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Global Lessons for America’s High Schools



 Global Lessons for America’s High Schools

Peter Kannam
, Managing Partner, America Achieves
Jackie MacFarlane, Senior Research Associate, Policy Studies Associates, Inc.
Rene Sanchez, EdD, Principal, Chavez High School, Houston Independent School District (TX)
Winsome Waite, PhD, Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy, Alliance for Excellent Education

On May 18, 2017 the Alliance for Excellent Education and America Achieves held a webinar on how high schools are using global best practices to change classroom instruction and improve student outcomes.

Panelists discussed specific instructional practices and strategies highlighted in a new report by Policy Studies Associates (PSA), including communication strategies at the district and school levels, using data to drive improvement, engaging students through technology and real-life connections, and differentiating instruction to address differences in students’ needs.

The webinar documented both the “what” and “how” of instructional practice, providing practitioners with global best practices—big and small—to consider from their respective vantage points within their classroom, school, or system. Panelists also addressed questions from the online audience.

Please direct questions concerning the webinar to If you are unable to watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available at approximately 1–2 business days after the event airs.

Additional Resources

The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, DC–based national policy and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those who are traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship.

Follow the Alliance on Twitter (; Facebook (; and the Alliance’s “High School Soup” blog (

America Achieves is a unique nonprofit accelerator that brings together exceptional educators and other leaders with game-changing ideas, results-oriented funding, and strategic and operational support to drive success for students at scale.

If you are interested in renting the Alliance’s facilities for your next meeting or webinar, please visit our facilities page to learn more.

Winsome Waite:    Good afternoon. My name is Winsome Waite, and I’m senior director of policies of practice here at the Alliance for Excellent Education. The alliance is a national policy practice and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those who are traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, clear, and citizenship.

Today, we get to hear about a new report by policy studies associates that examines the instructional practices, focusing on deeper learning skills in schools and districts, all of which participated in the OECD tests for schools and the PISA test. OECD is a program for international student assessment.

A research team from Policy Studies Associates conducted site visits to high schools in four school districts in the U.S. and Canada to learn about the instructional practices that educators undertake to promote deeper learning. The report and today’s webinar focus on the concrete strategies and practices that support instructional improvement efforts at all levels: the system, school, and the classroom. The what and the how of instructional practice for deeper learning is what we will hear about today. These practices both big and small can help educators as they plan and implement deeper learning within a school system.

But before we get to the report and to our panelists, a few details. Please follow today’s webinar on Twitter using the hashtag #OECDPISA. To ask a question of our panelists, use the box below this video window. This webinar will be archived at To find out more about America Achieves, the sponsor of this report, please visit And to learn more about the OECD Test for Schools, please go to

Lastly, thank you to the Kern Family Foundation for its support of the alliance’s work with the OECD and PISA.

Now, let me introduce our guests for today. To my right is Jackie MacFarlane, who is one of the authors of this report. Jackie is senior research associate at Policy Studies Associates, where she conducts research and evaluation in education. She has led and contributed to studies that address policy issues spanning all levels of education: the national, state, district, the school, and classroom levels. She regularly interviews and observes district staff, principals, teachers, and students to better understand organizational practices, implementation of reforms, initiatives and strategies. Welcome, Jackie.

Jackie MacFarlane:    For sure.

Winsome Waite:    And to Jackie’s right is Peter Kannam. Peter is a managing partner at America Achieves, one of the sponsors of this new paper. He oversees work with cities and states, including managing the organization’s leadership fellowship programs and tool development. Peter began his career teaching eighth grade social studies in a middle school in Baltimore. In the spring of 2013, Peter was appointed by the governor of Maryland and the mayor of Baltimore city to the Baltimore City School Board. Great to have you, Peter.

Peter Kannam:    Thanks.

Winsome Waite:    And coming to us via Skype is Rene Sanchez, principal of Cesar Chavez High School in Houston, a school that has used the OECD test for schools. Rene has served in schools that range from 500 to 3,200 students, rural and urban, charter, private, and public schools. He has held a diverse set of roles in those schools and districts, including being a teacher, a coach, director, assistant principal, college counselor, grants coordinator, STEM director, accountability officer, and principal. Hi, Rene, welcome.

Rene Sanchez:    Hi.

Winsome Waite:    Great to have all of you with us today. And now, Jackie, I want to turn it over to you for your presentation.

Jackie MacFarlane:    Thank you, Winsome. It’s a pleasure to be here today. So, I’m going to first start out by providing a little bit of context for this report. In recent years, researchers and educators have really started to draw their attention to the skills and competencies that students will need to compete in a 21st-century job market. And this has led to an interest in the concept of deeper learning.

And the Hewlett Foundation has helped to define six core competencies for deeper learning. And those core competencies include mastering core academic content, which involves: Acquiring and transferring knowledge; critical thinking and problem solving; working collaboratively; communicating effectively, including written and orally; learning how to learn, or in other words, students directing their own learning, setting goals, monitoring and reflecting on their knowledge, and understanding their strengths and weaknesses; and finally, developing academic mindsets or positive attitudes and beliefs about themselves as learners.

And in a second, I’m going to give a brief overview of our methodology. But when introducing today’s webinar, Winsome had mentioned that schools and districts that participated in this study were chosen due to their involvement with the OECD Test for Schools and PISA. And while those assessments were not the main focus of this report, I would like to quickly explain how they’re related to deeper learning.

Both assessment measures provide measures of student attainment in critical thinking and problem solving by the end of high school. And so, in essence, they measure deeper learning skills. Really, the only difference between the two is that PISA provides national-level outcomes and an international benchmark, while the OECD Test for Schools provides school-level results that can be used for school improvement.

So, PSA conducted site visits to districts and schools. And in those districts and schools, we used semi-structured interview protocols to interview district leaders, school leaders, and teachers. And we also observed classrooms and instructional planning time.

So, as Winsome mentioned, the research team sought to better understand what leaders and educators at each level of the education system, both the districts, schools, and classrooms, were doing to support instructional improvement efforts that target learning competencies. So the study really addressed three main questions: What can system-level leaders do to promote instruction focused on deeper learning, what can school leaders do to support instructional practices, and what can teachers do to improve instructional practices.

So, really, the goal of the study was to provide examples from wherever practitioners sit in the educational system, to be able to just learn from. So we really split the report into those three categories, but for the purposes of today’s webinar, I’m really going to just provide some general themes that we observed across all levels of the system.

So, the first major theme was communicating a vision. So we saw examples of both system-level and school-level leaders communicating a vision for instructional improvement, either through adopting a common framework or articulating consistent exceptions and practices. In one district, they recently adopted Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ Understanding by Design framework, which utilizes a backwards approach to planning curriculum, which they start with identifying results, then determine assessment evidence, and then plan lessons and instruction.

District leaders saw this as an opportunity to really focus instruction on deeper understanding and application rather than simply knowledge acquisition. And aligning around this framework has really helped ground the district in using common language for describing instruction across the district.

We also saw examples of school leaders grounding their expectations in common language and frameworks so that school staff all shared a common mission around education. One school in particular, they had a common phrase that they used, “Purpose plus autonomy equals mastery,” and you heard all school staff use that throughout the school, so it sort of provided that common language that all educators were using.

Now, the research team saw great examples of school leaderships communicating a vision at Cesar Chavez High School. For example, school leadership set common practices across the school for all teachers to ask three questions that were displayed in every classroom. And those three questions were: “What am I learning? Why am I learning it? And how will I know I learned it?” This practice gave students a common reference point in every classroom to make sure that they understood the purposes and objectives of the lesson.

The school had also adopted a framework known as the Universal Design for Learning, or UDL for short. UDL has anchored the school in a cohesive model for school improvement.

I would like to now turn it over to Principal Sanchez to elaborate on how he sets consistent expectations and has aligned his school around the UDL model.

Rene Sanchez:    Hi. So what we’ve tried to do with the school is have the teachers and the students and the community understand that Houston is a very diverse city, where we serve the energy and medical sectors. So we’re trying to produce global graduates much aligned to what Houston ISD is expecting us to accomplish. Knowing that our students come in with varying levels of learning, of content, we have to find ways to create this common language among teachers so that when they’re communicating with the students, that they know what is expecting of the students from the get-go.

We’ve made sure that we’re using common data. So we’re really monitoring our students Lexile levels as they come in at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. So we’re ensuring that the growth happens there, knowing that reading is going to open doors for students, whether it’s while they’re in high school or whether when they move on to graduation or they move on to college or they move on to career.

Jackie MacFarlane:    Great. Thank you, Principal Sanchez. So now, moving on to my second major theme today, using data to inform instruction.

So, district leaders were quite candid, actually, about basically acknowledging that business as usual is no longer working and that instructional improvements need to be made. This was particularly true in high-achieving districts. And leaders discussed the challenge of basically trying to get school principals and teachers to realize that instructional changes were necessary, because on the surface, oftentimes, their schools looked like they were doing really well, but because of its emphasis on deeper learning skills, the OECD Test for Schools was actually often used by district leaders to help engage school leaders and teachers and to really provide an impetus for instructional improvement.

Leaders and teachers were also identifying multiple data sources to identify trends and needs to inform schoolwide instructional strategies. And we examples of this not just instructionally but also identifying cultural needs as well. For instance, one school noticed that there were multiple data sources that reflected a weak relationship in their student and staff relationships. So, in order to address that concern, the school ended up creating a student ambassador program whose mission it was to foster student and staff relationships and build an overall better school climate. So, trends not just instructionally but also culturally as well.

And not just in terms of identifying areas for improvement, but also groups of students to prioritize was another trend that we saw in terms of data use. For instance, in one school a principal noticed that many of her students were not scoring in the top proficiency levels on the OECD Test for Schools. So she really started to monitor the middle-performing students to see if she can start moving them up in proficiency levels. And she had some set targeted intervention to do that. And that included forming two ninth grade instructional teams. One of those teams was meant to discuss instructional practices and planning, and the other to support student progress.

So, moving on to supporting teachers, we really saw examples of things districts and school leaders could do to support teacher professional planning and growth, such as providing time to collaborate and observe each other’s practice, encouraging teacher-led change, providing professional development that is rooted in teacher needs, and providing direct supports from coaches and instructional leaders.

Now, providing common planning time was one major finding, really regarding the importance of just having time set aside for structured each collaboration. Because without it, it often gets pushed aside or squeezed in amongst teachers’ competing priorities. Teachers really appreciate an opportunity to collaborate with a like-minded team and discuss problems of practice, receive some feedback, strategize, development assessments, and align their curriculum.

In a couple of districts we visited, the district supported a model in which teachers had dedicated planning time set aside. And really across schools, it varied in the format for that common planning time, really depending on the size and unique context of the school. We saw common planning time grouped by subjects and grade, across grades within a department, by a grade or cohort, and also just focusing on special years, such as the transition to ninth grade.

We also saw many examples of opportunities for teachers to learn from their colleagues. School leaders believed that teachers would be more receptive to change if they heard it firsthand from their colleagues. So, many school leaders were really encouraging teacher-led instructional change and professional development. And this could take many forms. This could include just simply allowing teachers to try new things or having a group of teachers serve as ambassadors for new initiatives. It could also take the form of allowing time for co-planning and observing each other.

For example, in one school they tried a collaborative teaching inquiry model, in which three teachers were provided release time to co-plan and observe each other. And over the course of three months, the three teachers were given one day a month to co-plan their lessons, and they would rotate who would deliver that lesson so that each teacher had an opportunity to teach once and observe twice.

Finally, another important way that school leaders were supporting teachers was placing other school leaders in instructional leadership roles. So really leveraging school administrative positions ranging from assistant principals, to deans, to department chairs in instructional leader roles to be able to provide continuous support to teachers. And we saw examples of this in which instructional leaders were positioned in these roles basically to do observations and provide non-evaluative feedback and participate in collaborative planning sessions.

So now, in a moment, I would like to turn it back over to Principal Sanchez. At his high school, teachers were provided common planning time twice a week, and school administrators were immersed in helping teachers to improve their instructional practice. There was a network of deans as well as of assistant principals who provided direct supports to teachers, such as heading up instructional initiatives, sitting in on common planning time, and providing continuous feedback.

Principal Sanchez, will you please describe these supports to teachers in greater detail?

Rene Sanchez:    Sure. So, each teacher, each common – I’m sorry, each core content teacher has two planning periods. One is designed for them to meet with their team. So if you’re teaching algebra I, all the algebra I teachers meet. If you’re teaching English I, all the English I – all that – that holds true for all grade levels.

We are also a part of something called the Link Learning initiative here in Houston ISD. And so that makes us part of the Race to the Top grant from the Department of Education. And so, on the other conference period that they have, that is dedicated for them to meet with a pathway team. So if you are in the engineering strand, then you meet with the engineering teacher, along with the English teacher that serves the engineering pathway, the math teacher that serves the engineering pathway, and the science teach, and so forth. And so, we have four main pathways _____ _____ _____. And so teachers get to meet not only at their team level, but they also get to meet at their pathway level.

We’re fortunate to be large enough to wear all – for example, all English teachers have the same conference time off, all math teachers have the same conference time off. So, when the department wants to hold a particular meeting, they can say, “Instead of meeting as teams this week, we are going to meet as a department.” So they have time to plan out not only what’s going on in the individual classes, but they can look at the grand scheme of things.

Within the Link Learning piece, this is where tying what our students are doing in the classroom to what’s going on in the city, the country, and the world as a whole, so that that way they’re better prepared for when they leave us. The goal is to get them to have certifications or to get them into – or to select college majors that are appropriate for whatever it is that they’re choosing to learn.

So, it’s in this time where we go in there and we support them either with challenging the teachers to make the lessons more focused on critical thinking, making sure that they’re holding tightly to the standards and pushing the students. One of the things that we’ve learned is that we’ve made sure that we have to get students – if we have high expectations for them, if we utilize a growth mindset in every opportunity that we have, that the students have a penchant for not only meeting those needs, but exceeding the needs as well.

And so, as a result, we’ve had to not only train the teachers –

[Bell ringing]

Rene Sanchez:    Sorry. That’s our school bell. Not only have we been able to train our teachers in this type of growth mindset and Universal Design for Learning, we’ve done the same for the administrators. And getting everybody to work together is not an immediate workable situation, but that’s okay because at the end of the day, it’s about getting students and teachers and administrators going in the same direction so that that way when the students do graduate and they enter into the workforce, they are prepared for what their employers asking, they are prepared for what their college professors are asking, and they’ll be able to support themselves.

Jackie MacFarlane:    Great. Thank you, Principal Sanchez.

Now, moving on to another theme, collaboration between educators. Now, this is essential really at all levels of the education system, as I said before. Obviously, it’s essentially for teachers, but it’s also really important for system and school-level leaders as well to basically help bring coherence and continuity in their goals and policies and practices.

So, we saw examples of system leaders ensuring coherence in policies and practices. This was particularly relevant in large districts who acknowledged the challenge of having different departments that operate independently of one another. They described needing to be more intentional about collaboration and make sure that various offices come together to discuss a common problem or focus area.

And, actually, in the Canadian district we visited, there was an extra layer for collaboration because the local school district and the Canadian province work very closely hand in hand to set policy and implement strategies. The province recently issued a memo that called for a greater alignment between all levels of the education system, including the province, districts, and schools. And the memo really called for a shared understanding and commitment to students that encouraged relationship building, which has really helped leaders to be more intentional in their collaboration and in their commitment to students.

Another theme that emerged was establishing continuity between feeder schools. And we saw examples of school leaders collaborating with feeder schools to ensure this continuity by having conversations around curriculum to ensure vertical articulation and student placement decisions to ensure smooth transition. And some high schools were meeting with eighth grade teams to share expectations around student exposure to certain skills prior to entering high school. Some schools were sharing first-quarter grades with feeder middle schools to inform decisions about placement. And at least one school was going as far as to open up their school for middle school teams to visit and see what instruction actually looked like in the ninth grade.

The final theme I’ll talk about today is the notion of continuous improvement, which really having a mindset around continuous improvement is essential at all levels of the education system but really especially teachers. And we saw many great examples of innovative teachers taking steps to improve their instruction and challenge and engage students.

So, first, by being willing to improve practice and try new things. Really, teachers acknowledge that incorporating new strategies is a slow and difficult process. And like we said before, oftentimes, they don’t have the time set aside to really do that. So, changing instruction can be hard work. And really compounding that, there are other competing priorities and expectations for the school.

So, it’s not easy. And some teachers though, regardless, are making strides. For instance, there was one Spanish teacher that we saw that was given the opportunity to pilot a standards-based grading system, which was a shift from her previous practice. And she really no longer gave homework and emphasized the importance of needing more time to really master material. And she cautioned other teachers to try to only take on one new thing at a time, because their work is hard enough to begin with and bringing about change is often difficult.

We also saw an example of a teacher basically just being willing to learn alongside his students. He incorporated work with a 3D printer, which was new to him. And he was just willing to learn right alongside his students as they went.

Finally, teachers are challenge and engage students in many ways, such as providing safe learning environments. This includes allowing students to struggle and not just giving them answers right away, or providing them step-by-step instructions but really being mindful and intentional to give students that time to productively struggle and think through their answers.

Also, through multiple points of access. Many teachers described tailoring their instruction to meet the needs of all learners in their classroom and really just moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach. This could include incorporating multimedia and other supports so that there were multiple representations of the material, and in classrooms, especially math classrooms, encouraging multiple ways to arrive at answers.

Teachers were also providing many choices and options to students, really just giving them the autonomy over their learning and making decisions based on their interests and skills. So, giving options about characters or topics or concepts that were of most interest to them, as well as ways to demonstrate their learning either through reading, writing, multimedia, et cetera.

So, and the last point that is probably one of the most important lessons that we saw was making lessons that were applicable and relatable, really in the form of drawing connections to real life and current events. This looked different depending on the subject. For instance, in English classrooms, they were finding ways to draw connections between literature and real life. Some were going deeper and grounding their quarter or their semester in thematic units, which just allowed students to explore a topic from multiple lenses. In sciences and math classrooms, teachers were providing opportunities for experiential learning and hands-on activities, and really being conscious about giving scenarios that would be relatable to students and their life.

So, I hope these examples from the field will be helpful to viewers. If anyone has any questions on the report, I provided my contact information here. And I just want to thank Principal Sanchez again for providing some specific examples.

Winsome Waite:    Thank you so much, Jackie. The information in this report will be so useful to leaders and teachers embarking on deeper learning approaches and expanding their work in this area. It’s also great to hear from you, Principal Sanchez, on these important issues.

So, Peter, it would be good to hear from you, particularly about this report and also the work of the Global Learning Network.

Peter Kannam:    Sure, sure. So, I’m a managing partner at America Achieves. And what we are is a nonprofit accelerator looking to tackle challenges in the education space. And we formed the Global Learning Network back in 2013. And it now has over 400 schools in 40 states participating. And the real mission of the Global Learning Network is for schools who want to go on the pathway of continuous improvement to become world-leading.

Now, what does that mean, and who cares? What does it mean to be world-leading? For us, it really is – you’ve got to step back and think about – and Jamie had mentioned this. How do we prepare students for the 21st-century economy and jobs? Someone told me recently that children born today may not need licenses because we’ll have driverless cars. And so, it’s kind of a new world that’s coming, and how do we prepare our students for the future, especially when another futurist said that half the jobs that are going to be created are not even made yet.

So, at the end of the day, what we have to do is have students become independent critical thinkers and problem-solvers. And so, what we wanted to do is gather leading educators to come together, dive into practice, and think about what would it take to become world-leading, prepare kids for the 21st century.

And so, what we’ve done in this Global Learning Network is not only brought people together in convenings, in regional meetings, done webinars, kind of shared practice, and really learned a lot. And the one things that have come out in the report that is just kind of really resonates with me is the spirit of continuous improvement, is one of many of the schools that are within the Global Learning Network have taken this – the OECD Test for Schools.

And there’s six levels of learning when it comes to critical thinking and problem-solving and reading and math. And many of our students in the U.S., when we looked at the data across the board, were really good at levels two or three, basic levels of proficiency. But when it gets to getting really deep and getting – kind of applying – solving independent problem-solving in meaningful situations, we’ve seen major gaps, even in our most affluent schools.

So, one of our themes within the Global Learning Network is “Everybody has something to learn. Everyone has somewhere to grow when it comes to this work.”  So you really need to kind of want to get better, and that we’re bringing together schools.

And the other thing that I would just say is how hard it is. When it gets to getting to deep, deep levels of learning that Jackie kind of illustrated, was – and getting to levels five and six, that’s what Andreas Schleicher from OECD says is, you’re globally ready for the world economy. It really is – it’s hard work. And what you need to do that – just another thing that came out in this report is educators need to collaborate with each other. They need to get together. They need time together. They’ve got to try things out.

And I think what this report did a really good job at is kind of documenting the big things and the small things that educators could do to kind of move to get to these deeper levels of learning, because, ultimately, what we need from our students to be successful in this new economy is independent critical thinkers and problem-solvers. And so, I’ve got a lot of examples I would love to dive into that illustrate that, but that’s a point of the Global Learning Network, bringing together people, sharing resources, doing case studies, sponsoring reports to really focus attention on what’s needed to prepare our students for the coming economy.

Winsome Waite:    That’s fabulous. And you will have some time in this broadcast to be able to do that.

Peter Kannam:    Great.

Winsome Waite:    I do want to turn back to our principal leader on Skype, Rene. Rene, here’s a question for you. The report talks about these many practices that are supportive of this type of learning in a school. It talks about communicating the vision, using data, supporting teacher growth, building partnerships with the feeder schools, and maximizing technology.

And I just want to ask if you would expound a bit upon those or any of those for our audience, Rene, in terms of how you put those into practice.

Rene Sanchez:    Sure, I would be happy to. So, let me start with the second one about using data to inform instructional advancement.

So, the first one has to do with a bit of research that I learned a long time ago when I was a college counselor, having to do with if students are to take calculus and complete calculus while they’re in high school, that they’re 90 percent more likely to graduate from college in four years. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to pass the test. It’s just that they’re exposed to it while they are in high school.

So, knowing that and looking at our particular data beginning four years ago, we didn’t have that many students – despite our high school being over 3,000 students, we didn’t have that many students taking calculus. We had about 20 students taking calculus as recently as three years – four years – yeah, three years ago.

And so, what we did is we invested in our math department and said, “What if we had students double up in math with – for state credit? Not just some class to get them ready for the state test, but rather what if we were to give them state credit for everything that they took?” So that means students who came in on grade level and students who were already exceeding grade level in their math performance. And we put every single one of them in a math class where now the teachers only had 90 students to deal with, but they got to see the students every day.

So, three years later, we fast-forward and now at the beginning of this year, we started with 150 students in calculus instead of the 20. And then instead of just two sections of calculus, we’re now up to seven, 30 of whom are taking calculus BC. And of the 85 percent of the students who are taking calculus, they’re juniors. And the data has come back in both our PSAT scores and in our school _____ SAT scores, that our students are doing extremely well in math in comparison to previous students.

But the exciting thing is that now because so many of them are juniors, we will actually be able to offer multivariable calculus next year. And I think we will be the only high school, the only public high school in Houston, certainly in Houston ISD, who is offering that course.

Another thing that we did is we looked at our reading data. I mentioned it before, that we have students who are coming in at quite a range of reading Lexiles. And so, this past year we took a deep dive into our Lexile data, students who are coming in and students who had been with us for a year. And we saw that we had a great deal of students who were still reading at the elementary level.

So, what we did is we organized our teachers and said, “This is something that we really need to do.”  We need to find some strategies that are going to benefit students not just in the English classes but also some strategies that are replicable in other content areas, whether it’s science, math, social studies, or career, where we can replicate those practices and give students the opportunity to engage with text, whether it’s written text or audio books or even text off of YouTube. It’s a matter of giving them the opportunity to read and take the time to do that reading.

And, again, the data’s coming in showing that – particularly in our Lexile test that we take, that we have improved particularly our ninth and tenth graders. And we’re hoping that that holds consistent. So that’s the using of the data.

So, knowing that, we go back to number one, about communicating the vision for improvement. We, like a lot of other schools, have had a lot of initiatives, have had a lot of programs. Some of them are based on school reform. Some of them are, “Well, it’s a grant. We have to implement it.” For us, what we had to do a couple of years ago is take all of these programs, all of these initiatives and remember that the whole purpose of us being in schools is for teaching and learning.

So, when we work with our teachers and we kept hearing, “Well, you’re giving us one more thing, one more thing,” and so, as the administration, we made the conscious decision to say, “We’re hearing this way too often.”  So, we as an administration have to stop giving teachers more things to do and give them the time and the expectation and the vision to say, “We need for you to plan. We need for you to teach. We need for you to analyze data. And that’s what we need for you to do. But most importantly, we need for the students to learn the content and the skills that you’re teaching. Let us worry about all of these other programs, and we’ll do the necessary reports back to central office or to the state, and do whatever we have to do so that that way you can focus on whatever it is that you need to do in the classroom to engage the students.”

And then, finally, bettering partnerships with feeder schools. For the last four years, we’ve had a monthly meeting with our elementaries and our middle school feeders. The purpose is so that the students know, well, what’s going on at Chavez, well, what’s going on at the middle schools, what’s going on at the elementaries, so that way we can share knowledge about the students, we can share strategies, we can even share professional development.

In fact, we’re going on our fifth-year anniversary of having something called story time. That takes place every day during our summer school session, where we invite the elementary students to come and have stories read to them in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, because that’s who our population is here in our attendance zone. And it’s this idea of we’re trying to make the high school not this – no longer kind of a big scary place, but I want the students to understand that this is their school.

So, instead of wandering around – so, when they get there the first day, they’re kind of holding their parents’ hands, kind of scared, but then by the end of the month, they’re over here running around telling the parents where this is, where that is. But it’s about making the environment and making the culture strong so that when they arrive with us, they know what the expectations are.

Winsome Waite:    Thank you so much, Rene, for that very thoughtful and lengthy discussion of the support structures which are so important.

Evonne from New York, thank you for the question I’m about to ask the panel. Anyone – maybe starting with you, Jackie. Evonne says, “Regarding supporting teachers, how did school leaders find time? Did they restructure the time they already have or did they add time?” I’m not quite sure how they would add time. But just anyone of the panel. And, Jackie, would you like to start?

Jackie MacFarlane:    Sure. That’s a really great question. And I think we saw some version of formalized time in two of the districts that we visited. In one, actually, they built into contract hours a 90-minute period every Thursday, I believe, for this collaborative planning time. I think students came in a little bit late that day and it was just part of the district’s culture where all teachers showed up Thursday mornings and had that dedicated time to plan.

In the other district, it was strongly encouraged. That district was actually Houston. So maybe Principal Sanchez can speak more to how that took that encouragement to turn that into practice at the school level. But that was more of a school-level decision there.

Peter Kannam:    And that’s one thing I would say is consistent in the Global Learning Network schools that are taking action. They’re finding ways to collaborate with each other and across schools, too. So building in that time within the actual school day is so critical because to get to these deeper learning skills, a lot of it’s cross-disciplinary, too. And so it’s just really important to find that structured collaboration time.

Winsome Waite:    Absolutely. Rene, would you like to add to that?

Rene Sanchez:    Yes. Our district has built in five early release days as professional development. So we have two weeks at the beginning where we do a great majority of our learning, and then we have the two conference periods a day that allows teachers to meet. But we also have these extra early release days where we’re able to allow them time to work on, either in their teams or if there’s something having to do with Universal Design for Learning that we have to share with them W doe that.

But, additionally, we try to have Saturday sessions a couple of times a semester because it’s great to have that time away from the rush of the everyday, because even when you have training after school, teachers, administrators – we’re tired. And so, we have to find a way to have this training when folks are fresh, when their minds are working, so that that way we can come up with the skills that we want the students to attain.

Winsome Waite:    Thank you. Thank you, Rene. Peter, I’m going to go to you

Peter Kannam:    Mm-hmm.

Winsome Waite:    A question for you. How in the work with the Global Learning Network and the rest of your work do you suggest leaders take these best practices from many different locations and contexts and make them applicable in other diverse situations, that transfer, if you will?

Peter Kannam:    Yeah. I mean, so, right, there’s no one size fits all, but there are some common themes. I mean, at the end of the day, what I think is the most important pieces is really setting big, audacious goals that you want to kind of work on with your staff, using data to inform where you are, finding time for staff and staff members to collaborate, and then just try it. Try stuff.

And we see with the Global Learning Network – I’m going to use an example of deep reading, because across the board where our students are struggling and where they’re not scoring as well is they’re doing well – they can surface read but not go deep with reading and reading skills. And that’s so important if you think about critical thinking and application of knowledge, becoming deep reading.

And so, we had different schools take different approach to kind of crack that nut. So for one school and school community, they set up a literacy committee. And they actually really looked at curriculum, looked at how they’re going to present it, and disseminated practice.

One thing that we learned from our data was that a lot of the kids were not finding reading enjoyable. All of the reading was done for school. And that really struck one school that was doing poorly. And in survey data that was part – that they got back, is that students were not enjoying reading anymore. So they instituted a summer reading program at the high school level that really kind of engaged students more in reading.

And then, also, there’s another school in community – Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin, that really thought about infusing literacy across the disciplines.

So, I mean, it really – deep reading is the challenge. It’s really hard to get there. There are different ways to get there. There are people trying different things. And I would say that there’s educators all over the place trying. And it’s really hard work.

But my big lesson is you’ve got to just chunk it and go after – and you have expert educators in your building, if you’re grounded in data, that can look at practice and think about what’s best for your school community. And then, I would try it, evaluate, and go back and try it again. That’s what we learned from our members.

Winsome Waite:    Yeah, such an interesting point for the high schooler, too, the focus on deep reading. And I’m actually intrigued by that, getting the discipline that teachers – the content area teachers would love to see how that actually looks in a high school.

Peter Kannam:    Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Winsome Waite:    Thank you so much, Peter. I want to go back to Rene. Rene, I do have a question for you on the notion of the support from district leadership. Can you expound a bit on how your district on what you recommend that districts in general do to support this type of learning in high schools?

Rene Sanchez:    Certainly. I want to add one little thing to Peter’s comments from earlier – from right immediately before this about the deep reading.

And guess the time – since the students take the test pretty – right now, when they’re 15 or 16. So that means that they’re taking it very earlier in their high school career. And that goes back to that point of the bettering the partnerships with the feeder schools. So being able to share this data with the schools from where your current freshmen and sophomores came and said, “Okay, so this is how they’re scoring on this global test,” will allow the high schools and the middle schools to have better communication about what is it that we need to do earlier on in order for students to become deep readers earlier.

Okay. So, what can we hope that our school district can do to support us? I think, more than anything, kind of like what the teachers say earlier, the one thing can get to be almost insurmountable at times.

But it takes the ability to have with a supportive, whether it’s an immediate supervisor, like a chief or a superintendent who understands that we need to have a growth mindset for the students, as well as kind of have a global profile for the students, and making sure that at the end of the day, the state test or even the AP tests or SAT tests are not the end-all-be all. It’s really getting the students ready to move on, getting them the skills that they’re going to need to be lifelong learners so that they can compete in the global marketplace and participate in a democracy.

And so, having a superintendent or a chief that expounds those ideas and puts you in a situation to be successful, that’s essentially what we need. So if that means programs or resources or autonomy, or just being able to spread that particular mindset to other schools, is going to be an effective way for them to support us.

Winsome Waite:    Thank you so much, Rene. I want to go to a question from Barbara in Florida. And Barbara really is focused on the students [laughs] in these schools. And she says, “What’s being done to assist these learners at the secondary level who are engaged in these deeper learning approaches in their schools but they themselves are either not ready or indecisive around their career path?” So, I think this has to do with how do we support them, motivate them. But, “What’s being done?” is the question.

Peter Kannam:    Maybe I’ll start and then let people live in.

Winsome Waite:    Okay. Thank you, Peter.

Peter Kannam:    I do feel like – and this came out in the international results a bit in that we’re finding this more and more is, are students engaged and interested? And so we see this in the data that’s coming back on surveys, that when they’re more engaged and interested in the content, they do better, right? And so, I feel like we have to do – what within the Global Learning Network we’re seeing is that we’re going to have to expose students to what the jobs and careers are that are coming down the line.

So, for instance, we have one school that looked at that students were disengaged in science and they weren’t doing very well on the science portion. But they also weren’t interested or didn’t see any relevance to their lives. And so, what the principal did was instituted a series of exposures to science fields and internships within the fields, and he saw improvement in that area.

I think the report highlighted multiple instances of connecting the learning to real-world applications. Like what’s going on in the world and why is this relevant. And I enjoyed those examples and anecdotes that Jackie highlighted, because I think that’s so important. We have to realize that we’ve got to make connections to expose students. And I think they’re concrete things like internships, but then there’s also just everyday lessons and making it relevant to lives of the students I think is super important.

Winsome Waite:    Yeah, fabulous. Anyone else want to piggyback on that? Rene.

Rene Sanchez:    So, yeah, that’s why the second question of our common board configuration is, “Why am I learning it?” And so, as we coach teachers with this common board configuration, it’s not enough to say, “Well, it’s going to be on the test.” We have to say – well, if it’s an algebra lesson and there’s — I don’t know — Pythagorean theorem, we can easily talk to them. “Well, if you’re going to build anything around the house, you’re going to need to know what the hypotenuse is or be able to figure out the basis of the particular triangle that you’re using to build.

So, there’s a lot of different ways that we’re trying to make sure that the relevance issue is there. And so, I mean, I guess that’s just the hope, is being able to make it relevant every day.

Winsome Waite:    Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Thank you so much, Rene. Jackie, I’m going to turn back to you. I think people are really fascinated with the fact that you’ve gone around to districts and schools and seen so many things. And just an open question. What did you find most striking going into these schools? Is there any one thing that came up to the top for you?

Jackie MacFarlane:    Sure. Well, I’m glad that Principal Sanchez brought up the connection to the feeder middle schools, because I would say he was probably an exception rather than the norm. So, I think that was quite striking, actually, just to realize sometimes the disconnect between a middle school and a high school. Oftentimes, there are conversations around student placement, but then it doesn’t usually go that much beyond that.

So, I think that was just illuminating to see that and recognize just the need for other principals to be like Principal Sanchez and invite other feeder schools to their school to observe their teachers, make sure there are consistent expectations, and that kind of thing.

Winsome Waite:    Thank you. Thank you. Peter, I’m going to go back to you.

Peter Kannam:    Sure.

Winsome Waite:    Are there additional topics or insights America Achieves would like to glean from this ongoing work? Are there research questions you would like to still answer? Can you talk about the prospect of the research going forward?

Peter Kannam:    Yeah, yeah. Well, first of all, we have a website, And through the last four years, we have a series of case studies. We have a series of video case studies. So you can see peers that are taking on this really hard work. And it’s all about taking action.

And so, I just want to give a shout-out to Principal Rene in Houston, because the work that they’re doing is incredible. And like when I hear about the math going from 20 to now 150 and seven sections of kids taking calculus, you know they’re on a trajectory for doing great things. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about teeing up the data, creating a network, having people collaborate, and then take on some of these big challenges. And the people to do it are educators. And then giving them the time and the space to do it.

And so, we as America Achieves are really going to be working with world-leading schools, are going to be inviting in more international schools. We’re hosting an international conference in the fall to kind of learn and share practices to see what are the schools that are really pushing towards a high standard, what are the practices. We’re going to continue to ask the questions, “What are the practices they’re putting in place? What can we learn from them? What can we distill from them?”

And the other thing that we’re going to really dive into is this piece of – we talk about academic mindset, but we also talk about motivation and the persistence, and what does it mean to be a healthy functioning member to do well. And so, we’re going to look on the kind of socio-emotional character side as well, looking at what countries are doing really well and what great schools in the United States are doing, and kind of try to capture that and share it.

Winsome Waite:    That’s fabulous. So, we have a few more minutes to go. And I think rather than asking very direct questions at this time, I’m going to open it up to the panelists and just ask, are there any additional insights, thoughts, reflections — Rene, you too — that you would like to add for our audience before we close? And I’ll open it up to just about anyone at this point.

Jackie MacFarlane:    I think that –

Rene Sanchez:    Sure. I would like to – oh, go ahead, Jackie.

Jackie MacFarlane:    Oh. I was just going to have just a very brief comment about this notion of continuous improvement. I just think it’s so important. And just really being intentional about it, again, it’s the idea of small and big things. There’s quite a range of things that leaders and teachers can do, but it’s with that mindset of continuous improvement that changes are actually made.

Interviewer:    Fabulous. Thank you. Rene.

Rene Sanchez:    So, part of the report that we get back at the end after we’ve taken the test, it’s this beautiful lengthy report that compares our school to schools around the country, as well as schools around the world. But as part of that report, it gives you an insight from the students about their classrooms, about how things are going on in there, whether it’s classroom management. It also gives you an idea of the students, of their self-efficacy towards math and science, as well as their instrumental motivation of math and science.

And knowing these things as you’re planning for the next school year, these are things that you can share with teachers and you can develop goals based on what these particular students said, as opposed to just designing a one-size-fits-all program or goal setting for a particular grade level. But you have this in your – as part of your data and you can say, “Well, how can we improve on these scores for next year?” Because it’s a great way of kind of getting a snapshot of what students think about your school.

Winsome Waite:    Fabulous. Thank you. Thank you so much, Rene, and Jackie, and Peter. Well, we are at the end of our time this afternoon. Thanks to Peter Kannam, Rene Sanchez, and Jackie MacFarlane for being with us today.

Please keep in mind that this webinar will be archived at To find out more about Peter’s organization, America Achieves, please visit, and about the OECD Test for Schools, you can go to

And, once again, we here at the Alliance for Excellent Education wish to thank you, the Kern Family Foundation, for its generous support for the alliance’s work around all things OECD.

Thank you. I’m Winsome Waite for the Alliance for Excellent Education. Have a great afternoon.

Categories: High School Reform

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