Teaching is a craft. Here at the Institute for University School Partnership we believe that honing this craft takes years of practice and strong guidance. Through our New Teacher Support team, we aim to help schools develop programs to mentor new teachers and create a culture of learning and inquiry around teaching and learning that permeates the entire school community.
The resources provided here are aimed at different aspects of induction leaders in a school. Through a team approach, we believe that new teachers can be supported and nurtured as they enter the field and develop their skills. Through this support we hope that these new teachers will, overtime, refine their craft and perhaps someday offer their own expertise to new teachers in their schools.
Building Professional Learning Communities Through Beginning Teacher Induction?
Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Mandel Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis, is the Director of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education. At Michigan State University, where she served on the faculty for twenty years, Sharon co-directed a field-based teacher education program and conducted research on teacher education, new teacher induction and mentoring in the U.S., England and China. Sarah Birkeland, Research Affiliate at The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is co-author of Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in our Schools (Jossey-Bass, 2004), as well as numerous articles about new teachers' experiences in schools.
Beginning teacher induction has become a hot topic in education, as a proposed solution to high rates of teacher turnover and persistent shortages of qualified teachers in some subjects and grade levels. Numerous books, articles and workshops for school leaders argue the case for systematic beginning teacher induction and offer strategies for creating strong programs. [For example, see Johnson and the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers (2004), Breaux & Wong (2003), Moir (2003).] Simultaneously, the idea that our schools must become professional learning communities if they are to provide a 21st century education to an increasingly diverse student body has garnered equal attention in education circles. A parallel set of books, articles and workshops for school leaders argues the case for professional learning communities and details their characteristics. [For example, see Little (1999), Lieberman (1996), Meier (1992).]
The induction of beginning teachers and the development of school-level professional learning communities are often treated as separate issues, requiring separate resources and interventions. This may be due, in part, to the tendency of policy makers and practitioners to discuss induction as a formal program for beginning teachers something that can be designed, funded and implemented and to discuss a professional learning community more as a cultural phenomenon. An influential 2005 report by the National Commission on Teaching and Americas Future (NCTAF), entitled “Induction into Learning Communities” develops an idea that has become increasingly apparent in recent years: the two topics are not separate at all; rather, they are deeply connected.
At Brandeis University’s Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, a partnership with Jewish day schools focused on new teacher induction provides a vivid reminder of how the two are linked, and how one can lead to another. Current collaborations with four day schools in the Boston area, aimed at building strong, school-based systems of beginning teacher induction, create opportunities for faculty and administrators to develop the understandings and commitments that underpin a true professional learning community. These experiences are helping us understand how a focus on induction, a worthy end in itself, can be an effective vehicle for opening up conversations about professional culture and practices that promote such transformation.
The Connection between Induction and Professional Learning Communities
If one thinks of beginning teacher induction not only as a program of support and development, but also as a process of introducing novice teachers to a schools prevailing culture, values and practices, the link between beginning teacher induction and professional learning communities becomes apparent. This conceptualization of induction moves beyond the image of a structured set of activities for beginning teachers, and focuses attention on the school as a site for teacher learning, including learning the professional norms of the school and what it means to be a teacher there (Feiman-Nemser, Schwille, Carver and Yusko, 1999). Indeed, researchers from the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers argue that we cannot focus on beginning teacher induction as an isolated initiative; formal structures such as mentoring or new teacher orientation are meaningless unless they occur in supportive professional cultures (Johnson et al, 2004).
The recent NCTAF report asks the rhetorical question, “If all schools were truly learning communities, would we even need to talk about mentoring?” (2005, p. 2) Since most schools are not yet true professional learning communities, and many are just now considering how to work towards becoming one, the question is optimistic at best. Perhaps a more productive question is how can a considered focus on beginning teacher induction, and its associated practices (such as mentoring), help move a school towards becoming a true professional learning community?
A New Approach to Fostering Induction
At our Center, a team of educators and researchers is collaborating on a project called the Induction Partnership. We have deployed coaches to help build strong systems of new teacher induction in a group of diverse, local Jewish day schools. Our initial goal for the 2-year coaching project was to help make these schools educative environments in which beginning teachers could thrive, by instituting a system of supports specifically geared towards addressing their needs. As they focus their resources and attention on beginning teacher induction, the schools in our partnership are looking more and more like professional learning communities.
The Induction Partnership differs from other beginning teacher induction initiatives in several ways. First, our team entered partnerships with four local Jewish day schools with the notion that induction is both a process of enculturation and a program of support and development, and that its implications are school-wide. We determined to help school leaders institute elements associated with strong induction, such as information-rich hiring, orientation, mentoring, curricular support and transparent teacher evaluation processes (Johnson et al, 2004). Yet we have been doing so with an eye towards creating professional learning communities, by encouraging educative mentoring practices (Feiman-Nemser, 1998), and facilitating ongoing critical examination of the professional communities new teachers enter. Feiman-Nemser and her colleagues wrote in 1999, “Few induction programs regard cultural transformation as a condition of their success” (p. 20). We do. A focus on beginning teacher induction is our means and professional learning communities are our goal.
Getting from Here to There
It is not possible to work towards a goal without clarity about what it entails. Therefore it is worth pausing to consider what defines a professional learning community. While definitions vary, central to most definitions is an emphasis on productive teacher talk: in a true professional learning community, teachers regularly discuss teaching and learning with the intention of improving their practice and reaching shared goals for student learning. Some of the practices identified with professional learning communities include co-planning, peer observation and discussion of teaching, and looking at student work.
Just as structures alone do not make a strong induction program, practices alone do not define a professional learning community. Equally important are the shared understandings that animate those practices. In a true learning community, administrators, teachers and parents share a vision of the kind of student they want to educate, an understanding about the nature of teaching and learning to teach, and a commitment to the school as a site for professional learning. Those shared visions, understandings and commitments (which we refer to here, generally, as shared understandings) in turn drive the way colleagues interact with one another. Our induction partnership team has framed the shared understandings that undergird a professional learning community in a Jewish Day School in the following way:
Among the administrators, teachers and parents in a true professional learning community, there is:
These shared understandings are not present in most schools, nor are they reflected in society. Most schools have mission statements, yet few faculties truly use them as a guide or connect them to shared standards for teaching practice. Articulating a clear vision of what good teaching looks like counters strong cultural norms of individualism and privacy among day school faculties, which reinforce an image of teachers as lone artisans, following their passions behind closed doors. The idea that teaching is intellectual work contradicts wider societal beliefs about who goes into teaching and what the practice of teaching entails; and the notion that all teachers need ongoing professional development counters the assumption that teachers who graduate from pre-service education programs are highly qualified with all of the skills and knowledge they need. Because these understandings do not appear naturally in a school, they must be carefully cultivated. Without them, collaborative practices such as mentoring and looking at student work fall flat, and teacher talk about instruction is unlikely to lead to real learning.
But how do you cultivate something as nebulous as a shared vision, belief or commitment, particularly when everyone is distracted by the day-to-day challenges of running a school? This is very difficult, and likely one of the reasons that school leaders and policy makers so often begin with creating structures (like assigning mentors or scheduling sessions to analyze student work). It is much easier than creating culture (like instantiating the belief that teachers should be collectively responsible for their colleagues professional learning).
We know that administrators cannot mandate beliefs. Ultimately, teachers must see a good reason to embrace the shared understandings that allow for the creation of true professional learning communities. One way to get them there is through an intensive focus on induction, which puts experienced teachers in the role of school- based teacher educator and opens sustained, facilitated conversations about how to develop the practice of beginners. This gives experienced teachers an authentic reason to discuss teaching and learning, and at least initially a safe focus that is outside of their own practice. As experienced teacher-leaders guide novices, both may experience a mini-apprenticeship in serious professional talk, developing a common language about instruction and skills for collaboration. They may then take that language and those collaborative skills into the greater school community. Betty Achinstein, of the New Teacher Center, writes, “Teacher leaders in induction are strategically situated to have a ‘ripple effect’ ”, impacting both classroom practice and school culture (2001, p. 50). Below are some examples of how such cultural transformation can begin to take hold, drawn from our experiences in the Induction Partnership.
A Shared Vision of the Schools Mission
A strong system of induction begins with an inclusive, information-rich hiring process (Liu and Johnson, 2006) in which candidates learn enough about the school community, and school leaders learn enough about the candidate, to ensure a proper fit. As our induction coaches examine school-level hiring practices with partnering administrators, conversations about the mission of the school, and how best to communicate it to potential applicants, naturally arise. Including faculty and parents in hiring, as best practices in induction suggest (ibid), means also including them in articulating what the school stands for and hopes to achieve.
One of the induction coaches observed that planning for the induction and support of new teachers, both general and Jewish Studies, created natural occasions to discuss and clarify the Jewish mission of the school. She recently reflected in her coaching journal:
In our mentor meeting, as we discussed the problem of helping new Jewish Studies teachers, it became clear that the lack of strong vision of the Judaic knowledge and skills expected of a graduate from our school, as well as the lack of curricular materials to carry out the vision, make working with new teachers particularly challenging What do we want Jewish Studies teachers to know and be able to do? What do we want students to know at the end? (2006)
By engaging questions such as these, the schools in our partnership are working towards a clearer articulation of their Jewish missions, learning goals for students, and attendant instructional goals for teachers.
Shared Understandings about Teaching
If we are to foster beginning teachers success, it must be clear what “success” looks like. This can be surprisingly murky. Early in our induction partnership, we interviewed beginning teachers about their experiences during the first few months of school. As part of the interview, we asked them what their formal evaluations would be based on. Some beginning teachers did not know. Several others said that their evaluation would surely be based on parent satisfaction. The rest offered ideas ranging from how caring they were towards students to how well they understood the content they were teaching.
Coaches shared the beginning teachers perceptions with administrators, urging them to clarify and communicate the standards for teacher evaluation. This is not a straightforward task and the coaches request prompted a good deal of thinking and discussion among school leaders and experienced faculty about what good teaching looks like, how to recognize it, and how to support novices in growing towards it. Several partner schools have since reconsidered their evaluation processes and increased the frequency with which administrators and other support staff communicate with beginning teachers about their practice. One partner school has formed a committee of teachers and administrators to draft school-specific standards for instruction. These small steps represent progress in developing a shared understanding of what good teaching looks like in a given schools, something we believe is essential to the formation of true professional learning communities.
Shared Understandings about Learning
An induction coach noted that when she began working with her partner school, simply introducing the idea that beginning teachers need different kinds of supervision and support than their experienced counterparts was powerful. It opened new conversations among administrators and faculty about how teachers practice develops over the span of a career and what teachers at different career stages need to learn (Feiman-Nemser, 2001). Making time for these conversations, and allowing teachers and administrators to acknowledge publicly that it takes time to develop the understandings and skills necessary for effective teaching, became a foundational step of the induction program at that school. The acknowledgment has in turn led to some policy changes: for example, administrators have assigned mentors to second year teachers, recognizing that they are still learning to teach, and have begun to stand up to complaining parents, demanding that they be patient as novice teachers find their way.
Conversations among teachers and school leaders continued as the coach encouraged the school to adopt a model of beginning teacher mentoring, and our team provided training for the experienced teachers selected to be mentors. The mentor training opened a series of important questions: What are we supporting teachers to know and be able to do? When a mentor observes a beginner, what should he or she be looking for? When a beginning teacher observes a mentor, what practices should the mentor model? What does good teaching look like at our school, and how do teachers grow into it over time?
We have introduced examples of teaching standards, accompanied by developmental continua, such as those created by the DeLeT Program at Brandeis, the New Teacher Center at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the School Leadership Institute at the Boston Public Schools. Mentors examine the developmental continua, trying to find apt descriptions of their own teaching practice and the practice of their mentees for each standard. This has led quite naturally to a consideration of what kinds of learning opportunities teachers beginning and experienced need in order to move towards proficiency. As one mentor reflected at the end of a training session, “The standards and continuum help me think more deliberately about my own teaching, which impacts my mentoring. I have so much to learn! “
In the second year of our partnership, mentors at three of our schools have initiated study groups, rounds, and looking at student work in order to deepen their own understandings of instructional practice. They have invited novices to participate in these activities; in one school a beginning teacher hosted a recent session of rounds, inviting experienced and novice colleagues to study an aspect of her teaching and give her feedback. Mentors in our partner schools have urged administrators to give teachers time to collaborate and professional development to foster the necessary skills for productive collaboration. These changes, initiated by teacher-leaders rather than mandated by administrators, reflect the development of a shared understanding that teaching is complex work, and learning to do it well takes time, collaboration and on-going professional development.
Provision for the Serious Learning
In one of our partner schools, teams of teachers have shared classrooms for years, but administrators observed that those teachers rarely co-taught, co-planned, or debriefed lessons. The induction coach found that assigning experienced teammates “official” roles as mentors to the novices on the team gave them newfound permission to talk about teaching and learning with their mentees. It also opened a school-wide discussion about the purposes and potential benefits of teaming.
School leaders asked that mentors and mentees observe one another regularly, thereby legitimizing a practice from which teachers previously had shied away: watching and discussing one another’s practice. This is not to say that assigning new roles and requiring regular observations gave the teachers necessary skills for deep and candid discussion of practice; those collaborative practices are still developing. However the permission alone was important. Making the mentoring role official and the expectation of regular observations explicit helped promote the idea that teachers are responsible for one another’s growth, and that schools should provide for their serious learning. As pairs of teachers in the school gain comfort in talking about teaching, our coach anticipates Achinstein’s “ripple effect” in the greater school community.
In the second year of the partnership, each school has developed a cadre of mentors who share responsibility for the support and development of new teachers. Mentors meet regularly to discuss their practice and learn strategies for developing their mentees skills. Two schools have appointed an experienced teacher to serve as the official leader of beginning teacher induction, responsible for such activities as coordinating mentoring, participating in hiring, facilitating new teacher orientation, and organizing teacher study groups. Coaches have observed that the mentors, in discussing how best to support novices, often grapple with school-wide issues related to professional learning. For example, in discussing how to help novices determine what to teach, mentors review the adequacy of available curricula. In discussing how to support novices in learning how to teach certain concepts and skills to students, mentors review the current structure of formal professional development, and share their feedback with administrators.
This did not happen overnight. It has required a substantial investment of time and energy on the part of coaches, school leaders, and mentors. It has also required a deliberate effort on the part of coaches to connect the induction activities to the shared understandings that animate professional learning communities. Coaches are not just creating structures, they are brokering ideas. As we continue to work towards the goal of fostering professional learning communities, we are beginning to see evidence of the shared understandings, some more clearly than others, and all at different levels of development across the four partner schools. As the second and final year of coaching ends, we are contemplating how to help partner schools sustain and extend the growth they have already made in becoming true professional learning communities, 21st century day schools in which all teachers (and their students) can thrive.
Achinstein, B. (2001). Building a community of learners and leaders for transformational induction programs. The New Teacher Center at Santa Cruz. Draft copy dated 4/7/01 available at www.newteachercenter.org.
Breaux, A.L. and Wong H.K. (2003). New teacher induction: How to train, support and retain new teachers. Mountain View, CA. Harry K. Wong Publications.
Feiman-Nemser, S. (2001). From preparation to practice: Designing a continuum to strengthen and sustain teaching. Teachers College Record, Vol. 103(6), 1013-1055.
Feiman-Nemser, S. (1998). Teachers as teacher educators. European Journal of Teacher Education, 21 (1), pp. 63-74.
Feiman Nemser, S., Schwille, S., Carver, C. and Yusko, B. (1999). A conceptual review of the literature on new teacher induction. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Fulton, K., Yoon, I. and Lee, C. (2005). Induction into learning communities. Prepared for the National Commission on Teaching and Americas Future, Washington, DC, August, 2005. Available at www.nctaf.org.
Johnson, S.M. and the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers (2004). Finders and keepers: Helping new teachers survive and thrive in our schools. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Kardos, S.M., Johnson, S.M., Kauffman, D.C., Peske, H.G., and Liu, E.P. (2001). Counting on colleagues: New teachers encounter the professional cultures of their schools, Educational Administration Quarterly, 37(2), pp. 250-290.
Lieberman, A. (1996). Practices that support teacher development. In
M.W. McLaughlin and I. Oberman (eds) Teacher learning: New policies, new practices, pp. 185-201. New York: Teachers College Press.
Little, J.W. (1999). Organizing schools for teacher learning. In L.D. Hammond and G. Sykes (eds) Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lui, E. and Johnson, S.M. (2006). New teachers experiences of hiring: Late, rushed and information-poor, Educational Administration Quarterly, 42(3), pp. 324-360.
Meier, D. (1992) Reinventing teaching. Teachers College Record, 93 (4), 494-509.
Moir, E. (2003). Launching the next generation of teachers through quality induction. A paper presented at the NCTAF State Partners Symposium, Santa Cruz, California, July, 2003.
This was written by Barnett Behttp://www.teachingquality.org/about-barnett-berryrry, founder and president of the Center for Teaching Quality, Inc., based in Hillsborough, N.C., which seeks to improve student achievement by advancing teaching as a 21st-century, results-oriented profession.
By Barnett Berry
There’s a lot of talk today about making our schools better and our teachers more effective. Researchers confirm that the right teachers can make a big difference in how much students learn, even in the most challenging schools. But scholars, educators, union leaders and policy wonks still disagree, sometimes vehemently, over what good teaching looks like. And it’s a high-stakes question. Political leaders at every level are demanding we evaluate and pay teachers based on student test scores and value-added statistical formulas. If that turns out to be a bad strategy, the long-term ramifications for the nation could be staggering.
Incredible as it seems, 11 years into the new millennium decision makers are still opting for a patchwork teaching policy that often lowers entry standards to keep salaries and preparation costs down.
We spend too much time debating 20th century arguments — e.g., whether or not Teach for America or university-based certification programs are the best ways to recruit and train teachers. What we need instead are millions of well-prepared, highly savvy teachers who know how to teach the iGeneration and work successfully in teams in order to serve diverse public school populations that include large numbers of English language learners and students from poverty.
Teaching in the 21st century is complex, challenging work, and the fiction that “anyone can be a teacher” threatens our future. We have entered an era of rapid and inexorable change, where the real “high stakes” must be measured at a global level. We don’t have time for myths. Here are five that often distract policymakers from creating the results-oriented teaching profession students deserve.
Myth #1: Teacher preparation matters little for student achievement.
Research Realities: Some research suggests that new recruits from Teach for America and other fast-entry programs perform about as well as those from traditional, university-based teacher training – leading many to assume that in-depth teacher preparation matters little for student achievement. But what if neither approach is giving us the teachers we need? The National Bureau of Economic Research found that beginning teachers with more extensive clinical training (including a full-year internship – like doctors get) actually produce higher student achievement gains than those from either traditional university programs or alternative pathways. Recent research also tells us that teacher who enter with too little preparation are likely to leave the profession much sooner than those who have a thorough grasp of the fundamentals – and they’re less likely to be effective over time.
Myth #2: Teaching experience matters little for student achievement.
We keep hearing that teaching experience beyond the initial three years or so does not necessarily produce higher student test scores. But recent studies say that more experience does matter (up to 20 years) for student achievement when the conditions are ripe – that is, when teachers teach the same subjects and grade levels consistently, especially during their first five years of teaching. Other researchers have shown that experienced, expert teachers know more than novices and organize their knowledge of content, teaching strategies, and students more effectively, retrieve it more readily, and can apply it in novel and creative ways. More seasoned experts are also better prepared to overcome some of the stressful working conditions found in many high-needs schools. Experience does not guarantee effective teaching, but when schools are organize to draw on its best teachers, it matters a lot.
Myth #3: Removing incompetent teachers will fix our schools.
Research Realities: In any professional workplace, dismissing ineffective employees makes common sense. But the best evidence indicates that the percentage of ineffective teachers in American public schools is far lower than media reports might suggest. For example, the Teacher Advancement Program, which includes many thousands of teachers across the United States, uses both student test results and observational methods to assess teaching effectiveness. Only a very small fraction of TAP teachers are rated ineffective. Over 85 percent have been deemed proficient (with a score of 3 or above) and almost one-third earn a score of 4 or above on a 5-point scale. There’s ample evidence that we are obsessing on a small problem while we give short shrift to professional development strategies that could move large numbers of teachers from satisfactory to excellent.
Myth #4: Teacher tenure rules make it impossible to get rid of poor teachers.
Research Realities: A recent study by The New Teacher Project clearly shows that the difficulty in removing ineffective teachers has much more to do with ill-trained and supported administrators than tenure rules. Another report from the Center for American Progress concluded that poor evaluation procedures – not tenure – are most likely to account for a school district’s inability to fire poor performers. Teacher tenure is prevalent in “high achievement” nations like Finland. In America, poor teacher evaluation is common (epidemic, in fact) in school districts with or without unions and tenure. Tenure reform is necessary, but the bigger issue is eliminating the widespread educational malpractice associated with broken evaluation systems, which not only stymie teacher development but student achievement.
Myth #5: Merit pay will motivate teachers to teach more effectively.
Research Realities: In the most rigorous study to date, scholars from Vanderbilt University and the RAND Corporation plainly conclude that “rewarding teachers with bonus pay, in the absence of any other support programs, does not raise student test scores.” Performance pay plans can make a difference for student achievement when they are designed to improve the school climate and encourage teacher collaboration. Studies of effective performance pay systems tell us that: (1) teachers must be involved in the design and implementation; (2) costs need to be known and made public prior to program launch; (3) the system cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach – districts and schools need to be able to adapt based on local contexts; and (4) one or two direct measures of student learning (like standardized test scores) cannot be the only basis for rewards.
These myths drive today’s teaching policies and continue to ground solutions in yesterday’s challenges. They distract us from the demands that teachers already face today and that will only intensify tomorrow. We need to identify our most effective teachers, using fair, rigorous and valid measures, and let them lead the way in removing ineffective colleagues. Most important, we need to invest far more in teacher education and school redesign policies reflective of 21st century demands on our public schools. More than anything else today’s policy focus must spread the expertise our best teachers, in and out of cyberspace.
In TEACHING 2030, a new book I’ve authored with 12 outstanding teachers, we build a compelling case that for teachers to be effective now and in the future, they must know how to:
(1) teach the Googled learner, who has grown up on smartphones and virtual reality games and can find information (if not understanding) with a few taps of the finger;
(2) work with a student body that’s increasingly diverse (by 2030, 40 percent or more will be second-language learners);
(3) prepare students to compete for jobs in a global marketplace where communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creative problem solving are the “new basics”;
(4) help students monitor their own learning – using sophisticated tools to assess whether students meet high academic standards and fine-tuning instruction when they don’t; and
(5) connect teaching to the needs of communities as economic churn creates family and societal instability, pushing schools to integrate health and social services with academic learning.
As described in TEACHING 2030, far too preparation programs, including both alternative and traditional ones, cultivate teachers with these skills. Even fewer schools are organized to create opportunities for our best teachers — or teacherpreneurs — to teach students regularly as well as lead pedagogical and policy reforms outside their classrooms. Now’s the time to transcend the usual debates over how to make our schools better and our teachers more effective – and break free of the myths that keep us fighting 20th century battles. Instead we need to look hard at the realities, framed by research evidence as well as the challenges teachers face everyday, in pointing the way toward a 21st century teaching profession demanded by our nation’s public schools.
In this thoughtful Kappan article, professor Richard Allington and graduate teaching associate Rachael Gabriel of the University of Tennessee/Knoxville, and Brookline, Massachusetts literacy specialist Jeni Peiria Day report on their study of 30 fourth-grade teachers from around the U.S. who have been getting excellent results in high-poverty schools.
Amy, one of the teachers, captured the questing spirit of the group: “I have a really strong belief – and since I started teaching – that the kids’ success, I really believe, is up to me. And I feel like if the kids are not getting it, if they’re floundering or a few kids are lagging behind or failing or whatever, I look at that as my failure. And so I figure there’s something else I need to be doing if they are not getting it.”
This spirit led teachers like Amy to become expert “child watchers” and seek out the most effective classroom methods and materials. In interviews, they all pointed to three key factors that supported their development:
• Professional development – This was not standard PD on methods, materials, and strategies but training that provided a systematic way to observe and interpret students’ work and actions. Two examples: Reading Recovery, which teaches a specific framework for observing and teaching reading to struggling first graders; and a course about writing Individual Education Plans that provided a structure and set of guidelines for collecting information through informal, ongoing observations.
• Collegial support – The teachers all had a peer support network in which they could share ideas and speak reflectively about practice. These included mentors, grade-level or subject teams, and sometimes informal partnerships, such as a teacher who would walk into the other fourth-grade teacher’s classroom and say, “Help! What are your ideas on this?”, and another who shared ideas from educational journals with a colleague in her school.
• Engaged autonomy – All the teachers spoke about administrators who allowed them significant independence to try out ideas yet stayed in touch with the process and the results. One teacher in Texas described an administrator who said, “Try it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. And, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about what went wrong, let’s talk about what went right.”
“Our hope,” conclude Allington, Gabriel, and Day, “is that this synthesis of voices of exemplary teachers will encourage administrators to loosen the strictures of mandated practice in order to make room for teachers to innovate context-specific solutions that match the individual needs of their students. Allowing teachers to work together and try new things with few instructional mandates is worth the risk.”
“Exemplary Teacher Voices on Their Own Development” by Rachael Gabriel, Jeni Peiria Day, and Richard Allington in Phi Delta Kappan, May 2011 (Vol. 92, #8, p. 37-41),
Protocols for observing teachers in the classroom during an evaluation should be written in such a way as to leave little room for inference so ratings are clear and objective, asserts a report released this week by the New Teacher Project.
For example, the measures should avoid vague requirements like "teacher checks for student understanding," and instead should be tightly written and specific, such as: "Students show through guided practice, exit slips, and role playing that they understand the content of the lesson."
The report lists six "design standards" for teacher evaluations, and writing clear expectations is just one of the six standards. But because all teachers are judged by a set of observation protocol, the issue deserves some special attention here at Teacher Beat.
The ongoing discussion about the appropriate place of test scores in evaluations has sucked up a lot of the air in the teacher-evaluation discussion, but figuring out what to put in observation protocols is no picnic either, as evidenced by debate here in the District of Columbia over its IMPACT teacher-evaluation system.
IMPACT's "Teaching and Learning" framework—used to guide ratings by principals and master educators during their observations—is very specific about how teachers demonstrate that they've met each and every standard. To show that they are correcting students' misunderstandings, for instance, teachers are expected to deploy strategies like "using cue cards, using analogies, using manipulatives or a hands-on model, using 'think-alouds,' " to name but a few listed in the framework.
That level of detail has raised the hackles of some, including George Parker, the president of the Washington Teachers' Union. In The Washington Post, Mr. Parker contended that the IMPACT framework reduces teaching to "bean counting."
Opinions really vary on the value of IMPACT's observation measures. A source of mine, for instance, contended that observation judgments are specific so that it's easier for administrators to document poor performance for dismissals and due-process hearings. On the other hand, some teachers—even those who aren't fans of D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee—told me that they like the detailed standards because it gives them clear targets for how to improve.
There's clearly room for a variety of different opinions on this topic. And here's a question worth asking: How do you get the right "grain size" of detail in these observation standards so that they're objective without being too prescriptive?
Great teachers are among the most respected people in our society. We revere the teachers who shaped our lives and who go the extra mile for our children. It’s the teaching profession that has a status problem — one that prevents it from attracting or keeping enough talented people to deliver on the promise of an excellent education for all.
The biggest obstacle is that teaching is still based on a set of factory-era policies that treat teachers like interchangeable parts. In a 2009 study, my organization labeled this phenomenon the “widget effect.” Most school districts can’t distinguish their highest-performing teachers from their lowest; wrongly, they act as though all teachers are the same.
The widget effect degrades the teaching profession. If you do a fantastic job in your classroom, you can’t expect a fast track up the career ladder or even a pat on the back. You’ll get the same formulaic, seniority-based raise each year as the lower-performing teacher down the hall. During these hard economic times, you might even get a pink slip, since it’s illegal in 14 states to consider job performance in layoff decisions.
If you’re struggling, you can’t expect any feedback to help you get better. You’ll most likely get a “satisfactory” evaluation rating like 99 percent of your colleagues. After a few years, you’ll probably earn tenure, regardless of whether you improve, as will nearly every other teacher.
Nobody wants to be a widget. So how can we elevate the status of a profession that refuses to elevate its own best practitioners? How can teachers earn public trust when the public sees such indifference to excellence or failure?
It's odd that efforts to increase professionalism in education are often derided as “anti-teacher.” The hard truth is that as long as the widget effect persists, teaching will never be an elite profession.
In Wisconsin and elsewhere, teachers unions have taken much of the blame in this debate. But crusading against unions won’t raise the status of teaching any more than will failing to challenge them when they defend counterproductive policies like “last-in, first-out.” The solution is setting high expectations, evaluating teachers fairly and accurately, and making job performance really matter. That’s what we should all be fighting for.
For too long, teacher-to-teacher communication meant exchanging weekend plans in the faculty room. In professional learning community schools, teachers develop interim assessments, common goals, and share best practices. Included: Examples of professional learning communities.
The irony that the universal mission of education -- to prepare students for the next level of learning or life -- has been pursued mostly by isolated classroom teachers, with little regard for strategies used in the classroom next door, is starting to hit home with educators. Many are finding that once teachers start collaborating with colleagues in their schools and other buildings, a chain reaction leads to teachers working smarter and students learning more.
That is what unfolded at Thoreau Middle School in Vienna, Virginia, and James Madison High School, the high school Thoreau students attend, when the schools principals wholeheartedly embraced the ideas of building professional learning communities and using formative assessments to target student weaknesses.
Ive been at this for seven-and-a-half years, and as a principal, this is the most difficult work Ive ever done, said Mark A. Merrell, principal of James Madison High School. If you think about it, [years ago] a teacher went into a classroom and may never have seen another adult all day. In the private sector, there is more focus on teamwork.
What were starting to see nationally is a change of culture of schools -- going from a culture of isolation to more collaboration, Merrell continued. Fifteen years ago, the idea of teach what you want to teach was the way most public schools operated. We havent had teachers working with teachers before. The hard work is breaking through the culture of isolation.
MEETING COMMON GOALS
The two schools are part of a cluster in the sprawling Fairfax County, Virginia, school district. Each cluster includes several high school pyramids that include a high school and its feeder schools, usually a middle school and between five and seven elementary schools.
At Thoreau, part of being a professional learning community means the school is organized into core curriculum areas so teachers can share resources, according to principal Mark Greenfelder. Its an operational structure and culture built into the school to ensure student success, he told Education World. Thoreau now is considered a model professional learning community school and Greenfelder lectures and gives presentations at conferences around the U.S. Im pretty much a skeptic, and this is the most successful model Ive ever seen.
Staff members also keep themselves informed about current educational practices by reading at least two books a year and participating in discussions. We have a very literate, well-read staff, Greenfelder said.
All subject-area teachers at Thoreau have a common planning period that is used to develop assessments and discuss successful and unsuccessful strategies. Using formative assessments, or mini-tests, developed by teachers helps teachers work together and leads to common language, strategies, and learning approaches, Greenfelder added. I believe formative assessments are a tool for getting teachers together to hold discussions.
Teachers review assessment results every two weeks to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of students and share successful approaches with colleagues. Its a bear on the schedule, but worth doing, Greenfelder noted. This is not based on a lot of the nonsense that takes place at a lot of education meetings. This is research and data-based, and we also look at best practices at schools similar to ours. Its a very strategic approach.
KNOWING WHAT LIES AHEAD
Once a month, seventh and eighth grade teachers also meet to discuss what they can do to improve student performance and what they need to do to help students succeed at higher grade levels. For example, one of Merrells goals is for every James Madison student to take at least one Advanced Placement class. To prepare middle-school students for that, all Thoreau students are enrolled in honors science and social studies classes and all eighth graders take algebra. We believe we have the support to help them succeed in high-level classes so they can try them in high school, Greenfelder said.
The strategies and vocabulary for professional learning communities are familiar to parents and teachers in both schools. Were fortunate to apply ideas that work in each others schools, Merrell told Education World. Weve cut down on the transition time from middle to high school -- now kids dont have to learn the vocabulary for high school, such as formative assessments; we use them and use them the same way the middle school does.
While Thoreau was a high-performing school when Greenfelder took over six years ago, now it is one of the top schools in Virginia when it comes to state test scores and making adequate yearly progress (AYP). This has really helped us reduce the achievement gap between minority and other students, Greenfelder told Education World. Now no group of students is below the 90 percentile for proficiency. This is working smarter, not harder.
HELP WHEN NEEDED
James Madison also is organized into curricular teams with common planning time for subject-area teachers. It could be a scheduling nightmare, but this is a priority, Merrell noted. All 11th grade social studies teachers, for example, have a common planning period once a week to discuss curriculum issues. They prepare specific goals based on data and tell Merrell how they plan to meet those goals. Most teachers are not used to making data-driven decisions, he added. Were getting teachers together so they can learn how to do that.
Another strategy paying big dividends is providing academic assistance during the school day for students who are struggling. Every day each student has 35 minutes to get extra help from a teacher or student tutor, do homework, work on projects, or prepare college applications.
have control of the kids between 7:15 a.m. and 2:10 p.m., said Merrell. I have to cut up my school day to get kids intervention during the day. There are just so many things pulling at them.
LOOKING OUT FOR ALL KIDS
When Merrell introduced the professional learning community concept to the faculty, he said it was an effort to reculture the school to allow teachers to collaborate, share best practices, and ensure they are very interested in the achievement of all students in the school. Its taking the best practices of teachers in your school and applying them to all the kids in your school, as opposed to having one superstar teacher who 120 kids were lucky enough to have.
While traditionally an 11th grade social studies teacher might be only concerned with his or her 150 11th grade social studies students. Merrell stressed to the faculty that now all teachers are responsible for all 500 11th graders in the school and for sharing best practices so all students benefit. It makes sense.
This hasnt been easy work, but its been very fulfilling, he added.
DATA TO THE RESCUE
Initially, some teachers were reluctant to participate, Merrell said. Some said, Ive been teaching for so many years, Ive been effective, and why is this different? he said. My response has been that all of us are much stronger than one of us. If we all take responsibility, there is less chance of kids falling through the cracks. When we are using data to drive decision-making as opposed to intuition and anecdotes, it makes it easier to make real clear decisions. If you dont have data to support something, its hard to make an argument hold a lot of water.
Some teachers fear the professional learning communities approach takes some of the individuality out of teaching, Greenfelder said. I agree with that a little, but it does not take away their personality in the classroom, he said. This ensures all students are getting the same level of instruction.
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