TNTP Report Outlines Recipe to Cultivate a High-Performing School
In education, as most endeavors, people always look for the silver bullet – that one thing that will make the difference between bad and good or good and great. And while I firmly believe there is no magic wand to wave in education, TNTP’s recently published report Greenhouse Schools: How Schools Can Build Cultures Where Teachers and Students Thrive provides the right recipe regarding what principals can do to create strong campus cultures that retain effective teachers and help students thrive.
As someone who has taught at both a traditional public school and KIPP, the key findings strike the right chord regarding the differences between my middle-of-the pack traditional school and high-performing KIPP campus, which I hope to unpack below in hopes of highlighting what this looks like in practice, based on my personal experience.
High-performing schools set the entry bar much, much higher: During my KIPP interview, I was required to give a sample lesson, debrief with the principal, and do it again to prove that I not only had command of the classroom, but possessed the internal drive and ability to continuously grow in my craft. In contrast, my interview at my first school was 30 minutes and consisted of basic questions, such as, “what are three of your top strengths?” Going from my traditional school to KIPP, the difference in quality was so stark, I honestly felt inadequate compared to my peers, who were either light years ahead or had a natural skill I could never emulate.
High-performing schools set extraordinarily high learning expectations for students: Over the summer, we “KIPPnotized” new 5th grade students by instilling the idea that they were going to college, period. And we told them that in order to accomplish this, they not only must change their academic trajectories, but also the habits and beliefs that unfortunately manifest themselves in low-performing schools. This intense focus on student learning, and the understanding that it was our job to do whatever it took to get them there, permeated the campus. Compared to my other campus, where state assessment results and student misbehavior were the talk of the lunchroom, this intense focus gave us a collective mission.
Real instructional leadership matters for driving student learning: There was not a day that went by that my principal (and, sometimes, visitors), didn’t stop by my classroom to see what was going on and to provide feedback. In contrast, my principal was in my classroom for, maybe, a total of 50 minutes my first two years. As a new teacher, and one who felt like I was drowning my first year, this was obviously demoralizing. This experience demonstrates why Delaware’s Race to the Top plan includes additional support for school leaders. For example, development coaches provide school leaders with advanced training and targeted assistance to better support teachers in their buildings.
Professional development opportunities should be well planned and facilitated: In this regard, I was both disappointed in the professional development offered at both schools but extremely grateful for the institutional knowledge readily available. At my first school, my science coordinator was absolutely critical in ensuring that I got my legs under me while the KIPP science team constantly utilized our collective abilities to design and implement an innovative science curriculum throughout our campus.
Good and bad performance is responded to appropriately: To me, this area is personal and one of the primary reasons I left the classroom to enter policy. Long story short, after two weeks, I displaced a 30-year veteran who, quite frankly, bored kids to sleep (it was my job as co-teacher to wake them up, seriously) and didn’t provide the hands-on, interactive environment necessary to teach science. After taking the reigns of 5th grade science, the teacher stayed at the school and had (again, not exaggerating) a six-hour courseload each week. In contrast, KIPP let a couple teachers go after the summer once it was apparent that they weren’t up to snuff. As the report highlights, at high-performing schools, conventional wisdom is turned on its head in that dismissing poor-performers doesn’t hurt campus culture; instead, failing to take action and letting ineffectiveness persist actually weakens the group’s dynamics.
As with all things, there are many caveats embedded that must be accounted for (i.e. evaluation results must be seen as valid in order to differentiate performance, time must be allotted for peer to peer observation in order to get actionable feedback, etc.). But, as this report details, the right mix of solutions are within reach for us all and aren’t anything new; however, as highlighted last week, the work will continue to be difficult as we continue to build greenhouse schools that empower educators to provide all students access to an excellent education.