Saturday, December 27, 2008

How we dropped our student failure rate by 75%

We set a staff goal to decrease our student course failures by 50%. As the early numbers trickle in, we are on path to reduce the course failures by over 75% from this same time last year. We’re so excited that we wanted to share our success with other schools.

Part of being a principal involves worrying about our students. If we don’t worry we probably should find a different line of work. In terms of academic failure there are always a few names that come quickly to our mind.

Last year’s student support group spent a lot of time worrying. Every week seemed the same. A typical example is as follows: We’d open with a short prayer and then go over the academic failure list. The same names peppered the list every week and the explanation was usually the same. Billy struggles to turn in homework. Sally is a poor test taker and her teacher in that class has the majority of points coming from tests and quizzes. Jake is a good student and talented but doesn’t come to school very often and seems to have a finesse for missing Mondays. I’m sure your school has students similar to Billy, Sally, and Jake. We were great at identifying the issues and giving the warning talk but no changes really took place. Some students fell through the cracks and ended up at the local alternative school. Others fell off the path to on-time graduation and enrolled in the neighboring public school where graduation requirements are not as strict.

Our administrative team resolved to make the 2008-2009 results different. Over the summer we created a plan of action with our leadership team of establishing various student support teams. We divided the students into six groups by alphabet and created six teams consisting of an administrator, a counselor, and two teachers. The teams met a minimum of twice a month and monitored students assigned to their alphabetic group. Each meeting consisted of not only identifying the issue but also the plan for improvement with the requirement that the plan be tied to a measurable goal for improvement. The team would decide which individual member would follow up with the identified student and what the plan of action would be as well as the measurable goal. The teams would follow up in two weeks and if the student hadn’t met the goal, a new course of action would be set. Everything was logged in a google doc that team members could reference.

Here’s an example: In early October Billy presents on the weekly failure list as carrying an F average in two classes: Geometry and English. As the team meets they pull up his grades via our online grade network and see Billy is missing eight of ten homework assignments and is at a 69.5% in English due to a low test grade on the 1st half of “Brave New World” by Huxley. The team decides to set a goal for Billy of completing his missing homework by the next check in period and earning a C or better on the next exam. Billy’s English teacher offers a study session before and after school the day before any test. The teacher assigned to work with Billy goes over the plan and Billy agrees to it (freewill is important). After two weeks Billy has pulled up his English grade but is still failing Geometry and has only turned in two of the missing homework assignments. At the next meeting the team see’s Billy’s status and discusses with Billy and his parents (via phone) that Billy needs to finish the missing homework assignments and can attend morning peer-to-peer tutoring for help. Billy agrees… and on and on.

As the semester went on, the effectiveness of the interventions was tied to the strength of the relationship created between the team and their students. Parents were ecstatic about the help being offered their children. They were also impressed with how well our staff knew their child. Looking for the Friday afternoon’s failure list became an exciting event to see who had made progress and who hadn’t.

These teams also helped build a spirit of fellowship between the various administrators. Friendly competitions and side wagers took place between the various teams as they jockeyed to have the lowest failure rate. But in the end it was the students who benefitted the most. Seeing a student move from the failure list towards their potential is an exciting thing to watch.

What is more astounding is the number of creative collaborative ideas that have come out of these meetings. We are creating mini-courses on test taking skills for those students struggling with tests. We’ve formed a peer-tutoring program. We’re working on a homeroom plan for next year that creates a special study homeroom for students who are failing as well as Saturday homework days for those lagging behind.

I wish we could report 100% success with our student body but there still remains a handful of failures.

Here is a link to the google doc with names removed. link here

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Finding Time for Holistic Education

This week we are featuring our first guest blogger: Mr. Dave Worland from Cathedral High School in Indianapolis.

I am a principal of a Catholic High School with the following Mission Statement.
Cathedral High School Mission
Cathedral, a Catholic college preparatory high school, provides to a diverse group of students opportunities
for spiritual, intellectual, social, emotional and physical growth through service and academic excellence.

I believe that most Catholic schools probably have a similar mission statement.

As principal, I find it challenging to try to fit a holistic education into 180 school days, including Masses, pep assemblies, reconciliation services, prayer services, guest speakers, professional development, and service learning. We have tried combining breaks in the schedule so that if we have one program and a different than normal schedule, we have two events in the same day. This does help us have more undisturbed school days (which keeps the faculty happier), but still leaves me wondering if we are stretching our students too thin.

I have looked at possible solutions (i.e., having more than 180 days), but know that it will be difficult to be a private, Catholic school in today’s economy when we will have to pay the faculty/staff for more days, provide some bus transportation for these days, and perhaps lose some part of the population with such a move.

I am wondering what other schools in similar situations have done.

Here is a link to a survey to help share how your school addresses these issues: link here

How to Identify Great Teaching

What are the qualities that truly set “star” teachers apart from their mediocre or average colleagues? If we could answer the above question accurately and guide teacher development along these lines powerful learning could take place.

Perhaps the single greatest factor in any school’s effectiveness is the quality of instruction that takes place. Well designed backward curriculum, deeply funded technology resources, and sparking state-of the art facilities are all rendered irrelevant by incompetent teachers. Even the much-haled small class size has less of an impact than high quality instructors. I’d place my own children in a room with thirty other students and a great teacher over a room with ten and an average teacher any day of the week.

As principals we are uniquely aware of all the side issues that go along with bad teaching. The constant phone calls, class drops, requests for preferential placement, and disappointed families could all be avoided by having a school filled with only high quality excellent teachers. Sounds dreamy doesn’t it? As principals, we all know when the phone rings and it is a call “not about playing time” that the concern is probably focused around the two or three worst teachers in terms of instructional quality.

Malcolm Gladwell in a recent article for the “New Yorker” comparing quarterbacks, financial traders, and teachers has highlighted one skill that is universally found with all excellent teachers: high quality personal feedback.

The quality of personalized feedback is perhaps the largest single indicator of classroom effectiveness. An example Gladwell sites from a Virginia study is shared below.

"Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which Pianta said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

“In a group like this, the standard m.o. would be: he’s at the board, broadcasting to the kids, and has no idea who knows what he’s doing and who doesn’t know,” Pianta said. “But he’s giving individualized feedback. He’s off the charts on feedback.” Pianta and his team watched in awe"

Gladwell goes on to raise the issue of whether teacher prep programs are valid in terms of these skills. The argument of whether good teaching is innate or can be taught is worth taking up. Take a minute or two and read the full article here: link to New Yorker article.

What has been your experience as a principal? What are the key characteristics you find that excellent teachers share? When you hire, how important are formal credentials like certificates and state mandated qualifications? Do you know of any metric to measure the quality of teacher feedback?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Recession Rescue for Schools

As the economic news turns bleaker and bleaker it is probably time Catholic school principals begin looking at budgeting in light of the coming recession. Every school, given their socioeconomic makeup and geographic location will face the coming storm with varying levels of severity. I've been digging into some research into Catholic school enrollments during the Great Depression but have begun to realize the makeup and economics of private schools were radically different then. Our students are not by and large immigrants and few of us operate with 95% religious staff, no technology needs, and no employee health premiums to pay. Therefore comparisons go only so far. I'm hoping those of you who were school administrators during the most recent tech bubble burst and slide in the late 1980's can offer some words of wisdom.

In general i've been discussing these issues with some long standing members of various school finance committees and local principals and we've come up with some general ideas and points of action that may be helpful in weathering the storm. Take them all with a grain of salt because every recession is unique.

1. Evaluate School Foundations and Explore Options for Tapping them in an Appropriate Way: Most Catholic high schools operate with some type of foundation. Usually these foundations manage or oversee the investments of the school's endowment. Earnings are typically applied towards operating costs at a certain rate or earmarked towards financial assistance at many schools. Exploring the nature of your endowment and the willingness of whoever manages it to reexamine its use protocols in light or emergency situations is important. Granted accessing these funds when the market has given them a rather awful beating may not be wise. But if the recession is for a few years it could provide the cash flow needed to prevent major staff cuts.

2. Evaluate and alter R.I.F. policies to give more freedom: Some schools and diocese have reduction in force (RIF) policies some don't. They are often based on seniority. Deciding who to let go is never fun. Although the policies provide some guidance they also raise other issues. Most base cuts off of seniority or religious affiliation. Last one in first one out or sacrifice the non-Catholics first are the usual procedures. Another issue revolves letting go of staff who are already receiving pensions from the public school. Although it could probably be construed as ageism it certainly feels more just to try to keep around those who need the job to survive and feed their families as opposed to the double dip.

3. Freezes and Frills: Freezing or halting contributions to 403 b and defined benefit plans for a year or two is another way to avoid laying off staff. It is fairly easy to calculate your annual savings. Freezing pay for a year or two saves money as well. These decisions of course come loaded with massive negative affect if the direness of the situation is not explained. Most people can go along with the halting of the 403b for a while, suspension of free lunches, and watering down the free coffee in the lounge but let's be fair most of the cost is associated with salaries so the bulk of savings will have to come from there. Going paperless and handing out less chalk isn't going to slash 300 k from anyone's budget. Cutting out "frills" is another way to cut back. Maybe the soccer team wears the same uniform for another year, the parking lot lines fade a bit more, and the roof with a patch is much more cost effective than a new one. Pay freezes across the board also save money but can cause some staff to look for employment elsewhere.

4. Staff Cuts: No easy way around them. Basing the cuts on the least minimal impact to the quality of education is the best way to go. This translates into cuts across departments and administration not just throwing out art and music. Schools need fine arts, PE, and broad curriculum offerings to remain competitive and advance their mission. They need counselors, administrators, and support staff. Spreading the cuts across the whole school at least helps maintain the integrity of the academic programs. It may make you universally hated by the staff but at least the kids suffer the least.

If you have any other ideas please share the with our readers by commenting below.