Louisiana Relying on Teacher-to-Teacher Professional Development to Change Instruction

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

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.

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Florida Formative Assessments Help Teachers Target Students’ Needs

Students work in groups based on their formative assessment results. Photo Credit: Learning Systems Institute, Florida State University.

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.

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Districts Give High Marks to Louisiana’s Regional Support Teams

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.”This graphic has a quote from Dan Coker, assistant superintendent and personnel director of Ouachita Parish Schools: “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.

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Rhode Island School Makes Learning “Personal” for Students

Students in a classroom, all seated around their laptops at individual desks, respond to a teacher standing at the front of the classroom at a white board.

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.

The image is a textbox that quotes Holly Walsh, the Director of Instructional Technology and E-Learning at the Rhode Island Department of Education. It reads, "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."

“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 10thgrade 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.

Tools and Resources

Delaware’s BRINC Districts Collaborate to Personalize Learning for All Students

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.DE-BRINC Consortium pullquote 1

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.

Unprecedented Collaboration

“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.”

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Kentucky Rolls Out a One-Stop Shop for Student and Teacher Data

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 This graphic has a quote from Amy Braunwart, teacher at Ryland Heights Elementary School: “This really helps with goal-setting. I have a much better sense of what realistic targets are than I did in the past.”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.

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National Spotlight: Teacher Leadership Changing School Systems


Title: Teacher Leadership Description: This graphic is a visual representation of the pathway to teacher leadership. The top of the graphic is labeled “In the Past.” At the top of the graphic and beginning of the path, there is a schoolhouse with a teacher walking out of the school. Next to the teacher is the text: “Teachers have had limited opportunities to lead in their schools, districts, or states without leaving their classrooms.” The path divides into two paths, one that goes off the graphic to the right and one that leads to the bottom of the graphic. The teacher “in the past” looks like he is about to walk on the path that goes to the right off of the graphic.  The path that continues on to the bottom of the graphic takes us into a section labeled “Today.” There is a second teacher on that path. The teacher has a thought bubble, dreaming of an opportunity both teach and be a teacher leader. The text next to that teacher says: “Research shows that a majority of all teachers want new roles, which allow them to lead without giving up the teaching they love.” That teacher’s path leads to eight teacher leadership opportunities, each represented by an icon and title. The titles of the eight teacher leadership opportunities are: mentor/coach, leadership team member, department chair, curriculum specialist, instructional specialist, lead teacher, advocate for change, and policy leader.Teachers who have opportunities to lead from their classrooms by participating in school decision-making and collaborating with colleagues are more likely to say “teaching is a valued profession in their society,” according to an international study. They also are more confident in their abilities and more satisfied in their jobs.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Teach to Lead initiative is designed to make available more opportunities for teachers to exercise leadership. “Teacher leadership means having a voice in the policies and decisions that affect your students, your daily work and the shape of your profession,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in March 2014, when he announced the initiative, which is a partnership with the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

Since then, the Department’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows—teachers who work to elevate the voices of teachers nationally—organized four Teacher Summits and one State Summit at which hundreds of teachers shared their ideas for how to improve their schools. They also created “Commit to Lead,” an online community where teachers can not only share their ideas but also collaborate with others to bring them to life.

State Strategies to Leverage Teacher Leadership

Several leading States are investing in teacher leadership as a core strategy to improve their educational systems.  Federal programs, such as Race to the Top and the Teacher Incentive Fund, have also been catalysts for creating more teacher leadership opportunities. For example, thirteen of the nineteen Race to the Top states either have in place or have proposed new policies that would create roles to encourage teachers to lead while remaining in the classroom. Policies include comprehensive teacher career advancement initiatives, multi-tiered certification systems with tiers for advanced or master teachers, and certification endorsements related to teacher leadership.

  • In Delaware, teachers are among those leading weekly meetings called “professional learning communities” that focus on helping teachers work together to use a variety of data to analyze and adjust their instruction to meet individual student needs. Teachers are also training their colleagues in the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.
  • In Florida, districts can select effective teachers who have completed clinical educator training supervising teachers or mentors to supervise pre-service teachers during field experiences or internships.
  • Project SUCCESS in Massachusetts trains experienced teachers to become Lead Mentors for new teachers, especially those in high-need schools and disciplines.
  • North Carolina is recruiting more than 400 teachers to serve on the Governor’s Teacher Network (and continue in their teaching roles) to design professional development and instructional and formative assessment resources for educators statewide.
  • The Tennessee Teacher Leader Council is developing flexible teacher leader models (designed to increase student achievement) for implementation in districts across the State.
  • In Ohio, teachers are playing a variety of key roles—training colleagues, writing curriculum, providing feedback to the State—in the transition to more rigorous college and career ready standards.

“We’re doing all of this to get a really good, strong movement in teacher leadership going because we know the best ideas in education are often borrowed or stolen from another teacher,” said Maddie Fennell, a Teaching Ambassador who worked on the initiative, “and somewhere out there in a classroom are teachers who have the ideas that can really transform the system if we can just raise their voices up to a level where they can be heard by people who are also making policy and can spread what they are doing to a systems level.”


Creating Sustainable Teacher Career Pathways: A 21st Century Imperative, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, December 2013.

Teach to Lead – Be Bold

Tennessee Teachers Learn How Peers in China Team Up to Improve Instruction

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.

Sign with the state of Tennessee on it reading, Teacher Town USA

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?’”

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Top Atlanta Teachers Put Good Teaching on Display

Students sitting in English class

Eighth graders in Naja Freeman’s English language arts class practice their debating skills.
Credit: Reform Support Network

Demonstration classroom teachers help peers improve their instruction.

On a recent morning in Atlanta, eighth-grade English language arts (ELA) teacher Naja Freeman sat in the media center at Bunche Middle School describing to two visiting teachers the lesson she was about to deliver to her 27 students. Freeman told her visitors that she was going to use the Socratic Method, posing questions designed to get her students to think critically and discuss reading material aloud, while weaving in a lesson on metaphors.

“I don’t know what that’s going to look like,” she said as she told the others to join her in the classroom at the end of the hall. “I’m excited to see how it’s going to turn out.”

Freeman is a demonstration teacher—one of about 12  elementary, middle and high school standouts in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) who volunteered to open up their classrooms and allow colleagues to observe and learn from them. The program began in school year (SY) 2013–2014 with the costs covered by Race to the Top and district funds. The costs include a $1,500 stipend for the demonstration teachers, convening the demonstration teachers, salaries for substitute teachers filling in for the visiting teachers and, more recently, video technology to record the demonstration lessons so that more teachers can see them.

Georgia, like more than 20 States across the country, adopted more rigorous college- and career-ready standards for English language arts and mathematics. To implement the standards, teachers are providing opportunities for students to do critical thinking and problem solving, read more complex texts, and communicate their ideas. The standards require a shift in teaching practices and the demonstration classes are helping Atlanta teachers make that shift.

Typically, new teachers are afforded opportunities to watch more experienced mentors in action; however, Atlanta’s demonstration classrooms are open to all teachers, new and experienced alike.

The project showcases teachers who know the content, have a solid grasp on Georgia’s new college- and career-ready standards and are able to effectively engage students in their learning. It is one of many professional development tools the district relies on to help teachers improve their instruction, and it stands out for its innovative approach. Teachers say they like that the demonstration classrooms occur during the school day and offer them a chance to see what really works with students in a classroom led by one of their peers, instead of listening to lectures by non-teacher experts after school or on weekends.

Dr. Qualyn McIntyre, APS’ lead induction specialist, said the district chose the demonstration teachers based on interviews, recommendations, a classroom observation and their willingness to learn, even as they teach others. “We wanted reflective practitioners, because as long as you want to grow, you’ll help others grow,” she said.

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Open to New Ideas Stella May Swartz Elementary School, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois

Students at Stella May Swartz cheering

Students and teachers at Stella May Swartz Elementary School celebrate after learning their school had been designated a 2014 Blue Ribbon School.
Credit: Angeline Ross

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

 Stella May Swartz Elementary School, a grade 2–4 school located in suburban Chicago, has a diverse student body of 160 students, 45 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. In 2012, 100 percent of the school’s third-grade students met or exceeded State standards in mathematics, and 91 percent met or exceeded State standards in reading on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. The school uses Title I funds for reading specialists, reading materials and professional development.

In 2011, nearby Salt Creek Primary, which serves pre-kindergarten through first grade students, and Swartz adopted a new reading and language arts program that provided teachers with a wealth of materials, allowing them to differentiate instruction according to students’ needs. The materials were more advanced but students were able to rise to the challenge. Teachers closely monitored students’ progress and used data to tailor interventions to their specific needs. The staff took a similar approach in mathematics.

Q. How do you promote teacher and leader effectiveness?

 Angeline Ross, principal: Our teachers never say no and keep things positive—we are trying to teach that behavior to our students. Our teachers are always trying something new—we introduce at least one new strategy each year. One year it was guided reading; another year it was using smart boards. Our teachers are always brainstorming and problem solving because they care about more than just the kids in their grade levels. They care about all kids. I try to schedule common planning time for the teachers and they team teach. We also do a lot of professional development. I will go to a professional development workshop and bring information back to the school or bring in an outsider to the school.

Deborah Butman, fourth-grade teacher: It starts with the principal. She gets her hands dirty and is very collaborative, suggesting different ways to teach a specific piece. If the principal is willing to take risks and be open with teachers, teachers will be more open with each other and with the kids.

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