Making the Most of 20 Percent | New Visions for Public Schools

Making the Most of 20 Percent

“Schools account for an average of less than 20 percent of a child’s waking hours.”

This quote from Paul Reville, former Massachusetts secretary of education and the current director of the Redesign Lab at Harvard Graduate School of Education, represents an important moment of reckoning – there is no margin of error in our current educational system.

Reville’s presentation was a highlight of the College Readiness Indicator Systems (CRIS) convening earlier this month, a collaborative effort of several urban districts to develop and refine systems for helping students graduate high school college-ready. The group is sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and hosted by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. The meeting provided opportunities to reflect on work accomplished to date and to think forward to the work that lies ahead.

With only 20 percent of a student’s time allocated to educators, schools must respond to student need the moment that need presents itself. Interventions must be rapid, high quality and consistent –the characteristics that distinguish a high performing school from a school consumed with "putting out fires."

We recently spent time at The High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology (Telly), a high performing school in our network of schools. We have documented what we learned in our recent report, Design and Data In Balance.

Telly is a school that has created a culture that Karl Weick calls “collective mindfulness” (and what we call “constant awareness”). Telly creates collective mindfulness in two ways:

  1. by strategically positioning educators so that they see a student from multiple vantage points and
  2. by establishing structures where student information is shared daily.

Collective mindfulness not only generates greater perspective into the students’ strengths and weaknesses - but how those strengths and weakness play out in different classroom, school and home contexts. The constant flow of communication among the educators turns a one dimensional snapshot of a student into a continuous series of insights that brings a student fully into focus. It’s like going from a Byzantine rendering of a student frozen in time to an experience that is more akin to an IMAX movie.

Collective mindfulness sets up the conditions for response. With a more complete understanding of their students, educators can imagine and re-imagine interventions that are just as nimble as their students.

To create a culture of collective mindfulness Telly cultivates a workforce with more than just a strong instructional muscle. Telly’s workforce has sophisticated communication, collaboration, problem solving, reasoning, data, research, time management, and technology skills. These are the same skills Achieve identifies in the article, Understanding the Skills in the Common Core State Standards and the skills employers identify as critical for survival in a rapidly evolving workforce. In other words, Telly is doing more than teaching the common core to students. This is a school that embodies the spirit of the thing.

It stands to reason then, that high performing schools are best positioned to develop these same adaptive and critical thinking skills in their students. The reality, however, is that too many educators who are charged with the development of these skills are working in school environments that struggle to adapt and are out of step with the evolving workforce around them. This unmistakable irony reinforces the simple fact that strong instructional skills, while necessary, are not enough and suggests that our mental models of “school” must evolve.

At New Visions, we are taking steps to support this evolution. An emerging body of work is the creation of lightweight and flexible tools along with a comprehensive high school strategy for how to use them. In this blog post, Mark Dunetz describes this work. It is well worth the read. New Visions also has a new suite of data tools rolling out under the leadership of Brad Gunton, including a "Student Sorter" spreadsheet tool that allows educators to analyze student data quickly and effectively. New Visions Charter High Schools are working to strengthen the ties between community and school. Of course, we continue to support educator effectiveness as we expand our Urban Teacher Residency program and innovate on curriculum.

Twenty percent is not enough time to support our students. Paul Reville challenges us to think about new educational paradigms. Even as we re-imagine what school can and should be, we cannot miss the opportunities that we do have today. New Visions is not alone in this important work. CRIS members – Dallas Independent School District, San Jose United School District, Pittsburgh Public Schools, The School District of Philadelphia – all have skin in the game. And collectively we are working to make the most of twenty percent.

Susan Fairchild is Chief Improvement Officer at New Visions. Follow her on Twitter at @SKFchild.