S3 Ep14 - It's Time to Take Radical Responsibility for Student Outcomes

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Hi there, it's Jocelyn here with the Structured Literacy Podcast. I'm writing and recording this podcast in regional Victoria, where I'm working with three schools over a week and a half of coaching, running, professional learning and modelling in classrooms. I've worked with two of these schools previously and I'm returning to help them evaluate the impact of their actions and set their next goals. One of the things that I love about the schools that I work with is the fire they have in their belly for getting great outcomes for students. I love celebrating student growth with them, seeing teachers smile as they share their observations of the increase in student engagement that comes about as they refine their explicit teaching practices, and sensing their relief as they give themselves permission to simplify instruction and move to common sense, evidence-informed solutions to problems of practice. These schools look at their scary data squarely in the eye and say, "It's up to us to fix this." It's this attitude and what it looks like in practice that I'd like to explore today. The question that I'll be asking is: what does it look like to take radical responsibility for student outcomes? What does it take to not just wish for all students to leave our primary school a competent reader and writer, but to make it happen? Let's start with the expectation of every student leaving the primary school a competent reader and writer. One of the attitudes that has always struck me as defeatist and unacceptable involves the feeling that some children just aren't made for learning. Now, nobody says this directly, but they do say things like, "Oh, he's not particularly academic." or "She's not headed for university." In times gone by, the names of classroom groups reflected this view, with the low group named the wombats and the high group named the kangaroos or eagles. We tend not to do this anymore and may vehemently reject the suggestion that this defeatist attitude exists in our school or our classroom practice at all. I certainly hope that's true, but it's also possible that there are subtle practices and language present that might be sabotaging your efforts to get every student reading and writing. Research suggests that 95% of students can learn to read and write at grade level with appropriate instruction, and I know that's a figure that has been contested a little, but let's remember that we're talking 95% of the general population and the statement includes the term 'appropriate instruction'. That instruction includes robust, inclusive tier-one instruction, supportive and timely tier-two support, and appropriate, targeted tier-three work as needed. Nathaniel Hansford from Pedagogy Non Grata has a great blog post discussing the research origins of 95% of students expected to succeed. I've linked to this post in the show notes of this episode in our website.

I do want to acknowledge, however, that we have an ever-increasing number of students coming into school with more difficulties, with lower levels of personal regulation, with the requirement for more and more help for the basics that used to be taught at home, such as toileting and interacting and using scissors and maybe holding a pencil. So I'm not suggesting that we should be able to click our fingers and just have everybody there immediately, but I also don't want to go down the road of suggesting that there's an excuse for children to not be learning in our schools, because there really isn't. If 95% of kids can learn to read and write at grade level, why aren't they? Why do we still have too many students hitting high school not able to do these things, and what can we do about it?

A model for problem solving that lives in my head includes five steps.

blame others
assume responsibility
find solutions

I've searched for a reference for this, but it's lived in my head for the past 25 years and its' source is now lost to me. If you know where this comes from, please get in touch and let me know. This model is really useful because it helps us drill down into the thoughts, feelings and actions that we and our team may have as we consider student outcomes. Have a think about where your team is sitting in this model and I'll say those steps again. We ignore, deny, blame others, assume responsibility, then find solutions. Remember that you may be in one place overall as a school, but individuals may be sitting at a different place from the team. Different teams can be at different points in this model and there can be differing views about different areas of instruction. So how do you know where people are actually sitting within the model? Let's dive into some indicators. People who are ignoring a problem don't talk about it, it won't even be on their radar. You'll be in a planning meeting or strategy development session and they won't raise the issue or they will seem very surprised when you raise it.

Denying a problem involves acknowledging particular circumstances but declaring that they aren't a problem. What comes to mind here is a parent telling me that their child's school agreed that their Year Three son wasn't reading anywhere near grade level, but that he just hadn't found the books he liked to read yet. So yes, there's a problem, there's a situation that exists, but we're not hitting the panic button. Next is to blame others, and I'm sorry, but we are all super good at this, and it's why this episode is focused on solutions and not reasons. Blaming others is just that: people blame their students' lack of growth on last year's teacher not teaching well enough. They blame the students either because they weren't paying attention or because they have a diagnosis or condition. They blame parents for not reading to the student enough or spending time with them at home. They blame technology for robbing kids of the ability to focus, or they blame executive decision-makers for making their class size too big. Please don't misunderstand me. These things are all factors that impact instruction and learning and they have to be considered, but it's not okay to throw our hands in the air and accept these things as excuses for children not learning.

Step number four is to assume responsibility. Here, we do acknowledge that it's our responsibility to make a situation better. We may even take some small actions and then declare that the job is "done". This may look like purchasing a program or resources and engaging in professional learning. These actions may appear to be solutions and be enough to have us ticking boxes and patting ourselves on the back, but they alone are not enough. The final and most crucial step is to find solutions.

It's only at this point that we can say that we have really held ourselves accountable and responsible for student outcomes. Those programs, resources and PL I mentioned in the previous step feel good and they may well be good, but they aren't enough. They only get us so far in our journey towards radical responsibility. For that, we have to be unapologetically precise and focused on exactly what matters, taking whatever actions are necessary. Let's explore what some of those might be.

We assume radical responsibility for student outcomes when we feel it deep in our bones. We aim for excellence in all things and don't rest until we get it. In the pursuit of excellence, we examine our current practices and processes and ruthlessly cut what doesn't serve us. Assuming radical responsibility is about being precise and driven. It's about working with our teams to bring them on the journey and develop a shared vision of practice and purpose. To illustrate this further, I have 10 examples of actions that indicate radical acceptance of our responsibility for student outcomes. There are others, but there is no podcast in the world that is long enough to incorporate all of them. The first example is: I'd ask you to cast a critical eye on what you are expecting teachers and middle leaders to do and cut anything that does not get you to your goal. I don't know about you, but I didn't become a teacher to be a Broadway producer.

Expecting teachers to design, plan, choreograph and outfit a performance for the biennial concert that will be held at the local entertainment centre and then putting pressure on them for excellence in production is, frankly, ridiculous. I've been in that position and been told, "You'd better make it good, because the parents are paying quite a lot for the tickets, so they're expecting something wonderful." I'm all for sticking some reindeer antlers on kids and singing a Christmas song at the end of the year with parents in attendance. I'm also okay with open days, where parents come into the classroom and their children share their work with them. I'm not okay with expecting teachers to organise and prepare whole art exhibitions, complete with annotations on the student's work and QR codes to the kids discussing their artistic process. I'm not okay with teachers spending between 30 and 50 hours of their own time outside of school purchasing or sewing costumes, painting sets, sourcing music, choreographing dancing and designing lighting plans.

On top of this, there is the loss of instructional time that comes with the rehearsals. Imagine what it would mean for teachers to use this time to further their professional knowledge and for students to spend that time learning. There's nothing wrong with musical performances and art exhibitions, and for schools where they have staff employed to manage those things, they can be a really rich part of school life. But they can also happen after school or as part of a school holiday program, they don't need to be managed by the classroom teacher. There'll be people listening who disagree with me, and that's ok, but assuming radical responsibility for student outcomes means being incredibly targeted on the things that are going to get the children to the learning that they need. This is even more critical in school communities where the data is not good.

Point number two is in the same vein as point number one, but this time I'm talking about the things that happen every single week that do not lead to student learning. Teachers in non-government schools are often expected to run extracurricular activities after school as part of their teaching duties. Again, as with point one, teachers have enough to do just ensuring that the basics of the day get done. I'm not saying anything about the value that these programs add to the school, but many teachers are at breaking point or beyond that. Could we please just let them focus on the core of their jobs? I fully acknowledge that principals don't ask for these things to be done because they don't care about teachers and students. There are often very strong expectations from families for extracurricular events, such as the concerts and the after-school activities. I'm not suggesting that these are eliminated, but rather that they happen in a different way. As a parent, I want to know that my child's school is hyper-focused on strong practice to guarantee learning outcomes.

My third example of practice that demonstrates radical responsibility for student outcomes connects with the school's behaviour policy. Many schools have behaviour expectations communicated in a grid format with the school's values listed down the left-hand column and the various areas of the school listed on the top row. The items under the classroom column will say things like: participate positively, follow instructions, be an active learner and be willing to learn from our mistakes. These are all excellent points and are great inclusions. In looking at one school's behaviour expectations, it occurred to me that we often place a large emphasis on what the students are doing and are very happy to hold them accountable for their actions, but we rarely flip this and ask ourselves what the grown-ups are doing to enable those things to happen. What if we had a corresponding set of expectations for adults that directly link to what we were asking of kids? In the adult's box for learning in the classroom, what if it said: adjust teaching to respond to student data, provide instructions in direct, simple language with hand gestures, asking students to repeat them to ensure full understanding, use partner talk to enable all students to engage positively in thinking about learning, and provide opportunities for students to tick it or fix it so that they can learn from their mistakes?

What would it look like in your school to flip the behaviour chart and take responsibility for creating the conditions in the classroom and playground that help students be successful? I want to ask you to do something for me. At your next staff meeting ask your school community,

Who is responsible for student outcomes and for student learning?

Notice the struggles that people have wanting to say "Well, it's the student's responsibility because it's their learning." In my opinion, this is a hangover from constructivist theory that says that it's our job to provide opportunities and it's the child's opportunity to pick them up and run with them. Now, the student absolutely has responsibility. They need to be paying attention to the best of their ability. They need to be attending. They need to be respectful. They need to do all of those things, no doubt, but ultimately, the grown-ups in the space are accountable for making the environment conducive to student engagement.

Point number four is about data and student need. In point number three, I suggested that teaching should respond to student data and student need, and many people listening to this episode will think, "Well, Jocelyn, we're already doing that." I'd like to challenge you on this a little bit by asking the question,

"In your school, what is the acceptable percentage of students who are not achieving expected learning outcomes as measured by normed assessment tools where they're available and direct monitoring tools where they aren't?"

Think about it like this; how many phoneme- grapheme correspondences are being learned by your students each term? I like to aim for students to learn at least 10 correspondences each term over the first two years of school. That means that in the Foundation year and Year One, students will learn to recognise, write and use 80 correspondences, and then consolidate this and go deeper with the alphabetic principle in Year Two.

What is the acceptable number of students who do not achieve this in your school? In my view, the answer to this is zero. The only students we could expect to be working on a different set of timings are those students with cognitive disability or significant learning difficulty characterised by serious memory issues and phonological processing challenges. But even those students should have demonstrated growth in line with their learning profile. They might take three or four years to get there instead of two, but they are going to get there. When I talk about responding to data, I'm talking about developing a palpable sense of urgency and intolerance for students not making progress. When your whole team shares the view that it's simply unacceptable for students to not make expected growth, magical things happen.

Point five is about this idea of shared views and shared vision. When we adopt radical responsibility for our students' results, we don't walk past practices that don't get us where we want to go. Australian Army General David Morrison famously said, "The standard you walk past is the standard you accept" in his message about addressing discrimination and violence against women. In his address at the International Women's Day Conference in 2013, he said, "I have set tangible goals against which I am willing to be judged." School leaders, we need to set tangible goals for student outcomes for which we are willing to be judged. We also need to be willing to work with our teams and for our teams to bring that about.

If your school has determined that there are non-negotiables for effective phonics instruction, such as displaying lesson formats and having resources ready, and an adult isn't making this happen, it needs to be addressed. If you have said that teachers should call on non-volunteers instead of asking students to put hands up and this isn't happening, then it needs to be addressed. If your school's chosen tool calls for something to be done in a certain way and it's not being done, this needs to be addressed. I'm not talking about hitting people over the head and not respecting professional judgement. I'm talking about clear communication of what is expected, that training and coaching is provided to help people learn it, and then addressing situations when this isn't occurring. I can't tell you how many times I've asked a middle leader about why a certain teacher or team is doing something different from the rest of the classroom staff and been told,  "Oh, that's what they wanted to do." or "They don't want to do it."

The first question I have here is, who is in charge? Yes, teachers are professionals and there needs to be discussion and collaboration about their work. Yes, teachers need to be able to use their judgement to respond to student need. And yes, collaborative decision-making and deciding on a course of action has a place. But teachers and teams don't get to choose their own adventure. The desires of the individual don't trump the rights of students to expect that they will learn what they need to at school. So point five is about leaders being accountable and responsible for the direction of their teams. The buck stops with them. If you want to hear more about the importance of leadership and strong practice, have a listen to series one, episode 17 of the podcast: Reasons the Wheels Might Fall off Your Whole School Approach - Part One

Point number six is about assuming radical responsibility in the way that we use language. The language we use matters a great deal, and it's easy to be unintentionally communicating messages that undermine our effects to achieve 100% success for every student in achieving their learning goals. It's extremely common for the language of 'I' to dominate discussions with each other and with students. My classroom, my program, my teaching and my students all lead to a feeling that instruction is about us. Instead, our classroom, our program, our teaching, our students and our outcomes creates a sense of the collective. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. It is only through shared vision and collaboration that we are going to achieve the results we are looking for, because one person can't do it all on their own. If alignment between tier one, two and three instruction is to be achieved, efforts need to be focused on so much more than what one person is doing. The other element of language used to consider is how we speak with students and provide feedback.

A report comment that makes me really cross is: 'Student A needs to...', 'You will improve your mark if you strengthen your understanding of...', 'Next time I'd like you to...', 'Student B needs to learn to...'. There's nothing inherently wrong with these observations, but making these comments either on student work or in a progress report and leaving them there handballs responsibility for student learning to the student. We are the adults, we are the teachers, we are responsible for adjusting instruction to take students that next step we know they need to go.

Decades of inquiry and constructivist approaches have left us with the impression that all we have to do is pop content in front of children and then leave it there for them to pick up what they need. If they don't get it, well, that's on them. I remember being a pre-service teacher and hearing a teacher in the staff room say, "Well, I taught it, if they didn't get it, what do you want me to do?" I was flabbergasted that other teachers nodded their heads. Nobody challenged, nobody expressed a different point of view. If a child has a bottom on a seat at your school and they are meeting their obligation for the things that are in their control, such as looking at you, staying in their seat, not calling out and so on, then the rest of it is on you, or rather, it's on us. We have to create the conditions that make the learning happen. I've tutored kids in reading and maths for years and taught in a variety of settings. These days, I still tutor and I model lessons in classrooms for teachers.

One of the things I openly say to students when I first meet them is if you don't understand something, if I'm going too fast, if I say something that doesn't make sense, I need you to tell me. It's not your job to nod and smile and pretend that everything's okay. I'd like you to let me know if things aren't working for you, because it's my responsibility to adjust teaching to make it feel good for you. Some things may feel challenging and that's necessary for strong learning, but it shouldn't make you feel sad or angry or anxious. If that's happening, it's up to me to change what I am doing. Whenever I say this, I see a group of kids visibly relax. The relief on their faces saddens me because it tells me that they spend their school days worrying about not being good enough.

My final illustration about what happens when we assume radical responsibility for student outcomes is about responding to students who need a bit more. It's all too common to hear a parent say, "The school has told me they can't help because my child doesn't have a diagnosis", or "They can't help because my child isn't funded." I have complete compassion for school leaders and teams who are trying to support their students with inadequate budgets and levels of human resourcing. Our public and small independent schools are chronically underfunded when we consider the number of children who need additional support and basic things like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and social and psychological support. I'm not suggesting that teachers try to fulfill these roles. It's actually not their responsibility and it's not within the bounds of their professional experience. We all have so much going on as it is.

What I'm saying is that we can and should control the controllables to make student learning happen. This involves tier-one core instruction being as inclusive as humanly possible. Tier one instruction must be explicit, simple, student-focused and targeted. There is so much that can be achieved to help our strugglers when we put students at the centre of decision-making. Achieving this is also about cutting things that don't lead to inclusive practice and strong student outcomes, making sure that all members of our school community are properly trained and supported to be a part of the solution and holding our horses before we jump on programs and resources.

Rushing into purchasing programs often leads to buyer's remorse as we realise that what we have chosen likely wasn't the best option for our school context. We are then stuck in the position of feeling obligated to use something, even though it doesn't meet student needs, simply because money has been spent. Saying that we can't help students because they don't have a diagnosis or aren't funded falls into the category of 'blaming others'. After all, what would a diagnosis actually change? A diagnosis doesn't do the teaching. A diagnosis doesn't take action. We do that. A diagnosis of some sort helps us better understand what a student might need, but it doesn't do the work for us.

My point in this area is that if students in Year Five and Six require instruction in phonics because they don't have that content firm, we need to be providing it. If students need us to slow down in the instruction and not be so ambitious to meet every content descriptor every term, then we need to do it. It's up to us to look at our students and ask "What do these people in front of me need today to take them from where they are to where they need to go?" If that means that we have to have some cross-classroom collaboration between teachers to address the massive gaps that just about every school seems to have in Year Three to Six, well then, maybe that's what we need to do. It's not about asking, "Can we do this?", but about asking "What is it going to take for us to do this with the resources that we have available to us?" and then doing it. You might be thinking that I sound a little fired up in this episode, and you'd be right.

Assuming radical responsibility for student outcomes is a matter of social justice and equity, and it needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Our kids deserve to be taught to read and write with evidence-informed practice, and teachers deserve to be supported to make that happen. Anything less than that simply isn't good enough. The task of achieving this isn't easy and it's not small, but it doesn't have to be nearly as complicated as we often make it.

Focus on what is important, get clear about what's needed and then just do it. Yes, you'll need the courage of your convictions. You may need to get comfortable being out there on the limb all by yourself for a bit, but as the results become visible, and people see that things are working, they'll join you and you won't be on your own anymore. In the meantime, join us in the On the Structured Literacy Bus Facebook group, where you'll be among friends. Our group is kind, caring and respectful. Answer all the questions and you'll be admitted straight away. And the question that I want you to pose for yourself and your team over the next week is: what would it look like for us to assume radical responsibility for our student outcomes? Take things one step at a time and you will get there. Until next time. Thanks, everyone, bye.


Hansford, N. (2021) The 95% Rule. 

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