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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 06/10/2010

Reformers: Stop doing these 4 things

By Valerie Strauss

John L. O’Connor is the executive director for special services with the DeKalb County School System in Atlanta and author of “Turning Average Instruction into Great Instruction.” He wrote a piece for the American Association of School Administrators website about the four things that school leaders have to stop doing to help improve classroom. Following are excerpts, and you can find the entire article here.

By John L. O’Connor
Our charge as school leaders is to radically increase student achievement....Unfortunately, we often waste energy in completing activities that are hurting our cause.

In fact, many of the activities that we are leading actually contribute toward less effective classroom teaching. Countless hours are spent completing activities that steal effort and energy away from improving instruction. Therefore, we must stop doing four specific things that aren’t helping.

1) Discontinue Ineffective Professional Development Activities
....School leaders must provide an ongoing system of training, support, dialoguing and problem solving for teachers if we can realistically expect them to implement preferred practices. School leaders must create a school context in which teachers systematically reflect on their classroom practices with one another to determine how students are learning and brainstorm how to continually tweak instruction toward more effective practices.

Unfortunately, educators often default back to one-shot workshops when they consider implementing training activities. We develop flashy training activities that may be engaging to the audience, but are ultimately without follow-up, coaching, or support.

We constantly provide a barrage of one-shot training activities that cover a wide range of classroom practices instead of allowing for deep studies and investigations of a few high-leverage instructional practices that will have the greatest impact on student learning.
If we are going to systematically improve the practices of our teachers across all classrooms, we must limit our initiatives for a given school year to a few high-leverage practices and delve deeply into the implementation of those practices....

2) Stop Developing Massive Annual School Improvement Plans
Many schools have three-ring binders filled with exhaustive School Improvement Plans. In many instances, these plans were developed by select individuals who worked in isolation and then combined their efforts for the submission to the school district’s central office or the State Department of Education. Once they are developed, many of these plans sit on the shelf in administrators’ offices and are only pulled down when they have to be updated.

Many School Improvement Plans essentially include an expansive laundry list of the programs and initiatives within the school. Priorities are not evident. Nor program or activity seems more important than any other. With that type of planning, all activities in a school be implemented in the same way they were the previous year – with the same results.

The strategic planning process should clearly designate the priority areas for improvement based on student achievement. The areas of weakness should be precisely defined and a few specific and meaningful initiatives should be completed to address those weaknesses. Any reader should be able to connect the specific areas of weaknesses with the logical and specific actions that will be implemented to address those weaknesses.

The plan should include how job-embedded professional development systems will be implemented so that teachers are more competent and effective at implementing the prioritized initiatives.

Annual School Improvement Plans are truly a case where less is more. In most cases, the final draft of a School Improvement Plan should be limited to one page. This simple document should clearly describe the priorities for the year and what activities will occur throughout the year....

3) Stop Focusing on Structural Changes as the End Goal
Over the last decade many middle and high schools have transitioned from a schedule in which the students spent approximately one hour in each subject area to a block schedule in which students have extended time, perhaps 90 minutes to two hours, in each academic period. The rationale for this change was that students would have more time to delve deeper in the subject matter and complete more complex and rigorous activities.

In the schools where block scheduling changed instruction in that way, student achievement increased. In many schools that adopted block scheduling, however, classroom instruction did not change. Teachers provided the same instruction just for longer periods. Therefore, there was no significant increase in student achievement.

Even though there are some other benefits to block scheduling, such as a reduction in the amount of time students spend in the hallways, it is reasonable to ask whether the shift toward block schedules and all of the person-hours then went into that effort were good investments.

When implementing structural changes, whether converting to block schedules, re-mapping the organization chart, or changing the graduation requirements, for example, consider the structural change as a means to another end. Structural changes should ultimately improve classroom instruction, or else they are not worth the time and effort. The evaluation of structural changes should not be limited to how well those structures are being implemented but how much they fostered improved instruction....

4) Stop Focusing on Changing “Culture”
...A school’s culture is very difficult to define. Some administrators will say that the culture of their school has improved when there is not a corresponding improvement in student achievement. The truth is that a culture changes after adult practices are improved. A school’s culture changes when teachers change from implementing weak instruction to great instruction and when the school’s leaders spend their time building and implementing layers of support for that instruction. An improved culture is a side effect of drastically improving what happens in classrooms. Instead of focusing on changing culture, focus on improving instruction, which will ultimately lead to a more desirable culture.

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 10, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Learning  | Tags:  block scheduling, great instruction, improving classroom instructions, john o'connor, mistakes in education reform, school reformers  
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WOW. This is irresistable to comment on, especially #1, about discontinuing ineffective faculty development activities. I need to point out, though that the ineffective ones are not limited to one-shot attempts. I've been in lengthy, multiple-shot workshops that were held over a period of A YEAR, and sometimes they were the result of a principle's connections with some friends who wanted to try out the latest "innovation" - often they were reinvented wheels, with very little to offer even very new teachers,and were a waste of time save for a handful of strategies that hardly justied the precious use of professional time - AND money; these workshops are rarely cheap.

Additionally, the older and more experienced I got, the fewer workshops seems applicable to the higher-level issues I was concerned about. Where were the seminars on mentoring for older teachers? Where were the content-specific philosophic discussions and trends to consider?

To offer a partial solution for the ineffective professional "activities", these are some suggestions:
1. Before offering any activities,do a
staff survey that indicates areas of
sincere interest and concerns

2. Beware of any workshops offered by
staff that obviously taught for only
a few years; while they may have
received training from some experts,
they don't have the experience to
answer in-depth questions that invar-
iaby come up.

3. Individualize the workshops to the
school environment, and this means
more than just having the presenters
reference the superficial profile of
a school.

4. PLEASE consider specialized seminars
for experienced teachers: while no one
minds an occasional refresher, to be
continually required year after year
to attend mediocre workshops that are
unhelpful is insulting and wastes the
talents of the experienced.

The Block Scheduling: in all the years I was teaching (28), I only got to have large blocks of time for about 5 years - and my subject, art, really does better because of all of the materials prep in block timeslots. Sometimes math and foreign languages, subjects that students have trouble staying engaged with for 90 minutes, would get the block periods, and
art would only get 45 -50 minutes. HELL0!
Could we please use some common sense in scheduling issues!?!?!

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 10, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Finally a reform plan from someone who knows what he's talking about. I took 6 years off from teaching and came back. I was amazed at the uselessness of the School Improvement Plans. What a joke. Every department writing down everything that is done and putting it in a binder. So the principal can turn it in. To where? Who reads that stuff?

Posted by: celestun100 | June 10, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

I second Artist at Large's response.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 10, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

I would agree with all of these suggestions and add a few more:

1. Restructure the school day...especially high schools so that more students can take advantage of classes offered. More like college. Some kids work late and may want to take classes later in the day. Allow students to pick schedules, just like college. It may cause a transportation issue...but it is something I think could be worked out.

2. Eliminate the one-size-fits-all mentality. As an art teacher also, 90 minute blocks are fine, but for someone learning a new language or difficulty in math, a 50 minute class every day may be more beneficial.

3. There is a paradox in education...we want creativity in our teachers, but we want everyone to teach alike which assumes all students learn the same way. It can't be both ways...flexibilty and creativity will never fit into a one-size-fits-all paradigm.

4. Professional development...again they take the one-size-fits-all approach, and in my school district they treat it as a punishment.

5. Teachers need to be treated like professionals...not like the children they teach.

6. Reform the way Principals are trained and selected.

7. Stop jumping on every education bandwagon that comes down the pike. Stick with what works and tweak.

Posted by: ilcn | June 10, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

6. Reform the way Principals are trained and selected.

Now, there is a good idea.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 10, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

You need to hold superintendents and principals accountable (how I am not sure) for what type of professional development they bring in. They may be bringing in friends who have absolutely nothing to offer the teachers.

Posted by: jlp19 | June 10, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

I would be more impressed with this article if it weren't filled with meaningless jargon such as "job embedded professional development systems" " high-leverage practices and delve deeply into the implementation of those practices....
Why is it that supposedly educated professionals resort to this sort of meaningless babble?
The only thing we don't have here is are shifting paradigms and (snort) best practices.

Posted by: OhMy | June 11, 2010 5:43 AM | Report abuse

How about train classroom teachers to individualize (not differentiate) the pace of instruction for all students?

All kids are different. They show up every year with different strengths, weaknesses, levels of readiness and motivation. The teacher then attempts to teach the same lesson to the whole class. Of course, some are bored because they already know the material, and some are overwhelmed because they never mastered what came before.

How long can this useless and ineffective strategy be tolerated before someone cries "FOUL?"

Posted by: phoss1 | June 11, 2010 6:30 AM | Report abuse


I agree with you in theory about individualizing. But do you have any ideas about how to actually do that when you have 30 students? Also, what about grading?

I have found that the most difficult classes to teach and manage are those where the kids have a huge range of abilities- so I am really interested in your answer.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 11, 2010 8:02 AM | Report abuse

Amen to #1! In professional development workshops, I have participated in a conga line, played freeze tag, massaged the neck of the person in front of me, and listened to countless motivational speakers tell "true" stories filled with glaring inconsistencies and/or stories I had read years earlier in Reader's Digest.

I would so love to go to a workshop and actually learn something that would help me teach more effectively!

Posted by: highschoolteacher | June 11, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse


I did it with 32 kids and they were all over the map academically. Go to the Core Knowledge blog (, go to archives and click on December, 2009. I entered the most important chapter (coming out in about a year) there called Individualized Instruction. I taught a "traditional" classroom for one year, realized it was a joke and was allowed to go with what I thought would work. I did and it was great. Kids AND parents loved it. I used it successfully in a Massachusetts public school classroom for 33 years. I encourage you to read this chapter.

Posted by: phoss1 | June 11, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

celestun100: The first step in individualizing is to stop assigning kids to classes based on age. If we taught swimming the way we teach school subjecs, an awful lot of older non-swimmers would drown.

My mother attended a lot of schools, many of them one-room schools. She said it was not at all unusual in these schools for a kid to meet with different grades for different subjects and to advance regardless of age. If she moved into a one-room school in the middle of the year, she might find herself placed a grade ahead of her previous school, a grade behind, or in the same grade.

I'm not sure how this could be adapted to a large school, but the idea that every 8-year-old should be using a third-grade reading book is simply ridiculous. (And don't bother talking about keeping a student with his or her "social peers." I entered first grade reading Hardy Boy books when the rest of the girls were reading Betsy and Tacy; a student reading two years ahead of or behind the rest of the class HAS no social peers.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 11, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, phoss1 and sideswiththekids for your responses.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 11, 2010 9:24 PM | Report abuse

I think everyone here sees the whole picture - great comments; I especially like the points from ilcn, celestun100 and
jlp19 on scrutinizing principals more closely as to training and accountability and who they chose to bring in for professional development.

Also like the comment from OhMy about the educational jargon used; I've always found it irritating and not a "(snort)best practice(s)"!

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 11, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

I agree with sideswiththekids. I was a Montessori teacher for eight years and we always had mixed age (ages 3-6, 6-9 or 9-12) groups with a wide range of abilities. I taught in an area with a good school district so most of the kids had social, academic or behavioral challenges. It was a rare moment when I would teach a whole group lesson and I still found a way to reach my students. I then did my Masters in Art in Education and interned at three public schools. I don't think I could ever teach in a public school. The below level students struggled and learned only enough to get through the year and the above grade level students were unchallenged. My son now goes to a private school and they have half days every other Friday to have training specific to their kids needs. My son finally actually understands what he is learning.

Posted by: MominMaryland | June 11, 2010 10:00 PM | Report abuse

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