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October 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 2

Leading in Schools on the Edge

An initiative to bring a cohort of leaders into low-performing schools finds this kind of leadership really is different.

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What skills do teacher leaders need to catalyze change in chronically underperforming schools?
When a group of coaches working with an initiative of Teach Plus called Turnaround Teacher Teams (T3), which supports cohorts of teacher leaders in struggling public schools, came together to determine what supports the leaders they were guiding needed in order to be change agents, they realized this was the real question. Clearly, the work these teacher leaders were doing in schools with abysmal achievement was different. These teachers were charged with leading in schools in which it was the norm to have a new principal every year, schools where teacher turnover was high and proficiency scores low, schools threatened by state takeover unless student performance rose swiftly.
Beginning in 2010, in partnership with T3, several Massachusetts public schools agreed to trade in their traditional leadership hierarchy for a shared leadership model in which a cohort of experienced teachers with proven success in raising the achievement of low-performing students would work with teacher teams and existing leaders in the school to rapidly improve teaching and learning.
T3 teacher leaders are trained as a team in strategies that work in failing schools. Each cohort has a coach embedded in the school to help the team. Two of us serve as such coaches. Examining these T3 teachers' practices shows what successful leaders do to transform failing schools.

Mind-Set First

The work of leading teachers doesn't begin with setting agendas or finding the right protocol, but with assuming a growth mindset—that is, that all teachers can, with effort and persistence, grow in their practice. Leaders in schools trying to reverse years of low achievement need to believe that everyone can grow with effort—what Carol Dweck calls a "growth mind-set." Just as teachers' beliefs about their students affect how they instruct, teacher leaders' beliefs about their colleagues influence how they lead.
The teacher leader cohort at Carlton M. Viveiros Elementary School in Fall River, Massachusetts, became frustrated by staff negativity about student achievement. It was common to hear teachers blaming low achievement on such factors as students not being native English speakers or having special education status or low parent involvement.
The cohort needed to tap into its own growth mind-set to not write off the teachers who were talking this way. They brought this issue to the school's instructional leadership team, and together they planned opportunities for teachers to develop awareness of how their negative language affected students. Using a chapter on mind-sets from the book The Skillful Team Leader: A Resource for Overcoming Hurdles to Professional Learning for Student Achievement by Elisa B. MacDonald (Corwin, 2013), the cohort designed professional development to foster staff's self-reflection about mind-sets and the effect they can have on adults and students. To avoid blaming, teacher leaders focused on the supports teachers said they needed to evolve their school culture into one imbued with a growth mind-set.
After months of text-based discussions and reflective conversations, the educators began to shift their beliefs about where the causes of low achievement lay—and shift their actions. Instead of greeting students in the morning by joyously saying, "How smart are you?" principal Meg Christ now asks, "How hard are you going to work today?" Teacher teams now challenge assumptions about children living in poverty. Educators constantly ask, "What are we doing to ensure that all students achieve at high levels?"

What Turnaround Leaders Do and Say

Teacher leaders who successfully transform failing schools share five attributes. Let's look at how the teacher turnaround teams embodied these attributes.

1. They are purpose-driven.

A school in need of rapid transformation faces many challenges. It's easy to lose sight of what's most important. With direction from the principal and school leaders, turnaround teacher leaders must keep laser-focused on what matters, strategically emphasizing schoolwide goals and priorities both in planning and when leading teams and initiatives.
In its first year, a small team of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers at the Roger Clap Innovation School in Dorchester, Massachusetts, struggled to find a purpose for collaboration. With three grade levels, multiple subjects, and students performing far below grade level, teachers felt overwhelmed by the number of areas that needed improvement. Christine Valenti, the team's T3 leader, helped focus her team on the school's ambitious math and reading goal: increase the median Student Growth Percentile on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System to 60 or above in both subject areas. Using this goal—and data—as a compass, the team selected smaller student learning targets, such as "4th graders will answer all components of multistep word problems." With this narrow focus, Christine's team implemented an action plan that after six weeks resulted in 5 percent average growth on an interim assessment among students in grades 3–5.
Purpose-driven instructional leaders say
  • Why are we doing this work? Why are we not doing ___?
  • How will this work affect student achievement?

2. They base decisions on evidence.

Although teacher leaders are often evidence-based decision makers in their own classrooms, effective teacher leaders also push all teachers to use data to inform their practice. Evidence-based decision makers set up structures in which teachers analyze multiple forms of student performance data, including student work, to get to a granular level, analyzing how specific student groups meet standards and show skills.
When Miranda Decklemann started as a teacher leader at Viveiros Elementary, she was facile in analyzing multiple pieces of data to improve performance within her classroom—and she assumed her team of 1st grade teachers would be similarly skilled. Although her team looked at data regularly, the teachers seldom used data strategically to shape teaching decisions.
The team's focus was to improve students' structure and craft in narrative writing, to meet their goal of getting most students to a particular score on a writing rubric connected to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments. Decklemann noticed that, although the team brought student work samples and the rubric to their meetings, instead of using these resources to make evidence-based decisions, teachers discussed problems beyond what they could see in the work, sometimes resorting to blaming students or families. They brainstormed solutions before exploring causes. They lacked follow-through in the classroom.
After consulting with her coach and others in her turnaround teacher cohort, Miranda used a Trends/Causes/Remediation protocol. Teachers brought two representative samples for each of the four possible scores on the rubric. They examined samples and shared trends they saw, such as an issue with students not providing details in their writing. Miranda prompted the team to think about plausible causes for these trends, sticking to what was within their locus of control.
After establishing root causes, teachers thought about how to address students' specific needs. Teachers designed a concrete instructional plan, created an assessment, and set a date to assess the team's progress.
Evidence-based decision makers say
  • What diagnostic information did we get from the assessment?
  • Are there trends within specific subgroups?
  • Why do we think students responded as they did?
  • How will we modify our instruction on the basis of incoming data? Which students should we modify for?

3. They facilitate adult learning.

As skillful facilitators of adult learning, teacher leaders are concerned about the learning of students and colleagues. This means they operate with emotional intelligence; they listen intently to teachers, tune in to what a colleague is worried about, and respond to that teacher's concerns. They anticipate teachers' learning needs and foster a climate for success.
After teaching for six years, Kate McGraw joined the Viveiros Elementary staff as a 2nd grade teacher leader. In September, Kate's team crafted its literacy goal, part of which was to have 100 percent of students score "low-risk" in the Nonsense Word Fluency scale of the DIBELS reading assessment by June. Careful not to make assumptions about what teachers knew about phonics and fluency, Kate spoke with teachers to learn about their experiences and uncover individual strengths and needs. She learned that few teachers used DIBELS to inform instruction. Kate observed as her team analyzed the data, listening keenly to observations teachers shared. When she heard surface-level observations like "He's at risk," Kate probed for more information, asking, "What led you to that conclusion?"
Before designing an action plan, teachers needed to look more deeply at student responses on DIBELS to determine the root causes of poor fluency—and they needed guidance on how to mark the assessment in ways that would inform their instruction. Thinking that guidance from a fellow team member might take root, Kate invited a team member to share her successful process for marking up the assessment. Instead of using the traditional marking procedure for the assessment—simply marking words read incorrectly and counting words read correctly within a one-minute time frame—the presenting teacher showed how she kept track of the actual errors the student made while reading the connected text, in ways that enabled further analysis of phonological deficits (such as a lack of automatic word reading for all multisyllabic words). This teacher also made notes concerning fluency while marking the assessment. These methods would give teachers more diagnostic information.
Skillful facilitators say
  • What do we need to learn together?
  • I'm sensing from the team that we might need to explore additional resources to further our understanding of _____.
  • [When faced with resistance] I appreciate you voicing that concern. Please speak more about it so we can work together to address it.

4. They don't stop learning.

Often teacher leaders are perceived as experts. Although it's essential that they be master teachers in their classrooms, they don't necessarily know everything there is to know about teaching pedagogy. Nor are they likely to enter the role as master leaders. Teachers who lead must be teachers who learn. This means admitting publicly what they don't know and then pursuing the knowledge needed to build capacity in their school. It means taking instructional risks, discussing their failures, and sharing their process for working through challenges. It also means seeking out support from their teacher leader cohort, principal, and coach.
After looking at student data, the instructional leadership team at Trotter Elementary determined that students needed to demonstrate better critical-thinking skills. They agreed that the strategy of academically rich conversations (also called Accountable Talk) could increase opportunities for students to do so. This strategy promotes text-based discussions; teachers act only as facilitators, asking key questions to help build a deeper understanding. No one had experience with the strategy, however. Joanne Douglas, in her first year as a T3 leader, volunteered to spearhead the project, although she knew little about the approach and was skeptical of its effectiveness.
A master teacher for nine years, Joanne was in unfamiliar territory. She immersed herself in professional texts about Accountable Talk, talked with an expert from a local college, and consulted her coach on how to lead work in which she wasn't an expert. She invited the college professor to model a lesson with her students, then opened her classroom and demonstrated lessons for colleagues using this strategy. She shifted from an "I don't think it can be done" stance to a "Come see me do it!" stance. Joanne's willingness to lead while learning inspired others to implement Accountable Talk and gave them permission to share their own struggles.
Ongoing learners say
  • I'm trying this for the first time.
  • This worked for some students, but we need to find out why it didn't work for others.

5. They are change agents.

Teacher leaders in schools with histories of failure must work with school leaders and faculty to foster a culture of continuous improvement. Changing the way things are done is hard. People may be invested in preserving the operating methods they're used to, even just from habit. Change agents understand that time and a deliberate process are needed to shift beliefs and actions. When faced with resistance, they seek to understand the cause and address it.
Belzie Mont-Louis, having worked in schools with isolated pockets of excellence, knew she must foster a culture where all teachers shared with one another in Orchard Gardens K–8 Pilot School in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Belzie launched a schoolwide peer observation initiative. Teachers resisted the idea of opening their classroom to others. For many teachers, observation equaled criticism. Many lacked experience with peer observation, and the school had yet to develop a culture of openness, trust, and commitment to professional growth.
Belzie brainstormed how to approach this challenge with her T3 coach. They started by removing logistical barriers, providing teachers time in their schedules to conduct observations. Belzie led several schoolwide sessions to build knowledge about peer observations. But the bulk of her work was empowering teams to build trust among individual teachers and teams.
One year into the initiative, there were signs of change. The math team had systems in place to exchange feedback. Their peer observation focus on the language of teaching fractions and ratios resulted in increased student discourse about these math concepts. After the arts team observed classes in many content areas and gained greater knowledge about general education curriculum, the arts teachers planned units that supported grade-level literacy and math content.
Belzie is still striving to make peer feedback common practice at Orchard Gardens. She's learned that being a change agent requires patience as well as urgency, humility as well as courage, listening as well as action.
Change agents say
  • Let's not settle for compliance.
  • What hurdles can we anticipate? Which can we prevent and how?
  • How will we keep ourselves accountable for the changes we intend to implement?
Teacher leaders aren't born with these attributes; they develop them. Working with turnaround teacher teams in Massachusetts and other states, we've seen teachers develop the practices to sow change only if they have support from school principals who truly practice shared leadership. Leading within a school on the edge really is different. Principals who hold on to the fundamental belief that teachers leading teachers can bring swift and sustainable change to a struggling school will see it happen.
End Notes

1 T3 is an initiative of Teach Plus. It was designed by Greater Boston teachers selected as Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows to address the challenge of staffing low-performing schools with highly skilled, experienced teachers. The T3 Initiative was initially piloted in three "turnaround schools" in the Boston Public Schools and has since expanded to other urban, high-need schools in need of rapid transformation.

2 Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success (2nd ed.). New York: Random House.

Katie Hickey has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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