Peer observations, feedback and collaborative planning lead to increases in student learning.
In Shanghai, China, in one of the highest performing school systems in the world, teachers routinely observe their peers, give them feedback, work on lesson plans in teams, try out new lessons and collaborate on revisions—all to continually hone and sharpen their teaching. This is very different from systems in the United States, where teaching historically has been a private activity and in-class observations are conducted mostly to evaluate performance.
Partners at Vanderbilt University, the Tennessee Department of Education, East China Normal University in Shanghai and 26 Tennessee schools are trying to make teaching more public and collaborative. Supported in school year (SY) 2013-2014 by one of eight TN LEAD grants from the State’s Race to the Top funds, the Tennessee-Shanghai Leadership Collaborative has for the past two years sent principals and teachers from high-achieving schools to observe practices in Shanghai.
The purpose of the TN LEAD grants was to help school leaders do more to improve student outcomes. Several research studies have shown that leaders are the second most important school-based factor in student learning, after teachers. The programs that received grants worked with school and district leaders already on the job as well as those still in training to increase their effectiveness.
State officials said the focus on school leaders would continue benefiting students long after the grants ran out.
Principals at the schools that participated in the Tennessee-Shanghai Leadership Collaborative formed Teacher Peer Excellence Groups (TPEGs) to try to emulate the collaboration among teachers in Shanghai. They were assisted by researchers from Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education.
Robin Newell, principal of Mitchell-Neilson schools in Murfreesboro, told Vanderbilt that the collaborative model has already proven beneficial. In SY 2013-2014, when teachers first began working in TPEGs, “we had the highest growth numbers in the district, and we blew our math scores out of the water,” Newell said. “I definitely attribute a great deal of that to the TPEGs …. The collaboration process was more valuable than any professional development I could have sent the teachers to. At the end of the year they said, ‘We can never go back to the old way of teaching—why didn’t we do this sooner?’”
Lessons in leadership and management from business applied to turning around low-performing schools.
In her first assignment as a principal, Maria Carlson led a small school in Cleveland where 40 percent of the students were receiving special education services and a third were learning English.
“There was a whole perception that ‘We’re the kids who can’t succeed, and that’s why they put us all together,’” she said. “The kids would say, ‘No one expects anything from us except for us to go to jail.’”
At the time, Carlson was among a group of principals of low-achieving schools enrolled in the Ohio Executive Principal Leadership Academy at The Ohio State University (OSU), which was supported by the State’s Race to the Top funds. She said one of the lessons she learned from the leadership academy was the importance of establishing a school “brand,” a lesson from the world of business.
The leadership academy was a partnership between OSU’s Fisher College of Business, OSU’s College of Education and Human Ecology and the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). Its purpose was to give the principals of the State’s lowest performing schools a crash course in leadership and management.
Carlson said her students at the Community Wrap Around Academy, one of three schools-within-a-schools at Lincoln West High School, had begun thinking they had been assigned to the “dumb school” and that was not a good brand.
To change that perception, she told students and teachers alike to turn expectations upside down. “Be the unexpected,” she would say. “If they were fighting or arguing, or if a teacher was late or unprepared for a lesson, we could discuss what the perception of the school is and reflect on the fact that this is what everyone is expecting.”
In addition to getting students and teachers to think differently about their school she involved everyone in setting targets—just as many for-profit companies do and something she learned at the leadership academy. She worked with her teachers to establish a personal growth target for each student which, when combined, became a target for each classroom and then the entire school. The teachers met with each student to help them set interim goals for their performance on benchmark exams. The school’s professional learning communities keyed their discussions to hitting those targets.
The year after Carlson attended the leadership academy, her school’s proficiency rates on the Ohio Graduation Test rose by 13 percentage points for English language arts (ELA) and 2 percentage points in mathematics. The gains continued in subsequent years and exceeded those of the other two schools housed at Lincoln West.
Six groups of principals attended four intensive two-day sessions spread out over six months, with assignments, such as preparing a case study on their school and devising an action plan, to complete in between sessions. In total, 300 leaders from 155 of the State’s lowest achieving schools attended the academy between January 2011 and June 2013, followed a year later by a culminating gathering to which all were invited.
Last month, PROGRESS featured the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model (TEAM) program that provides coaching and support to Tennessee principals to improve the quality of teacher observations and feedback. This month, we feature a Q&A with Jack Barnes, a TEAM coach.
The effectiveness of teacher evaluation and support systems depends in large measure on principals being able to observe teachers accurately and give them helpful feedback. To ensure that principals could discern differences in teacher performance and provide constructive feedback, Tennessee hired eight coaches to work with them side-by-side over the course of a year. In the first two years, those coaches worked with the principals at 116 Tennessee schools. One of the coaches was Jack Barnes, who had been a principal, principal supervisor and director of schools. He says serving as a coach was a “great learning experience” for him as well as for the educators. With the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model now in its fourth year, Barnes says “everyone is becoming more tuned into what needs to be happening.”
Q. How did you approach the schools you worked with?
A. The first thing is to cultivate a relationship not only with the district but the school as well. Sometimes when you tell them you’re coming from the State that shuts them down. We come in with the attitude that we are a resource and we’re here to do whatever we can to help you so that you not only grow as an administrator but also help your teachers grow. If you can get their confidence and trust, that’s half the battle right there.
Q. How did you help principals handle the difficult conversations that are sometimes necessary in order to help teachers or anyone else improve the quality of their work?
A. We tried to get across three things to administrators and teachers. First, when difficult conversations have to happen, you have to go back to the core belief that everyone can always improve. Second, when you’ve done an observation, you have evidence that this is what happened and in these conversations you go back to the evidence. Try to stay as impersonal as possible. This is not about you, it’s about the lesson. Third, focus on what’s good for kids. If students are not performing, we have a problem. A principal should ask the teacher, ‘what can we do together to work on this?’ Sometimes that might mean having the teacher visit other classrooms or schools, taking classes online, working with the professional learning collaborative at the school or collaborating with other teachers.
Q. What was your biggest success?
A. Last year I had an elementary school that was a Level 1 on a 1 to 5 scale based on growth in student learning. Yet most of the teachers were highly rated. A new principal came to the school who had previously been an assistant principal at another school. We talked about the importance of the principal’s relationship with teachers and the importance of culture. This young man did it. The school went from a Level 1 school to a Level 5 school in one year, simply because he worked with the teachers and was able to get them the resources they needed, and they knew he wanted to do the best for them and for their students.
Learn more about the TEAM approach and Tennessee’s results here: Tennessee Principals Receive Coaching on Observing Teachers and Providing Feedback
Schools examine data frequently to identify what is driving improvement and revise improvement plans.
When administrators at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Central Falls, Rhode Island, began closely analyzing data in January 2014 to find ways to increase student achievement, they determined that low student attendance was contributing to low proficiency rates.
“We can’t improve scores if our students are not here,” Veterans Memorial principal Ann Lynch said.
One of the steps Lynch and her team took to change things was to recruit and train a dozen “parent navigators” to help them communicate the importance of regular attendance to parents and guardians and identify issues contributing to absenteeism. Another strategy was for these navigators to reach out to parents whose children are missing a lot of school to enlist them as partners in increasing attendance.
Every day a student does not come to school, his or her family is automatically notified by telephone of the absence. Separately, parent navigators and the school counselor meet regularly to look at aggregate attendance data, discuss trends and decide which families should be contacted personally.
Other strategies include distributing flyers about the importance of being in school and talking about attendance in student assemblies and, when there is a problem, asking parents to pledge to make sure their children come to school. In addition, the school works with families to identify the cause of absences and determine how administrators, counselors and others can help, such as by providing transportation or other social services such as housing assistance. Another strategy the school has used is offering rewards for strong attendance such as school dances, breakfast with the principal, and free homework passes.
The effort seems to be paying off at Veterans Memorial, where the strategy was fully launched in the fall of 2014. The number of absences dropped from 358 during the first 30 days of school year (SY) 2013-2014 to 256 during the same period in SY 2014-2015. Chronic absenteeism, which is defined as 18 absences or 10 percent of the school year, was cut in half in the fall quarter compared with the previous spring.
Accurate observations pinpoint strengths and weaknesses, and specific feedback helps teachers improve instruction, leading to increases in student learning.
At the end of school year (SY) 2011–2012, the principal at Erin Elementary School in Houston County, Tennessee judged nearly 90 percent of the school’s teachers to be exceeding expectations based on observations of their classroom performances.
But, according to results of the State’s assessment system, their students weren’t doing nearly so well.
How could this be?
The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) discovered the mismatch at Erin and many others when it analyzed results from the first year schools used a new teacher evaluation system that includes multiple measures such as test scores, observations, student surveys and other elements to help identify teachers strengths and areas for improvement.
Many States have introduced such evaluation systems over the past several years, responding to strong evidence that teaching is the single biggest in-school influence on student learning. However, if principals cannot accurately discern differences in the performances they observe, they cannot provide teachers constructive feedback on how they can do more to increase student achievement.
After its analysis, the State identified schools with the biggest gaps between principals’ observations and student achievement. It then hired eight coaches over the next two years to work with the principals at 116 schools.
Improved Feedback, Improved Teaching, Improved Student Achievement
After the coaching, principals were able to give teachers better feedback, teachers’ performance improved and student learning accelerated, according to a State analysis. Luke Kohlmoos, the former director of evaluation at the TDOE, said observation scores changed immediately after coaching. But, he said, that was not the goal.
“The change is what happens after you score accurately,” Kohlmoos said. “This is about feedback and development of teachers; it’s not necessarily about the number of teachers getting high observation scores.”
Kohlmoos said the coaching “was way more effective than anticipated” in terms of the improvements in teaching that resulted.
Student achievement across the schools that received coaching in the first year rose, on average, faster than the gains made statewide. The same thing happened during the second year of coaching at other schools in SY 2013-2014. “We are very optimistic that these gains are real,” Kohlmoos said.
But he said the State won’t know for sure until the results have been reviewed independently. He said the State is doing a formal evaluation to determine if the changes in student achievement were due to the coaching, resulted from other factors or occurred by chance.
Meanwhile, the State is continuing the coaching in SY 2014–2015, using a combination of State funds and foundation grants. For the current school year, in addition to working with schools with large disparities in ratings, coaches will work with principals’ supervisors to help them.
More advanced classes, more professional learning available when small districts work together.
Like small school districts in rural areas across the United States, those in the Appalachia region of Ohio face particular challenges—teachers are harder to recruit and retain, professional learning opportunities are infrequent for the teachers who are there, and advanced classes are limited because there are too few students to justify offering them. Not surprisingly, perhaps, only 30 percent of those who graduate from this area of southeast Ohio go straight to college, less than half the national rate. The percentage of adults over the age of 25 with college degrees in the region is 12 percent, also less than half the national rate.
Believing that they could better address those issues if they worked together, 21 small school districts in the southeastern part of the State decided in the fall of 2009 to form the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative (OAC). The districts were small, with some having fewer than 500 students. Collectively, however, they had 34,000 students; only Columbus and Cleveland school districts had more.
The districts in the OAC have leveraged this partnership to attract more than $25 million in public and private grants from a variety of sources, including the State’s Race to the Top grant and Straight A Innovation Fund. That financial support made it possible to give teachers more opportunities for professional learning about formative instructional practices, the use of value-added data to adjust their instruction, college and career readiness planning, and change leadership. It also connected them with peers in other districts who they can learn from, and helped increase the number of advanced classes offered across the collaborative.
“The glue that brought the districts together was the goal of enhancing opportunities for kids in rural communities,” said Brad Mitchell, who facilitates the collaborative on behalf of Battelle for Kids, a Columbus, Ohio-based not-for-profit that works with school districts on instructional improvement through the use of data.
Those efforts are paying off: the graduation rate among the districts increased from 85 percent in 2010 to 92 percent in 2012, more students are earning college credits while still in high school, more students are taking the ACT college entrance examination, and college enrollment is up.
Teachers are advising the State, working with colleagues, and designing a model curriculum aligned with college- and career-ready standards.
Elizabeth Johnson has taught mathematics for 10 years in Ironton, Ohio, a town of about 11,000 people along the Ohio River. She also serves on the teacher leadership team at Ironton High School, as well as the building and district leadership teams.
Given all of her experiences as a leader, it wasn’t surprising that she also was one of about 50 educators who the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) asked in 2013 to join the State’s Network of Regional Leaders (NRL) for mathematics. The mathematics network is one of five in the State that were convened by the ODE to help lead teachers and school districts through the transition to new, more rigorous college- and career-ready standards and new assessments to go along with them.
Like other States, Ohio is using part of its grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program to support the writing of model curricula for mathematics and English language arts aligned with those standards, develop formative assessments, train teachers and redesign teacher evaluation and feedback systems.
In doing so, the State has made it a priority to ensure that frontline educators such as Johnson—teachers, coaches, mentors and curriculum developers—are taking the lead in these activities. They advise the State on how its policies are affecting their schools and classrooms and also help their colleagues understand and adjust to the changes that lie ahead of them.
Promising practices and lessons learned from four Race to the Top – District grantees released.
The traditional model of education has been based on a teacher delivering a fixed curriculum at a fixed pace. Educators across the country have increasingly been adopting a personalized learning approach that will prepare students to succeed in a 21st century, globally competitive society. Through this approach, educators can customize lessons based on the pace and learning style of each student and can actively engage the student by centering learning on student interests, progress, and mastery.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) supports school districts’ efforts to personalize and enhance student learning through Race to the Top – District (RTT-D) grants. The RTT-D program supports bold, locally directed improvements in learning and teaching that will directly improve student achievement. RTT-D districts serve as innovation laboratories, advancing new ways to educate students. OII recently released a report that highlights some of these districts’ initial experiences, which is intended to serve as a resource for school leaders pursuing a path to personalizing student learning.
Personalized Learning in Progress: Case Studies of Four Race to the Top-District Grantees’ Early Implementation shares the experiences of four diverse school districts as they adopt personalized learning approaches. The four districts — Iredell-Statesville Schools (N.C.), Miami-Dade County Public Schools (Fla.), New Haven Unified School District (Calif.), and Metropolitan School District of Warren Township (Ind.) — represent a range of geographies, student populations, academic content areas, and approaches to personalized learning.
Each district developed its own strategy catered to its students’ unique needs. For example, Miami-Dade County Public Schools focused its personalized learning efforts on a single subject area with a demonstrated need for reform — middle school mathematics. The district expanded their iPrep Academy concept that had been in operation in one high school since 2010. With the RTT-D support, iPrep Math learning centers were created at each of the district’s 49 middle schools starting in the 2013-2014 school year. This involved transforming the physical classroom environments and changing teaching methods to better support personalized learning. The new centers and personalized learning approach, for instance, fostered settings in which three teachers could work collaboratively with a class of 60 students at the same time.
Read more about the case studies and the four school districts through this post on the OII home page. Or click here to read and download Personalized Learning in Progress: Case Studies of Four Race to the Top-District Grantees’ Early Implementation.