The Million Dollar Question (that We Rarely Ask or Answer)

The Million Dollar Question (that We Rarely Ask or Answer)

(This article has been cross posted from Education Week.)

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to come to Washington DC and talk about innovative models for professional development that are cropping up around the country. I sat on a panel with a very distinguished education scholar from Harvard, two practicing teachers, and two principals; all of us engaged in re-imagining how professional development can and should be delivered to teachers. I shared the work I'm helping lead in Burbank to an audience of advocates, policy-builders, union leaders, educators, and non-profit organizers.

This year in my district, teachers from each of the secondary schools chose to participate in Instructional Leadership Teams. Three times per month they'd come to the district office for workshops on everything from teacher leadership training, adult-learner mindsets, creativity in the classroom, grading and assessment philosophies, and more. This work was to lay the foundation for these emergent teacher leaders to return to their sites and pay that knowledge forward.

These ILT team teachers went back to their sites and led their colleagues in the creation of inquiry groups that would explore some aspect of their teaching and learning that warranted improvement. Teacher teams got to select their focus, such as feedback strategies, differentiation, or metacognition for example, and work together to design both lessons and observation rounds where they could learn together, watch each other, and get better. The goal: increase school & student achievement by strengthening instructional practices and teacher leadership.

We put teachers at the center of choosing what they learned, how they might best learn together, and then asked them to share their journey and results by the end of the year. Having teachers work in small teams to step their practice forward isn't a new or revolutionary idea. However, there aren't very many districts in the country where this is the central PD vision from the top, so in that sense, my work is very new and thrilling. Each of us who had been invited to sit on the panel shared similar endeavors, all involving teachers at the center of the push to improve.

The last uttered syllable still hung mid-air before the million-dollar question bubbled up from the sea of expectant faces: how do you know it's working?

How DO you know it's working?

How can you be sure that when you put teachers in charge of their own learning real results will emerge?

Do you want to know the answer? It's going to sound crazy, and I bet most folks who have to make policy might not like it.

Are you ready?

You ask them.

If you want to know whether efforts to grow your practice and increase student outcomes have worked, you ask the people in charge of doing it: teachers. I know, I know. It sounds like asking the fox how things are going in the hen house, but just hold that thought.

Professor John Hattie, in his fantastic work Visible Learning for Teachers (2012), shares his research on student expectations and says that the single best indicator of performance is student self-assessment. He says that your highest achieving students can predict, with startling accuracy, how they will do on an upcoming test, assessment, or activity. They can also indicate quite clearly what they need to spend more time on or learn again in order to meet a teacher's expected learning outcomes. Think about your own life in education. Each year you teach, don't you have a pretty solid sense of what went well and what needs work? I'm guessing the answer is yes.

When teachers become students of their own impact and work hard together to improve their practice, is it not also safest to say that they know best:

  1. How it's going
  2. Where their successes are
  3. What bears revisiting or doing differently next time?

The answer is yes.

And that's a huge problem for people in education who want a quick fix and an easy answer. Asking teachers how things are going means you're going to get unique answers from each district, each school, even each teacher team. How do you standardize this process, when each team is curating their work to what their students need?

I'll be the first to admit my fear that hiding inside the "how do you know it's working" question cloaks another, and that hidden question contains an S-word that scares me to death. The same people who want to know how teacher-led efforts are going are really looking to see how they can "scale this up" because if it's working somewhere; then it can work everywhere. We just need to figure out the metric by which we can measure it and then we can package and sell it across the country. A one size fits all silver bullet.

Haven't we learned the hard way that every effort to standardize kids, what they learn, how they learn, or how we'll measure that learning never lead us to the growth we want. It's an idea that seems to hold a lot of promise, but somehow never delivers. So how can we ask our teachers and school leaders to create personalized learning experiences for our children, and then turn around and try to create standardized growth experiences for teachers? You don't.

Maybe it's time we re-think the direction of scaling altogether and think small, scale down. Little by little, teacher-by-teacher, school-by-school, city-by-city, we put teachers in a position where continuous growth and improvement are not just expected, but required. Then, we let them work together to get where their kids and their schools need them to be every single year. Administrators and district officials guide, facilitate, cheerlead, and push, just as great coaches should. Imagine what that might look like?

Professionals who are trusted to work at high levels like this, and who are granted both the freedom and the responsibility to do that work often surprise us. They stay in their professions longer, they report higher than typical levels of job satisfaction, they create synergy among colleagues, and they grow student achievement.

In education, that's as close as you'll ever come to a silver bullet. It's also how you know "it's" working.

Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and 20 year veteran 7th grade English teacher.  This year, she is a teacher on special assignment focusing on teacher induction and professional growth for secondary educators in Burbank, California.  She is committed to helping teachers step their professional practice forward and to seeing the Dodgers win the pennant. 

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