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Accelerating Student Achievement

December 9, 2013

Most of the ideas I generate for this blog come from my conversations from the previous week.  One of the benefits of my position is that I am able to engage in meaningful and robust conversations with various stakeholders about a range of topics pertaining to school improvement.  Our curriculum director, Mrs. Clare Arnold (@Clare_Arnold), is one of the people I enjoy speaking with the most.  She brings a level of knowledge, enthusiasm and insight that makes my job easier.  For that I am truly grateful.

The topic of this week’s blog is “Accelerating Student Achievement” and the substance of this post comes from Clare.  I am a huge fan of synthesizing complex topics down to their essential elements, and Clare does this as well as anyone I know.  In the course of one of our conversations this week she mentioned the three aspects of quality teaching that she believes in above all else.  We both agree that teachers who possess a masterful understanding of all of these skills will rapidly accelerate student achievement.  The three must co-exist, however, for if one is missing, student learning dramatically suffers.  I believe that “drilling down” our practice to this level, and then proceeding forward with a sharp focus toward enhancing our ability to master each component will lead to unprecedented student achievement.  The key, however, is avoiding the many potential distractions that divert attention away from what is the most important aspects of our work.  Here are the three components (thanks Clare!):

1) Explicitly teaching the standards- The new Common Core standards provide remarkable clarity for teachers in terms of what knowledge and skills students must demonstrate in order to meet them.  While the standards are extremely clear, they are also quite challenging, and this fact requires that teachers possess an expert level of understanding of what the standard is, how to best align their instruction to the standard, and most importantly, what proficient student work looks like.  What is apparent about the new standards is that students at all grade levels will not be able to learn them unless their teacher specifically aligns his or her instruction to the desired outcome.  To some, this may sound like “teaching to the test”.  That could not be further from the truth, however.  Teaching to the common core standards simply refers to possessing a sound understanding of what the standard means, and steering students toward that end through focused instructional practices, sound questioning techniques, and frequent use of formative assessment.  This can be achieved by utilizing various strategies, which leads me to my next component…

2) Employing best instructional practices- Teachers who utilize strategic instructional practices that consistently engage students in the learning and require them to stretch their thinking see a higher degree of student achievement than those who do not.  These practices include the use of ongoing formal and informal assessment practices that allow students to collaborate with others, reflect on their work, and receive targeted and specific feedback about their performance in relation to the standards being taught.  They also include the delivery of carefully designed lessons that hook students into the content, connect the learning to a meaningful purpose, and provide for opportunities for student practice, application and extension.  It must be emphasized that the manner and style in which each teacher employs these practices is totally unique to that individual.  While the standard cannot be negotiated, the way in which the standard is taught and assessed is completely at the whim of the classroom teacher.  This is why I struggle to understand those who believe that standards stifle creativity.  Standards simply reference a level of performance that is expected of a particular group of students in regards to a particular core academic skill.  The kind and type of classroom instructional practices, assessment strategies and instructional resources that are used to teach the standards are completely under the control of the classroom teacher.

3) Establishing and maintaining positive relationships with students- Students must know that their teacher is invested in their academic and personal success.  I have found that while we (the adults) may assume that this is true, students often possess different opinions.  At the high school level this is particularly true, as older students typically have built up an attitude towards school prior to entering grade 9.  In some cases, this attitude is a negative one, and it is the responsibility of the teacher to earn the trust of the student through their actions and words in the classroom.  Teachers must have an advanced understanding of their students, including their interests and their strengths, in order to effectively motivate them to see the purpose and importance of what they are learning.  Teachers must also be exceptional communicators, and their interactions with students must reinforce the fact that they are invested in their academic and personal development.

These three components, in my opinion, represent the foundation on which student achievement is built.  If all three of these components are working seamlessly in the classroom, the result will be high student achievement, engaged learners and happy kids.  In order to maximize the learning environment, all three components must exist, however, as learning will suffer if even one of the three are lacking.  For educational leaders, I believe it is worth it to spend our time reflecting on our school’s current status with regard to these three components, and to ensure that proper supports are in place to identify needs and determine future actions.  For teachers, we must engage in consistent, ongoing and honest self-reflection as to our current level of performance in these three areas.  We must set purposeful and specific goals that are based on various sources of data in order to target specific areas of improvement and to identify strengths.

Thanks again to Clare for the inspiration for this post!  Have a great week, everyone!

-Rob

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