Whoever first told the story that educators just lounge around all summer had a very vivid imagination. You and I both know it’s pure fiction. It seems like, every year, the digital ink on final grades hasn’t even dried before we’re compelled to start thinking about the next school year.
A planning-filled summer likely awaits you soon, so I sat down with Carrie Phillips, senior director of School Improvement Services at NWEA, to talk about her guide designed to help with fall planning. She’ll discuss it more at our upcoming fall restart online summit, hosted by Education Week, Fall 2020: Planning a successful restart. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me a bit about your professional background and what brought you to NWEA?
Most recently I was at the Council of Chief State School Officers, where I’d been for 13 years. In that work, I did a few things. The thing that’s most directly relevant is I led school improvement for the organization. I started off as a fourth and fifth grade classroom teacher with Chicago Public Schools.
We believe that a test itself can’t improve instruction. It’s what you do with the data that does.”
I joined NWEA in 2019 because I was passionate about NWEA’s commitment to making a difference for kids. It has been an honor to lead NWEA’s efforts on school improvement, which emphasize growth, grade-level mastery, and coaching for school instructional leaders.
What is the primary goal of your department, School Improvement Services?
The purpose of the work on school improvement is to really think about how we live out our mission of impacting student outcomes and making that a reality through the services we provide. We look at school improvement as how teachers are continuously improving instruction, helping school leaders support teachers in that work, and creating a positive school culture and climate that makes all kids thrive.
What prompted you to create a guide to help districts with fall restart?
We believe that a test itself can’t improve instruction. It’s what you do with the data that does. So in thinking about that and some of the great things we were already planning for back to school before coronavirus closures, I saw that there was an opportunity to bring everything together and also to address the new circumstances we’re in. I wanted us to be able to say, “We care about all these things, and we believe all of them matter. And here’s how they can come together to help you as leaders of instruction in building that coherence across your school or district.”
Equitable learning for all kids will require all of us to address kids’ social and emotional learning integrated with differentiated, rigorous instruction.”
My goal was to contribute to the broader education community and to make good use of the extra time some of us had when schools and offices closed and priorities shifted a bit. Schools have so much they’re gappling with, and we wanted to help them as they make decisions about instruction this summer.
What are the four principles outlined in the guide?
The four principles we’re recommending are:
- Build a system-wide approach to social-emotional learning (SEL)
- Establish system-wide curriculum models accompanied by professional learning for teachers on scaffolding instruction and use of data
- Ensure time and structures are designed to optimize student learning
- Guarantee each building has a strong instructional leadership team (ILT)
You collaborated with some fantastic partners, both inside NWEA and at other organizations. Can you tell me more about what they brought to the effort and how you arrived at the four principles?
I was definitely thinking about elevating the expertise we have inside NWEA and heard from everybody who interacts with districts and schools, from individuals on our partner accounts teams to our researchers. We have many staff who have been principals, teachers, instructional coaches. I wanted to ensure they were a part of the conversation.
The first principle came easily. With everybody I talked to, social-emotional learning was the first thing they said. It was pretty clear that that was going to be our first recommendation. External experts provided us timely tools and suggestions to make this first recommendation actionable for instructional leaders.
The summit will address […] how to teach for growth and grade-level mastery, how to attend to social and emotional learning in the most practical and high-impact ways, and how to do all of this through the lens of equity.”
We also know that instructional leadership is critical. Any research on school improvement or any data on what makes schools effective always say the teacher in front of kids matters the most. But the second most important thing is the leader who supports and guides that teacher. There’s so much on the backs of teachers, and school leaders need to provide the supports and structures that allow teachers to provide great instruction every day. So that’s our last recommendation.
The second and third principles, on system-wide curriculum models and professional learning as well as time and structures designed to optimize student learning, required more discussion. That’s where our external partners helped a lot. There’s no one easy way to do either of those things. It’s not like we can just follow some tried and true practices of how to address kids not being in school for three months, like it’s easier to do with social-emotional learning or leadership. Those are the pieces no one’s ever done before.
I love that idea. “We don’t know. We’re figuring this out together.” That makes this a tool for conversation.
Exactly. While we were working on the guide, we shared a draft with a group of administrators in Washington state, and they thought it was really helpful. It was good to have that verification that we are headed on the right track from those administrators and other partners. I like that we’re still not claiming to have it all figured out or that there’s one perfect approach. We offer guidance that can fit different contexts and instructional approaches districts take. We’re excited to hear how the guide helps people and what they think of it.
This summit will provide practical strategies for instructional leaders to start the new school year from NWEA experts and leading experts from across the country. We’ll share what we’ve learned from promising practices of districts teaching during COVID-19, addressing unfinished teaching students have from this spring, and advancing equity for students with disabilities, among other topics.
What are your main worries about students and districts right now, and how do you think the summit can help address them?
As school restarts, we want learning to be engaging, challenging, and provided in a learning environment where kids feel safe and supported. In terms of instruction, I’m most concerned that kids won’t have these enriching learning experiences and will not be instructed at a level that helps each child grow while moving them forward with grade-level rigor. Equitable learning for all kids will require all of us to address kids’ social and emotional learning integrated with differentiated, rigorous instruction. The summit will address exactly these issues: how to teach for growth and grade-level mastery, how to attend to social and emotional learning in the most practical and high-impact ways, and how to do all of this through the lens of equity.
What are your biggest hopes for students and districts, over the summer and when classes resume in the fall?
My biggest hopes are that students return to school feeling safe and supported by teachers and leaders in their schools and excited for learning that challenges them and helps them thrive. I hope that districts, as they care for students and their needs, also attend to the social and emotional well-being of adults in schools so they can develop strong, caring relationships with each and every child.
You can download the guide from our Resource Library. And there’s still time to register for our summit on Thursday, June 25.