Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Accountability and Advocacy: A Dependent Duo

This fall, I was interviewed by a school counseling graduate student. He asked me what shift I saw as most likely to occur over the course of the next five to ten years in school counseling. I replied, without hesitation, “accountability and advocacy.”

As school counselors, we do a great job of sharing what we are doing with each other, yet we fail to share that same information with key stakeholders. I often hear from counselors that they do not want to appear to be bragging (Nice Counselor Syndrome) or more often, that they don’t know what data to share. As in all other professions, knowing what data to present and then letting the data do the talking takes some analysis and effort, but it is manageable and will prove to be a powerful agent in the arenas of accountability and advocacy.

This year, our district (Ames Community Schools) revamped our school counseling curriculum when we formally adopted the ASCA Mindsets and Behaviors for Student Success. With this shift came a groundbreaking opportunity for us to promote through instruction and embed the use of grit and a growth mindset within our building culture. Introduced last year briefly, I was able to educate PLCs about the research behind and advocate for the potential of increasing motivation and productivity through teaching the use a growth mindset, using both Carol Dweck and John Hattie’s work. From there, I partnered with our instructional coach and a few of the PLCs to assess and analyze students’ attitudes, skills and knowledge about their own mindsets. We were able to refine our instruction to meet those needs and enrich understanding. (All grade levels were assessed.) Formative data was gathered at the end of lessons to ensure that before deepening the instruction, students were understanding the content. Lessons were tailored to meet the needs of students and drive them forward in their thinking. Small groups were held to support students who needed additional instruction. We became so invested in our purpose that we developed what we termed Mindset Metacognition, a concept and skill challenging students to think about their thinking to change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Teachers emailed me often, sharing evidence how students were thinking about their mindsets, as well as challenging themselves and others to change from fixed to growth. I contacted our Director of School, Community and Media Relations, who is a graphics guru, and she created a visually appealing, educational infographic for families. The infographic included suggestions and questions they could ask, encouraging a shift in the language used about goal setting, achievement and motivation. Now, our community and building have come together while using a common language to promote grit and a growth mindset. This past week, I analyzed the most recent data collected (through post-assessments and artifacts produced) and the results were quite impressive.

What do I do with it? What do I share? I have so much data; it’s almost overwhelming. If you collect data, have you had these thoughts before? I assure you that I have them often, but what has changed is now I get very excited about the possibility of ALL I can do with the data. Coincidentally, my building had a SINA review meeting this week. Key stakeholders of our district were to be present, including our District Superintendent, Associate Superintendent, Director of Student Services, Director of Special Education, Data and Assessment Coordinator, and school board members. Staff were also invited to attend the meeting. My building administrator asked me to share about our work on grit and growth mindset development, including the goal setting process that we implemented last year for Iowa Assessments. (Our test results improved!) I agreed, and then went data hunting. What do I want to share? My results report was almost complete, but I knew that I had a unique opportunity to advocate with process, perception and results data holistically. I modified the results report and reached out to teachers, and recognized the difficulty to connect school-wide counseling curriculum to individual student’s grades, so I had planned to use Iowa Assessments for gathering results data. Those assessments aren’t until February and the results won’t arrive until spring, so that is to be determined. Perception data (pre-/post-tests, artifacts, etc.) is helpful to share, but this group would be looking for direct ties to student learning and achievement.

Now, before continuing, here are a few thoughts on a related topic: our accountability system. As we move from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I think we can all agree that a progressive accountability system would and should align state accountability to student-centered learning to provide achievement for all students. NCLB measured student proficiency using one single assessment- one snapshot in time. This does not work in terms of student-centered learning or growth. Using multiple measures throughout the year to support growth, drive instruction and guide decision making is essential for our students. For as much as NCLB attempted to focus on equity by breaking down total scores into subgroups, one assessment is not enough. Accountability systems should celebrate improvement, examine how the achievement gap is being closed, identify what individuals or subgroups of students need interventions, and provide resources for all of the above. ESSA will allow states to design accountability systems that do just that. For now, though, the accountability system is the Iowa Assessments so that is what we work with, knowing that restructuring will occur and with it will come more opportunities to examine student growth and, therefore, be accountable to student needs in real time.

Reviewing my data, I recalled the emails that were flooding my inbox about kids “sticking with it” and “challenging their mindsets.” I decided to go straight to the source, directly to the front lines. I asked teachers to provide specific, anecdotal evidence of students using grit and a growth mindset while they were learning and working. The testimonials that came in were exactly what we had been missing from the results report. I added those and presented our results report, complete with testimonials about students from teachers, to the SINA review committee. They took time to read through the report, and I took time to explain it. The outcomes are impressive; we have been working on them all year and those are not the only outcomes, but what I chose to include in that specific report. I did talk about what I was teaching and modeling for students, but also included how teamwork and community support rallied together to push this forward for our students. Questions were asked and questions were answered, not only by me, but also by my colleagues, who could speak knowledgeably about the work and the results.

When we examine our actions, and how students are different as a result of our actions, I think there can be a number of success indicators. I believe the success indicator changes dependent upon the setting. In this setting, one success indicator was language used by educators to talk about reform and progress. Although I was the professional asked to speak on behalf of grit and growth mindset development occurring within our building, the words “grit” and “growth mindset” came up multiple times throughout the entire meeting. As educators spoke about their instruction and assessment, they used those words in powerfully accurate ways. At the end of our meeting, our Superintendent shared that he saw a building using exactly what we were teaching our students→ grit. If I was evaluating that meeting, I would not only see that the data reflects how our instruction has positively influenced students, but has also had a similar effect on teachers.

In the four years that I have been working as a professional school counselor, I’ve learned so many things, but one of my foundational beliefs is that we can teach our students in our 30-minute time block once a week or once every two weeks. I see the influence that occurs when teachers are present and invested in the work we are doing. There is a vast amount of learning and teaching that can be carried over into the classroom teacher’s own instruction, thus increasing the potency. This starts with building relationships with teachers (like we do with kids) and again, letting the data do the talking. I researched my way to the inside of Carol Dweck’s mind and John Hattie’s frontal lobe before I presented my action plan to PLCs. We have to have evidence of effectiveness to back up our goals if we want others to jump on board.

Up next, we are actively working to help students set short and long term goals for the Iowa Assessments, an action step we believe produced desired outcomes last year. I know that, again, I can sit with mountains of data and relish every moment of examining it on my own, or I can share it with stakeholders, partner with colleagues and let the data talk for me.

Accountability and advocacy are integral parts of school counselors’ working lives, but one without the other is not enough. They are not mutually exclusive but instead depend on one another for survival. School counselors are tasked with being change agents and while we may very well be influencing change with the best of intentions, if we aren’t collecting, examining and disseminating pertinent data in a timely and appropriate way, we are leaving much to be desired. Challenge yourselves to self-reflect. What are you missing? What do you need? What realistic/idealistic steps can you take forward to improve your own accountability AND advocacy efforts? We need you.

Yours in accountability and advocacy,

Riley Drake
School and Family Counselor
Sawyer Elementary
Ames Community Schools

2015-2016 Sawyer Elementary Grit and Growth Mindset Development Results Report:

For more information on Ames school counseling programming:

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