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Falls schools become research site for classroom improvement

Debbie Blodgett, a first-grade teacher at Valley View Elementary School, looks at a sheet of questions during a panel discussion with fellow educators about the district’s classroom improvement process.

Debbie Blodgett, a first-grade teacher at Valley View Elementary School, looks at a sheet of questions during a panel discussion with fellow educators about the district’s classroom improvement process.

Nov. 18, 2013

Menomonee Falls — The school district is becoming a role model for quality improvement in the classroom.

Statewide, national and international institutions such as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at Stanford University, and most recently the Swedish Institute for Quality, are studying how the Menomonee Falls School District is working to improve student learning.

When the district started developing an improvement plan, the high school was identified as under-performing and the middle school had an unusually high number of disciplinary issues, Superintendent Patricia Greco said. To change that, the district has been using the Plan, Do, Study, Act model to engage teachers and students in creating goals, reviewing data and planning learning activities to help students reach those goals.

Falls has spent the last three years integrating the PDSA cycle into the classroom, prompting visits from various institutions that are studying the process. Most recently a research team from Sweden visited Falls elementary, middle and high school classrooms Nov. 14.

Data drives progress

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Classroom development "used to be the flavor of the month or of the year," Valley View Elementary School Principal Tina Posnanski told the visitors from Sweden.

Now, development is data-driven with set quarterly goals. Every individual in the district is part of the process.

"We are going into different classrooms, we are videotaping and they are sharing between teachers," Posnanski said. "All the way from myself, the teachers, educational assistants, administrative assistants and custodians, they are all aware of our goals and what actions can they do to help the schools reach those goals."

The data-driven classroom improvement process gets students to take ownership of their own learning by tracking where their skill levels should be during certain periods of time using graphs and other measurement tools. There are eight steps for each classroom: establish measurable learning goals, set short-term learning targets, create a classroom mission statement, monitor and display progress around the goals, then plan, do, study and act.

The plan in action

The visitors from Sweden, which included Jerry Karlsson, CEO of the Swedish Institute for Quality, last week witnessed the model in action. Sweden is requiring all of its schools to shift to Quality Process Improvement. The hurdle there is bringing the process to life in the classroom. That is where a district like Menomonee Falls comes into play.

During a panel discussion, teachers said that for the first time administration, the schools, the grade levels, the teachers, students and even the parents are aware of how to improve student learning. Development is no longer guess work, and everyone is working as one.

Classrooms have "I Can" statements that set the learning goals in each room. Those goals are published in the room and monitored on 10-to-15 day cycles. Students and teachers chart and analyze the learning results. Through the process, the teachers say they get to know their students more than they ever have before.

To monitor students through the PDSA cycle, Ryan Hausmann, fourth-grade teacher at Ben Franklin, said students take a pre-test of the skills they are about to learn. As each skill is taught, there are "checkpoints," where Hausmann has informal discussions one-on-one or in small groups to gauge where students sit in the learning process and to identify if they need more help. A post assessment is used to see if they reached their learning targets.

Students understand goals, strategies

"I think that, especially down in the primary level, even 6-year-olds can tell you what their goal is and what they are working toward," said Karen Amundson, first-grade teacher at Shady Lane Elementary School.

Students also have a better grasp of learning strategies. Instead of knowing they need to be better listeners to learn, Amundson said, they realize they can also read independently, talk in small groups or play games to reach their goals.

"There are so many different learning strategies they can use to get where they want to be," she said.

There are a variety of intervention strategies used in the district to help struggling students if they do not meet small targets and overall goals.

Amundson said they use the workshop model in the classroom. This means teachers can work with all their students to help them meet their goals when they are working independently or in small groups. Since grade levels teach the same skills, teachers can also collaborate with each other to take sets of students from different sections who they identify as needing an intervention and can then re-teach a lesson to that group.

Christie Johnson, literacy coach at Ben Franklin said they use a data wall to keep track of each student. Those that fall into the struggling category will receive an additional half hour of daily intervention time with a teacher.

The implementation of the PDSA model is an ongoing process. Carnegie Foundation is conducting an in-depth case study on the district. In December, Wisconsin school districts and some out-of-state districts are visiting Falls classrooms to view the model in action.

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