Teachers are surrounded by the greatest professional development resource ever created: other teachers. So, doesn’t it make sense to team up for mutual support and growth? In this white paper, we describe the research that supports peer coaching and lay out the components of an effective coaching triad, with participants taking turns coaching, being coached, and observing. While school leadership can promote an environment that values and encourages trusting working relationships, the real work of coaching needs to be planned and executed by teachers themselves, the authors say.
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The superintendent of the Rome City School District in upstate New York won praise from his board recently—and by extension so did McREL’s Superintendent Evaluation System, which is based on McREL’s Balanced Leadership™ Framework. The Rome Sentinel reported that new Superintendent Peter Blake finished his first year with a “proficient” rating following a McREL evaluation process, which the Sentinel explained is a notable achievement for a first-time superintendent given the rigor of the McREL superintendent evaluation process. The board adopted the McREL evaluation system two years earlier because it was “more comprehensive” than their previous process. The McREL Superintendent Evaluation system helps district leaders and boards focus their reviews on:
- Purposeful community – using assets to accomplish goals that matter to all community members.
- Managing change – understanding the implications and adjusting leadership behavior accordingly.
- Focus of leadership – targeting appropriate areas for school improvement efforts.
- Management – having a system in place for organizing the work of the school district and prioritizing student learning and safety.
An anecdote at the end of a recent New York Times article caught my attention because it raised the question of what constitutes meaningful student work. For a unit on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, students in a Michigan high school were given a choice of assignments: give a regular class presentation (meh) or use a 3-D printer to illustrate a theme from the novel (super cool!). The teacher proudly Tweeted one such student artifact: a 3-D gavel that illustrated the novel’s theme of social justice.
Or … is it?
Without wading into the thornier issue that the assignment was slyly related to a side business the teacher was running out of his basement (the focus of the Times piece), I had a question about the educational value of the project: What do we imagine students are thinking about when they engage in this sort of exercise?
Learning to use software and a 3-D printer to manipulate shapes and objects is a perfectly valid objective. But this was supposed to be an opportunity to think about themes from the novel. The student who chose the printer assignment probably didn’t put much thought about social justice into the task.
We know from cognitive studies of how our brains process information that we must at some point concentrate on what we’re learning to develop long-term memories. As University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham states: “Students remember … what they think about.”
Back when my daughter was in high school, she professed to me that she didn’t like one of her new teachers, Mr. Bagley. He’d sent an e-mail to students before the first day of school, telling them to review the syllabus and be prepared to take a quiz on the first day of class, which she didn’t think was fair. During the first class, he told them that his job was to help prepare them for college-level work, so the learning, assignments, and tests in his class would be like college courses. From the start, he helped them set goals, encouraged them through the process, and clearly explained the requirements to be successful in his class. They knew exactly what he required and the high expectations he set for every student, every day, with every lesson.
Being demanding is one of three key characteristics of effective teachers, along with being intentional and being supportive, that are discussed in McREL’s The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. Being demanding is not about being a no-nonsense, authoritarian teacher. It’s about having high expectations of your students and, just as importantly, helping them gain confidence in themselves and encouraging them to take on more challenges than they previously thought themselves capable of handling. The 12 Touchstones book gives four key things for teachers to think about within the be demanding imperative.
The importance of parent involvement may be obvious. How schools should harness it remains a bit of a mystery.
In his September Research Matters column for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin observes that research shows home environment heavily influences student achievement.
But what about home environment and parental involvement has the most influence? Nagging kids to do homework? Showing an interest in school? Getting involved with extracurricular activities?
These tactics may be good for parent-child relationships, but none of them makes much difference in student achievement, Goodwin writes. The unsettling consequence? “[M]any schools’ parent involvement efforts may miss the mark.” These include such commonplace requests as checking homework or attending school events.
The thing about home that does have the power to boost achievement, Goodwin stresses, is “parental communication of high expectations.” Such expectations may be transmitted quietly, but they work—perhaps because young people internalize them and convert them into their own expectations for themselves.
Four years ago, a group of district superintendents in West Michigan gathered for their quarterly regional meeting. As they trudged into the room, they picked up a familiar agenda, one they’d seen in countless prior meetings—facility updates, regional events, and teacher negotiations—really, nothing new. Outside, nearly 5,000 third-graders in public schools across the region … their students in their region … were demonstrating below-proficiency achievement in reading.
After the first few announcements, a bold voice spoke up:
Why don’t we use this time together to do something meaningful? Why don’t we solve a real problem? We are the leaders of the schools. Less than half of the kids in our schools are not learning to read and write like they should. If we are not talking about that every moment of our time together, what are we talking about? What could be more important?
What could have been a snooze-fest instead brought an entire region together around solving a problem. An inside-out approach to improvement began.
In the years that followed, a network of learners, known today as the Reading Now Network, grew up devoted to collective action. Among its accomplishments, the network has written formal commitments among superintendents and resolutions to be adopted by boards of education; undertaken inquiry-based action research field studies within member schools; and provided myriad professional learning opportunities emphasizing early literacy research.
In addition, the network supports literacy coaching opportunities for principals and teachers; a classroom library initiative; and a customized instructional rounds practice providing contextualized assistance, one school at a time.
A few months ago, we began working with a new principal who was in the process of getting to know her school. She knew that students came to school ready to learn, teachers were prepared to teach, and families were supportive of their school. The school was a welcoming place that served as a focus for community activities. But despite these positive supports, she explained, students were not meeting learning expectations. Academic progress in both English language arts and mathematics were below the state average, and she was concerned that families might soon lose confidence in the school’s ability to prepare students for the next level of learning.
During our consultation with this principal, we asked her if she knew whether the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum (GVC). She wasn’t sure how to answer, so she responded with a question, “How would I know if the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum?”
To determine whether a school has a GVC, we must first describe it. A “guaranteed” curriculum is often defined as a mechanism through which all students have an equal opportunity (time and access) to learn rigorous content. This requires a school-wide (or district-wide) agreement and common understanding of the essential content that all students need to know, understand, and be able to do. The word “all” needs emphasis; a guaranteed curriculum promotes equity, giving all children equal opportunity to learn essential content, and to provide this opportunity, curricular materials and instructional approaches must be grounded in research, implemented with fidelity, and must include vertical as well as horizontal alignment.
Intense focus on accountability and teacher effectiveness in recent years has expanded the thinking around instructional coaching. While instructional coaching occurs at nearly every school, the purpose of coaching and the formats used vary widely among schools. It’s not surprising that such variety exists given that, while research suggests coaching supports the success of improvement initiatives (Hubbard, Mehan, & Stein, 2006; Stein & D’Amico, 2002), little evidence exists that explains how it happens.
What we do know, from researchers like Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (2002), is that the most effective professional learning for teachers includes a combination of different types of learning opportunities: introduction of research and theory; demonstration of new practices; opportunities to apply new knowledge through deliberate practice; and instructional coaching that includes ongoing, descriptive feedback. Of these, Joyce and Showers found coaching was the one learning opportunity that had to be present for teachers to translate new knowledge and skills into their practice.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of principals and central office administrators about their successes and challenges with conducting informal classroom walkthroughs—observations that are done for professional development coaching and monitoring rather than for formal evaluation purposes. While many of these school and district leaders say that there are benefits to doing these walkthroughs—such as improving PD effectiveness, increasing collaborative staff dialogue, and building a purposeful school community—they often struggle to find time to conduct the walkthroughs because of how much else is on their plate during busy school days.
A solution I’ve seen many successful principals employ over the last few years is to bring other observers into the fold, engaging instructional coaches, peer coaches, and other teacher leaders in the process. What these principals found is that sharing walkthrough responsibilities with these additional staff not only saved time, but it instilled higher levels of trust and transparency throughout their building and helped more of their instructional team members understand and rally around common goals and initiatives.
When we think of great leaders, we often think of those who seem as if they were “born to lead.” But is leadership really a fixed trait, or is it an acquired skill? In the May issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein explore the research on how school leaders become great leaders.
Recent studies support the idea that leaders’ performance does indeed change over time—though not always for the better. One study of 197 elementary schools found that significant changes in principals’ performance were linked to better school improvement capacity and higher student growth rates (Heck & Hallinger, 2010). However, a similar study of 39 elementary principals found that leaders changed how they spent their time over a three-year period—but that schools where principals focused more on managerial tasks had higher achievement, while those where principals focused more on instructional leadership had lower achievement.