Jason Stricker explains how the Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project helps create professional learning communities that work
Research suggests that one of the main factors influencing student achievement results is the effectiveness of teachers. Research also shows that developing great teachers can be complex and expensive. According to the New Teacher Project’s 2015 Mirage report, districts can spend upwards of $18,000 annually per teacher on professional development (PD) and are only seeing little improvement in teacher effectiveness. Too often, solutions to teacher development include the adoption of new curriculum that all teachers are asked to follow or the implementation of a new instructional strategy across a school without really testing the efficacy of that strategy.
The planning and implementation of these solutions often play out in schools’ professional learning communities (PLCs). Since first emerging in the 1960s, PLCs have been grounded in key principles, chief among them the belief that participation would ultimately lead to improvement in teacher practice and increases in student achievement. While there is plenty of evidence to support the fact that teachers and administrators enjoy participating in PLCs, there is very little real data to show the impact of this participation on teacher and student growth. School leaders often find themselves struggling to structure meaningful opportunities for teachers to work together.
In our own quest to find systems and structures that help solve some of these challenges related to teaching and learning, we uncovered some incredibly complex problems that the world has faced, and a common approach to solving them.
Introducing the Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project (STEP)
In 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) invited the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), the American Institutes for Research (AIR), Kitamba, and my company, Insight Education Group, to work together to find solutions to the pressing issues that PLCs have been wrestling with.
1. How do we close persistent achievement gaps in order to ensure that all students are achieving at high levels?
2. How do we help prepare students for college and career success when the odds are stacked against them?
3. How do teachers get better when they are already doing everything they can to help their students succeed?
To answer these questions, we looked back to the early 1990s, when Jerry and Monique Sternin were faced with a perplexing challenge when leading Save the Children’s work to combat childhood malnutrition in the Vietnamese countryside. A horrifying 65% of all children in Vietnam under five years of age suffered from some degree of malnutrition. With limited resources and only six months to solve the intractable problem of childhood malnutrition in Vietnam or face being asked to leave the country, the Sternins had to design an improvement model that would simultaneously engage all stakeholders in the community and lead to the discovery of a sustainable solution. They used an approach based on the theory of positive deviance, which asserts that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, even if they have the same resources and similar or worse challenges.
The Sternins worked with the community to find families who, despite the odds, had children who were not malnourished. In trying to discover what these families were doing differently from others in their villages, they found a simple and powerful truth. By scooping soup from the bottom of pots, rather than the top, these families were serving their children more nutrient-rich food such as shrimp and potatoes—rather than simply pouring broth into their bowls.
The simple process of serving from the bottom of soup pots was the key to solving malnutrition. It did not require huge relief or aid efforts from others; it simply required careful examination and testing of serving practices. The Sternins then encouraged the community to adopt these positive deviant practices and brought about enormous change. After six months, more than 40% of the children participating in the program were rehabilitated; another 20% had moved from severe malnutrition to moderate malnutrition.
The Role of Positive Deviance
After learning about the positive deviance theory, we asked ourselves if we could use a similar approach to solve seemingly intractable problems in education. Our hypothesis was that in every school community, there are educators who have access to the same resources as their peers but use certain uncommon teaching strategies that enable better learning to occur in their classrooms.
Together with the AIR, Kitamba, and the team at Insight Education Group, we developed the Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project (STEP), which at its core is designed to help teachers solve problems through discovering, testing, and sharing better practices. Drawing upon the wisdom and success of the Sternins’ work in Vietnam as well as improvement science and lessons from industries working in networked improvement communities, STEP brings together educators who face a shared challenge and facilitates their professional growth.
The STEP Framework
Now implemented in several districts and CMOs nationwide, the framework provides an opportunity for team members to cultivate expanded networks and resources that can inform their approaches to solving problems. Teachers develop an appreciation for the power of positive deviance and learn to discern when changes lead to improvement and when they do not. As a result, the process influences positive changes in culture, mindset, and relationships among teachers, students, and school communities.
The process is simple to explain and understand. Facilitators lead teachers through four phases as depicted in the provided graphic:
Seek: The first phase helps participants identify a common challenge that each member wants to solve and establish a measurable aim toward which they will work collectively in order to solve their challenge.
Discover: With a common challenge in their sights, teams then embark on a process to discover successful people and practices within their community. Using existing data and gathering new information as needed, teams look for successful outliers. Once outliers have been identified, teams engage in cycles of inquiry to discover the specific practices and strategies that are leading to the desired results.
Confirm: During this phase, teams confirm the promise of these new practices by trying them and measuring whether they make a difference. Only when the change brings about better outcomes can a new practice be considered a solution.
Share: Once they have confirmed potential solutions, teams share the results of their work with their communities. Teams work to design a process to share the effective practices they have uncovered with other colleagues in their schools and districts. When sharing a solution, teams may also share the process used to confirm the helpfulness of a new practice.
The Essential Elements of STEP
There are four essential, interconnected elements that support STEP. Each must be present in order for site-based teams to effectively implement the process.
Data: Data helps participants understand if the changes they are making to their practice are having the desired impact on helping them solve their challenge. STEP emphasizes the use of practical measurement of students’ educational indicators (behaviors, competencies, experiences), teacher practices, and teacher professional growth and effectiveness as these factors relate to the challenge the team identified.
Great Facilitation: Effective facilitation by trained coaches is the foundation of the work of all teams. Practical and no-nonsense methods are required to help participants navigate the four phases of the work while creating a safe space where teams feel empowered to engage, innovate, try new approaches, learn, and grow.
Content and Contextual Knowledge: Once a challenge has been identified, teams need to understand the knowledge, attitudes and beliefs, skills, and habits of mind necessary to identify potential solutions and implement them effectively. While relevant content knowledge often resides within the community, teams may learn that to effectively address their issues, they will need to enhance and extend their knowledge within the group.
Leadership and Culture: The initiative is committed to bottom-up change management and the top-down conditions that support and encourage bottom-up innovation. Unlike traditional top-down, expert-driven professional development, teachers drive this work. They are challenged to proactively address problems of practice by focusing not on what is wrong but instead on identifying what is working today.
Case Study: Lee Elementary School
“The answers are here” is a phrase that embodies the essence of STEP. But how do we begin to find these answers? This was the question the team at Lee Elementary School in LBUSD set out to answer in the fall of 2014. The team, led by a trained coach, included the school’s principal, its vice principal, and 13 teachers representing grades K–5.
During the first meeting, the team spent time getting to know each other and started working through a series of questions: What kept them up at night wishing that they could help their students do better? What really mattered in terms of making sure that their students were college and career ready? They came up with seven potential challenge areas. Next, the coach asked the team members to bring data to their next meeting that would help verify that the challenges they identified were real and shared across grade levels. They were encouraged to cast a wide net and bring in any assessments that they thought might help contextualize their problems.
The team rose to the occasion. At the next team meeting, the principal brought school-wide data from common end-of-unit math tests across all grade levels. Teachers brought several of their own artifacts, including quizzes, tests, exit tickets, and student work.
Over the course of the next several meetings, the team made collective connections between the data and their brainstormed challenges. Looking at the available data helped them eliminate some challenges altogether, either because the links between the challenge and college- and career-readiness standards seemed unclear or because there was not sufficient convincing data that clearly demonstrated that the challenges were shared across grade levels and student populations.
As a result of this review, they were left with three sizable focus areas: two related to math and one to ELA. To continue investigating these topics and help the team narrow its scope to a single challenge area, the STEP coach led the team through several activities that pushed them through further exploration and analysis of the problems they had identified. After careful discussion and examination, they decided that their most immediate challenge involved improving their instructional practices in math concepts and procedures and communicating reasoning in order to improve student outcomes.
With a narrowed area of focus, the team had to determine a clear end goal and opportunities to monitor progress along the way. They realized that they needed to gather more evidence about the challenge itself in order to understand the current state of teaching practices being used to teach math concepts and procedures and to help students communicate their reasoning. The team worked closely with the coach and the STEP data support liaison to design surveys: one for teachers at Lee to explore existing teacher practices and perceptions toward teaching math and collaborating to improve practice, and another for students to understand their perceptions of math. Team members also talked informally with parents and other teachers about current approaches to teaching math concepts and associated procedures. This informal, qualitative data was also used to validate and refine their challenges.
With this data in place, the coach led the team through the remaining phases. These included developing a succinct statement that clearly defined what they hoped to accomplish and helped express what success would look like, and examining baseline student outcomes data, together with their survey data, to provide early signposts for practices and outcomes. In the end, the team created a clear set of math practices that worked and that could be used school wide. STEP provided the framework and mindset for the educators at Lee to discover shared issues and find the solutions within their own building.
Empowering Teachers Brings Change
STEP is now being implemented in more than 20 schools (and growing) nationwide, including LBUSD, Aspire Public Schools, and Boston Public Schools. Participating teachers consistently share how the process has provided a meaningful way to collaborate with other grade levels and departments and encourage an open-door policy with their colleagues. In addition, teachers share how the initiative has provided them with the opportunity to develop common assessments, learn teaching strategies, and most importantly self-reflect on teaching practices.
STEP is designed to be a paradigm shift. Rather than telling teachers how to improve instruction, it empowers teachers to authentically select and hone the tools and mindsets that allow them to improve their practice and positively impact student learning.
Jason Stricker is a co-founder and CEO of Insight Education Group. With extensive experience in education as a teacher, coach, chief academic officer, and consultant, Jason brings to his work a deep understanding of educator effectiveness and organizational change and its impact on stakeholders at all levels. Follow him on Twitter at @stricktlyjason. Interested educators can learn more about STEP and hear from participants on the impact of the program in their schools at InsightEducationGroup.com/STEP.