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Teacher Development Is Key to Closing the Achievement Gap

Brian Sims

Managing Director for Training Academies and Teacher Development at AUSL
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Brian Sims is managing director of training academies at AUSL in Chicago. Betsy Haley Doyle co-authored this blog. She is a manager in The Bridgespan Group's education practice.

Last June, as principals and teachers from 14 Chicago public school "turnarounds," run by the nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), gathered at the Academy's leadership summit, there was a moment when the room turned silent. A slide went up comparing the percentage of students achieving annual expected growth at each school to the average score for each school's teachers. The figures were based on a sophisticated teacher evaluation tool, the nationally recognized Danielson framework.

Fourteen dots summed up, in a sense, the whole 2009-2010 academic year for 6,500 students, 400 teachers, and 30 school administrators. The only thing missing from the slide was the school names. Finally, one of the principals shouted "Show the names!" The next image labeled the 14 dots by school; all eyes were riveted.

Closing the Achievement Gap

Now, these principals and teachers had a lot to be proud of. The schools assigned to AUSL for turnaround were some of the lowest performing schools in the state. All but one of the eight elementary turnaround schools show substantial gains in closing the achievement gap, with the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards on the state test rising 8-28 percent, compared to the school's pre-turnaround status. And schools are getting better at turning: The first turnaround school took four years to halve the gap; the newest batch took only two, all with a unionized workforce of public school teachers.

What's the story behind the data? For one thing, it tells us that we need a different approach than the tactics we've been using. Simply paying good teachers more, and firing the bad ones is not enough. Nor is countering the union's strength with more non-union schools. For most of America's schools -- and even for turnarounds -- once they're on the path to improvement performance pay, tenure reform, or charters are not enough. Indeed, we need to increase the effectiveness of the vast majority of teachers in the system, or we won't make the progress all students deserve. And that takes a wholly different arsenal.

Researchers have consistently found that teacher effectiveness is the critical component in improving student achievement, but the question has always been, "How do we make sure they are effective?" AUSL is a huge believer in focused professional development to improve teacher effectiveness -- and we're not the only ones. Aspire, which operates in California, and the Teacher Advancement Program, an intermediary working with a national network of states, districts, and schools, have also been trailblazers in developing effective teachers. AUSL begins training new teachers in six "teacher residency" schools, and develops both early stage and experienced teachers in all 19 of the schools we currently manage.

In our experience, there are four key elements to establishing a sustainable system for teacher development:

1. Common Language to Define Teacher Practice

While long-time educators may claim they "know good teaching when they see it," as a system, we need to move toward a shared understanding of what effective teaching looks like and how to identify it. Most teachers -- like any professionals -- want to do good work, but too often they lack solid information about how they're doing. For us, Danielson's framework provides the most accessible lens. Once a teacher can debrief a lesson with an administrator or fellow teacher using a well-designed rubric, meaningful conversations about improvement can begin to occur. Here is an example rubric (PDF).

2. Aligned, Rigorous and Common Student Assessment System

The US is increasingly focused on annual standardized test scores as the key metric of a district's or school's success. While AUSL takes these measures seriously, the year-end tests themselves are not very useful in developing teachers. The scores arrive after school is let out, and the results are too blunt an instrument to divine teach teacher effectiveness or student deficiencies. AUSL has instead invested in tools such as quarterly and weekly assessments that provide "just-in-time" data for every student. Teachers reflect on this data individually, as teams, and with school leaders, using it to modify instruction. In addition, this student achievement data helps us analyze teacher effectiveness. Combining it with Danielson's framework begins to give a more robust profile of our teachers -- and to help identify those who are doing the most, or the least, for our students. Here is a sample assessment (PDF).

3. Systematized "Signature Strategies" for Instruction

Danielson can help us describe the level of a teacher's practice, and student data can help us assess how far a teacher's students have moved against a performance benchmark. But neither provides a roadmap for what a teacher needs to do to get better. We believe it's essential to identify common "signature strategies" that all teachers should know. For example, we've adopted much of Doug Lemov and Bob Marzano's work to build our common language around teacher practice. The goal is to help teachers improve. Once you see a teacher takes too much time to transition her students from one activity to another, you can find the language in Danielson to describe the issue, but you need Lemov's techniques as described in Teach Like a Champion around "what to do, and do it again," to help the teacher tighten up. Teachers should leave a coaching session with concrete action steps to try the next day. AUSL is embedding these strategies into its teacher residency program and turnarounds so that every AUSL staff member speaks the same language about improving practice. Example Signature Strategy roadmap (PowerPoint).

4. Individualized, Active Teacher Coaching

Once we can describe the practice, measure impact, and get very specific about improvement, we find ourselves with a wonderful problem: nearly every teacher has a different plan for improvement!

Some need more work on connecting lesson plans to meaningful objectives. Others need intensive classroom management support. Still others have to deepen their level of questioning and rigor. The good news? We know what's needed. The bad news? We need time and talent to pull it all together. For AUSL, this has meant a heavy investment in teacher coaches - approximately one coach per 20 teachers -- as well as a paradigm shift in how they work with teachers. Gone are the days when coaches simply sat at the back of the room taking notes, then met with the teacher afterward to share observations. Instead, coaches today are actively involved with the teacher, ensuring she doesn't practice mistakes or develop bad habits. Every teacher needs high-quality coaching from a colleague, and a personalized professional development plan. We worked with the Center for Transformative Teaching to develop our real time coaching approach.

Our experience suggests these four key elements, when combined, can support sustained teacher improvement and student achievement. Last June AUSL surveyed 324 of its teachers. The overwhelming majority said that the teacher development process was effective in: improving the achievement of their students (88 percent), their own teaching effectiveness (89 percent) and their job satisfaction (75 percent). Clearly, teachers are ready and eager to participate in serious efforts to improve their own practice.

While there was hardly a neat correlation between teacher evaluation ratings and school performance, the data in that show-stopping slide did show a rough pattern: in general, the higher a school's average teacher evaluation score, the better the school did. AUSL is not just firing weaker teachers and hiring better ones, we are investing in developing them -- every teacher, every school, every year. As our country embraces long overdue reforms in teacher hiring, evaluation, tenure, compensation, and school choice, we must not neglect teacher development. A well-designed and clearly communicated teacher development process is essential for driving measurable and lasting change for schools, educators, and the students who learn with them.

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Yanceyl's picture

I found this blog very informative. I am currently a graduate student and in one of our assignments we dicussed how important it is to be involved and particpate in professional development. I believe that professional development can help us recruit and retain effective teachers to use in the classroom. I believe that in our school system we have great teachers who could become greater if they are educated and informed of new information and practices to use in classroom. Highly qualified teachers are the best resources and tool we can give to our students.

Alison S.'s picture
Alison S.
4th Grade Reading and Math Teacher, Georgia

I think that this was a wonderful posting. It was very informative, and in so many ways, very true. We need to work together to collaborate and participate in teacher development throughtout the school year to better help our students.

Mariah's picture
3rd Grade Teacher

I found this post to be very informative. I believe that helping good teachers become even better is what we should be trying to do instead of just getting rid of them due to one bad test score. Last year was my first year in 3rd grade and my first year as teacher. I have my classroom management where I like it, but I felt I did not meet all the standards in order to be as successful on the CSAP test. Our schools scores were low and therefore I felt my job was at risk. I am lucky to still have a job and to be able to push myself to reflect on my teaching techniques and lessons for next year. I found this post to be beneficial to me in my own professional development. I have also read the book Teach like a Champion and continuously look back on it to help improve my teaching.

Michele Logue's picture
Michele Logue
First Grade teacher from Woodstock, Georgia

This is a great source of information for all educators regardless of grade, or subjects taught. As a nation, it is important we move the pendulum toward a 360-degree view of classrooms. I like the key components mentioned here, but are we still just scratching the surface? The most stimulating key to all of this is how reflection is taking the forefront in the classroom. Integrated in the administrator's observation is a "collaborative reflection" which allows for growth and development for the teacher. I perused the rubric provided and I think it is a powerful tool for teachers to do self-assessments. However, one commonality I have discovered in reflective based practices is how we are now using the term "engaged learning" so much without a clear way to measure it. If an administrator is observing in a classroom, the students are usually on their best behavior, and seem more engaged. For a true testimony of engagement, the reflection process must include feedback from the students. This can then set the stage for extending and refining thinking in students, and help the teacher design or redesign lessons. Being active and responsive to reflection is a great feature I gathered from the rubric. The teacher-coaching element to this sustainable teacher improvement sounds like a valuable investment in our teachers, which can only create a positive trickle effect for our students.

Wylanda's picture

Professional development provides teachers with new experiences to work with. Colleagues can be an excellent resource by sharing ideas, asking/answering questions, giving/getting tips and providing feedback. Professional development prepares teachers with useful information they can implement in the classroom. As educators, there is always room to absorb new knowledge, so being open to new ideas and research can help students' learning. Working with other teachers, it is possible to collaborate and share information and expertise.

Theresa's picture

This post gave me a little more faith in the education profession. I have not been teaching long and already I am bogged down with hearing about horrible teachers and failing schools. It's so easy to place blame on "bad" teachers when test scores aren't up to par. This program is refreshing because it doesn't just want to get rid of teachers- it wants to invest in them. Isn't that what true education is all about? We can't get rid of students if they aren't perfect in our rooms. We invest in the. We believe in them. We help them achieve all that they are able to achieve. I like the idea of administrators investing in their teaching staff and for being proactive in improving teacher, and consequently, student achievement.

Allison's picture

I really enjoyed this perspective of teacher development. Teaching can not be done alone if we want the students to succeed.

Lacey J.'s picture
Lacey J.
Special Education Teacher -Upstate NY

Building the professional development of teachers, rather then tossing them aside is exactly what we as teachers do for our students. It is wonderful to hear of an organization that does the same for educators.
The first step of this organization is to put all educators on the same page or wavelength as to what is expected of them and what practices they need to be exemplifying. Making sure that all teachers in the same school are working towards the same goal creates a unity for the teachers in collaboration as well as student expectations. Giving teacher time to converse together is just one step in creating professional learning communities.

Providing frequent and rigorous assessments give teacher immediate feedback and allows for modified instruction. During a long term sub position, I enjoyed our weekly grade meeting where we discussed scores of our students and I knew exactly where my class was in comparison to others and where I needed to be.

I studied Danielson during my undergrad studies and was even questioned about it in an interview. There is nothing better to give to our school then teacher development for it is the gift that keeps on giving to bettering our schools and our students.

Stephanie's picture
Spanish teacher from a small town in New York

This article is one that some of our decision-makers need to read. I feel like so many state governments, schools, etc. don't invest in helping teachers to improve. We constantly face budget cuts, but are expected to do more with less. How does that make sense? With everchanging students, teachers need to continue to build upon the knowledge and skills for the classroom. As mentioned above, schools who invest in teacher improvements saw improvements in student achievement-doesn't it seem like this is an obvious indication of what needs to be done?

Erin's picture
Special Education Teacher, Seattle, WA

I really enjoyed reading this blog. As a special education teacher I feel somewhat secluded because I do not have a grade level team to collaborate with. I have been reading recently about the importance of reflection and professional development through communication with your team. It was nice to read here that any other teacher in the building has the opportunity to observe me to give me tips on what I could change to enhance my teaching abilities.
I am very interested in the "signature strategies" because there have been times throughout my career that I was aware I needed to change my instruction, but was unsure of where to go or what to do. It would be nice to see strategies that have been effective and tries those.
I also like the idea of aligned rigorous and common student assessment system in order to gather "just in time data". This is where I get lost though, because I am not part of a grade level team. I am not sure who I would share my results with to compare and/or discuss strategies with. Does anyone have any suggestions?

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