Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith district wide reform

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A literacy expert from Australia

A literacy expert from Australia helps model successful literacy techniques at PS 126 in New York City.

district wide reform

by Michael Bernstein

When Anthony Alvarado became superintendent of District 2 in New York City in 1987, he embarked on a revolutionary approach to improving student performance – he opened classroom doors. Alvarado believed that the isolation of teachers working alone was one of the biggest barriers to improving the quality of teaching. By opening the classroom, Alvarado forced teachers to work more collaboratively, to study what worked in other classrooms and to build a community of support within the school.

“You learn things by seeing something done that you didn't know how to do,” says Alvarado, “by engaging in a conversation about the thing that's giving you problems, by having someone give you feedback about the work that you're doing. That feedback provides you with ways of improving the practice.”

“Tony had the vision that you could make good teaching, you didn't have to wait for it to sprout up as a weed,” says Lauren Resnick, Director of the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, “You could make it by saying, ‘Here's what good teaching is. Here are the tools for doing it. Here's the training for doing it. Here's the community of other educators trying to do it, that you can live with and work with and make your work better week by week.'”

Improving the quality of teaching through systemic and sustained professional development became the hallmark of Alvarado's District 2 reform. He was convinced that continuous student learning was dependent on continuous adult learning. “We have this very simple theory,” Alvarado explains, “Kids learn from teachers. If the kids need to learn more and more powerfully, then the teachers need to know more and their teaching has to be more powerful.

Initially, Alvarado focused the professional development effort in District 2 around the teaching of literacy, which he considered an essential building block to all learning. “We picked literacy for the same reasons that right now in America everybody focuses on literacy, because it is a gatekeeper skill. You can't learn history, you can't learn other [subjects], you can't engage text if you don't have the skills to deal with the text,” Alvarado says. “So it's not only for the sake of reading, it's for the sake of communicating, it's for the sake of learning.”

To develop a literacy program, Alvarado pursued an unusual strategy. Through research, he learned that Australia and New Zealand had the highest literacy rates in the world, and so he decided to import the lessons learned there. At about that time, Alvarado met Diane Snowball. Snowball, a former Australian schoolteacher, was founder of a professional teacher development center for literacy and mathematics in Australia, and was in New York participating in a six-month literacy program at Columbia University. Alvarado convinced her to stay in New York after the program was over to work for District 2.

At first, Snowball was placed in six schools in Chinatown. Her mission was to train teachers in the methods that she had learned and developed in Australia. “People were working very hard but they didn't really know enough about what they should be doing,” Snowball says. “They weren't used to doing planning based on student needs.” So Snowball worked with teachers in their classroom, demonstrating how to observe students and constantly assess whether their lessons were actually sinking in. She trained teachers how to choose books that best matched their students reading levels and how to better engage students as readers.

From a small core of District 2 schools, Snowball began to grow her consulting company, AUSSIE, bringing in other coaches from Australia and New Zealand. According to Snowball, all the attention to improving the quality of classroom teaching paid off. She says she began to see a difference in teacher instruction and attitude. “Teachers started saying to me, ‘I've never enjoyed teaching so much and I've never enjoyed my students as much,'” Snowball recalls.

One convert to outside coaching was Emily Jarrell, a fourth grade teacher at PS 126. Initially Jarrell felt threatened with having someone else in the classroom, but she “quickly learned to love it.” The constant coaching and study allowed her to continuously improve her teaching. “ If I had the feeling that I was just going to do the same thing with the kids every year and give them a text book and they would do the same work over and over again, and I didn't try to change my teaching constantly, I would be bored,” she says.

Alvarado and the AUSSIE team also worked closely with principals, encouraging them to observe the work in classrooms so they could learn to identify successful and problematic teaching practices. Not all principals were open to the idea of outside help. Anna Switzer, the principal at PS 234, was skeptical of the newly added professional development because she had had bad experiences with it in the past. “Since we were a very good school and a very small school, we thought we could learn best from ourselves, in-house,” says Switzer. However, the more sessions she went to, the more she began to appreciate the benefit of the professional development. Switzer remembers beginning to think, “Well, hey, I'm an instructional leader…That's pretty cool!”

But Alvarado's commitment to professional development went well beyond Snowball and the AUSSIE's. He opened a professional development lab in which experienced teachers within the district were designated as Resident Teachers, allowing other teachers to visit and observe their classrooms for a three-week period of intense study and supervision. He tapped into the Teachers College at Columbia University and Lucy Calkins, who worked with teachers across the district. Overall, Alvarado pushed the District 2 budget for professional development from less than 1% to more than 11% during his tenure.

“We saw immediately the difference in instruction in the kinds of things kids were being expected to do and the kinds of things teachers had to learn how to do,” says Elaine Fink, Alvarado's deputy. “But the results were dramatic and they were also pretty quick. It didn't take years to see a result.”

What got people's attention outside of New York was that Alvarado took student performance in District 2 from the middle of the pack to second best in the city. Richard Elmore, a researcher who studied District 2 reform closely, notes that District 2 gains occurred during a time in which the number of immigrant students in the district increased and the student population grew poorer, two conditions that normally challenge academic performance.

Alvarado believes the success built on itself. “The research actually says that the best motivator for teachers is their being able to observe the success on the part of their children and that success is tied to the work of the teacher,” Alvarado says.

Today, improving classroom instruction through professional development remains a big part of the citywide reform effort under the new chancellor of education, Joel Klein. “What we need to do is invest in actually increasing the talent of our teaching pool and then leveraging it,” Klein says, “because talent can teach other people and bring them all up, and that's what this has got to be about.”

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