Track down great practice. Then share it

10th May 2013 at 01:00
Go the whole hog and collaborate so everyone can benefit from the best ideas, David Moran writes

Ray Swoffard, an educator with nearly 40 years' experience in schools in Hamilton County, Tennessee, US, has worked as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent of urban education and associate superintendent.

When talking about the tension between teaching and the demands of testing, Swoffard tells a story about his father and uncle, both pig farmers. Every year, they would have a competition to see who could raise the fattest hog. His uncle became obsessed, spending his time weighing the hogs and charting their progress. Every year, Swoffard's father would win. When asked his secret, he said it was simple: "I spend my time feeding the hogs; he spends his time weighing the hogs."

I worked with Swoffard in Nashville, Tennessee, for two years, supporting the turnaround of 34 high-priority schools as part of a programme delivered by private provider Tribal Education. All the schools shared common characteristics - poor performance, low expectations, high teacher turnover, fragile cultures, a lack of autonomy and accountability - and all served communities with high levels of deprivation. These challenges are similar to those encountered by schools in urban settings across the globe. And the solutions to these problems are equally applicable to all schools that are dealing with difficult circumstances.

The starting point was a belief that there are more great parts of schools than there are great schools. Also, that "disciplined collaboration" within and between schools stands the greatest chance of improving outcomes for all students.

Our work focused on a simple cyclical model that included: rigorous analyses of student outcome data, school self-evaluation, external review, improvement planning and collaborative networking. All this was underpinned by challenge, celebration and an invitational approach to the engagement of school leaders on the programme.

Central to the project's success was the creation of a positive climate for change within the schools and the district. At school level, this was epitomised by the leadership of Ronald Powe, principal of Napier Elementary School. Napier was the lowest-performing elementary school in the state. It displayed all the characteristics of a failing school serving one of the most challenging and deprived communities in Nashville. But Powe focused relentlessly on results. He combined this with a passion for developing the culture and the attitudes of students, staff and parents. This created an environment where teachers were empowered to take risks. Students were able to enjoy a more engaging curriculum and the community was actively involved in supporting learning.

At district level, a collaborative approach to improvement was launched, involving the most effective district school principals. Called "network lead principals", they were given the capacity to work with small groups of schools to share and replicate best practice. This began to break down the political barriers between charter schools (which have greater independence) and their district neighbours. We held a series of informal workshops, facilitated by Lipscomb University. As a result, we built relationships between the leaders of different schools. We were then able to develop a common language around autonomy and accountability, and to start sharing best practice.

In Daniel Pink's talk on motivation at the UK Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, the author of Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us stated that it is purpose, mastery and autonomy that improve efficiency. (An animated version of Pink's talk is available at bit.lyRSAtalk.) In schools, it is teachers and school leaders who make the difference. We must create the conditions to allow them to engage students, collaborate effectively and be reflective about their own performance.

To achieve improvement, the ongoing challenge is to enable school leaders to identify great practice and help them to replicate it in their own school, while also taking on the responsibility of sharing it across the system. We now have the technology to analyse quantitative and qualitative educational data and convert this into information to drive collaboration.

Too often, we look outside the profession for answers that are available in a nearby classroom. Developing teachers and leaders from within is the only way that we will be able to support the school and system leaders of tomorrow and ensure that all our students receive the best learning opportunities.

School systems create the conditions to allow disciplined collaboration to take place. This, in turn, permits continuing improvement on a large scale.

As Henry Ford said: "Whether you believe you can or you can't, you're right." I believe we can.

David Moran is acting chief executive of E-Act, an academy and free school chain in the UK.

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