How One Illinois District Shifted the Professional Development Paradigm

Rigor, argumentation, identifying evidence from the text, conceptual understanding, and procedural fluency…these dispositions illustrate a shift in expectations for students as articulated in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While implementing higher standards is laudable, and many say necessary, how do we, as district and building leaders, support our teachers so they can make needed shifts in their own professional practices to enable students to realize the potential of the CCSS?

Here’s what we did in a small, suburban elementary district outside of Chicago (1600 students in grades PreK-8 in four neighborhood schools) to support our teachers in making the instructional shifts essential to their students’ success.

At the district level, we knew that transforming our classrooms required building a strong foundation. We couldn’t focus on changing teaching practices without providing the necessary instructional tools. Instructional materials were reviewed and selected, initial training was provided, and ideas for collaboration and group work were shared. All parties were engaged and excited by the potential of these changes. However, as the school year began, when walking around the buildings, one would observe teachers at the front of the classroom, many desks still in rows. What had happened to that vision of transformation? 

Old ways of providing professional development didn’t give teachers a vision of student-centered learning in their classrooms. What could a student-centered classroom look like in respective subjects? How could we foster perseverance in students who were solving difficult open-ended math problems or tackling challenging texts? We needed a new professional development paradigm that supported ongoing professional learning. We decided to seek outside experts to serve as coaches and facilitators to our teachers and the District 126 administrative team. Based on demonstration lessons, individual, and collaborative coaching (a modified version of lesson study), our classrooms began to shift instructional practices and subsequently achieved a greater depth of student engagement and success. Productive student talk was evident, deeper questions were asked and answered. However, this was just the beginning of building something lasting and sustainable.

At the district level, our coaches became part of our planning team, giving input as to next steps and brainstorming ways to accelerate our progress. They identified areas that could benefit from targeted PD, worked with teacher teams to build their expertise, and assisted in building our internal capacity by collaborating with our teacher-leader teams. With this guidance, we created a multiyear plan that:

  1. Fit the needs of our district,
  2. Considered the culture of each of our schools,
  3. And supported growth of teachers and students alike.

The relationships built over the next 2 or 3 years with coaches fostered open and honest interactions that enabled our teachers to take risks in stretching themselves. Students also took more academic risks with confidence in a supportive network provided by well-trained teachers, coaches and administrators. Many of our literacy teachers’ toolboxes had been filled with new instructional routines from READ 180 (the Red Routines) and Expert 21. Building on the success seen in these classrooms, our teacher-leader teams reevaluated their literacy instructional practices and implemented new supports at various grade levels. For example, while all grades use Think-Pair-Share, beginning in 3rd grade, students began using some of the more complex instructional routines. These practices promote active, engaged learning across many subject levels. When results were not what we expected, the coaches and teachers worked together to address roadblocks to student success, such as creating protocols to help scaffold student thinking during independent reading. Our math teacher-leader team has begun the same process based on their learning.

We are presently in the middle of year four. Our coaches continue their work with teacher-leaders to refine skills, and now, enable them to provide training and support for their colleagues going forward. Our administrators also continue to build upon the cultural shift that supports and challenges our teachers to stretch themselves professionally. Our classrooms now look very different from those previously described. Desks are grouped and re-grouped to support meaningful student dialogue. Students are engaged in both independent and collaborative work. Students set their own learning goals and monitor progress right alongside their teachers’ formative and summative assessments. Students who previously sat staring blankly at a challenging task are now engaged, using the strategies and tools they have been taught to create a plan of attack. These observations are supported by our data. For our 6th-8th graders using the SRI as a measure of their growth, more than 55% of our students have already exceeded their expected average annual growth.

Our success has been a team effort: district and school administrators, coaches, teachers, and students working together. The outcome of this deeper and more collaborative professional development has been some of the most rewarding work of my career, and has proved to be transformational in its ability to help us shift our teaching practices and realize greater student achievement throughout our district.

Photo: slackpics