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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.

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IndiZ's picture

I enjoyed reading this piece. As a teacher of students with severe disabilities, it was often difficult to sit through the school-wide inservices on "writing across the curriculum" or "motivating today's student." Thankfully, our professional development has greatly improved in the last five years. Our PLC has been a step in the right direction toward common student assessment as well as an alignment in curriculum, but this is only a small piece of the puzzle.

The integration of the four strategies suggested here are excellent. How is this system implemented within the existing framework of factory schools? If the current decision makers (State Legislature in my case) were educated in the archaic system of education, and succeeded at the time because the system met the needs of that day's student, how are they to be convinced otherwise? It seems that these options are only available when it has become "too late" for a school and the students involved, but these are not viable alternatives for existing and struggling schools.

Debbie's picture

I am a teacher and recently began pursuing my Masters Degree. I have found that this topic of teacher development is brought up often in my coursework. When I began teaching I was assigned a "mentor" who met with me twice a month to ask "how is it going" and the rest of the school maintained the "keep to yourself attitude." I find your blog to be motivating. I hope more areas adopt this form of teacher development. I strongly believe that, instead of firing "bad" teachers, we should put more emphasis in making them "great" teachers. Teaching is a challenging career and if we can find a common language and assessment system to make us each more effective then, I believe, we will see less teacher "burnout" and more student success.

Mandy Scherger's picture
Mandy Scherger
K-5 ELL Teacher, Indiananapolis, Indiana

Thank you so much for this post! I enjoyed reading about AUSL and all of your accomplishments. As a teacher of ELs in a high poverty public school, we also focus a majority of our instructional decisions on data. I am taking back to my local ELL program the idea of filling in the gap of time between state standardized testing and results with monthly and quarterly assessing. This "just in time" data will benefit us in making constant adjustments to our curriculum throughout the school year. We use the core curriculum assessments, but these seem to be a general broader picture of skills. We are constantly looking for PD in our district to grow ourselves professionally. As a matter of fact, I was in a meeting most of today developing a PD for our ELL classroom cluster teachers in our district. I was reminded and reassured we are on the path of excellence for our teachers. I believe coaching colleagues and creating an environment where we can creatively, safely and comfortably grow each other is the key to striving for excellence as an educator. Thank you for sharing your experience and congratulations on your success!

Iris Ese's picture

I enjoyed article immensely! We as educators must develop new ways of connecting with other teachers if we are to advance ourselves and our students in learning. "No man is an island" therefore, interactive collaboration is essential to leading to creative ideas and future existence.

Prince's picture

I concur with what you are saying whole heartedly. I'm an inexpereinced teacher and I would like to recieve valuable feedback about my teaching strategies and techniques. As a teacher with little expereince. It is not enough just to hire a highly qualified teacher and expect great results. I spent my first year of teaching asking myself if this is the right approach to teaching a lesson. I believe a teacher coach would be an invaluable assest to have. Teacher coaches can provide on the spot anaysis about your instruction technique. If I improve my teaching ability, this concept will only factor into my students acheievement outcomes. This a idea that every state should inquire about.

afoley's picture

I enjoyed reading this article. I recently moved to a much larger school than where I previously taught. I had not realized how "data driven" our schools had become. I jumped in with two feet running, and I gained very meaningful insight on my student's needs and where I need to help them. This article interested me because I agree that all teachers need to be "on the same page" in the area of improvement plans. Many teachers that I know become stagnant in their teaching, and in this ever-changing educational world, a stagnant teacher will drown very quickly.

8th grade in Ga's picture
8th grade in Ga
8th grade math teacher in Ga

I don't think that anyone comes into teaching determined to be a bad teacher. i would say that the majority of bad teachers are those who have frustrated with the system, refuse to grow or are just lazy. that being said, we need to look at ways to reach these teachers. let's find a way to show the frustrated teacher how the system can work FOR them instead of butting heads with it. fFor those who are reluctant to grow as a teacher let's try to ease them into change instead of trying to force a whole new world on them. Now for the lazy ones...hmmmm? I think that the lazy ones are afraid to be too productive for fear of added responsibilities. Let's show them that being effective and doing their job can be rewarding(besides just being allowed to keep their jobs). comments please

Stacey Monroe's picture

Walking the talk establishes learning norms for new teachers. we learn the language, but is the language used to connect the teaching and the learning. Students need to know the language of the subject area in order to learn and articulate new skills. Well, as students need these skills, so do teachers. As we learn what it looks like to have successful students, we must also learn the strategies to get them there. Student achievement is based on teacher knowledge. Know the pedagogy for yourself and your students.
The teachers in our eighth department have formed communities to develop our skills and strategies. We meet and discuss and come back and show the results of the assessments.

Vidyasagar Malik's picture

I am working as Teacher development coordinator in Govt school Delhi.I want to connect students teachers I need to have better ideas from your site.

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