Innovative Massachusetts Schools Foster Deeper Engagement with Hands-On Learning

Two students, a male and a female, work on a science project.

Eighth grade Renaissance students participate in a rollercoaster expedition. Photo Credit: Springfield Renaissance School Teacher.

Flexible scheduling gives students more control of their learning, allows them to explore wide array of topics.

Tinsae, a rising 11th grader who is passionate about computer science, had a little taste of what it’s like to be a teacher last winter: he was allowed to share some of his extensive knowledge of programming with his fellow students at The Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“That whole week, I got to teach what I loved,” Tinsae said. “I wanted people to be aware of the potential in the IT field. I was really nervous because I didn’t think people would be interested, but it turned out people were really interested.”

School staff helped Tinsae put together the lessons for the programming group, which was just one of many mini-courses offered during two weeks his school dedicates to “intensives.” The intensives, most of which are led by teachers, give students a chance to delve deeply into topics such as video production, LEGO robotics and the science of science fiction. The school uses these courses to give students more control over their learning, by allowing some students to share what they learn and letting all students choose which ones to take.

To help Tinsae deepen his knowledge of IT even more, the school helped him get an internship in which he will try to hack into the computer system of insurance company Mass Mutual to test its security measures.This graphic includes the following text. The title is “Innovation School Autonomies.” Under the title are six bullets, with the following six autonomies listed: curriculum, budget, school schedule and calendar, staffing, professional development, and school district policies.

The Springfield Renaissance School is one of 54 “innovation schools” serving approximately 21,000 students in 26 school districts across the State. Under legislation signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in 2010, the schools operate with greater autonomy in six key areas (see text box) allowing them to try different approaches to increase student learning and close achievement gaps. However, if the schools don’t meet the agreed upon measurable annual goals developed by the innovation plan committee and approved by the local school district, then the school committee may, at the request of the district superintendent 1) limit one or more components of the innovation plan, 2) suspend one or more components of the innovation plan, or 3) terminate the authorization of the school; provided that the limitation and/or suspension does not take place prior to the completion of the second year of operation and that termination does not take place prior to the completion of the third full year of operation.

The innovation schools statute lists 15 eligible applicants that can establish an innovation school, including parents, teachers, principals, and community organizations. Massachusetts previously provided competitive funding to support the innovation school planning process through the State’s Race to the Top award and Gates Foundation funding and now funds these grants with State resources. The schools can be new, conversions of existing schools, or academies that operate as part of larger schools. The first stage of the innovation school approval process includes a two-thirds vote of the innovation school prospectus by the 3-person screening committee that includes the school district’s superintendent, a representative from the local teacher’s union, and a representative from the local school committee. The second stage of the process includes the development of the detailed innovation plan by the innovation plan committee, a two-thirds vote of the teachers in the school that is proposed for conversion, a public hearing, and approval by the majority of the school committee.  The detailed innovation plan must clearly articulate the areas of autonomy and flexibility proposed and how they are expected to improve student achievement.

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Tennessee Teachers Learn How Peers in China Team Up to Improve Instruction

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.

Sign with the state of Tennessee on it reading, Teacher Town USA

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

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?’”

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Ohio Builds Principals’ Leadership Skills to Increase Student Achievement

A student, seated at his desk, is assisted by a teacher who stands over him and looks at the student's work.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

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.

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Tennessee’s TEAM Coaches Cultivate Supportive, Professional Relationships

TEAM Coach Jack Barnes consults with Kyle Loudermilk, associate principal of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Kingsport, Tennessee.

TEAM Coach Jack Barnes consults with Kyle Loudermilk, associate principal of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Kingsport, Tennessee. Photo credit: Jack Barnes.

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

Rhode Island Partners with Low-Performing Schools to Help Them Improve

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

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.

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Tennessee Principals Receive Coaching on Observing Teachers and Providing Feedback

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

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.

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Rural District Collaboration Increases Opportunities for Ohio Students and Teachers

State Superintendent Richard Ross stands with staff members at the front of a classroom. Meanwhile, four students sit at tables at the front of the classroom working on laptops.

State Superintendent Richard Ross visits a dual enrollment class at Maysville Local Schools in September 2014. Photo Credit: Battelle for Kids

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.

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Ohio Teachers Leading Transition to New Standards

Elizabeth Johnson (standing), a teacher at Ironton High School and a member of the Ohio Network of Regional Leaders for mathematics, reports to her District Leadership Team on students’ progress toward mastering Ohio’s New Learning Standards for mathematics. To her right is Bill Dressel, the Curriculum and Federal Programs Director of the Ironton City Schools. She is looking over the shoulder of Lee Anne Mullens, from the high school’s English Department. On her left around the table are Joe Rowe, principal; Travis Kleinman, high school guidance counselor; and Nancy Sutton, intervention specialist. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Johnson

Elizabeth Johnson (standing), a teacher at Ironton High School and a member of the Ohio Network of Regional Leaders, reports to her District Leadership Team on students’ progress toward mastering Ohio’s New Learning Standards for mathematics. To her right is Bill Dressel, Curriculum and Federal Programs Director of the Ironton City Schools. She is looking over the shoulder of Lee Anne Mullens, from the high school’s English Department. On her left around the table are Joe Rowe, principal; Travis Kleinman, high school guidance counselor; and Nancy Sutton, intervention specialist. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Johnson.

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.

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