Member Practices

Superintendent Pam Moran on 21st Century Education and Strategic Planning

At Albemarle, there is a strong focus on strategic planning around 21st century student outcomes. How have you used the strategic planning process to drive transformation in your district?

In Albemarle County Public Schools, we have been engaged in an evolving strategic planning process for more than two decades. Over time that process has shifted to reflect a student learning focus that represents more than just improvement in standardized test scores. While our strategic planning process represents a results orientation, it also includes process priorities. This allows staff to focus through a Plan –Do- Study-Act model made popular by Edward Deming’s work to manage organizations through a quality lenses rather than through visible numbers alone.

Ten years ago, the former superintendent came back from a conference where he’d had the opportunity to create a movie. He was pretty jazzed about that chance and wondered why we wouldn’t want every child to have the chance to make movies to show what they were learning. We quickly put together a team to develop a proposal process for teacher teams to create interdisciplinary units that merged technology applications with interdisciplinary learning outcomes. We had several teacher teams who received funding to develop projects with students. From their work, we formulated a change lever that would begin to impact curricula, assessment and instruction across all schools leading us to a model for learning in the 21st century.

Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL’s) are the focus for student outcomes in your state. How do the SOL’s affect your approach to 21st century student outcomes, including curriculum and assessment?

From our work in 2002, the Albemarle County Public Schools Framework for Quality Learning emerged. In that document, a roadmap for our division’s work, teachers identified lifelong learning standards or competencies that we’ve mapped to the 4cs plus. The Framework has been one of three key levers that also include our performance appraisal development and professional learning community models, all three of which were identified through strategic processes as critical to needed change. Each year, we evolve the next steps for our work to develop and advance twenty-first century learning through our strategic planning process. The School Board works with staff to identify key priorities tied to our vision, mission, and goals. Central staff members work together with building leaders to identify performance indicators that can be assessed across the division both in terms of process and result. Each school and department builds an improvement plan that reflects the Division’s key goals and priorities. We also utilize a Quality Council with representative key stakeholders who work to ensure that our goals, priorities, and actions are aligned across the organization. We also have submitted a Senate Productive Quality (the state’s precursor to Baldrige criteria assessment) Award application for the purposes of receiving feedback on our alignment work.

The strategic planning process plays out concretely through a variety of priorities for our work to transform the entire division of 26 schools. We currently are in the tenth iteration of a summer professional development institute that’s used to promote leadership development among teachers who have been responsible for shifting our curriculum to a standards-based, concept-centered approach (social studies example.) We also have worked through the institute model and ongoing development on pedagogical shifts to build more of a project-centered learning focus and a performance task driven model for assessment. This work is in progress and continues to evolve as a ten-year effort to ensure that learners engage in more than just test-prep curricula to prepare students for state testing. Our key strategic goal to ensure that all learners are ready to work in a global economy and live in a global community demands far more learning opportunities for students to build, create, design, engineer, make, produce, and develop products than is typically expected in state standards. While Virginia has not aligned with the Common Core Standards movement, the Commonwealth has mapped the SOLs to the common core standards. New assessments are being designed that are supposed to assess higher levels of more complex thinking. While assessments remain multiple-choice dominant, new technology enhanced items in mathematics appear to provide a more challenging assessment of mathematical thinking.

However, Albemarle isn’t waiting for either the nation or state to derive improved assessments that more closely align with deep reasoning, communication, research, critical and creative thought, etc. Currently, the most recent iteration of our assessment model is being piloted right now as vertical teams develop and use performance tasks that represent discipline-based and interdisciplinary assessments of standards-based, concept centered curricular essential standards. We also have begun work with the CWRA as a program assessment tool for use In high school to assess students readiness for college work.

Your instructional coach model evolved out of a need to “do more with less” in your district budget. Describe how the instructional coaches came about, and how they rotate among schools rather than staying in one location.

We have a lead coaching team who works with instructional coaching teams that support educators in all our schools. We use a reflective practitioner model that emerged several years ago as we consolidated central coordinators and building-based specialists into a coaching model and that was recently featured in a New Yorker article. This came about because of economic pressures to reduce staff so we captured efficiencies by reducing staff outside the classroom while increasing efficiencies by serving teachers through coaches that were site-based but centrally coordinated. The coaches serve up to three buildings in teams of two or three. They work collaboratively with teachers at teachers’ request and have no role in evaluating peers. They serve as generalists who are capable of working with any teacher on content, pedagogy, and technology applications.

These coaches also work with vertical teams of teachers representing every school and grade level in the division across all disciplines, core and non-core. The vertical teams and coaches work together to develop curricula, support pedagogical development, and build and pilot assessments. This work begins with the lifelong learning standards as an expectation for competencies we would want all high school graduates to be able to demonstrate. This work has been informed over time by multiple researchers in the area of curricular development and currently, assessment development.

For example, we are developing and using a variety of open performance-driven assessments that are available to teachers. These include short tasks, projects, and authentic learning experiences documented through portfolios. Teachers also use more- closed item assessments for quick checks and other formative and summative assessments. Currently, we just field tested the CWRA which will likely become a focused assessment in the future.

What innovative practices are you working on at the elementary and middle school levels when it comes to 21st century teaching and learning? How does this differ from your work with high school educators?

We now are in a sustainability mode with professional learning communities. We are working on shifting our performance appraisal model to align with the state’s direction to include a 40% student growth element in the model’s summative assessment. This means that we can either use standardized data or our own. We are in the process of developing methodologies for to assess student growth that do not rely on SOL test data. Our elementary schools currently are implementing the Responsive Classroom approach with focus on social and academic responsibility development among all children. We like this model because it’s grounded in William Glasser’s Choice Theory, a focus on children learning responsibility for self and others rather than being punished into “responsible” behavior. At the middle school level we’ve introduced the Acceleration through Individual Determination program that is used to identify and support potential first generation college students. We are finding that instructional strategies used with AVID programming fit well with our lifelong learning standards and it’s a great bridging program for students as they move from middle to high school. The next area of development we are currently addressing is learning spaces. Principals, some teacher pioneers, and librarians have begun shifting teaching places to learning spaces. This means thinking about our school environments as providing multiple entry points into learning for students by altering how we think about time, technology, connectivity, furniture, room arrangement, curricula, assessment, and pedagogy. We are spending time describing what we believe constitutes learning spaces for 21st century learners because we know factory school models of the 20th century are set up for “one to many” learning not the “many to many” learning possible for today’s learners.

What “Aha!” moments have you experienced along the way?

The biggest “aha” moments always relate to how much time it takes to implement deep change in our work. I’ve always been aware that change challenges organizations but I’ve become even more cognizant that to invest educators in the work involves creation of many different pathways to support people to engage in change processes. I also am interested that some, perhaps, many teachers are reluctant to abandon traditional teaching and assessment despite their stated opposition to low-level testing programs imposed by the federal and state governments. I am reminded that traditional teaching was in place long before SOL and NCLB in school districts across the United States, including Albemarle. To effect change, educators must see a clear purpose for why changes are essential and to feel supported in their development of the knowledge and skills needed to change practice. Creating that sense of “why” can challenge us as leaders because classrooms are usually far removed from the world of work that our students will one day enter.

What other questions should we have asked you?

It would be interesting to explore the question of how we scale ideas across schools rather than simply attempting to scale up programs. How do we provide school staff members with the opportunity to exert autonomy while also building out ideas such as project-based learning without prescribing the details of and boundaries for educators’ work? I am fascinated with the work of Debra Frieze and Margaret Wheatley in their collaborative documentation of how communities can walk out on programs that don’t work and walk in to creating ones that do. I wonder what our schools would be like if we stopped revising the teaching work of the 20th century and created the learning work our children need in the second decade of the 21st century?