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Simple Questions that Focus Difficult Work

During the last few weeks, I've had the opportunity to speak with several groups of educators around the country. In an attempt to focus my own thinking, I've asked each of these groups to consider the following four questions. These questions have enabled me to highlight the significance of professional learning and position it within a broader context in ways I hadn't done before.

1. What is it that we want our students to know and be able to do?
2. What do we want our teachers to know and be able to do to develop and sustain effective learning environments for students?
3. What do leaders need to know and be able to do to create optimum conditions for teaching and learning?
4. In what ways can we ensure teachers and leaders develop the skills they need to be consistently effective?

The first question about students, I believe, is one that should drive every other conversation in a school or district. If there isn't absolute agreement on this, how can the school or district operate? While Common Core has provided the field with a great deal of clarity here, teachers and leaders still must have a crystal clear picture of what they want their students to know and be able to do upon exiting their schools and systems.

The answer to the first question provides clarity on the second. The research is clear - the number one school-related factor that contributes to the success of students is the effectiveness of the classroom teacher. However, if districts don't have a crystal clear picture of what their teachers are expected to know and be able to do to support students, how can they make decisions about what teacher effectiveness is. Again, we have models to help us here. InTasc Model Core Teaching Standards, Charlotte Danielson's framework, and other models are helping districts reach a collective understanding of what effectiveness looks like in their contexts.

The third question focuses on leaders and what they need to know and be able to do in order to create the optimum conditions for teaching and learning. As a field, we are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of leadership. We know effective leaders attract strong teachers, especially where they are needed most. Research from The Wallace Foundation makes the point there are virtually no documented cases of successful school turnarounds without a strong leader at the helm. The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards and a host of other leadership frameworks and evaluation models provide districts with the tools necessary to answer this question with great clarity.

Being from Learning Forward, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I would emphasize, in answer to the fourth question, systems that help teachers and leaders to develop the skills they need to improve. In many places, the sole response to this question is evaluation. While I strongly believe in a fair and rigorous evaluation system, it's just one part of a larger system that has to include opportunities for individual growth, collective and team-based learning focused on continuous improvement, and a system of feedback and support facilitated by those who deeply understand effective teaching and leading practices.

Four simple questions? Perhaps. But extremely helpful in focusing difficult work!

Frederick Brown
Director of Strategy and Development, Learning Forward

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