School Design for Success

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History of Bellevue International School

Bellevue International School was the sole creation of six visionary teachers, and has consistently ranked in the top tier of schools nationwide...Read more

History of Kirkland International Community School (ICS)

Kirkland International Community School had no computers the first year, and our students were housed in portables with little shelter from the rain...Yet, by the second year we achieved the highest writing scores on statewide exams...Read more

Humanities Curriculum at Bellevue International School and Kirkland ICS

Quarterly grading periods, winter breaks and summer recesses were mere interruptions in one continuous curriculum...Read more

How Social Promotion Gives a "Pass" to Schools that Fail

Ask any teacher whether social promotion "works", and you will receive a clear answer: It doesn't...Read more

First Test Scores from Bellevue International School and Kirkland International School

These scores were achieved by schools that were untried, built on promises, and which had yet to acquire a reputation for rigor and success...Read more

Creating A Powerful Teaching Culture

If the teaching culture is not transformed, then "school renewal" will be an empty promise...Read more

Making it Better vs. Making it New

"Better" and "different" may sometimes be confused as charter schools describe their mission...Read more

How Marysville Arts & Technology H.S. Began

"We don't have tennis courts. We don't have a gym. We don't have a lot of things," Principal Bruce Saari said. "We do have a small school culture."Read more

Creating a Powerful Learning Culture:
Instructional Design for Success

New schools, whether public or charter, are not necessarily better schools. A new name, a new location--these alone are not enough. If the teaching & learning culture in the new school is the same as that of regular public schools, if teacher commitment to program values and consistency remains as variable as before, then new schools will fail to deliver upon their promise to boost student achievement.

To be successful, new schools and their staffs must commit to revitalizing the teaching & learning culture if they are to lift student achievement beyond that of the regular public schools.

The first and most important challenge: opening up professional dialog and creating ironclad agreements within and between all content areas.

In many large high schools teachers often practice without knowing what their neighbors in the next classroom are doing.

Within large academic departments there is little formal agreement about the skills, competencies, assessments and learning sequences that should be emphasized by all teachers at each level.

Within these same departments, clear linkages between courses, or level by level organizing of core questions and sequential learning activities--say between 9th and 10th grade--are almost non-existent.

Confirmation of this can be found in the lengthy course descriptions that are on file in any District's Curriculum & Instruction archives. The cut & paste of state standards from course to course is automatic, and bears little relation to what actually occurs--or does not occur--within individual classrooms. Rarely, the text descriptions of what should occur can be acceptable enough. But too often, this fictional curricular map bears little resemblance to the territory that are the district's classrooms and teacher practices.

After 19 years in a large public high school of this sort, I began my career developing small schools of choice in order to address this lack of alignment and articulation.

Bellevue International School was the creation of six experienced teachers who, previously, had worked in relative isolation in secondary schools. Coming together as a team we were able to discuss curricular aims, best instructional practices, strategies for intervention, and standards for participation and performance.

We began by describing exactly those habits of mind, skills and content area knowledge that we wanted our graduates to evince. Then we worked backwards, creating the sequential list of experiences, activities and performances that would produce this outcome.

Key questions we asked each other all along the way:

What we do

Why we do it

When we do it

What assessments guarantee that we are doing it

And why it is essential to do any of this in any particular order

School renewal cannot go forward without this discussion, and without paying careful attention to these important tasks:

Each school team decides what the core content must be at each instructional level.

This core content is expressed in terms of specific learnings that are sequenced so that what comes first prepares the way for what comes second; and what comes second prepares the way for what comes third.

This results in a logical, intentional progression where previous learning is the platform for subsequent learning.

All teachers commit to upholding this agreement at each level.

Each teacher team is guided through the process of deciding what fundamental skills and habits of mind must be developed and mastered at each and every level, with each and every teacher, again ordering these sequentially as above.

All members of a school's staff commit to upholding this agreement in every classroom at each level.

Each school team identifies those essential questions (versus entry level questions) that will underlie and inform all instructional activities.

These essential questions will be carried forward from class to class and from year to year in each content area because they are essential to the act of doing history, or the act of doing mathematics and so on. Teachers commit to these at each level and in each content area. And the obvious way to test whether this has occurred is to gather a few students together from the same class and ask: "So, what is the single key question, key idea, key skill practice that your teacher emphasizes over and over--almost to the point of irksomeness?" If the students can answer this question, then we know that the teacher is on the right track.

An underlying design principle for successful schools is established here: These essential questions will be consistently held up before the students in each and every course in each and every content area, at each and every level.

Because teachers commit to deliberately and intentionally linking (articulating) all learning activities, their students will be placed at the center of an educational journey that they are constantly called upon to mediate, interpret and describe. This is the real meaning of "student centered" curriculum (see The Power of Seamless Curriculum).

These essential questions may be added to as the student moves forward in the curriculum.

But because they are essential they will never be discarded.

So easy to say: but it is absolutely crucial that this occur if new schools are to improve upon the public school model. But in order for any of this to have impact, a school culture must be one where teachers are free to teach and students are free to learn--without the usual distractions and pushback all too many regular public school teachers experience on a daily basis.

Finally, each new school program must identify and consistently model those "Habits of Mind" that will form the metacurriculum for each content area.

These are those coach-able scholarly habits, expectations and attitudes that students must bring to class, and that are required for success in each content area, regardless of the level.

These too are carried forward from year to year and, like the EQ’s, may be added to but never discarded.

All students will be promoted or retained according to the degree to which they have mastered both curricula. Teachers commit to these, and make them co-equal with traditional content.

Asking and answering these questions marks the beginning of the establishment of professional and collegial dialog within the instructional team. I have found that committed educators have an affinity for this process.

But they must also have an affinity for designing curricula that puts students at the center of the classroom conversation, that generates student enthusiasm for asking questions, for evaluating information, for critiquing practices, hypotheses, assertions--whether made by the teacher or by fellow students.

The creation of a student culture where active participation is the norm is the greatest challenge all schools face. If this transformation doesn't occur, then program promises about achievement and success will not materialize.