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May 10, 2012

Prying into practice

My week began with a visit to Mike Convery, the Superintendent of Coventry Public Schools. His is one of the most interesting districts in the State, and here is what I learned this time. The district has developed a functioning RTI-based system they call SWAT: School Work Armed with Timer. I know, a silly acronym, but just wait to hear what this us. I also suspect the silly name is intentional – to bring the whole conversation about data use and RTI closer home somewhat.

Three released teachers (which they call the RTI PD coordinators) – go around schools and assess student progress three times a year. Each student may get up to 15 scores in different areas of reading, math, etc. This is already somewhat revolutionary, for assessment has always been in the hands of instructors. It always struck me as odd, because of the inherent conflict of interest. To my knowledge, only the Western Governors University and Coventry Public Schools have actually done something about it; not without a struggle. A software system called RTImDirect is fed the data, and it produces color-coded lists of students which identify the specific risks they may have. Then principals and teachers hold the grade-level data meetings (yes, they are in the contract!) where they figure out strategies to bring targeted children up to speed. Coventry is already a few years into the implementation of this, so the initial conversations about whether or not this whole thing is right or wrong are over. Mike says that the influence of targeted interventions is so obvious that it became completely undeniable. It took them a while from merely paying lip service to differentiated instruction to actually believing it can work.

My worry is how to insinuate our students into those conversations. How do we get our students into some of the best work that is being done in the State and outside? How can we teach them to be the teachers or tomorrow, not of yesterday? We do send students out to schools – a lot. Moreover, most programs try to select cooperating teachers carefully, including personality matching. On the other hand, there are not many places in the state where one can witness a mature conversation about formative assessment. We make so much emphasis on learning the craft and art of teaching that those other activities are relatively easy to miss. Teacher training is not about the quantity of field experiences. The game has now shifted into providing much focused, targeted field experiences, where we are sure students see exactly what we want them to see, and link it directly to what they have learned in class. It is also true about all education – the density of learning can and should be higher, not its extent. We all are used to use the length of learning (credit hour, contact hours) with its results. The assumption served us well for many years, but no longer does.

Consider practicalities. Coventry is 30 minutes away. SWAT days happen three times a year; the grade-level data meetings – more often, but still easy to miss. They will probably balk at 50 RIC students hanging around, even if we could bring them. And yet we need to be actively prying into practice – not all practice, the best practice, the still rare practice. Teaching changes faster than we can keep up with it. But our ultimate goal should be that our recent graduates can fit in quickly into any advanced district, and can become agents of change in any school that is behind. With all of our faculty experiences, in schools, it is very difficult to count on the past. Many us when we were classroom teachers have not experienced anything like the Coventry-style data conversations. None of us lived through the new teacher evaluation system. We rely heavily on cooperating teachers, who are in classrooms right now, but as I said, not all of them are working at a district where something cutting-edge is going on. Our students get a lot of wisdom, but not always skills needed tomorrow. It is just very difficult for us all to keep up with the field that is so dynamic, and I am not convinced it is a worthy goal. After all, we have different jobs,, and have to keep up with our own research literature. We’re not classroom teachers.

So we need to see the best kinds of practice. And I don’t mean just Coventry; this was more of an example. Many districts and schools are doing many other cool things I’d love our students to see, and I know we cannot replicate in-house. I’d love them all to get the Restorative Practices training by Julia Steiny. It would be fantastic to send them all to some of the best PASA youth groups. I would love every one of them to spend a day in Blackstone Valley or in the Learning Community charter schools. It would really be great to get our students through the series of PD that RIDE is rolling out throughout the State. What I would love the best is for us to have a way of collecting and sharing these kinds of gems, and a way for our students to access them.

If I had a lot of money, I would send a camera crew to film all the gems we can find; not the You-tube random stuff, but something we know and can weave back into our coursework. Or I wish a college instructor could flip a switch and see the actual SWAT process going on in real time, and then have a class of students ask questions – just for 15 minutes, so we’re not too intrusive. But this is not just a dream – we can do it now, with existing technologies. I have to admit, it is still fairly expensive on the human side – to have someone drive, film, edit; to have someone coordinate the schedules, talk to both parties. Then the gems should be incorporated into existing courses, work their way into assignments, earn points… I don’t have a good solution; this is just an invitation to discussion. How do we pry into practice, how do we look deeper than just field experiences?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:38 AM

    That is what is so wonderful about volunteer and service opportunities -it's a way to get candidates in these great schools to see and be a part of these effective practices. We have had teacher candidate volunteers in several of the Coventry schools, in the Learning Community Charter School, in Blackstone Academy Charter School (different from Blackstone Valley), and many more... Through these kinds of placements, candidates have gained access to pd opportunities in STEM, Youth Development and have even become certified as program facilitators in federal initiatives such as Project WILD.-Liz G