By Ronald Drzewicki, Superintendent, Mason Public Schools
Ingham County is home to Michigan’s state capital, Michigan State University and some of the best K-12 districts in the state. For years, families settling in this region have sought the excellent education offered by districts like Okemos Public Schools, East Lansing School District, and Haslett Public Schools – ranked #5, #18 and #25, respectively, in the 2018 Best School Districts ranking by Niche. But lately, there’s another district quietly emerging as a contender: Mason Public Schools.
Over the past three years, MPS has continually asked a crucial set of questions: what does high-quality student learning and teaching look like, and how can we implement effective strategies across the District? The answers have emerged from a series of creative practices that engage teachers and administrators in identifying and defining elements of an exemplary learning community.
Instructional Rounds are based on the medical rounds model used by physicians and the book Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning by Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sara Fiarman and Lee Teitel. Three times a year, a team of building principals, teacher leaders and central office administration visit all buildings in the District. As they observe various classrooms, they focus on learning targets, student engagement, formative assessments and opportunities to respond. The findings have helped MPS develop a shared, District-wide understanding of what high-quality student learning and teaching looks like – and how teachers can improve by learning from each other.
Out of Instructional Rounds came Instructional Walk-Throughs. While the Rounds focus on the big, building-wide picture, Walk-Throughs allow for specific feedback in each classroom. And rather than involving administrators, they are teacher-driven and teacher-led.
After Rounds, teachers return to those same classrooms to observe how well teachers are applying best practices related to learning targets, learner engagement, feedback and formative assessment. Observers offer specific verbal and written feedback to their peers and provide written summaries to building leaders. They also debrief with other observers to identify insights and patterns to address at future staff meetings.
“It’s kind of nice to have kindergarten teachers with high school biology teachers seeing different grades, different practices – and realizing there’s a lot of commonality between what we’re all doing,” observes Krista Sherman, a special education teacher at Mason High School. Cindy Carlson, a fourth-grade teacher at Alaiedon Elementary Schools, adds, “We were able to recognize, at each grade level, if we were aligning our curriculum and pacing ourselves as a district.”
Learning Talks and Professional Learning Communities
By their nature, both Rounds and Walk-Throughs can only offer direct feedback to a set number of classrooms each time. But what about ways for all teachers to process and apply the proven principles of high-quality student learning and teaching in their classrooms? Enter Learning Talks and Professional Learning Communities.
Dr. Janet Alleman, Professor Emeritus of Michigan State University’s Department of Teacher Education, is influential in Rounds, Walk-Throughs and more. She also leads the Learning Talks, which are one-on-one conversations focusing on a teacher-identified opportunity of practice. After engaging in deep conversation about the situation, Dr. Alleman and the teacher discuss possible strategies, ultimately selecting the best course of action. The teacher applies the recommendations while Dr. Alleman observes and provides feedback, then the two discuss next steps.
Professional Learning Communities, on the other hand, bring teachers together in small groups to address four key questions: What do we want students to learn? How will we know if they’ve learned it? What will we do if they didn’t learn it? What will we do if they already know it? These PLCs meet September through March on Wednesday mornings, when the entire District does a late start. And with the District’s characteristic focus on community buy-in, free childcare is available for K-8 students while their teachers are meeting to collectively achieve better learning results in their classrooms.
Mason Public Schools is a busy District, tackling a one-to-one technology project that uses Google Chromebooks to help provide individual instruction and a plethora of capital improvement projects made possible by a $69.7 million bond proposal passed in November 2017. But District leadership knows that high-quality learning begins with teachers who are equipped and empowered to pursue excellence. That’s the reason behind the significant investment in Instructional Round and Walk-Throughs, Learning Talks and Professional Learning Communities – and it’s providing a measurable return in the form of student assessment data.
From 2015 to 2017, the number of classrooms in grades 1-8 scoring at 80% proficiency on their AIMSweb screener skyrocketed from 18 to 58. The new Michigan School Index System also speaks to the increasing quality of Mason Public Schools. Based on overall index values, Mason’s elementary schools are among the top 10 highest rated Ingham County elementary schools. Steele ranks #4, Alaiedon ranks #8 and North Aurelius ranks #9. With 42 public elementary schools in the county, and 12 in some of the more affluent districts like Okemos, East Lansing, and Haslett, it’s apparent that Mason’s approach to high-quality student learning makes it a District to emulate.
In today’s fast-paced, global economy, learning continues well beyond K-12 education. By focusing on high-quality learning, Mason Public Schools is positioning students for success in our rapidly changing world.
Contact Ronald Drzewicki at DrzewickiR@mason.k12.net or 517.676.6489.