Lessons for Learning: A Foundation for Coaching

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This is Part 2 of a four-part series on coaching that will be published over the next several months.  Click here to read Part 1.

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.  

LESSONS FOR LEARNING:  A Foundation for Coaching

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

Transforming an entire school is no easy task.  Experience tells us it is an arduous process that few can claim to have accomplished.  When asked to change all or most of what we know about teaching and learning, we find ourselves on unstable ground.  And it’s not like we have an abundance of time to process new learning. Students show up every day whether we are ready or not.  When we aren’t sure of our next step, or when the transformation process requires a substantial effort that feels beyond our capacity, it is tempting to fall back on what we know.

Fortunately, there are people who can help show the way.  EdVisions has created a unique coaching model on which to position its Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP), an ambitious undertaking that seeks to embed the following learner-centered practices and pedagogy in existing schools versus launching new ones:

  • Student agency and empowerment
  • Relevant connected learning
  • Authentic assessment
  • Teacher empowerment and leadership

Choosing a coaching model to usher in new and sustainable ways to reshape schools makes sense.  In the first post in this series on coaching, I shared some of the research around coaching that allows us to posit that supporting teachers and administrators with personalized support can make a dramatic difference in developing new skills and attitudes toward what works for students and incorporating them into practice.    

For the MSTP, EdVisions selected a cadre of coaches to provide in-depth support to their project schools.  According to Julene Oxton, the project’s director at EdVisions, “A larger coaching team allows for a broad base of experience to support the variety of schools within this project.”  But it takes matching people with the right expertise to create new designs for learning that are truly transformative. Where better to find them than in schools that are already incorporating the desired skills and strategies with success?

EdVisions reached out to leaders in the field who are embedding EdVision’s Ed°Essentials in their practice and found many in charter schools.  Charter schools, by design, embrace the opportunity to create a different school experience for students.  In 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter school legislation in the country, and many states soon followed suit.  Freed from the stranglehold of restrictions and bureaucratic barriers that plague reform efforts in traditional school districts, charter schools broke new ground.  

Most will tell you it was messy at first, and resentments on a variety of fronts were not uncommon.  The playing field, it seemed, had shifted for some, but not for everyone. Despite opposition, mostly from within educator ranks, charter schools forged on ahead, launching a class of entirely new schools.  Now, a generation later, we have reached a point in time where traditional school districts can learn from charter schools. A proof of concept exists that we can harvest to gain insight and apply important lessons learned.  By the same token, charter schools can learn from districts.

I spoke with Julene Oxton, EdVision’s project director for the MSTP and Carrie Bakken, Program Coordinator and teacher at Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I wanted to find out more about how the project will accomplish the goal to bridge communication between charters and districts and advance the goal to create learner-centered schools.   

When charter schools first opened, many viewed them as being in direct competition with traditional school districts.  Now, decades later, has that sentiment changed?

Carrie Bakken:  I feel like it has gotten more positive in Minnesota.  We host a lot of district school visitors at Avalon; visitors also come from charters.  Nationally, though, the conversation around charters is more contentious. Minnesota charter schools are smaller, and organizations don’t take them over like they do in other states.  

Julene Oxton:  I come primarily from a district background.  The original intent of the charter law in Minnesota is starting to be realized in and around Minnesota.  We are finally getting to the point where collaboration between districts and charters is real. People in innovative schools are starting to talk to district schools and are willing to support them in a real way.  Instead of working alongside each other, this project creates the potential for charters and districts to work together through the coaching model we’ve developed. We’re excited about that.

What have we learned from the charter movement?  How have they contributed to the dialogue around school reform?

Julene Oxton:  No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was authorized shortly after Minnesota and Iowa passed their charter school laws.  NCLB’s emphasis on math and literacy accountability from the top down really hindered what the laws intended the charter sector to do.  Now the pendulum is shifting back to the whole child and issues around equity, broadening the space for innovation to occur. We think the timing is excellent for collaboration between districts and charters to occur – school to school, teacher to teacher.

Carrie Bakken:  I agree. What I’ve learned being part of the charter movement is that if you create an innovative program, and if you have a broad enough base, you have more freedom in a charter school to create a sustainable program.   Some charters have been open over 20 years. Charters within districts don’t seem to fare as well. In a district school, you might have things in place with a core of enthusiastic people, but a new administrator or a new direction can wipe that out.   

Julene Oxton:  Right. When I look at successful charter schools in Minnesota that have stood the test of time, I see they have had full autonomy.  To me, that’s the biggest difference. Those schools have had the ability to make decisions at the school level. Sometimes they are totally teacher-led; sometimes there’s a principal.  But the teachers drive the programming. This has been especially true in Minnesota, where charters tend to be small. Fewer people are trying to make decisions, thus there are fewer people to answer to, making teacher autonomy more possible.  The funny thing is, as much as NCLB and now ESSA seeks to make schools accountable, true teacher autonomy leads to the highest level of accountability possible, versus accountability being mandated by the state or federal government. This is an important lesson charters have taught us.  Autonomy matters greatly. When we think of school reform, it’s not a problem with people; it’s the system. Districts still adhere to a top-down managerial structure. A second important lesson is that most charters are small, especially those in Minnesota. This adds to their ability to create new systems and different environments for learning.

What specific lessons would you like to see districts learn from charter schools?

Carrie Bakken:  More autonomy for teachers, for one.  And the importance of sustaining support for an innovative program is also important.  It has to go beyond a pilot for a year. New programs need time for sustained practice.  Second, make something new. There are really good charters and district programs to visit that can provide you with foundational ideas.  But don’t just replicate them; use them as a springboard for ideas. From there, be clear about what innovation you are seeking. It’s not easy.  Even charters struggle with being new. It takes time. The key is to harness teachers’ power. Make sure there is teacher buy-in and leadership, whatever leadership structure you decide, then support the journey.  There can still be a principal, but you need to capitalize on the energy of the teachers.

Julene Oxton:  Following that same thought, when I think about student-centeredness and what it means to most people in this movement is that decisions are made based on students’ needs, and students are part of the decision making.  That’s a very different structure than you find in most schools. Teachers are making most of the decisions about the learning environment and what kids are doing. My hope is we can help districts learn how to transfer the decision-making filter to the student, even allowing the students to make some decisions by giving them authentic voice and choice so they own their own learning.  Charters can help districts flip the decision-making model and flop the administrative hierarchy – and also flip the classroom hierarchy. We have proof that students can and will make great decisions about their own learning if you create a structure in which to help them do that. Through our coaching model, the schools in our project will walk away with a sense of how that’s done and the enthusiasm and capacity to make it happen.

How will you build capacity to help launch new practices and build capacity for those new practices to flourish after the coaching relationship is over?

Carrie Bakken:  As coaches, we need to help our partner schools stay with it when there are bumps in the road.  Bumps are inevitable. When they occur, there is a natural tendency to go back to what they know.  I want us to help them stay the course and be patient. Everyone wants that quick fix, but this is not a quick fix.  Quick fixes don’t exist. If we can help our project schools know and manage through the normal ups and downs, I think that will be helpful.   

Julene Oxton:  Our project schools have just started action planning.  What we are discovering is what a breath of fresh air it is for schools to be able to step back and think about where they are and where they want to go.  They’re realizing their current vision isn’t very clear or inclusive. We want to help them create a set of commitments – common beliefs about learning, their values, and the behaviors that adults in a learner-centered environment would display and students would portray.  And they need to be specific. This is what they will use to hold each other accountable. Then we talk about how to keep track of students and learning once the new vision is in place. We anticipate they will keep revising their vision; that’s normal. Over time, the vision will come alive with short-term goals measured by their own indicators.  This is how they will know they are moving forward. We’ve created a set of continuums of progress that will help them do that.

When all is said and done, what will most define the success of the coaching model you’ve developed?  

Julene Oxton:  A trusting relationship will have been created between the coaches, the schools, and the practitioners.  Trust, we know, is the foundation of any effective collaboration. We want our coaches to be authentic, transparent, and real with our project schools.  Our coaches are on a journey too. They will provide less “how to” and more “how can you?” We want to establish an environment where schools try something new.  If it doesn’t work, we want them to know that it’s okay. The key is to move forward and figure out the next step.

Carrie Bakken:  Another thing is that in the end, through our coaching model, we hope we will have created a wider network of schools and practitioners who are focusing on creating student-centered schools.  Right now, all the coaches in the project are connected to each other and other schools and organizations supporting innovation. We want to see those connections grow.

Julene Oxton:  Right. We won’t necessarily go away at the end of the project.  We’re aware that a network of schools is critical to sustainability.  We intend for a broader network of schools and practitioners to be in place to support innovation, we hope, for years to come.

It’s exciting to consider the possibilities that Julene and Carrie talk about.  In our next post, you will meet several of the coaches and hear what practitioners in the project schools hope to gain from the coaching experience EdVisions has planned.