Purposeful Pilots: How a Colleague Reined Me In

“Blair. What problem are you trying to address by piloting _______ program?”

This question has been asked of me quite a few times by a deeply trusted colleague and coach, Jessica Peters. She saved me a lot of work—and saved our network some money—by talking me off the pilot-crazed cliff I sometimes approach.

I’ll name it: I think pilots are fun. You get to (usually) be a VIP with a vendor who dreams of schoolwide or even network-wide use of the program. You get to see how the program is received by students, teachers and families. You get to sharpen your teeth on another backend and new reports. I love all of these components.

There’s also no shortage of sexy programs claiming to make all of your students college graduates by the time they hit fifth grade. It’s tempting for a pilot addict like me.

Despite my interest in a half-dozen programs, this year my school is piloting just two reading programs. We are attempting to address four problems:

  1. Our reading achievement data—while increasing—isn’t where we want it.
  2. Our students are assessed a lot.
  3. Some students, particularly in the upper school, complain about our current reading program.
  4. We want our reading program to be filling in gaps and/or providing “stretch” content for students who are above grade level and thus aren’t being challenged in all teacher-delivered reading lessons.

Without Jessica Peters’ support, I may well have chosen a reading program because I thought it was particularly “cool”—perhaps aiming to solve problem number two above, but not specifically focused on it.

We ended up trying out two separate programs in two classrooms: Compass Learning’s Pathblazer Reading in third grade and Waggle Reading in fourth grade. Both programs offer potential solutions to the problems in the following ways:

  1. Our reading achievement data—while increasing—isn’t where we want it.
    Both programs have significant research from third-party companies showing efficacy in increasing student reading achievement.
  1. Our students are assessed a lot.
    Our current program requires its own custom diagnostic to be administered. Pathblazer and Waggle can both import NWEA MAP data, an assessment we already use, to general custom learning playlists for students.
  1. Some students, particularly in the upper school, complain about our current reading program.
    While no guarantee, both programs offer lessons that may feel more mature and less “little kid”-ish for our upper school students. Anecdotal evidence thus far has been positive: Students appear more engaged in both programs.
  2. We want our reading program to be filling in gaps and/or providing “stretch” content for students who are above grade level and thus aren’t being challenged in all teacher-delivered reading lessons.
    It’s really too early to ensure that students are filling gaps, but one benefit of playlists created by NWEA MAP is that this test is taken to fidelity, while the custom diagnostic of our traditional program isn’t always.

Both programs certainly have their flaws, and it may well be that we don’t choose to use either one in classrooms after this year. However, the problem > solution protocol we used to approach the pilots has made its implementation purposeful. What’s more, the learnings we get from the pilots can help us better use our traditional program even better.

Blair Mishleau
2014 Education Innovation Fellow