Teachers are advising the State, working with colleagues, and designing a model curriculum aligned with college- and career-ready standards.
Elizabeth Johnson has taught mathematics for 10 years in Ironton, Ohio, a town of about 11,000 people along the Ohio River. She also serves on the teacher leadership team at Ironton High School, as well as the building and district leadership teams.
Given all of her experiences as a leader, it wasn’t surprising that she also was one of about 50 educators who the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) asked in 2013 to join the State’s Network of Regional Leaders (NRL) for mathematics. The mathematics network is one of five in the State that were convened by the ODE to help lead teachers and school districts through the transition to new, more rigorous college- and career-ready standards and new assessments to go along with them.
Like other States, Ohio is using part of its grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program to support the writing of model curricula for mathematics and English language arts aligned with those standards, develop formative assessments, train teachers and redesign teacher evaluation and feedback systems.
In doing so, the State has made it a priority to ensure that frontline educators such as Johnson—teachers, coaches, mentors and curriculum developers—are taking the lead in these activities. They advise the State on how its policies are affecting their schools and classrooms and also help their colleagues understand and adjust to the changes that lie ahead of them.
An Ambassador from the Classroom
Johnson likens her role as a member of the network to that of an ambassador. She shares the concerns and experiences of her colleagues at the network’s monthly meetings in Columbus and translates what she learns there back home to the teachers and administrators in her district, as well as a neighboring one.
“It’s a little strange to go talk to your administrators and tell them this is what they’re going to be doing,” she said. But, she said, leadership should be part of the role of a teacher. Improving schools “used to be a top-down process but now it’s also a bottom-up process.”
A priority of Ohio in its Race to the Top work is to create opportunities for teachers to serve in leadership roles, thus recognizing their successes in classrooms and giving them career options designed to increase opportunities.
“Ohio does try to get as many people involved as possible,” said Carole Katz, a teacher and mathematics coordinator for Beachwood City Schools, a suburb east of Cleveland. “They also try to involve people who are in the classroom.”
Katz was nominated by the Ohio Mathematics Education Leadership Council to be one of 24 members of the State’s Educator Leader Cadre (ELC), another vehicle for teachers and other educators to lead the move to higher standards. ELC members critique questions and test forms that might be included in the new assessments that are under development by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Katz also has worked on Ohio’s high school graduation test, “We’re on the front lines,” she said.
Katz also is a member of the NRL for mathematics and, in both roles, works with teachers to help them learn to teach to the new standards. Like many educators, Katz looks for opportunities to make a difference in her school and in the State. “I’m always looking for something new and interesting to get involved in,” she said.
Valuing Teacher Leadership
Annika Moore, a consultant with the ODE who convened the NRL for mathematics, recognizes the importance of giving teachers leadership opportunities outside the classroom to ensure that they are included in decisions about the work they do. She said that too often successful teachers are denied opportunities to serve as leaders and, partly as a result, they leave education. “They’re not treated in a way that makes them want to stay in the classroom,” she said. Allowing teachers to exercise leadership, she hopes, will encourage them to continue teaching at least part of the time. “My goal is to have them right there in the building,” she said.
She said that one of the network’s accomplishments during school year (SY) 2013–2014 was developing a rubric to help mathematics teachers analyze how well their lesson plans reflect Ohio’s college- and career-ready standards. The NRL concluded that it was too complex and spent considerable time editing it to make it easier to use. It was then released for use in the field.
In SY 2014–2015, teams of teachers are videotaping themselves as they use the rubric to design and strengthen instructional units. Members of the NRL are critiquing those units and giving feedback to the teacher teams. The NRL is also developing a toolkit “that covers all parts of the instructional process,” Moore said. That includes analyzing the standards, designing a unit of instruction, implementing it, looking at students’ work to see if they learned the material and then revising the unit accordingly.
Influencing Fellow Educators
The network members will then train teachers and administrators how to use the toolkit, which will help ensure that instruction is meeting students’ needs. Scott Mitter, a member of the network who has taught mathematics for 16 years, serves as the Chair of his department at Kettering Fairmont High School in Kettering, Ohio. According to Mitter, that training starts with the mathematics teachers at his school. “We all have different people we can touch in our little sphere of influence,” he said.
“Ultimately, if this is going to work, there has to be buy-in from the teachers,” he said. “The new standards are not only content standards, they’re instructional standards. You have to think differently about how you teach mathematics.”
The mathematics network is one of five established by the State; others are dedicated to English language arts, social studies, science and to serving students who are gifted, have special needs or are learning English. The networks work in different ways, but participants have a lot of freedom to decide how to lead instructional change in their schools, districts and regions.
One participant organized a 10-part series of sessions on the new standards for parents. Another put together day-long teacher professional development sessions for teachers. Katie Hendrickson, a network member who teaches seventh grade mathematics in Athens, Ohio, said she shares what she is learning about the standards and new assessments with her fellow teachers electronically, provides them with links to online resources and leads discussions at monthly mathematics department meetings.
The message of instructional change “is heard a little bit better when it comes from fellow teachers,” Hendrickson said. “And it’s also nice that the State is listening to teachers…They care about our expertise and what’s happening in classrooms.”
Having teachers lead the transition to new standards also adds credibility to the training sessions.
“When it’s someone who actually leads a classroom, I tend to sit up and listen a little more,” said Tricia Ebner, an English language arts teacher for gifted students at Lake Middle School, in the Lake Local School District.
- Engage teachers in leading the transition to new standards. States and school districts have to rely on teachers, mentors, coaches and other educators to explain new standards, alleviate concerns about assessments and create helpful resources. Successful teachers feel valued and engaged when they can serve in these leadership roles.
- Teachers want to be heard. Take the recommendations and feedback of teachers seriously, which will build trust and help avoid mistakes in implementation.
- Instructional change takes time. “If you give educators something new and expect changes right away, that’s not going to work,” said Dana Weber, a consultant with the Stark County Education Services Center in Canton, Ohio, and a member of the ELC, referring to the instructional toolkit. “But if you do it as a professional development group, and introduce [the instructional toolkit] to support the changes, you can see they get excited.”
- Teachers trust other teachers. “It’s really nice to engage with classroom teachers, so it’s not top-down administrators telling us, it’s teachers,” said Katie Hendrickson, a seventh-grade mathematics teacher in Athens, Ohio, and a member of the Regional Leaders Network.