Middle School Turnaround: Ours

Lisa, our middle school principal, is on the right. Scott, or more precisely his stamp of approval, is the big tuna. Let me explain. Scott Given visited our middle school in October 2008, after we had been open one month.

Scott is a former charter school principal, from Excel Academy. It's one of the best in Massachusetts. Now he is planning a "school turnaround" effort for a district school.

Scott thought MATCH Middle School was terrible during that 2008 visit. Rated us 3 out of 10.

He visited again last month. He wrote:

I was blown away. It was a completely different school. I'd rate it an 8 or 9 out of 10.

General impression is that student engagement level is very high—percentage of kids on task learning. Tutorial range 80-100 percent at all times, which is really strong. Classes 75-90%. That’s great, not 100%, but if I were school leader I’d be really happy.

Tutorials—procedures very consistent now—

Do-now start to each period was very good. I liked the tight close to each period — you could hear a pin drop in the Big Hall. Very objective driven, tangible goals for a tutorial period. Students didn’t get distracted—very respectful to other students. Lemov techniques were abundantly in action.

Multiple times I saw individuals –- adults -- picking up pieces of paper, a clear indication of sweating the small stuff.

Three thoughts:

1. Do you want the big tuna? What holds true for individual teachers, holds true for whole institutions. When you really want to be good, instead of just saying you want to be good, you have to invite the very observers/evaluators who will rip you apart.

We knew our middle school was pretty good by "normal standards." Many visitors praised the school. Indeed, the 2008-09 MCAS growth scores for our 6th graders were in the top 20% of the state, and near the top in Boston.

But our school that first year was not good when compared to top charter schools. And that's what we wanted for our kids: top-notch education.

2. Sue Walsh. Our team had improved many things over the next two years. But it wasn't until this September that we got the culture right.

What changed?

I've long been mentored by Linda Brown. Ever since I was a scraggly grad student trying to make her 8am Saturday seminars in the 1990s, she's provided me with bagels and wisdom.

Linda founded a program called Building Excellent Schools. Their main business is training charter school founders. They're the best. Sue Walsh has been her chief collaborator for years.

BES has a little side business of training existing principals. Sue worked this summer and fall with our principal, Lisa Hwang. It was incredible.

Sue helped Lisa work with the teachers to establish a consistent culture -- all the little things. That's what Scott Given was seeing (see below) in his 2008 observation. We didn't sweat the little things properly.

This new, better guided effort -- the sweat equity of Lisa and the teachers and tutors and staff, but now directed coherently -- has freed up teachers to now focus more on curriculum, assessment, and their own questioning of kids.

It's not that behavior issues disappear. There are still boulders, rocks, pebbles, and sand. But more of these issues are pebbles than in our first two years.

3. BES's website has one word: "Driven." Our principal, Lisa, is driven. There's no substitute. It would be easy for her in 2008 to have said something like:

A *$&% Three Out of Ten? That was Scott's rating? Ten other people visited and said our school is excellent! I'm working as hard as I can. Plus Fernando (an excellent teacher) was out that day. And Scott only visited for one morning -- that's not a large enough sample size. Who the hell is this guy?

But that was not Lisa's reaction. Instead, she is driven. She wants to reel in a school that shines. So she hungers for authentic, candid feedback.

We all think we like authentic, candid feedback. But we don't. Because of dopamine.

Most principals legitimately care about kids. But not all principals are driven. How do you know who's who?

All principals get hammered with the Issue Du Jour.

a. A lame principal ducks that issue or tries to sweep under rug.

b. A good principal uses effort and judgment to handle it well.

c. But only a driven principal can both deal with the Issue Du Jour, and try to dig out and still work on school culture and teaching quality.

For example, here's an incident I pulled from old emails:

X (12 years sold) had a full-blown meltdown today. After destroying 2 rooms, he left the school and wandered all-around yelling disrespectful things. He threw a few things at Z (our social worker), too.

We called the police and the BEST team who took him to the ER for evaluation. Turned out he had not taken his meds. Also, he's going through some behavior regression because M is moving away, and he has no other male role models.

That's an Issue Du Jour. Issues like that never stop. Like snowflakes -- no two alike. When teachers wonder "Why doesn't my principal drop in to see me teach more often?" the culprit is probably IDJ.

It is hard for any principal to both handle the list of "Urgent" tasks (IDJ), and attend to the list of "Important but not Urgent" tasks (i.e., does not need to be handled today). You have to be driven to attend to both tasks.

Luckily, this combo -- Lisa's drive, Sue's expertise and excellent coaching -- resulted this year in the transformational improvement that Scott Given described.

When we survey our staff, they still describe having a long way to go before we truly build the school we want. That's good. They're hungry. But it's nice to celebrate the progress.

*

Here are excerpts Scott's email from back in October 2008:

Michael,

Thank you for the opportunity to visit MATCH’s new middle school on Wednesday, 10/8. I have included general observations as well as associated recommendations below. Feel free to pass along to Lisa, Danny, and whoever else may be an appropriate recipient.

Please keep in mind that my observations and recommendations are not absolute (i.e. big picture, you have a good thing going at the school, especially given that you are not even two months into the first year), but rather they are relative to the experiences I have had over the last three years at Excel Academy and to the other observations I have made at high performing middle schools in the Northeast.

My only objective in making the feedback constructive is to help you grow an amazing “no excuses” middle school.

Scott divided his thoughts into two categories.

A. Behavioral/Other Expectations for Students 1. Behavioral expectations for students are very low; as a result, student behavior is poor. General examples of poor behavior – as well as the associated teacher responses – observed include:

· Frequent student-to-student communication during class* o Teacher response: ~50% ignored and ~50% redirected without consequence; teachers frequently talk over student murmurs and whispers · 70-80% disengagement during classroom direct instruction (i.e. not tracking teacher, not following basic teacher instructions, only 5-6 hands raised in response to basic teacher questions)* o Teacher response: no response; also, there is a limited level of explicit direction given to 6th grade students (i.e. direction about exactly what students should be doing every second of the class period), which contributes to disengagement · 60-70% poor posture during classroom direct instruction* o Teacher response: no response · Frequent “calling out” while teacher is speaking o Teacher response: ~50% of call outs ignored; ~50% of call outs considered legitimate and responded to by teacher.

*Note: these behaviors were especially prevalent in the back rows of each classroom. This is in part driven by the fact that teachers seem tied to the chalk board and front of classroom.

2. Because relatively minor infractions are tolerated (i.e. not consequenced), students escalate quickly to more disruptive and disrespectful behaviors. Examples include: · Disrespectful comments made by students during class discussion o Teacher responses were varied, but included: “I don’t know quite how to respond to that.” o Teacher response at Excel: student immediately referred to Dean of Students’ office to fill out reflection form, have conversation with Dean, and participate in family phone call. Decision made by Dean whether to suspend student or not. (I observed 2-3 comments for which students would have been OSS at Excel.) · Disrespectful laughter when students makes error reading aloud (i.e. can’t pronounce word) o Teacher response: Teacher gets extremely upset/frustrated, lectures class, and sends three students to hallway. o Teacher response at Excel: Stop everything, even if muttered laughter. Teacher likely would not continue lesson for day and would instead discuss the incident for the rest of the class period. Class would be on silent break/lunch and without outdoor recess for ~one week.

Note: In total, I observed approximately 10-12 infractions that would have resulted in Out-of-School-Suspension at Excel Academy.

3. During both observed instances of a consequence (demerit) being issued, students responded disrespectfully. Here is one specific example:

Teacher: “Gary, that’s a demerit.” Student : But he was putting it on my desk! Teacher: It doesn’t matter. Student: What kind of demerit is it? Teacher: (inaudible) Student: Ah, come on! (Smacks teeth)

4. Expectations for neatness organization are not as high as they need to be. For example: · Students have various, scattered materials on their desks that end up becoming distractions during class time. · Crates in back of the classroom are not well-organized. · The classrooms are left messy and disorganized after Period 7 (i.e. just before transition to Enrichment)

Scott also commented on our system. Basically, we had the classic issue: we told the kids one thing, but generally didn't hold them accountable.

B. Behavioral Systems and Staff Application of Consequences 1. From brief conversations with Lisa and Danny, my basic understanding of the behavior system is as follows: · Students earn demerits for behavioral infractions · Demerits carry certain deduction values specific to the infractions (e.g., talking = 1 deduction) · Students who accumulate certain thresholds of consequences earn “TCB,” served the following day. The first threshold earns the student TCB during lunch; the second threshold earns the student TCB during lunch and afternoon recess · The school is exploring ways to hold TCB/detention afterschool (daily) and on Friday afternoons.

I am concerned about the application and enforcement of this system. During my visit (approximately 100 minutes), staff members instructed students to “be quiet,” “stop talking,” or some close variation of this direction – in response to students’ talking at inappropriate times – a total of 74 times.

Only once was this command coupled with a consequence (i.e. a demerit).

As a result: · It is unclear in students’ minds what qualifies as acceptable vs. unacceptable behavior.

· Demerits become a bigger deal in students’ minds than they need to be (solely due to their infrequency of being issued)

· Further, when a staff member does issue a demerit, it seems unfair in the eyes of the student (perhaps rightly so), as the teacher did not issue this consequence for numerous other infractions that were quite similar. Similarly, one teacher may issue a demerit for one infraction, while the next teacher does not, which also creates fairness issues in the students’ eyes.

(Note: the inconsistency and infrequency of consequences extended beyond talking out of turn. The one non-talking demerit issuance that I observed was given for an infraction that was minor relative to many “unconsequenced” infractions observed in the same class period.)

Unfortunately, this is a vicious cycle. As students react with more and more emotion to each demerit, staff members are more hesitant to issue consequences, based on fear/avoidance of disruption from the student. Thus, they more frequently give warnings in place of demerits.

Scott also found:

· Drastically different bars, from teacher to teacher, for when students are told to leave class for misbehavior · Student laughter in the classroom when a peer is told to leave the classroom · Extremely soft/nurturing administrative response to students who are sent out of class by teachers · Unclear consequences associated with removal from classroom

He made 12 recommendations.

We implemented some of them, but it wasn't until Sue Walsh's help that Lisa described really knowing the fine-grained details of how.