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10 Big Ideas to Improve Your Schools

Establish professional learning communities, encourage social networking, reexamine staffing, and use free digital tools to
enhance teaching and learning.

Two goals every school leader can embrace are continuous improvement and wringing as much value as possible from every dollar in the budget. These two tasks do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Here are 10 ways-from finding partners in higher ed to exploring free tools to reexamining staffing-that you can use to improve teaching and learning while keeping an eye on your bottom line.

1. Establish Professional Learning Communities.
There’s no doubt about it: Traditional professional development can be very pricey. By the time you consider speaker fees, the cost of texts, and hiring substitutes to cover classes, districts can easily spend tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars on PD initiatives. “But this model of professional development—with a workshop here and a day-long meeting there—doesn’t produce lasting results,” says Mike Mattos, principal of Pioneer Middle School in Tustin, California, and co-author of Pyramid Response to Intervention: RTI, Professional Learning Communities, and How to Respond When Kids Don’t Learn.
That’s where professional learning communities come in. By emphasizing the establishment of a shared vision, collective learning, instructional collaboration, peer observation, and action research, PLCs create the opportunity for continuous, teacher-directed staff development. “And it’s free,” adds Mattos. At his school, teachers have successfully engaged in PLCs to address key issues, such as establishing effective grading practices, meeting Hispanic students’ needs, and working with at-risk students.

2. Partner With Researchers.
Around the country, university faculty are working to develop innovative classroom lessons, test new educational technologies, and uncover effective instructional practices. Dr. Dawnene Hassett, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says, “In a study I am conducting with K–3 teachers, we are looking at how highly visual and interactive children’s literature can help teach reading and writing skills. As a result, the classroom teachers [get] lesson plans, materials, and ideas they can use for years.” Researchers are often developing new resources and tools. By partnering with local university faculty and other researchers, teachers may get to pilot a new math curriculum that emphasizes social justice, try out a revolutionary iPhone application, or experiment with using videogames to enhance content area learning.

3. Encourage Teachers to Use Social-Networking Sites.
In schools, a lot of the discussion about social networking focuses on how students are using (or misusing) popular sites like Facebook or MySpace. But social-networking sites can be incredibly useful for teachers, too. Need an idea for how to teach the popular young adult novel The Book Thief? Curious about how Second Life can enhance classroom learning? The answers to all these questions can be found online. But social-networking sites aren’t just about linking people to resources. They’re about linking people to people—and fostering critical discussion.

In the U.S., one in four classrooms now has an interactive whiteboard. As teachers work to use whiteboards to enhance learning, they are finding Promethean Planet and SMART Exchange invaluable. Teachers can also join the discussions on the Classroom 2.0 website to learn more about Web 2.0 tools and collaborative technologies, visit RezEd.org to discover how virtual worlds can facilitate classroom instruction, or take part in the community at Ning in Education (education.ning.com).  

4. Make Collaboration a Priority.
In theory, most schools want teachers to collaborate with one another to develop lessons, address individual students’ learning needs, and share ideas and resources. In reality, most teachers have little time within the school day to do so. In elementary schools with 20-minute lunch periods or high schools with five minutes between classes, there simply isn’t enough time to have meaningful (let alone ongoing) discussions. To address that, administrators are rethinking how to structure the school day to value teachers’ collaborative work and professional dialogue.

In some elementary and middle schools, for instance, all same-grade-level teachers have a common preparation time each day. At high schools, all teachers within a single department could share the same prep time. This would allow teachers to work closely with colleagues and encourage them to engage in ongoing discussions about their curriculum and how to meet the needs of each learner. In other districts, an entire half day is set aside each week for staff development, in part to help align curricula among grade levels.

5. Manage and Share Data.
This year, Atlanta Public Schools began piloting its Teacher Quality Dashboard Initiative. Partially funded by a $390,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the district is gathering and storing information about the performance of its estimated 4,000 teachers, primarily their students’ grades, test scores, and attendance, in an online data warehouse, says Chuck Burbridge, the district’s chief financial officer. The dashboard will enable school administrators to quickly review teacher performance, identify those who may need coaching, and build teacher teams more effectively.

This all-in-one system for school performance management will allow administrators to better evaluate the impact and effectiveness of its plans to improve curriculum and professional development programs.

The district plans to finish the prototype this year, though it will take another year to get the online dashboard running. Since many teachers are data-driven and track student performance throughout the year, the pilot has drawn much interest.
Although the district recently trimmed millions of dollars from its budget—even eliminating cost-of-living allowances this year—Burbridge calls the project a top priority. Why?  Teacher quality is the top predictor of student outcomes.

6. Use Free Digital Tools.
Want to get teachers excited about using media and technology in the classroom? Show them what’s available—free and online. Take Wordle, for instance, which could be used by elementary teachers to create a highly visual word wall. Or there’s audio-editing software like Audacity and Jamglue. Students can use these to create their own podcasts and public service announcements. New media presentation software makes it easy to combine photos, video, music, and text—check out Empressr, Animoto, and JayCut.

Joe Geocaris, an English teacher at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, has successfully used nings, user-created social networks, with his students. At Ning.com, anyone can create a network, which can be public or private; members can keep blogs, post to the forum, link to other resources, upload videos, and form interest groups. “When I first set up the ning with my students, we talked about security and online credibility. But we also covered how they could create a valid identity and what would make them credible to others in the network,” Geocaris says. Students used the online space to post resources and ask questions of their teacher and peers. He adds, “Students had a better understanding of their audience, they were authorities on their research topic, and they engaged each other in critical discussion.”   

7. Reduce Fixed Costs.
Five years ago, Bowling Green Independent Schools in Kentucky introduced a music program featuring string instruments donated by a local music foundation, says Superintendent Joe Tinius. But the program’s expansion from 60 students to 300 forced the district to spend $10,000 to hire a part-time teacher.

Tinius found the money. The district saved $5,000 a year by canceling a biweekly sweeping service for its parking lots, which are now cleaned as needed. Emptying large garbage Dumpsters less frequently saved another $5,000. The district also purchased equipment to clean school doormats instead of having them replaced weekly. By fall, Tinius says, the equipment will have paid for itself—while the music program continues to grow.

8. Share Work.
As an instructional technology resource teacher with the San José (CA) Unified School District, Felicia Webb learned about www.curriki.org , a free website for teachers that offers more than 25,000 classroom lessons. Teachers upload their lessons for other educators to use, and they collaborate with one another to modify, improve, or update existing lessons. The district used the website as part of a pilot program. Earlier this year, 45 teachers in its technology integration leadership program created more than 50 new lessons, uploaded them, then downloaded other lessons from the site that involved technology. It has been a great success, says Webb. Now the district is developing creative ways to expand its use of the website, focusing on specific areas that need improvement. The plan is to roll it out to teachers across the district and explore collaboration opportunities with teachers worldwide.

9. Turn Energy Savings Into New Equipment.
Clark County School District in Las Vegas supports an energy conservation program that is managed by a team of 22 energy inspectors, says Paul Gerner, associate superintendent for facilities at CCSD.

Each inspector rotates working the midnight shift to ensure schools are properly shut down. Last year, he says, the district won the 2008 Cashman Good Government Award from the Nevada Taxpayers Association for saving more than $10 million on utility costs. The district expects to save the same amount this year. The self-funded program has significantly changed how the district schools operate, he says, adding that 90 percent of the district’s schools earn energy rebates by saving at least 10 percent in energy costs over the previous year.

Several years ago, the district began using a portion of these savings to equip classrooms with PCs, printers, and whiteboards to help prepare students for 21st-century work and learning.

10. Reexamine Staffing Needs.
Back in 2006, money was tight at Fridley Public Schools, a K–12 district just north of Minneapolis that supports 2,800
students. One or two teachers were facing layoffs. So Superintendent Mark Robertson tried something new. He realized employing a full-time business manager and an accountant was overkill: Their combined salaries and benefits packages totaled almost $200,000. To make matters worse, roughly five accountants had quit in six years, accepting higher-paying jobs with other districts.

Robertson outsourced the positions. After one year, the company he hired had taken on too many clients, which negatively affected the quality of its work. So the two parted ways. Robertson then hired a subcontractor for each position and reduced their hours to 80 percent. Total savings: roughly $75,000. The district avoided cutting 1.5 teachers in the classroom with these savings and was able to maintain small class sizes.          

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