It can be done. Inspiration from Karin Chenoweth.

Yesterday I had the tremendous good fortune to attend a lecture and masterclass with Karin Chenoweth ( The event had been organised by SCEL and I had been invited on the basis of having done ‘Into Headship’ last year.

 As Gillian Hamilton, CEO said in her welcome, Karin is a writer/author whose titles say it all:

  • Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools
  • How It’s Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools
  • And (due in 2017) It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools


I was initially a little suspicious; how can someone who is not a teacher tell us teachers about what works in schools? And what can learning from schools in the USA tell us as educators in Scotland?

I soon realised that my suspicion was naïve and unfounded. As Karin explained, she has worked for over twenty years with the leaders of schools in a large range of schools where all children have been able to learn and succeed. She explained that she has encouraged those leaders to write themselves but that they have been largely reluctant; thus she has been their mouthpiece. She is eloquent, passionate, human, funny and research and evidence-based. And everything she said about what works in America could equally work in Scotland.

As those who know me and read this blog will know, I have felt doubtful of late about whether I can or want to lead a school. I have written about whether I am too idealistic ( and how I sometime seem to be at odds with those with whom who I work ( and (

But Karin yesterday and the colleagues I was with made me feel validated. Maybe we were in some sense in an echo-chamber and hearing what we wanted to hear? However, Karin’s messages had an international perspective and were developed from her observations in such a range of settings that I would conclude that we were not.

 This blog post is as much a summary (in note form) of what Karin said. This is partly for my online friend Christine who wanted to be there but could not attend. It is also an admittedly self-indulgent opportunity for me to reflect that my beliefs and values largely correlate with what Karin said.

 Largely ….but not completely. There are a couple of things that made me think, question and realise that some of my beliefs need re-examining.

This is what I heard Karin say: others may have heard or interpreted differently and I sure there will be other posts about the day. If you want to know more, look at Karin’s website and read her books.

Karin began by asking us about our thoughts on how many children as a percentage can read at an expected standard in our school. She also asked us to think about how many pupils in our school are living in poverty. I had a terrible moment of realising that I don’t know the answers! (First note to self – find out!)

As the morning went on, I realised that actually the answer to the first question (with certain provisos around pupils with complex additional support needs) should be “they all can”.

Karin’s presentation was based on real life case studies in schools where that answer has been the driving force in the transformational leadership approach. These are the schools that have bucked the trend in terms of the expected correlation between poverty and success.

We heard about real schools and real people. We saw photos, watched videos and heard voices and ideas.

We heard about George Hall Elementary in Alabama where Terry Tomlinson turned things around and achieved extra-ordinary things.

We heard about Artesia high school. Los Angeles where Sergio Garcia took over and results went up from 600 points (way below average) to 800 (up there with the wealthiest schools.)

We heard that when Karin had asked Sergio to say what he had done over ten years to make changes, he had answered: “No one has ever asked me that before.”

For Karin, this was a clear indication of how insular education can be and she encouraged us to consider:

Do we have a system in Scotland for learning from the outliers?

Karin explained that in 2007 she had produced her book about 15 high performing schools and had summarised the 25 common characteristics of those schools. Above all, she had discovered that the most important factor for making a school a success was that it was a nice place to work (even in tough schools). In the US teachers are paid according to the wealth of their individual area but teachers would stay on low salaries to be in a nice school rather than go to a higher paid job in a school with a less pleasant working environment.

Feedback from teachers to Karin after her book was that they needed more on how to make the changes

So, in 2009, she brought out her book on HOW it is being done

In this, she outlines the 5 key processes that inform the HOW:

  1. What pupils need to know is clearly defined

She said that often, there is too much too much confusion around this- teachers teaching what they want to teach and what they are comfortable with.


For example – often elementary teachers like reading and skip maths! This is not ok. Flow from 1 stage to another is key; knowing prior learning and building on it.The establishment of state standards key to excellence. (Here I had an internal groan. CfE? The latest benchmarks? How do they fit with this idea? )

 “You can teach anything but we are teaching for excellence” said one leader in a video that Karin showed.

Poor students may have limited vocabulary and experience and this impacts on learning and knowledge; we need to build a knowledge base and vocabulary in a systematic way.

She spoke of the Matthew effect: “To those who have much, much is given”.

If kids have vocab they can build more and read with more understanding. If they don’t…

Ricardo LeBlanc Esparza on children in poverty:

Children living in poverty often have a small world: local neighbourhood, aunts and uncles are only experience. Their holiday is the feed lot and they have limited access to vocab and experience.

(Internal thoughts here and question which I never got to ask: How do we work with the parents and families to explain this thinking without coming across as judgemental and dismissive? Or do we just assume that anyone living in poverty wants better for their children? The very wise Chris Kilkenny may have thoughts on this:

  1. Teachers collaborate on what they need to know

Most important factor in learning is class teacher but paradox is that no one teacher can do it all. C.f. the world of medicine- no one surgeon can do all surgery. He may be able to do heart surgery but not knee surgery.


Karin suggested that medicine needs to move from an ‘isolated cowboy’ to ‘pit stop team’ approach and so does education. Teachers must pool knowledge and pedagogy and leaders must make time to allow for this.

(Lots of resonance with this:

  1. Assess frequently- not to grade but to get feedback.

Did they learn what I taught? If 50% did not get it, you are not a bad teacher, you just need to try again. The “I am a bad teacher” approach allows excuses. We need to constantly reflect and learn – mistakes are ok.

Assess via feedback forms, surveys etc. Not always just testing.

(Much resonance here with Assessment is for learning and intelligent use of relevant data:

  1. Use data to inform instruction.

Do not stick with what is easy / convenient. If it is not working, do something different.

  1. Relationships are key.

Teacher to teacher. Teacher to pupil.


Expose your vulnerability.

“I’m not perfect”. Ask someone else “what are you doing?” (Resonates with:

Ways to build relationships include:

Morning meetings

Hugging (Resonates with:

 Pupils need to know that teachers care. They do have relationships with families but need them with teachers too. (Resonates with

Karin showed us a powerful clip of a teacher who went to the school he now teaches in. He came from a background of poverty but has gone into education to make a difference and show that it can be done: he spoke of how a “relationship of expectations” is needed.

Karin then went to point out that you can’t JUST do the relationships. The hard work on the learning and pedagogy is crucial too.

She advised us to look at research that backs these ideas up from: Daniel Willingham and John Hattie in particular.


Hattie talks about picking interventions that have impact and a significant effect size.

Someone in the audience asked a question about ASN and benchmarks. Karin spoke of the need for tiered intervention

80% should get it with basic intervention. 20% may need a targeted intervention in a specific period.

5 to 10% get even greater targeted intervention.

(Here I nudged my friend Jay and whispered ‘Staged Intervention’. During my secondment I revised and re-launched our authority policy on staged intervention and am committed to this approach. I am convinced, however, that for pupils with very complex needs (who perhaps do not attend mainstream schools in the US?) we do need different benchmarks, as advocated by Doran et al (Right help, right place, right time)).

She then went on to say that differentiation can lead to inequity. (Sharp intake of breath!)

If you say it is a different curriculum rather than different interventions to access same curriculum, it can lead to problems –   are we saying that certain students are less worthy of learning to a standard than others?

Eg her daughter was put into a middle set for maths as “it was the right set for her”. Karin said “fine” but asked that she should access the same curriculum and concepts as the top set- eg calculus.

In the end she was put in the top set and did fine!

According to Karin, differentiation should be about supports to access same curriculum, not a different curriculum.

(Big challenge to my thinking here an also perhaps to the thinking that allowed us to develop a system of National1 up to 5?). I have always considered that some children are National 4 ‘material’ for example, but what Karin says perhaps challenges this. I need to read more about this…..Note to self: get hold of Karin’s books and evidence!)

Next Karin went on to talk about how leadership matters.

Karen said this in early book and has since (with some embarrassment) found that several others had already said it and evidenced it.

She said that the Rutter study (schools in London) is still very readable and relevant.

What is a talented leader?

Leadership involves taking “islands of excellence”

(for example one fabulous class amongst others that are not) and joining them to creating fractal patterns – a landscape of excellence.

She showed the leader who took the worst school in Minnesota and turned it round. He said that all kids are as good as any other kids.

Belief is key – all children can learn.


Leaders need to believe that teachers can teach and pupils can learn.

They need to ensure:

  • Quality of interaction
  • Growth mindset
  • High expectations whatever
  • Aspiration
  • Urgency and equity
  • Social justice leadership

The road out of poverty is through us.

Carol Dweck provides a research base on this.

If teachers feel they cannot do it they blame the kids and parents

Eg “look at his mother”.

“He does not do homework”.

If teachers do not have the pedagogical skills to do it in their classroom, it is job of the leader to help teachers.

Dysfunctional schools exist where teachers do not have the support they need to be great teachers and understand what that means.

Leader needs to help teachers to understand how to get the best for 100 % of the pupils.

One headteacher said “We never blame the kids in the building. In fact we try not to place any blame.”

Look for solutions.

Belief is not enough but it gives you the energy to keep going when the hard work is needed.

This is hard work. If it was easy, we would have solved it by now.

For decades it has been enough to educate 70%. To assume that only 70% can read to an acceptable standard.

There is no magic wand. There is no place for tinker bell- belief is not enough.

Time is needed but there is also an urgency to it.

School processes need to be organised around beliefs but then need systems to support them. Children who need help don’t ask or look for it. You need to force them. It is hard if parents sue but in general they won’t!

Karin then gave us an example of a very poor school in Philadelphia. (I had a moment of memory here. I once lived in Philadelphia and one night got lost when driving. I pulled over to ask a policeman for directions and he said “Lady, you don’t wanna be driving round these parts in your car. It ain’t safe for you.” I had never in my life experienced such a moment of fear and disbelief that this was real and not just in the movies….)

99% black

99% poverty

New HT

Terrible school. Dirty, fights, chaos.


The head started with teacher data to see who was committed – she looked at attendance data for teachers. She saw that lots were taking off Mondays and Fridays

She looked at the committed ones first. Found good pockets – islands of excellence

She then built a master schedule (timetable) that was based on what needed to be taught and learnt by pupils and staff.

She created time for CPD – she began by leading it herself started but then handed over to others. It is important to develop the capacity of staff but we need schedules and systems to do it.

A leader needs a Master Schedule (timetable) that is based on what kids need to learn.

Eg if a school has a timetable that has been driven by the availability of a shared PE teacher, this is NO GOOD. (Eeek. Hard where we have staff shortages).

Teachers need time to meet together and collaborate

Leaders need to create time creatively- eg allow teachers to leave early one day a week and come in early at another time to meet.

Create powerful time- eg a really focused meeting for an hour can be key. (Here I thought of this powerful post by Susan Ward

Finding time can be problematic as schools can often be dictated to by buses/other schools in a community.

Eg one school wanted to set up a TLC but could not find time where the pupils were not in and could not change bus times!

In the end they had to work with canteen supervisors creatively.

School leaders will need courage and determination.

TLCs are about learning from data but often need discussion protocols so they don’t turn into moaning shops – eg look at data- say something positive, something negative and something you can learn from it.

Sometimes the leader needs to focus on the hard truths- eg if this child does not learn his letters now, he will end up in prison.

It can be easy for primary teachers to ignore these things as they just love kids!

Look at the challenges, get them on the table and cross out the ones you cannot control (attendance, parents) and then make an action plan with the ones you can.

Revisit the data and adjust the action plan after 2 weeks.

Use the data to identify the good, the bad and the ugly. Then work with the research to tackle it.

Teachers love some things but not others. Teaching is personal. But the scientific method means you have to challenge this.

Even if you love it, it may not be helping kids so you have to stop!!

We really need to look at what our Es and Os and what they mean. There is a lot of work in creating a coherent experience for pupils.

Sergio Garcia – schools are systems within systems within systems.

Leaders- Develop islands of excellence into patterns of excellence.

We can learn from the outliers in Scotland.


Summary messages:

  • Teaching and learning can change a society.
  • Keep trying and trying and trying.
  • Every child has a right to learn and be successful in life.

In the afternoon masterclass, we spent time looking at the tools that we might use to take forward this approach and discussing the challenges.

We talked about the need in many of our schools to look at not being satisfied with good (or perhaps ‘coasting’) when we could be excellent. We talked about issues of recruitment and a need sometimes to compromise on quality and perhaps avoid challenge in situations where staffing is fragile.

And we talked about the difficulties of creating a culture of reflection where staff may not believe in reflection (even if the professional standards laid down by the GTCS claim that they should!)

 I left the day feeling empowered, motivated and challenged.

For me, the next steps are to consider the following issues further:

  • Differentiation as the enemy of equity!! Where can I learn more?
  • Where can I find examples of the outliers in Scotland and learn from inspirational and aspirational leaders close to home? Lesley Whelan asked at the end of the day whether SCEL can help us with anything. This, maybe?
  • How do I challenge those around me who make me feel as if I am wrong and that they know best because they “know the family and she’s never going to do any better”(
  • How can I balance my impatience and sense of urgency with the need to allow time for things to embed?
  • How can I connect more with those from my authority who want to implement excellence? And how do we influence others around us?
  • Have I got what it takes?




2 thoughts on “It can be done. Inspiration from Karin Chenoweth.

  1. Hi Lena,

    Thank so much for sharing your thoughts from this inspiring session – Karin Chenoweth certainly sounds like someone I would love – with her clear message to make a difference and her belief that all children can achieve.

    I’ve been campaigning as best I can for two years about how our reading results in Scotland leave a lot to be desired. I truly believe that teaching every child to read is the answer to closing the attainment gap. We should be aiming for 100% of our children reading – and we should expect to get very close. It will only be in 2-3% of cases, where children have profound difficulties, that this is not possible. Is it do-able? Yes. There are many schools in England, even where the majority of their children are disadvantaged and / or have English as a second language, that have successfully closed the gender gap and the attainment gap – with 96, 97, 98% of their children are achieving the equivalent of our Second Level in reading (compare to our 56% in the SSLN).

    How are they doing it? Through research-informed practice and evidence-based teaching of reading through systematic synthetic phonics (which takes place within a broad and rich language environment). There is often a culture of high expectation and ‘no excuses’ – the ethos is one that believes every child is capable of succeeding and that they will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Compare our Raising Attainment for All initiative… a stretch aim which states that we hope to have 85% of our children reading at Second Level by the end of P7 is inadequate, inappropriate and worst of all, makes clear that despite the name – this is not about raising attainment for all – because it accepts failure, indeed it expects failure for 15% of our children. (see Karin’s 70% comparison)

    The focus and clarity on key standards is an important point. In Scotland, we need clarity on the teaching of early reading. We need joined up thinking, we need a national strategy. I am a big CfE supporter. But sadly, when it comes to reading instruction the benchmarks / Es and Os not only lack clarity, but they are not based on current international research that tells us about the most effective way to teach all children to read.

    With regards to the surgeon analogy – in primary, teachers are the equivalent of GPs and in secondary they are the surgeons of specialism. Both professions need the highest quality continuing professional development and support.

    Differentiation can lead to inequity. Agree. When we group by ability for reading in P1, we make the assumption for some that ‘you can’t do it’, ‘you’re not ready’. Whoever we put in the bottom group will still be there at the end of their primary school career. We hold back and deny them the opportunity of the very learning that could make a difference for them. If we group our children from the beginning, what we are effectively doing is growing the gaps – because the rich will be getting richer and smarter every day – and the poor will become poorer as the gaps widen. Every day we delay the teaching of reading, every day we group and differentiate, every day we underestimate our children and withhold essential teaching – those who can are progressing – and those who can’t, stagnate. It is entirely possible to teach everyone in a P1 class to read with the right pedagogy and resources. Of course, some will struggle – but it’s about what we do to ensure that everyone is keeping up with the work of the class that matters most. (Little and often practice with fit-for-purpose teaching and paper-based resources and systematic teaching and over-learning) We must devote time to the task of ensuring everyone is literate – it should be our greatest priority.

    “Belief is key.” “The road out of poverty is through us.” Hear, hear. Much has been said about Maslow before Bloom’s – but education is part of the solution to poverty. School should make the difference, regardless of background, regardless of circumstances schools have the potential to level the playing field. We cannot afford to wait for poverty to be eradicated – this life-changing work must start now.

    Have you got what it takes? As Kevin Bacon would say – it’s a no-brainer. 😀


    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this. I heard you speak at ResearchEd and was so inspired…Saturday took me back to the things you had said.
      Your lovely last comment has brought a tear to my eye.
      This morning I felt utterly despondent about the world and wondered how I could come into work and be positive with the children. But I did. I did an assemblies for Dyslexia Awareness week and told each and every child that he/she CAN read with the right support to do it. That he/she CAN be happy, healthy and successful.
      We need to keep going.
      Thanks for connecting and for the inspiration.


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