Teachers’ Roles in Evidence-Based Reform

Long ago, I was a special education teacher in Oregon. Someone at that time came up with the idea that since learning was harder in the earlier stages of a skill than it was later on, progress on advanced levels of a skill should be more rapid. They gave us teachers “six-cycle graph paper” to graph individual children’s progress on each skill we taught them. The graph paper was marked to show logarithmic growth, where the units were large at the low levels of a skill and small at the high levels, so a progress chart would show as a straight line.

Does this make any sense to you? Well, it did not make any sense to me and my fellow-teachers, either. Yet it was presented to us as mandatory, a state or district requirement.

We tried, but we just couldn’t make the six-cycle graph paper work. It required a massive amount of paperwork and calculation, taking us away from teaching. We staged a small revolt, and within less than a month, as I recall, six-cycle graph paper was only used for kids to color on.

Six-cycle graph paper was a foolish idea from the beginning. Every teacher in my school, and (I’d guess) in every school could see that it was unworkable and hopeless. But nobody asked us. No research supporting its use was even presented to us, if it existed (which I very much doubt). Further, and perhaps most damaging, the six-cycle graph paper experience eroded our faith in our own school administration and in innovation itself, and it made us less likely to implement other innovations that might be more promising.

After my time as a teacher, I went to graduate school, and then I began working on development, evaluation, and dissemination of cooperative learning strategies in elementary and middle schools. My colleagues and I began our dissemination efforts by doing large, voluntary workshops for teachers. Any teacher of any subject or grade level could attend, so we were usually working with just a few teachers from any one school. We rapidly learned that this kind of scattershot professional development was extremely popular, but it did not stick very well in the schools. The problem was that isolated teachers had difficulty maintaining an innovation without the support of their administration and peers.

Nell Duke, today a well-known researcher, tells a story that perfectly illustrates the problem. As a young elementary teacher, she read about cooperative learning and implemented it in her class with great eagerness and success. However, her principal was not amused. “Miss Duke,” he said, “what in blazes are you doing in there?” She enthusiastically explained cooperative learning, told him about the research on it, and explained how excited and productive the students were.

“I suppose that’s all right,” he said. “But can’t you get them to do it quietly?”

Having individual teachers be the unit of innovation or dissemination made it difficult to ensure that teachers had understanding and supportive administrators, coaching, or other ongoing support, and many of them either failed due to implementation problems that could have easily been remedied, or they succumbed to pressure from the administration or peers over time to conform with what the rest of the school was doing.

From my experience, widespread and impactful use of proven programs is not likely to succeed if it is imposed upon teachers or if it is sprinkled across the landscape as Johnny Appleseed did. How could the whole school become the unit of dissemination with the active participation of the teachers?

When we began Success for All in 1987, my colleagues and I hit upon a formula that we still use today with great success. Success for All (SFA) is a whole-school approach, intended to work in schools that serve mostly disadvantaged elementary and middle schools. Such schools can be assumed to have already tried and failed with many innovations, and they may be suspicious that this is just one more.

Our solution, starting with our very first SFA school in Baltimore, was to introduce the program to the administration and teaching staff and then let them vote by secret ballot as to whether or not they wished to participate. A positive vote of 80% was required for us to enter the school.

The voting does many things. First, it convinces the whole staff that they truly have a choice, and that for once they are not being pushed into something they did not select. Second, the process leading up to the vote already helps to get teachers thinking about how they can work with peers to improve the whole school, not just their personal classroom.

Votes are usually positive, but the voting process may reveal issues teachers want resolved before they take on an innovation. For example, teachers may say, “We’ll support this program, but we’ll need additional planning time. Can you promise that?” If the principal agrees, the vote is likely to be positive. When a school cannot arrive at a positive vote it is usually the case that there are serious problems in the school, such as a lack of trust between teachers and administrators. It is probably a good idea to delay starting a major innovation until such problems are worked out.

When starting a schoolwide innovation in a given district or region, it makes a lot of sense to start with schools that eagerly adopt the model. The vote helps identify such schools. Other schools that are less eager can then see how things go with the early adopters and come into the project later on. Within schools, the few reluctant teachers (less than 20%), seeing their peers voting in favor of SFA, are usually willing to give it a try, and may gain enthusiasm over time.

Beyond the voting itself, treating schools as the unit of implementation provides schools with new strategies for improving their whole teaching staff. It gives all teachers a common language, common tools, access to joint training and in-class coaching, and peer assistance. Principals may use distributed leadership, involving teachers and other staff in committees to plan school strategies to solve common problems (such as behavior/attendance, parent/community involvement, onboarding of new teachers, and teaching strategies for particular topics and grade levels). Instead of just one or two leaders in a school, every teacher becomes a leader in some area of expertise or interest.

A school that has chosen a proven program and is implementing it with understanding, enthusiasm, and the participation of all school staff is a fun, satisfying place to work. It can retain its teachers, instead of seeing them “promoted” to less challenging parts of town, because teachers prefer to work in supportive, successful environments in which their ideas and leadership are sought after and appreciated.

In addition to voting, teachers can play a key role in adapting the program to meet local circumstances, needs, and resources. They may introduce innovations after they have mastered the basics, and these innovations may catch on in the school, district, or the entire network of SFA schools nationally. Further, schools often pilot new strategies or materials and provide feedback to program developers.

I believe that whatever innovations developers are trying to disseminate, teachers should have the opportunity to choose (or not choose) them as a total school or distinct section of a school, such as the math department or the primary team. This mode of dissemination preserves teachers’ rights to participate in essential decisions about their own school without requiring that each school or teacher reinvent the wheel.

Or the six-cycle graph paper.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

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