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

Every Student Needs High Cognitive Demand Instruction

By Rosita Apodaca

IFL Executive Director

Peter Compitello

Project Manager

Disrupting inequitable practices, examining biases, creating inclusive and sustainable school environments for students, and finding and cultivating the assets and interest that every student brings to school are part of what is needed for all students to develop to their full potential in and out of school. Lauren Resnick, cognitive psychologist and founder of the Institute for Learning (IFL), believes we can teach all students to reach or exceed world-class standards.

Resnick knows that, in practice, it is proving hard to meet the twin goals of equity and higher achievement. This is because schools are trapped in a set of beliefs about the nature of ability and aptitude that makes it hard to evoke rigorous academic effort from students and educators.

Students who have not been taught a demanding, challenging, thinking curriculum do poorly on tests of reasoning or problem solving, confirming many people’s original suspicions that they lack the talent for high-level thinking.

Students cannot learn what they are not taught, and depriving them of high-cognitive-demand curriculum and instruction is not an equitable education.

For decades, Resnick and others have advocated for thinking and problem solving to be the “new basics” of the 21st century. Still, the common idea that we can teach thinking without a solid foundation of knowledge had to be abandoned, as does the idea that we can teach knowledge without engaging students in thinking. Knowledge and thinking must be intimately joined. This implies a curriculum organized around major concepts in each discipline that students are expected to know deeply. In short, in every subject, at every grade level, the curriculum has to include a commitment to a knowledge core, high-thinking demand, and active use of knowledge.

Despite widespread support for disciplinary literacy, not all students have been given opportunities to achieve this high standard. Ramón Antonio Martínez (2019) believes that building on the assets students bring to school can support them in accessing and participating in a high-cognitive-demand curriculum. Changing how we view learners is also critical to improving the educational experience of students of color and those who are labeled upon their entry in school. When we view students as struggling or “at risk,” we make assumptions that they are students in need of remediation. When we begin to see students’ multilingualism as an asset and their use of multiple languages as tools to help them access high-cognitive-demand work, we can turn the dime on its head and make small modifications in learning plans that will enable emergent multilingual students to access complex text and engage in high-cognitive-demand activities.

Practitioners have made arguments that mediating instruction does not need to be labor-intensive; it is about making decisions while teaching a well-designed lesson. Teachers focus on the goal of the lesson and find ways for every student to meet that goal. Knowing and building on the students’ assets should serve as a guide to making the small modifications to support students. Simple supports, such as offering a student the text in a language the student understands or allowing a student to write the argument about something familiar, are ways to make modifications that allow for access. We can begin by abandoning deficit thinking and keeping our minds open to see our students’ situations as opportunities to try ways that will support them where they are and enable movement toward the goal.

Martínez (2018) argues that for emergent multilinguals, we may have to “learn to see students anew—to imagine them as competent readers and writers and to treat them accordingly.” The labels students are given in school, more often than not, are not helpful. Martínez thinks that for us to “recognize the richness of bi/multilingual students’ linguistic repertoires requires that we think beyond the convenient labels that serve to mask their brilliance, their competence, and their tremendous potential.” Martínez’s recommendation may serve us well once we decide that high-cognitive-demand work will be made available to every student.

In a similar vein to Gutiérrrez and Martínez, Dr. David E. Kirkland reminds us “rigor in education cannot be about broken students but about supporting students who are vulnerable to broken systems.” Before we can address the systems that support inequitable practices, we have to acknowledge systemic root causes: “Rigor often codes a set of hierarchal social and cultural values that reinforces a narrow concept of learning and achievement. Too often, rigor is about who is recognized and who is not. By flattening rigor in the image of the seen, a narrow version of us gets baked into educational success—a version that is incomplete, favoring an intersection of cis, heteronormative, White, abled, English-speaking, monied, and Judeo-Christian—or put simply, privileged—identities. I’ve learned the farther away students are from this identity, the less likely they are seen to be ‘rigorous;’ the less likely the classroom works for them.”

While being keenly aware of systemic disparities in equity and rigor, Kirkland aims for a hopeful solution: “…teaching and learning must be about preservation—the incredible acts that help people preserve our languages and cultures, to tell history on our terms, to preserve it too, to preserve ourselves by preserving the congregation of ideas that will make the world better, that will free our bodies and heal our souls. Thus, academic rigor comes close to equity when it connects teaching and learning to acts that are meant to sustain us.”

Tagged with: Academic Rigor, Equitable Instruction, High-Level Tasks / Curriculum, Multi-Lingual Learner Instruction

Using Student-Centered Classroom Routines to Improve Comprehension of Complex Texts

by Allison Escher

IFL, English Language Arts Fellow

The Networks for School Improvement (NSI) work taking place among Dallas ISD (DISD), the Institute for Learning, the University of Pittsburgh School of Education Center for Urban Education, and the Learning Research and Development Center, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has largely focused efforts on improving instructional rigor, providing better supports for English language learners, and improving cultural relevance. One particular change idea that teachers have been testing in order to improve instructional rigor is the use of student-centered routines. When we ask students to engage in cognitively challenging work, we recommend doing so through a set of routines: individual writing on a question or task, sharing of ideas in pairs and trios, and whole group discussion. 

These rituals and routines, derived from research on cognitive apprenticeship, are designed to engage all students as learners in collaborative problem solving, writing to learn, making thinking visible, establishing text-based norms for discussions and writings, ongoing assessment and revision, and metacognitive reflection and articulation as regular patterns in learning. Additionally, these routines support the Principles of Learning, specifically Self-Management of Learning and Clear Expectations. 

Using a complex and meaningful text, DISD teachers collaboratively planned a comprehension task to use with students. The task included a high-level question that asks students to make sense of the big ideas in the text, opportunities for students to write about the text informally through quick writes, and opportunities to metacognitively reflect on how their thinking about the text changed through talking and writing.

Additionally, teachers created student-centered task sheets to help students

  • Understand the purpose for the work that they will be doing, which sets up clear expectations for students as a rationale for why they are engaging in this particular task.
  • Understand the steps in the task as well as gain some insight into how to complete new activities or skills, such as providing tips for completing a quick write if that is new for students. These scaffolded steps present an opportunity for students to self-manage their learning by working towards the goal in incremental steps, allowing space for questions, connections, and metacognition.
  • Reflect on how their thinking has changed about the big ideas in the text and how they learned from working with classmates, which again promotes self-management of learning through metacognition an gives students opportunities to manage their own learning by evaluating the feedback they get from others.

This test of change will be adopted as teachers overall are seeing an increase in students’ repertoire of academic skills. This is evidenced by the number of students who complete quick writes, who share text-based thinking during conversation, and who state accurate or mostly accurate understandings of big ideas. We look forward to continuing to understand how engaging in the work carried by a task sheet can provide opportunities for students to engage in high-quality and rigorous work.

Tagged with: Continuous Improvement, ELA, High-Level Tasks / Curriculum, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning, Reading / Comprehension

Increasing High-Quality Student Talk

Allison Escher

English language arts fellow

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

Empowering Teachers to Analyze the Demand of Instructional Tasks

Sara DeMartino

IFL English language arts fellow

We’ve recently begun helping districts use improvement science to work on problems of practice. To develop a more rounded view of the problems, teachers have been working in their schools to gather the stories of diverse students and other teachers about their experiences with teaching and learning. When we bring teachers and administrators back together to talk about what they’ve learned about the causes of low student achievement, we overwhelmingly hear talk about the quality of the instructional materials used in classrooms. Teachers state that students speak keenly about the lack of thinking required of them in the tasks they are asked to engage in, and teachers speak about the lack of quality resources afforded to them.

This isn’t surprising. Historically, research has shown that students most in need of rigorous instruction and cognitively demanding tasks are the least likely to be given opportunities to engage in higher-level instructional tasks (Clare & Aschbacher, 2001; Matsumura, Garnier, Pascal, & Valdés, 2002; Matsumura, Slater, & Crosson, 2008; Newmann, Bryk, & Nagaoka, 2001). When we look to help districts increase the academic success of their students, we begin by engaging teachers and administrators in analyzing the intellectual work of tasks using the English Language Arts Text-Based Task Analysis Guide introduced in the feature article of this month’s newsletter.

In professional development (PD), we work with teachers to understand the intellectual work required to respond to both lower-level and higher-level instructional tasks by asking teachers to complete both types of tasks. Engaging in the tasks and noting what a higher-level sequence of tasks does for student learning are critical components to understanding the knowledge and skills the tasks require and build. As Tony points out about the tasks created for “I Have a Dream,” teachers quickly note the difference in the intellectual work required for the higher- and lower-level tasks. Teachers also see how a sequence of tasks supported by the appropriate classroom routines help students to build understanding of a complex text over multiple readings, writings, and conversations with peers. A sequence of authentic high-level questions sets the expectation that you may not get “it” right the first time, and that’s okay because there are additional opportunities to build understanding. Lower-level, test simulation questions provide students few, if any, opportunities to revise thinking and use metacognitive skills to reflect on how their thinking about a text changed over the course of work and why that change occurred.

During PD, we ask teachers to use the higher-level tasks as guides to create tasks for another complex text and then as part of a framework for evaluating (and potentially redesigning) the tasks they use with students. When teachers apply a critical lens to the tasks in their curriculum, they quickly understand the frustration expressed by students in regard to the lack of intellectual challenge they face in their content area classes. Teachers also feel empowered to create tasks that will challenge students and scaffold student learning.

We’ve heard from several of our teachers in our school-based improvement science teams who are using the English Language Arts Text-Based Task Analysis Guide to evaluate their own work, and they were surprised by the lack of higher-level tasks in their own curriculum. Teachers have begun the work of revising the tasks they use (and some have begun searching for new texts after discovering the texts they use with students don’t support a lot of higher-level work) and have found the work to be challenging, especially developing the initial comprehension questions, because it requires a shift from asking students to do recall work to asking students to create and talk about evidence-based statements. However, through collaborative work that involves planning, peer and self-reflection, and post-lesson conversations, teachers are persisting through some of the initial challenges and finding success in providing high-level work to every student.


Clare, L., & Aschbacher, P. R. (2001). Exploring the technical quality of using assignments and student work as indicators of classroom practice. Educational Assessment, 7(1), 39-59.

Matsumura, L. C., Garnier, H., Pascal, J., & Valdés, R. (2002). Measuring instructional quality in accountability systems: Classroom assignments and student achievement. Educational Assessment, 8(3), 207-229.

Matsumura, L. C., Slater, S. C., & Crosson, A. (2008). Classroom climate, rigorous instruction and curriculum, and students’ interactions in urban middle schools. The elementary School Journal, 108(4), 293-312.

Newmann, F. M., Bryk, A. S., & Nagaoka, J. K. (2001). Authentic intellectual work and standardized tests: Conflict or coexistence? Improving Chicago’s Schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago Research.

Tagged with: Academic Rigor, Continuous Improvement, ELA, High-Level Tasks / Curriculum