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Can schools really change?

By By Judith H. Miller / special to The Star
July 27, 2003
In communities across our state, there seems to be an essential question that rings out in every discussion. Can schools really change?
Educators, parents and community leaders have long grown tired of the latest fad or the hottest program that costs megabucks and provides illusory or meaningless results. Our stakeholders are no longer willing to believe that wonderful things are going on in our schools when students cannot demonstrate adequate performance.
I believe that for us to have substantial, meaningful change in our schools, we must begin with our own deeply held beliefs, expectations and relationships. Real change can occur but it takes commitment, support and consistency.
As I travel and work within EMCED's 22 school districts, I'm often asked what I think makes the difference between schools and districts that are succeeding and those that aren't. Based on the research and what I have observed in more than 25 years in classrooms and schools around our state, the country and numerous foreign countries, I find that there are three steps to improving schools and ultimately improving student achievement.
The first step is to get real. Schools (and districts) must begin by acknowledging low student achievement, accepting responsibility and making decisions based on data. The answers are never found in programs; programs are only tools that assist us in achieving our goals. Solutions are always found in people.
The second step: If we want to improve student achievement for all children, you must improve instruction. Sounds simple, but this is really the rub. Improving instruction can only be accomplished with patience, persistence, accountability and based on best practice.
Best practice
What do I mean by best practice? According to the authors of Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America's Schools (Zemelman, Daniels and Hyde, 1998), the phrase or expression best practice is borrowed from the medical and legal professions and is used to describe solid, reputable, state-of-the-art work in a field. "If a practitioner is following best practice standards, he or she is aware of current research and consistently offers clients the full benefits of the latest knowledge, technology, and procedures."
Virtually all of the authoritative voices on how kids learn best agree that our "schools must be student-centered, active, experiential, democratic, collaborative and yet rigorous and challenging."
So how do we create such schools? How do we translate best practice into everyday practice? We have established in Mississippi what we expect students to know through our state curricula. We have also determined what students should be able to do at the end of each year (benchmarks) and by the time they leave school (performance assessment). Now it is up to us to engage in best practice instruction in our classrooms.
But what does this look like?
Step through the door of a student-centered classroom and students are engaged in practical, hands-on learning of the curriculum not the textbook or workbooks or ditto sheets. Classroom order is maintained by engagement, student set and enforced norms, and a sense of community.
Complex responses
The teacher accommodates multiple intelligences through a wide use of multi-step, multi-day activities and projects so that students can actively experience concepts. Assignments require more complex responses, evaluations, writings and artworks. Instruction is consistent with grade-level assessments.
The assessment of student work by the teacher is substantive, varied and formative. Assessments are developed and used by the teacher to measure student learning, improve instruction and make sure students "do not fall through the cracks." Does this approach require more planning? You betcha! But it pays huge dividends in increased student achievement.
The third step is to establish and seek committed and collaborative leadership. Although every community, secretly or maybe evenly openly, desires a heroic superintendent who will ride into town, rally support and save the day for their schools.
The fact of the matter is substantive school changes require a collaborative leader who is committed to sustaining reform over the long haul. Collaborative leaders possess strong values, fresh perspectives, penetrating questions and useful knowledge about what works in education.
Collaborative leaders do not rely on prefabricated schemes for change, but engage participants in the change process. Collaborative superintendents see promise in others and align resources to foster that promise. They carefully ensure that people do their jobs, that things are fair, and that children are well served.
Leadership
Although strong leadership is needed from the superintendent, it is important to note that the promise of school improvement does not lie in a single individual. Rather, school improvement comes only through the collaborative efforts of many.
The power needed to change classroom practices doesn't reside with the superintendent or at central office. It is widely dispersed in classrooms and staff rooms throughout a school system. The superintendent is only going to be as good as the central office staff members, the principals and the teachers.
Real change occurs in schools when every lesson that is taught, every decision that is made by the principal or superintendent, every policy that is developed and adopted by the school board, and every way we ask parents and our community to support our schools begins with, "Is what I'm doing or about to do going to improve student achievement?"
Judith H. Miller, Ph.D., is executive director of the East Mississippi Center for Educational Development, a regional educational consortium located on the Meridian Campus of Mississippi State University.

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