Teacher leaders in grades K-2 gathered in July 2014 to learn new ways to teach English language arts content and design lessons for the 2014-2015 school year. Photo Credit: Louisiana Department of Education
Teachers are getting higher quality support, coaching and professional learning opportunities to help their students succeed.
Louisiana’s Teacher Leader program is drawing rave reviews from teachers for providing them with better resources, more meaningful peer-to-peer professional development and a stronger connection between educators serving in schools and policymakers serving in Baton Rouge.
First launched in fall 2012 with 50 teachers and funding from Race to the Top, the program has now grown to include more than 4,000 educators—generally two from every school in the State. The State holds one multi-day, statewide training session for teacher leaders each summer and regional meetings throughout the year.
In these sessions, teacher leaders receive in-depth training in subjects such as mathematics, English language arts, science, and social studies and in skills such as implementing college- and career-readiness standards and creating formative assessments.
The teacher leaders then redeliver that training to colleagues in their communities to help them improve instruction in their classrooms. The teacher leaders also offer feedback to State policymakers on the classroom resources teachers need and some of the more experienced teacher leaders serve on committees that help create and review those resources.
Districts vary in how they select teacher leaders. In some cases teachers apply to participate, and in others they are tapped for the role based on their leadership and teaching skills.
Teacher leaders are recognized for their leadership and can also receive a financial boost. Some districts pay them more because the training they do is in addition to working as full-time teachers. The State also provides small stipends to those who help create curricular resources that teachers can use to plan and deliver lessons linked to the new college- and career-ready standards.
Students work in groups based on their formative assessment results. Photo Credit: Learning Systems Institute, Florida State University.
Teachers are given powerful tools to help students master rigorous college- and career-ready standards.
Bette Smith, an Algebra I teacher at Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, does a lot of running during the school day to address the learning needs of each of her students. But with the help of a new tool called the Mathematics Formative Assessment System (MFAS), her running around is targeted and she is able to use her time more efficiently and effectively. “I am able to see who needs attention [and] who needs me to tell them they are on the right track,” she says. “It has totally cut down on the running and gives students more time with me.”
MFAS, which is free and available online, includes more than 1,300 tasks and problems that teachers can use to gauge students’ knowledge of the State mathematics standards. With each task comes a rubric that helps teachers interpret students’ responses to identify their needs and then customize their instruction.
Funded by a Race to the Top grant in 2011, the project originally focused on grades K–3, but it proved so valuable that districts asked the Florida Department of Education to expand MFAS. The tool now includes grades 4–8, Algebra I and Geometry.
Finding Out What Students Know
The tasks and problems are brief and are designed to be used by teachers to group students according to their needs. The rubrics are detailed and include examples of student work correlated with typical misconceptions or errors. That helps teachers understand students’ thinking and design lessons accordingly.
“Sometimes just a good thought-provoking question will send students to the next level or to mastery of the standard,” Smith says.
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.
Students get some face-to-face help from a teacher in the Village Green Virtual School Learning Center. Photo Credit: Village Green Virtual School.
Students move at their own pace toward mastering standards and college and career readiness.
Picture this. Sarah, a 10th-grader, is in the learning lab finishing up an assignment on Julius Caesar. She has one more test and a final to pass before she moves on to 11th-grade material. She can take the tests whenever she feels ready. She can then shift her attention to mathematics, where she is several assignments behind.
Meanwhile, Tammy is working on a 10th-grade grammar quiz. Grammar isn’t her strongest skill, but by working at her own pace, she is able to master the assignments. If she doesn’t pass the quiz, she can retake it as many times as necessary until she gets a passing score. She can also ask her teacher for help, if she wants, or go to a workshop in the afternoon with other students struggling with the same lesson.
For observers of this scene from a visit in spring 2015, it may seem like student learning is all over the map at Village Green Virtual Charter School. That’s because it is—by design. Sarah and Tammy’s school, founded in Providence, Rhode Island in September 2013 serving grades 9–10 with plans to expand to grades 9–12, was created with the express goal of “personalizing” learning for every student through a “blended learning” model of online curriculum and in-classroom teaching.
Teachers at Village Green work with students who ask for help or who they can see are struggling to master skills or strategies using the online curriculum. The model is designed to enable teachers to focus their attention on targeting the learning needs of each student. Students work on some subjects longer than others if they need to, and teachers work with groups of students that all need help on a particular skill.
No day at Village Green is routine. “There’s absolutely no typical day here,” said Khori Lopes, an English teacher who joined the school the previous school year. “Everybody is working on different things all the time.”
The school’s design supports this fluidity. There are no classrooms or bell schedules. Students rotate throughout each day between online learning, small workshops focused on addressing specific skill gaps and advisory or reading groups. As Rob Pilkington, the school’s founder and superintendent said, time is considered a variable, not a constant. “Time shouldn’t dictate the structure of student learning. If an English lesson takes two hours to complete on a given day, and a science activity takes a half hour to complete, then why should a bell schedule allow only one hour each?” said Pilkington.
Laboratory for Statewide Expansion of Blended Learning
Village Green is the first school of its kind in Rhode Island. With support from the Rhode Island Department of Education, the school has served as a learning laboratory for educators across the State interested in replicating its blend of online courses and teacher-led instruction.
“We need to identify and support early innovators and learn as much as we can so that later adopters can have a
roadmap to guide them,” said Holly Walsh, who oversees Rhode Island’s Instructional Technology and E-Learning work. The State believes technology can have a transformative impact on educational outcomes and has launched an ambitious effort to become the first in the nation to adopt blended learning statewide.
“Digital learning in all of its forms provides…unlimited educational resources for every classroom, allows our schools to design flexible instructional schedules and enables students and teachers to work closely together at a pace that is right for each student,” said Deborah Gist, former Rhode Island Commissioner of Education.
And they are well on their way to making this vision a reality. In the 2014–2015 school year, almost half (14 out of 32) of districts in the State started to implement 1:1 blended learning models, and all schools had the high-speed wireless Internet access blended learning requires. The State also hosts an annual digital learning conference and partnered with Village Green to chronicle its model and lessons learned.
Online Platform Allows for Self-Paced Learning
Village Green uses an online curriculum, called “Edgenuity,“ which allows students to move through assignments at their own pace. Every student has a workstation where they log into their own personal Edgenuity portal and choose what to work on. Students take frequent tests and quizzes, and complete practice assignments. A data dashboard displays skills they’ve already mastered in green, those they are on track to master in blue and those they are struggling with in red.
Khori Lopes said the real-time data has been motivating. “My students are very competitive. They don’t like to see ‘red.’ Even if they don’t like the topic, they try really hard to get ‘green.’ We can take a student’s work habits and completion rates and predict their graduation date. This makes things much more real for students when they’re falling behind.”
The data also help Lopes. She can monitor the performance and progress of individual students or multiple students at once, including overall grades, percentage of work completed and idle time. “There’s no excuse for not knowing where they’re at because the data is so immediate,” said Lopes. “If someone’s having a bad day, I can say ‘let me check your session log’ and I’ll see they’ve only completed a few activities. That’s a great middle of the day intervention. I can ask them ‘is something bothering you today; do you need to talk?’”
Learning to Make Choices
Because students have more control over how they spend their time at school, they are constantly confronted with choices. “We’re teaching them to manage those choices,” said Lopes. “We are routinely asking, ‘Where are you seeing yourself falling behind? Do you really want to save all of your English for June?’ Students need to get into the habit of making lists and schedules.”
Students say they appreciate the flexibility. “I like that I can get ahead in certain courses and take more time in others,” said Mike, who started as a student at Village Green last year after six years of homeschooling. When Mike was in the 11th grade he had already completed pre-calculus, which is typically taken in the 12th grade. While he’s far ahead in mathematics, he was playing catch-up in English and history.
Jesus, an 11th grader last year, said he also appreciates that he is not limited to a structured curriculum that requires students to move in lockstep. However, with less than a month left of the school year, he still had to complete about a third of his mathematics assignments before he could move on to 12th-grade mathematics. He was confident he’d get there because he could ask for help any time to fill the gaps in his skills. “If I was in a regular public school, they’d just move on without me,” he said. “Here, I’m able to move at my own pace.”
Even graduation dates are flexible. Some students, like Madeline, are on track to graduate in three years. Madeline, now an 11th grader, finished 10th–grade English in early April and, as of mid-May, had only 10 days of geometry work left. This year, she plans to complete requirements for both 11th and 12th grades and earn her diploma by the end of the year.
Madeline’s trajectory is not uncommon at Village Green. Roughly 20 to 25 percent of students are on track to graduate in three years, some of them taking Advanced Placement or other classes that earn them college credit. But for other students, even the four-year path can be challenging. While this kind of flexibility is a core part of the school’s model, the reality has come as a bit of a shock to teachers and administrators. “When we first got into this, we thought every kid would start at the starting line together and finish together, but the proficiency model just doesn’t allow for this,” Pilkington said. This year, the school will provide more structured time for English and mathematics to keep students from falling too far behind. Students will have instruction in English and mathematics three times per week with certified teachers instructing using Edgenuity and other online sources. The goal is to have groups of students work in a blended environment where the teacher can have a higher degree of oversight and control over pace and assessment cycle. In all other subjects, like history, science and foreign languages, students will continue to have complete flexibility to move at their own pace.
Teachers are Critical to Student Success
When people hear about Village Green’s heavy reliance on technology, many assume that teachers are obsolete. Pilkington said this could not be further from the truth. “While tech is critical, it’s not about the tech,” he said. “It’s about the relationships and rapport between students and teachers.” Teachers are constantly interacting with students, either individually or in small group workshops geared toward a particular skill or lesson where students need extra support.
Pilkington actually had to hire more teachers part way through the first school year when he realized the 17:1 ratio of students to teachers wasn’t enough to give students the individualized attention they needed. “We need more teachers, not fewer” to make our model work, he said. By the second school year, the student to teacher ratio was 10:1.
Because students have more ownership over their learning, teachers play a very different role. As Pilkington described it, “teachers are facilitators and coaches. They partner with students to help them get to the next level in their learning.” While it may sound like teachers have it easy, this is hardly the case. To prepare for classes, teachers must take the Edgenuity course themselves (including lessons, units, quizzes, tests and exams) to understand what material is covered. “This is a huge amount of time and effort,” said Pilkington. Teachers analyze student data on a nightly basis to see where each student is and what they will need the next day, compile other online sources to supplement Edgenuity, and create standard lesson plans for teaching workshops or facilitating research projects.
The main things the teachers are freed from at Village Green are quiz and test construction, grading, and designing core lessons. “However, they still have to plan the workshop and plan to re-teach Edgenuity in case a lesson is not grasped,” explained Pilkington.
Model Is Not Without Challenges
Village Green has entered uncharted territory with its self-paced model, and this comes with plenty of unexpected challenges. For Kevin Cordeiro, a social studies teacher at Village Green, one of the biggest adjustments has been staying current on a wide range of subjects. “For the first three to four months, I had no idea if the first kid I talked to each day was going to ask me about medieval Europe or the Vietnam War,” he said.
While they don’t yet know how this will all play out, it is a critical part of the innovation journey. Schools like Village Green are helping to inform a national conversation about what it takes to truly personalize learning for every student.
Flexibility is key for teachers. Teaching in a self-paced school requires a high degree of flexibility in responding to where students are in their learning.
Just because students are computer savvy, does not mean they are intuitive e-learners. Village Green has had to train students to become proficient with the Edgenuity curriculum.
While technology is critical, it’s not about the technology. The relationships and rapport between teachers and students are essential for student success.
Students value self-paced learning. Students at Village Green appreciate the ability to move at their own pace and have ownership over their time.
Misalignment between State tests and the self-paced model is a challenge. As more schools move toward self-paced models, districts and States will need to consider how to better align State testing requirements with individualized learning approaches.
For updates on Village Green’s progress, check out the school’s website.
Teachers blend online and in-person instruction to engage students and increase college and career readiness.
Tim Brewer, science department chairman at St. George’s Technical High School in Middletown, Delaware, had had his students using computers for research and for sharing documents for eight years and considered himself to be “technology savvy.” Then, in the fall of 2013, he was asked to begin meeting with teachers from three other districts to design lessons that blended traditional instruction and online learning and gave students choices as to how to do their work.
The experience was an eye-opener. “It had never occurred to me to teach this way,” he said. “It really shook me to my foundation.”
Brewer was one of 40 teachers from 10 high schools who met with experts and worked on designing blended learning lessons between 2013 and 2015. The BRINC Consortium—an acronym of Brandywine, Indian River, New Castle County Vocational Technical, and Colonial—was formed to ensure that districts’ technology brought about instructional changes that would close achievement gaps and increase students’ college and career readiness by personalizing teaching and learning in Kindergarten through 12th grade.
Blended learning is an approach in which teachers deliver some instruction in traditional ways but also expect students to learn via digital and online media in and outside of class. Students are encouraged to follow a path of their choosing at a pace that is comfortable to them, as long as they meet expectations. That required Brewer and other teachers to make some major changes. “I had to take everything I was doing and reinvent it,” said Tara Saladyga, who teaches ninth grade physical science at Delcastle Technical High School in Wilmington. But, she said, “I’m comfortable with change. I don’t want to wait and keep doing something that is not giving me optimal results.”
The consortium used a portion of the 59 million dollar grant provided by Race to the Top funds and a 2013 Delaware Department of Education innovation grant to purchase technology, build a new learning management system, and to deliver high quality professional learning for educators. The learning management system, powered by Schoology and the professional development, provided by Modern Teacher, were invaluable in providing access for Delaware’s students to learn in a personalized environment. Three more districts—Appoquinimink, Caesar Rodney, and Red Clay—joined the consortium at the beginning of last year, the consortium now serves about 52% of the State’s public school students. All seven districts are continuing the training using local and Federal Title II grants with a goal of having all teachers at the 20 high schools in the seven districts using the blended learning approach by the end of school year (SY) 2016–2017.
As a result of this partnership, the Delaware Department of Education recently selected Schoology’s learning management system to replace its existing system to power online and blended learning for the entire state to shift education from being teacher-driven to student-centered, making active, engaged learners with access to the best, most effective technology.
“The business community is telling us that many of their employees are conducting work outside of office walls and using information and technology to produce reports, build relationships and, ultimately, achieve outcomes that positively impact the company and the customer,” said Mark Holodick, superintendent of the 11,000-student Brandywine School District in Wilmington.
“Now, we’re doing the same with blended learning—recognizing that students can access information and demonstrate they’ve acquired knowledge and skills outside the four walls of the classroom wherever and whenever they want,” he said.
Urban, rural, suburban and vocational-technical school districts are involved and each has different strengths, which they share through collaboration. Eventually, the lesson plans and curricula the teachers are developing will be made available across the consortium. “For the first time that I am aware of, you have districts from across the State collaborating entirely voluntarily, and they are seeing the benefits,” Holodick said.
“The opportunity to collaborate at every level, from superintendents to administrators, teachers to students, has pushed our thinking and progress on blended learning best practices,” said Mike League, Indian River’s instructional technology specialist. “It’s that collaborative spirit of the BRINC Constortium which has encouraged the sharing of ideas, lessons learned, and resources across district lines to improve the learning experience in our classrooms.”
Practical resources improve educator effectiveness and keep track of students’ progress.
Crystal Brown has taught fourth grade at Hinsdale Elementary in northern Kentucky for nine years. She knows a lot about good teaching but, in a classroom of 28 students with different strengths and challenges, tailoring her instruction to each student’s learning needs has always been difficult.
Without other resources to make it easier to personalize the support she gave to students, Brown has spent much of her career with one-size-fits-all tests and teaching materials; however, this approach meant that many students were either left behind or not sufficiently challenged.
But recently, thanks to a new data platform called the Continuous Instructional Improvement Technology System (CIITS), she is better able to help her students set appropriate academic goals and provide them with targeted support.
“Whenever my students take a test, their score comes up automatically on their computers so they can see right away if they met their goal,” she said. “It’s immediate feedback for them, and it shows me what I need to teach. I can move to the next skill if I see all my kids got questions 1 to 3 correct, or maybe I can pull a small group of students who got questions 9 and 10 wrong together for extra help.”
CIITS went live in August 2011. Eighteen early adopter school districts began using it right away and the other districts in the State came on board in early 2012. Now, all of the State’s 44,000 teachers and 3,500 school and district leaders are using the system.
It gives teachers ready access to student data, customizable lessons and assessments, and a growing selection of professional development resources, such as training videos and goal-setting tools.
CIITS was a core part of Kentucky’s Race to the Top plan. The State was already building the system prior to receiving the award, but the additional funds made it possible to add resources and accelerate expansion to more districts.
Schools are working to boost student achievement by identifying students’ nonacademic needs.
At John J. Doran Community School in Fall River, Massachusetts, elementary students begin each day with a morning meeting. Sitting in a circle, they talk about important events in their lives and ask questions about their classmates’ experiences.
Morning meetings are part of the routine at many schools. But these conversations are particularly important for students like those at Doran, who are coping with hunger, homelessness and family instability and other issues. Ninety percent of the school’s students live in poverty and the community’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the State.
Students use this time to practice ways to stay focused in class, manage anger and work through conflicts with their peers. Last year, for example, a group of second-graders who were routinely sent to the principal’s office for acting out and getting into fights used the morning meeting to brainstorm ways to control their tempers. Their teacher posed questions such as: What kind of clues does your body give you that you’re about to lose your temper? Once you identify your triggers and cues, what can you do to relax?
The morning meeting helps create a sense of belonging and emotional safety for students which, research shows, translates into improved academic and behavioral outcomes. This activity is a central part of Responsive Classroom, a nationally recognized social emotional learning program associated with gains in mathematics and reading achievement in addition to more emotionally supportive classrooms.
“Our kids are much more focused on being successful,” says Maria Pontes, Doran’s principal. “When I first came on board, it was such a chore to get these kids to focus on their work. Now, they’re like ‘bring it on.’ They’ve really taken on the challenge.”
Eighth grade Renaissance students participate in a rollercoaster expedition. Photo Credit: Springfield Renaissance School Teacher.
Flexible scheduling gives students more control of their learning, allows them to explore wide array of topics.
Tinsae, a rising 11th grader who is passionate about computer science, had a little taste of what it’s like to be a teacher last winter: he was allowed to share some of his extensive knowledge of programming with his fellow students at The Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“That whole week, I got to teach what I loved,” Tinsae said. “I wanted people to be aware of the potential in the IT field. I was really nervous because I didn’t think people would be interested, but it turned out people were really interested.”
School staff helped Tinsae put together the lessons for the programming group, which was just one of many mini-courses offered during two weeks his school dedicates to “intensives.” The intensives, most of which are led by teachers, give students a chance to delve deeply into topics such as video production, LEGO robotics and the science of science fiction. The school uses these courses to give students more control over their learning, by allowing some students to share what they learn and letting all students choose which ones to take.
To help Tinsae deepen his knowledge of IT even more, the school helped him get an internship in which he will try to hack into the computer system of insurance company Mass Mutual to test its security measures.
The Springfield Renaissance School is one of 54 “innovation schools” serving approximately 21,000 students in 26 school districts across the State. Under legislation signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in 2010, the schools operate with greater autonomy in six key areas (see text box) allowing them to try different approaches to increase student learning and close achievement gaps. However, if the schools don’t meet the agreed upon measurable annual goals developed by the innovation plan committee and approved by the local school district, then the school committee may, at the request of the district superintendent 1) limit one or more components of the innovation plan, 2) suspend one or more components of the innovation plan, or 3) terminate the authorization of the school; provided that the limitation and/or suspension does not take place prior to the completion of the second year of operation and that termination does not take place prior to the completion of the third full year of operation.
The innovation schools statute lists 15 eligible applicants that can establish an innovation school, including parents, teachers, principals, and community organizations. Massachusetts previously provided competitive funding to support the innovation school planning process through the State’s Race to the Top award and Gates Foundation funding and now funds these grants with State resources. The schools can be new, conversions of existing schools, or academies that operate as part of larger schools. The first stage of the innovation school approval process includes a two-thirds vote of the innovation school prospectus by the 3-person screening committee that includes the school district’s superintendent, a representative from the local teacher’s union, and a representative from the local school committee. The second stage of the process includes the development of the detailed innovation plan by the innovation plan committee, a two-thirds vote of the teachers in the school that is proposed for conversion, a public hearing, and approval by the majority of the school committee. The detailed innovation plan must clearly articulate the areas of autonomy and flexibility proposed and how they are expected to improve student achievement.
Peer observations, feedback and collaborative planning lead to increases in student learning.
In Shanghai, China, in one of the highest performing school systems in the world, teachers routinely observe their peers, give them feedback, work on lesson plans in teams, try out new lessons and collaborate on revisions—all to continually hone and sharpen their teaching. This is very different from systems in the United States, where teaching historically has been a private activity and in-class observations are conducted mostly to evaluate performance.
Photo Credit: US Department of Education
Partners at Vanderbilt University, the Tennessee Department of Education, East China Normal University in Shanghai and 26 Tennessee schools are trying to make teaching more public and collaborative. Supported in school year (SY) 2013-2014 by one of eight TN LEAD grants from the State’s Race to the Top funds, the Tennessee-Shanghai Leadership Collaborative has for the past two years sent principals and teachers from high-achieving schools to observe practices in Shanghai.
The purpose of the TN LEAD grants was to help school leaders do more to improve student outcomes. Several research studies have shown that leaders are the second most important school-based factor in student learning, after teachers. The programs that received grants worked with school and district leaders already on the job as well as those still in training to increase their effectiveness.
State officials said the focus on school leaders would continue benefiting students long after the grants ran out.
Principals at the schools that participated in the Tennessee-Shanghai Leadership Collaborative formed Teacher Peer Excellence Groups (TPEGs) to try to emulate the collaboration among teachers in Shanghai. They were assisted by researchers from Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education.
Robin Newell, principal of Mitchell-Neilson schools in Murfreesboro, told Vanderbilt that the collaborative model has already proven beneficial. In SY 2013-2014, when teachers first began working in TPEGs, “we had the highest growth numbers in the district, and we blew our math scores out of the water,” Newell said. “I definitely attribute a great deal of that to the TPEGs …. The collaboration process was more valuable than any professional development I could have sent the teachers to. At the end of the year they said, ‘We can never go back to the old way of teaching—why didn’t we do this sooner?’”