Culture

Attendance is to school what rebounding is to basketball!

Author’s Note: September is Attendance Awareness Month

Attendance is to school what rebounding is to basketball—it is hard work, requires effort and persistence, and it often goes unrewarded and unrecognized, but schools cannot be successful without it. Improving school attendance is a matter of will. It requires a multi-pronged effort over several years to break the culturally supported cycle. Even the best schools have a significant number of students who are chronically absent.

Good school attendance, particularly in high-needs schools is more about attracting students than about promoting attendance. While having the right attendance laws and procedures in place are important in the short-run. In the long-run, a school must create a safe, orderly, and student-centered school culture that attracted students.

  • Our school had to become a place where students felt wanted and where they wanted to be.
  • We had to be a school in which every student expected to succeed every day.
  • We had to be the kind of school in which each and every student was both known and valued.
  • We had to be the kind of school that students wanted to attend and hated to leave.
  • We had to be a school that had to work to get students to leave the building at the end of the day, not one that had to work to get students to attend.

To be that school, we had to provide a safe, clean, orderly, warm and inviting school environment built on quality relationships. In addition, we had to create a culture of success in which students came to school expecting to succeed while knowing that their teachers would not stand bye and allow them to fail.

We learned from experience that when kids miss school they miss out, and when kids miss out, we all suffer. In our school, attendance, along with school wide literacy, was a priority. We served large numbers of under-resourced students who needed extra support and encouragement in order to attend school on a regular basis.

USA Today reports that research suggests that as many as 7.5 million students miss a month of school each year, raising the likelihood that they’ll fail academically and eventually (more…)

Upping the Price of Teacher Absenteeism

By Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

In a recent post, Mel Riddile explained in great detail one of the primary reasons for the academic success of the students at our school—low teacher absenteeism. The conclusion of his post accurately summarized the overall plan:

“We trusted our teachers and treated them like the professionals they were. They trusted us and cared about their students and fellow teachers. They took ownership of the problem and the solution. Our teachers didn’t feel as though they needed to sneak around or feel guilty because they were absent. Many of the substitutes developed a loyalty to the school and would only sub for us. They felt wanted and appreciated. In this scenario everyone wins. We had the lowest teacher absence rate and the highest percentage of class coverage by substitutes and the best pool of quality substitute teachers in our entire school district. Most importantly, we faced a challenge together and we solved another problem by trusting each other and working together.”

The problems inherent in teacher absenteeism are obvious. It is common knowledge that any time a student misses a class it has a highly negative impact on their academic progress. A classroom without its regular teacher is the equivalent of twenty-five students losing a day of instruction multiplied by every period in that day. In addition, as Dr. Riddle points out, the costs in teacher coverage and potential additional administrative discipline issues increases the price exponentially.

The view from the classroom

In his post Dr. Riddile listed a number of important steps that resulted in lowering teacher absenteeism. But there was one that was the most important from the perspective of the classroom instructor: (more…)

Teacher Attendance and School Culture – Revisited

Note: This is an update of an article originally posted on June 3, 2014

“Culture eats strategies for breakfast.”–Peter Drucker

Great schools can be average in some areas, but great schools cannot have a glaring weakness and be considered great. Great schools find a way to solve the problems that stifle or debilitate good schools.

Increased accountability coupled with new, more rigorous standards and more challenging assessments place increased pressure on principals to improve classroom instruction. Maximizing instructional time is a key way to raise student achievement. Teacher absenteeism and the use of substitute teachers, which reduce instructional time, have long been problems faced by every school. Faced with budget shortfalls, many districts have resorted to removing teachers from classrooms during the school day in order to attend professional development sessions. Labor agreements have been structured in a way that encourages teacher absence. States have reduced the number of school days in a school year.

While principals often face district and state policies that actually encourage teacher absenteeism, principals can impact teacher attendance. Like every school problem, the long-term solution lies in the culture—attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, expectations, and relationships—of the school.

In Teacher Absence, Leading Indicators, and Trust, Raegen Miller made some important points regarding teacher attendance pointing to the need to look more closely at school culture:

  • If teachers’ presence in the classroom matters so much, shouldn’t we pay more attention to teachers’ absences?
  • Professional culture in a school can exert a strong influence over the leave-taking behavior of its teachers
  • Forty-five percent of the variation in teacher absence is between schools working under the same district and state parameters.
  • Paying attention to teacher absence gets at the professional culture in schools through the notion of trust, a universal human tension if ever there was one. In particular, theory and evidence point to trust between teachers and management as a moderator of teacher absences.

Teacher Attendance and Student Achievement

Here is the reality. When teachers are absent, students lose valuable instructional time. No matter how qualified they are, substitute teachers do not improve student achievement. “When I was absent I knew that my classes would regress no matter who was the substitute or how well I planned.” – Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

A recent study indicates that teacher attendance is an overlooked factor in improving student achievement. “Given the time and attention spent on school programs, new curriculum and strategies to strengthen teacher quality,” the report’s authors wrote, “we may be overlooking one of the most basic, solvable and cost effective reasons why schools may fail to make education progress.”

The study goes on to point out the following:

  • One in six teachers in some of the country’s largest public school districts are out of the classroom at least 18 days, or more than 10 percent of the time, for illness, personal reasons and professional development.
  • Overall teacher attendance rate is 94 percent.
  • Districts spend an average of $1,800 per teacher to cover absences each year.
  • No measurable relationship between teacher absence and the poverty levels of a school’s students
  • No difference in absentee rates among districts with policies meant to encourage attendance, such as paying teachers for unused sick time, and districts without those incentives.

A study by the Columbia University School of Business offers some interesting findings:

  • Substitutes are worse than the regular teacher. “In teaching, the person with whom an absent teacher is replaced is clearly worse in a substantial way. Substitute teachers are less likely to be highly skilled, since otherwise the chances are she would already have found a full-time teaching job. Even if a substitute is highly skilled, there is a start-up cost: just because someone has a degree in math doesn’t mean she can hop in and be a great sixth-grade math teacher.”
  • Students do worse in years when their teacher takes more time off.
  • “When a teacher takes an extended medical leave, it causes a drop in math and English test scores on par with putting a rookie teacher in the place of a teacher with four years of experience for an entire year.”
  • Shorter absences are more detrimental than longer ones. Ten one-day absences over the course of a year were found to lower student scores more than when a teacher missed two consecutive weeks.
  • Incentives for teachers to not be absent don’t work.

A Short Success Story

I received a call from the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. He was calling to arrange a time for his staff to visit our high school. Unbeknownst to me, our school had the highest rate of substitute coverage for absent teachers in a district of approximately 270 schools.

In our school, when a teacher was absent, we had substitute coverage approximately 96% of the time. I was shocked to learn that other high schools averaged 65% coverage. In addition, our school had the highest teacher attendance among the almost 30 high schools in the district.

This came as a shock to the district staff because (more…)

School Can Use Some “Pixar Magic”

“Hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions.” – Pixar co-founder, Ed Cattail

Pixar magic,” is a phrase film critics frequently employ to describe the studio’s impressive track record of box office success–all 14 of its movies have debuted in the top spot at the box office.

In a recent interview, Pixar co-founder, Ed Catmull, discusses his new book, Creativity Inc. , and says ‘reframing the concept of failure is the only sure way to find success.’

The keys to Pixar’s Succcess:

  • Pixar’s success is the product of a deliberate attitude toward creativity and failure.
  • How do you make it safe for people to say what they think or that it’s safe for them to make mistakes/fail?
  • The answer: “Reframe the concept of failure. 
When you start something new, you will make mistakes, and if you don’t make mistakes you’re either copying yourself or copying someone else.”
  • Each failed concept brings the ultimate creation closer!
  • Each idea led them a bit closer to finding the better option.
  • This is key: when experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work, even when it is confounding them.”

Key Lessons from Pixar for School Leaders

  • Whether implementing new college- and career-ready standards, introducing new technology, integrating literacy into content areas, implementing new teacher evaluation systems, or employing new performance assessments, all require significant learning and experimentation.
  • Problem: The fear of taking risks and failing and the ensuing reprisals which may follow keeps many of our staff members from trying new things and taking risks.
  • School leaders must create a school culture in which it is okay to make a mistake. I was quoted in one publication “Treat your school as a laboratory. Don’t be afraid of doing something different. If it doesn’t work, go to something else.”
    The following is an excerpt from my colleague, Stuart Singer’s book The Algebra Miracle, on the kind of school culture we created:

“I have two daughters who go to this school and I am thrilled that they do. This faculty approaches education like a laboratory experiment. They try out a hypothesis and then collect the data. If it works, they study it more and try to find ways to make it work better. If it doesn‘t, they try to find out why it failed and either remove it or repair it. It is a never-ending process of evaluation and reevaluation, just as you would if you were trying to perfect any product in a lab.”

  • But how do we do that? Follow Pixar’s lead and “reframe” the concept of failure.
  • Reframing” (a “shift in a person’s mental perspective”) is an important skill for school leaders engaging their staffs in both short- and long-term change initiatives. For example, if teachers believe that literacy is not their responsibility, that they do not have time to teach literacy skills, and that literacy is the job of reading teachers, simply teaching teachers how to use a “close reading” strategy, is doomed to failure unless we can reframe or change our teachers’ mental perspective (mindset) about the need to integrate literacy into their content area. As Simon Sinek advises Start With Why.
  • Compliance Does Not Equal Cooperation – Experience has taught me that without that “shift in perspective” or change in mindset teachers will temporarily comply, but, in the long-run, they will abandon the practice. In other words, a big part of implementing any initiative is aligning existing mindsets to fit the new initiative.
  • Failure is a concept that must be “reframed” if we want to change mindsets and expectations of teachers in relation to assessment and grading as well as the larger issue of student success and failure. Here are some examples of “reframing” failure:

o   There is no failure, only feedback!

o   If you are not failing (making mistakes) you are not learning.

o   As long as you are learning, you are succeeding!

o   The only way to fail in this school is to stop trying, to quit.

o   Failure is permanent. Mistakes are temporary.

o   We learn from mistakes.

o   Each failure only brings us closer to a solution.

o   “If you don’t make mistakes you’re either copying yourself or copying someone else.”

o   People who learn from mistakes learn faster.

o   Feedback is the breakfast of champions!

o   Our school is like a laboratory!

 

Create a Culture That Protects the New

At Pixar, Catmull emphasizes “we are willing to adjust our goals as we learn, striving to get it right, not necessarily to get it right the first time. Because that, to my mind, is the only way to establish something else that is essential to creativity: a culture that protects the new.”

In our school, students would say, “in this school it is hard to fail, because the teachers never give up on you. They won’t let you fail!” I would not hesitate to choose a school whose staff had a growth mindset over a school with a highly-qualified teaching staff.

 

A Dress Code We Can All Live With

by Mel Riddile

As Spring finally arrives, school dress codes are once again front page news. Last year it was “yoga pants.” This year, the controversy revolves around a middle school principal for restricting the wearing of leggings — “popular fashion items that are tight-fitting pants to some, and glorified tights to others”.

No one is immune from the criticisms leveled by the so-called fashion police. Even First Lady, Michelle Obama, has been chastised by the likes of the Washington Post fashion writers, who reminded readers that “none of them (previous first ladies) revealed as much leg as the current first lady.” And that “avoiding the appearance of queenly behavior is politically wise. But it does American culture no favors if a first lady tries so hard to be average that she winds up looking common.”

Some ask “Where Should Schools Set Limits?” In fact, that is the question that many principals are asking. School principals are not fashion experts. They are educators. However, many principals will be forced to become experts on fashion and to enforce student dress code policies, many of which are unenforceable.

Believe me, as a high school principal, the last thing that I wanted to do was worry about dress code policies. The reality of life is that some students will push the envelope and dress so provocatively or inappropriately, often without parent knowledge or approval, that they distract their peers to the point that they disrupt the educational process.

I can remember a prominent legislator confronting me because I had the audacity to send his daughter home to change from her pajamas and slippers into appropriate school attire. I reminded him that, not only did I not discipline his daughter, but that I had personally warned his daughter and her friends not to wear pajamas to school for an upcoming school event.

There are those who argue that the best way to handle the dress code dilemma is to mandate uniforms, such as the blue pants and white shirts worn by Chicago Public Schools students.

Some school systems make a difficult and unpleasant task doable by having policies that are specific enough to be enforceable. In Fairfax County Public Schools (Virginia) student services representatives annually meet with principals and ask for feedback on the current policy. The policy is kept up-to-date, and principals have specific, identifiable behaviors to enforce. The Fairfax County policy is clear and reasonable.

“FCPS respects students’ right to express themselves in the way they dress.  It is important,
however, that their appearance is tasteful and appropriate for a K
12 school setting. 

Clothing and accessories should not:

  Display vulgar, discriminatory, or obscene

language or images

  Promote illegal or violent conduct

  Contain threats or gang symbols

  Promote the unlawful use of weapons,

alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or drug

paraphernalia

  Expose cleavage, private parts, the midriff,

or undergarments, and in the case of pants

the waistband should not fall below the

hips 

  Contain studs

  Be seethrough or sexually provocative

  Include caps or other head coverings unless

required for religious or medical reasons.”

Other school systems take the easy way out and leave the dress code issue totally up to the principal’s judgment. Instead of taking a position, they put the principal on the chopping block. For example, one school system’s policy stated,

“A student’s dress and appearance shall not cause disruption, distract others from the educational process or create a health or safety problem. Students must comply with specific building dress regulations of which students will be given prior notice.”

Upon reading this, I concluded that the local school board was taking the easy way out by passing the buck to the school principal. In addiont, given some of the current attitudes about dress, a student would literally have to run through the hallways naked to cause the kind of disruption that would warrant action by the principal under this policy. Perhaps I am overstating the issue, but there is simply too much subjectivity in the application of this policy to ensure consistent and fair enforcement. In other words, the policy is unenforceable.

That wouldn’t stop a school board member from calling me to complain that my alleged students, who were walking down the street in the middle of the day, were dressed inappropriately. Nor would it stop another official from calling to complain that a constituent objected to the principal’s interpretation of the dress code. Caught in the middle again!

It is the responsibility of the building principal to create a context or culture in which teaching and learning can best take place. A safe, orderly, and organized school environment is minimum expectation. It is essential that the learning environment be free of distractions and disruptions to the learning process and that everyone has a consistent, clear set of expectations regarding appropriate decorum so that teachers can move beyond behavior to a focus on learning.

Carol Dweck on Struggle and Deeper Learning

Students who embrace struggle while learning and solving problems develop skills that others may not. Learn how Expeditionary Learning has incorporated struggle and the growth mindset into their school.

Key Points from the Video:

Growth Mindsets:

  1. relate directly to ‘Deeper Learning’ and Expeditionary Learning
  2. orient the student to a focus on learning not knowing
  3. teach students that taking on challenging tasks helps the brain make new connection and, thus, they get smarter
  4. students embrace challenges because “work hard and get smart”
  5. learn that “easy is a waste of time”
  6. students are proud of tackling and resolving challenging problems
  7. instead of avoiding and covering up mistakes, students embrace them
  8. mistakes motivate and increase student interest
  9. students gain self-confidence by taking on challenges
  10. students develop a sense of purpose and a belief that they can make a difference

See on www.teachingchannel.org

Education is a True Team Game

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

While some people might dismiss the importance of creating the proper mindset within a school’s faculty as critical for improving academic success, the outcome of this year’s World Series may help change that misperception.

That victory by the Boston Red Sox was good for baseball. One of the sport’s most storied franchises had waited 95 years to win a championship on its home field. It was an emotional boost for a city that has endured so much pain at the hands of terrorists. And it was great fun for the casual fan to watch a group of men who looked like characters from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy celebrating their title-clinching victory like a group of excited little boys.

But for education this Boston team could also serve as a model for success.

A little bit of historical background

In 2012 the owners of the Red Sox spent huge amounts of money on a team filled with superstar talents and a big name flamboyant manager. They watched that group crash and burn finishing in last place. The next season, with more than $2500 million of “great” players discarded, a number of unknowns taking the field on a (more…)

The Hidden Attendance Problems

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

This is the first of three posts on student attendance and classroom disruptions from the perspective of the classroom teacher. Part two will address the issue out-of-school teacher training and the third will discuss field trips.

Some attendance problems are self-inflicted.

In an excellent three-part series Mel Riddile created a substantial argument for the direct correlation between good attendance and academic success. No teacher would disagree with this premise. To this point he began his second article with a quote from my book:

“Successful teaching cannot begin until students are regularly attending class.”

In one blog Dr. Riddile referenced the various responsibilities required of the states, courts, districts and schools in ensuring that students attend on a regular basis. Another outlined the strategies he employed as a principal which resulted in significant improvements at the school.

While every item mentioned was critical to achieving the goal of improved attendance there is another area of major concern that needs to be addressed in much greater detail.

Absenteeism can take many forms

Before continuing a few realities concerning the sanctity of the school day need to be addressed. A stream of distractions, interruptions and diversions to the traditional day are both inevitable and in many cases (more…)

Attendance and Absenteeism: What School Leaders Need to Know

By Mel Riddile

Author’s Note: In keeping with our observation of September as Attendance Awareness Month, this is Part 3 in a series of articles on Attendance and Absenteeism.

Attendance is to school what rebounding is to basketball—it is hard work, requires effort and persistence, and it often goesunrewarded and unrecognized, but schools cannot be successful without it.

As I recently pointed out, having the right attendance laws and procedures in place is important in the short-run. However, in the long-run, our school had to build a safe, orderly, and student-centered school culture that attracted students. We had to become a place where students felt wanted and where they wanted to be. We had to be the kind of school in which each and every student was both known and valued. We had to be the kind of school that students wanted to attend and hated to leave. We had to be a school that had to work to get students to leave the building at the end of the day, not one that had to work to get students to attend.

To be that school, we had to provide a safe, clean, orderly, warm and inviting school environment built on quality relationships. In addition, we had to create a culture of success in which students came to school expecting to succeed while knowing that their teachers would not stand bye and allow them fail.

We learned from experience that when kids miss school they miss out, and when kids miss out, we all suffer. In our school, attendance, along with school wide literacy, was a priority. We served large numbers of under-resourced students who needed extra support and encouragement in order to attend school on a regular basis.

USA Today reports that research suggests that as many as 7.5 million students miss a month of school each year, raising the likelihood that they’ll fail academically and eventually drop out of high school.

The findings, from education researcher Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University and supported by Attendance Works estimate that 10% to 15% of students nationwide are “chronically absent” from school, (more…)

Faculty Meetings: Do they add value?

By Mel Riddile

In a recent post, Principal, Peter DeWitt asked, Do I do that enough in our faculty meetings?  He went on to state emphatically that “faculty meetings should mean something!

I started to write a comment, but the comment turned into an article.

Faculty meetings should be teacher-led, and, like student homework assignments, should add value and help to improve and enhance classroom instruction.

Professional learning is a process not an event. Experience taught me that continuing to shift topics with no follow-through only served to frustrate and confuse teachers. Instead, we collectively chose a theme and followed-through on that theme throughout the school year. We built a foundation of quality instruction one brick at a time.

The operative word here is implementation. If a topic is worth taking the time to address in a faculty meeting, it should be worth the time and effort needed to adequately follow-up. In the follow-up process, we learned what was working and which teachers needed additional help. We made use of our “bright spots” to share what worked in their classrooms.

Because we sought to create a culture of shared professional learning and build the capacity of our teachers, our follow-up was not an inspection, but more about reflection. Did we add value? Do we need to address this topic again? To us, it did not matter how long it took to put the learning into practice because, instead of ‘majoring in the minors,’ we only focused on that which we “must” do to raise student achievement.

We asked our teachers for evidence that their students learned and mastered the concepts contained in the day’s lesson. The closure of a lesson called for the teacher to conduct a “practice retrieval” or formative assessment to assess mastery. Teachers used the formative assessment to inform instruction, focus review, and target remediation. If the formative assessment indicated the students did not master the content, the teacher would re-teach the lesson.

Likewise, we looked for evidence that our faculty meeting met the stated outcomes? As principals, we have the advantage of daily contact with our staff and the ability to follow-up.

The decision as to the topic of the next faculty meeting was based on how well our teachers learned, mastered, and applied the concepts from the previous meeting.

In this way, our teachers saw true meaning and value in faculty meetings. Rather than viewing faculty meetings as a disconnected series of  ‘dog-and-pony shows’, our teachers took the teacher-led sessions to heart and understood that there was an expectation that the learning would be applied in the classroom. Because we modeled what we expected from teachers in the faculty meetings, they came to consider the content of these meetings as serious professional learning opportunities.

Yes, we covered fewer topics, but we learned more and we certainly implemented whatever we learned with fidelity.