Teachers Working with Teachers: School Districts (Part 3)

Occasionally, school systems cultivate both professional development across their districts and school-based learning communities focused on instructional improvement. In Pittsburgh (PA) in the early 1980s, for example, Superintendent Richard Wallace closed a high school with low test scores and declining enrollment and re-opened it as a magnet school for students and training center for the district’s high school teachers.

Between 1983-1989, the teacher center brought nearly one thousand teachers in 11 other district high schools to the training center to spend eight weeks learning the Madeline Hunter approach to lessons, content knowledge in their discipline, and ways to improve their teaching through seminars, observations of master teachers, and conferences. After eight weeks, teachers returned to their high school assignments. Evaluations posted high teacher satisfaction with the experience, difficulties after they returned to their classrooms, and gains in student test scores.  [i]

Between the late-1980s and mid-1990s, New York City Community district 2 under the leadership of Superintendent Anthony Alvarado stressed continuous instructional improvement across 48 elementary and middle schools. Through a variety of mechanisms such as the Professional Development Laboratory, Intervisitations and Peer Networks, and Instructional Consulting Service, principals worked closely with teachers on instructional improvement because “good ideas come from talented people working together” and “collegiality, caring, and respect” make a difference in what occurs in classrooms. Targeted instructional improvement led to Focused Literacy programs in over a dozen low-performing schools. In those schools, teachers taught lessons that were “more intensive, more structured, and more teacher-centered version of the district’s broader literacy program.” And the district’s academic achievement rose annually moving up into the ranks of higher performing community districts.[ii]

Also consider how the largely minority and poor Sanger school district in the Central Valley of California with nearly 11,000 students in 19 schools approached instructional improvement through professional development. In 2004, the district itself and seven schools were designated as failing schools under NCLB and placed into Program Improvement, a state effort to turn around failing schools. Within five years, all seven schools had recovered sufficiently to leave Program Improvement and four of those schools became State Distinguished Schools. In addition, by 2009, 12 of the 13 elementary schools exceeded the target score of 800 that the state set for the Academic Performance Index. This is an extraordinary accomplishment for a high-poverty, largely minority district facing all of the complexity that such systems encounter daily.[iii]

How did they do it? Opinions differ, of course, on which factors made the difference but researchers and informed observers do agree on the following:

*Continuing superintendent leadership over the long haul; Marc Johnson has been superintendent since 2002 and Rich Smith, his deputy, since 2004.

*Steadfast focus on instructional improvement through direct instruction to meet state curriculum standards and improve performance on state tests.

*Establishing systematic and intensive district-wide professional development and school-based teacher learning communities aimed at improved classroom practices in daily lessons.

Evaluators described the strategy:

They adopted the [Rick] DuFour’s model of teacher professional learning communities (PLCs) as the vehicle for teachers to work collaboratively to improve student achievement and develop a sense of collective responsibility. They chose a model of direct instruction, Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI), with structures designed to help low performing and language minority students work on grade-level standards with frequent checking for understanding. To support students struggling at grade level, district leaders designed their own version of Response to Intervention (RTI), creating both in-class intervention and a range of intervention classes to meet the specific needs of students at risk of falling behind. To provide added help to English learners, the district expanded its emphasis on English language development (ELD).[iv]

Johnson’s vision and inspiration and Smith’s practical implementation of the vision and the above multi-faceted program help explain Sanger’s successful turnaround of a failing district.

Districts providing support for teacher collaboration such as what happened in Sanger in California’s Central Valley, Community District 2 in New York City, and Pittsburgh did not occur magically. Nor was it magical when grade-level and departmental learning communities and school-wide groups of teachers worked together on instructional improvement with administrative support where stable leadership over a decade or more made possible the building of further knowledge and skills among teachers. It is that collaboration bent toward improving teaching and learning that is essential for schools to adapt to the DNA of complex systems to achieve instructional effectiveness and student academic improvement.


[i] Edward Miech, Bill Nave, Frederick Mosteller, “Large Scale Professional Development for Schoolteachers: Cases from Pittsburgh,New York City, and the National School Refo

rm Faculty,” New Directions for Evaluation, 2001, pp. 83-100;

[ii] Richard Elmore and Deanna Burney, “Continuous Improvement in Community District# 2, New York City,”1998, (Pittsburgh, PA: High Performance Learning Communities Project, Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh). In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over district schools and he reorganized the schools, ending community districts.

[iii] Jane David and Joan Talbert, “Turning Around a High-Poverty School District:

Learning from Sanger Unified’s Success,” An external Evaluation for the S. H. Cowell Foundation, November 2010. Also see John Fensterwald, “Lessons from High-peformers,” Thoughts on Public Education at: http://toped.svefoundation.org/2010/10/26/lessons-from-high-performing-districts/

[iv]David and Talbert, p. 10.

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