Greg Kushnir

Greg Kushnir is a full-time educational speaker working with schools and districts to develop Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). An educator for more than 30 years, he is a former high school and middle school teacher, middle school assistant principal, and K–6 principal.

Redesigning Our Schools: How Can We Do That?

I recently had the opportunity to attend the RTI at Work Institute™ in Edmonton, Canada. One of the great things about attending a Solution Tree Institute is the opportunity to learn alongside educators from all over North America. The opportunity to hear different perspectives and ways of thinking around the school improvement process is an invaluable learning experience.

The opening keynote delivered by professional learning community (PLC) and response to intervention (RTI) expert, Mike Mattos, was called “Redesigning Our Schools for All Students: Embracing the RTI at Work™ Process.” During the next 90 minutes, Mike proceeded to make the case for why a multitiered system of support (MTSS) was necessary and how a MTSS could help all students learn at high levels.

To help make his case, he asked the educators in attendance if they agreed with the following fundamental assumptions:

  • Not all students learn the same way
  • Not all students learn at the same speed
  • Some students lack prior skills and knowledge
  • Some students lack proper behaviors
  • Some students have a home life that is counterproductive to academic success

It didn’t take the room of teachers long to realize that each of those assumptions is a true statement. I, too, agreed with these assumptions. However, it was the last statement that got me really thinking.

We know that some students or, as is the case in high-poverty schools, many students come from homes that can’t or won’t support their academic success. We also know that there is precious little we can do to change the home life of our students. So if we know this to be true, why do so many teachers and schools waste their energy wishing the kids had better parents?

Focusing on things outside of our control is self-defeating and demotivating, which leads to frustration and a resignation by teachers that their situation is hopeless and that change is not possible. Left unchecked, this practice sends the school into a never-ending death spiral of poor performance and self pity.

How important is changing this practice? Considering that the number one factor influencing school performance on John Hattie’s list—with an astonishing effect size of 1.57—is collective teacher efficacy, I would contend it’s pretty important!

According to Hattie, collective teacher efficacy is more than just making teachers feel good about themselves, it requires evidence of effectiveness. To truly take hold, and become an influencing factor strong enough to overcome poverty, the efforts of the teachers have to actually improve achievement.

As I work with schools across North America, I find that principals are great at praising their staff, unfortunately the focus of that praise is often on how hard they are working rather than how effective they are. The good news is that I usually agree with the principal, their teachers are working really hard. So if all teachers are working hard, it begs the question: why are some more effective than others when it comes to improving learning for all?

It turns out that the secret to improving achievement—regardless of circumstance—and creating a collective evidence-based belief among teachers that they are truly making a difference, isn’t a secret at all. It is, in fact, just common sense.

Enter the PLC process

Schools that become PLCs are not simply working hard, they are working hard on the right things. The fruits of their labor are focused on building shared knowledge around the most effective research-based practices that have been proven to positively impact student learning. This is the genius of the four critical questions that form the primary focus of collaborative teams in a PLC. Each question builds a team’s knowledge and capacity in an area critical to student success.

Question 1 asks, “What do we want all students to learn?” Answering this question requires teams to agree upon the essential standards that they will ensure all students learn at their school. To create this guaranteed and viable curriculum, teams must not only determine essentials, but also must agree upon what level of performance constitutes proficiency.

Answering Question 2, “How do we know if they have learned it?” requires teams to become skilled at creating common formative assessments. This powerful practice serves three important purposes. First, it enables teachers to compare the effectiveness of their instructional approach and learn about which instructional approach was most effective for this group of students. Second, teachers can provide specific targeted feedback to students to help them understand their next steps in learning. Third, teams use this data to group students by individual skills for targeted intervention and enrichment.

Question 3, “What will we do if they don’t learn?” and Question 4, “What do we do if they already know?” require teams to create a MTSS. An effective MTSS can guarantee additional time and support for students requiring intervention while also providing meaningful enrichment for students who are already meeting agreed upon levels of proficiency.

Schools that function as professional learning communities have an unrelenting focus on problem solving rather than problem identification. They work collaboratively on the right work and take collective responsibility to achieve gains in student achievement. By focusing on factors they actually control, they create schools that serve the needs of all students, regardless of the homes they come from. Results are achieved that were previously unattainable leading to the development of a staff that doesn’t just believe they are making a difference—they can prove it.

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