Schools for Rigor Continues Urban Education Leadership by DMPS

This article is part of a series of reports on how support from the Wallace Foundation is making a difference at Des Moines Public Schools. In June 2014, DMPS was awarded a substantial grant by the Wallace Foundation to improve teaching and learning by improving the work of principals and their supervisors. DMPS is one of six urban school districts from across the country selected to participate in the initiative.

Matt Smith (center in white shirt) is the Chief Schools Officer for Des Moines Public Schools.

Matt Smith (center in white shirt) is the Chief Schools Officer for Des Moines Public Schools.

Literally since the first day he was hired as Superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools Dr. Tom Ahart has talked in terms of DMPS becoming the model for urban education in America. That’s lofty talk, the stuff of logos and vision statements. But it’s steadily becoming much more than that. It’s a distinct possibility now; one that’s coming into sharper focus like the moon does when a rocket is steered toward it by a crack pilot with the support of an expert crew.

When the school board met on March 8th, three years to the day since Dr. Ahart was officially hired, Chief of Schools Matt Smith delivered a presentation that outlined another key element of the district’s strategic plan to achieve Dr. Ahart’s stated goal. It was titled Schools for Rigor. The subtitle was A Strategic Plan to Become THE Model for Urban Education.

It’s the next stage of the rocket that, by the way, is fueled with the sort of passion and enthusiasm Smith exhibits for his work. Earlier ones included the phase-in of Standards Referenced Grading districtwide to ensure that all of our schools are striving toward the same benchmarks. That began in 2012-13. Next was creation of the Office of Schools the following year. In 2014-15 the district was awarded the prestigious and substantial Wallace Grant which is subsidizing an aggressive bolstering of district leadership. This year has seen realignment of the Office of Schools and the Office of Academics to facilitate implementation of the Marzano Instructional Framework in collaboration with consultants from Learning Sciences International. All of those preliminary stages fell under the heading of “Building the Capacity.”

Now, Smith told the board in delivering his report, “It’s time to really roll up our sleeves and get into classrooms and support teachers the way they deserve.”

Next year the following six schools will be pilot sites for periodic “RigorWalks” to be conducted by LSI working in concert with district officials.

  • North High
  • Weeks Middle
  • Perkins Elementary
  • Lovejoy Elementary
  • Howe Elementary
  • Findley Elementary

“The approach to schools of rigor is a K-12 approach,” Smith emphasized. The comprehensiveness is a key feature in avoiding what he called “initiative fatigue.” Installation of a systemic, districtwide philosophy will foster continuity and put an end to haphazard, piecemeal efforts to meet challenges on a school-by-school or grade level-by-grade level basis.

During a RigorWalk, LSI consultants facilitate interviews with school leadership teams, walk the school, and conduct onsite analyses to collect information about the Pillars of Rigor:

  • School climate and culture
  • School leadership practices
  • Cultivation of a growth mindset
  • Professional Learning Communities
  • Rigorous, standards-based instruction
  • Formative assessment implementation

Over the next three years all 60 DMPS schools will undergo the makeover.

“All 33,000 of the students who come to us deserve the same opportunities no matter where they come from or what they come with,” Smith said.

It’s a process of transitioning from teacher-centered classrooms where students sit quietly in a regiment of rows and listen to student-centered ones where autonomous discussions are led by critically thinking students. In the student-centered scenario the teacher is a fuse-lighter.

We’re not talking anymore about unit or semester or grade-level goals and annual or semi-annual measurements of progress. We’re talking about “daily learning targets” that principals, teachers and students all take aim at and make immediate adjustments if they miss. We’re talking about “intense” supports and the “scaffolding” that will be erected in our schools to build rigor into them. Instead of over-reliance on standardized testing there will be “relentless inspection of student evidence,” according to Michael Toth, the founder and CEO of LSI. Data will be reviewed daily instead of periodically.

A fundamental feature of the vision is that teachers continue to learn, grow and develop right along with the students instead of plateauing and burning out. Think Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, replacing the hackneyed stereotype of combat fatigued teachers falling back in retreat to the sanctuary of the Teachers’ Lounge.

“We are creating a sense of shared purpose for leaders, teachers and kids,” Smith said. “It is no longer acceptable for principals to be a building manager. You must be an instructional leader…fly-by (building visits by principal supervisors) won’t cut it anymore.”

Research makes clear the critical role school leadership plays in transforming schools from good to great. And the Leader Tracking System that is already in the works with LSI is the major component of work funded by the Wallace Grant.

“There’s nothing wrong going on now,” Smith said.  “But we can do better.”

Significantly, district teachers have been included in the planning process that is culminating with announcement of the Schools for Rigor campaign, just as they were during development of the innovative Alternative Teachers Contract designed to attract the best and brightest new educators to DMPS and keep them here. After Smith’s presentation on March 8th Andrew Rasmussen, president of the Des Moines Education Association that represents district teachers, addressed the board.

“This proposal provides incredible support to help educators grow and we appreciate that Matt Smith has kept us informed and involved as this develops,” he said. “This could be a game-changer.”

So this talk of becoming the model for urban education really is much more than that. And it’s more than the slides and charts and graphs in a slick PowerPoint show. It’s a moonshot with 63 schools/33,000 students/3,000 teachers/5,000 staff aboard. And we have liftoff!

A good guess at Dr. Ahart’s first words upon landing might be: “I told you so.”

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