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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

Renee / TeachMoore's picture
Renee / TeachMoore
English teacher, Mississippi

This is one of the most thoughtful and informative pieces I've seen on working with the teachers who choose to remain in struggling schools to make a real difference for students. In much of the noise around education reform, I think we have lost track of how many good, competent teachers there are already working. More important, we've not paid enough attention to how much better many of our current teachers could be with proper support and development. Veteran teachers are a rich resource, and it is both cruel and wasteful not to bring out their full potential in the classroom.

Michelle's picture
Fifth grade teacher

I was initially interested in reading this blog because of the topic and because it spoke of the Chicago Public Schools. Having previously taught in CPS for five years, I can relate well to attending a workshop and being surprised with data provided by the presenter. While I taught in CPS, I worked as a Connector, which later became known as a Golden Teacher, as a liaison from the school in which I taught and DePaul University. I feel like the professional development I received as being a part of this community group was tremendous. Six years later I am still following the practices in an extremely different school environment because of it practicality. I am highly respected at my school by my administration, colleagues, students and their parents.
I found several suggestions in Brian Sims's blog in which piqued my interest. I currently teach at a private school in Michigan. I am finding the lack of administrative/teacher observation to be an area of concern. I have 14 years of teaching experience, but I am the type of teacher who is constantly craving improvement. While I am very confident about my teaching practices, I wonder, "Is there something more I can be doing for my students?" "Am I meeting all of their needs?" "Should I consider other approaches?" I wonder if there are other teachers out there who feel the same way. I was very curious to find your teaching coaches who can provide feedback in real-time. Can I please get a little more information about this? I would like to present it to my school's administrative team. I am also really interested in finding a way to incorporate your rubric examples into our classroom observations. Do you have more rubrics that I can take a look at by chance?
If anyone is open to helping me answer a few questions I would be very grateful.
1. How can I monitor my practices on my own objectively?
2. How I can receive feedback on my teaching approaches outside of my school?
3. How can I tactfully request to be observed my school's administration?
4. Is there anyone who would like to watch a lesson I present and offer feedback? I would be willing to reciprocate.
5. How do you monitor to progress of student learning?
Thank you for taking time to read this this. I will be anxious to see your comments.


K Teacher's picture
K Teacher
Kindergarten teacher from the Tahoe area

I found this blog interesting for a few reasons. The data comparing student achievement to teacher effectiveness is not surprising, but it is eye opening and motivating. I teach in a small school district in northern Nevada. We have used the Danielson framework for several years for teacher evauation. The format is valuable for teachers and administrators because it is organized, concise, and informative. Each year we set a goal based on the framework and meet again at the end of the year to evaluate our progress. The format suggested in the blog improves on these steps by adding the other systematic approaches. While it is useful to me to have an administrator's end of year evaluation based on the framework, it would be more helpful to have feedback during the school year. Setting a goal, meeting mid year, reevaluating that goal based on student data, and discussing methods for improvement would be more beneficial. I am also intrigued by the idea of teacher coaches. This format would provide an automatic professional learning community within a school or district. Old and new teachers alike would benefit from this practice. I am the only Kindergarten teacher at my school and I would welcome the chance to collaborate with others about lesson designs, techniques, individual children, and new research. These four steps seem like a sure way to narrow that achievement gap. I am providing the book reference for Michelle because it has the whole framework rubric within it. I hope you find it helpful. There may also be a more recent version of it.
Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Michelle's picture
Fifth grade teacher

Thank you for your thoughtfulness in providing the Danielson book reference for me. I look forward to taking a look at it. I too am the only 5th grade teacher at my private school. It is difficult to collaborate with other 5th grade teachers, so I know how you feel as the only kindergarten teacher at your school. I would be open to sharing any insight you think I may be able to offer, though I understand our grade levels are considerably different. I am truly appreciative for your book suggestion!

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.

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.

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