Toronto Superintendent Kathy Cowan visits Elsternwick.

On Wednesday 7/8/08 I was honoured to host Kathy Cowan a superintendent of a family of schools [SE6] in Toronto. I first met Kathy at Harvard University in 2006 and again in 2007 in Toronto when I visited a number of the family’s principals. Readers of my blog might remember an earlier post about Spencer, her son working at my school. Kathy spent the day day touring my school walking through classrooms, talking to the school’s leadership team, visiting a colleague’s school in Frankston and finishing the day attending Aladdin, a  musical performed by the school’s senior students.

It was great to hear about some of the principals I had met at Harvard in 2007 and the challenges they faced.

It was particularly pleasing to hear some Ahh’s as she spent time in classrooms. One of those Ahh moments came when she commented on the comprehension work she saw in a prep classrooms [schema – e.g. applying ones prior knowledge about the world to text].  We both commented on the fact that prior to this comprehension work in both cities [Toronto and Melbourne]  we had taught students effective decoding of text skills in preps to year 2 but then saw reading scores drop in statewide testing  of reading in years 3 and 5. These statewide reading tests focused on comprehension skills. Hence our work changed in the junior years to include a balance between the explicit teaching of comprehension skills [e.g. 20%] and decoding skills [80%]. This balance changes for most students, in both cities as they move to senior classes.

Perhaps was of the day’s highlights was her talk to the school leadership team. Kathy talked about her family of schools including a high school [years 10-12] of 2000 students, 3 middle schools [years 7-9] of 450 – 700 students and 21 primary schools ranging from K-4 or K-6 with an average of 450 students although a few are smaller around 150 students.  

Kathy spoke about her family’s commitment to all students achieving high levels of literacy and numeracy. This is a key responsibility of all educators. She spoke about this push being lead by Avis Glaze and that in her family one significant challenge was to reduce the 30% of students who do not pass the tests in literacy and numeracy and therefore fail to graduate from high school.

She saw the prime role of principals as instructional leaders working together to solve the problems. She used a Harvard quote: “no blame, no shame, no excuses” ! I really like this quote which got me to reflect on the public ways we take responsibility for collectively solving the literacy and numeracy problems.

One strategy Kathy has working in the family is within a 6 week block teachers in teams, in some ways act like those in the medical industry and make a literacy and numeracy diagnosis of each student. Having made the diagnosis they then set a target and commitment to some intentional teaching for those students. Then after 6 weeks have a culminating activity made by the team with an assessment rubric.  Students work demonstrations on the task are then collected and swapped with different teachers for assessment [moderated markings]. This is having a significant impact on those students in schools whose teachers undertake this practice.

Kathy talked about making private practice in classrooms – collective practice through peer teaching, co teaching and mentoring.  She talked about her work being premised on the belief “that all children can learn given enough time and support”. This is so like the work we are engaged in at Elsternwick.

Last winter in Toronto they had about 6ft of snow and she used the image of snow ploughs in a street when she talked about bringing all students learning outcomes up. The ploughs are like teachers following each other along so that no snow or in this case no child is left behind. The teachers look at achievement data and using this as a starting point saying what do I have to do today to improve this child.

Kathy and I have agreed to swap further ideas, research and connections so that our practice as leaders is also not private but informed by other leaders “in the field”.