/ January 3, 2021

Investing in Teachers as Agents of Scale

This article was originally published  May 27th, 2020 on the website The Dandelion Seed: Spreading Change. The author, Dr. Felicia Sullivan, is Associate Research Director at Jobs for the Future

Since 2014, New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency-based Education (PACE) system grew the number of performance tasks in mathematics, English Language Arts (ELA) and science from 14 to 112, an 800% growth.  In that same time period, PACE went from no performance tasks scoring on state mandated Work-Study Practices (WSPs) – self-direction, collaboration, communication, and creativity – to 51 tasks that included at least one WSP proficiency score.  And in the 2018-2019 school year, the system developed 6 performance tasks that not only scored the WSP of self-direction, but embedded self-direction instruction along with content instruction.

As part of a William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funded research-practice partnership (RPP), JFF (Jobs for the Future) has been collecting data and insights on the scaling of WSPs (aka deeper learning competencies or essential skills) in New Hampshire.  From the start, the state’s PACE system was a key driver to scale, providing a critical backbone for assessing competency-based efforts. What has become clearer to the JFF research team is that investing in teacher capacity to instruct and assess WSPs has been a critical move to ensure that the practice change is deep, spreads, and is sustainable.  A key orientation has been a strong commitment to teacher ownership of the process.  The practice partner is this effort, the New Hampshire Learning Initiative (NHLI), has been critical to supporting and pushing this teacher-centered approach forward.

Often scaling new teaching practice or education reform starts with bringing new practice to teachers. Teachers are trained with attention to fidelity in the implementation. They may also provide insights into what key design changes need adjustment to be truly classroom ready. These efforts may start with small pilots that expand outward or enter the system as a broad-based initiative. Rarer are the practice change initiatives that engage teachers in the design of the practice change effort or provide them with the skills and capacities to do so. For the WSP effort in New Hampshire, investments in teacher skill building in quality performance assessment, evidence collection, intervention improvement, and peer leadership have resulted in a cadre of teachers who are not only owning practice change in their classrooms but are championing and pushing for the work back in their schools and districts.

As Dees and Anderson (2004) noted, mitigating the barriers to scale start by assessing readiness, emphasizing the reward, minimizing risk, providing resources, working with those who are most receptive.  In designing the professional learning opportunity for performance assessment of WSPs, NHLI attended to all of these important pre-scaling dynamics.   Specifically, NHLI:

maintains constant communication and relationship building with districts leaders to understand pressures and constraints operating in the district to understand if the time is right for engaging in WSP professional learning (readiness);provides professional learning opportunities that are invitational and open to any educator in the state including district leaders (receptive);ensures that learning opportunities are grounded in instructional plans and efforts actually happening in classrooms (reward);frames WSP performance assessment as a formative activity for teachers and students (lowering risk); and provides task developers access to instructional and assessment experts, guides and supports tested in the field; as well as cross-district learning opportunities to enhance peer support.  Teacher leaders additionally are provided stipends and opportunities to bring their teacher voice to research and professional conferences (resources).

Lowering the barriers to scaling, doesn’t necessarily mean that scaling will occur. As with setting the stage for scaling, NHLI works to support the development of performance assessment for WSPs through a strong teacher-centered approach. In particular, identifying and supporting teacher leaders has been key.  These leaders are identified primarily because they have demonstrated strong motivation and interest in bringing their own practice to a deeper level.  Additionally, as they build their own core strengths and develop instructional strategies in their own classrooms, these leaders are open and willing to share with others both in and outside their districts.

In Cynthia Coburn’s Rethinking Scale (2003), the author articulated four key dimensions to scaling practice change in educational settings – depth of pedagogical change, spread, shift in ownership, and sustainability.  In the WSP work in New Hampshire, here is how these features are playing out:

Deep pedagogical change – Unlike a state mandated test administered at a specific time, teachers are free to use their discretion when in the instructional year the performance task seems most aligned with their learning goals and outcomes.  With a focus on competency and assessment for learning, teachers coming to a deeper understanding of how WSPs demand a mind shift away from grading and achievement and more towards learning progression, growth and development over longer periods of time.

Ownership – Teachers involved in task development are experiencing strong senses of accomplishment as their tasks get used and taken up by others.  Additionally, teacher leaders are actively engaged in task development processes and are making key decisions about the design and use of evidence collection tools.  These educators ensure face validity, but also provide key insights into the ways in which task and evidence tools are operating in classrooms. These leaders have been critical in the vetting and redesign of rubrics and evidence collection tools.

Spread – By developing, piloting and improving performance tasks, teacher task developers and teacher leaders have first-hand experience of the opportunities and challenges of bringing WSP instruction and assessment to the classroom. They allow others to see the practice in action and become champions with peers within and across districts.   NHLI’s invitational, professional learning communities enhance these dynamics through co-operative learning.

Sustainability – By bringing in teachers who have experience with the existing PACE system, NHLI has leveraged their expertise to bring them into a new domain – WSPs.  These teachers support the learning of peers who are new to both performance assessment and WSPs.  Additionally, by making the WSP work transparent to other educators in the PACE system, even those who did not get specific WSP training can bring their experience with PACE to these new assessments. They are then able to tap into the expertise of teachers in the system who have developed expertise in WSP instruction and assessment.

By putting teachers at the center of learning, development and diffusion to WSPs, NHLI as tapped into strong scaling motivations like problem-solving, autonomy, and problem-solving, all within a cooperative, peer learning community (MacLachlan, 2016). Replicating the large-scale mindset shift is no easy feat, but the keys and levers to success discussed here are a good guide to get started.  If you’d like to find out more about the work on scaling deeper learning in New Hampshire, visit our project Building Essential Skills Today (BEST) for the Future on the web at http://www.best-future.org.

Special thanks to Ellen Hume-Howard, Paul Leather, Kathy White, Jonathan Vander Els, Ann Hadwen, and Mariane Gfroerer for their deep and reflective thinking about their work and efforts to scale and sustain deeper learning. And a shout out to the great teacher leaders and administrative leads who are the secret sauce to making it all a reality – Cathy Baylus, Angel Burke, Kathy Cotton, Tony Doucet, Elizabeth Gouzoules, Kelly Gray, Donna Harvey, Patricia Haynes, Brittany Lombardo, Chris Longo, Jessica Tremblay and Nicole Woulfe.

Felicia M. Sullivan, Ph.D. is an Associate Research Director at JFF (Jobs for the Future). Her research interests include human development and organizational learning towards system change as well as the effective translation of research and evidence through cross sector collaboration. She is currently researching deeper learning outcomes for middle and high school students and the diffusion of innovation and scaled impact. Email: fsullivan@jff.org  Twitter: @feliciasullivan.

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Categories: JFF (Jobs For the Future) NHLInsights, Research and Resources WSP (Work Study Practices)

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