Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Understanding Reform As A Design Challenge

Happiness is the Longing for Repetition (M.A. Reilly, 2009)
Design is as much an act of spacing as an act of marking. - Ellen Lupton


The importance of design can not be understated, especially when contemplating the current iterations of public education (re)form that situates people as problems to be fixed. For the last year I have been involved in designing↔implementing (think m√∂bius strip) early literacy education across more than a dozen schools in a city. It has been and continues to be a time for enormous learning. Several understandings are emerging, not with great clarity, but with an odd sense of urgency.  There is something I am learning abut schooling, reform and learning that needs to be voiced even though I am unsure of its dimension and implications.

Much of what gets situated as teacher and pupil issues appear to be surface symptoms for larger design problems. I say this as I am observing that teachers are often more than willing, even eager, to refine practices when specific conditions are created.  For example, at one site where we are working the quickness of change among teachers as they add to and refine practices has been nothing less than stunning. Likewise, children who had been largely stalled as readers and writers at school, are making critical gains in the repertoire of skills, dispositions, and strategies they use while composing--be  it as readers or writers.

At this Pre K - 8 site, there are seven consultants from my company, including myself, working with the administrators, teachers, parents, and of course the children since the end of January. Whereas most of our efforts have been aimed at K-3 literacies, we also have been collaborating to staff who teach at grades 4-8 through special education, mathematics, and literacies work which will be emphasized next school year as we continue the project.

I feel very certain that within the space of five months, the K-1 teachers at this site will prevent reading difficulties--something that has not been done to date before here. This is as school where less than 30% of the children pass the state assessments and where we first saw that the majority of primary grade children were not making progress as readers.  We highlighted just two instructional changes and have modeled, directly taught, and coached teachers as they learn these practices.  And I think it would be fair to say that the use of these practices, in part, account for increased performance at the K-2 levels.  

So often, though, this is where we stop when telling stories about reform.  But I am coming to understand that this slice of the story is at best a topping.  Beneath it is a more compelling tale.



Contrast these two recollections.

It's December when I ask second grade teachers to identify the children in their classes who they are most concerned about as readers.  They name names and when I ask them what is it that makes them concerned, they all cite DRA levels--and the levels are shockingly low.  An issue though is that the data they cite is four months old, gleaned during the opening weeks of school.  The teachers say that that have not done any additional reading assessments such as a text level reading with these children, nor have they discussed the children as a group before. The teachers exists in what Dan Lortie (1975) in his seminal study of schools (Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study) characterized as egg-carton. He wrote:
Throughout the long, formative decades of the modern school system, schools were organized around teacher separation, rather than teacher interdependence (1975, 14).
So contrast that one recollection with this more recent one: It's early morning when I arrive at the school and a colleague of mine greets me and says, "It's wonderful to see the primary grade teachers all out in the hallways taking about their children to each other.  They're talking about how the kids are progressing. There's such energy in that." 


A week or two later, the mathematics consultant who works with us is on site and I ask her to meet with my lead literacy consultant, the administrators from the school and a writer who is has come to see what is happening at the school for a book she is writing and myself.  I thought it particularly valuable to have the writer with us as we are at the beginning of something and having an outside set of eyes might prove helpful. We sit around one table and the discussion takes on rhizomatic dimension as ideas lead into ideas and the paths between and among become decidedly emergent and often co-specifying. 

One of the compelling questions we have been wrestling with is what is it that keeps children from advancing as readers and mathematicians.  This is a conversation that often ends with a discussion about teachers, parents, and children. Rarely though does the discussion extend beyond these factors and also attend about to how these factors are (in)formed by the design of the school and school system.  As we speak, I am sensing that we are in the middle of something and we are naming as a group more than we know as individuals. 

Later, I receive an email from the writer who shares these observations: 
XXX School and its whole leadership team were truly impressive. An unsung example of real excellence.  I learned a great deal from your discussion about redesigning instruction in math and ela--and was struck by the (principal's) commitment to "renew" XXX School on her own.  
The "on her own" comment is in relationship to other or program reform methods this writer has been chronicling in this city for the last year. I'm pleased as I realize that what we do with the principal and her staff has not been situated or understood as an external reform method. Working alongside, being in the middle of things, requires the agency of all.


Learner achievement is influenced by what teachers and students know and do, by the manner in which leadership occurs, as well as what each fails to know, act upon, and avoids. It resembles a tangled mess when attempting to sort this effect from that effect. But learner achievement is not only a people matter, it is a structural and environmental matter as well.  Last week I was teaching Pre-K and kindergarten teachers during a full day workshop and the conversation around the table was animated as teachers discussed their new or refined practices for independent reading and then studied video examples of vocabulary, phonics, guided writing and reading instruction.  

Almost all of what we studied is already occurring in their classrooms and the teachers were willing and able to compare their own practice with the video examples which featured not idealized practices, but actual practices recorded in classrooms.  Further, all of us who have modeled teaching--including some of the teachers--have made errors while teaching and we have been keen to note that in spite of our errors children continued to learn. The willingness to fail and learn is essential.


I am driving home form the city and think that during workshops and out in the hallways--it is the teachers' lateral conversations--to each other--that most interest me. These forged spaces act as conduits that fuel better outcomes for children. What gets marked in these spaces is changing as we (teachers and administrators and consultants) focus on what children are doing, saying, and showing and the confusions and clarity that arise alongside these noticings.  All of this produces an energy that is greater than the energy used.  It is  this shift from potential to kinetic energy that I want to lean in and better understand.

Our time at this site will extend through next school year.  We recognize that external coaching is a temporary design fix, not a permanent solution.  As such, our work with those at the sxhool is to help craft the possibility of new spaces and markings.