Teaneck’s Advantage: Educational Excellence Through Rigorous Teaching and Learning

By Jennifer Lin Russell, Jennifer Zoltners Sherer, and Jennifer Iriti

Partners for Network Improvement, Learning Research Development Center, University of Pittsburgh

At Teaneck Public Schools (Teaneck, New Jersey) we are focused on establishing common instructional practice across all classrooms that is designed to increase our students’ opportunities to engage in demanding curriculum content in both mathematics and English language arts lessons. We have determined to meet this objective by supporting all our teachers with content-specific professional development grounded in the Principles of Learning, developed by the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning (IFL).

We are currently in the first phase of this endeavor. With support from the IFL, we are working to ensure that our students in Grades K–5 have access to high-level tasks and text and high-quality learning opportunities to build the critical thinking and deep reasoning skills that are essential for academic success. We have identified characteristics of high-level mathematics and English language arts tasks. After working to gain a common vision of rigorous tasks—by studying examples and discussing their characteristics—we have incorporated them into our classrooms. We have made sure to align our definition of high-level tasks with research’s named criteria, emphasizing the importance of tasks that require thinking and reasoning.

With this understanding of high-level tasks, our educators are equipped to ensure that all students are expected to think and reason at a high level and to provide the support and resources needed to maximize their learning potential. We found that we had to work consistently to make sure students could think and reason cognitively. Research on factors that contribute to a task being carried out as intended tells us that students actually get such opportunities only 37% of the time. Participating in learning labs has provided opportunities and guidance for teachers to adapt their individual instructional practices and increase those opportunities. Hosting teachers collaboratively plan lessons with IFL fellows using high-level tasks and texts, and then implement the planned lessons in front of their colleagues. Following the lesson, the hosting teacher and their colleagues debrief and make connections to their own work to increase intentionality of planning and implementing specific pedagogical practices. As such, the learning labs serve as a means to learn and refine pedagogical practice through apprenticeship. Teachers and administrators have had the opportunity to see, plan for, and model high-level tasks that make it possible for students to share and discuss their mathematical reasoning and also develop student agency.

Our overall goal as a district is to give all students access to academically rigorous mathematics learning opportunities. This means that we have a commitment to teach mathematical reasoning as well as the knowledge core. We will ensure students are academically engaged in making connections, looking for relationships and patterns, and forming generalizations related to mathematical ideas. In our journey, we will keep our eye on the target, by collecting and analyzing student work in order to determine if students are thinking in rigorous ways about mathematics.

Based on set indicators associated with academic rigor, we set out to collect and analyze student work samples. The data below has been coded for aspects that lead to the development of conceptual understanding, but are not limited to

• use of representations;
• connection between representations;
• explanation for how a problem was solved; and
• explanations of mathematical reasoning.

In looking at our work, we are proud to notice the following: 

• At every grade level, more than half of the students are using representations in their work, and some students are making connections between representations.
• We have several examples of mathematical reasoning to guide our instructional practices.

We look forward to our next analysis of student work in March. We are using this opportunity to monitor and ensure that we are advancing student learning. At the same time, our teachers are developing a shared vision of teaching and learning.

Tagged with: Data and Assessment, High-Level Tasks / Curriculum, Leadership, Online Instruction, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning

Building an Improvement Network

By Jennifer Lin Russell, Jennifer Zoltners Sherer, and Jennifer Iriti

Partners for Network Improvement, Learning Research Development Center, University of Pittsburgh

This feature article illustrates the work of improvement science networks. Through the work of such networks, there is alignment to the Principles of Learning. Clear Expectations are evidenced by developing common understanding and specific goals, hypothesizing intermediate steps, and analyzing and reflecting on your work and the work of others. Self-Management of Learning and Recognition of Accomplishment, which tie closely to Clear Expectations, are hallmarks of the work of improvement-science networks. Networks use practical measures to monitor and adjust their ongoing work. The same measures allow networks to recognize their progress incrementally and in meaningful ways.

Networks that engage educators in continuous improvement have the potential to harness the power of collaborative work to accelerate learning and solve complex problems. District leaders have the opportunity to build improvement networks within their organizations, but they vary in some distinct ways from networks typically seen in K-12 education. We believe three indicators drive the potential of improvement networks and differentiate them from other networks, such as sharing networks.

Improvement networks are grounded in shared goals, norms, theories of improvement/action, and practices.

Members of improvement networks have a clear, common understanding of their objectives and a shared hypothesis about how to achieve them. Members also have a collective commitment to their work and a sense of shared responsibility. Beyond improving their own work practices, members of improvement networks believe they are collectively solving a broader, systemic problem, and they can articulate a clear theory of improvement that will move them toward accomplishing their shared goal.

Improvement networks engage in disciplined inquiry to learn how to solve their focal problem of practice.

Members use systematic methods of inquiry to test their theory about what strategies will be most effective for achieving their goals. They typically use systematic methods and routines such as Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycles that are integrated into their daily work. Improvement networks measure outcomes, but members of improvement networks also use practical measures to assess the processes that contribute to improvement.

Improvement networks coordinate and accelerate learning and improvement through strategic knowledge management.

Network leaders monitor the changes that educators are making, review evidence that supports judgments that changes are leading to improvement, and work to spread and scale the most promising changes. This accelerates the learning within the improvement network.

District leaders can take the following five strategic actions to build improvement networks within their district.

1. Focus attention on shared goals pursued through common theories of action. Tools of improvement science can support this work (root cause analysis, building a shared theory of improvement represented in some way— e.g., driver diagram).

2. Embed improvement cycles and routines into existing collaborative structures. Examples of ways to do that include the following:

• Structure the work of existing PLCs to support inquiry for improvement.
• Principals and/or assistant principals work together on issues such as chronic absenteeism and inequitable discipline practices.
• Teachers work in PLCs to support a shift toward more ambitious forms of pedagogy, anchored in inquiry cycles.
• Use coaches to support continuous improvement.
• Leverage research-based best practices to accelerate improvement (e.g., partner with experts to identify evidence-based solutions to pressing problems).
• Create cross-school learning opportunities to optimize collective learning and opportunities to spread what is being learned .

3. Leverage a practical measurement system to guide continuous improvement. Improvement work involves data of multiple types, including short cycle data that informs action and summative data to assess the impact of an initiative. Districts can support school engagement in continuous improvement by identifying outcome and process measures, and by building tools and routines to collect, analyze, and act on data. To promote equity and learning, leaders must be intentional about what data is brought for discussion and how it is represented. In addition, leaders must build the capacity to analyze data and lead these sense-making routines.

4. Prioritize strategic knowledge management. When leaders engage in strategic knowledge management, they harvest and manage the learning of others in the organization and make this learning visible. They identify which changes lead to improvement and then facilitate the spread of the most promising ideas that emerge from the collective learning of the organization.

5. Build district capacity to operate as an improvement network through partnerships. While educators are reflective by nature and collaborative by design, operating as an improvement network requires new ways of working. Educators are both changing their practice while also learning to engage in improvement cycles. The data collection varies from traditional data uses and has new rhythms (especially those tied to inquiry cycles). Engaging external experts, often supported through partnerships, can support this complex work. District leaders can identify and convene partners with expertise in content knowledge relevant to the problem of practice, improvement science, change management, and analytics and practical measurement to build and operate the learning network.

Improvement networks can serve as a mechanism for building capacity within school districts to tackle complex systems’ problems such as chronic absenteeism, gaps in student achievement, inadequate supports for students with special needs, and teaching for conceptual understanding. Growing in popularity, these networks can serve as an alternative to rolling out district-wide initiatives that fail to recognize and respond to expected implementation challenges. Educators in improvement networks who engage in more intentional and coherent within-school and cross-school collaboration can build and spread promising interventions to solve specific problems. They can integrate necessary knowledge of implementation challenges to ensure that the changes they implement will contribute to improvement in varying contexts. Key to this work is the use of data to assess and adapt implementation through the course of an initiative. Partnerships can provide capacities necessary to design and implement improvement (research-based, high-leverage strategies; measurement and analytics; change management). Pushing beyond traditional sharing networks, improvement networks bring stakeholders with diverse forms of expertise together to support educators as they engage in inquiry cycles that can accelerate learning and drive toward improvement.

Tagged with: Continuous Improvement, Data and Assessment, Leadership

Utilizing Small Tests of Change and High-Leverage Practices in PLCs

By Victoria Bill

IFL Mathematics fellow

When teachers are working to acquire new instructional practices, particularly ambitious reforms, teachers tend to gravitate toward approaches that are congruent with their prior practices, or they focus on discrete activities, materials, or classroom organization (Spillane, 2009). Teachers’ collegial interpersonal relations such as those that occur in professional communities are a crucial site for learning (Franke & Kazemi, 2001; Gallucci, 2003; Little, 1982; Little, 2003; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001; Smylie & Hart; 1999; Stein, Silver, & Smith, 1998; Stein & Brown, 1997) and research evidence says that teachers’ organizational context and patterns of interactions shape how they learn (Coburn, 2001; Hill, 2001: McLaughline & Talbert, 2001: Spillane, 1999). PLC times, however, have not been historically focused times of deep discussions of content and pedagogy. Knowing how important PLC time is and the potential influence on teaching and learning, the IFL suggests that districts focus learning in PLCs on high-leverage practices, and they work to provide teachers with the necessary resources to have focused discussions.

High-leverage practices are those practices used in the classroom intended to support student learning through productive intellectual work with the goal of developing both content understanding and skills (Windschitle et al., 2012). When the study of high-leverage practices is the focus of PLCs, educators have the opportunity to engage in meaningful work around goal setting, pedagogy and content, and evidence of student learning. The high-leverage practices identified for study during a PLC should be instructional practices that occur with high frequency. Ideally these practices are those used by teachers in different content areas so that students have multiple opportunities to use the same practices. The practice should also be one that provides teachers with insights into teaching and student learning and are therefore likely to provide a teacher feedback on their practice as teachers reflect and examine their practice (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009). The IFL recognizes the importance of specifying highleverage practices that have been proven, based on research, to be of worth. The IFL also recognizes that teachers have limited time to identify resources that could be accessed for study during the PLC. To address these issues, the IFL has created four mathematics PLC modules of study for teacher use. Each module focuses on a highleverage practice.

1. Facilitating Accountable Talk® Mathematics Discussions
2. Providing Opportunities to Write About Mathematical Reasoning
3. Using and Connecting Mathematical Representations
4. Promoting Intellectual Authority

The theory of learning in the PLC modules is that individual members of the PLC learn about the high-leverage practice together, design and try small changes of practice individually in classrooms, and come back together to share and study artifacts from their classroom. The IFL has worked to incorporate the use of improvement science into the PLC models. As members of the PLC engage in cycles of learning related to the high-leverage practices, they share examples from their practice. These serve to illustrate ways in which teachers are making connections between the practices and their day-to-day classroom work.

This routine has the potential to provide PLC members insights into teaching and learning in their own classroom environments. Following the study of a PLC module, teachers will identify something small that they might try out in their classrooms and artifacts that they will collect to determine the impact that their work is having in the classroom. The PLC modules provide the teachers with methods for analyzing the artifacts that they bring back to the next PLC. Based on the findings, teachers decide what to try next in their classrooms. It is via this process that teachers can determine what is truly having an impact in their classroom and why. The coding tools and process provide an objective lens through which to view their work. This allows the PLC members to collectively step back and view the result of their efforts through quantitative data. As the PLC continues to quantify their work from one PLC to another, patterns of change will emerge, allowing the PLC to make more informed decisions about their practice.

PLC members repeat the cycle. They identify another small change idea, try it out in their classroom, collect, and then analyze artifacts to determine the impact on teaching and learning. This occurs for several weeks. The excitement of making small changes in the classroom and determining the impact on student learning has created synergy among teachers and keeps the discussions focused on content, pedagogy, and student learning. We look forward in future newsletters reporting the PLC work that three IFL districts will be engaging in this school year; Schenectady City School District, New Brunswick Public Schools, and Propel Schools Pitcairn will be using the IFL PLCs this year.

Tagged with: Continuous Improvement, Data and Assessment, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Leadership, Math

What PLCs Get Results?

By Rosita Apodaca

IFL co-director

Sara DeMartino

IFL English language arts fellow

and Anthony Petrosky

IFL Co-director

A growing number of schools focus on some form of communities of practice as a key to improving their performance. Schools typically refer to communities of practice as professional learning communities (PLCs). These work in a variety of ways and have different goals, but only some achieve their intended results. The Institute for Learning (IFL) has been working with several school districts on solving wicked problems (complex problems without a clear solution) using continuous-improvement PLCs. Examples of wicked problems of practice include increasing student engagement and motivation for learning, increasing student performance for minoritized students, and increasing attendance. The PLCs with which we are working highlight the fundamental characteristics that our experience and research show position them to achieve their aims better. They focus on social learning opportunities that provide a space for educators to be reflective about problems of practice and consider small changes to try in their classroom based on their analysis of the artifacts of teaching and learning collected in their classrooms. By collecting and analyzing artifacts such as samples of student work, scribing of teacher questions and student responses, or even quick intentionally designed surveys, educators in these PLCs remain focused on the goals of improving their practice and improving learning opportunities for students.

Learning Is Social

Learning depends on interactions with others, and a high-quality learning environment actively encourages well-organized cooperative learning. While self-study and personal discovery are valuable, Resnick, et al., cautioned educators regarding the severe limitations in teaching as a steady diet of direct instruction, or telling, and invited practitioners to engage in communities of learning. The term professional learning community emerged from the concept “community of practice,” which has turned out to provide a useful perspective because it forefronts the benefits of social collaboration. Generally, PLCs are made up of educators who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and those involved learn how to do it better as they interact regularly and share what they have learned from research and classroom experiences. Membership in a PLC implies a commitment to collaboration to solve problems of practice as well as a commitment to use the best available research and knowledge to work on those problems in a particular community’s context.

The Goal

PLCs vary widely: Some are directive and tightly structured; others are less regulated. Because there are no agreed-on models, educators apply the label PLC to describe a variety of meeting structures that involve small groups of teachers and administrators coming together to discuss school-related problems. Most PLCs, however, are given the charge of improving teacher practice to render better learning outcomes for students. There is evidence from the research that well-developed PLCs have positive impacts on both teaching practice and student achievement. However, what does it mean for a PLC to be well developed? During the last 20 years, the IFL has explored ways of working in PLCs. Through these experiences and research findings, we developed and refined a set of practices that work well in a diverse range of settings. Here are our practical suggestions for setting up PLCs to implement and sustain the practice of improvement.

Characteristics of a Well-Developed PLC

Collaboration

When teachers come together as a PLC, they benefit from doing more than acting as passive receivers of information and from spending their time sharing knowledge and working together to solve shared problems. The PLC has clear expectations for what it will achieve specific to improving teaching and learning in their classrooms. Teachers set agendas ahead of time, and they come to PLC meetings having prepared any necessary pre-work so that when the PLC meets, time can be devoted to sharing in pairs, small groups, and whole groups to allow for progress towards defined goals as opposed to spending time with administrative or clerical tasks during the meeting.

Time for collaboration is precious; it allows every voice in the room to have a place in the discussion and can provide participants with differing perspectives on why a problem of practice exists and how it might be solved. Collaboration in PLCs provides a space to network knowledge and sets the expectation that participants share what they have learned; it provides a protected, safe space for exploring perspectives on problems and testing those perspectives, or possible solutions, against relevant research and a field’s best practices.

Focus on Student Learning

At the heart of a well-developed PLC is a focus on student learning that goes beyond anecdotal evidence or a study of quantitative test data, although both might initiate the identification of problems of practice and contribute to their understanding. When PLCs focus on artifacts of student learning—that is, on student work samples and artifacts of teaching or transcripts or audio recordings of student talk—instructional shifts will be evidence-based and grounded in what students and teachers do together in specific contexts.

Studying student artifacts also necessitates the use of agreed-upon protocols to focus the study on the problem at hand and to avoid only looking at student work from a deficit perspective (describing what students cannot do). The hard work of solving problems of practice is twofold. First, use real artifacts of student learning to describe what they bring to the table. Second, collaborate on instructional plans that bridge practice from where students are in their learning and to where students need to be in order to meet learning goals, the expectations of standards, and their understandings of their learnings.

By looking at the relationship of content standards and their expectations, students’ current understanding of the content, and the pedagogy that can be used to advance student learning toward the standard, the PLC is not simply focused on what a teacher does in the classroom, but rather the impact of what a teacher does on student learning. A focus on improving the intellectual quality of student learning done through problem solving in PLCs increases learning and achievement because it allows teachers to experience themselves the benefits of collaborative student-centered learning in which they are the learners.

Teacher Authority

Teachers who participate in a PLC benefit from having ownership of the work and from experiencing firsthand the importance of collaborative student-centered learning. A well-developed PLC should not function using solely a top-down approach. Teachers should be empowered to interact, raise questions, bring relevant research to the discussions, challenge ideas, and make decisions about how they study and what they are studying. PLC members benefit from being collaborators in setting the agenda, bringing problems to the table, finding and sharing research to understand the problem, and bringing student work to be studied. Administrators and coaches who participate in PLCs with teachers are best positioned as colleagues in the learning. The participants benefit when decisions come from collaboration rather than from an overruling voice of authority, even when authority figures function as facilitators of the PLC work. Allowing all members to participate collegially, the PLC provides space for change and growth of instructional practice without being controlled by one person’s well-intentioned directives. It also allows teachers to take ownership of the work, a critical component for motivation to continue meeting to solve problems of practice as learners, as students, so to speak, of the problem at hand. As students change, as curriculum changes, and as standards change, opportunities to learn are always available. We also know that problems of practice require continuous attention. PLCs can provide a space for teachers and administrators to study together collaboratively, use evidence to chart progress, and propose and study new problems of practice as they arise (but also to know when to go back to previous problems if a change is not evident in students’ work).

Continuous Improvement and Well-Developed PLCs

When PLCs approach solving problems of practice through the use of continuous improvement (CI) processes (see graphic below), they first collaborate to identify problems and their possible root causes using a wide range of data collected from within the system. They can, for example, study district data to shed light on why particular groups of students are graduating at lower rates than their peers or why particular groups of students are showing signs of not being on track in 9th grade for graduation. Alternatively, they could study student performance and patterns of student performance related to writing or engaging in mathematical problem solving to identify what students can do and are not yet able to do.

PLCs study multiple sources of relevant data to fret out problems. Once the PLC identifies the problems, the next step focuses the PLC on understanding the root causes of those problems. The causes might be directly discernible in 

the data, but it could just as well take additional digging to get to the causes. With problems in writing and mathematics, for example, the PLC might want to conduct empathy interviews with students and teachers to better understand how those impacted by the problem perceive it. Such interviews can be enormously valuable if they proceed from well-thought-out and focused questions that get the students and the teachers to talk about their experiences with the subject matter and their successes and failures. The PLC can ask students and teachers what they might change in instruction or what they think they need to be successful. The compilation of this kind of data can give PLC members substantial insights into root causes after they study the interviews through lenses that reveal major themes, trends, and contradictions. PLC members can also study the kinds of tasks regularly presented to students and the teaching approaches that they and their colleagues use, and they can draw conclusions about both of these that would point to the intellectual rigor of the work given to students and measure students’ engagement.
Once a PLC focused on instruction understands problems and root causes, teachers have the authority to dig into the literature and research to develop a theory of change. From this theory of change, they develop possible interventions or tests of change. They can propose changes or approaches to instruction based on their theory of change, and from this theory, they can propose what improvement science refers to as change packages that they and their colleagues test out in classes. An instructional theory of change might be, for example, that equitable, rigorous writing instruction will lead to student writing achievement. A change package, to continue with this example, might focus on instruction that engages students in a repertoire of writing genres on a regular weekly schedule. The instruction also could be embedded in student-centered approaches to writing instruction that forefronts opportunities for students to work in groups of 2 or 3 to support each other’s drafting and revision through feedback and editing.

For such work, change packages are often recommended or designed. Change packages are intentionally created as a set of small tests of change that are interrelated and sequenced. These resources include specific sets or arcs of lessons designed to address specific problems. Teachers may vary the implementation of a change package or work specifically on one aspect of the change package, with the goal of eventually implementing the whole change package. In association with a change package are simple, practical measures by which the PLC members can know whether or how those lessons were successful when engaging students. Such measures can be quick surveys of students right after the lesson, lenses for analyzing students’ work, or feedback from teachers observing students’ engagement in the lesson. The emphasis on practical measures is on their ability to provide disciplined feedback quickly that can be displayed in simple charts or summaries so that the PLC members and other teachers can see the results of their tests of changes and make decisions about their next steps. These measures necessitate understanding change through an evidence-based focus on student learning. Decisions on PLC’s next steps during an improvement cycle are grounded in the real and evidenced experiences of teachers and students enacting the change.

PLCs who are working with an instructional focus using continuous improvement methods might just as well be called mini-research groups since they take up understanding problems, their causes, and testing solutions using the disciplined methods of improvement science. In fact, the literature on improvement science often compares the work of these PLCs to action researchers who use their classrooms and those of colleagues as spaces in which they continuously test changes; study their results with simple, practical measures; and make adjustments until they are satisfied that they have change packages that can be pushed out with confidence to others.

Bibliography

DuFour, R., Eaker, R. E., & National Educational Service (U.S.). (1999). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, Ind.: National Educational Service.

Little, J. W. (2003). Inside teacher community: Representations of classroom practice. Teachers College Record, 105(6), 913–945. doi: 10.1111/1467-9620.00273

Louis, K. S., and Marks, H. M. (1998). Does professional learning community affect the classroom? Teachers’ work and student experiences in restructuring schools. American Journal of Education, 106(4), 532–575. doi: 10.1086/444197

Resnick, L. B, Spillane, J. P., Goldman, P., and Rangel, E. (2010). Implementing Innovation: From visionary models to everyday practice. In The nature of learning: using research to inspire practice. OECD.

Russell, J. L., Bryk, A. S., Dolle, J., Gomez, L. M., LeMahieu, P., and Grunow, A. (2017). A framework for initiation of networked improvement communities. Teachers College Record, 119(7).

Vescio. V., Ross, D., and Adams, A. (2008). A Review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education 24(1), 80-91. doi: 10.1016/j.tate.2007.01.004

Westheimer, J. (1999). Communities and consequences: An inquiry into ideology and practice in teachers’ professional work. Educational Administration Quarterly 35(1), 71-105. doi: 10.1177/00131619921968473

Wiliam, D. (2007-2008). Changing Classroom Practice. Educational Leadership, 65(4), 36-42

Tagged with: Continuous Improvement, Data and Assessment, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Leadership

Increasing High-Quality Student Talk

Allison Escher

English language arts fellow
IFL

Kerri Messler

K–12 ELA and Library Coordinator
Schenectady City School District 

Contextualizing the Work

The Institute for Learning (IFL) and Schenectady City School District have worked collaboratively for several years, and this year, we continued our ongoing partnership with a focus on using improvement science methodology to “get better at getting better.” District-wide, there is a focus on using improvement science to work on persistent problems of practice. In this article, we will share 10th grade teachers’ journeys to improve the quantity and quality of Accountable Talk® practices in the classroom and discuss how improvement science informed teacher instruction and learning.

We began this work by studying quantitative, large-scale data (e.g., Regent exam scores), classroom-level data (e.g., ELA tasks and questions), and components of the curriculum to help us think about the problem of practice which focused on the plateau of improvement in secondary ELA, specifically in the area of reading.

During the second semester, the 10th grade PLC decided to focus on students’ use of Accountable Talk practices. The goal of increasing Accountable Talk practices aligned with the teachers’ beliefs around the importance of student-centered and engaging classrooms.

Sharing Teachers’ Small Tests of Change

During the third nine weeks, teachers tackled the following problem: Students are not utilizing the high-leverage practice of Accountable Talk and holding conversations with each other; instead, students direct their responses to the teacher and often use an Initiate-Respond-Evaluate pattern. Additionally, teachers reported that students have little stamina for student-to-student discourse. Teachers began by creating student-centered lessons using engaging and relevant texts and planned to study how many students talked and how much time students spent talking. Upon reflection, teachers realized the data they were collecting wasn’t actually what they cared about learning—or at least not the whole story of what teachers wanted to learn about and improve regarding Accountable Talk practices in the classroom. Teachers were able to say how many students talked and how many minutes per class students talked, but were unable to discuss the quality of student talk. While the quantitative data met teachers’ goals of increasing the amount of time students spoke to one another during class, teachers questioned their ability to accurately discuss evidence of student learning. They asked questions such as “Was the talk academically productive?” and “How do I know my students understood the text?” Our takeaway was that we need to think carefully about what we want to know (in this case, not only how to increase student-to-student talk but also how to increase high-quality, text-based student-to-student talk) and what practical measures will help us understand the answer.

During the final nine weeks, teachers tweaked their problem statement: Students are not utilizing the high-leverage practice of Accountable Talk and holding high-quality, student-driven discussions. Teachers collaboratively designed and implemented complex and engaging texts and created cognitively demanding tasks using student-centered routines (e.g., quick writes, pair share, whole group discussion). They also designed a rubric to help qualify how they define quality talk. During implementation, teachers planned to study the quality of the talk and the talk moves that both teachers and students used to make meaning. During their last professional learning session, teachers shared that students were using moves and functions, but superficially. Teachers hypothesized the belief that in order for discussion to be academically productive, students (and some teachers) think that the language they use must be Standard English. As a group, teachers decided that a next step would be to emphasize the thinking and what students say instead of how they say it. In other words, teachers want to study the student thinking more than the words or talk moves.

Teachers’ next action, which they plan to focus on in the upcoming school year, is to scribe classroom discussions when implementing a high-level task using a rigorous and engaging text. The purpose is two-fold: (1) to collect classroom data in order to analyze the quality of talk based on rigorous questions and (2) to find authentic examples of talk moves that students use regardless of chosen dialect. For example, instead of a student saying, “I’d like to add on to what Andrew said,” a student may say, “I feel Andrew because…” Both statements work to link contributions regardless of the exact words that students say during the discussion. These examples of student talk moves will be used to refine the Accountable Talk® Moves and Function tool used in Schenectady High School. Our working hypothesis is that authentic examples of rigorous thinking will help illustrate that the talk stems are meant as entry points into conversations, but should not be used in formulaic or generic ways that don’t move the conversation forward in academically productive ways. Our hope is also that it helps students and teachers alike develop an understanding and respect for diversity in language use.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, Continuous Improvement, Data and Assessment, ELA, High-Level Tasks / Curriculum, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Leadership, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning