Resolve to Subtract (Not Add) to Improve Student Outcomes in 2022

Rather than adding more programs and initiatives, here are three ways education leaders can support teachers to focus their energy where it matters most: meeting the needs of students.
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1/13/22
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Michele Caracappa
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As the current surge of the Omicron variant has made clear, our society and our schools are far from having weathered the storm of the ongoing pandemic. By the end of 2021, countless educators had remarked that the current school year was the hardest one yet, with both students and staff feeling the compounding effects within their schools. And for many, the winter recess which they had hoped would be restorative was spent in quarantine or recovery rather than in relaxation with friends and family.

With staff shortages, shifting delivery modes between in-person and remote learning, and increasing student absences, among other challenges in the new year, teachers and leaders are stretched beyond capacity—at precisely the moment when the clear and pressing need to deliver better results for students is at an all-time high.

The need to do things differently so as not to return to a “normal that never was” feels immense, especially for school leaders serving underserved communities of color and communities with lower incomes who have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Given this reality, and given the influx of ESSER funding, problem-solving by launching new initiatives and adding new programs has been the modus operandi in most districts.

And, yet, a wiser approach to advance student success may be to subtract — to take away what is no longer working, prioritize what is most important, and strategize implementation plans so that leaders and teachers can focus their energy where it matters most: on meeting the learning needs of their students.

“ Let go of what’s not working. Instead, refocus your energy on what is working and what everyone in your school community gains from doing so.”

An additive approach—piling one course after another on top of an already overfilled plate—is likely a recipe for overwhelm and system failure. But a subtractive approach gives you a fighting chance to effectively serve your students and staff given the immeasurable challenges we face this school year. So as we enter 2022, rather than attempting to solve problems by adding more, let’s resolve to subtract first. Here’s how:

1. Make your STOP list for what is not working –  and stick to it.

Ask any school leader or teacher if there are practices and programs that persist regardless of whether or not they have a positive impact on students, and they will likely be able to rattle off more than a handful. This year, rather than continuing the practices that don’t work, let’s resolve to STOP implementing them.

Researchers Jal Mehta and Justin Reich recommend that leaders look not just at individual policies or programs, but holistically at school priorities, resolving to “Marie Kondo” them: “retaining what creates joy, and discarding what is non-essential.”

To put it another way, what are the things your school puts time and energy into, both big and small, that are not actually serving students well? Consider:

  • Identifying time-consuming activities that take teachers away from classroom instruction (i.e. updating bulletin boards monthly) and stop requiring that they be done as frequently or at all.
  • Eliminating labor-intensive paperwork and protocols that “have always been done in a certain way” yet no one knows why! Be willing to look at your current initiatives, ask why they’re in place and what difference they’re making, and let them go if the evidence that they’re serving students is just not there.
  • Looking broadly at the systems and structures that reinforce inequity and are holding students back from excelling (i.e. tracked reading groups) and commit to no longer engaging in them.

Let go of what’s not impactful or not working. Instead, refocus your energy on what is working and what everyone in your school community gains from doing so.

2. Remove inessential tasks and asks from the plates of teachers and school leaders.

Time is our educators’ most precious resource. Given the volume of responsibilities placed upon them, there is never enough time and far too short a supply spent on what matters most: teaching and learning. Let’s change that in 2022.

A recent survey from The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) reveals that “79% of principals report they have been working harder, 73% report working longer hours and 62% report having a harder time doing their job than ever before.” In conversation with principals, a common refrain is the feeling that it’s harder than ever to be an instructional leader in the current context. They’re bogged down in a myriad of other tasks, from contact tracing to health screens to planning for teacher vacancies.

And the same is true of teachers, with the risk of demoralization of the teacher workforce looming large. As Dr. Doris Santoro explains, “demoralization occurs when teachers cannot reap the moral rewards that they previously were able to access in their work. It happens when teachers are consistently thwarted in their ability to enact the values that brought them to the profession.”

Nothing thwarts teacher efficacy more than feeling that the “asks” placed upon them take them away from best serving their students. When that happens, both adults and students lose.

District and school leaders can address this by looking holistically at educators’ schedules and the deliverables teachers and leaders have been tasked with. Similar to the “stop” list, there’s an opportunity to ask:

  • What might we take off the plates of teachers so that the precious minutes they have with students can truly be focused on instruction and student learning?
  • For compliance-based tasks that must be accomplished, what support can be provided to principals and teachers so that these tasks can still be achieved?
  • Can we use staff creatively so that we can still meet a range of student needs while simplifying adult schedules and increasing teacher planning time?

Our schedules reflect our priorities and values. As we enter 2022, finding ways to refocus our schedules on meeting students’ needs—and ensuring educators have the capacity and time to address those needs—will be critical.

3. Streamline assessment plans and reduce the amount of instructional time lost to testing.

Given the urgency to understand where students are and how they are growing, not just academically but in terms of their overall wellbeing, many districts have multiplied their plans for district-level data collection with the introduction of new diagnostic and screening tools. These assessments can help system-level leaders understand assets and needs across schools. As Karen Chenoweth notes in Districts that Succeed, being able to look across classrooms and schools to ask, “Your kids are doing better than mine; what are you doing?” is “the most powerful question in education.”

All that said, far too often districts roll out plans to implement assessments but fail to plan for how assessment results and student data will be used. It’s time to break the cycle of poor implementation by

  • Putting a freeze on any upcoming tests where there’s not a clear plan for how data collection will drive improvement to teaching and learning or the student experience.
  • Shortening or eliminating unnecessary assessments so that testing time can be given back to teachers and students as instructional time.
  • Thinking through the follow-through and communication plans for future assessments, so that school leaders and teachers have clarity not only around what tests they’re administering, but what comes after and how it will benefit student achievement.

“ Nothing thwarts teacher efficacy more than feeling that the “asks” placed upon them take them away from best serving their students.”

The desire to add, especially when there’s so much at stake, will continue to be strong in the new year. But if school and district leaders continue to add on (more initiatives, more programs, more interventions) without first considering what they will subtract, they will wind up undermining their ability to accomplish goals and deliver better student outcomes.

The greatest gift school and district administrators can give their teachers in the new year is the gift of time and the ability to invest that time in the few core things that matter most for student learning. So, in 2022, before all else, let’s invest in the power of subtraction.

Are you looking to support your leaders in 2022? New Leaders is here to partner with you to prioritize what is most important. Connect with our Partner Engagement Team today to learn more.

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Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa is the Chief Program Officer for New Leaders, where she oversees the design, development, and delivery of the organization’s leadership development programs. A founding member and former Chief Academic Officer for Success Academy Charter Schools, Michele drove instruction across 46 schools. Under her leadership, the network became the highest-achieving school system in the state of New York.

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

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