By Laurie Speranzo
Superintendent of schools
Director of assessments, planning and program evaluation
New Brunswick Public Schools (NJ) is a continuing partner with the Institute for Learning (IFL). Over the last 4 academic years, the district has seen definite growth across grades 3 – 10 in both English language arts and mathematics, as measured on the NJ state assessment tests.
In addition to the gains made at each of the grade levels, there were several instances in which the growth of the district significantly surpassed the growth at the state level.
To what can the increase in student achievement be attributed? Dr. Aubrey Johnson, superintendent of schools, states, “The growth we have experienced in New Brunswick is likely attributed to the system-ness and coherence we have developed across all departments and schools. We are committed to supporting all teachers with content-specific professional development as we develop a common practice across all classrooms grounded in the Principles of Learning, to support every learner.”
Until 4 years ago, the district was setting professional development goals by department/content area. Dr. Johnson asked the curriculum and instruction office to develop goals that were common to every teacher and administrator in the district. The focus of the goals was grounded in common practice. The district committed to increase student achievement by developing, implementing, and evaluating a common practice of designing cognitively engaging, high-level, student-centered tasks that are measurable and aligned to the standards; purposefully differentiating questioning to assess and advance all students through the learning process; and advancing each student’s ability to construct logical arguments that require students to cite evidence.
The goals were applied to all levels of the district, administrators and teachers alike. Measurement of goal attainment was accomplished through dialogue. According to Dr. Johnson, “We moved away from rigid structures for benchmarks because that simply leads to a feeling of compliance.” Dr. Johnson envisioned an environment of trust in which teachers (and administrators) can try new ideas and new pedagogical moves. By benchmarking progress via conversations, the leadership team is able to discuss what they see and hear in classrooms: What evidence is there of use of high-level tasks? What questions are teachers asking and are the questions assessing and then advancing student thinking?
What level of talk is present in the classrooms?
Professional development has been provided with a strategic design in mind. Dr. Vanessa Pellington currently serves as the director of assessment, planning, and program evaluation. Prior to serving in this position, Dr. Pellington served as the director of professional development. As such, she played a key role in coordinating the execution of the district goals over the last few years. “The decision to remain focused on our three core professional development goals has provided the resources and follow up required for our staff to deepen their understanding of the instructional practices that support all learners. IFL has certainly been instrumental in this process,” she states. Professional development offerings are tied directly to the goals and their implementation. Sessions with teachers or with administrators are always followed by learning labs and/or Bridges to Practice, where participants are asked to try the pedagogy in their buildings and bring evidence of their own learning back to the next session.
Implementing learning labs “changed the mindset of teachers and provided opportunities to adjust instructional practice,” according to Dr. Johnson. Teachers and administrators have had the opportunity to see planning for and modeling of high-level tasks that change student behavior and promote student agency. Teachers have engaged in the planning process and are better prepared to go back and execute moves in their own classrooms. Teachers understand how to pre-plan for possible student misconceptions and how they will handle supporting students as they work through those misconceptions. Professional development opportunities have been, by design, tied directly to New Brunswick classrooms. The district has built a community of trust and values mistakes as learning experiences, both in teaching and learning.
The district has continued with the professional development goals for several years because as they reflect on the goals in place, they continue to see where progress has been made but also where they still have room to grow before meeting the goals.
That said, now that the district has begun to see the impact of the work of teachers and administrators around the three goals toward common practice, they identified a need to add a fourth goal: to personalize student learning through the adoption and implementation of a whole-school approach to technology integration.
Technology was not originally a goal set by the district because they believed that technology must be infused into instruction and support learning, not be a separate entity. The district is focused on how digital learning can enhance students’ experiences in school and personalize learning. Dr. Johnson is committed to student voice and agency in the classroom, and instructional technology is one tool that can support all students in deeper learning.