Collaboratively written by Nathan Lang and Chris Weber.
One afternoon, the Jones’s came home to find that their refrigerator had leaked water and consequently damaged a piece of hardwood flooring directly next to the refrigerator.
They called a contractor to come and look at the blemished plank of flooring. The contractor stated that he would need to replace the whole floor in the kitchen, and even in the living room because he couldn’t match the replaced piece of wood with the rest of the wood flooring.
This absurdity unfortunately unfolds many times in the classroom. This parallel has manifested itself in the way we view differentiation, reteaching/teaching of skills (interventions), and the way we view school reform.
Only once piece of wood needs to be replaced. Just one plank that can be stained to appropriately match the rest of the flooring. Many times, we put in a tremendous amount of work to replace the whole floor when the reality is that we need to focus on the one piece. Maybe it’s a small group opportunity to reteach a concept instead of a whole group lesson when the rest of the students do not need to be retaught. Maybe it’s a project based lesson with student voice and choice with not everyone creating the same product. How you focus your differentiation efforts and strategies have major impacts on effectiveness and student learning outcomes.
Many times students have gaps (for various reasons) that are foundational. Let’s say a student has a difficult time with multiplying fractions. The teacher may draw a quick conclusion that the student must therefore struggle with multiplication and division of whole numbers. So she has the student practice multiplication facts. Although, the student may be building fluency, the student may not be any closer to mastering the concept of multiplication and division of fractions. A fraction is a ratio of two whole numbers, a numerator and denominator and is thus markedly more perplexing than whole numbers. Therefore, the gap may be in identifying the magnitude of the fraction. A more appropriate intervention might be plotting fractions on a number line. Accurate diagnosing via valid assessments can keep us from replacing many wood planks that are solid and don’t need replacing.
Whole School Reform:
You’ve heard the story: A school is “failing.” It’s in “crisis” and nothing but a complete overhaul will fix things. This can be exciting, potentially transformative. It can also be terrifying. Undoubtedly, it’s difficult to implement in a single school and even more difficult to scale. Most importantly, we must ask, Is whole-scale reform even necessary? We were honored to serve as principal in a school in which 8% of students in one grade level had met AYP expectations the prior year. By many measures, the school was “failing” and in “crisis.” We made modest shifts during that first year (we really didn’t believe that we needed to “replace the whole floor.”) Trust us when we say…we weren’t smart enough or good enough to make “whole floor” changes, and goodness knows, we didn’t have any additional resources to make those changes (a blessing in disguise). Within a year, student achievement across the school (as measured by AYP) had doubled. Within four years, student achievement had quadrupled. A “program improvement” school had become a “National Blue Ribbon” school. Modest – focused – changes (a few boards) in inputs resulted in big changes in outputs.
Leaking refrigerators are inevitable…but so are high levels of learning for all students. Let’s believe in students, in ourselves, in our colleagues. Let’s replace a few boards, act with a sense of urgency, and change the world…at least for the families of our school community.