Supporters are helping educators implement rigorous college- and career-ready standards.
When the Louisiana Department of Education announced three years ago that it would hire instructional coaches and other experts to support schools and districts across the State, some educators were a little skeptical. Traditionally, the role of State education agencies has been to monitor spending and enforce regulations.
“Some were thinking, ‘Well they’re just here to oversee us, to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing,’” recalls Don Coker, assistant superintendent and personnel director of Ouachita Parish schools. “Well, as it turned out, that first year was good. The second year was better. And this year, they are like a part of us.”
The State has used Race to the Top funds to hire the coaches and other support staff, who are organized into four
regional teams. Each team has a handful of coaches whose job it is to help teachers and principals analyze student and other data, create strategic plans and set goals, implement college- and career-ready standards, vet classroom resources and institute a new teacher evaluation system. Many of the coaches taught previously in the communities that they are now serving, inspiring trust from district leaders and educators. The coaches typically spend about four days a week in and out of schools with some joking that their cars are their offices. One day a week often is reserved to meet with other members of their regional team.
Melissa Stilley, who leads a regional network in south Louisiana and previously ran one in the northeastern part of the State, manages a team of coaches who are in and out of schools daily. Her team helps principals conduct good classroom observations, which are a key element of the State’s teacher evaluation system. The coaches observe classrooms alongside district leaders, not to evaluate the teachers but to find out afterwards what the principals think was significant about what they saw.
“After the observation, we’ll lead a conversation with the principal, in which we’ll ask, ‘What feedback would you give the teacher?’” Stilley said. The coach would lead the principal to think about feedback related to the rigor of the lesson, the content covered and whether the teacher used formative assessments aligned with end-of-year tests. In addition to helping principals conduct strong observations, the coaches guide them in how to provide meaningful feedback to teachers.
Frank, professional conversations like the ones Stilley described require trust between coaches, principals and teachers. “It’s taken some time to build these positive relationships with district leaders and principals so that they trust us to engage in really rich and honest conversations, to actually partner with them for the co-observation process,” Stilley said.
Richland Parish Superintendent Sheldon Jones said he finds the coaching team’s help in analyzing and acting on school and district data to be particularly helpful. “For example, we look at the data during districtwide principals’ meetings and then we put together plans to make sure that our strengths continue to grow and that we are effectively targeting our weaknesses,” he said. “We really value the professional development piece that we feel we get from this relationship.”
The network coaches are also helping Richland Parish schools implement the new college- and career-ready standards by making sure their schools have relevant and high-quality tools and resources.
Jones hasn’t been shy about tapping the network team and asking for help. “I might call my network coach and say there’s something going on at a certain school and ask her to come in and visit for herself. Then I might ask, how do you think the network can support us? That’s very different from what the department has provided in the past. We’re three-and-a-half hours away from the State capital in Baton Rouge, and now we have foot soldiers in the parish working with us to improve our schools. They are part of the team, he said.”
Rebecca Freeland is the coach who works in Jones’ district. “I really see our role as more of an extension of the teachers and principals we work with,” she said. “Living here, having my kids in the schools, I get to build relationships. I build community. I’m not simply just a State representative checking on them.”
Freeland said that allows her to identify problems when she sees them in a way that doesn’t put districts on the defensive. Looking at the data in one district, for example, Freeland noticed a misalignment between high teacher observation scores and low student outcomes. So, her network team offered professional development for school leaders on how to strengthen their teacher observations and provide the kind of meaningful feedback that helps teachers improve. Freeland said the courses were so well received the team replicated them in other districts.
From Compliance to Mutual Trust and Support
Even as the State is emphasizing providing more support to districts and educators, it continues to hold them accountable for student achievement.
Dana Talley, a network leader in northeast Louisiana, said the State is just taking a different approach. For example, Talley’s team meets with district leaders to objectively evaluate student and school performance and then move into strategic planning and goal-setting. “We might take some notes, make some next steps, but keep the process simple,” she said. “It’s not about creating massive documents and mounds of meaningless paperwork. But it is about saying in the next three months or six months, let’s see where things stand. There is accountability in the system, but it’s based on mutual trust and support.”
Talley, who has worked for the Louisiana Department of Education in various capacities for several years, said the new structure is the best one she’s seen because moving from a compliance model to one of mutual support will ultimately help teachers and students be more successful.
“The minute we start [focusing only on] compliance again we’re not going to get the results we want,” she said. “We want to work with [educators] to help them understand what needs to happen and help them make the best decisions. We don’t just want to present them with a list and say, ‘Do these things.’ We want to say, ‘Let’s work together and develop a plan together’ and then we’ll help support that.”
Sharing Best Practices Regionally
The network teams also bring educators and administrators within each region and even across regions together to collaborate and learn from one another.
Amy Weems, curriculum coordinator at Ouachita Junior High School, said network leaders asked educators at her school to talk about how they are helping struggling readers engage more with nonfiction texts at a statewide training session this summer. “We’re planning a session on bringing nonfiction to life,” Weems said. “It’s exciting. In the past people haven’t had a lot of opportunity or incentive to share out like this, but with so much going on, everybody wants to help everybody because we’re all trying to navigate these changes together. I have seen it at the school, district and State level.”
- Build Community. Where possible, regional network teams should consist of people who live in the communities where they are assigned.
- Listen and Learn. State network leaders and their teams should get to know their districts and schools well to build the trust that’s necessary to have hard conversations.
- Focus on Support, Not Compliance. The focus of the coaching is not on compliance; instead, it is about providing the support needed to be successful.
- Assist with Data-Analysis. District and school leaders appreciate partners who help them analyze data and use it to drive decisions.
- Celebrate and Share. When schools and districts have best practices to share, encourage them to do so, and facilitate collaboration among peers.
- Be Patient. Building new working relationships and changing perceptions of the role of the State education agency takes time.