This month, the Middle School Matters Institute Blog focuses on strategic planning to effectively implement research-based strategies and practices in schools and classrooms.
Sarojani S. Mohammed, Middle School Matters Institute (Research Perspective)
David Barrett, Frank B. Agnew Middle School, Mesquite Independent School District (Practice Perspective)
The Research Perspective
When I first saw the Middle School Matters Research Platform and Field Guide, I was overwhelmed by the vast, comprehensive documents. Don’t get me wrong—I was heartened to see that so much research had been conducted to identify specific ways to improve the middle grades experience, but I knew it would be a challenge to support educators as they implemented the numerous research-based practices.
The research and practices described in the Field Guide serve as the foundation of Middle School Matters. It is critical for educators to understand what practices are most effective with middle grade students. But the real work of the Middle School Matters Institute (MSMI) is translating research into practice and assisting educators with implementing this practice.
Below, we describe how the Field Guide is organized, why we developed a specific planning process (the MSMI Implementation Plan Templates) aligned with the Field Guide, and how that planning process works. Finally, you will learn how one of the Middle School Matters “Tier II” schools has used the templates and the planning process to improve outcomes for its students.
Organization of the Middle School Matters Field Guide
The Middle School Matters Field Guide breaks down research into digestible parts. To begin, it is divided into three main sections, or pillars:
- Research-based instruction (for example, reading, writing, advanced reasoning)
- Student supports (for example, school climate, dropout prevention, extended learning time)
- Foundational dimensions (effective teaching, performance management, school leadership)
These three main parts are further divided into 13 “content dimensions,” or discrete areas in which the existing evidence base is summarized. Perhaps most importantly, the research within each content dimension is further distilled into a series of practical and applicable “principles” and “practices” that support each principle. This all sounds very hierarchical and complicated, but the bottom line is that the Middle School Matters Field Guide explicitly describes practices, validated by rigorous research, that are effective with middle grade students.
Also in the Field Guide are tools to improve individuals’ instructional practice, including the following:
- Self-reflection questions that guide users’ critical thinking related to their practice
- Quality frameworks that gauge the extent to which users implement these evidence-based practices
To help educators reflect on and plan instruction with the highest-needs students in mind, MSMI created Implementation Plan Templates—one for each of the 13 content dimensions in the Middle School Matters Research Platform and Field Guide. Our 2013 MSMI Summer Conference participants used these templates, and now, we’d like to share those templates with you. The three-step process in each template incorporates data-based instructional decision-making, helping schools use evidence to guide needs determination and action planning.
The Planning Process
Step 1: Self-Reflection
A critical first step to successful implementation of evidence-based practices is honest self-reflection on current practices that is based on evidence, not “hunches” or “gut feelings.” The MSMI Implementation Plan Templates ask schools to document what practices are in place, the extent to which they are in place, and the extent to which they are effective. School personnel gather and review evidence from reliable data sources and then indicate which instructional conditions are already in place. Schools document how they determined (in other words, what evidence they used) whether each condition was met. To encourage objective self-reflection, a “level of implementation” rubric is provided.
Step 2: Needs Determination
After reflecting, schools are guided through a needs determination process. Needs are classified into categories, which help schools problem-solve ways to address the needs. For example, a “translation” deficit exists when educators have basic knowledge about a principle but need support in translating this knowledge into instructional practice. Coaching, modeling, and scaffolding from an instructional leader who has successfully implemented the practice might address such a deficit.
Step 3: Action Planning
The final step in the planning process is developing action steps. Here, schools form specific implementation steps based on their previously identified needs and their goals for incorporating research-based practices. Schools also identify the individual(s) responsible for ensuring each action is completed and the date by which it should be completed. In this way, schools have a series of concrete steps to improve implementation of evidence-based practices. Schools also have documentation of where they began the process (their needs), and they can revisit their plans periodically to gauge any changes.
The goal of these templates is to develop manageable steps for the complex task of creating school transformation plans, so that research can be translated into practice in real classrooms for the benefit of real students. I hope that you find the templates to be useful, and if you don’t, we’d love to hear your suggestions for improvement.
Below, Agnew Middle School describes its experience with the MSMI Implementation Plan Templates, including real-world challenges and successes.
Reflections From the Field
Agnew Middle School’s RTI Campus Leadership Team has had an overall positive experience with the MSMI Implementation Plan Template. Like the Middle School Matters Field Guide, the planning template is very detailed—leaving no stone unturned. Such a document can be an excellent tool for driving growth, or it can be an overwhelmingly daunting task. It is the how that is the determinant. As a Middle School Matters Tier II participant, we can share our experience with this tool and offer some suggestions for how you can use it to facilitate continuous, data-driven improvement on your campus.
The Middle School Matters Field Guide is useful in both its depth and breadth. Likewise, the MSMI Implementation Plan Template is a thorough, logical, and sequential tool. As suggested by the MSMI team at the summer conference, it was especially helpful to limit our focus to three specific content dimensions this academic year. Based on needs already identified on our campus improvement plan, we chose Reading and Reading Interventions, School Climate/Culture, and Performance Management.
We focused on Reading and Reading Interventions for our initial use of the template. We were fortunate to have a facilitator from The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk guide us through the process. Still, initial progress was slow, as our over-analytical minds wrestled with every detail and we debated finer points and the definition of terms. After powering through the first few principles, we called it a day and team members looked over the rest of the implementation plan individually. This first plan was completed the subsequent day.
We next moved to School Climate/Culture, a content dimension with fewer principles and practices than Reading and Reading Interventions. Having gained experience with the template, we moved more swiftly. Additionally, we had already made several improvements in this area on our campus. In hindsight, it might have been better for our team to start with this content dimension to achieve a “quick win,” gain momentum, and increase our confidence and understanding in this specific planning process.
Having completed two plans with the guidance of our facilitator, we felt confident creating the third plan on our own. Over the summer, our team met to complete planning in our third content dimension, Performance Management. Here, our understanding and mastery of the process were put to the test. Not only were we delving into this plan on our own, but also we had to train members of our campus leadership team who did not attend the conference. There is an old adage that the best way to learn something is to teach it. Indeed, as we explained and demonstrated the use of the template, it became apparent that our work at the MSMI conference, under the tutelage of our facilitator, had paid off, and our understanding of this tool expanded yet again.
The “action plan” is an integral piece of the planning template. Our team concretized our goals and objectives into actionable steps that got into the “nuts and bolts.” During this school year, we have referred to these steps frequently, especially during our bimonthly meetings. The action plan enables us to easily monitor our progress and to set and achieve short-term goals. Having this list of necessary steps, due dates, and people responsible has helped us sustain our progress.
As we mentioned, it is the process that can make or break a team’s success with this in-depth tool. Here, we present some of the lessons learned by Agnew Middle School.
- Prepare for Planning: It is beneficial for the committee chair or principal to review the MSMI Implementation Plan Templates in depth before the full leadership team uses them. Then, he or she can present the templates to the team, discuss the planning steps and implementation stage rubric, and delegate the collection of necessary data and evidence to inform the self-reflection process.
- Establish Immediate Success: To get the ball rolling, start with a content dimension that you already implement well and that you want to improve. That can help your team become familiar with the template, so that when you move on to another content dimension, you have established a good process.
- Stay on Target: One of the benefits of the template is that it generates discussion and critical analysis. However, time is a precious commodity in education, and your team will not have enough time to discuss each topic that presents itself. Your team will need to stay focused and avoid “rabbit trails” (no matter how tantalizing they may be). Have individuals take notes on these side issues for discussion at a more appropriate time.
- Speak the Same Language: One of our team’s initial challenges was finding a common language. Define terms from the outset. Here, the leader’s advance study of the template will help.
Be Flexible: Treat these templates as a “living document,” especially the action steps. You will refer to these steps regularly throughout the year and, as always in education, you will have to modify and adjust.
- Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew: Change takes time. To establish and maintain momentum, develop a plan that lends itself to success, not one that overwhelms staff. Don’t develop too many action steps for a short of a period of time. It is better to do a couple of things really well than many things poorly.