School Transformer & Author: Reach Each Student

Author and education consultant Anthony Muhammad presents to educators

The “old” system of education– students all learn the same lesson in the same amount of time–maintains and perpetuates the “learning gap,” sought-after educational consultant and author Anthony Muhammad recently told an audience of educators.

Quality instruction depends on the needs of the person being taught, and the reason a student hasn’t grasped a standard should to be specifically identified, he said.

“It’s a totally different way of delivering services,” he said.

“We all don’t come the same way,” Muhammad recently told teachers from Byron Center, Godfrey Lee, Grand Rapids, Jenison and Forest Hills public schools at Byron Center High School. Muhammad spoke about the Professional Learning Community model, which emphasizes staff collaboration in reaching all students individually.

Muhammad, who has served as a middle school teacher and assistant principal, middle school and high school principal, has earned several awards as a teacher and a principal. He served as principal at Levey Middle School in Southfield, Mich., a National School of Excellence, where student proficiency on state assessments more than doubled in five years and he was named the Michigan Middle School Principal of the Year in 2005.

He is also best-selling author of the  books “The Will to Lead and the Skill to Teach; Transforming Schools at Every Level”; “Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division”; and a contributing author to the book “The Collaborative Administrator: Working Together as a Professional Learning Community.” His new book, “Overcoming the Achievement Gap Trap,” is due for release June 2015.

Muhammad presented an analogy about basketball skills. “Scott”– the best dribbler in the class– dribbles like Kobe Bryant, but “Barb” dribbles like Shaq.

“Compared to Scott, you really stink,” he quipped.

Analyzing very specific results to identify what’s detrimentally impacting Barb’s performance shows that Barb’s issue lies in finger control, but she’s got everything else down pat.

“Typically we identify students who struggle, regroup them, and teach them everything we taught them before. If her issue is just fingertip control, how is she going to respond to a general intervention (academic coaching) that may or may not meet her specific need? She is going to become bored and mischievous because I’m not meeting her specific need.”

If teachers focus on fingertip control with Barb, she will improve, he said. “She will eventually reach proficient and one day maybe even be better than Scott,” he said.

But Scott can get even better, he said. “What can I do with Scott? Give him something to reach for.

I can take his base knowledge and move him beyond proficiency into levels of mastery….(federal education testing mandates) No Child Left Behind has put us in error, where meeting minimum standards has been sold to us as the gold standard,” he said. “Industries aren’t created from proficiency. I invite you to look up the definition of proficient. It’s not a real lofty goal or level of performance. Mastery is much better than proficiency. We can enrich and take students deeper.”

Muhammad challenged educators to not label students as “high or low,” but as students with varying needs and learning styles. It’s a fairer system for all students, he said.

He also challenges teachers to stop comparing their schools to other districts. A “growth mindset” doesn’t measure schools on how they compare to others but rather focuses on improvement, “doing better tomorrow than you were today.”

“When that happens you have continuous improvement,” he said.

He told teachers:

“We’ve created an environment where being better than your neighbor is what people look at as the hallmark of success. It’s called a superiority complex. You can’t have a superiority complex in a Professional Learning Community. It’s all about continuous growth and improvement not just being better than your neighbor. That’s a very bad comparison point.”

A Healthy Culture Must be in Place

For the  Professional Learning Community model to work, a school has to have a healthy culture, where everyone is on the same page and stereotypes don’t play a role in teaching students. Teachers must let go of “what a good student looks like,” because those that don’t fit the stereotype become victims of low expectations.

“We’re not immune from the diseases of the outside. We bring some of the stereotypes and assumptions that exist on the outside to the inside,” Muhammad said. “We have to be careful about not operating off that mindset, because it’s going to adversely affect the student who doesn’t meet that particular profile. What’s interesting: all the things we tend to discriminate are outside the student’s control.”

“Our perceptions change our ability to serve a kid,” he said. “The goal has to be the same for all students. Are we willing to mature to that level?” he asked.

He said students develop the self-fulling prophecy that they can’t succeed because of the negative perceptions of others.

Confidence helps students be better prepared for school and preparation plays a bigger role than intelligence.

“Confidence is not nature it’s nurture,” he said.

Educators said Muhammad’s message got them thinking about culture, collaboration and serving all students’ needs.

“Dr. Muhammad reminded all of us to reflect on why we were called to education. . .to make a difference!” said Byron Center Special Education/Special Services Director Erin Tacoma.  “This includes working collaboratively to ensure high levels of learning for all students.  This day definitely rejuvenated teachers as we head into the second semester.”

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Dr. Anthony Muhammad

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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