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True Reform: Collaboration at Viers Mill Elementary

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Editor's note: This is the second installment of our three-part report on Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland. The first installment appeared last Tuesday.

Hear today's posting (~15:12)

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Viers Mill Elementary School violates much of the received wisdom about school reform. The school has made astonishing gains in the past decade without becoming a charter school, firing lots of teachers, importing all kinds of outside talent, or paying teachers for children’s test scores. In fact, some of these reforms would likely have thwarted the main strategy Viers Mill credits with its success: collaboration.

When I visited Viers Mill about ten days ago, I was stunned by the level of collaboration I saw there. My guide through the building, staff development teacher Susan Freiman, showed me a school where everyone on staff works together for the good of the students. Collaboration at Viers Mill is not just a heartwarming tendency among staff. (Though it is that.) It is a carefully crafted reform strategy.

On the Same Page

The school works, because so many of its staff members are on the same page. If the school is working to improve vocabulary, for example, then the whole school is doing so. Freiman took me into the gymnasium to demonstrate this point. She showed me a list of vocabulary words posted on the wall:

Freiman: But I want you to see the word wall. Remember I told you about vocabulary?

Public School Insights: It’s all there in the PE room.

Freiman: If we’re doing it, we’re doing it. It’s not like the PE teachers [ask], “Well, what does this have to do with me?” The PE teacher is part of our staff, and if our kids are going to focus on vocabulary, they’re going to focus on vocabulary wherever they are in the building.

Collaboration in Action

Every child at Viers Mill can count on teams of adults who work together to meet her specific needs. I saw this principle in action during a regularly-scheduled “Collaborative Action Process” (CAP) meeting of the Kindergarten team. At CAP meetings, staff members review individual children’s progress toward specific goals. Teams of teachers will refer a child who falls short of those goals to a “Building Level Collaboration” meeting, or BLC, where teachers, parents and administrators decide what to do next for that child.

In the CAP meeting I got to witness, teachers considered what to do for a child facing especially tough challenges. Had the child seen the school counselor, Santa Scott?

Teacher One: In the beginning of the year that was step one. We went to Santa, because it was behavior issues, sleep issues, he wasn’t getting enough sleep at night, and he fell asleep in class…. There were a lot of things going on with him. So Santa spoke with mom, and they made a concerted effort. But I don’t think he lives in the area. I believe he lives [out of town], so he comes here for baby-sitting , and to grandma. That’s why he’s in this school. So, mom was saying that he doesn’t get to sleep until, like, two in the morning, and then he gets up at, like, six. So you’ve got a five-and-a-half-year-old working on four hours’ sleep, trying to be ready for learning.

But there are so many other issues. There are the fine motor issues with him…. I just think he’s ready for BLC.

[Voices in agreement]

Teacher Two: Make sure that you’ve consulted the reading specialist and the counselor again to review the CAP.

Teacher One: They both have been consulted. I talked to Sandy last week, and then I talked with Susanne….

Teacher Two: Did she recommend BLC, too?

Teacher One: yes.

Teacher Two: Okay. Because a lot’s been done for him already….

Teacher One: And he goes to Jenna for reading group, he goes with you for reading group and extra support, Andrea pulls him to work on his name also, so he’s got three different supports there….

I was struck by the number of people who shared responsibility for a single child’s progress and well-being. Teachers, counselors, administrators, academic support specialists…. All were joining forces to help a troubled child succeed. And every child can expect that kind of support

This kind of collaboration is in Viers Mill’s DNA. Teams of teachers meet regularly to share teaching strategies, plan instruction, and line up their efforts to help individual students. The school makes all this possible by creating room in the calendar for teacher collaboration. Para-educators, or assistant teachers, take over classes while teachers plan together. It all works, because everyone in the school is on the same page. Everyone follows common expectations and a robust curriculum.

Teachers at the Helm

You can bet the system would not work if teachers didn't have a strong voice in what happens at the school. As Freiman took me from classroom to classroom, she repeated this point: “I think the most important thing is that teachers are so a part of what decisions are made. You never ever hear a teacher saying, ‘Well, who made that decision?’ They made them.”

Viers Mill’s principal, Matthew Devan, made a strong case for teacher leadership, even in the school’s hiring decisions:

When we hire staff, when you talk about sharing leadership, sharing decision-making and so on…. I’ll talk to the grade level team or ESOL team, saying “look, I’ll bring people I’m comfortable with, just on paper, or what I’ve heard from references and different pieces…I need to find someone that is going to join your team that you are going to own as a teammate, and that you’re going to make a commitment to to make sure they are a high-quality part of your team….

Devan told me about a time when his teachers overruled him on a hiring decision:

I had someone I just loved…. She had all kinds of experience. She was just a powerhouse teacher. I brought her in for an interview—and, man—she just did not click with the kindergarten team at all….

So we just continued on with interviews, and we interviewed someone that they loved that I thought was a very strong candidate, and they are working very well with.

But that ownership of that decision—knowing that here I am with the Michael Jordan of teachers in Kindergarten, with experience and all that piece…and to honor the team enough to say, “It’s your teammate…You’re going to have to work with her, plan with her, instruct with her, cooperate and collaborate with her…. I need it to be someone you are excited to work with….

Devan also trusts his veteran teachers to help struggling new hires. Here’s how he described his teachers’ reaction to a struggling new colleague:

It wasn’t the strongest hire, but because they knew that it was their final decision and they had made a commitment, we worked together…. I said, “I’ll put some supports in with staff development teacher and reading specialist.” But they also as a team stayed and put in the hours…until 5:30, 6 o’clock, going over plans and helping that teacher….

And they really did it. I came back to the team at the end of the year and said, “you saved her career.” She would have been evaluated out if you hadn’t done all the work that you’ve done.”

[Teachers] stay in basic evaluation here for their first two years, which is good, and they get support from the county. So I think the county has put a good system in place. I think that, as a minimum, it’s effective to have that. But I think that it’s more powerful if you can have the positive pressure from the teams in developing and supporting teachers.

Notice what Devan didn’t say. He did not advocate swift justice for underperforming teachers. And he definitely did not peddle the myth of the superstar teacher who outshines all his peers.

To the contrary, he hires teachers who draw strength from each other and learn on the job. He trusts his home-grown talent and gives his staff members the freedom to do their best work together.

Grow Your Own

Come to Viers Mill, and you’ll meet people who have been at the school for years and years—and who wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else. Here’s what I heard from school counselor Santa Scott: “I taught first grade for 11 years, now I am the school counselor here. So I’ve only been at Viers Mill. I love it here.”

When I bumped into teacher Jennifer Peter in the hallway, she told a similar story. While at Viers Mill, she has been a classroom teacher, content coach, gifted and talented teacher and even a contributor to national education journals. She was well on the way to becoming a principal. Peter was quick to praise her principal:

Peter: The principal wanted to keep me here, and I feel like I have been able to grow here and stay, for 14 years.

Public School Insights: Fourteen years! My goodness.

Peter: This is the only school I have been at.

Public School Insights: So this is where you started your career, this is where you’re continuing your career, and you’ve actually got a career trajectory in the school.

Peter: Having a principal who inspires you and believes in you and says, “I want you to stay here, I want you to have these opportunities,” or “Are you happy?” or “do you need more?”—and really listening and following through. [That has] helped me….

Throughout my day at Viers Mill, I met staff members who, like Peter and Scott, had played many different professional roles during their time at the school. Viers Mill grows its own talent. It promotes from within. The school has little need to cast about for new staff each year, because staff turnover is so very low.

A Culture of Respect

Viers Mill has changed dramatically since the days when people called it “Slumville.” But none of those changes would have been possible without the school’s long-standing culture of respect for professionals and children. Santa Scott told me what has changed, and what has stayed the same:

Public School Insights: So you’ve seen Viers Mill go through all kinds of different stages.

Scott: Yes.

Public School Insights: So when you first came here, it was a totally different place.

Scott: It was a totally different place, but what has been the same, I think, is the climate, the people, the respect that we have for each other professionally. We’re like a family here. I think it was step by step. It was a climate where we could take risks. Try this. Try to get better. Look at each other teach. We observed each other, because a lot of us were doing great things, but we weren’t sharing things. So finally, we got to the point where we could feel comfortable…. “OK, I’m coming in to see you,” and then “Oh, I’ll come in and observe that lesson,” and then it became, “We’re all doing this together. We’re all doing the same thing.”

Accountability falls flat when everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Don’t expect anything good to happen in a climate of fear and loathing.

Collaboration, Motherhood, and Apple Pie

Who isn’t all for collaboration, motherhood and apple pie? But a trip to Viers Mill will remind you that true collaboration, collaboration as a reform strategy, takes careful planning, focus, attention to detail, and staying power. It does not come as easily as the leaves to a tree.

In a school, “collaboration” doesn’t mean much without:

  • Clear and specific goals the entire staff is willing to own.
  • Real transparency. Classroom doors stay open at Viers Mill. Teachers do not hide from their peers. They share their best work and learn from each other.
  • Frequent, structured meetings that focus on individual children’s needs.
  • Consistent, on-going staff development. Staff development is in the very warp and woof of everything the school does. At Viers Mill, collaboration goes hand-in-hand with carefully designed opportunities for learning.

There’s much more to collaboration at Viers Mill that I can lay out here, but you get the point. It’s a full-blown strategy, not just a good intention.

How to Kill Collaboration in One Easy Step

If you ask Susan Freiman, many of the ideas that consume education policy wonks’ days have very little to do with the kind of success Viers Mill can celebrate after years of hard work. But some of those ideas can be downright harmful, she insisted.

She did not hide her distaste for policies that reward individual teachers for their students’ test scores:

Freiman: We have students who go to several teachers--they all own that student, they all own every student. Every teacher wants every child in the school to be successful, and because they share the kids and they share the resources, they share the pride…. If we fail, we fail as a group. It’s not like, “Ah, you want to tell me what happened to your group here, because Ms Blablabla, her kids seem to do fine. What about you?” And then you say, “Well, I don’t know because only three of those kids are really mine. She has seven of my kids. So I need to make her successful, too”

And therefore you also don’t want to be rewarded more than the person who you’re collaborating with. I mean, it just is the wrong idea, and the wrong way to reward people. Because that makes it sound like the teachers who are working with struggling kids are failures. And now, they’re the ones that are working hardest, because it’s really hard to teach kids who are poor and economically disadvantaged and don’t speak English.

Hey, I ended up my teaching career as the gifted and talented teacher here. I’d be making a lot more money, wouldn’t I? I can guarantee you those kids…before they took the test they’re going to be great. I don’t do a thing.

Public School Insights: Well, the question is, did you create the growth…?

Oh, but I can tell you that really, really bright kids are going to learn really fast. Oh, I can guarantee you….

I hate that idea, because I think it pits good teachers against other good teachers. And I might be happy if I saw a lousy teacher, and think, “Ha! She’s not getting anything! My kids going to college next year—I could use that extra $5000! I’m not going to go in and help her—why should I?“

Freiman reminds us of an important point that gets lost in all the national school reform chatter. People who object to high-profile reforms can do so out of principle, long experience, and passionate devotion to the good of children. Freiman’s words should lay to rest the canard that critics of popular reforms merely defend the status quo or—worse—that they care more about adults than children.

People like Susan Freiman and her colleagues deserve a much, much stronger voice in national discussions of school reform.