“We’ve lost our focus. We think we’re in neutral,” admitted Faye Bradley, curriculum director at Ohio’s Madison Local School District. “As hard as we try to focus on one mission, our staff development is all over the place.
“We’re stuck,” she said with finality.
But the assessment wasn’t the last word on Madison schools. Along with Bradley’s diagnosis came a prescription for change that involved retreats, the establishment of teacher leaders,; group discussions, focus groups, and the new, visible presence at the schools of a superintendent who vowed to get away from the paperwork and into the corridors.
The plan’s goal is to engage Madison’s teachers in reforming the district’s teaching methods with the ultimate prize of improved learning and test scores. It’s a tall order, but Superintendent Stan Heffner is convinced that the only way to improve teaching is to involve the teachers.
“If imposing reforms from the top down had worked, we’d be there already,” Heffner said. “We want to take advantage of this opportunity and not let it be squandered.”
The “opportunity” was the work done during an intense, two-week education leadership workshop presented annually by the Graduate School of Education (GSE). The Harvard Institute for School Leadership draws teams of educators from school districts across the country and immerses them in their business, forcing teachers and administrators to work together to devise real-world action plans to implement on their return home.
“There’s a dialogue created here where superintendents and principals hear teachers’ voices and teachers hear superintendents and principals. That’s very powerful,” said Linda Greyser, GSE’s associate director of programs in professional education and Institute co-chair. “(The Institute) creates almost a hothouse atmosphere because we ask them to live in the same place so that discussions that began in class continue at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and after school.”
The Institute accepts teams of educators from different districts. The teams must be made up of people with different functions within the schools, such as a teacher, a superintendent and a principal, so that the plans they devise address reforms at many different levels.
Teams are given preference for acceptance to the Institute if they come from districts that have sent teams in the past. Greyser said this is so that the voices of school reform resulting from the Institute will be concentrated enough to result in actual change.
“There’s 16,000 districts in the country, so if you’re trying to hit them one by one, you can’t,” Greyser said. “So why not build capacity in districts that make a commitment?”
Saving the lives of children’
One state that has sent teams repeatedly in recent years is Ohio. With 39 participants from 11 school districts, this year’s Ohio contingent is larger than that of any single state since the Institute began in 1995.
A key reason for the high participation from Ohio is Susan Zelman, Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction and a fan of the Harvard program. Zelman, a former associate commissioner of education in Massachusetts who held a research appointment at the GSE, is familiar with the Institute and its methods.
“I see (participants) taking away a better understanding of the relationship between state policy and what goes on at the district level,” Zelman said. “[I believe] state policy is where the action is. I feel my job is about saving the lives of children, particularly poor children.”
This year’s Institute ran from July 2 through July 14. Participants lived together on campus, ate meals together, and attended eight to 10 hours of Institute sessions a day, including eight hours of workshops, lectures, and discussion sessions on the July 4 holiday.
Over the two weeks, the teams devised plans to address problems specific to their particular schools. At Madison, the problem is a lack of direction and cohesion. Mason City Schools, also in Ohio, have another problem: test scores aren’t bad, but the district is dealing with explosive growth. Ten years ago, there were 2,500 students in the district while today there are 6,200. Last year alone, the district added 709 students; another 750 are expected this year.
Superintendent Kevin Bright said the district is rapidly adding teachers, assigning experienced teachers as mentors for younger ones, and building a large, new school complex.
After hearing the Mason action plan, Education Professor Richard Elmore, co-chair of the Institute and co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, told the Mason team that growth may be difficult to manage, but it also brings opportunity. Because overall student performance isn’t a problem in Mason, there’s a real chance to focus on students who aren’t doing well.
“Wow, what an opportunity,” Elmore said. “The challenge when you’re doing well is to go after the lower-performing students, the lagging teachers.”
As the teams from different towns presented their action plans, Elmore again and again came back to the classroom. Make sure you work on instruction, he urged, and that the workshops, discussions, and meetings envisioned while at Harvard provide concrete changes and techniques that teachers can put to work in the classroom. Too often, he said, reform is discussed in meetings, but is missing in daily lessons.
“They’ll look you in the eye and tell you it’s the most wonderful thing since sliced bread and you go into the classroom and it’s not there,” Elmore said, urging participants to “use that time [in teacher meetings] to observe practice, to work on practice rather than sitting around and talking about practice.”
Elmore said the Institute’s intensity gives participants something else to take home along with their blueprint for reform: the memory of a transforming experience.
“For most people, this is the most powerful professional development experience they’ve ever had,” Elmore said.