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Superintendent's Desk: Run the Red Lights

Dr. Terry Holliday is the superintendent of the Iredell-Statesville Schools in North Carolina.

This was the big day. My cabinet members and I sat together, anxiously awaiting the phone call that would tell us whether or not we had won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the highest presidential honor for innovation and quality. When my cell phone vibrated, I jumped and then listened nervously.

After a long and dramatic pause, Secretary Carlos Gutierrez began, “On behalf of the President, I would like to be the first to congratulate you….” At that moment, more than 12 years of hard work was worth the effort. We had encountered many obstacles that could have stopped us. All organizations encounter these “red lights” as they try to change and improve their systems. It’s how we react to those red lights that matter.

Whenever I ask teachers why more of our students are not successful, the most frequent reasons are external ones. Parents aren’t supportive or involved enough, students aren’t attentive enough, administration is not supportive enough, and on and on. Every superintendent has heard a teacher say, “Just leave us alone and let us teach!”

When I talk with principals and central office personnel, I often hear the same reasons recited—usually with one more added, “teachers aren’t doing enough.” State legislators, meanwhile, like to say that districts aren’t proactive enough and need to recruit and retain “better talent.”

I believe that parents are sending us the best students they have, and odds are universities are sending us the best candidates they have in their teacher preparation programs. A long list of “reasons” cannot absolve us of our responsibility to create an environment in which all students will be successful.

Too often there is a belief that schools can’t overcome the impacts of the socioeconomic status of children. In our district, we don’t have time to obey that red light. Public education is the great equalizer, and schools must provide children with the tools to build a better future.

Seven years ago, our district began to develop a model to raise achievement and close gaps. One key point: the collaboration of teachers in professional learning communities and in school-level academic goal teams. We learned early on that teachers need training on how to make a team effective. The National Staff Development Council suggests that for every hour of content training, there should be seven hours of modeling, practice, coaching, and feedback. So we implemented instructional facilitators at each school to teach, coach, and support teachers. We chose these instructional facilitators from a group of our highest performing classroom teachers.

Still, there were more red lights. Some teachers said that they had already learned about curriculum, instruction, assessment and intervention in college and had no more to learn. Some defined professional development as  going to conferences. Sound familiar?

We overcame this by implementing classroom walkthroughs, which revealed a huge knowing/doing gap, with very little deployment of high-yield instructional strategies, differentiation, or effective interventions.

We’ve since made improvements on our model, but the core is still the instructional facilitator. This group of dedicated coaches comes together every week, and receives support for the work they do in the professional learning communities in their schools.

Our school system received national recognition because we are determined to ensure that every student is successful. We have improved SAT scores by 57 points, lowered our dropout rate from 10.5 percent to 3.5 percent, and cut academic achievement gaps for African-American and special-needs children by more than half—all while our expenditure-per-pupil remains one of the lowest in North Carolina.

We still have more work to do. We encounter red lights every day, and teams of professionals within our district make the decision whether to stop or move forward. Sometimes, you just have to run the red lights.    

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