How to Stop Spinning Wheels and Turn Effort into Progress

See how this resonates with you:

You have a school with teachers and students working away, making mostly solid efforts to teach and learn. You have a core literacy program, and teachers, for the most part, are using it. You have literacy assessments, and various team members in various roles examine the data in various ways. You have professional development days, and teachers attend, participate, and are taught new practices or how to refine existing ones. You may even have coaches supporting teachers in the classroom. You all are working hard in many ways, and yet, you are not seeing progress in your student outcomes.

Are We Making Any Progress?

You are not alone. Progress can be hard to see in the year to year local level data we are used to examining. Contrary to popular belief and uptake in the media, however, we are making progress. Truly long-term trend literacy data shows we have grown, a lot. Over the past couple of centuries, we have we turned the percent of people who were not literate (85-90%), to the percent who are literate. We as educators just achieved in 200 years, something that was not achieved in the previous 5000+ years since written language was invented. That’s not nothing!

In addition, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Long-Term Trend Reading data in the U.S. have demonstrated incremental progress in reading scores for the 9 and 12-year old groups since the 1970s, in all subgroups. (There is also evidence of a recent slight downward trend in the past two years in regular NAEP data; the long term trend assessment was last administered in 2012.) Even more significant, and largely uncelebrated, Black and Hispanic subgroups have demonstrated higher rates of growth than the White subgroup for all age groups over the past 40 years, actually narrowing the achievement gap over time. (Click images below for a closer look.) These results show us that progress IS possible. Educators CAN and DO make a difference.

And yet, the gap persists, inequities prevail, and progress is still much smaller and slower than we desire for our students. It is clear the status quo is not making enough progress for all students. So what can we do differently, to achieve different results?

System as Connected Gears

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the result that it does.” ― W. Edwards Deming

You have probably heard this quote from Deming. So, how do we go about changing the system to get the results we intend? The first step is to ensure you have a functioning “system” in place.

The parts of a system are not like items on a checklist. We cannot simply cross off individual items and expect results. To truly function as a system, we have to think of the parts as gears in a machine. In a machine, when gears fit together and work in concert, they allow us to use less effort to create greater momentum. If the gears in a machine separate, we can work like crazy to spin all of those individual gears, but produce nothing more than spinning wheels.

So what are my “gears”? And how can they work together?

The “gears” are all of the tools you already have at your disposal:

  • Leadership
  • Curriculum and materials
  • Assessment and data analysis
  • Instruction
  • PBIS and MTSS
  • Professional Development
  • Coaching
  • Implementation data (e.g., learning walks & standardized tools such as R-TFI)

Is it possible that you are working like crazy turning each of these individual gears, literally spinning wheels and not moving forward?

You likely have resources related to almost all of the items on this list! And you likely are spending a good amount of time, money, human resources, and mental energy trying to improve them. But is it possible that you are working like crazy turning each of these individual gears, literally spinning wheels and not moving forward? In order for the system to function, all of those gears need to be connected.

How do I know if my gears are connected?

You may not be sure how connected your gears are. Below are a series of connected reflection questions. These questions may feel rambling compared to checklist-style reflection questions. However, they are intentionally linked one after the other to prompt reflection on the connectedness among all of the “gears”. As a starting point for reflection on connectedness, ask yourself these sample exploratory questions, and make notes of your responses:

  • Connectedness of Curriculum & Assessment to everything else:
    • How well do my assessments and data analysis:
      • Tell me which students are making good progress already, and which students are not?
      • Help me identify gaps in my core curriculum?
      • Guide me to choose exactly what kinds of intervention should be provided to which students?
    • Do I have those types of intervention programs? Are teachers trained in how to use the intervention programs? Have all teachers who needed support received classroom coaching on implementing programs?
    • Are teachers implementing the programs well? How do I know about how well they are implemented? What are the next steps to improve implementation?
  • Connectedness of Professional Development to everything else:
    • How are building leaders involved in professional development (planning it, engaged in it)? Does the PD relate to specific building goals and vice versa? Does PD relate to current district curriculum and recommended instructional practices? Are those recommended practices evidence-based practices with high effect sizes?
    • Can teachers explain: the overall goal(s) the PD is meant to support? How each PD day/session relates to the others? How the PD relates to their own professional growth? What is expected in implementation as a result of the PD?
    • Do teachers have the materials they need to implement the practices?
    • Do they have follow-up support (coaching) to improve their implementation?
    • To what degree do you see changes in instruction as a result of PD?
    • To what degree do you see changes in student learning as a result of PD?
  • Connectedness of Coaching to everything else:
    • How is the work of instructional coaches related to or guided by:
      • District curriculum and instructional materials?
      • Assessment data?
      • Recommended instructional practices?
      • Planned professional development?
      • Coaching work with other teachers or across coaches and buildings?
      • Learning walk data?
    • Do coaches only coach general education classroom teachers, or are intervention specialists and other intervention providers provided coaching?
    • Do coaches support the connectedness of all of the gears, or only support individual teachers to meet individual goals?
    • To what degree is coaching improving teacher implementation of specific practices? How do you know? What are your next steps for teachers who are not improving from coaching?

These guiding questions may prompt a gentle (or possibly jarring) realization that you may be spinning some individual gears, and consequently not achieving the forward momentum you desire.

How do I connect my gears? 

Connectedness requires intentionality and planning. You cannot do everything, well, all at once. But you can plan for how to achieve increased connectedness over time. First, you need a model for your system, to help connect the gears.

Comprehensive Literacy Model

There are a few different terms for Literacy Models that help us connect our gears. In general, terms like Comprehensive Literacy Model or Framework refer to district-level systems, while terms like School Wide Reading Model (SWRM) refer to building-level systems. (Of course, the building-level model must align with the district model to drive progress across buildings and grade levels.)

A Comprehensive Literacy Model / SWRM involves:

Comprehensive Literacy Plan

As part of a Comprehensive Literacy Model, districts develop a Comprehensive Literacy Plan, and buildings develop Building Literacy Plans (or School Wide Reading Plans). A Comprehensive Literacy Plan is a written document that outlines the steps in the graphics below. The action steps for implementation (of leadership, curriculum, assessment, instruction, PD, coaching, student data monitoring, and adult implementation data, anything and everything need to meet the goal) outline the specific steps you will take to achieve connectedness and make progress toward your goals.

Real gears have a driver gear—the gear that turns first and drives all other gears. What is the “driver” of all of these gears?

Leadership. Leadership is always the driver. In fact, in the absence of leadership toward common goals with common strategies, everything and everyone else will be forced to stand alone, turning their own individual gear, spinning and spinning with very little forward momentum.

This sounds like a ton of additional work. How can I do all of this, and still keep up with all of my other responsibilities?

Creating or refining a system is work. However, we would argue, this work is not in addition to all of your responsibilities, it IS all of your responsibilities—packaged together in an intentional manner, with a much greater potential for impact. And we are here to help. Your SST 13 has many resources to share to guide your work toward a Comprehensive Literacy Model and Plan, including access to our Regional Literacy Leaders Network Series and coaching hours, support from SST consultants, and professional development for your leaders.

Ok, I’m seeing the power of the System. What does it look like in action?

Below is a vignette of a system created and implemented by a local building and district. Year 1 was a full year of planning and creating the Comprehensive Literacy Plan. Year 2 involved implementing the steps toward just the first of 3 goals in the plan. (The second goal was the focus of Year 3, and the third goal in Year 4.) Below is an inside look at Years 1-2.

Identify needs

In Maple Leaf Schools, large numbers of students struggled to read accurately and fluently on grade level. This trend began in the foundational skills in Kindergarten, and the gap between district performance and national norms widened over the grade levels. Maple Leaf determined one root cause of their students’ reading difficulties was a lack of systematic and explicit instruction in phonics and decoding in the core curriculum.

Set Goals

Maple Leaf set the first goal for each elementary grade band to increase the overall percent of students who met benchmark scores for accurate and fluent decoding on a standardized assessment by ~10% per year (varied by baseline data per grade). The assessment has benchmarks for each grade level that are aligned with phonics and decoding (e.g., reading fluency and accuracy for grades 1-6, and decodable word reading fluency, letter sounds and/or phonemic awareness assessments in K-1).

Research Strategies

Maple Leaf used the IES Practice Guides and Ohio’s Evidence-Based Clearinghouse to identify the following strategies:

  • Develop awareness of the segments of sound in speech and how they link to letters. (IES Practice Guide: Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade; 2016)
  • For adolescents with decoding difficulties, decoding instruction should emphasize syllable patterns, morphology, and reading fluency. (National Institute for Literacy: What Content Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy; 2007)

Create Action Plan

Maple Leaf then planned for specifically how these strategies would be put in place and implemented fully:

  1. Ensure leadership aligns goals, supports, and initiatives with the Literacy Plan goals and action steps
  2. Purchase necessary instructional materials that align with the selected evidence-based strategies
  3. Purchase necessary assessment tools that align with the selected evidence-based strategies
  4. Create assessment calendars and curriculum maps for would be taught and assessed when
  5. Create MTSS model with decision rules for entry in and exit from specified interventions for each tier of support
  6. Provide PD for leaders and teachers on the instructional strategies, and training in how to use the new materials and how to administer new assessments and interpret data
  7. Provide coaching that follows each PD focus, to support implementation with all teachers
  8. Conduct learning walks that follow PD and coaching, by leaders and teachers—Learning walks are used to check implementation levels of a specific practice that has been taught in PD and supported in coaching, across a building and the district. Learning walk data is used as needs assessment for coaching and PD planning, and progress monitoring of the system, not teacher evaluation.
  9. Implement shared leadership model that monitors student and adult implementation data aligned with the Literacy Plan goals, strategies, and action steps (e.g., TBTs, BLTs, and DLT)

Reflect & Adjust

Maple Leaf revisited district and building level plans 3 times a year (connected to review of benchmark assessment data) to reflect on progress and identify needs for adjustment to the Plans. An example of adjustments that were made last year included adding previously provided trainings and professional development to the onboarding system for new teachers, to ensure staff turnover did not undermine the professional growth of the overall faculty.

Conclusion: You can do this!

Improving literacy outcomes for all students is a monumental task, and one that cannot be achieved by individual people or parts working in isolation. When you link all of your gears together with the powerful driver of Leadership, you will achieve more forward momentum, with less effort. And we are here to help.


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