First Tend to the Water, Then Teach Them to Fish

In anticipation of the release of our newest publication, the Lead Partner Playbook, we are featuring a guest series from school leaders and Lead Partner organizations who are pioneers in the field.  This third installment comes from Jennifer Husbands, Director of the AUSL Institute at the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

* * * * *

AUSL is a nonprofit enterprise that manages the turnaround of chronically under-performing public schools.  AUSL opened its first turnaround school in Chicago in 2006 and now manages 12 turnaround schools on contract with Chicago Public Schools.

By Jennifer Husbands

This year, the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) has embarked on a new role – that of Lead Partner, responsible for working with SIG recipients to implement a coherent, whole school reform effort that integrates both structural and programmatic interventions.

The role of lead partner is based on a logic that bringing in additional capacity will help schools improve faster.  However, as we engage in this work, we are learning two main things:  one, that certain conditions need to be in place to enable success; and two, that a capacity-building orientation is essential to creating conditions that will remain in the school and district once the lead partner exits.

Conditions for Success

The environment surrounding the work needs to be supportive – the water needs to be the right temperature, have the right nutrients, etc.  Here are some conditions we’ve found essential:

  • On the ground presence:  To do this work well, you have to be present in the schools.  You need to gain a clear sense of the culture of the school, its rhythms, how people interact, how discipline is meted out, and so on. But most importantly, you have to be in classrooms — assessing teaching practice, looking for trends in strengths and needs, and hopefully breaking down norms of privatism that often pervade struggling schools.  We use Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching to guide our observations and provide language for feedback to teachers and a path to improvement.
  • District and school leadership support and alignment:  As a lead partner, you are almost inevitably an “outsider.” In underperforming schools and districts, teachers have undoubtedly seen a steady stream of consultants, partners, and programs come and go with little lasting change in how things are done. To be taken seriously, your work needs to be seen as part of the agenda of the local leadership. Aligning your lead partner work with broader district initiatives is key.  For example, in one of the districts where we work, there is a heavy emphasis on developing Professional Learning Communities, so we are intentional in aligning our work at the SIG-funded school with the PLC initiative; since teachers know that is a district priority, it helps them to see the alignment between our work and the district’s.
  • Moving from plan to action:  For a lead partner to be approved as part of a district’s SIG application, the lead partner must submit a work plan, likely based on student achievement data and other readily available information. However, lead partners must understand the difference between a plan and reality.  It is important for lead partners to use their actual experience in the district and school to refine their work plan based on what they learn and the relationships they build.  Just as we want teachers to adapt their instruction based on the students in front of them, lead partners must adapt their plans based on the lived reality in the schools.

Focus on Building Capacity for the Long Term

According to the proverb, if you teach a man to fish you will feed him for a lifetime.  This notion also applies to lead partner work.  If the lead partner is the sole owner of the work, the teachers and administrators at the school will not develop the necessary skill sets to keep the work going long after the lead partner is gone.  Therefore, an emphasis on local capacity-building is essential.  Here are some thoughts on how to do so.

  • Help build lasting structures for collaboration:  One of our most important accomplishments has been to help districts create leadership teams within the SIG-funded school.  With help from the administration, the school has an Instructional Leadership Team, an Administrative Team and Content-Based Teacher Teams that meet weekly.  These teams form the structure that keeps the improvement work moving forward in the school now, and will continue to once the scaffold of lead partner support is taken away.  But beyond structure, the lead partner helps ensure that the teams focus on the core of school improvement:  instructional practice and student outcomes.
  • Use tools that you can leave behind:  By structuring classroom observations with the Danielson Framework and working with teachers to train each other in techniques from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, we utilize and leave behind tools that school leaders and teachers can continue to use long after we have left the building.  Even if your tools are self-developed, make sure you codify them in ways that they can be shared with local folks and be made available to them after your engagement ends.   For example, AUSL has developed a School Environment Checklist that we have shared with administrators, but it is also something we can leave behind after we’re gone.  If everything you are using is proprietary and won’t be available to the school or district after you’ve moved on, are you really helping build local capacity?
  • Help grantees establish goals for improvement and teach them how to review and revise those goals annually: One of the best skills you can teach the SIG recipients is how to set realistic, annual improvement goals and keep them front and center as you engage together in SIG-funded work.  These goals can be for the district, the school, certain grade levels or departments, or even specific teachers.  Goals provide the motivation for continuous improvement and opportunities for reflection and revision.  But more important than setting goals for your clients, you need to ensure that they are part of the goal-setting process and that they are learning how to conceptualize the goals, make them transparent to stakeholders, measure them, reflect on their progress toward them, and set goals for the next time period.  Helping a district or school learn to do this in a meaningful way can be one of the greatest gifts lead partners leave behind.

While we are still in the early phase of our lead partner work outside of Chicago, we are learning how to apply the lessons we’ve learned as an educational management organization in Chicago to help other districts and schools make dramatic improvements in student achievement.  Let us know if you have any advice for us from your lead partnership experiences!

Jennifer Husbands is the Director of the AUSL Institute at the Academy for Urban School Leadership.  The Institute is a new initiative to coach and advise school districts as they design and implement interventions such as school turnaround to dramatically improve student achievement in their lowest-performing schools.

For other posts in this series, click here and here.