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Iowa Department of Education

10/15/2019 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 10/15/2019 00:27

District examines its TLC system: Are the plans now outdated?

Teaching a toddler to catch a ball is slow, careful business. Under-handed gentle tosses. Take the same child - 10 years later - and would you deploy the same methods when tossing the ball to her? Of course not. That's because her skills have vastly improved over the last decade.

So why would a teacher leadership system be any different?

It isn't, so say educators in the Norwalk Community School District. Entering their sixth year of the Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) program, they know it is time to re-examine the system they put in place five years ago.

'When examining our original goals, we realized we had achieved many of them,' said Amy Gage, director of academic services. 'One example is aligning our curriculum to the Iowa Core, which we have done. We're now ready for bigger goals, bigger work.'

'Over the last couple of years as we reviewed TLC in a small facet, we saw that our leadership roles were starting to overlap,' said Dawn Schiro, director of continuous improvement. 'We noticed that while we're doing great work over here, the work had shifted. We sought feedback on how we can make this better, and that feedback has guided us to the program review.'

And to that end, Norwalk has created a team of 20, consisting of teachers, teacher leaders and principals to do a full review of the district's TLC system.

'We are starting to have conversations about what our TLC system should be, what we hope to do with it, about possible improvements for the future,' said Shelly Vroegh, TLC and mentoring programs coordinator. 'We've made a lot of progress in the last six years. When we started TLC, we did not have an instructional framework in place. Today we are using the Marzano Instructional Framework. We are continually working to align our leadership positions with the work that we're doing to become a Marzano High Reliability School.' (See story below.)

Alignment is also key for goals set by the TLC review committee.

'First we need to set new goals, that's what the TLC program review is about,' Gage said. 'We need to make sure our TLC goals align with the district's goals.'

The district wants to ensure that its TLC system is focused on continuous improvement: When one level of excellence is reached, eyes go to the next level. In turn, the students' academic performances improve.

'For instance, we didn't like what we saw last year on FastBridge (the statewide reading assessment), and we refocused our TLC leaders on targeting foundational skills in early reading,' Gage said. 'As a result, we're moving the needle. Our initial fall results show our focus is paying off. Over time, we are seeing improvements in much of our assessment data. Another example is our district decision to offer the ACT to all juniors. We believe strongly in sending the message that all students can achieve at high levels and deserve access to a college and career ready assessment. We weren't sure how it would turn out, but the results ended up being something we are really proud of.'

The district's TLC review team has already met once to determine what it should examine going forward, with a goal of giving the school board its recommendations in January. There are two guiding principles the team follows: transparency to district employees and not having predetermined notions as to what the team's recommendations could be.

'We cannot have every single teacher in the district sitting around this table,' Vroegh said. 'It was important to ensure everyone's voice is heard. This week, we're heading out to all schools and have everyone give input. Those focus-group conversations are where everyone has a chance to provide information so that we can make informed decisions.'

In addition to getting staff feedback, the review team is looking at other TLC systems in the state, seeing what might make sense to adopt in Norwalk's system.

'We're also utilizing the Iowa Department of Education's website to look at the original grants,' Schiro said. 'We are looking for systems that are producing student achievement.'

The next step is to gather data - perhaps the foundation of a teacher leader's work.

'We have lots of data we need to sift through to see what this system needs to look like in our district,' Schiro said.

Dedication to continuous improvement is the bedrock of an effective TLC system.

'One of the best things educators can be is to be reflective,' Vroegh said. 'Sure, celebrate the victories but also reflect on how we can do better. There are always ways to improve. It's not about us, as teachers, but our students. Is our system meeting the needs of students?'

'We constantly must ask ourselves, 'what evidence do we have that we are effecting student achievement?'' Schiro said. 'Evidence is the key word. What evidence do we have that we are impacting student achievement?'

'I think as a leader I have to be willing to embrace change, and model what we ask teachers to do,' Gage said. 'We all have to be willing to reflect on our own. I think it can be a powerful model for a system when the leaders say, 'Hey, how can we improve, too?''

In this review, Vroegh said it's critical for teacher leaders to listen.

'Sometimes as leaders we get laser-focused on what needs to be done, but we need to step back as teacher leaders and listen to our constituents,' she said. 'How are they feeling about the direction we're going? What are they struggling with? What are they proud of?

'It' s impossible to say where we are going with this review. We are just getting ready to dig into data. It will come from honest conversations that are student-focused, and teachers thinking about what they need to make our system as productive and successful as possible.'

'We have a clear role of what our work is,' Schiro said. 'The team will analyze past data, look at other systems, and make informed recommendations that will improve student learning. While the committee is making recommendations, they will not be involved in budgetary considerations.'

A Marzano High Reliability School is a framework for school improvement, which incorporates five levels:
  1. Safe school environment, for students who feel safe and supported in the building do better academically.
  2. Highly effective instruction in every classroom.
  3. A guaranteed and viable curriculum, meaning that the curriculum ensures teachers have resources enabling them to teach the material in a required amount of time.
  4. Teaching, learning, grading: How are standards utilized to guide instruction and what kind of tools are in place to measure how students and teachers are performing.
  5. Competency-based education: This is where student guide their own learning based on individual skills. When students take ownership of their own instruction, they acquire deeper commitment to the subjects being taught and learn at a deeper level.

Levels 1 through 3 require the largest commitment of time because they are the foundational pieces of all other work.