a new way of engaging students in learning. East Hartford Superintendent Nathan Quesnel observes, “When the teachers start sharing results and what works in their classrooms, the whole faculty starts to gravitate towards best practice. And this school has become a model for where we want others to go.”
It is one thing to craft high expectations. It is another to get all students to reach them. Collaboration and review of student data also play a pivotal role in this objective.
Aura Ryder, a 1st-grade teacher at Silvia, says she and her colleagues are “talking deeply about data every week” to determine which centers, such as small-group reading or fluency drills using computers, are “relevant and necessary and which students need to spend time in each center.”
Teachers at O’Connell Elementary typically commit a full 90-minute session per week to reviewing various data about their students, from formative assessments to in-class work. Grade-level teams review each student’s performance individually, and for those who are struggling, teachers will develop a specialized plan for each one. Plans usually consist of assigning students to small learning groups that hone in on practicing particular skills, such as reading fluency or phonemic awareness. (O’Connell faculty focused their intervention in 2013-14 almost exclusively on literacy.)
Leading each of these small groups are the teachers deemed most skilled in that area, not necessarily the students’ classroom teacher. “We share children,” explains Fox, O’Connell’s principal. “If we are going to make sure that every learner gets the optimal support he or she needs, then we need to take a team approach.”
The use of data to pinpoint student deficits and tailor instruction accordingly also relies on the integration of targeted intervention groups at Silvia, though these tend to be part and parcel of the full classroom, rather than take place during separate designated periods. Silvia’s long experience tracking student proficiency and growth over time has allowed the teachers to be more confident in differentiating instruction within each classroom.
Silvia also has the unusual practice of publicly posting individual student performance (anonymously) on each formative assessment in every classroom, so the students and teachers are literally surrounded by achievement data. Still, it is only through the systematic review of student performance that takes place during grade-team meetings that teachers develop the means and methods to differentiate effectively.
Providing more time in school is a resource, not a strategy. It can be used in ways that directly address the core mission of schools — advancing student learning — or it can be squandered in a messy profusion of unstructured, unfocused moments that do little to promote growth. When it comes to spending added minutes, the paramount measure of its value is to what degree the potential additional opportunities for learning actually translate to more learning. And to realize the potential, adults in the building must harness their collective energies toward elevating quality of instruction and individualizing support.
The collaborative planning meeting, whose fundamental objective is no more and no less than making sure that every student’s time in school is productive and meaningful, is the epicenter of this process.
According to Mayo-Brown, most teachers had resisted common planning time because they experienced it as tightly managed by administrators. But then they noticed their teacher colleagues at Silvia truly owned their twice-weekly sessions, and the school became the district’s appealing model for translating teacher conversations into productive and meaningful classroom time.
Similarly, in East Hartford, the O’Connell faculty stands out as not just having the advantage of additional class time, but making the best use of that time through the mutual accountability for progress the teachers devised in collaborative planning meetings.
As other schools seek avenues to expand learning time for students, they should consider how to integrate more learning and sharing time for teachers, as well. They likely will find that more time for teachers leads to not just more, but better time for students.