Teacher Development Is Key to Closing the Achievement Gap

Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) defines four key practices for sustained student achievement.

July 22, 2011

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.

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