How to Implement Rigorous and Relevant ELA Curriculum Part Two

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My third semester of educational leadership is winding down, and that means I can use more of my summer vacation for blogging about things OTHER THAN EDUCATION!  If you’re still with me, though, here’s a follow-up to my last post about implementing rigorous and relevant ELA curriculum.  Enjoy, and please let me know what you think in the comments. – Bill

After writing extensively about the problems of implementing rigorous and relevant curriculum in my reflective assignment, I concluded that improving school culture would be a great place to start. Additional study and research further developed and affirmed my thinking on this.

The first problem I identified in my initial reflection was the difficulty of dealing with the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Written within the new English Language Arts (ELA) standards are the demands for more curricular rigor and relevance, and school culture can either help or hinder the process. Douglas Reeves (2006) explains that cultural change “although challenging and time-consuming, is not only possible but necessary—especially in organizations in which stakeholders use the word ‘culture’ as a rhetorical talisman to block leadership initiative, stifle innovation, and maintain the status quo” (p. 92). While some schools were more proactive than others, all schools must now make the cultural shifts necessary to adapt to and adopt CCSS and the new ELA curriculum it demands. No school can do this without careful consideration of its culture. If school culture does not already promote rigor and relevancy in its teaching and learning, now is the time to evolve. Remaining stagnant is not an option, and strategic leadership is needed to enable growth. Hughes and Beatty (2013) explain that “Strategy is maximized when it also involves aspirational dimensions that touch the emotions of all the stakeholders involved: employees, current and future clients and customers, the general public, owners, and shareholders” (Chapter 1). Therefore, there is no better place to start than adapting school culture.

My experience leading change at my school and my research show that this is an involved process. Reeves (2006) continues, noting that “many schools have cherished traditions of excellence in athletics, music, or art—traditions that can be threatened when the leader says that academic achievement must be the top priority. Effective change leaders identify and build on traditions rather than compete with them” (p. 92). If I were to enter a school that does not yet have a rigorous and relevant ELA curriculum aligned with CCSS, I would do my best to honor the positive traditions that are present while leading staff to work toward new levels of student achievement.
This may require revising the school’s vision and mission as well. In Failure is Not an Option, Blankstein (2012) explains that some boards of education chose to “hire a vision” and that this decision “sustains the paternalistic feeling [among teachers] that this is the principal’s vision, not ours” (p. 99). He also states: “a vision is not something that can be handed down from on high. It must be cocreated by the entire learning community in order for it to have shared meaning” (p. 97). Involving all stakeholders in vision revision is crucial to adapting school climate to meet the needs of teachers and students pursuing a new, rigorous and relevant ELA curriculum.

curriculum, instruction, assessment, ELA, CCSS, assessment

I discussed the impact new ELA curriculum has on teachers and school leaders in my first reflection as well. After completing my School Improvement Project, I saw that identifying the norms of positive school culture is essential to moving curriculum in the right direction. As a leader, I would call my staff to review Saphier and King’s (1985) twelve norms of school culture—specifically concerning how teachers and administrators work together. Therefore, as a staff, we would prioritize and choose three norms that need the most work. These include collegiality, experimentation, high expectations, trust and confidence, tangible support, reaching out to the knowledge bases, appreciation and recognition, caring, celebration, and humor, traditions, and honest, open communication.

We would then develop a plan to improve each norm we chose, including ways to measure progress and adjust as necessary. This will help get everyone involved and to start making immediate and continuous improvements to school culture. To begin to connect positive changes in school culture with changes to ELA curriculum, the appropriate teachers should then be organized by department and grade level to help articulate and implement curriculum. This has worked very well at my own school. I meet with two different collaborative inquiry teams nearly every day to write curriculum documents, develop common formative and summative assessments, score and compare student work, and research novel teaching methodologies. All of these are excellent uses of collaborative time and are mainstays of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), according to Blankstein (2012), and should be implemented by any school wishing to meet the demands of current education reform.

Special care must be taken to choose norms that apply to students’ needs, not just teachers’. This is essential to increase student engagement, which, in turn, will encourage better student performance. The cultural norms that can have the greatest positive impact on student learning include high expectations, trust and confidence, and tangible support. These norms are essential to forming a strong culture that will allow stakeholders to design and implement a rigorous ELA curriculum. Price (2007) explains, “the academic skills needed for success in the workplace are converging with those required for success in the first year of college”, and this should be a call to action to reform and revise school culture and curriculum. However, meeting the needs of all students is easier said than done. Reviewing the ways in which the U.S. military can “nurture and unleash the potential of aimless young people” regardless of socioeconomics or ethnicity can help (Price, 2007). Student culture at the school must be nurtured as well as the staff’s. A student culture committee formed by admin, teacher, parent, and student representatives should consider how to implement the strategies outlined in Price’s (2007) article. Effective strategies utilized by the military include: belonging, teamwork, motivation and self-discipline, valuing and believing in students, educating the whole child, stressing literacy in curriculum and instruction (ensuring rigor and relevancy), rewards and recognition, and safety and security. It is not recommended that school culture mimic a boot camp; still, inquiring into how the military can so effectively appeal to troubled children is worth the effort.

As a school leader working to implement a more rigorous and relevant curriculum, I would not only form a school culture committee concerned with the needs of the staff, but I would also form a committee concerned with needs of the students. After reviewing Price’s research and that of other scholars, this committee will meet regularly to plan, assess progress, and change actions. Teamwork will improve the school’s teaching and learning culture for students because subcommittees can form to address specific issues at school such as low student morale, student discipline problems, or the lack of after-school activities. Since maintaining a positive school culture is a major component of enacting change in schools (Blankstein, 2012), teamwork will ensure that teachers, parents, and the community can create supports and structures to nurture students as they see fit. This, in turn, will strengthen learning for all students.

Overall, the changes imposed on schools by CCSS can potentially help meet the needs of all students as 21st-century learners. Its focus on career and college readiness forces educators to design and implement more rigorous and relevant curricula—especially in ELA. However, without first assessing school culture and how it affects staff and students, the necessary adaptions will be difficult to complete. All stakeholders must come together to make up for district-and school-level deficiencies in culture. As a school leader, I would see that forming two main committees will enable members to solve two unique sets of cultural problems—one for staff and one for students. These committees can do their work strategically so as to inform all stakeholders and to enact the change process. The committees are really strategic leadership teams that will influence others in a positive way (Hughes and Beatty, 2013). As a new leader, I anticipate my role (and greatest challenge) will be to help institute a vision of collaboration and high expectations, to get the right people to work together, and to help them create and share the change they seek.

References
Blankstein, A.M. (2012). Failure is not an option: 6 principles that advance student achievement
in highly effective schools.California: Corwin.

Hughes, R. and Beatty, K. (2013). Becoming a strategic leader: Your role in your organization’s
enduring success. Wiley. [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com

Price, H. (2007). Demilitarizing what the pentagon knows about educating young people.
Education week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/10/03/06price.h27.html

Reeves, D. (2006). Leading to change/how do you change school culture?. Educational leadership. 64(4), 92-94.

Saphier, J. and King, M. (1985). Good seeds grow in strong cultures. Educational
leadership. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_198503_saphier.pdf

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