Rich District, Poor District: Common Sense Practices to Maximize Resources and Improve Student Outcomes

It’s Not Always about the Money, Honey

Dear Colleagues,

I hope that your December has gone well so far. . . and that you are looking forward to a wonderful holiday season.

The sun is now rising in the East as I fly at 30,000 feet back home from the West Coast. I’ve been on the road for two and a half weeks now- - consulting first on the East Coast, then in rural Michigan for four days, and then on the West Coast.

The travel schedule aside. . . this plane trip home gives me time to reflect on my interactions with the students, staff, administrators, and parents in the three “real” school districts I’ve worked with these past 18 days. Three real school districts. . . that are stretched- - relative to expectations, time, limited resources, and serious and persistent student problems.

Significantly, in each of these districts, I have helped in the areas of strategic planning, organizational development, curriculum mapping, instructional effectiveness, data-based problem solving for academically struggling or behaviorally challenging students, and helping to hands-on develop and implement multi-tiered instructional and intervention approaches.

When you have comprehensive challenges, you need to use comprehensive approaches.

But even with comprehensive challenges, there are some common denominators that guide all effective practices.

A Tale of Three Cities

With respect to resources, the three districts that I worked in on this trip reflect a “tale of three cities.”

In one district, I spent two days working with a group of 50 counselors, school psychologists, social workers, school and district administrators, special educators, and other support personnel. They had a lot of resources, but needed better coordination and collaboration.

In the second district, I worked with general and special education teacher leaders, school counselors, and school-level administrators. The district had one school psychologist, one diagnostician, and a part-time social worker. But curiously, despite these small numbers, none of the district-level support staff. . .and no district administrators were present during any of my five consultation days on-site.

In the third district, a new grant has increased the personnel available to work with challenging students, but the presence of a number of very challenging students has required an immediate focus on those students. . . while we also begin to reorganize the services to all students.

ALL of the staff that I interacted with in the three districts were skilled, professional, caring, dedicated, and conscientious. And, in all three districts, the focus was the same:

  • They all had students exhibiting serious academic deficiencies and social, emotional, and behavioral problems. . . where existing approaches and services were not working, and different, more effective practices were needed.
  • They all had students with critical medical or physiological issues, significant home or life traumas, and longstanding histories of school failure. . . where these issues had not been fully identified, defined, analyzed, or addressed.
  • And, they all knew that they were not maximizing the student-centered impact of their existing personnel and resources, and they wanted realistic, field-tested strategies to get “the biggest bang for the buck.”

In all of the cases above, the staff only “knew what they knew.” They needed different, more effective, and field-tested approaches that they had never been exposed to. In some of the cases, I recommended strategies and approaches where some staff said,

“We used to do that in the past, and it worked”. . . “but we haven’t done that in a while”. . . “why did we stop doing this?”

Resource Rich and Resource Poor Districts

Of the three districts, one is relatively Resource Rich, one is Resource Poor, and the last one is Resource Ready.

But some commonalities across the three districts included that they were:

  • Not fully aware of the specific school, district, and community resources that are available relative to, for example, staff, curriculum, instruction, technology, and interventions
  • Focused more on logistics, schedules, and what staff (especially teachers) either want to do or had done in the past. . . rather than on what staff need to do relative to students’ current academic and behavioral status; how they had learned and progressed in the past; and what services, supports, strategies, and programs they need to learn and progress right now
  • Not effectively coordinating their curriculum, instruction, professional development, supervision, and multi-tiered services and approaches. . . from a district level down to a classroom level up perspective.

It was interesting that the Resource Rich district was starting to make a commitment to “cross-organizational” (i.e., cross-department, cross-professional, and cross-school) staff collaboration. This cross-organizational staff collaboration was less than apparent in the Resource Poor district. And, the Resource Ready district was just learning how to coordinate its newly-acquired staff.

Conclusion: When cross-organizational staff collaboration is nonexistent, weak, or inefficient, it limits the organization’s potential success - - regardless of how many resources actually exist.

So how do districts and schools organize their collaborative efforts - - especially for academically struggling and behaviorally challenging students- - in ways that make instructional and intervention sense?

Four Common Sense Practices for Resource-Poor and Resource-Rich Districts

Below are four common-sense practices that I encouraged all three districts to consider over these past two weeks. One practice relates directly to leadership; one to instruction; one to assessment; and one to services and supports.

  • Common Sense Practice #1 (Leadership): Shared leadership structures and processes are needed to maximize the outcome potential of any organization.

Shared leadership involves the “Seven C’s of Success” - - the formal and informal processes that facilitate Communication, Caring, Collaboration, Commitment, Consultation, Celebration, and Consistency among school and district staff.

One way to implement a shared leadership process in a school involves (a) adapting a school-level committee blueprint that reflects the research-based components of effective school and schooling; (b) ensuring that every staff member is on at least one committee; and (c) asking instructional staff to co-chair the different committees.

The blueprint that we use begins with the following committees:

  • The School Leadership Team (where all committee co-chairs are members)
  • The Curriculum & Instruction Committee
  • The School Climate/School Discipline Committee
  • The Professional Development/Teacher Mentoring and Support Committee
  • The Family and Community Outreach Committee
  • The Student Assistance/Multi-tiered/Early Intervention Committee (made up of the best academic/behavioral assessment/intervention specialists in or available to the school)

One way to implement shared leadership at the district level is to make sure that all professionals, regardless of their “department” or “administrative assignment,” are organized in cross-collaborative teams that focus on the following outcomes (note the parallel with the Committees above):

  • Students’ academic learning, mastery, and application
  • Students’ social, emotional, and behavioral self-management and interpersonal success
  • Teachers’ effective instruction relative to student academics and self-management outcomes
  • Meaningful professional development and staff support to facilitate effective instruction and multi-tiered intervention resulting in successful student outcomes
  • Community and family outreach to maximize their support, collaboration, and involvement in educational processes/activities at the district, school, and student levels

Conclusion: When school and district resources are not shared, coordinated, and focused. . . on meaningful outcomes, it does not matter how many resources you have.

  • Common Sense Practice #2 (Instruction): Differentiated Instruction will not work when there are too many different skill groups in a classroom, or when teachers do not know the functional skill levels of their students.

While many teachers are trained in differentiated instruction (and universal design for learning), these strategies are virtually impossible to implement (a) if there are too many different or discrepant skill groups in the classroom to teach; and/or (b) if teachers do not know the functional skill level of the students they need to teach.

In the first situation, it is not unusual to find elementary-level classrooms where teachers have to teach five or more skill clusters of students in reading or math. For example, this week, we had a 3rd grade teacher with 25 students in her class with reading skills (that reflected six different skill groups) ranging from the middle of first grade to the middle of fourth grade. While this teacher could have been the world’s most gifted differentiated instruction expert, there was no way that she could teach literacy to these very different groups with equity, effectiveness, or excellence- - much less in the other academic areas (e.g., math, science, social studies) that also required reading.

The solution to this dilemma is to implement (as does Success for All) a walk-to-reading process where students are in homogeneous instructional-level groups when focusing on teaching specific reading skills, and heterogeneous mixed-level groups when focusing on vocabulary and comprehension-oriented literacy skills. Part of this solution includes a data-based student grouping process, prior to each new school year, with a goal of organizing every classroom with no more than three to four different skill groups in reading.

In the second situation, it is not unusual for secondary-level teachers to not know the functional literacy, math, written expression, and oral expression skill levels of all of their students. This is important, for example, when a 9th grade earth science teacher has 20 students in a class. . . with half of the students reading below grade level, a third of the students functioning below grade level in math, and two-thirds of the students with significant problems when writing their thoughts on paper.

Without this information ahead of time, the teacher does not know how to differentiate his or her instruction, how to modify his or her curricular materials, and which students to provide reading or math or written expression assistive or other supports. . . all so that they can learn and master the science content.

The solution to this dilemma is to establish a computer-based functional skill and mastery running record portfolio on every student in a school or district. This portfolio should synthesize all classroom-, curriculum-, and criterion-based assessments such that teachers can easily see where a student is actually functioning in the above four core academic skill areas.

One Common Core-friendly resource that could be used here in mathematics is available free from the Arkansas State Personnel Development Grant (SDPG).

Conclusion: When the current functional skill level of individual students are unknown, and when classrooms are not strategically organized by skill-based student learning clusters, teachers may not have the organizational conditions to effectively teacher, even though they are effective teachers.

  • Common Sense Practice #3 (Assessment): Assessments for progress monitoring need to be based on functional student outcomes, and not on global state or federal requirements or standards.

In our current test-obsessed “educational” climate, it seems that we have left “no test behind.” Critically, if you go into virtually any school in America, most of the instruction. . . most of the testing. . . and most of the evaluation of both students and teachers. . . is on students being labeled “Proficient” (or above) on the State Standards (now, Common Core) test.

And what does “Proficient” mean? Answer: Not a lot.

In many states, given how they establish the “cut score,” a student can earn only 50% of the points on the test, and be deemed “Proficient.” In many schools, there are students who are “Proficient,” and teachers can’t figure out how that happened. And other students who did not earn a “Proficient” rating, and same teachers can’t figure out how that happened. And in many universities, large numbers of “Proficient” students are entering the freshman year needing to take remedial courses in reading and math.

At a functional level, we have more test data on our students than we need. And, our teachers (a) do not have the time to effectively collect, pool, and analyze the data; (b) do not resources to synthesize the data so that data-based conclusions are reliable and valid; and (c) do not have the psychometric understanding or skills to translate even valid conclusions into meaningful and useful for instruction.

And these gaps are not remediated (alone) by having a “Data Coach” and PLC meetings. What is needed is ongoing professional development so that grade-level teams (at the elementary level) and horizontal and vertical instructional teams (at the secondary level) can coach themselves. But professional development has been sacrificed so that students have more days in school, and our teacher training programs don’t even prepare their graduates in the area of classroom management. . . never mind, psychometrics, test interpretation, and curriculum-based assessment.

One of the school-based problems here is that we are focused on testing, rather than assessment. And, we are focused on test results, rather than on results that demonstrate that students have learned and mastered content and skills that they can, over time, independently apply and solve real-world problems.

To be “real”. . . Standards-based and Common Core assessments are not bad in and of themselves. What is bad is how they are used (to evaluate schools and staff), and that they are used as the only indicator that students have learned some skills (sampled by the test) that are representative of a broad set of standards (that were never field-tested or validated) that are supposed to reflect “college and career readiness.”

Why are we not using multiple assessments in multiple formats across multiple applications and multiple time frames to assess the functional literacy, math, science, and other skills of our students. . . as well as to evaluate our teachers and schools? And why are we are ignoring what this test-obsessed focus is doing to our teachers and administrators?

During the past two weeks, I witnessed teachers who were almost exclusively teaching to the formative, interim tests that their districts had chosen to predict students’ success on the Common Core test (at the elementary level) and/or the end-of-course (EOC) summative tests (at the secondary level).

Thus, these teachers are not allowed to focus, more logically and systematically, on the knowledge, content, and skills that, if effectively taught by them and mastered by their students, will result in students who can, at their respective grade levels, read and comprehend, calculate and solve real-world problems, and communicate orally and in written form.

Moreover, the teachers will not also be allowed to prove that- - when they focus on students’ knowledge, content, and skill mastery, they will be more likely to pass the Common Core and EOC tests.

The solution to this dilemma is for every grade level (or course) in a district to have (a) good, developmentally-appropriate curricular maps (b) that identify the knowledge, content, and skills needed by students, along with (c) the criteria for student mastery; and for every teacher to have (d) the skill, materials, and opportunity (see above) needed to effectively differentiate and teach, assess, and monitor their students’ learning and mastery.

If these elements are present. . . the high stakes tests will take care of themselves.

Conclusion: When instructional, support, and administrative personnel in a school or district focus largely on the high-stakes tests, test results become more important than educational results.

  • Common Sense Practice #4 (Services and Supports): Services and supports need to be strategically delegated to students and, especially, students in need - - regardless of school or departmental assignments, funding sources, or the “chain of command.”

I have worked in too many districts where the schools do not know what resources exist, or they are unwilling or do not think to share them. Metaphorically, the schools (or departments or staff within these schools) are sometimes organized like a “feudal system” (“futile” system ???) where schools, departments, or selected staff have a “moat” dug around them.

  1. The schools (in the same district) amass their own, and don’t share their resources with other schools.
  2. The departments compete for resources, and teach “their” curricula- - to the exclusion of others.
  3. Some staff (e.g., “special education” staff) are not allowed to work with “those” (or all) students. . . they can only work with “these” (or my) students.

Critically, I am not just talking about people and expertise, I am also talking about knowledge and information, curricula and other print materials, software and computer-based instruction or intervention programs, and student data and experiences.

When we initially enter a district or school, we work with staff to identify their school, district, and community/regional Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (a SWOT analysis) by conducting a number of interdependent audits:

  1. Strategic Planning, Organizational Stability, and Data-Driven Decision-Making Audits
  2. Academic and Health/Mental Health/Wellness Curriculum, Curricular Alignment, and Curriculum Selection Audits
  3. Technological Hardware and Software Curriculum, Instruction, and Intervention Support Audits
  4. Professional Development, Supervision, and Staff Evaluation Audits

By completing and sharing these audits, everyone knows what resources (and resource gaps) exist across the district, and how they can be used to benefit students, staff, and schools.

As part of this process, we also survey all staff (and support staff at the district and community levels) to identify their specific areas of expertise. For example, while helpful to know that you have (as in the first district described above) 50 counselors, school psychologists, social workers, school and district administrators, special educators, and other support personnel. It is more important to have a Consultant Resource Directory that specifies their areas of knowledge and expertise, what areas of student need they can address, and what types of strategic or intensive academic or behavioral interventions they can provide or consult on.

But beyond the audit results and the consultant directories, district and school administrators must communicate and reinforce a “spirit of giving” where (as needed) services, supports, and strategies are shared across schools, departments, funding sources, and “chains of command”. . . with a focus on student outcomes and success. Moreover, from year to year, these services, supports, and strategies need to “follow the student need.” That is, staff within a school; support staff assigned to a school; and technological, curricular, or other intervention resources “owned” by a school. . . may need to be deployed from one year to the next to best meet the needs of academically struggling or behaviorally challenging students.

Conclusion: Whether districts have limited or limitless resources, they need to coordinate and share these resources- - realigning, reallocating, and/or redeploying them across schools even on an annual basis to address the needs of their students.


I am not saying that these “Common Sense Practices” are easy to do, but I do believe that they are necessary to do. And, by themselves, I understand that they take resources (time, staff, expertise) to accomplish.

But when they are implemented. . . sometimes over a period of one to three years, and they are institutionalized, everyone benefits.

Beyond the professional “spirit of giving” noted above, at this holiday season, I would imagine that your personal “spirit of giving” is in full swing.

Given this- - regardless of culture, religion, or background, I hope that your spirit is focused on the “true” meaning of this season, and that you are able to celebrate the people in your life, and to celebrate with the people in your life.

Please accept my best wishes for a safe, restful, and enjoyable holiday season and New Years. We’ll see you in 2015.