Saturday, November 03, 2012

School Plans

Our school's annual "Plan for Student Success" is at a crossroads.

Now a post about school data and goals might seem a bit dull for most, but I wanted to do a bit of work here to clarify my own thoughts about school growth cycles and lay out some history for my school's staff, some of whom are new to the process.

I want to begin by differentiating between the ongoing work we do to affect students learning, to make connections with students, to hone our craft as educators and so on, from the reports we file about how our school, as a whole, does this. I have read about thirty of these official School Plans in our school district (we call the School Plan for Student Success or SPSS), as well as the overall District Plans over the last few years, and have crafted or helped write five of them at my own school. These shelves full of plans are read by few, but are nonetheless required documents in British Columbia. They sometimes tell the story about how professional learning, reflection on data, and strategic actions translate into student success, but more often these documents contain shifty data, goals too broad to be useful or too complex to ever gain traction, and usually hinge on assumptions that teachers find themselves too busy to fully explore. I would also say that elementary school plans are generally simpler (more elegant?) than the secondary ones, and enjoy a higher level of buy-in from staff (and probably impact on students).

Here's what we've seen at my school:
2012 no formal plan?; used compiled feedback from staff
2011 diverse department goals
2010 diverse department goals
2009 break out school-wide literacy goal into dep't goals
2008 school-wide goal: cross-curricular literacy
2007 school-wide goal: cross-curricular literacy
2006 wrap up dep't goals & prioritize for school-wide goal
2005 department goals
2004 departmental and small group strategies responding to school-wide data
2003 departmental strategies responding to school-wide data
before 2002 the "Accreditation process" was used

The SPSS is a School Achievement Contract or Growth Plan (ie. ensuring student learning needs are met) that was introduced provincially in 2002 along with the School Planning Council (SPC) -- a team consisting of the principal, three parents elected by PAC, and a teacher elected by staff. The inclusion of teachers on SPCs has been boycotted by the BCTF since 2006. According to the BC School Act, the SPSS requires annual consultation, review, and approval by the SPC, and when this does not happen it defaults to the principal to submit the plan. The only references I could find to the School Plan in the School Act were in Section 8.3 (p. C-22). The defacto local policy until recently was to have a paid teacher position (usually one block) that includes SPSS-writing duties (secondary level), or a team of teachers/admin with varying levels of release time (elementary).

The SPSS looks different from school to school, district to district, is sometimes group-based (e.g. department) or school-based (common goal/s) although there is no policy about this at the school, district 57, or provincial level. Elementary schools, particularly those with small staffs, have often had an easier time focusing on school-wide goals (and collective problem-solving), while secondary schools are all over the place. Fragmentation of goals seems to result from diverse subjects, complex student needs, and the nature of departments (e.g dep't of one, some dep'ts have leadership time, some do not, some teachers work across dep'ts), and the tasks of administrators (more discipline focus in secondary). Some schools rotate through goals according to theme or custom, some are tied to collaborative groups or PLCs. Some are quite obviously "owned" by staff (again, more common in elementary), and others range from perfunctory to practical. A former Director of Instruction described her view of the plan as "a record of the conversations about learning that take place at each school." She thought this was the only way to make the plans useful, otherwise they appeared to be mere exercises.

When I've interacted with other SPSS writers, the elementary/secondary split was significant, and the level of disengagement over the planning process reported at the secondary level was stunning. That doesn't shock me, the disconnect between the goals-setting and what actually takes place in classrooms is not a secret in our education system.  When people are thrown together arbitrarily, because they happen to work at the same place or teach the same subject, their efforts at goal-setting tend to sink to the lowest common denominators, or acquiesce to the loudest voice in the room. What does shock me is that when teachers and principals find themselves midst a dysfunctional process they continue to press on and do a rush job with it just to get it done without too much complaining, and then complain about it as soon as it is done. That's a special form of cynicism that can rot school culture. I've got a bunch of ideas for fixing this but this post is long enough as it is (recurring problem!).

In other districts, the story at secondary schools is not always so bleak. One exemplary case stands out for me -- the School Improvement work done at South Kamloops Secondary: inclusive, practical, thorough, innovative, and appears to have won the respect of staff or least takes their engagement very seriously. Their planning also makes use of novel technology (see the list of skills they aim to model) -- e.g. google docs for collaboration and social media for staff development. Scroll back on the Dipity Timeline at the top (or here) to the beginning of their process to see how it was designed for success from the start.  The SKSS principal Cale Birk (blog/twitter) is very open to questions about the plan and process. I'm sure there are other examples of engaging school plans in BC -- please leave a comment if you can share a story or if you want to challenge my perspective.

In contrast to the arbitrary nature of school plans, the district's achievement contract is guided by the School Act and has many parts that respond to regulation. Locally, it used to have a mandate to build on what came out of the school plans, but this never really happened -- one can imagine how difficult it would be to consolidate themes and potentially incongruent goals from 48 plans, let alone use this composite to set direction and allocate funds. As a result there has not been a high degree of congruency between the school and district plan. Typically the district plan sets out one or more broad goals, finds data to support the goals, and reports on progress in provincially required categories (e.g. literacy) and local areas of concern (e.g. numeracy). It is in part a reflection of what is already happening to affect student achievement and in part a look ahead -- in this respect it is similar to the SPSS. The district plan also takes on flavours depending on hot topics from the Ministry of Education. For example, in 2006 it was PLCs, 2007-08 it was Success for All, in 2009-10 it was AFL, in 2011-12 it was 21st century learning. Alongside these are persistent goals related to literacy, numeracy, social responsibility, and Aboriginal achievement. The guided process and provincial requirements do not ensure that district plans are great -- the ones I've seen span the spectrum, but they do make them more predictable.

Back to the school plans. Our district encourages one of two types of SPSS: some goal/s with strategies, methods & assessment, or inquiry-based (centred around one or more questions and a plan for action research). Up to 2007 the plan was submitted to the board office using a web-based program with standard fields to fill in. In 2008 it took on the format of a written report. Plans can be written by administration, by teachers, or by both, but in theory are the work of the SPC. Goals can be set by administration, by teachers, or by both (again the SPC is supposed to have a role). Planning and work on goals can take place on the required administrative non-instructional day and voluntarily at any other time (e.g. department meetings or optional collaborative time). Some schools have developed structures to allow time for planning, facilitation, and goals within the work schedule (e.g. collaboration/tutorial models, release time, leadership blocks, positions of special responsibility). Some schools use staff meeting time for this.

According to the official district planning process, the SPSS is supposed to use a staff self-assessment tool and then sent in June for review by the board, with feedback and follow-up to take place in September and a final plan approved at a board meeting in October. This no longer happens -- for years the review has been tasked to senior staff, typically an assistant superintendent and/or a curriculum & instruction administrator. From 2003 until 2007, our plans were formally evaluated (e.g. rubric) and followed up with suggestions for changes from senior staff. The 2008, 2009, and 2011 plans were reviewed with minimal feedback. The 2010 plan was not reviewed at all (explanation given was board office retirements) and 2012 was affected by job action -- plans appear to have been optional. Throughout this period the deep purpose of the SPSS and explanation about what was to be done with the contents has never been fully communicated to staff. Most teachers spend an hour or two on the process and don't think about it again until it comes up again the following year.

This leads us to the crossroads. There are a number of steps in both the district and school planning process (locally determined, contained in past district achievement contracts up until 2009) and steps involving the SPC which have not been followed in the last number of years. The school and department leadership blocks have all but disappeared in our district, an easy target for funding cuts.  The awkward planning process and disinterest by teachers speaks to a need to change the approach.

The model was cumbersome by all accounts, but we should be mindful that changing it up or even preserving select elements from a partially abandoned method should be done with an understanding of process and a sense of purpose. We should recognize the costs, time, and structures associated with group, department, or school-based planning. We should also weigh the balance and impact on student success between traditional mandatory goal setting and work done by freely associated groups (individuals working interdependently with others). For example, the end of department structures as we have know them in the past and the rise of personal learning networks (often across teaching areas and jurisdictions via social media) presents some challenges to the status quo.

Past District Achievement Contracts:
Past D.P. Todd SPSS reports (2008-2012):
Other SD57 SPSS reports:

Questions to ask:
  • What value do we see in the current school improvement (SPSS) planning process?
  • What "total cost" value for students do we see in the time put into a School Plan (e.g. pros & cons)? 
  • Outside of the classroom setting, where are the deepest needs and desires for goal-setting, group inquiry, or projects for school improvements? 
  • What process can be used to translate needs and desires into meaningful goals and inquiries that will benefit students? 
  • How much time and passion is staff willing to commit to work on common goals, inquiry, or school improvement? 
  • What form would this take (people, scale, timeline, format) and how could a School Plan support these endeavours? 
  • What kind of preparation, data, and support/leadership structures would allow successful school planning and inquiry to take place? 
  • What kind of process, support/leadership structures, and follow-up would allow the School Plan to translate into action, ie. student success? 
  • How do we avoid "lowest common denominator" goals that often accompany whole-school and departmental planning? 
  • How can we leverage personal learning networks or alternate freely-associated groupings to develop goals, conduct inquiry, and provide accountability? 
  • Are there some new skills and technologies (ones we hope our students will learn and use) that we can model in the school improvement planning process? 
  • What are some ways we can challenge the dysfunctional aspects of the process at the school, district, and provincial level?

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