Archive for Strategic Planning

Designing the Next Generation Learning Strategic Plan

Next month will mark the second full year of the development of Next Generation Learning at UPrep, our initiative to identify and design the learning innovations most likely to enhance students’ educational experience.

Next Gen Learning timeline

For the whole of 2015, a single Student’s Educational Experience team conducted open focus groups and workshops with families, students and teachers. We asked people to identify the greatest strengths of the UPrep educational program and the best opportunities to make it stronger. Our small team included a broad range of roles: trustees, administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Clear themes emerged as we sifted through volumes of community input.

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After further intensive consideration of strategic importance and potential, these ideas were shaped into initiatives. The school announced Strategic Plan 2020 in December 2015 with three pillars: facility, faculty, and future. The third pillar, future, directly addressed educational experience in action-oriented terms approved by the board.

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At the start of 2016, we reconstituted the design team under a name that better reflected its newly identified purpose: Next Generation Learning.

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This committee considered how to best pursue the goals of the strategic plan. Some objectives could carry forward as expressed, whereas others contained multiple objectives that required separate teams. This spawned seven initiatives.

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Five of these initiatives required new development teams. The first two initiatives, Blended and Online Learning and Computer Science and Computational Thinking, had been identified and designed early on and were well into implementation. Social Justice and Educational Equity required its own initiative, lest it be lost amidst the consideration of multiple topics under the umbrella of Social and Emotional Learning. Similarly, Interdisciplinary Learning Opportunities split into two initiatives, one focused on identifying connections among existing disciplines, and the other breaking new ground in student agency and entrepreneurship (U Lab). Finally, New Models of Time was added, as we realized that the school would need to address how we allocate time in order to support the other objectives.

The Research+Design teams then engaged in a repeated cycle of development and engagement. Small teams did the bulk of idea development, sifting through community input, identifying themes, and developing creative proposals. Team membership remained fluid over time, welcoming new interest into the group and cycling out those who wanted a break.

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Like incubators, these teams were given creative autonomy, protected from premature criticism, and supported by instructional leaders and external specialists. Once they developed robust proposals ready for critique, teams broadly shared their ideas with the school community, administration, and trustees in order to receive feedback and endorsement.

Ten department heads, program specialists, and other teacher leaders were invited to chair five Research+Design teams. This act of distributed leadership caused several positive benefits. One design team multiplied into five, allowing us to make huge progress in 2016. 10 colleagues received intensive, experiential, just-in-time leadership development, broadening the school’s collective capacity for institutional leadership. The leaders also brought a diversity of perspectives to bear on Next Generation Learning, developing far more interesting, creative proposals than a single, centralized body would have developed.

The five teams were opened to the full faculty and educational support staff. Fully half of the faculty and educational support staff joined one of the five teams, enhancing the creative capacity of each team and deepening faculty investment in strategic plan implementation. The teams also invited a dozen students to join. The teams demonstrated great passion and persistence, because they represented ideas distilled from community input, volunteered to join initiatives that spoke to them, and included a variety of perspectives and interests.

From spring 2016 to present, the Research+Design teams have met during professional development days, lunch periods, after school, and during the summer to deeply explore the school dynamics in their initiative areas and design thoughtful, detailed proposals for school change.

The teams were asked to develop short-, medium- and long-term goals in their area, as well as to write specific proposals for immediate program changes. A number of opportunities had already presented themselves and were achievable, so we decided to improve the educational program and demonstrate progress right away.

As of today, some teams have delivered specific proposals to our approving bodies, whereas others continue to frame large, abstract areas of the educational program.

Here is an update on the current status of the five initiatives.

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Implemented from 2013, this initiative is currently in a growth and evaluation phase. Inclusion in the strategic plan recognized the importance of this new work to the student’s educational experience and Next Generation Learning. UPrep adopted Schoology in fall 2013. Teachers and students use the system in all classes and as a private social network. One may say that our entire program has become partially blended (face-to-face/online) over that time, as interactive, differentiated, and personalized learning takes place through Schoology.

We adopted Global Online Academy in the fall of 2015, with 30 enrollments last school year and 15 this school year. GOA instantly added 60 new courses to our elective program, in subjects that exemplify contemporary topics, inquiry learning, interdisciplinary study, global perspectives, and rich relationships among teachers and students. Students have explored their passions and interests, valued the independence of online work, enjoyed interacting with students from across the country and around the world, and created outstanding project exhibitions. The school has also benefited from professional connections with GOA staff, faculty development opportunities, and the opportunity to provide teachers to GOA.

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In spring 2013, we conducted a study of computer science programs and decided that computational thinking, foundational principles of computer science, and connections to other disciplines would drive our new program. We hired our first full-time computer science teacher in fall 2014, and she has developed the program into five semester courses, with 51 semester enrollments, three student clubs, and support for physical computing in the Maker Space. We continue to maintain the capacity to respond to student interest in the subject and will eventually consider the possibility of a graduation requirement in the subject.

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This team started by creating an inventory of existing SEL practices in the school, since it already gained momentum as a grassroots initiative as well as received the attention of administrative leadership. The group selected the CASEL SEL framework out of many possibilities and partnered with consultants Janice Tobin and Rush Sabiston Frank to begin to develop an implementation plan. At the same time, training for mindfulness, empathetic listening, gender diversity, and suicide prevention continued apace.

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Over the past couple of years, the number of teachers integrating cultural competency and social justice topics into their courses has increased considerably. This group, therefore, conducted an inventory of current and emerging classroom practices, studied institutional supports and barriers to equitable educational experiences, consulted with Wayne Au from the University of Washington, Bothell, and began to draft a set of program recommendations and suggestions for the school.

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Disciplinary thinking has great value, as it represents long-developed, deeply held ways of making meaning of the world. However, organizing a school exclusively by discipline has some negative consequences, as the world is not neatly organized into seven academic categories. Contemporary challenges require hybrid thinking, the application of multiple disciplines to complex problems. This also prepares students better for university, where interdisciplinary departments are burgeoning, and schools offer up to 100 majors. This team has asked the school community to suggest opportunities for interdisciplinary courses, both in the required and elective parts of the program.

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U Lab is the team that organized around student agency, connections with the city, and entrepreneurship. This group tackled the longstanding question of the culminating senior experience at UPrep. We have now approved the UPrep Launchpad, an individual, student-designed, two-week senior project in the Seattle area. The U Lab has also supported the student-led Social Entrepreneurship class, which has designed a social venture called U Box, a “give one, get one” care package program that serves families of college students and the homeless population.

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This group has undertaken to redesign the school schedule and calendar in order to reduce student stress, support deeper learning, and use time more effectively. Our current schedule does not fully support the way we teach today, never mind the aspirations of our Next Generation Learning initiatives. The team collected masses of input from families, students, teachers, and staff members, examined the schedules of 25 peer schools locally and nationally, and received a customized analysis and report from Roxanne Higgins of Independent School Management. 30 teachers, staff members, and students serve on this team. We plan to announce schedule finalists for community consideration in the first week of December.

 

As we reach the end of the first year of Strategic Plan 2020, we are proud of accomplishments realized to date, anticipate the closing reports of Year 1 Research+Design teams, and look forward to kicking off Year 2. The teams have been designed to last for one year at a time, providing the opportunity to retire, reconstitute, replace, or divide teams at the new year. Team leaders have the opportunity to continue or cycle out, so that others may assume and exercise leadership. We also look forward to fleshing out the five-year plan for each initiative, determining a sequence for major rollouts, and developing evaluation metrics in collaboration with the board. It’s been a fulfilling journey so far, and we anticipate equally significant steps in the future.

Strategic Plan 2020 and the U Prep Mission

Originally published in Happenings, University Prep’s community magazine.

The school’s mission continues to light the path toward the future of teaching and learning at U Prep.

Since 2004, University Prep has been “committed to developing each student’s potential to become an intellectually courageous, socially responsible citizen of the world.” As the world has changed rapidly, the nature of excellent teaching and learning have evolved in response. The U Prep mission, written with a changing world in mind, remains as vital than ever. University Prep’s new strategic plan upholds the mission and sets a course for the design of our students’ future educational experiences.

Developing Each Student’s Potential

Since the school’s founding, we have understood that students thrive in a supportive community based on relationships. Belonging and healthy self-concept allow a student to strive for intellectual courage. Today, we now have a more detailed understanding of why relationships and introspection matter. One student remarked, “I was nervous at first to complete group work. Once we began to understand how each other worked, I really genuinely enjoyed it.”

So-called “soft” skills have also found “hard” evidence in neuroscience and educational research. Empathy, communication, and collaboration help students work more effectively with classmates and establish strong relationships with teachers. Interior skills such as emotional self-awareness, self-regulation, and growth mindset help students navigate challenges that they encounter. Students who possess these skills think more positively about their school experience. “The activity at the senior retreat helped break down stress. People seem more human this year.”

What motivates students to fully engage with learning? “Really interesting topics motivate me to do the work.” “I trust my teachers, because I see them every day.” In a landmark 2001 study, researcher Denise Pope found that many high performing students were just “doing school,” performing reasonably well but without true engagement and at a high cost to emotions and health. We continue to develop our student support and counseling programs and will train teachers to integrate social and emotional learning within classes and advisory meetings. We have also begun a process to reimagine the school schedule and calendar year.

Intellectual Courage

What is intellectual courage today? U Prep has long engaged students with advanced subject matter, abstract concepts, and public speaking. Today’s world demands new skills, in addition to these essentials. The challenges that our society face — among them global conflict, climate change, and economic turbulence — will play a large role in the future. In addition to academic mastery, skills and habits such as versatility, creativity, initiative, and purpose will allow our students to thrive.

The real world is not neatly divided into distinct subject areas such as English, math, and fine arts. Contemporary problems benefit from different perspectives and the recognition of their interconnections. Historical, scientific, cultural, linguistic, computational, artistic, and kinesthetic thinking are required to understand our increasingly complicated world. Strategic Plan 2020 calls for increased opportunities for interdisciplinary study by emphasizing collaborations among different subject areas and a multidisciplinary approach within existing classes. “We loved Art and Social Change and learned more than we could have imagined,” one student wrote.

Individuals who recognize opportunities and take action to seize them have “agency.” This year, a group of interested students encouraged the history department to offer a greater variety of course options, one student successfully proposed a student-led course in social entrepreneurship, and many students completed action projects in courses such as Civics, Physics, and Environmental Ethics. As part of Strategic Plan 2020, we plan to grow our programs for independent projects, mentorship, design, and community connections.

Social Responsibility

Through our community service program, the full student body dedicates three days each year to direct service across the region, from food banks to bike repair. We devote equal attention to the health of our internal community, particularly through the school’s values of respect, responsibility, and integrity. Strategic Plan 2020 asks the school to extend its work for social justice and educational equity. A number of teachers have led the way, introducing social justice units in all subject areas, from human rights in English classes to cultural identity in visual arts. Thirty-three Rainier Scholars are enrolled at U Prep (next year, we will have a record breaking thirty-seven), and we are comprehensively addressing how to provide the highest quality educational and social experience to all of our students.

Global Citizenship

While globalism is hardly new, both the world and U Prep continue to grow more global every day. Our Global Link students learn cultural competency through cultural immersion experiences overseas (and in the case of Middle School students, a very different part of the country). This year’s students remarked that they learned to “keep an open mind,” “try new things,” and “observe without judgment.” Sixth grade geography students have shared presentations with students in other countries, and Upper School Global Online Academy students have collaborated and studied with students in other states and countries. “The diversity of perspectives in our own country really surprised me,” one student remarked. Our strategic plan calls for continued emphasis on global and cross-cultural topics.


This past school year, Strategic Plan 2020 emerged from the wisdom and experiences of faculty, students, staff, parents, and trustees. This coming year, the faculty will identify the best, next evolutionary changes that uphold the mission and enhance learning opportunities for our students.

New Courses Feature Next Generation Learning

University Prep has conducted a strategic planning process for the last year. One of our three focus areas, Next Generation Learning, concerns the design of learning opportunities to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Initiatives in this area include:

  • Further implement a blend of face-to-face and online learning to personalize the educational experience for students and underscore University Prep’s commitment to intellectual courage
  • Extend and deepen instruction for computer science and computational thinking, both as a distinct field of study and integrated across the curriculum
  • Develop and implement a social and emotional learning program to build self-awareness, social awareness and cultural competency so that students may realize their full potential and contribute as socially responsible citizens of the world
  • Design more interdisciplinary opportunities in areas such as research, advocacy, and entrepreneurship in Seattle to promote student agency

A Next Generation Learning leadership team comprised of trustees, faculty, parents, staff, and students worked for a year to develop these initiatives. All parents were invited to provide input in after-school meetings. All faculty members contributed to the ideas during professional development days, and students provided feedback during our meetings period.

The new courses proposed for next year already support these strategic planning initiatives. How did this happen so quickly? We tapped department heads and other teacher leaders to serve on the leadership committee. Therefore, teachers who were likely to revise curriculum also reviewed and synthesized community input together. As a result, we are off to a fast start in the first year of our new strategic plan. Not only will students get to take these courses right away, but we will also get the opportunity to pilot prototype versions of these strategic planning initiatives before making larger scale program changes.

New and Revised Courses for 2016-2017

Middle School
Game Design
The Other Story of Math: Foundations and Social Justice
The Presidential Election: from Convention to Inauguration
Topics in Geometry

Upper School
Computer Science IIB
Digital Music
Environmental Ethics, Civics, and Advocacy (blocked class)
Global Online Academy (new offerings)
History of Cuba
M.A.T.H. – Math in Art, Technology, and History
Mathematical Finance
Science Olympiad
Social Entrepreneurship
Topics in United States History: War
Topics in United States History: Current Events
Topics in United States History: Race, Ethnicity, (Im)migration
Topics in United States History: Women in US History
Topics in United States History: The American Dream
Visual Art 123

How are these courses innovative?

Game Design, Digital Music and Mathematical Finance explore essential concepts in each discipline through relevant, contemporary applications. Students will study real-world topics using core academic concepts. With The Presidential Election, History of Cuba, and Current Events, these topics concern contemporary events. Students who want to devote time in their academic programs to applying disciplinary concepts to the news of the day will find a place in these classes.

Computer Science IIB adds a new course to the Upper School computer science sequence, bringing the program to seven courses total. Students who have completed CS I and IIA (or equivalent) now have a third course to deepen their study. Like our other courses, the emphasis lies on developing understanding of key computer science principles by grappling with well-designed problems and building small applications. Computational thinking (featuring logical and sequential reasoning) is both integrated within required courses in other subject areas and featured in these elective courses.

Global Online Academy has expanded their offerings to 55 courses. In particular, GOA’s new Learning Studios feature student choice and project direction through subjects such as Entrepreneurship in a Global Context, Water: from Inquiry to Action, and Power: Redressing Inequity Through Data. 30 of our students took a GOA course this year. The new offerings will allow our students to pursue their passions, learn with students and teachers from other parts of the world, and develop the skills of independent study and online communication and collaboration.

Interdisciplinary study is strong with these new courses. Two new math courses explore applications of math in history, the arts, social justice, and finance. Environmental Ethics is now a blocked double class that satisfies graduation requirements in English and Civics. Visual Art 123 has merged the study of drawing, painting, and mixed media into a single sequence that will better support advanced study in the visual arts. These courses increasingly address subjects of personal identity, culture, and social justice.

Student agency is alive in these curriculum revisions. An enterprising student wrote the Social Entrepreneurship course proposal. This innovative class will not have a full-time teacher. Rather, students in the class will study social issues in Seattle, design a social venture, and invite parents and teachers to contribute as guest speakers and course consultants. In history, students came to us this year and asked for more opportunities to find their histories in our courses. The new Topics in United States History options provide more options to a student body with diverse backgrounds and interests.

We look forward to offering these new courses to students next year and learning from these experiences in a way that will inform further curriculum development and revision.

Senior Spring and Student Time

3376949154_13eb28eaf8_zAs the pressure of college admissions disappears, those senior who were primarily externally motivated may suddenly find themselves without purpose. It’s understandable! Students who have pursued a demanding schedule of college prep classes for for college admission may lose their will to work with passion. At the same time, educators may be discouraged to see seniors slide out of high school rather than finishing on a high note.

Happily, we also see counterexamples, students who have developed strong internal motivation and see senior spring as an opportunity for exploration and experimentation. By senior year, many students have figured out which topics excite them the most and are interested in designing independent study in these areas.

What obstacles do such students encounter? The typical high school schedule is not so friendly to independent study. In most schools, seniors still attend classes from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM. It is difficult to immerse oneself in a meaningful project within 45 to 80 minute pockets of time. If travel time or the setup of complex equipment is required, then it is pretty near impossible.

Some schools run a senior project term, in which students design and pursue independent projects for the last few weeks of the school year. The school excuses these students from regular classes so that they may do this. However, the scope of these projects is limited to that short timeframe. The longer the senior project period, the more such students may accomplish.

One of our students has developed a creative way to create more flexible time within a typical school schedule. He deliberately chose three classes that have flexible time structures: an online class, an independent study, and a projects class. The online class is offered through Global Online Academy, a consortium of independent schools to which we belong. The independent study is on the Great Lakes region of east Africa. Advanced Topics in Math, while a regular course, is built around individual, student-designed projects. On some days, this student may have large blocks of flexible time in order to study topics in depth and work with adult mentors both inside and outside the school.

As we continue our strategic planning work, we are considering what type of school schedule could offer larger chunks of flexible time by design, in order to reduce obstacles to independent, project-based, or off-campus study. How much flexible time is best? What support would students need to make the best use of such time? Can we give classes the option of meeting more or less frequently without overly fragmenting the flexible time available to students? We plan to ask these and other questions about time, research what other schools are doing, and propose changes for the school schedule.

Photo credit: “Broken Clock” by cacophonyx on Flickr

Beyond Good vs. Bad

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Most education debates reduce the question of teaching methods to a good/bad argument. Are lectures good or bad? Technology? Homework? While a common rhetorical tool when attempting to win an argument, overemphasis of a simplified position undermines productive discourse and program development. Educators must move into the space between extremes, into nuances and complexity, in order to have constructive conversations that advance teaching practice. A constructive perspective eschews good/bad arguments and embraces relativism.

Of course, a good lecture can provide students with a terrific cognitive experience. However, the vast majority of direct instruction is not high quality lecture but rather a comparatively low-level summary of facts and conclusions. Emphasizing active learning opportunities for students creates more chances for students to engage in productive modes of thinking during class time. Most schools do not call for a ban on teacher talk but rather include high quality teacher presentation as one teaching method among a handful that should be used in classes. As always, effective teacher coaching depends on individual circumstances, which is why teacher observation and feedback is associated with improvement in teaching practice. With one teacher, we encourage less teacher talk and more student leadership in class. With another teacher, we endorse teacher talk, because it’s high quality and just one part of the learning environment.

The same can be said for other polarizing topics such as technology use, homework, class seating arrangements, and curriculum standards. For each, the practice is neither pariah nor panacea. Visit many schools, and one will see both good and bad educational practice along the spectrum of each topic. It is easy to find both effective and disastrous implementations of educational technology, productive and counterproductive homework practices, and thoughtful and thoughtless implementation of state content standards.

Several factors determine the effectiveness of a particular instructional practice in a particular context. The teacher should understand the key qualities of the instructional technique, what makes it effective in the best circumstances, and how it might exist within and interact with the existing learning environment. The school’s mission and values are critically important. The teacher should know how the instructional technique relates to institutional values or could be shaped to better complement them. Teachers should always be attentive to the student experience with teaching practice, through subtle methods such as accurately reading student engagement and depth of thinking during the activity, as well as more formal methods such as soliciting student feedback and examining student class work and assessments.

Ongoing professional conversations about teaching practices, institutional values, and student experience lead to the development of a recognizable culture of instruction in a school. Collaboration, professional development, and examination of qualitative and quantitative data bolster school identity and practice.

While good/bad arguments make for good headlines, nuanced, complex work leads to better instruction.

(Image by Natesh Ramasamy on Flickr)

Redesign the Junior and Senior Years of High School

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In many independent schools, most students are ready for college-level work by the time they reach junior year. Why, then, do we make them conform to the same time and curriculum structures as our younger students?

Students who study away during junior year know this well. Popular study away programs develop curricula connected to their place in the world, set students to real-world challenges, have more flexibility in their daily schedules, and ask students to present their work to experts in the field. When they return to school for senior year, students often find a conventional schedule confining and learning goals abstract (at best).

Two such students have visited me several times this year, to the point that I have invited them onto one of our strategic planning committees. Their requests: place-based education, interdisciplinary learning, and real world projects. They would like studies to connect to the city of Seattle, draw upon multiple academic disciplines, and to work toward meaningful outcomes.

Junior and senior year are ideal times to develop and test new models of curriculum and instruction. Students take many elective courses during this time, having completed most graduation requirements. Many design a course of study that allows them to more deeply investigate the subjects that interest them most. Junior and senior curricula already have quite a lot of flexibility.

As students prepare for the next step in their educations, they could follow a weekly schedule that supported independence and flexibility. Each class could meet just twice per week, reserving substantial time for individual and collaborative work on open-ended projects, including travel into the city.

Such a schedule would also create space for innovative programs in education. Internships, independent research, senior projects, service learning, and online learning are all promising new forms of study, but they cannot ultimately be effective if constrained by the fragmented time chunks of a conventional high school schedule.

A program centered on student designed learning experiences deserves equally innovative school architecture. Such a school would include spaces to work independently, meet with a mentor, collaborate with a small team of students, build and leave long-term projects, prototype and iterate, and identify resources and partners. This part of campus would support hybrid thinking, housing both disciplinary experts and specialists in community engagement.

Could such a program also benefit students and younger grades? Of course! This center would be available for innovative learning in all grades. The center would field test a model for active learning that could subsequently be adapted for all grades.

Photo by nicolastathers

Academic Leaders Retreat

Curriculum is the main dish in a school, the substance of what students are attempting to learn. Why, then, do most professional development programs focus on pedagogy, assessment, and classroom climate? Without addressing course content, attempts to improve engagement and learning will fall flat. Students are highly attuned to the objectives of their learning activities.

SMALLICGLOGONOV14The Independent Curriculum Group is one of the only organizations through which independent schools directly address school curriculum focus. Originally founded to support schools seeking to drop Advanced Placement tests, ICG now attracts schools that are thinking creatively about the content and learning objectives of the instructional program. At this event, we met a school that has formed an academic department for topics in human development, another that offers eight world languages (see p. 36), a third that schedules athletics in the morning, and a fourth that provides students with “20% time” for independent projects. Nothing provides confidence in program change better than meeting the schools that have already done it!

The Academic Leaders Retreat West was the second of two personalized, interactive conferences. The location, Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, New Mexico, encouraged participants to engage with each other, reflect about what’s important in schools, and imagine innovative potential school programs.

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Peter Gow and Jonathan Martin facilitated the group sessions. Among the highlights: Martin guided us through a systems approach to school change, elegantly blending theory with practice. In one activity, we used fishbone diagrams to identify the key institutional factors underlying the student outcomes we wish to change. For example, our group looked at student reluctance to take risks and identified factors such as teacher-defined learning objectives, grading practices, program fragmentation, and high student workload as key systems factors that inhibit student risk-taking.

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ICG knows how to empower conference participants to personalize and maximize their experience. The retreat included three “unconference” sessions, in which we all proposed topics and led discussions. This allowed us to hone in on questions that were particularly on our minds and learn more about practices in other schools.

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The evening events were just as significant as those in the daytime. The first evening, we watched Beyond Measure, the follow-up to Race to Nowhere. The film profiles a handful of schools, and specific students within them, who have succeeded in creating instructional program with meaning and purpose. I was struck by the stories of students who were dutifully attempting to meet their school’s expectations, but without passion. Their learning really took off when their schools launched new learning environments that featured student-defined learning objectives and authentic purpose. The second evening, Gow led a storytelling conversation about schools that have succeeded in shifting faculty culture toward program innovation.

Team professional development typically leads to program change much more than individual experiences. Three U Prep department heads joined me at this retreat, allowing us all directly feel inspired by the conference, meet all of the other participants, and then huddle with each other to discuss implications for our school. The momentum continued after the retreat, as we plugged lessons learned from the retreat directly into our ongoing strategic planning work on next generation learning.

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Read the #ALRWest15 Twitter feed for more detail about the work of our three days.

Why Have an Academic Dean?

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When I first arrived to Seattle, I thought I would find (or form) a network of academic deans. Given the number of independent schools in the area, I must find a few, right? The result? One. Why does only one other Seattle-area school have an administrator with primary responsibility for directing academic affairs?

The academic dean is more common in other cities, particularly in single-division high schools. The model has its origins in post Civil War development of administrative positions to assist in the supervision and management of student and faculty affairs. In both higher and secondary education, deans have multiplied and evolved. It is common for independent high schools to have three deans: a dean of faculty, academic dean, and dean of students.

Two division schools (K-8 and 6-12) are the norm among Seattle independent schools. Multi-division K-12s exist across the west coast. At these schools, divisions—not functions nor constituencies—dictate their administrative organization. When the work of division leadership is too broad for one director, multi-division schools typically create an assistant division director or divisional dean of students. The same is true for schoolwide leadership. The head of a multi-division school is much more likely to create one assistant head position than establish two or three deans.

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Every school works to coordinate and develop its curriculum and faculty programs. Who leads this work if not the academic dean? In Seattle, these responsibilities are typically distributed among assistant heads, division directors/assistant directors, and department heads. However, all of these individuals have many other responsibilities, such as hiring, supervision, student academic progress and socio-emotional well-being, and parent communication. Given the vital importance of student and parent support, these professionals can only devote a portion of their time to academic program coordination and development.

University Prep bucks the trend of spreading out leadership responsibilities for academic affairs. The school’s second academic dean, I serve as a single point of leadership for curriculum coordination, faculty professional development, and instructional program initiatives. We have the positions of director of the middle school, director and assistant director of the upper school. Yet, we still have an academic dean. Why?

Part of the answer lies within the school’s history. One may divide U Prep’s 40 years into roughly three phases: founding and construction, refinement of program, and leadership/innovation. During the second phase, the school made a strong push to develop the excellence of the academic program and professionalism of the faculty. The school developed its reputation for both academic challenge and student support. The academic dean position was created during this time to accelerate the development of the school curriculum. Responsibility for faculty professional development provided the support necessary for instructional change.

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A dedicated academic dean focuses primarily on curriculum, teaching methods, faculty development, and instructional innovation. At U Prep, we run our unique Individualized Teaching Improvement Program, send collaborative teacher groups to conferences, and organize thematically-based full-faculty workshops. Our academic deans have led schoolwide program initiatives including formative and rubric assessment, differentiated instruction, student 1:1 computing, computer science curriculum, design thinking, project-based learning, Global Online Academy, electives development, and more. We cultivate teacher leadership and lead processes to design the future of teaching and learning at U Prep. We observe classroom instruction and provide teachers with actionable, research-informed feedback. We supervise the directors of library, academic technology, learning support, and global programs. In case you think it’s all glamor and magic, we also create class schedules and order textbooks!

The academic dean helps bridge the research-practice divide. Well-documented in (self-referential) academic research, the work of education scholars rarely reaches the classroom. Why? Education research may be out of touch with the practical realities of classroom instruction. Teachers may not have opportunities to access and make meaning of education research. Teaching practice may be as much of an art as a science. Jack Schneider’s recent book takes a close look at these factors.

The academic dean helps mediate all of these factors. Knowledgeable of education research, the dean helps monitor, comprehend, and explain current articles and books. The dean has perspective on the history of school reform and can position the school within the landscape of education philosophies. The dean helps teachers navigate the interplay between research findings and practical classroom matters. The dean can articulate the school’s mission and values in industry terms and design professional development to cultivate an intentional identity of teaching practice in the school. The dean may act as a school leader to identify strategic opportunities for program innovation and growth.

How does this work benefit students? Student experiences and performance underlies every class observation and program planning conversation. Student engagement, questions, performance, progress, and difficulties are all included in teacher feedback and strategic program changes. Students are included in conversations, committees, focus groups, and surveys when proposed program changes are considered. Our students even propose such changes directly, whether through student government or by simply walking into our offices!

Serving as academic dean has been an exciting experience—a thrilling intellectual, interpersonal challenge. I encourage more independent schools to identify a single person to champion and lead academics, and for academic deans and curriculum coordinators to build stronger networks and collaborations. You know where to find me!

Complexity as a Response To Uncertainty

Lol_question_mark“There’s a man in our backyard. He’s carrying a leash and playing with our dog.” We felt unnerved. Our younger son was home alone, and now a stranger was in the backyard. We had been robbed before, and our parental instincts kicked in. Was the guy casing our house? Stealing the dog?

As the man left the house, we soon calmed down, and our minds ran through possible explanations. None seemed to fit. If the man was coming to case the house, why did he carry a leash? If he came with a leash, why didn’t he leave with the dog? Was he a pet lover? Isn’t it a little forward to enter a backyard? Why didn’t he ring the doorbell? The issue felt unresolved, and that felt uncomfortable. We wanted at least a reasonable theory, yet none of the possible explanations we came up with seemed to fit.

We arrived home, and everything seemed calm: happy kid, happy dog, lingering questions. We took the dog for a walk, and that’s when the neighbor across the street solved the mystery. “Did you son leave the gate open? Your dog came across the street to play with us, so I walked him back to your house. Your cars were gone, and it didn’t appear that anyone was home. The dog kept following me when I tried to walk out, so I played with the dog until she got tired!” Our son hadn’t recognized the neighbor from his view at the upstairs window and had kept quiet out of concern.

Why didn’t we think of this as a possible explanation? Too many factors were involved: the open gate, the wandering dog, the friendly neighbor, the empty driveway, the view from above. We had not considered this possibility, because too many different factors were involved. The situation was too complex for us to come up with this possible scenario, particularly when we were mindful of the safety of our child.

Being human, we seek to make meaning of the world around us. Since the world is very complex and our senses relatively limited, we tend toward simple explanations. Countless factors shape real-world phenomena such as climate change, crime, wars, immigration, health, and economics. Yet, oversimplification abounds. Politicians cast blame on single factors in search of votes. Companies appeal to simple explanations to sell products. Friends and colleagues cast regional issues as linear problems with single-variable causes. Social media speaks in sound bites.

Education is particularly prone to oversimplification. The “success” of Singapore and Finland. The “failure” of our educational system. “Good” and “bad” schools. In education, concrete evidence is scarce and armchair theories abound. Common sense and a good gut instinct are essential within an environment where scientific analysis produces far more questions than answers. Education’s research-practice divide exists in part because research explores far more variables than an educator could possibly incorporate into a class period with a roomful of students.

I often find myself playing the role of “complexifier.” When I hear an explanation framed in simple terms, I note the other factors potentially involved. We walk a delicate balance between action and inquiry. On the one hand, the events of each school day demand action. On the other hand, we must continue to ask questions and identify contributing factors.

Our neighbor’s good deed reminds us that responsible practice requires us to continue to function within uncertainty. While sometimes uncomfortable, we should neither oversimplify nor become paralyzed when we cannot explain what we observe. If we stay curious, use our senses, and speak with others, we may build a deeper understanding over time and improve our practice.

Image by WOLF LΔMBERT (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Role of Data in School Decision-Making

Analyzing student and faculty data has added a critical new dimension to discussions of specific dynamics in our school. Teacher observations, administrator experience, and student anecdotes are all essential for the continual improvement of our school program. In addition, the trends, correlations, and distributions within our data have made our decision-making conversations more specific and helped resolve conflicts among competing, anecdotal points of view.

We have recently had success analyzing student and faculty data to better understand specific dynamics in our school. Many of these analyses become more clear through data visualization. Key questions include:

How often do we grant students’ top course requests?

Will our course offerings continue to accommodate a growing student body?

Are the foundational skills of our students changing over time?

Do standardized test scores predict academic performance?

What elective courses should we offer next year?

Do electronic textbooks save families money?

Our analyses of standardized test scores were the most rigorous. We created longitudinal charts of score means and medians, examined subscore trends as well, and calculated correlations among different scores. To confirm validity, three different groups performed the tests: myself, our statistics students, and a psychometrician from ERB. The fascinating, consistent result? The gut feelings of our community members have consistently had some truth to them, but anecdotal opinion has a tendency to exaggerate and oversimplify. Our data studies have both validated and identified the limits of anecdotal opinion. They have clarified the multiple facets of issues that people have reduced to simple statements.

Here are some examples of our data visualizations. Most are created in Excel using countif() and sumif() functions and chart tools. I apologize for obscuring much of the content for the sake of privacy. Instead of publishing it all publicly, I am presenting the full studies to the appropriate constituencies in our school community.

35 years of standardized test and GPA means

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Students’ initial thoughts about new elective courses

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Correlations among different standardized tests and GPA

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Longitudinal subscore analysis

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Print vs. Electronic Textbooks: Total Cost per Student

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Elective section enrollments

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