Our most vulnerable students also require structured materials designed specifically to fill learning gaps
by Linda Diamond, President, CORE and author of the Teaching Reading Sourcebook and Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures
Back in September 2018 I wrote about the importance of selecting and fully implementing a great curriculum with excellent support and ongoing professional learning. This is a huge and important step in accelerating achievement for all students. But is that enough? The answer, unfortunately is “no.” A standards-aligned, high-quality curricula, while significantly improving outcomes for many students, will not be sufficient for those most at risk. Core curriculum is targeted at grade-level standards and will ensure all students have access to robust content, but it will not meet the needs of students who are significantly behind in their skills. Such students will still require a targeted or intensive intervention curricula that is well beyond what a standards-aligned core program can provide.
Don’t get me wrong, strong curriculum will significantly reduce the numbers of students needing tiered interventions, but older students, in particular, who did not have the benefits of best first teaching, will need extra support. This is also true for young students experiencing reading or math difficulty. A multi-tiered system of support will ideally address these needs. Yet few districts have successfully designed and implemented MTSS. When implemented fully, schools with multi-tiered systems recognize that in addition to solid core instructional materials, educators need to also identify, purchase and implement specialized, structured intervention materials that explicitly address students’ skills gaps. One curriculum will not be sufficient as it will not address the various tiers of instructional need at a school. Furthermore, not all of the vetted core curricula adequately address the early literacy foundational skills. This gap will likely require supplemental materials that more closely meet those described in the IES Practice Guide Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rdGrade or follow Louise Spear-Swerling’s description of Structured Literacy (Structured Literacy and Typical Literacy Practices: Understanding Differences to Create Instructional Opportunities, Jan. 2018). Especially in the early grades, prevention of reading difficulty is the name of the game and most core curricula, while essentially meeting most standards, are not sufficient.
Without a doubt, we want all students to have access to standards-aligned curriculum and instruction, but what if specific foundational skills never are mastered? A 6th grade student who cannot decode single syllable words while able to participate actively in core instruction still needs to be taught how to decode. Where is the material to do that in a standards-aligned middle school core program? When a student with identified learning disabilities receives great instruction and scaffolded support in a general education classroom, he or she can participate, be engaged and will learn, but at some point the missing skills need to be directly taught. Such struggling students will not have scaffolded support when they leave school. We want these students to have the skills they require to be independent.
Too often we confuse equity with equality. Yes, giving all students equal access to high-quality curriculum and instruction is vital, but equity entails much more. Equality is treating everyone the same and the goal is to promote fairness. But that is only true if everyone starts from the same place. Equity, on the other hand, requires giving someone what they need to be successful.
We are on the right track with focusing on putting excellent core instructional materials into the hands of well-prepared and supported educators, but we also have to be aware that some students will also need targeted instruction with more appropriate and focused materials.
In education we have a habit of going for the silver bullet, of looking for a panacea that will turn things around. In recent years it was teachers writing their own units of study and having new common core standards; now, it is selecting and implementing a standards-aligned curriculum faithfully. I fear we will put too much stock in the power of a strong curriculum and be dreadfully disappointed when many of our most vulnerable learners do not improve sufficiently. I would like to think we can do two things at the same time—select and implement a strong standards-aligned core curriculum as core instruction for all students but at the same time identify and implement structured materials designed specifically to fill learning gaps for those students who need more targeted instruction and materials, so that we truly turn our schools into equitable institutions. Our schools should be places where all students thrive and those who need more get more.
Pivot Learning’s expert team of district and school improvement specialists came together for a webinar on continuous improvement in special education.
This targeted webinar focused on building the capacity of special education leaders, teachers, and related service providers to serve as instructional leaders. You will learn how our most specialized educators can work with general educators to redesign education systems to effectively serve all students.
At schools across the country, students are expecting visits from relatives and friends, wondering what new gadget they might be getting, and trying to impress peers and family at winter music performances – all while keeping a focus on exams, group projects, and assignments. You’re trying to help students end this semester strong during this very busy time of the year. So what is a teacher to do? Check out these tips to keep your students settled and focused until the very last day before their winter break:
Prioritize your time with students. You know you only have a matter of days before winter break, and students’ attention begins to wane. This is where reviewing your pacing guides, curriculum plans, and goals for the semester are really important. Where are your students relative to your semester goals for them? Consider where you really need to spend your time with students to help them achieve their learning goals. You can’t cram it all in, so prioritize the most important lessons you want to teach them, and provide ample time for them to engage thoughtfully in their learning.
Be intentional. Be purposeful in the decisions you make around instruction and the activities you ask students to engage in. It can be easy to pile on too many tasks for students in hopes of teaching more content before the winter break, but this is a time where students can be highly distracted and overwhelmed – by projects, final exams, and all the excitement that this time of year brings. Stay focused and be thoughtful in your instruction.
Focus on community. Winter and the holidays can be both an exciting and difficult time for students. They may be excited by the prospect of family time, winter activities, gift giving (and receiving), and celebrations. But for other students, this is a stressful time of year if their families are struggling financially, or missing family members. So don’t forget to create opportunities to make kids feel like their classroom community is a special place where they have people who they can trust and an environment that is supportive of their mental and emotional states.
Be clear of your expectations for your students this time of year. From providing study guides for final exams or project outlines for semester projects, over-communicate what students need to be working on and why. And remember, if you are a middle or high school teacher, your students are being pulled in numerous different directions among all of their classes, so it may be difficult for them to keep track of all their responsibilities. Communicating clearly and regularly to your students will help them be their best!
Take time for yourself. This is a busy time of year for you too, so don’t forget about your own needs. From helping students prepare for end-of-semester projects and exams, to completing report cards and other progress monitoring activities, you are busy in your work life, and likely your home life too. Take time to have lunch with a friend, read a book, or enjoy a run outdoors – whatever it is that helps you relax and stay focused. Your students need you to be a calming force in the chaos before the winter break, so take care of yourself!
The last few weeks before the winter holiday can be a special time for students, teachers, and their school community. By taking a thoughtful, intentional approach to closing out this semester, you may find it to be a joyful and productive time in the school year.
Mid-July is approaching, and for Pivot that means the California School Boards Association (CSBA) Summer Leadership Institute is here. Members of our team, Dr. Arun Ramanathan, Carla Hulce, and Deborah Sims, will be heading to Sacramento July 15th-16th to team up with Lauren Weisskirk from EdReports.org, Mt. Diablo Unified School District superintendent, Dr. Nellie Meyer, and San Juan Unified Board President, Pam Costa, on a series of workshops at the CSBA summer institute entitled: Getting It Right for Kids: How School Board Members Can Support the Successful Implementation of California’s New Standards.
Pivot’s partnership with the CSBA for the Summer Leadership Institute is a unique and exciting opportunity for hundreds of school board members from districts across California. Over the two days, Pivot will present them with information on best practices in Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards implementation in three key areas: assessments, professional development and curriculum adoption. Participants will have a chance to work through myths and facts in standards implementation and assessment. They will learn about best practices in 21st century professional development from Dr. Nellie Meyer, Carla Hulce, and Pam Costa. They will be exposed to the work of EdReports.org and its powerful, timely reviews of curriculum. After these workshops, board members are sure to walk away with great new ideas in supporting their districts’ efforts to implement the standards, support teachers and improve student outcomes.
For more information about the event, please visit the CSBA website.
Neither top-down nor bottom-up strategies work well to lead large-scale change initiatives in public education. It takes a combination. Pivot’s human-centered Change Design model offers districts a structured and intentional approach to engaging diverse stakeholders in designing, iteratively testing and refining, and scaling change.
Since the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the ELD Standards were created and adopted, academics, think tanks and education reform providers have framed the transition as a series of “shifts.” With good reason, much of the emphasis has been on the instructional shifts. But focusing on instruction ignores a whole set of other shifts that must occur for the new standards to reach their full promise.
At Pivot, we believe districts must design and implement change across three dimensions: systems, leadership and teacher practice. If the Common Core is to be a the dramatic change for students that its advocates intend, and if more students are to be supported to go deeper and reach higher, then school systems must be led in new ways.
Pivot hosted the first in a series of Change Design webinars, Building Trust with Your Community, to review key lessons for leaders working to engage their communities in big change. In this webinar, you can hear from two school districts that are building strong relationships through the design and implementation of strategic work. We also explored specific resources and tools that can guide change design projects towards success. You can download the webinar here – or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
In the face of significant need and big goals, we are making major (and essential) changes in public education. However, research and experience show us that change efforts are not often successful – like 70% of the time. When is the last time that you have seen a project fail in design or implementation?
In the news recently, we have seen big change efforts struggle because of an overemphasis on technical solutions at the expense of the change process. In reflecting on our own work with districts, we think that there are a few key lessons for leaders working to bring about big change.
1. Focus on What Matters: Early on, leaders need to really listen to the community – to best understand and focus on those root problems that matter to the district, its students, and the broader community. This is important because it helps us decide both what to do and what not to do. This motivates and builds trust by limiting the focus of the district’s work on real challenges.
2. Tap into the Rich Experience of Your People: Build a diverse team to drive the work. This will not only generate better ideas, but this shared experience of collaboratively reaching meaningful outcomes will build trust among team members who span the organization.
3. Trust Your Team: While leaders certainly need to clearly articulate the parameters of a change, including what success looks like, they should be careful to not define the solution. Providing autonomy to those close to the work to best address the challenge will build trust.
4. Immerse Yourself in the Community: To produce the best outcomes and build trust, the team must step into the shoes of your stakeholders – learn and practice empathy! In particular, be sure to actively engage stakeholders who often don’t have a voice or a seat at the table. Also important, meet all stakeholders where they are and in a way that encourages meaningful dialogue.
5. Do Something with What You Hear: This may sound obvious, but based on what you hear, make modifications! Then, share revised drafts with your community through multiple cycles. It’s important to be transparent about revisions – especially when changes aren’t possible. This builds trust by showing the community that they are part of the solution.
Of course, none of this is easy. But, we believe that using these strategies can not only lead to innovative change but can also help build the relationships and trust needed to make these changes stick.
1. “The Inconvenient Truth About Change Management — Why it isn’t working and what to do about it” by Scott Keller and Carolyn Aiken (2008)
Our strategy guidebook offers a research-based, structured and human-centered process for leaders to design, lead and implement strategies and tactics for the transition to CCSS in ways that promote innovation, build reciprocal accountability, and effectively address both the technical and human dimensions of change.
Based on interviews with 11 school districts, this report analyzes the technical and change management strategies that districts are implementing to transition to the CCSS, as well as some early lessons learned.
As I reflect on our years of work to create Pivot Learning Partners, I am always humbled by what I hear about the large number of adults whose work we’ve influenced and, through them, the much larger number of students whose lives we’ve touched.
At our best, we’ve been able to help create schools that put learning at the center for both children and adults. And, since learning is a fundamental human activity that is fun, challenging, creative and moving, our impact has been memorable for people. All this matters.
As I look back, I’m also struck by something that people rarely note: we’ve done work that matters, but we’ve built an organization that matters as well. Improving our schools is both difficult and, given the rate of change in our society, never-ending.
Both research and experience tell us that large, complex organizations cannot succeed at dramatic improvement without outside help any more than individuals do. Athletes hire trainers, dieters join Weightwatchers, and Fortune 500 companies hire consulting firms. And sometimes – but not nearly often enough – schools and districts hire an outside support provider.
Right now, outside eyes and expertise are more important than ever. No one in a district with a full time job can know enough or can learn fast enough to seize the opportunities represented by the Common Core and Local Control Funding Formula. It makes sense to bring in help that can provide professional development, coaching to help people apply new knowledge and skills, and technical assistance to help people re-think roles, structures, processes, tools and agreements.
Too often, though, districts hire helpers and are disappointed. Professional developers teach what they know rather than what people need; coaches become compliance monitors with checklists; and consultants deliver reports full of recommendations and then depart. Pivot Learning Partners is proud to be a different kind of organization, one that combines the wisdom of experience with cutting edge tools and ideas.
Our network of experienced practitioners and our library of professional development materials allows us to customize the professional development programs we offer quickly and without asking our clients to pay us to reinvent the wheel. Our coaches are able to meet clients where they are, but also develop innovative solutions to the real problems they face.
And our consultants never deliver a report and leave: they stay, helping schools and districts create the new structures, processes, roles, tools and agreements they need to thrive.
Finally, Pivot Learning Partners is a significant example to the field because of our unique business model. Our clients pay the actual cost of the services we provide, while foundation, corporate and individual donors underwrite the costs of program development. Our fee-for-service relationship with our clients ensures that our programs are practical and useful, while our funders help keep us on the cutting edge.
Our dispersed structure for service delivery allows us to cover the state and, since the vast majority of our coaches work on a daily rate basis, we can expand or contract our service delivery capacity quickly as needs shift. Unlike some of our competitors, we are not a government agency and cannot be assigned to take on a compliance role, but instead are free to develop trusted advisor relationships with our partner districts. The model we’ve created works: we contracted through the lean years and are now growing – with the business model intact.
While a lack of competition is convenient for us, in fact schools and districts need more organizations like Pivot Learning Partners.
The situation that districts face today is a particularly cogent example of why: during the financial crisis of the last few years, districts understandably dismantled their improvement infrastructure, cutting back on district-level staff with a focus on curriculum and instruction, sending teacher coaches back to the classroom and postponing investments in technology infrastructure.
Now, they are faced with the imperative to implement the Common Core, rethink budgeting processes and involve communities in new ways, and they are struggling to respond.
Organizations like Pivot Learning Partners can help public education leaders to create improvement infrastructure that is both flexible and sustainable. When I stock of the work we’ve done, I am proud of the impact we’ve had, but equally proud of the organization we’ve created.