By Anthony Petrosky & Sara DeMartino

In 2018 the Institute for Learning, in partnership with colleagues at LRDC and the School of Education’s Center for Urban Education (CUE), received a substantial 5-year award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to establish a literacy network for school improvement (NSI) in seven middle schools and their seven feeder high schools in Dallas ISD. The goal is to improve 9th grade on-track literacy for college and career readiness for African American and Hispanic students, as well as those living in poverty. The NSI began by working first with 8th and 9th grade ELA teachers in the NSI schools. In the third year, we expanded the work to all 6th through 9th grade ELA teachers in the NSI schools. The NSI is now in its final year in Dallas ISD, and we’re pleased to report that both quantitative and qualitative assessments of students’ growth and achievement show that there are many reasons to be encouraged by the work of the NSI teachers and the academic successes of their students in the 14 NSI schools.  

The work of our network happens in a number of different ways and cycles. Each month teachers are brought together to share their practice, learn about adaptations to practice, and to engage with new instructional practices that they are then tasked with taking back to their school to adapt for their students’ needs.

Student and teacher talking about writing assignment

Continuous improvement means that students become confident and competent in their own thinking. As their expectations for themselves move, teachers’ expectations move; teachers then provide their students with even more challenging texts.

That cycle then repeats the next month. After network meetings, we at the IFL coach school teams in their weekly PLC meetings, as well as individual campus coaches who support those school teams. We meet regularly with principals and assistant principals in scheduled monthly meetings to support their work with their schools’ NSI teachers. In addition, we regularly meet with the executive directors who support the NSI schools at the district level. Although we could elaborate on these various levels of support, we’ll save that for a future essay that extends this one. What follows, then, is a description of the work of the network and the network’s impact on student achievement. In our follow-up article, we’ll discuss the lessons we’ve learned partnering with a complex school district for five years.  


Studying Quantitative and Qualitative Data to Identify Problems of Practice 

The IFL began the NSI project by collaborating with teachers and their principals to conduct a root cause analysis of literacy issues bound up in students’ and teachers’ experiences. We studied achievement data; collected and analyzed teachers’ assignments; observed classes; and dug into students’ work. We discussed the deficit thinking we saw in empathy interviews and worked to shift the network to take an asset-based view of students by showing students’ work over time that testified to their capabilities. Together over the first year, we mapped out a growing understanding of students’ desires for challenging, relevant texts and tasks. We learned about their limited writing opportunities and experiences; and we heard teachers speak bravely about their discomfort teaching writing. We also observed classes where most of the intellectual work and talk was done by teachers instead of students and saw everyone’s frustration with students’ desires to engage and few opportunities to do so. The big problem of practice we decided to take on as a network focused on raising the level and relevance of texts, tasks, writing, and student-to-student talk. The root cause analysis surfaced the need to rework ELA classrooms as sites for teacher and student engagement in challenging text-based studies and inquiries.  

The Dallas ISD/IFL NSI Instructional Model 

As a result of the root cause analysis and the NSI’s teacher teams’ decisions to take on the use of challenging, relevant texts with a small set of student-centered routines designed to encourage students’ engagements with texts and each other’ ideas through writing and talk, the NSI team developed a small set of intentionally sequenced routines that we referred to as tests of change. These tests of change became the core of the Dallas ISD/IFL NSI Instructional Model. The same tests of change are used at all grades, and the IFL supports teachers to adapt them as teachers see fit. Having common changes to focus on brings coherence to our monthly 3-hour network meetings. At our network meetings, all network teachers discuss their work with the tests of change, their students’ engagements with them, and what the teachers concluded that they would adapt, adopt, or abandon for regular classroom use.  

The Instructional Model consists of 

      • An arc of lessons that move from annotating texts for big ideas, to comprehension through quick writes of texts’ big ideas, to analysis, and then to interpretation. The arc of lessons invites students to write in a variety of genres. 
      • A framework for text and task selection that focuses on texts and tasks that are cognitively demanding, engaging, relevant to students’ experiences, and leverage their funds of knowledge and identities. 
      • Student-centered routines that focus on students doing the work of annotation, quick writes on their thinking about texts’ big ideas, pair/trio sharing of their ideas, charting of their ideas in their pairs/trios to share with their peers, gallery walks to learn what others are thinking and to make notes to their peers, and whole group discussions to reflect on what they learned. 
      • Amplifications and adaptations for specific student populations (e.g., Emergent Multilingual Students, Students with Special Needs, and other students requiring specialized support) that don’t weaken cognitive demand and leverage students’ funds of knowing (e.g., reading with students, using students’ other languages). 

Monthly NSI Network Participation 

Networks work best when the participants have clear, common work to do. To establish coherence for the NSI teachers, we began early on to identify a small set of tests of change that all teachers could work with in their classes. Teachers then shared artifacts of their work in person at NSI meetings. We created a space where teachers trusted each other and the IFL and could share questions, successes, and challenges, without the fear of being judged. As a result, network teachers report finding value in engaging in the network. 

When the district went online for instruction because of COVID, the NSI did as well. We developed Google landing pages for the monthly meetings that everyone could easily access. The landing pages carry the meeting agendas, readings, texts, students’ work samples, videos, slides for participants to use for their responses, JamBoards, and so on. The teachers have chosen to continue with online meetings—even though we could meet in person—because of the ease of online access to network materials and each other. 

Network Participation  What Teachers Do 

As participants in the network, teachers  

  • attend eight, three-hour after school meetings. 
  • are active participants at each meeting. 
  • complete both pre-work and a Bridge to Practice for each meeting. 
  • implement the DISD & IFL Instructional Model in their classrooms. 
  • serve as a critical friend for other teachers by providing feedback and advice. 

During network meetings, teachers learn 

  • how to effectively use student-centered routines, including annotation, quick writes, and pair work. 
  • the benefits of beginning reading instruction with high-level comprehension before moving to analytic and interpretive work. 
  • how to support students to work from quick writes to drafting longer essays.  
  • how to plan for conversations that allow students to be the meaning makers.  
In addition to network meetings with teachers, Principals and Assistant Principals attend 3-4 leadership meetings across the school year. These meetings are meant to inform the practices that their teachers learned during the network meetings, but also as a space for them to let us know how the NSI work is going at their schools and to respond to their questions. We met monthly with the DISD Executive Directors who are responsible for clusters of schools, so that they can support the principals who report to them and advocate for the NSI. 

How Effective Are the NSI Teachers’ Student-Centered Classes? 

After engaging teachers in monthly meetings to share their practice and learn from each other for four years, teachers have reported that their classrooms have become spaces where using talk and writing to understand ideas in complex texts have become the norm. Students are responsible to each other for learning about rich content and teachers spend much less time telling students what they should know.  

The quantitative data that follows matters to the district and bears directly on how students, teachers, and schools are rated by the state.  The data also reiterates the teachers’ compelling stories about the positive effects of students’ engagement with annotation of texts for meaning, comprehension tasks that focus on big ideas or concepts, and their uses of student-centered routines.

      • Data from the 21–22 school year indicates that the network’s seven middle schools outperformed comparable middle schools (with equivalent beginning of year [BOY] results) on MAP Reading and English language arts reading (ELAR) Assessment of Course Performance (ACP) administered mid-year to predict performance on STAAR (the TX state exam) in every grade.  
      • For every specific group of students—Economically Disadvantaged, African American, Hispanic, Emergent Bilingual, and Students with Special Needs—performance on the 2022 STAAR Reading for Grades 6–8 was higher in NSI middle schools than in other comparable middle schools with comparable BOY results. 
      • The students of NSI middle school ELA teachers who implemented many NSI practices outperformed those of NSI teachers who implemented fewer practices with larger benefits for African American students and girls.
      • NSI high schools outperformed comparable DISD high schools with comparable BOY results on the English I and II 2022 STAAR.
      • For every specific group of high school students, performance was higher. The students of NSI high school English teachers who implemented many NSI practices saw a significant overall impact for every student group with larger benefits for girls, Students with Special Needs, African Americans, and Hispanic students.
      • The NSI schools also see increasing rates in ELAR overall 8th and 9th grade on-track indicators with dramatic gains on the combined outcomes, and better gains for all groups on all indicators over the 2020–21 on-track indicators.

Moving Forward: Our Network in 2023 and Beyond 

As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, we are in our final year as the hub for the Dallas ISD/IFL NSI. We’ve heard from teachers in surveys and in our meetings, and they’ve been clear that they would like to continue to implement students’ annotation for meaning, comprehension of big ideas before other text work, and pair-trio students’ discussions if leadership supported them. Ninety-five percent of network teachers indicated that they would like to continue to implement student quick writes on their initial thinking about texts. As one representative middle school teacher said of the student-centered routines, they’ve “encouraged conversation among students… They push each other to think, and not just think of the very first surface level idea that they come up with….” 

We’ve learned many lessons around the importance of coaching for improvement, developing instructional coherence, and adaptive integration when working in a system as complex as Dallas ISD. These lessons will be important drivers of our network teachers continuing the work once we are no longer there in our hub capacity. We’ll share these lessons and our tips for maintaining a successful network for improvement in education in our follow-up article.