“Schools That Lead” Empowers Educators To Improve Student Outcomes

Casey Montigney is a sixth grade English Language Arts (ELA) teacher at Shue-Medill Middle School in Newark, Del. She was troubled. Too many of her students who – despite having good attendance, homework and participation grades – were unable to pass the class because of failing test scores. Moreover, she was aware of the national statistics that students who don’t pass ELA in the sixth grade are not likely to graduate high school.

Many teachers, like Montigney, alongside their principals, get to the heart of questions like these that plague schools across the country through Schools That Lead, a nonprofit organization that focuses on teacher leadership for improving student learning and achievement by shifting the focus of the classroom from what teachers are doing to how students are learning.

Teachers and principals from cohorts of schools work to identify small, specific problems in their school – like Montigney’s failing ELA test scores – and use a process called improvement science to arrive at solutions. Improvement science helps teachers and principals articulate their theories and assumptions, test change ideas and measure impact over time as they work to solve a common problem.

“Often times it’s very simple, but impactful, ideas that lead to big improvements,” says Dana Diesel Wallace, President and Chief Executive Officer of Schools That Lead. “Solutions do not have to be extremely complex. Sometimes it requires working through the process of trial-and-error and not being afraid to abandon solutions that aren’t working. It’s the same thing we’re doing with teacher leaders in the classroom.”

“We assume that there are excellent teachers in every school – right now. Our model leverages that in-house expertise,” adds Sofi Frankowski, Chief Learning Officer for Schools that Lead. “We aren’t trying to go into schools and fix things. We know that any given teacher is in a unique situation any given day. That teacher has a greater understanding of the challenges than any outsider. Our job is to find out how to leverage that uniqueness and work with educators to figure out those specific problems and come up with ideas to produce better outcomes.”

For instance, in Montigney’s case, the first step was identifying the problem – the failing test scores. From there, Schools That Lead facilitators and participants in her cohort helped encourage her in finding ways to arrive at a new outcome. Montigney decided to give her students a chance to retake tests – but as part of the process of retesting, the students needed to request a retest personally and show her three ways they’ve worked to relearn the material they didn’t understand the first time.

“It took some tweaking for her. She tried reminding students about retake options at the beginning of class versus the end of class, and evaluated which was more effective. She decided to create a notebook that shows different ways to study the materials, and let students look at that notebook for ideas to help them prepare for the retest. She took an entire semester trying out new ideas,” explains Frankowski. “Now she’s changed the trajectory of the rest of their academic career, simply by coming up with a simple solution to a specific problem.”

As part of the process, teacher leaders in these cohorts are encouraged to share what they’ve learned with about a dozen other teachers in their school. Not only did Montigney solve the problem she identified in her class, but when she shared her idea with colleagues and they tried it, 87 percent of their students who were at risk of course failure passed their classes too.

“What we see a lot of times is education consultants come in with a plan and force all teachers to embrace it, which leads to a lot of resistance,” says Diesel Wallace. “Besides that, it’s often not particularly effective because we know what works for one teacher might not work for another. Context matters. Using improvement science, teachers are learning together what works, for who, and under what circumstances.”

And the process is making a lasting impact on school campuses, explains Nancy Carnevale, principal of Milford Central Academy in Milford, Del. “Being involved with Schools That Lead has changed the way my school functions and runs,” says Carnevale. “Mostly because for years, it was always about the big roll out – what’s our initiative for the year and what are we going to make everybody do? Schools That Lead is totally different than that. It’s provided my teachers with many different onramps to get into improvement work. It’s also really cemented the idea of making these small changes on a small level, figuring out what works in this setting, and what didn’t work.”

“We realize that the education field suffers a bit from ‘solutionitis.’ Someone goes to a conference, comes back and then everyone is forced to do ‘the thing.’ We were educators and we’ve seen that happen in our own schools,” says Frankowski. “At the end of the day, what we’re seeing time and time again is that it takes one single teacher saying, ‘I have a problem and I’m going to work to figure out a solution,’ that ends up changing student outcomes across an entire school better than any huge initiative a school may try to force on its teachers. And we’re here to help them figure out those solutions.”

Schools That Lead is one of the pioneers in using improvement science in education and one of very few organizations across the country working with educators to implement these principles in schools.

Contact Information:
Dr. Dana Diesel Wallace
President and CEO, Schools That Lead
(919) 710-0742