Conditions that Foster School Transformation

February 20, 2020 no comments Liz Shatek

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit https://edvisions.org/the-edvision/mstp/ and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that in February 2019, Ed°Visions launched the Midwest School Transformation Project (MTSP). Eleven schools are participating in this ambitious project by deciding to break with tradition and embark on a journey of transformation. The schools are supported by 16 coaches

Major program elements that provide the foundation for transformation are based on EdVisions’ Ed°Essentials and include teacher empowerment and leadership, student agency and empowerment, relevant connected learning, and authentic assessment. These four pillars of transformation are outlined in a set of continuums that display traditional approaches versus the desired learner-centered practices. 

One thing has been evident throughout the MSTP. It is not your typical bid for school improvement. Transformation, states Julene Oxton, Director of School Transformation and Development at EdVisions, is about recreating the industrial model of education and using resources differently. “There needs to be a long view regarding transformation. It’s not a set of to-do checklists that make improvements on the outdated system. Schools begin with a compelling why and create a collective movement. Once a unified new vision is clear, then the work begins with action steps and system changes.”

Any change in schools is dependent on investing in staff, and the MSTP seeks to offer partners a transformative approach for how they support staff learning. “The old mindset of what PD [professional development] looks like is really changing,” notes Oxton. “The delivery and focus are different. We are giving schools time to build their vision. Each project school is unique, and the school staff is leading the journey.” 

January 2020 marked the halfway point of the first academic year of the MSTP. As one would expect, progress to date is specific to each organization. However, anecdotal information recently collected showed certain patterns that reveal early signs of promise as well as several areas that may be hindering a school’s movement forward. 

Conditions that foster transformation:  Conditions that could inhibit progress:
The school has a clear and compelling reason why it seeks to transform itself Competing school or district initiatives that are not related to the transformative work at hand
There is a collective mission and vision for student-centered learning Staff view the MSTP as “one more thing” or a top-down initiative
A healthy, positive adult culture is firmly in place, underscoring an element of trust Insufficient staff buy-in regarding coaches and/or the coaching model
The school has dedicated time to transformative work Essential school needs are not met (finances, leadership, staff turnover, etc.), overshadowing transformation efforts
Teachers demonstrate the capacity for changing practices and recreating the learning environment

Having a clear mission and vision and an atmosphere of trust top the list of conditions that foster transformation. Knowing what it is that schools are trying to create serves as the basis for robust conversation that encourages people to think differently. School culture also makes a difference. Without an atmosphere of trust, it is difficult for people to allow themselves to think big or enter a place where they feel vulnerable—two important conditions for stepping out of one’s comfort zone. 

Another observation to date is the importance of having a clear decision-making model. The potential for a school to foster a collective movement resides in staff having as much decision-making authority as possible. Being explicit in which decisions are made by whom as well as where staff autonomy begins and ends is necessary in order for staff to take risks and be willing to dig deeply into ways to transform their practice.     

In terms of time, schools showing early progress are not manufacturing new time. Instead, they are reprioritizing the time they already have. Transformation is not only their primary focus; it’s primarily what they do. Staff are willing to take the long view in order to sustain their vision, which will help them stay true to their school’s needs over time. 

Barriers to transformation were also noted at this midpoint in the academic year. Whether questioning the drivers of change or the change model itself, when there is insufficient ownership by staff, progress can be slowed if not thwarted altogether. Focus is also an issue. If there are too many demands on time, for the individual or the organization, no amount of time will suffice. Likewise, if the organization suffers from inadequate staff or resources, it is challenging to sustain effort around ideas that require courage, resolve, and action.      

It is worth noting several things that didn’t make the list of conditions that foster transformation. These are important because they are often cited as reasons for why change in schools is impossible. First, the size of the school doesn’t seem to be of consequence in the MSTP. No matter how large or how small a school or program, opportunities for change and innovation are being discovered. Nor does it seem to matter if the school is an independent school, such as a charter, or part of a larger district. Leaders in district schools, however, face a unique set of circumstances, as noted by Oxton. “In a district school, leaders must act as both a shield and a bridge. They need to protect the innovation and vision for their school while finding ways to bridge the district work back to their school.” 

Moving forward, Oxton would like to see project schools do more to bring student voice into the planning process. She points out that in a learner-centered environment, students should serve as co-creators, having the capacity to advise on how to recreate the learning environment. Their involvement fosters student agency on the one hand and helps to ensure the curriculum is relevant to students.  

Projects like the MSTP provide a distinctive opportunity for schools. But you don’t have to be part of the MTSP to begin to reflect on your own practice or that of your school. Using EdVisions’ continuums for  teacher empowerment and leadership, student agency and empowerment, relevant connected learning, and authentic  assessment, educators in any school can see where their current practice resides and begin to plan for how to move towards implementing more learner-centered approaches. 

If you’d like more information on the MTSP or find out about EdVisions’ customized support for any school or program seeking to become more learner-centered, contact EdVisions.