EPIC Impact Education Group


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Choose to Look in the Mirror

Authored by Cathy Sankey, Speaker, Presenter, President/Founder See.Believe.Do.

Are you looking to make transformational change to your high school? It can be daunting given the number of key stakeholders and the enormity of the work in this age of accountability.

The key is looking in the mirror rather than out the window.

Certainly a number of factors exist “out the window” that can affect learning in our schools. These include unfunded mandates, fluctuating economic support for education, drug and alcohol student addiction, rising student mental health concerns, and district and building initiative overload for staff, to name a few.

These factors and others are contributing to stagnant or minimally improving graduation rates in individual schools. And although the high school graduation rate nationally is improving, minority groups such as those of blacks and Latinos are still lagging significantly behind. According to the Washington Post, the national graduation rate in 2016 was 84% overall. For black students, the rate was 76% and for Hispanics, 79%.

Another significant question for us to consider is whether the high school diplomas students are earning are truly reflective of students who are college and career-ready.

The good news is that a number of factors exist in every building that high school administrators can change by “looking in the mirror.” By working to change what we can change, we can positively affect student learning and help to change our students’ lives for the better.

Transformational change of our high schools is not a choice; it is a requirement of being an instructional leader. We based the transformative change of our high school on the Professional Learning Community (PLC) research from the work of Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker. In addition, we incorporated other researchers who put student learning at the forefront of their research, such as John Hattie and Robert Marzano.   

The following areas are the ones on which we focused in our school improvement work and those that can bring about the greatest improvement of student learning data.

1.      Curriculum: Have you aligned your curriculum to your state’s mandated graduation tests? Are your teachers teaching it?  How do you know?  Providing collaboration time for your teachers to determine and teach standards and benchmarks in the same scope and sequence and to develop common assessments, common intervention and common enrichment will assure ALL students are learning the intended curriculum.

2.      Grades: Are you leading grading practice research and implementation with your staff? Is an A an A in every class? Are your grades reflective of learning or behavior? Do your teachers allow re-dos and retakes? Have you led discussions on effective homework with your staff? Do your teachers still give zeroes? Grading practices of your staff truly do affect student learning and determine whether your school is a school of hope or failure.

3.      Assessment: What is the quality of assessments that your teachers give? Are they reliable and valid? Do your teachers focus as much on assessments for learning as they do on assessments of learning? Do they model the types of questions that students will see on state-mandated tests and on the ACT/SAT? Do your teachers utilize diagnostic, formative and summative assessments?  Do they adjust and make instructional decisions based on data? Do you routinely and systemically monitor student learning based on your classroom assessments? Do you, your team, and your staff know the name of every student who is unsuccessful and provide intervention for them systemically?

4.      Master Schedule: Is your master schedule based on the needs of the adults in the building or on student learning data? Does it provide collaboration time for staff and intervention time for students? Are your best teachers with all students or with only your “best” students? Do you make teaching decisions based on student data and success or on what teachers want to teach? Are there unnecessary sacred cows in your master schedule based on adult habits and entitlement of years of experience that are barriers to establishing a master schedule that supports student learning?

5.      Instruction: Are you and your staff committed to improving instruction every day? Do your teachers provide specific and ongoing formative feedback each day during class to students? Do they incorporate strategies to determine whether student learning has occurred during class and then adjust their instruction? Do your teachers include student choice and voice in their instructional strategies? Do your teachers evaluate the effectiveness of their instruction based on student learning data? Do teachers engage in a variety of best instructional practices in order to ensure learning?

6.      Intervention: Do teachers plan for intervention as part of the instructional planning and implementation process? Do they collaborate with same-subject team members on effective intervention based on student assessment data? Do they allow re-dos and retakes? Is time or learning the constant in each classroom? Do you have teacher intervention, teacher team intervention and systemic building intervention based on a pyramid of intervention? Have you instituted student privileges for those students who achieve established levels in academics, behavior and attendance?

7.      Data: Do your teachers, teacher-teams and administrative team regularly analyze student learning data? Do you analyze student data at least every 4.5 weeks by grade level, individual student names, individual teacher names, and same-subject teacher teams? Is every staff member committed to setting SMART goals in order to improve student learning? Do you have specific building SMART goals to improve student learning? Is your classroom and building data transparent?

8.      Learning culture and climate: Do the students in your building receive messages of hope and encouragement for their learning? Do they know that you are a building focused on learning? Are they involved in monitoring and ensuring their own learning? Do your staff members understand that the purpose of teaching is learning and work to monitor and ensure student learning? Do you collaborate with your parents and inform them of all of the building work on ensuring student learning? Are they active participants in the learning process? Do you align all of your building practices, meetings, and goals to student learning?

To be a transformative leader, you must be a learning leader and a leader of learners.  If you commit to learning about learning, you can lead transformational change. We did, and became a National Model PLC at Work School and a National Blue Ribbon School. In doing so, not only was our school transformed, but so were our students’ lives.

You, too, can do this work.  Just look in the mirror.




Balingit, Mariah. (2017, Dec. 4). U.S high school graduation rates rise to new high. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2017/12/04/u-s-high-school-graduation-rates-rise-to-new-high/

DuFour, Richard & Fullan, Michael. (2013). Cultures Built to Last: Systemic PLCs at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Hattie, John. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. New York, NY: Routledge.

Marzano, Robert. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Janice Zielinski