The Illusion of Change

By Guest blogger, Dr. Anthony Muhammad, Author and Leadership Consultant.  He is the keynote speaker at our Complimentary VIP Leadership Summit event hosted by the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative. This event is being held on May 15, 2017. This invitation only event will offer an opportunity for school leadership to discuss transforming school culture to build teacher leadership and improve student outcomes. Please email for more information.

Anthony MuhammedChange is a very difficult process, but it is the catalyst to continuous improvement.  It tests our ability as professionals at many different levels.  Sometimes, when things get too challenging, we tend to look for short-cuts or we quietly surrender.  We live in a political climate that demands that we change, whether we choose to or not, but I have found that some organizations are good at creating the illusion of change, rather than being fully involved in the process of change.  There are a three key phrases which clearly indicate that an organization is not fully committed to the change process.

Phrase #1: “We are having conversations”

This phrase is a code for; “we have a lot of opposition to this idea and we are afraid to make people too uncomfortable and release an onslaught of political and social opposition.”  I recently worked with a school that has been involved with the implementation of the Professional Learning Community (PLC) process for three years.  They have created collaborative teams and they have designated time for those collaborative teams to meet.  They have created district-wide formative assessments that are administered four times per year.  These milestones were reached in the first year of the process.  So, I asked about PLC Questions #3 and #4 which address systems of student intervention and enrichment, and the room got very quiet.  When people finally began to speak, each answer began with the phrase “we are having conversations.”  If your district is “having conversations,” the change process has stalled.

Phrase #2: “We are in different places”

This phrase is code for; “we don’t have a universal system of accountability, and people who understand the intrinsic value of what we propose have embraced it, and those that are averse are allowed to disregard it until they ‘buy-in’.” Schools and systems that use this phrase are engaged in what I call “accountability light.” This is a diet version of universal professional accountability where group expectations and coherence are the norm.  Healthy school cultures make collaborative decisions and they hold each other mutually accountable for full participation.  When shared commitment is not achieved, a tiered-system of commitment emerges where implementation is based upon personal preference.  Partial commitment is the same as no commitment.

Phrase #3: “District initiatives”

This phrase is code for; “there is a huge philosophical divide between school practitioners and central office which has led to a stalemate.”  I have had the pleasure to work with thousands of schools on the change process and whenever practitioners refer to the change process as a “district initiative,” it is never good.  In essence what they are expressing is a feeling of imposition.  In the mind of the school practitioner, they are confronting real world issues and they have their fingers on the pulse of the needs of the school; and central office lives a world disconnected from reality and their priorities are unreasonable and unnecessary.   This is a clear indication of poor communication and professional disconnection.  If your district has a lot of “initiatives,” effective change is probably not on the horizon.

Assuring a Standardized Comprehension Conversation with the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System

By Irene Fountas, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative Director/Author/Professor

irene_fountas_2.JPGAs you use the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System, do you and your colleagues have common understandings so you will have accurate information on your students? Think about how you are providing a standardized comprehension conversation and scoring it in a standardized way. The following suggestions may be helpful:

Before the Assessment:
* Be sure you have read and thought about the information in the book. When you know the text well, it will be easier to facilitate the conversation.

* Read the key understandings and prompts prior to the assessment so you are familiar with them.

* Explain to children beforehand that you are going to meet with each of them to listen to them read so you will be able to help them as readers. Explain that you will ask them to read a short book and then you will ask them to share their thinking about what they read.

During the Assessment
* Use an encouraging tone when inviting the student to talk more.

* Avoid repeating what the student says.

* Give wait time instead of jumping in to ask the question again.

* Be concise in the language of your prompts.

* Don’t ask leading questions.

* When the student has indicated some knowledge of an answer but uses only one or two words in a superficial way, you must respond with “Say more about that.” or “Talk more about that.”

* If a student is simply pasting sentences from the text together, or reading them, it shows the student knows where to find evidence; however, the student needs to be able to articulate, understanding independently. You might say, “Can you say that in your own words?”

* Try not to repeat a question or prompt unless it is necessary. Repeating a question several times can make a child confused or become “a lead” to an answer.

* Paraphrase a prompt only once. Doing so multiple times may lead the student to an answer.

* Avoid asking a question in a way that “gives” the answer. A leading question might be, “And how do these adaptations help this animal?”

* Be careful not to change the intentions of a prompt or question. For example, “What is the writer’s message?” is different from “What is the writer’s message about extinction?”

* Do not direct the student to a particular part of the book unless the prompt requires it.

* Allow the student to look back in the book if they initiate it. If the student starts to read from the book, you should say “Can you say that in your own words?”

As you become very well versed with the books and the prompts, your comprehension conversation at the lower levels will only take about 2-3 minutes and the upper levels about 4-5 minutes. Remember, an assessment conference is the time for you to gather good information, so resist the urge to teach! Discuss these points with your colleagues so your team can assure that each student is engaged in a standardized comprehension conversation that gives good data to inform teaching and document profiles through time.

NCLB Reauthorization Proposal and What Really Works in Turning Schools Around?

by Charlene DiCalogero
Assistant Director, Federal Grants Programs

Two items in the January 18th EdWeek caught my eye. The first is an article about the ongoing attempts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act most recently known as No Child Left Behind, as well as the Obama Administration’s proposed waiver/modification plan for some of NCLB’s provisions even if a revised version of the law does not pass.

The article includes a helpful comparison chart of what is currently in the law, and some major differences (and similarities) between the two proposed bills as well as the White House’s alternative plan.

Second is the back page commentary by Alan M. Blankstein and Pedro Noguera entitled “What Really Works in Turning Schools Around?”  Professor Noguera is a highly respected and progressive professor of education now at NYU, and formerly at Harvard. Two quotes that stood out:

“The first problem with the administration’s approach is that it specifies the remedy rather than beginning with an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Firing staff members or rewarding them based on performance assumes schools are failing because the staff is lazy or uninterested in improving. The actual problem is always more complicated.”

“There must be a clear and deliberate strategy for improving instruction. Professional development must be directly related to the skill areas where assessments show students are weakest. Professional development is effective when it is site-based, ongoing, and draws upon the expertise of the most effective teachers in the building. Creating a climate of collaboration among teachers is essential.”

Benefits of Having a Reading Recovery-Trained Interventionist at Your School

by Dr. Eva Konstantellou, Reading Recovery Trainer

Reading Recovery training and ongoing professional development are known for their high quality, rigor and intensity.  Reading Recovery-trained teachers develop life long professional expertise which benefits not only students who are eligible for the Reading Recovery intervention but also many other students in small group and classroom settings.

In fact, do you know how many students a Reading Recovery-trained teacher serves daily? Reading Recovery-trained teachers typically work for part of the day in Reading Recovery designing and delivering high quality one-to-one instruction to at least four first graders who have extreme difficulty with reading and writing and the other part of the day teaching students in another role.  They commonly serve as:

  • Title I or small-group reading teachers
  • Kindergarten teachers
  • Shared classroom teachers
  • Special education teachers
  • ESL teachers
  • Literacy Coaches
  • Administrators

Each year, a typical Reading Recovery-trained teacher works with at least 8 Reading Recovery students and about 40 other students.

Because of their deep understanding of literacy theory and practice, Reading Recovery-trained teachers become experts for their schools and districts.  They work collaboratively with colleagues to make informed decisions about teaching and learning in order to support the learning of ALL students.

Implementing the Early Literacy Interventionist model in Cambridge, MA Public Schools

In Cambridge, MA, school administrators have developed and implemented the Early Literacy Interventionist (ELI) position across the district.  Individuals who are hired as Early Literacy Interventionists are responsible for providing literacy support to students who are below grade level in reading and writing in grades K-3.  The ELIs work with small groups in guided reading, guided writing, and word study using the Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) system and also provide Reading Recovery to eligible first graders.  They work closely with teachers, support staff, and administrators on the planning and delivery of effective literacy instruction to all their struggling students.

For more information on the benefits of having Reading Recovery-trained early literacy interventionists at your school, read our Reading Recovery Implementation Guide.


by Dr. Emily Dexter, Researcher at the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Fill in the blanks: 

“I’ve been a  teacher   for eight years.  For the past couple of them, my performance in the ______ room has reached a plateau.  I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak.  But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better….

During the first two or three years in _________, your skills seem to improve almost daily…. Mastery is about familiarity and judgment.  You learn the problems that can occur during a particular _________ or with a particular _____, and you learn how to either prevent or respond to those problems….

Say you’ve got a  student  who needs ________.  These days, teachers  will typically ________________________. …

Even before you start, you need to make some judgments.  Unusual ___________, severe ______________, or ___________ could make it difficult to  teach this student.  You have to decide which ___________ method to use—there’s a range of options—or whether to abandon the high-tech approach and _________ the  lesson   the traditional way….

Over time, you learn how to head off problems, and when you can’t, you arrive at solutions with less fumbling and more assurance.  After eight years, I’ve taught more than two thousand ________________.  I’ve gained confidence in my ability to handle a wide range of situations, and to improvise when necessary.

As I went along, I compared my results against state  data, and I began beating the averages.  My rates of students failing the state test   moved steadily lower and lower.  And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t.  It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one.

Maybe this is what happens when you turn forty-five.  Teaching  is, at least, a relatively late-peaking career.  It’s not like mathematics or baseball or pop music, where your best work is often behind you by the time you’re thirty.  Jobs that involve the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master: the average age at which S.&P. 500 chief executive officers are hired is fifty-two, and the age of maximum productivity for geologists, one study estimated, is around fifty-four.  Teaching   apparently falls somewhere in between the extremes, requiring both physical stamina and the judgment that comes with experience….”

As you might have guessed, the paragraphs above are not from an article about teaching, but rather from an article in The New Yorker by Atwul Gawande about his experiences as a surgeon.  The article is called, “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches. Should You?  In this article, Gawande describes how he found himself a surgery coach when he felt his surgery skills had stopped improving.

While some of the article is about coaches for athletes, singers, and surgeons, a good third of the article is about coaches for… guess who: classroom teachers.  Gawande finds a trainer of classroom coaches and the two of them visit schools to observe and interview coaches and teachers.   Gawande, polymath that he is, gets it right: “Novice teachers often struggle with basic behavioral issues… good coaches know how to break performance down into its critical individual components… elite performers, researchers say, must engage in ‘deliberative practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.”  Here’s my favorite quote from his article:

“Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.  The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short.  This is tricky.  Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended.  So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance.  The most common, however, is just conversation.”

So, if you want to learn more about classroom coaching or share a great essay about coaching with one of your colleagues, read Atwul Gawande’s  article in the October 3, 2011 volume of The New Yorker.