This feature is the first in a series of pieces from NIET that will focus on specific strategies to support learning acceleration efforts. This spring, NIET published a new policy paper about effective ways that districts are strengthening their practices to combat learning loss and accelerate student learning. Specifically, we talked with Somerset ISD in Texas, East Feliciana Public Schools in Louisiana, and Cross County School District in Arkansas. The paper highlights the work educators are doing in these districts across the country.
Expanding the school leadership team to include teacher leaders builds instructional leadership capacity and creates opportunities to strengthen collaborative professional learning. Weekly professional learning and classroom coaching follow cycles of improvement that address specific student learning needs.
Professional learning follows a process for improvement in Somerset ISD, East Feliciana Public Schools, and Cross County School District, and teacher leaders work with principals on the school instructional leadership team to design and facilitate weekly collaborative learning meetings. Professional learning communities (PLCs) meet each week and use a cycle of improvement led by teacher leaders to identify student needs, learn strategies to address these needs, plan how to support individual students to be successful, use supports and scaffolds to enable students to access grade level content in their classroom, and analyze student work to determine impact and guide next steps.
"Our teacher leadership structure was my salvation," said Dana Deason, a master teacher in Cross County, Arkansas. "Before that, we were teaching to the middle or focusing on the bubble kids who were just below proficient, but we weren’t teaching each student. When we put this structure of teacher leadership in place, and trained teacher leaders and principals to use data to create cycles of improvement for each teacher, it changed how they supported students. Now, teachers have the tools and support to move each student."
"What a difference it made during the pandemic," Deason said. "We did not lose as much ground, and in fact, our students did very well when compared with peers across the state. The reason was that we had the people trained and positioned to help teachers. Teachers needed to use data to determine each student's needs and create an action plan for learning acceleration. We already had built their trust in the system, and they knew who to go to for help."
Using teacher leaders to tailor professional learning to specific student needs
Teacher leaders in East Feliciana Public Schools also play an important role in helping classroom teachers analyze student data and student work to address learning gaps. Weekly PLC meetings led by teacher leaders are designed to build teachers’ instructional skills to support individual student learning needs. "It starts with identifying individual student learning needs and gaps," said Lauren May, master teacher at Jackson Elementary School. "Before we used generic categories: low-, medium-, high- performing students. What shifted for us during the pandemic is that we don’t use neat, simple categories anymore. We focus on the specific learning needs of each student, which might show they are exceptional and needy, at the same time, in different areas. We ground our conversations in actual student work. It lets us be more specific and requires teachers to be more intentional about gathering and using individual student work to drive instruction."
In Somerset ISD, professional learning systems are similarly driven by data and student work. "The most important thing we found when the pandemic hit was to know our kids, to know where they are with learning, and what their struggles are in and out of the classroom," said Superintendent Saul Hinojosa. "For us, data is essential to our process for supporting students and supporting teachers. We have weekly data conversations in what we call cluster groups of five to eight teachers. We really get into the weeds and take apart an assessment, identify where students fell short, discuss how we taught the concept, what answers students gave, and how we can address that learning gap going forward by scaffolding that learning into a future lesson, or where a student needs extra support through intervention."
Engaging teachers as leaders in setting instructional goals and analyzing student work
In all three districts, building-level instructional leadership teams analyze student data and set goals that drive professional learning over the course of the year. For example, Cross County School District convenes building level instructional leadership teams during the summer to analyze student data and plan professional learning, creating a foundation for addressing learning gaps. "We started the school year in 2020 and 2021 with summer planning with our instructional leadership team," said Teresa Fuller, a master teacher at the high school. "We were able to dig into the data and student work, really understand specific student needs, identify a strategy to address those needs, and plan a field test. We pulled in the standards and looked at what students were expected to know. We asked questions like: Is there a mini lesson some students need in order to keep up with grade-level material?"
Mentor teachers played a key role as the school year started by field testing the strategies in their classrooms and bringing results back to the instructional leadership team. "This increased buy-in for our mentor teachers," said Fuller, "and their ability to share what was happening in classrooms." Grounding professional learning in an analysis of student work and the grade-level standards made it highly relevant for teachers.
The instructional leadership team used recordings of classroom lessons as a resource to create more of a team approach. "We were able to pull clips from mentors’ classrooms to show other teachers," Fuller said. "We focused on student work and student actions – what does it look like when students are owning their own learning? How can teachers facilitate the move from a more teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom?" The leadership team played a critical role in creating a culture of open doors and sharing effective practices across the faculty.