Friday, January 10, 2014

Function Junction, Part 3

I stumbled into an amazing opportunity when I started working in Holliston in 2007. The standards movement was in full swing by this point and most districts were purchasing and implementing monolithic math programs from major publishers. Buying a math program from a major publisher gave a district political cover (just like nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, nobody could point a finger at you if you bought the newest and most popular textbook series from Pearson) and it was an expedient way to ensure consistency across classrooms. But before making a purchasing decision, Holliston had decided to conduct a thorough curriculum review of all content areas first, and the math review would not take place until 2010.

When you adopt a monolithic math program from a major publisher, you are basically handing a script to the teachers. The program will come with supplementary materials that you can plug into the program, but none of the core materials are ever designed to be swapped out. The publishers learned to make their programs as idiot-proof as possible after the standard-based math programs of the 1990s were plagued by steep learning curves. But asking teachers to gain a deep understanding of the standards and the curriculum, and then handing them a script, does not make sense. It is also highly disrespectful. To do the work we needed to do, the teachers needed room to experiment and explore, and the district had to be open to the possibility of teachers developing a better curriculum themselves.

Luckily, the curriculum review schedule gave us the window of opportunity we needed. The middle school math department was using an old textbook series from Scott Foresman, but no one really liked it, everyone knew it was on the way out, and most teachers were already heavily supplementing it with other materials. And a replacement textbook series was still several years away. We had time to experiment with new units and instructional strategies, and then inject this new learning into the curriculum review process.

In 2006, the year before I came onboard, there had been a major, district-wide push to identify power standards. This work was designed to pave the way for the curriculum reviews to follow. It did not go well. Power standards are suppose to point you to a guaranteed, viable curriculum. The ones we identified pointed in random and contradictory directions; instead of bringing clarity, they brought confusion. The district had hired high-priced consultants to lead the work, but now those consultants were gone. Jessica, the principal of the middle school, hired me to get things back on track.

Throwing away a year's worth of work that the teachers had done and rebooting the entire power standards process in the middle school was hard, but that is what we did. It was hard, but it was also necessary if the curriculum reviews that we were starting were going to be guided by a deep understanding of curriculum and not deeply-held beliefs based on nothing more than superstition and old wives' tales. The second set of power standards we identified in 2007 at the middle school were much better. Teachers could see how the power standards helped them understand the curriculum and they appreciated why we had asked them to do the work over again.

Imagine that a software company decides to implement a code review system to make sure that the code it produces is easy to scale and maintain. What would happen if the system didn't work? Would they just move on or try again until it did work? Schools routinely implement systems that don't work. The power standards identified by schools don't work 99% of the time. Professional learning communities implemented in schools don't work 99% of the time. The reason this happens is because the administrators in those schools don't expect those systems to make a difference. A system is implemented to implement a system, not to achieve a specific outcome.

At the middle school, we worked on our power standards until our teachers gained a much deeper understanding of the standards and the curriculum. In the end, our teachers found the power standards useful and wanted to continue building on them. The principals, curriculum specialists, and department heads at the high school and elementary schools did not expect anything from their power standard work, so they took one pass at it and were ready to move on. Their power standards ended up in a binder on a shelf in someone's office, never to be looked at again.

Instead of confronting the other schools and asking them to redo their power standards, perhaps with guidance from the middle school, the superintendent and assistant superintendent for curriculum both decided to take what they could learn from the power standard experience and apply it to a second initiative. Since power standards hadn't work, the district would now use Understanding by Design and Atlas Rubicon (a collaborative curriculum mapping tool) to drive the curriculum review process. We were still encouraged to use power standards at the middle school, but we had to integrate them into these other systems and we would have to work on power standards on our own time.

To do this work, you need someone who can provide coaching to teachers on a daily basis and can read situations on the ground well enough to tack when necessary. But you also need someone who can champion the work at an administrative level and work with fellow administrators when necessary. Everything that I was doing with teachers also needed to happen with the administrators, but I wasn't in a position to do that. For most of my time in Holliston, I had carte blanche in my role as curriculum specialist. My bosses trusted my judgment and trusted me to do my work well. They supported the work that I was doing. Unfortunately, when you have carte blanche and no one is looking over your shoulder, your bosses don't always know what you are doing. And because no one really knew what I was doing, no one could help me when I needed to interact with the high school or the special education department. For the work to move forward, more and more people needed to come onboard. I could do that within my departments in the middle school, but not beyond them.

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