Activity to Get Faculty to Engage in Data

Getting people to care about data, engage in data and use data to drive instruction is difficult, but this exercise can serve the dual goal of data engagement and team building.

Too many teachers are stuck on current practices.  We teach as we were taught.  We hold biases.  When data confirms what we know, it feels a waste of time.  When it contradicts our assumptions, we make excuses as to why that might be so.  The hustle and bustle of the profession provides an easy excuse to pass over important data about our students instead of having meaningful engagement.

Here’s an exercise–a kind of data jigsaw–to cut through that.

  1. Data.  You will need to break your data down into smaller bits.  Say, Math scores for the 4th grade.  And, Reading scores for the 7th.  More and more.  Take the data you have already, and slice and dice it until you have as many bits as faculty and staff present.  You can use graphs, too.
  2. Each person in the room has one part of a table or a graph, which you prepared in the last step.
  3. Looking at their data, people should think about what next piece of data they need to create context (so, if I had 4th grade Math data, I might want to know how the supervisory union did. Or how these same students did in 3rd).  You could have them write the question on a sticky note (this makes it concrete) or not (which allows mental flexibility).  With the former, they can track their own thought pathway, too.
  4. People then find whomever who is holding that table or graph with the information they seek.  They chat.
  5. Together, they come to conclusions (and write them on their sticky note).  They then decide together if they need another piece of data, or their next question.  Or, they might decide each needs different data or has different questions and separate.
  6. Repeat.  The exercise ends when each individual has “next steps” for what students need based on a clear picture of where they are.

A lot of graphs and broken up data tables are needed for that!  I recommend any facilitator play this game amongst other admins or even alone to get an idea if a) would it actually work, b) what pieces are wanted and needed–with data, what makes sense in YOUR head is not always clear to others.

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Mapping Data with Google Sheets (on a Map!)

I have long wondered if student success is tied to where the student lives.  (Why?  Read in this post.)

With between 50 and 120 students at a time, sitting down with a map, charting out each student’s location and then linking their assessment results to that pin has seemed a bit arduous.  Google Maps has made finding the location a bit easier, but never could I figure out how to look up more than a single location at a time (and without having to manually input that, to boot).

After trying out Tableau for a EdX online course (the excellent Data, Analytics and Learning MOOC offered by UTArlingtonX–free and still informative three years after it closed) I was intrigued by its mapping promise.  Below is my journey, as I could not figure out how to get Tableau to do it.

Assessment Map Sheet

My original data table

To work, Tableau needed latitude and longitude data (it probably did it for me, but…)  I had street addresses, with each element in a different column (number, street, town, etc.).  Here is a sample data table.

I got an add-on from Awesome Table.  The program seems to do a whole lot, but I only wanted the latitude and longitude.  On this screenshot note two things.  First, that I was able to create a single address from multiple columns.  That’s what you see happening in the middle.

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pasted image 0 (1)Second, once I had that column it created my latitude and longitude.  You can see that column here (yes, it’s all blurry because I can’t figure out an efficient way to drop screenshots in WordPress, so blur).

Note that in the box on the right it offers you to create a map.  It will, indeed, drop pins on a map.  While I could figure out how to put my data in the pin, I could not figure out how to color code my pins.  That’s what I wanted–to have a range of colored pins so I could see the clusters effortlessly–and then click on individual pins for details.

Then I found Claire Miller, a data journalist who was looking to provide a map of clinics in Wales that still took NHS and those that did not.  You can find her informative blog here.  She tipped me off to Google Tables.  As Claire wrote in 2012, Google Tables was in beta and I hadn’t remember seeing it in years (I assumed it was folded into Google Sheets, because they always struck me as close, mainly because I don’t really know what Google Tables does).  Now called “Fusion Tables” I had to add it to my Drive.

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I’ll save you the boring steps of linking your spreadsheet and get to the map.  Table will open to Rows 1, so click on “Map of Latitude”.

Ironically, the “Location” choice (on the left) was set for latitude–and it didn’t work after all of that Awesome Table stuff!  When I chose “Full Address” from my Awesome Table merge a few steps ago it did.  Great.  Pins.

pasted image 0 (3)Here is the fun part.  Click on “Feature Styles” (left) and this box comes up.  Claire created a column in her spreadsheet with a command of what pin to place (middle tab) as her’s was a yes-no binary.  I used “Buckets” on the right for a range.  A second benefit is that as I update data I don’t have to update those commands–Buckets reads the new data.  As my scale was a 1-4, that became the range.  Be sure to choose the column you are taking data from (I forgot in doing it here and was flummoxed for a moment as it mapped zip codes).

pasted image 0 (4)Not done.  Click on “Change Info Window” (left) and this box of info will come up.  Here, you choose what data is useful to you or the user.  For example, I unchecked our state, town, zip and such because all of the students live in the same town.  All I really care about is name, specific street address and score.  (You can move the order of the codes manually if info order matters to you).

pasted image 0 (5)And here is the map.

With eight data points, it is not very exciting.  I chose small pins because I usually map a while grade level.  But, I click on that one pin and Nancy’s relevant data comes up.

This data is not very telling (it is random demo data), but the maps for my class are a bit more telling.

Again, you can read about what you might do with this here:  Read in this post.

Why Mapping Data Matters

I am going to post on how to use Google Tables to map student data, but I wanted to explain why you might want to do it separately.  You, I am sure, can find a dozen uses for mapping data.  Here are a few of mine:

Knowing the Community: I do not live where I teach, and rarely leave the building (I go a few hundred meters to the market for lunch, and drive the main street on my way elsewhere).  Mapping out my students helps me understand where people live.  It seems like a small thing, but clicking about on clusters and rural areas helps me understand my community–the trailer parks, housing developments, rural farms and deep woods.  I can see divisions and lifestyles just from geography, as it blends with what they talk about in class.

Resources: It also helps me understand who has resources and who does not.  Some of our most needy students do not have easy access to the library, stores (for supplies) and rely on the late bus if they want to participate in anything after school (and I can see who will be on it for an hour because of how far away they live).  From this I know for whom basketball is a sacrifice, and who can stay after to finish up a project before zipping across the street to their home.

Clusters: It is common for adults to make assumptions about where people live.  It’s a social class bias.  As many teachers are middle class, from middle class backgrounds, they just don’t know.  The local trailer parks get a lot of abuse based on those biases.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell makes hay about studies showing community matters more than family in shaping children and their values (the more intellectual among you probably read the actual studies).  That doesn’t stop us from blaming the family for student results, but it also calls into question where students live–is the neighborhood a problem, and can the school counter-act that influence?

This is where my interest in maps started.  I cannot help but think this stems from my own biases, and I’m unsure how helpful this line of questioning is.

Focused Interventions: Ten years ago our old principal wanted to reach out to families and make the school a bigger part of the community.  We wound up having an ice cream social the day before school started.  cache_240_240_0_100_100_16777215_new-framework-cover-golden-lampGreat, except that Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty makes clear how adults who were unsuccessful in school are reluctant to come for such events (or parent conferences, etc.).  As non-threatening as it is, our ice cream social tends to be mostly middle and upper class parents of successful students.

In reading about the Civil Rights movement, I noticed how they organized where people lived.  They didn’t ask people to come, but went to them.  They used churches, meeting halls and the living rooms of trusted members of THAT community.  I wonder, for example, if tutoring and summer school might be off campus–in the heart of these low scoring clusters?  Perhaps the administrator might hold a parent group meeting somewhere other than the school?  Do those far flung places have churches or halls in which we can hold classes?  Perhaps rent an apartment or trailer for a summer month?  When you see that half of the students in need live with a kilometer from each other, but ten kilometers from the school, you have to wonder if the mountain needs to go to Mohammad.

Note: Know Your Students: Of course, knowing more about your students adds to this.  For example, one of my students lives with a grandmother who does not drive in a rural home–she relies on the bus a lot.  To keep her after school is a big thing.  But to keep her in for recess denies her the one chance she has to be social and make connections.  I try and find alternative times to support her.  This is very different from the girl who lives in the development with five other classmates, a short walk from school.  Awareness matters.  By combining this map with my personal knowledge I craft my responses to their needs.

Check out my post on mapping data here.

The Boy Problem: Noise Obfuscation of True Problems

While a bunch of us were chatting, our administrator noted how all of the discipline cases he is dealing with are boys.  He then noted how most of our failing students are also boys, and that most of our top students are girls.  Not alone in this observation, he pondered what is perennially proposed: A different program for boys than girls.

Bad idea.

The problem of using gender to model programs is that it offers no path to a solution, except if the problem is gender discrimination.

In the data world they call this issue “the signal in the noise.”  9780143125082The signal is the problem–behavior and academic achievement–while classifications (gender, race, age) are the noise.  We identify the boy problem because gender is an easy way to categorize people.  We notice it.  Evolutionary, we are built to recognize patterns as a means of survival.  But our intuition can cause us to fall to, create and reinforce stereotypes.  We create more noise, and lose the signal.  Every stereotype has some truth at its core, but it ultimately binds the person it is being done to–we put the person in a box.  And, it makes others blind to the real problem and its solution.

To say that our school does not serve boys is to say that there is only one way to be a boy.  It’s a box we put people in.  For the sake of argument, let’s use the stereotype that “boys need movement.”  And let’s say that 80% of boys need movement.  That leaves us missing 20%.  And if the needs are reversed for girls–only 20% need movement–that leaves that group missing out, too   Everyone is in a box.

Instead, we might build a program around students needing movement, and another program(s) around something else.  Now, those student who need it (half) get movement.  That 20% of non-movement boys are now free to pursue their needs, along with 80% of the girls.  Win-win.

We track gender, race, SES and the like for two reasons.  First, some elements of an identified group we can address–SES kids, by definition, need to be fed. But that use is limited. Second, we identify groups because some have been discriminated against, historically.  That was the reason NCLB required those designations.  When a group comes up short, this provides a place for schools to start the conversation–is the cause discrimination?

After that has been answered in the negative (hopefully) the use of such designations should then move to characteristics of the individual students in question and their needs.  Why are these students getting into trouble?  How large an issue is that, and how can it be addressed?  In looking back at NCLB the one area that using the data made a big difference was with SES students.  Interestingly, the solution was like the 80:20 above–many needed something the school was not providing (but not all), and some non-SES students benefited from those same programs.  Win-win.  It was not because of discrimination, but in starting there schools took a fresh look at a problem and identified the true root cause.  Focusing on gender instead places the needs of some on the larger demographic while excluding others–it is not an efficient solution and can create new problems.

So what is our school’s problem?  We are too indulgent.  In our desire to provide to students what they need to succeed we have failed to hold them accountable.  We take off limits but do not demand responsibility as part of the bargain.  For example, I allowed music last fall because students benefited as it canceled out distracting noise.  Now, it is the distraction.  And music has creeped into other activities and classrooms.  Snacks have become meals.  Fidgets have become toys.  Water and bathroom breaks are a right.  In the end, I should have a product.  Not always.  In opening the barn door first I have now set up my enforcement of academics as conflict, not an inspired goal.  Too often, the work reflects this shift in tone from support to scold.  The exception is the rule.  We indulge.

We have reached the tipping point: As we approach 20% of students being an exception, the exception becomes the rule.  When music left the classroom, using during essay writing only, it became an exception.  As 20% of classrooms had exceptions (hats, music, no lines, snacks) it becomes harder to hold to the rule.

There are two fixes for this.  The first is to hold the rule.  No hats.  No music.  Lines.  The second is to add responsibility and accountability to the privilege.  Currently, we ask nothing in return for privilege.  Why?  Because monitoring it is difficult and it sets up conflict.  But that’s exactly how we creep towards the tipping point–we let those with the least amount of respect for others redefine the rule.  When those 20% change expectations the number of rules pushed grow and the number of students breaking them grows, too.

Those kids are defending by packs of adults, all justifying why they need it and apologizing for transgressions.  It’s not the exception that is the problem, but the transgression and accountability.  We are starting with an assumption that this thing bestowed–music, gum, movement–is a right to be taken away, not a privilege to be earned.  This is the exact opposite of how the adult world works–the most responsible gets the privileges while those lacking control either get few rewards or confinement.  And we excuse them in academics, too, for the same reasons.  We are doing these kids a disservice.

All of this is hard.  You can’t penalize a kid for the lack of structure provided up until the moment they cross a line.  The Responsive and Developmental Design programs offer those systems and protocols, but they require time and commitment from the group.

I would argue that it appears boys are the problem because success involves awareness and impulse control.  Boys seem to have more of a problem with this, but they are not alone.  Because society excuses much of it based on stereotypes (“boys will be boys” and “you can’t expect a boy to sit for an hour”) they hear that and internalize it.  When we lean on punishment, though, we are teaching students not to be caught.  Our data does not account for those who appear to follow rules but who skate the line constantly–take a census of how many are not where most of their peers are, or doing outlier behaviors, and you’ll find “they have permission.”  Plus, we have behaviors that are more personal, and do not affect others.  Even with academics, Tier II is filled with those who flail openly and dramatically.  When we stop looking at the major behavior data, but instead account for minor behaviors and any deviations from the rule, a true picture of our ailments become clear.  The solution is not movement but accountability to norms and earned privilege.

This Wall Street Journal article is a nice summing-up of the balance between challenge and aspiration.

Counterfactual Reasoning, Black Swans, and Common Planning Conundrums

There are many nuts-and-bolts topics discussed (which is probably why you are here) in the name of counterfactual thinking and black swans.  All interesting, but you may by here for only one, so scroll down to what interest you.  In order, the topics are: Introduction, Configuration, Schedule, Placement, Last Thoughts.  Enjoy.

Counterfactual Reasoning and Black Swan Planning

A few weeks ago I wrote about counterfactual reasoning–that it is easier to prove something doesn’t work than it is that is does work.  For example, it is hard to prove that coming to school leads to learning, but we know truants fall behind.  This is important to remember as we plan–we can’t confirm much about the future, but we can plan with that blind spot in mind.

The idea becomes important when looking at the surprises we seem to encounter after we do a lot of planning for the next year (placement, schedule, resource allocation, etc.).  The theory of this is the “black swan“; that unexpected events have a major effect on plans.  Because of this, the theory goes, we should plan with the unexpected in mind.  The other half of the theory is that it is difficult to know what to plan for.  In short, just be ready for something.

Note: Much of this is inspired by  Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  Much of this essay looks at the unexpected events that cause those disruptions every educator can relate to–nothing Earth shattering, but annoying nevertheless.

As educators, we tend to lock everything down–protocols, lessons, spaces, schedules, class lists–because we like to think we can predict everything.  For example, our school locked students into the three homerooms last June, but we did not take into account several unexpected developments.

The largest was we had asked students their World Language preference (French or Spanish).  Our students move through the school by classroom–Art, PE, Music and World Language.  During the summer we realized we could not honor most preferences because placement was based on a different criteria.  We punted.  But we also did not expect several students from one classroom to move away or that so many new families would move into our district.  We placed with insufficient information.  Then student preferences for WL created more turmoil, as parents demanded their kid get this or that language (they, of course, waiting for three weeks into September before doing so).  It also took a few weeks to figure out the WL/Tier II needs of new and leaving students.  Who knew?

As the old Yiddish proverb goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”

One of the mistakes people make is in trying to anticipate the black swan.  If we only anticipate more contingencies we think we can control it all.  No.  We certainly can straighten out many issues.  And we still have to make plans–schedules, room assignments, placement, etc.  How, though, can we plan while respecting the unknown?

Here are some examples of common issues facing schools.

Configuration

A few weeks ago I shared a configuration idea for our middle school.  For forever they have been multi-age, but they are contemplating going straight-grade “just for next year” because class sizes are getting too large and students are falling through the cracks.  There are several challenges facing the team, but the main one will be the influx or exodus of students.  I argue maintaining multi-age classrooms is the best safeguard against student numbers changing.

They are adding a fifth teacher to a four person team.  The Core is responsible for Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Science.  Currently, two teachers are licensed to teach STEM and two Humanities.  To alleviate class sizes they plan to hire a Science teacher.  In theory, this lowers the class average from 28 students to 23.  Of course, because the new teacher can only teach Science it does nothing to help the Humanities classes .  In theory, one of the STEM teachers will shift some of her load towards Math, but Math being taught straight-grade and other elements conspire against such neat divisions.

Using the our middle school’s straight-grade plan as an example, three teachers for the 7th and two for the 8th creates an automatic imbalance.  Of course, these can be mitigated (supports, aides, schedule).  But, should five students leave the 7th, or five join the 8th (or both), there is suddenly a difficult situation with no easy fix.  We can’t know if that scenario will play out, or be worse.  The plan, though, is crafted with little wiggle room should any black swan appear.

Using counterfactual thinking, instead create a multi-age made up of two teams.  Each team has a Science and Humanities teacher.  A single Math teacher instructs all students–a big load, but she is relieved of other duties and the two teams can focus on social-emotional middle school programming.

Imagine, now, five students leave the seventh–the release would be divided between two teams, offering a slight relief of two or three on each team.  In the case of the five joining the 8th, a much more devastating event, that burden would be shared and only result in two or three each.  In fact, if both scenarios play out, much of the effect is a wash.  Multi-age benefits can mitigate the other effects of population bubbles.  For example, each year teachers move (with their classrooms) and they need to relearn new curriculum and start new team protocols, etc.  Multi-age allows multi-dimensional flex.

But the question to ask is why that plan will not work?  I have shown the problems of straight grade (there are more, unwritten here), but that does not mean multi-age is better.  The black swan, counterfactual advice is to take each option and poke at it–with some of the more outlandish variables–until it reveals its flaws.  Then, put down other ideas, too, and poke them.  One area to look at is which “losses” are most tolerable and which would be devastating.  The plan with the most resiliency is probably your best bet.

Schedule

The difficulties of crafting a schedule are long and well known (we even know that we don’t know enough).  This is especially true in schools with many grades and diverse needs (we are a pre-K through 8).

I actually learned a lot recently on why crafting a schedule is so hard through an article on chaos theory (an article for later).  In short, such endeavors are dynamic and resetting course causes exponential problems down the path.   What we do know is that schedule craft works up to 80% of the elements are placed, but then conflicts trouble the last 20% of needs (that’s the dynamic nature of the process).  To fix it we begin to make compromises (which creates more conflict, exponentially).  Each year, someone (or many) is (are) unhappy.

Then, each year, we have a black swan surprise.  Last year, it was WL and everything that followed it.  Other grades had other emergencies.  Each fix seemed to bring more problems.  We live with it–we have no choice–but that 20% consumed a lot of resources and continues to create ripples (e.g., it is unclear if student preference for WL will be honored in 7th grade now that they have a year of one language under their belt.).

My solution is blocking out time instead of scheduling in time.  For example, one grade level figures four uninterrupted hours of seven school hours are needed for Core–90 minutes of Literacy, 60 minutes for Math, 60 for Science/Social Science and 30 for TA.  We demonstrate what’s important to an organization by the resources we put towards it (time, money) and four hours uninterrupted seems a reasonable commitment.  That leaves three hours for lunch, recess, Unified Arts (UA), band, mentor, counseling and any other non-Core activity.

How is a block resilient?  Let’s look at how our current system is not.  Predicting a seven hour day is hard; there are many variables.  It is also easy to be fooled by small numbers–three kids pulled out here, four there.  Currently, music lessons, mentor, speech and physical therapy, and other student needs are pulled from Core.  There are many reasons for this–part time employees and mentors have locked-in schedules, no one wants to deny a child their one Art class a week, and a few kids here or there are seen as non-disruptive.  But in my class of 20, one absence and three music lessons are 20% of the class.  Plus, recovery now becomes a negotiation not with two other Core teachers, but with three times that–pull from Art? PE? (And, because of the dynamics of the interwoven schedule, also lose 20% of their students and need recovery for them).  Again, here is the problem I am poking a hole in with our current schedule and how it was created.

By dividing the day into two blocks (4 hour, 3 hour) that do not overlap, students and teachers only have to negotiate within those blocks, with only those adults.  It is more likely I can flex with my Core teammate’s schedule because a) we have an aligned schedule, b) fewer pulls (classes) means fewer and smaller disruptions, c) fewer agents means less communication needed.  On Core, we can debate the virtues of Math vs. Science and time required to do it right, but with blocks we do not have to debate the death by a thousand cuts we currently face.  Four hours uninterrupted shows we value Literacy, Math, Science and Hive.  Three hours should be enough for others to negotiate what is best for students, among actors who have more in common (UA).  Or, to demonstrate that we want more for our students than the resources we have (or are willing) to give.  Again, this may be flawed.  Poke it.

Student Placement

Has there not been an issue with placement?  Do kids every come as advertised, stay friends (or enemies) with the kids from the previous year, or continue to need the same services?  Too often, we’ve even had to change the teacher assigned to the class (illness, pregnancy, number shifts).  For all the benefits we argue placement provides, those are the holes I poke in our locking kids in as we do.

Three years ago, the middle school wisely created two teams with a blank slate for placement.  First, Special Ed (SE) placed students on the two teams with a variety of rationales–service providers, friend/tormentor locations and the like.  This was open to debate/poking by the group, but we deferred to the experts.  Second, a small number of kids who do not receive services were separated or paired because of behavior or emotional needs.  Some kids need friendly peers, while others are a bit too friendly during class time.  All told, about 20% of placement was locked in like this.  That is an example of necessary planning with what is  known (at that time).  What’s important to note is what they did not do–lock in the remaining 80%.

Then, the sending teachers made two “balanced” teams.  More poking.  But the most important part was that no one was locked in until mid-September.  Each week the middle school would observe interactions, listen to students and families, and shift kids around.  Then, they locked in all kids, creating permanent teams and focused on creating identities for those teams and bonds within.

They waited because kids change–they move, they mature and their allegiances shift.  Because services did not have much flexibility (the nature of Spec Ed and part-timers), and some kids need reassurances (i.e., not being placed with a bully or knowing an adult face before the first day of school), those 20% never shifted.  But, as things shook out, a flexibility was built in for the other 80% so that movement was possible.  By the third week, the two teams were as solid as one is going to get.  It was a successful year.

Compare that flexibility with what happened when we locked in the grade last year that suffered at the hands of WL.  For what was gained (a faint sense of knowing their homeroom) much was lost.  While we should be aware of the anxiety we create with some unknowns, it can be fleeting compared to the year-long stress of a bad fit created by the black swan.  Again, the above might not survive a good poke, but our current spring lock-in is troublesome in the long term.

A Note About Counterfactual Poking

It is easy to spot flaws.  The question is a) if that flaw is true in any viable model, b) if that flaw has a major effect.

For example, one argument I have heard against postponing placement until a few weeks into the year is anxiety and parental concern.  Yet, when we locked in the placement of kids, one or two parents would inevitably call with concerns (or be more forceful about it).  Sometimes, that brought a dam break of other requests as parents micromanaged.  In short, parents and kids worry regardless.  The former is easily dealt with because the concerning elements are often soothed with more information, and solutions can be shared (including locking in needs).  The latter upends a carefully planned order, with results (according to chaos theory) that can prove exponential.

So, caution is necessary when weighing options.  People need to be objective that all plans have downsides–sometimes the same downsides–but some recover better.

Conclusion

The idea is that the we don’t know what we don’t know, but we still have to plan.  We want to poke holes in things early, and be honest about defects, before we choose the model that is best for students.

9 Steps to Creating a Schedule for a Complex Organization: Part Two

Schools are not the only organizations with a host of constituents demanding varied needs be met, but they offer a great case study.  I have broken these steps into two distinct parts: Theoretical  and Building.  Both are essential to success over 180 days.
Warning: It is easy to skip steps, especially the theoretical.  This groundwork is essential for the building portion to work.  Otherwise, you’ve got a “Blind Men and the Elephant” scenario.  Check out Part One here.
Part Two: Building: The mistake here is to see this as blocks needing to be stacked.  It’s true, in a sense, but when that mental shift happens the schedule produced becomes a series of pounding square pegs into round holes; lots of edges feel the rub.  At the same time, the water metaphor no longer works because a rigid line is needed in order to truly understand what works and what only seems to work (but, in the details, things are lost).
5. Schedule Everything: The big things become clear, and often have minor compromises; nothing is harder to roll with than additional surprises.  Often, these surprises are more disruptive than the larger issues.  For example, the one grade level at our school had 4.5 hours a day with students, or 22.5 hours in a week.  Band and Chorus was scheduled for three 40 minute blocks, or 2 hours, for 2/3 of our students (the remaining 1/3 were left for the teachers to plan for).  That left 20.5 hours of instruction for all kids.  Seems reasonable, except instrument lessons pull an additional 4 hours, and those are small clumps of kids that come-and-go at odd, rotating times–very disruptive.  When you craft the schedule, and put in 6 plus hours of music, it paints a very different picture.
But the time culprits are many: Guidance, mentors, Tier II, Special Ed…..  Each needs to pencil in a projected time.  The guidance counselor, for example, knows a bunch of his caseload.  If a special 3-4th grade block was identified based on expected need and time outside of non-negotiable times, that service would have a solid place to start and flexibility moving into September.
6. Populate the Schedule: Without a dry run, the schedule is an estimate.  That leads to grey areas, but grey areas add up to black over the course of the process.  While you might not have placement, you do know how many kids get pulled for X, Y and Z and can make reasonable assumptions about where they go.  For several years, one grade level had two sections of World Language–one French and one Spanish.  Then, the population bumped up.  It was a surprise that there needed to be three WL classes, not two as there had been.  That meant one Spanish and two French, which drove the UA groups, that had been driven by the homerooms–see, dominoes.  With each grade picturing their day–if not walking through it–many of the unexpected bits come into play.  Account for every kid and location.
7. Dry Run the Schedule: Even if each grade level imagines the day instead of physically walking through it, that’s something.  Did you take into account transition time?  The time it takes to put on snowsuits and take them off is substantial, especially if UA proceeds and follows recess.  For example, one grade’s schedule has kids go from UA to recess, which works well, but when they need their Chromebooks for UA after recess they go to the room, undress, get Chromebooks and walk to UA–five to ten minutes lost in a 40 minutes class.  Run the schedule in winter and warmer months, or whatever demands change in your locale.
8. All Teachers Sign Off: Every year, groups are asked to look and report back on if it works.  Every year, most people do.  But some don’t.  A few yeas ago, no lunch was scheduled for UA in the frenzy of crafting something that works; adjusting for it made the schedule a kludge, but since it was June everyone just went with it.  These things were not caught until after the schedule was set.  Everyone was mad at the group all year for the compromises.  Pet Peeve: There is often a member of the staff that claims to be helpless, and the nurturing environment of a school bends over backwards to accommodate, even as that person is rigid in their not being proactive or bending in retrospect.  Ugh.  At least with a signature, there is no buck-passing and everyone is forced to take some ownership of their part in the process.
9. First Schedule Wins (Bad): We like to believe the process is open and cooperative, but in reality the first schedule that works for 3/4 of the school rules.  Even with compelling arguments against it, little more than tweaks occur.  For that reason, the first few rules above are essential.  They need to be concrete as possible, and drive planning.
One way to counter this is to present multiple, diverse schedules.  Presented with three very different ways of doing something, people will see the possibilities, even when the schedule just doesn’t work.  By then going and adapting the best of several, you not only get more good ideas, but everyone sees how what was chosen is not the first presented, but the best of otherwise flawed plans.  It is otherwise easy to find fault without being tasked with a solution.
Every group needs to feel empowered.  There are a few ways to do this.  For example, allow each group to have the power to veto at each step, but once a step is adopted they lose that power.  So, if 90 minutes of literacy is a non-negotiable and adopted, the schedule bends to that even if means other desires are compromised when the final schedule comes out.  Each group should also have the power to create an alternative schedule.  Whatever, but something needs to happen to counter the “First Schedule Wins” problem.

9 Steps to Creating a Schedule for a Complex Organization: Part One

Schools are not the only organizations with a host of constituents demanding varied needs be met, but they offer a great case study.  I have broken these steps into two distinct parts: Theoretical  and Building.  Both are essential to success over 180 days.
Warning: It is easy to skip steps, especially the theoretical.  This groundwork is essential for the building portion to work.  Otherwise, you’ve got a “Blind Men and the Elephant” scenario.  Still, you can check out Part 2 here.
Part One: Theoreticals: At this point of development, the schedule is like a river: Water is fluid, bends around anything and fills every crevice.  Much like time.  Here, you will begin to construct the vessel that contains it (beginning with Start and End times of the day) and identifying those impediments it needs to flow around.
1. Vision: The schedule is a physical manifestation of the vision.  For example, if you want certain people to collaborate they need the same preps.  Or, if starting the day with a Restorative Justice circle in homeroom is important, than the day cannot begin before 8:20, so teacher have at least 15 minutes to start the day right.  Make a list of the vision(s) in all respects and then figure what elements of the schedule facilitate that.
2. Recognize What’s Just Tradition: Much of the schedule is the remnants of old visions, initiatives and needs.  In keeping what worked this year, we often perpetuate other patterns that no longer drive the schedule.  For example, we had Art scheduled on a day that worked for the part-time Art teacher, who worked at other schools on other days–when her situation changed, no one thought of changing the day.  Spending time just messing with assumptions both helps question how things are done and opens up new possibilities.  Often, these are impediments to work around that people do not even realize they are accommodating for; removing them frees up possibilities.  Even those that are preferential may not be as non-negotiable as an issue that comes up later than is mission critical to members.
3. Plan for Two Years (at Least): The class sizes are clear–if the 3rd grade needs three teachers, the 4th grade will need it next year.  You should also account for what the 4th grade looks like the year after, too.  Which class sizes are close to a bust (so that three kids moving in in August requires an additional teacher, classroom and the like), or might not be sustainable (i.e., that teach could be moved to a grade that needs her more)?  Plan teams, room assignments and the like towards that.  Also, think how part time staff will be used over that time.  It may not seem directly related to the schedule, but a) planning two years makes you be realistic about next year, and b) most schedules go south because small, unexpected changes that happen before September 15.  Best be ready.
4. Define Non-negotiables: What are bedrock points, that no one can touch.  For example, at one point 60 minutes of Math and 90 minutes of Literacy a day were non-negotiable in the schedule.  For any grade level, I would advocate for 3 hours a day uninterrupted–no lessons, pull-outs or other distractions; we are guaranteed all of our kids for that period of time.  Class size might be another (Art can only hold 25 students physically in the room).
Part Two: Building: The mistake here is to see this as blocks needing to be stacked.  It’s true, in a sense, but when that mental shift happens the schedule produced becomes a series of pounding square pegs into round holes; lots of edges feel the rub.  At the same time, the water metaphor no longer works because a rigid line is needed in order to truly understand what works and what only seems to work (but, in the details, things are lost).