For several years, Stacy Thomas (EdD ‘15) and her colleagues at Blaine School District watched with concern as approximately half of 3rd graders weren’t able to read at their grade level.
“Our scores district-wide had been hovering in that range for quite some time, and there were indications it seemed to be getting worse,” said Thomas, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning.
With student literacy in early grade levels being a strong indicator for long-term academic success, Blaine took action, bringing together a district-wide literacy team with staff from each building and grade level along with building and district administrators.
Yet early on, Thomas said, the district quickly realized that teachers, principals and central office administrators were seeing the problem in different ways.
Thomas shared lessons from Blaine’s experience planning professional development that works on July 19 during the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership’s annual institute for school and district leaders from across the country. The Summer Leadership Institute focused on helping principals, superintendents and other central office leaders improve their instructional leadership practice and learn new ways to inspire growth in others, while offering new ideas and insights for transforming traditional professional learning with the ultimate goal of providing equity for all students.
For Blaine, a critical first step was defining the problem so that staff across the district viewed it in a collective way. Over the course of a full year, members of the literacy team visited every classroom in the district and talked to a wide swath of teachers and students.
“It got messy at times, but it allowed us to sharpen the problem,” said Thomas, a graduate of the UW's Leadership for Learning (EdD) program. “We saw kids all reading the same text. We saw kids just being read aloud to rather than having opportunities to direct their own reading. We were struggling to meet the needs of a range of learners.”
Through the team’s extensive research, it decided to pursue a balanced literacy model for the district and focus its professional development efforts on formative assessment and differentiation.
“Teachers emphasized that they needed to do this work with real kids and with eachother, so we made sure our professional development addressed that need,” Thomas said.
Blaine is now two years into the effort to target literacy improvement through its new professional development strategy, and the literacy team continually assesses the day-to-day impact on teaching, what’s working and what isn’t working.
“We’ve really come together as a system,” Thomas said. “We have a strong district-level leadership team, but we also want to make sure each building has ownership of this work. It’s helping create a culture of continuous improvement for everyone.”
Blaine’s literacy initiative, which is being support by CEL staff, was one of the featured stories of success shared by education leaders during the three-day institute attended by more than 150 leaders.
Before Thomas’ talk, Stephen Fink, executive director of CEL and affiliate professor of education, discussed the importance of expertise and learning for school leaders.
“Expertise matters, it affects what we notice,” Fink said, “but we’re not born with expertise. Practice makes expertise.”
He noted that successful school leaders need expertise, in particular, in what high quality instruction looks like, how to observe and analyze it, and how to provide useful feedback that supports teachers’ professional learning.
Anneke Markholt, associate director of CEL and instructor of education, said school leaders must take the lead—by being deliberate in their practice of instructional leadership—in removing barriers to creating a culture of learning.
“Teachers come into the profession because they want to make a difference for kids, and it’s the context that they find themselves in that will keep them in for the long haul,” Markholt said. “Our expertise supports teachers in the work they do.”
Thomas, who started her career as a 4th grade teacher in Blaine, said she’s always viewed herself as a teacher first.
“But moving into a building administration role, you’re more a teacher of teachers. And now in this role I’m a teacher of leaders.
“For any leader, I think it’s so important to analyze your own impact, to see how your practice impacts the work of others so you understand that through line from the central office to the principal to the teacher to the student.”
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