The Power of Cross-District Collaboration for Instructional Coaches

December 3, 2018

Submitted by:

Danica Lewis, Fond du Lac School District, Fond du Lac, WI

Mark Flaten, School District of Waupaca, Waupaca, WI

Don Smith, Winneconne Community School District, Winneconne, WI

Greg Wolcott, Woodridge District 68, Woodridge, IL

“I loved being able to connect and build relationships with other instructional coaches. One of the most valuable parts of the conference was when we had the opportunity to research and collaborate on a topic that was applicable and pertinent to our practice.”

–Winneconne Instructional Coach

Districts are increasingly seeing the benefits of instructional coaches in the improvement of student learning and teacher professional practice. While larger districts may employ a cadre of instructional coaches, who can support each other and learn together, smaller districts may have one one or two coaches. The question for smaller districts becomes, how do you feed the learning needs of your instructional coaches so that they can feed the teachers they support?

Our four districts recently engaged in a two-day collaborative session designed to meet the unique professional learning needs of our coaches. On the first day, as the teams entered the room, they trepidatiously sat at tables, largely with the colleagues with whom they regularly work. Upon beginning our time together, we got the coaches up and moving and connecting across districts. The excitement in the room quickly grew as coaches from very different districts began to find the commonalities they shared with so many others in the room.

“The role of coach is unique. Even among the coaches in Fond du Lac, my role is unique. As we came together with coaches from other districts, I noticed how different the roles we each hold are, but recognized that the work we do is similar. We work to support teachers to grow their instructional practices with an eye on increasing student achievement.”

–Fond du Lac Instructional Coach

After a morning of sharing and conversing, largely in cross-district partnerships, coaches returned to their district teams for lunch and discussion. They shared ideas that they had gathered from their new network of instructional coaching colleagues and talked about the plans for the rest of the collaborative time together.

Prior to coming together, we discussed the format of the two days. In considering the purpose of our time together, we all felt that the most value would come from significant periods of time for the coaches to collaborate together. However, the collaboration would need structure to be purposeful. We surveyed our coaches to determine the topics that were most on their minds right now and around which they most need the opportunity to collaborate.

“I was so nervous that everyone here would be competitive and trying to prove that they were the best coach. I am so glad that this hasn’t been the case! Everyone is so nice and collaborative. I can’t wait to keep learning together!”

–Woodridge 68 Instructional Coach

A significant portion of our time together was spent engaged in what we called “Topic Driven Research.” Coaches joined a team based on the topic they most wanted to research. In these teams, the coaches collaboratively developed a research question, visited schools and classrooms to gather information, consulted print and web resources, and talked together about their own experiences. At the end of their research, teams developed a one-pager which included a summary of their research and information on the resources they had consulted in their work. These were shared with the group so that follow-up could occur as interested.

The sense of exhilaration that everyone felt at the end of our two days together was inspiring. The request was made to share emails and Twitter handles so that newly formed partnerships could be maintained. The coaches have requested that these sessions occur twice annually to maintain the collaborative relationships. What started as a simple concept, a multi-district collaboration, turned into something much more significant than we could have imagined. Though not much time has passed since these two days together, we have each seen evidence of the power of this collaboration in our coaches. As leaders, there is no greater feeling than knowing that you have enabled your staff to grow professionally and personally. Through intentional, cross-district collaboration, we all got better, together!

“The time spent with coaches from the other districts was both informative and inspiring. We were able to have great conversations about how coaches are making an impact on students. The collaboration was amazing and new friendships were formed. We can’t wait to attend the next session!”

–Waupaca Instructional Coach

About the Authors:

Mark Flaten began his teaching career in September 2001. Besides being a first year teacher, the events of September 11th truly put his ability to connect with and lead students to the ultimate test. Many thanks to his humble middle class upbringing and collegiate international travels, Mark quickly put to work his two educational principles that continue to guide his work;
Education = Freedom
Tolerance is not an acceptable replacement for teaching students to celebrate our differences.

After teaching for 5 years at suburban Grafton High School, Mark began his Administrative journey in rural Nekoosa, becoming an AP and Activities Director. He then moved to Green Bay East HS for a year before spending the next 7 as the Head Learner of Green Bay West HS. During his time at West HS, West became just the 13th authorized International Baccalaureate Diploma Program school in Wisconsin. This revitalization of West HS yielded a 17% increase in graduation rates, a 55% increase in graduates earning college credit, and a $535,000.00 increase in college scholarships awarded to West graduates. In 2017, Mark and his family moved south to be closer family and friends while becoming the Principal of Waupaca HS. In 2018, Mark agreed to become the Director of Teaching and Learning for the School District of Waupaca.

Danica Lewis is the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Pupil Services for the Fond du Lac School District in Wisconsin where she leads curriculum development, instruction, assessment, and special education services for the 7,500 students of the Fond du Lac community. During her 7 years in this role, Danica led the implementation of standards-based grading K-12 and facilitated the strengthening of professional learning communities in the 16 schools of the district. Danica has facilitated impactful professional learning around literacy, data analysis, and PLC leadership for the principals in her district as she knows that a strong instructional leader in a school building is critical to improving student learning.

Don Smith has 16 years of professional experience in public schools. Don is currently the Director of Teaching and Learning for the Winneconne Community School District, in Wisconsin. Prior to his current role, Don was the Director of Teaching and Learning in the School District of Waupaca. Don also served as the Principal at Fond du Lac STEM Academy and Fond du Lac STEM Institute, as well as the the District Assessment Coordinator for the Fond du Lac Area School District (WI). Don continually leads professional development sessions centered on research based practices in instruction and assessment. His primary areas of expertise and support with FIRST include: professional learning communities, assessment and grading, culture, and evidence-based decision making.

Greg Wolcott currently serves as the Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning at Woodridge School District 68 in Woodridge, Illinois, a suburb 30 miles west of Chicago. As an educator in the Chicagoland area for over 20 years, Greg is passionate about developing opportunities for all students to succeed as well as finding ways for all teachers and staff members to utilize their strengths to maximize the learning of each and every child whom they interact with on a daily basis.Greg consults throughout the United States on a variety of subjects including adult learning, developing innovative practices in the classroom to engage all learners, formative assessment to drive instruction, response to instruction/intervention, and data usage for school improvement.

How Educators Can Understand the Power of Collective Efficacy From This Year’s Milwaukee Brewers

October 14, 2018 by Garth Larson, Ed.D

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

OCTOBER…one of the best times of the entire calendar year in the midwest. Although the current temperature is 32 degrees in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, there is so much to be excited about with October. Football is in full swing as high school teams are just beginning their playoff runs, college teams are in the middle of their brutal conference schedules, and professional football is nearing the halfway point of the season. Usually, that is enough to keep me excited about all that October brings. However, as a die-hard fan of all Wisconsin athletics, this October has even more to offer.

Our Milwaukee Brewers are playing the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. Although I was excited the last time the Brewers were in the NLCS (2011), there was a feeling that team was going to lose to the St. Louis Cardinals.

They didn’t have the same swagger this year’s team demonstrates every time they walk on the field. But it’s not just the swagger and confidence that makes this year’s Milwaukee Brewers so interesting to watch, it’s their Collective Efficacy and different way of thinking about winning baseball games.

Professor John’s Hattie’s research in Visible Learning clearly points out that collective teacher efficacy has the highest impact on learning than any other approach to learning that has been studied. According to Hattie’s work, Collective Teacher Efficacy carries an impact of 1.57 (Visible Learning Plus, December 2017), which is almost four times the rate of what would be considered one year’s growth in learning. So if Collective Teacher Efficacy is so influential and we are aware of this statistic, why are schools still struggling to support high levels of learning for all students? The answer is pretty simple, they either don’t know what being efficacious looks like, or they have not established teams that believe they have the impact to do amazing things on behalf of kids and learning.

According to Jenni Donohoo’s blog post for The Learning Exchange on January 9, 2017, “Collective teacher efficacy (CTE) refers to a staff’s shared belief that through their collective action, they can positively influence student outcomes, including those who are disengaged and/or disadvantaged. Educators with high efficacy show greater effort and persistence, a willingness to try new teaching approaches, set more challenging goals, and attend more closely to the needs of students who require extra assistance.”
Dr. Donohoo goes on to include the following:
“Efficacy beliefs are very powerful because they guide educators’ actions. Goddard, Hoy, and Woolfolk Hoy (2004) noted that efficacy beliefs “directly affect the diligence and resolve with which groups choose to pursue their goals” (p. 8).

If educators’ realities are filtered through the belief that there is very little they can do to influence student achievement, then it is very likely these beliefs will be manifested in their practice. However, if a school staff shares a sense of collective efficacy, then they have a greater likelihood of positively impacting student learning, over and above any other influence.”

This is where the 2018 edition of the Milwaukee Brewers can be used to explain the notion of efficacy.The Brewers entered the final month of the season 4 games behind the Chicago Cubs and went 19-7 in September, including winning their last eight regular season games to win the division, and become the first place seed for the National League. That streak concluded at 12 games with their loss on Saturday night, but it still appears this team is poised to look ahead and what they can accomplish collectively as a team.

Why have they experienced this level of success? Because of the belief systems in themselves and each other to achieve success. Every interview I watch with this team revolves around the team and their strengths. Brewers manager Craig Counsell has taken an approach with his bullpen that is much different than most traditional teams. Their focus as a team defensively is to get 27 outs and score more runs than the other team. He doesn’t care how he gets those outs and scores the runs, as long as it happens. As a result of this leadership, his team has fully invested and bought into their collective efforts to achieve greatness. Having a starter intentionally only pitch 2 innings so they can go to the bullpen is unheard of. However, the Milwaukee Brewers have put on an absolute clinic using this approach by continually playing to the strengths of all players.

In 2003, Michael Lewis authored the book Moneyball:

The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. This book and later movie (2011) starring Brad Pitt, has helped educators think differently about supporting student learning. While I was working as the Director of Learning for the Winneconne Community School District (WI), we showed our staff the trailer to the movie Moneyball during our welcome back in-service that August.
Our goal was to help them understand the art of thinking different, using data/evidence to support decision making and to believe in the power of a team.

After watching the trailer and discussing the key ideas and concepts from the book and movie, we came up with three conclusions we could ALL support.

    • We have to think differently:We recognized the model of school we were using was not effective for all students. We were not ensuring ALL students were learning at high levels and we knew that needed to be the focus moving forward.
    • Our Goal Shouldn’t be to Raise Test Scores, Our Goal Should be to Focus on Increasing Learning!:Although the movie doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about test scores, there is a scene where Peter Brandt (Jonah Hill) says to Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), “your goal shouldn’t be the buy players, your goal should be to buy wins, and in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.”  We made it very clear at that point in our conversations with our staff that we were not on a mission to raise test scores or increase accountability ratings. Our goal was to focus on increasing LEARNING. We knew if we focused on increasing learning and did it well for all students, test scores and accountability ratings would be the beneficiary of that approach.
    • The Answers are in the Room:We recognized we could not go out and recruit the state teacher of the year from every district because that wasn’t financially feasible. We also recognized that through our thoughts and beliefs, we could create grade level and content level teams of the year! We believed that we had all the talent we needed to help students experience higher levels of success. However, we had to believe  this collectively as a district. We had to believe in our impact and trust each other to do amazing things collectively on behalf of our students.

The end result was amazing, just as we are seeing with the Milwaukee Brewers. In four years, we significantly increased learning for ALL students and moved from accountability ratings showing “Meets Expectations” to now “Significantly Exceeding Expectations” and having the fourth highest rating of all K-12 school districts in the state of Wisconsin (422 school districts total). All of this was the result of amazing group of adults, supporting each other and believing in each other to support our students. That’s the power of collective efficacy!

In terms of this year’s Milwaukee Brewers, Collectively Efficacious is the best way to describe them. They are focused on winning as a group, not as a group of individuals. They trust each other in all scenarios, they have tried new approaches and they are focused on the strengths of each member within the organization. According to the work of John Hattie and Jenni Donohoo, that’s a formula for success. Although the Brewers may not win the NLCS or World Series if they get there, this year’s Milwaukee Brewers have provided additional evidence to support Hattie and Donohoo’s work on the undeniable power of collective efficacy!

About the Author:
Garth Larson is the President of FIRST Educational Resources and also serves Part-Time Director of Educator Effectiveness for the Winneconne Community School District. Garth previously sat on the Board of Directors for ASCD Wisconsin, he serves on the K-12 Advisory Council for Education for the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and also serves as an adjunct faculty member for educational courses offered through Dominican University of California as well as the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Garth has previously worked as an elementary principal in two separate Northeast Wisconsin School Districts and started his career in education as a high school speech and English teacher
In 2011, Garth formed Wisconsin Educational Resources (now FIRST) with a focus of improving student achievement across the United States.

Since 2011, over 1500 school districts throughout the country have become partnership districts with his company. Garth currently consults to school districts around the country and provides customized professional development around a variety of topics, mainly Professional Learning Communities, Response to Intervention/Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, Learning-Centered Grading Practices, Leadership, and School Improvement. Garth is also the author of Collaborative Systems of Support: Learning for ALL with co-authors Tom Hierck and Chris Weber, Target-Based Grading in Collaborative Teams: 13 Steps to Moving Beyond Standards with co-author Tom Hierck, Grading for Impact: Raising Student Achievement through a Target-Based Assessment and Learning System.

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