Let’s Be Abnormal (in a good way)

Labor Day weekend always transitions us from the back to school frenzy to normalcy marked by the disappearance of Back to School Sale signs and the release of freshmen death grips on class schedules and building maps.  Prior to Labor Day, excitement and busyness prevail as the school year’s momentum ramps up.  A colleague’s perspective on the first day of school provides remarkable perspective.  He shared that every student on the first day in class believes he or she is an A student; however, that belief among the students endures for varying durations from a minute into class to the posting of the grade on report cards. My colleague continued elaborating his job accordingly was to prolong the belief as long as possible.  This practitioner's’ perspective embodies the mantras of many educational authors and lecturers from Carolyn Dweck’s emphasis on growth mindset to the whole Solution Tree cadre of authors and speakers declaration of “All means All” regarding equity in high levels of learning. As inspiring as his attitude was it remains a formidable challenge to bring into fruition.  My contention is that Labor Day is the culprit for ushering in normalcy when we seek an ABNORMAL outcome for students.

Regardless of measurement, letter grades or standardized assessment scores, schools have yet to produce high levels of learning for ALL students.  In their book, Simplifying Response to Intervention, authors Austin Buffum, Mike Mattos and Chris Weber attribute much of the educational flat line in achievement trend data to an acceptance of the wrong constants.  They lay out the model of education as an equation of  I + T = L.  In other words, a combination of instruction and time results in an extent of learning.  Traditionally, classrooms have treated the instruction and time as constants by providing very nearly the same type of instruction and similar durations of time to a pool of learners with extensive diversity in talent and readiness.  Consequently, the variable has been the extent of learning among the pool of students.  

Now as a reader, and particularly if you are a classroom teacher, your internal voice may be saying, “Here we go again; another indictment on the performance of the teacher.”  Please note my choice of words in the first sentence of the previous paragraph.  Key on the word choices of “schools” as opposed to “teachers”.  Plenty of evidence can be brought forth of pockets of excellence produced by a teacher or some cadre of teachers in a particular building. However, as an industry of schools, we have not parlayed those pockets into industry-wide performances.  So I point again to another word choice in that same sentence. The mere three letter word, “yet” puts forth the implication  to establish a consensus as a body of professional educators to fulfill the mission consistently across all schools despite their unique context and locale.

Returning to the authors of Simplifying Response to Intervention, their message is the paradigm has to be inverted. The constant becomes learning which means that support for every learner has to vary with either instruction or the duration of time or both.  Similar to my colleague’s ambition to postpone students’ loss of belief in their ability, this proposition is likewise easy to accept conceptually, but extremely challenging to execute as a individual classroom teacher.  So extend the notion of varying support beyond the student to teacher as well.  Teachers start their careers believing that they can help every student succeed, but at varying points in their career come to accept their limits.  Teachers’ ability is confined much of the time by the system itself from the building to the district to the AEA to the state.

As a comprehensive system, we have to resist Labor Day’s temptation to accept normalcy and devote ourselves to be ABNORMAL (in a good way) as a system and not allow business as usual to proceed.  Statewide AEAs and the Iowa Department of Education have been persisting as C4K partners to build capacity for use of research based practices throughout our statewide system. Application of these practices within schools offer to shift ABNORMAL levels of support to teachers to foster college and career readiness for all of Iowa’s students.  At the Mississippi Bend AEA, we seek to partner with your district in capacity building with Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), Teacher Leadership and Compensation System (TLC), Iowa Core, Specially Designed Instruction (SDI),  Differentiated Accountability, and Professional Learning Communities (PLC).  These system applications are the practices that can move forward the admirable aspiration of each of us as educators to successfully maintain ALL students belief in their ability to learn at high levels the entire journey to adulthood.

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