Teaching matters. That was the message at the December 1 school board meeting, which focused on professional development and instructional coaches.
Sandwiched between the prior night’s meeting about budget realities and the consultant’s presentation about the superintendent search, the topic of the abbreviated presentation — professional development — easily could be overlooked.
That would be a mistake, according to Annie Ward, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Professional development matters because teaching matters.
Ms. Ward began by defining teaching as decision-making, describing “the myriad complex decisions teachers make each day before, during, and after each lesson.” She explained that to make the best decisions possible, teachers need in-depth knowledge of academic content, instructional strategies and children. Professional development, she asserted, is a crucial means of sustaining and extending teachers’ knowledge base and professional repertoire.
She then presented research from the Tennessee Value Added Studies, which demonstrates that good teaching is the single largest factor in predicting achievement, where achievement is measured by standardized testing. The impact of having a good teacher can be measured for four years after a student leaves that teacher’s classroom. Unfortunately, however, having an ineffective teacher also has a long-lasting effect.
Research also shows that specific practices are linked with improved student learning, noted Ms. Ward. For example, effective teachers are frequently “in the midst” of their students rather than merely assigning and assessing. According to one researcher, “Exemplary teachers’ thighs are in good shape from weaving and crouching.”
The question, then, is how to assure that teachers are using those best practices?
Value Added by Instructional Coaches
Research demonstrates that using instructional coaching is a particularly powerful way to help teachers bring specific teaching techniques into their classrooms, Ms. Ward contends. The coaches – essentially in-district staff developers who are available to work with teachers regularly in their classrooms – also meet the New York state professional development standards, which call for job-imbedded professional development that is frequent and ongoing.
The instructional coach model is recognized nationally and used by other local school districts such as Chappaqua; Scarsdale uses a similar model of “helping teachers” in each academic discipline.
In Mamaroneck, instructional coaches work to develop curriculum at the elementary schools, helping to assure district-wide consistency where there are no department chairs. In addition, a literary coach was added to the Hommocks Middle School last year, partly in response to parent concerns about student writing.
Coaches provide different levels of support to different teachers. Ms. Ward noted that in the elementary schools, “classroom teachers must plan and implement lessons across all disciplines.” There, “coaching provides a necessary source of knowledge of both academic content and the teaching practices most effective in those content areas.”
In the elementary schools, for example, literacy coach Allyson Daley has provided workshops for all teachers in grades K-5, providing workshops on how to take a “running record” and then supporting teachers as they do so in their classrooms. In taking a running record, the teacher listens to a child reading aloud and records all miscues. The mistakes are then analyzed for patterns so that the teacher can develop targeted lessons for each child.
As a result of Ms. Daley’s work, running records will be taken more frequently by more teachers, in addition to the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) currently being administered twice a year. More frequent running records will enable students to receive more tailored reading instruction and will allow teachers to track students’ progress over time. (For more information about running records and other reading and writing assessments, see the “English Language Arts” tab on the “Curriculum and Development” page of the district website.)
Similarly, math coach Mariana Ivanov has been working to help teachers plan tiered lessons within the district’s TERC Investigations curriculum, so that students can be working on the same core skills, but at levels that will support and challenge each one.
Technology has its place in all this, explained Technology Coordinator Ed Cofino. Although words go into short-term memory, images go into long-tem memory, so using videos and other technology to provide images for students really can enhance student learning.
Mr. Cofino and Technology Coach Andrew Hess also have been working to develop the district website as an online forum for professional development pursuant to district goals.
Good Work May be Invisible
When done well, “it is hard to see the fingerprints of professional development,” said Ms. Ward after the board meeting. “It just looks like knowledgeable teaching.”
“If teachers are the ‘engine’ of the district,” she explained, “then staff development is the essential, ongoing maintenance (tune-ups and oil changes) that we must do to protect our investment in student learning.”
Ms. Ward also noted, however, that in light of the difficult economic times, “significant cuts were made in the professional development budget for the current school year, and we will of course scrutinize every budget line going forward with a focus on value added for students.”