An Interview with Bob Sornson: WHEN GOOD PEOPLE WORK WITHIN LOUSY SYSTEMS

Dec 6, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

              1) Bob, your latest book is entitled Fanatically Formative:  Successful Learning During the Crucial K-3 Years (Corwin Press). What brought this book about?

             Fanatically Formative describes the steps that must be taken to give all our children a chance to experience early learning success.  It offers a clear vision of the alternative to curriculum driven instruction, which is what most schools offer today.

Curriculum driven instruction is when teachers are asked to cover lots of content, too much in most cases, and fail to carefully monitor what children are learning to the deep level of understanding and application that is needed for the essential early learning skills.  In Fanatically Formative I weave a story about great teachers choosing to transition to a system which better serves their students.

The importance of early learning success cannot be overstated.  By the beginning of fourth grade, the point at which we can accurately predict long-term learning outcomes, only 33% of American children are at proficient reading levels (NAEP, 2010).  Only 17% of children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are at proficient reading levels.  The vast majority of these children are unlikely to become good readers, love to learn, go on to advanced education, or become learners for life.  We have institutionalized a pattern of failure which will keep poor children unsuccessful in the information age.  Fanatically Formative offers an alternative to this dismal record.

2)          You have some concerns about education’s “race to cover more material.” Could you elaborate?

             Somehow in the name of “rigor” we have spent the last few decades asking teachers to race through more content than humanly possible.  This is called a non-viable curriculum, too much to cover in the time available.  We’ve known for years that most high performing education systems around the world have a much narrower instructional focus, especially in the crucial early years.

We held on to our industrial model of education and just cranked up the speed of delivery of instruction.  At the same time we failed to develop a framework for formative assessment that would allow teachers to really know their students and give students instruction at their level of readiness.  We sped up the delivery of instruction, failed to carefully monitor whether students were learning foundation skills, and somehow ignored the importance of offering instruction at the right level for each young student.

And we wonder why we don’t have better outcomes compared to other nations?  And we wonder why pouring money into remedial education programs at the secondary school level continues to fail?

3)          Essential skills and “the whole child “. How can a good teacher address the whole child?

              How can a great teacher not address the whole child?

With young children we must develop relationships, classroom procedures, and a classroom culture in which kids feel safe enough to be in an optimal learning state.  We have to pay attention to the development of oral language skills or literacy and social skill training will suffer.  We must consider a few basic motor skills which are needed for early brain development.  We certainly have to consider the development of self-regulation skills, social skills, and empathy if we want students to become good citizens as well as good learners.

There are so many crucial factors a great teacher must consider to help our children become successful learners in the early years.  I wish more people appreciated the complexity of being an early childhood teacher.  The knowledge of child development and the specificity with which early childhood teachers know each child is amazing.

4)         Many teachers are frustrated by the difficulty getting help for struggling students in the early grades.  What do you suggest?

             A quality early learning model is proactive.  It offers support to students and teachers as soon as possible during the early grades to prevent children from sliding into a pattern of frustration and failure.

Consider what happens now in most districts.  We put too many kids in a class.  We ask teachers to follow a rigid pacing guide that races through content.  Many children are given work that is too frustrating, and not at their instructional level.  (Consider also that some kids are given work that is too boring and not at their instructional level).   Many students start to fall into patterns of frustration and disengagement.  Teachers are frustrated and within this system of expectations, and don’t know how to keep up with the pace of instruction while giving struggling students the help they need.  Teachers want to refer students to special education but are told they need to continue to “intervene” for months or years.

In a thoughtful early learning model we build systems to help more kids succeed.  Start by throwing out any non-viable curriculum, and narrowing the framework for instruction, as recommended by the Common Core State Standards.  After building a viable curriculum based on the CCSS, we still need to recognize that “covering” content does not mean that all this content was well-learned by the students.  We must establish essential outcomes, the skills and content that kids need to learn to that deep level of understanding and application that gives them a solid foundation.  For these skills we need a system of formative assessment and responsive instruction, which means knowing your students really well in relation to every essential skill and delivering instruction at the level where they can be successful.  A quality early learning model gives student as much time as they need to build the foundation skills, recognizes that some kids need more time than others, and carefully monitors the progress of every student.

This kind of an early learning success model is not yet common in our schools.  We are still using a model in which we throw gobs of content at our kids and hope it sticks.  Only one-third of our students become proficient readers, and way too many kids are given poorly designed instruction and are eventually eligible for special education.

5)         How does early learning success connect to the need to hold down the costs related to increasing special education referrals and placements?

             Simply put, if you are proactive and build a quality early learning success initiative, the need to refer students goes way down.  In the mid-1990s, I began an early learning model in Northville, MI, where I was Executive Director of Special Services.  It included an emphasis on early learning success, good instructional support teams, and lots of staff training.  With this in place our rates of special education referral and placement went down.  In 2005 the rate of placement was 5.38% for the district, compared to more than 14% for the state average special education placement rate.  The district was saving almost $8 million a year by providing a quality upfront emphasis on early learning success.

6)          Formative Assessment is something I have always advocated, but it seems that nothing is done with the data (according to teachers I have spoken with). What SHOULD teachers (and perhaps parents) be doing after a formative assessment?

             In most districts formative assessment is all talk and very little walk.  I’m convinced most educators don’t really understand what formative assessment is all about.

Today, while I was driving I used formative assessment.  I checked my mirror and glanced over my shoulder before changing lanes.  Every time you gather information to help you make a decision you are using formative assessment.

In schools we often use summative assessment.  We teach a lesson, give a test, give a grade, and move on.  Or we give quarterly or annual tests to all our students which then help us compare schools or rate teachers.

Quality formative assessment is mostly embedded into good instructional design.   It is a plan to use observation or data collection to help teachers plan instruction.   It helps a teacher carefully judge how well kids are learning, which students need more time or more instruction, which kids are ready to move on to higher levels of learning.  Quality formative assessment isn’t something you do once in a while.  It is every day.  And you need a system to keep track of progress toward essential outcomes which is updated at least weekly.

7)         You developed a system for K-3 called the Essential Skills Inventories.  How does it work?

             The Essential Skills Inventories help teachers monitor progress towards the crucial skills which kids need to learn well.  At each grade level there are 30 to 33 skills which are the Core of the Core.  These skills need more than “coverage.”  These skills must be developed to deep understanding and application for kids to become successful learners who love to learn for life.  They include the language and literacy, numeracy and motor skill, behavior and social skills that correlate to long term success.

Teachers are trained to gather baseline data as they get to know their students during the first 6 to 7 weeks of school, and then to update data weekly within two of the skill clusters.  They are expected to use this information to know precisely which kids need more time or instruction to develop each skill.  Learning to use formative assessment and then teach responsively during these early grades is crucial if we ever want to help more our children become successful learners.

The impact of quality formative assessment and responsive instruction is remarkable.  Any school district or education agency is invited to obtain a license to use the K-3 Essential Skills Inventories.  Districts which commit to a staff training plan for proper use of the inventories for formative assessment and responsive instruction, and also agree to collect simple data to demonstrate fidelity to the protocol for use, are eligible for an on-going license with no additional fees.

8)          I believe kindergarten teachers are the most important people in a school. They are the first to identify vision, hearing, motor, speech, language, behavior and other problems. What can we do to support these teachers?

             Kindergarten teachers are amazing.  They socialize children who have never been to school, establish basic school procedures, deal with incredible variations in learning readiness, know more about child development than almost anyone, and work so hard to give each child what he needs.  We could support them by giving them research-based class size (17-22), a viable curriculum, a simple manageable assessment system, and permission to let children laugh and play as they develop the skills that are absolutely needed for life success.

9)          Parent engagement.  Can you give us about five steps to engage parents, and keep them engaged?

             Someday schools will step up to the need to become centers of parent learning, and offer the training and support networks modern parents want and need.  But for individual teachers, start with these steps.

  1. Build relationships with parents.  Help them trust you before you start sharing ideas and articles about how they need to improve their parenting skills.
  2. Practice empathy.  Notice how hard many parents are struggling to do the right thing.
  3. Notice what parents are doing well.  Share positive stories about their beautiful children.
  4. Listen more than you speak (this will be tough).
  5. Develop a library of materials for parent learning.  Share these with parents only after they’ve learned to trust you.

10)       Who is Mildred Winter and why did you write a tribute to her in your book?

             In Chapter 11 there is a tribute to some of my heroes, people who stood up for quality early learning before any of this was widely appreciated.  I included Dave Weikart, the founder of High Scope, Craig Ramey, who guided the Abecedarian Project, Robert Slavin, who began Success for All, Geoffrey Canada, who founded the Harlem Children’s Zone, Dave Lawrence, who quit the newspaper business and dedicated himself to the cause of early learning success for all our children, James Heckman, Nobel Prize winning economist, Maria Montessori, and Mildred Winter.  Mildred was a kindergarten teacher who recognized the need for parent learning back in the 1970s, and worked for decades to build understanding of how important the first years of life are in the life of a child.  She founded the Parents as Teachers program, which trains parents to offer home-based training to young parents.

11)       Okay, tough questions now—at what point should a kindergarten, first, second or third grader be retained? And is it the fault of the school, teacher, or perhaps a lack of testing and diagnosing?

             It is an impossible question, but I’ll try.  In a poorly designed instructional system there is no good answer.  If I put children into a curriculum-driven classroom, race though content without matching instruction to their needs or readiness, there will be casualties.   Every child who becomes a chronically frustrated and disengaged learner in the information age is a casualty.  By fourth grade 67% of our children are on their way to becoming casualties of a poorly designed system.  I call this malpractice, and possibly criminal negligence.

In a well-designed classroom with a teacher who uses formative assessment with skill, and knows exactly how each child is progressing toward essential skills, and adjusts instruction to precisely serve a child’s needs, there will be less need to consider retention.  If a kindergarten student has received instruction in a well-designed program, and still has many gaps in the foundation skills at the end of the year, I would certainly consider giving him/her the gift of time.  Occasionally I’d consider this option for first graders.  Because the research clearly shows a social cost to retention after first grade, I am reluctant to recommend retention after first grade unless there are extraordinary circumstances.

12)      What happens when good people work within systems that have lousy instructional design?

             I have such love and admiration for teachers.  Where is there a more dedicated group of people?  That’s why it is all the more frustrating when I see great teachers become unhappy with their jobs, or when I see promising teachers leave the field.

It is time for us to design schools in which teachers love to teach and students love to learn.  This shouldn’t be so difficult.  In the finest schools teaching and learning are honored, and we will only have better learning outcomes when we design schools that are aligned to best practice, including the importance of relationship and joy in our schools.

The irony is that teachers who work in anxious and low-performing schools would be happier, and student outcomes would improve, if we chose to follow best practice, which does not include racing through non-viable curriculum.  I ask teachers to consider whether they will act on the following statements:

  • I will choose to teach a viable curriculum
  • Essential learning outcomes for my class will be clearly defined
  • Each child will get the time needed to develop essential skills
  • I will offer essential instruction at the correct instructional level
  • In my class children will feel physically and emotionally safe
  • I will help children discover the importance and joy of learning
  • Each day children will experience positive relationships, respect, empathy, and love
  • All my students will develop the skills and behaviors they need to succeed

13)       Where can educators, principals, parents, and concerned others get a copy of your book?

Anyone interested in designing K-3 instruction which helps far more children can become proficient learners can buy Fanatically Formative:  Successful Learning During the Crucial K-3 Years at Corwin Press  http://www.sagepub.com/books/Book237868 or at any on-line bookseller.

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