Great Tutors Could Be a Source of Great Teachers

blog_4-19-18_tutoring_500x329In a recent blog, I wrote about findings of three recent reviews of research on tutoring, contained within broader reviews of research on effective programs for struggling elementary readers, struggling secondary readers, and math. The blog reported the astonishing finding that in each of the reviews, outcomes for students tutored by paraprofessionals (teaching assistants) were as good, and usually somewhat better, than outcomes for students tutored by teachers.

It is important to note that the paraprofessionals tutoring students usually had BAs, one indicator of high quality. But since paras are generally paid about half as much as teachers, using them enables schools to serve twice as many struggling students at about the same cost as hiring teacher tutors. And because there are teacher shortages in many areas, such as inner cities and rural locations, sufficient teachers may not be available in some places at any cost.

In my earlier blog, I explained all this, but now I’d like to expand on one aspect of the earlier blog I only briefly mentioned.

If any district or state decided to invest substantially in high-quality paraprofessional tutors and train them in proven one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring strategies, it would almost certainly increase the achievement of struggling learners and reduce retentions and special education placements. But it could also provide a means of attracting capable recent university graduates into teaching.

Imagine that districts or states recruited students graduating from local universities to serve in a “tutor corps.” Those accepted would be trained and mentored to become outstanding tutors. From within that group, tutors who show the greatest promise would be invited to participate in a fast-track teacher certification program. This would add coursework to the paraprofessionals’ schedules, while they continue tutoring during other times. In time, the paraprofessionals would be given opportunities to do brief classroom internships, and then student teaching. Finally, they would receive their certification, and would be assigned to a school in the district or state.

There are several features worth noting about this proposal. First, the paraprofessionals would be paid throughout their teacher training, because at all points they would be providing valuable services to children. This would make it easier for recent university graduates to take courses leading to certification, which could expand the number of promising recent graduates who might entertain the possibility of becoming teachers. Paying teacher education candidates (as tutors) throughout their time in training could open the profession to a broader range of talented candidates, including diverse candidates who could not afford traditional teacher education.

Second, the whole process of recruiting well-qualified paraprofessionals, training and mentoring them as tutors, selecting the best of them to become certified, and providing coursework and student teaching experiences for them, would be managed by school districts or states, not by universities. School districts and states have a strong motivation to select the best teachers, see that they get excellent training and mentoring, and proceed to certification only when they are ready. Coursework might be provided by university professors contracted by the district or qualified individuals within the district or state. Again, because the district or state has a strong interest in having these experiences be optimal for their future teachers, they would be likely to take an active role in ensuring that coursework and coaching are first rate.

One important advantage of this system would be that it would give school, district, and state leaders opportunities to see future teachers operate in real schools over extended periods of time, first as tutors, then as interns, then as student teachers. At the end of the process, the school district or state should be willing to guarantee that all who succeed in this demanding sequence will be offered a job. They should be able to do this with confidence, because school and district staff would have seen the candidate work with real children in real schools.

The costs of this system might be minimal. During tutoring, internships, and student teaching, teacher candidates are providing invaluable services to struggling students. The only additional cost would entail providing coursework to meet state or district requirements. But this cost could be modest, and in exchange for paying for or providing the courses, the district or state would gain the right to select instructors of very high quality and insist on their effectiveness in practice. These are the schools’ own future teachers, and they should not be satisfied with less than stellar teacher education.

The system I’m proposing could operate alongside of traditional programs provided by universities. School districts or states might in fact create partnerships in which all teacher education candidates would serve as tutors as part of their teacher education, in which case university-led and district-led teacher education may essentially merge into one.

This system is more obviously attuned to the needs of elementary schools than secondary schools, because historically tutors have been rarely used in the secondary grades. Yet recent evidence from studies in England (http://www.bestevidence.org/reading/mhs/mhs_read.htm) has shown positive effects of tutoring in reading in the middle grades, and it seems likely that one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring would be beneficial in all major subjects and, as in elementary school, may keep students who are far behind grade level in a given subject out of special education and able to keep up with their classmates. If paraprofessional tutors can work in the secondary grades, this would form the basis for a teacher certification plan like the one I have described.

Designing teacher certification programs around the needs of recent BAs sounds like Teach for America, and in many ways it is. But this system would, I’d argue, be more likely to attract large numbers of talented young people who would be more likely than TFA grads to stay in teaching for many years.

The main reason schools, districts, and states should invest in tutoring by paraprofessionals is to serve the large number of struggling learners who exist in every district. But in the course of doing this, districts could also take control of their own destinies and select and train the teachers they need. The result would be better teachers for all students, and a teaching profession that knows how to use proven programs to ensure the success of all.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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How Is Standards-Based Instruction Standard in Classroom Practice?

Education policy, goes an old saying, is like a storm at sea. Crashing waves, thunder, lightning, and cross-currents at the surface, but 10 fathoms down, nothing ever changes.

In our time, one of the epic storms in education relates to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and other college- and career-ready standards that resemble CCSS. Common Core was intended to move instructional practices and student outcomes toward problem-solving, higher-order thinking, and contextualized knowledge, and away from rote learning, memorization, and formulas. We are now five years into this reform. How is it changing what teachers actually do in the classroom?

Fortunately, there is a research center working to understand this question: the Center for Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL) at the University of Pennsylvania. C-SAIL, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education, is carrying out several studies to examine how state policies more or less aligned with Common Core or college- and career-ready standards are changing teachers’ instruction.

Recently, C-SAIL researchers Adam Edgerton, Morgan Polikoff, and Laura Desimone, published an article on representative state-wide surveys of teachers in Kentucky, Ohio, and Texas. Kentucky and Ohio were early, enthusiastic adopters of Common Core, while Texas was one of just two states (with Virginia) that have always refused to adopt Common Core standards, giving up a shot at substantial Race to the Top grants for their obstinance. However, Texas has its own standards intended to be college-and career-ready.

In all three states, teachers reported teaching many objectives emphasized by their states’ standards, but a roughly equal number of objectives de-emphasized by the standards. This was true in reading and math and in elementary and secondary schools.

C-SAIL is doing studies in which they will obtain logs and other more detailed information on daily lessons. Perhaps they will find that teachers are increasingly teaching content aligned with their state standards. But from the C-SAIL survey, it seems unlikely that these differences will be profound enough to greatly affect students’ achievement, which is, after all, the ultimate goal.

There is a lot to admire in the Common Core and other college-and career-ready standards, and perhaps the best parts are in fact changing practices. However, turning around a country the size of the U.S., with 50 states, 14,000 school districts, 120,000 public schools, and a tradition of local autonomy is no easy feat. One big problem is that issues that rise to the stormy surface are buffeted by political currents, so they often don’t last long enough to make widespread change.

C-SAIL provides a useful service in monitoring how policy changes practice, so we can at least learn from the college-and career-ready standards movement (within which Common Core plays an important part). Journalists love to write about the crashing waves at the surface of education reform, but we need independent, scientific organizations like C-SAIL to tell us what’s really happening 10 fathoms down, where the kids are.

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

Making Teaching and Teacher Education Respected Professions

I had an interesting conversation at the recent AERA meetings with the editor of my Pearson educational psychology text, Kevin Davis. He posed a question to me: “How can we convince school leaders, politicians, and the public that schools of education provide something of value to future teachers?”

I’ve thought a lot about this question, and about an even broader question: How can we increase respect for the teaching profession itself? These two questions are closely linked, of course, because if teachers were respected, the schools that produce them would be respected, and vice versa.

My answer, you may not be surprised to hear, drew from the history of medicine. Long ago, doctors were little respected because few of their treatments actually worked. My own grandfather, an immigrant from Argentina, believed that doctors had nothing to offer, and he refused to go to a doctor or hospital unless absolutely necessary. “Hospitals are where you go to die,” he always said (Note: he was healthy into his nineties and died at 96. In a hospital.).

However, physicians gained in status as their profession gained in proven treatments. In the 19th century, doctors could set bones, help in childbirth, administer smallpox vaccines, and prescribe various treatments that were mostly useless. However, in the 20th century, there was progress in what doctors could do. In mid-century, discovery of sulfa drugs, penicillin, a polio vaccine, and many other advances truly made medicine, physicians, and schools of medicine respected. Since 1962, when federal laws began to require randomized experiments for medications, the pace of discovery and application of effective treatments has exploded, and as physicians can reliably treat more and more diseases, respect for them and the schools that produce them has grown apace.

In education, this is how our profession and our schools of education will grow in status. As in medicine, this change will not happen all at once or overall, but it will happen as schools and teachers increasingly embrace and apply proven approaches.

Imagine, for example, that primary teachers were universally trained to use programs capable of ensuring reading success for their children. That secondary math teachers could ensure an understanding of algebra for every student. That science teachers could make American schools competitive with those in East Asia. Each of these accomplishments would be hugely beneficial for students, of course. But think what it would do for our profession. Picture this. A first grade teacher walks into a party. The room falls quiet. Parents meekly approach her to ask how they can help, or supplement her efforts with their children. Others are impressed by the school of education she attended. She gets this respect because everyone knows that she can teach every child who enters her class to read, no matter what. She has proven skills and knowledge that the world at large does not possess.

That’s how our profession must earn its respect. When every teacher has knowledge and skills that are proven effective and learned in schools of education, we’ll be respected. And we’ll deserve it.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

Implementing Proven Programs

There is an old joke that goes like this. A door-to-door salesman is showing a housewife the latest, fanciest, most technologically advanced vacuum cleaner. “Ma’am,” says the salesman, “this machine will do half your work!”

“Great!” says the housewife. “I’ll take two!”

All too often, when school leaders decide to adopt proven programs, they act like the foolish housewife. The program is going to take care of everything, they think. Or if it doesn’t, it’s the program’s fault, not theirs.

I wish I could tell you that you could just pick a program from our Evidence for ESSA site (launching on February 28! Next week!), wind it up, and let it teach all your kids, sort of the way a Roomba is supposed to clean your carpets. But I can’t.

Clearly, any program, no matter how good the evidence behind it is, has to be implemented with the buy-in and participation of all involved, planning, thoughtfulness, coordination, adequate professional development, interim assessment and data-based adjustments, and final assessment of program outcomes. In reality, implementing proven programs is difficult, but so is implementing ordinary unproven programs. All teachers and administrators go home every day dead tired, no matter what programs they use. The advantage of proven programs is that they hold out promise that this time, teachers’ and administrators’ efforts will pay off. Also, almost all effective programs provide extensive, high-quality professional development, and most teachers and administrators are energized and enthusiastic about engaging professional development. Finally, whole-school innovations, done right, engage the whole staff in common activities, exchanging ideas, strategies, successes, challenges, and insights.

So how can schools implement proven programs with the greatest possible chance of success? Here are a few pointers (from 43 years of experience!).

Get Buy-In. No one likes to be forced to do anything and no one puts in their best effort or imagination for an activity they did not choose.

When introducing a proven program to a school staff, have someone from the program provider’s staff come to explain it to the staff, and then get staff members to vote by secret ballot. Require an 80% majority.

This does several things. First, it ensures that the school staff is on board, willing to give the program their best shot. Second, it effectively silences the small minority in every school that opposes everything. After the first year, additional schools that did not select the program in the first round should be given another opportunity, but by then they will have seen how well the program works in neighboring schools.

Plan, Plan, Plan. Did you ever see the Far Side cartoon in which there is a random pile of horses and cowboys and a sheriff says, “You don’t just throw a posse together, dadgummit!” (or something like that). School staffs should work with program providers to carefully plan every step of program introduction. The planning should focus on how the program needs to be adapted to the specific requirements of this particular school or district, and make best use of human, physical, technological, and financial resources.

Professional Development. Perhaps the most common mistake in implementing proven programs is providing too little on-site, up-front training, and too little on-site, ongoing coaching. Professional development is expensive, especially if travel is involved, and users of proven programs often try to minimize costs by doing less professional development, or doing all or most of it electronically, or using “trainer-of-trainer” models (in which someone from the school or district learns the model and then teaches it to colleagues).

Here’s a dark secret. Developers of proven programs almost never use any of these training models in their own research. Quite the contrary, they are likely to have top-quality coaches swarming all over schools, visiting classes and ensuring high-quality implementation any way they can. Yet when it comes time for dissemination, they keep costs down by providing much, much less than what was needed (which is why they provided it in their studies). This is such a common problem that Evidence for ESSA excludes programs that used a lot of professional development in their research, but today just send an online manual, for example. Evidence for ESSA tries to describe dissemination requirements in terms of what was done in the research, not what is currently offered.

Coaching. Coaching means having experts visit teachers’ classes and give them individual or schoolwide feedback on their quality of implementation.

Coaching is essential because it helps teachers know whether they are on track to full implementation, and enables the project to provide individualized, actionable feedback. If you question the need for feedback, consider how you could learn to play tennis or golf, play the French horn, or act in Shakespearean plays, if no one ever saw you do it and gave you useful and targeted feedback and suggestions for improvement. Yet teaching is much, much more difficult.

Sure, coaching is expensive. But poor implementation squanders not only the cost of the program, but also teachers’ enthusiasm and belief that things can be better.

Feedback. Coaches, building facilitators, or local experts should have opportunities to give regular feedback to schools using proven programs, on implementation as well as outcomes. This feedback should be focused on solving problems together, not on blaming or shaming, but it is essential in keeping schools on track toward goals. At the end of each quarter or at least annually, school staffs need an opportunity to consider how they are doing with a proven program and how they are going to make it better.

Proven programs plus thoughtful, thorough implementation are the most powerful tool we have to make a major difference in student achievement across whole schools and districts. They build on the strengths of schools and teachers, and create a lasting sense of efficacy. A team of teachers and administrators that has organized itself around a proven program, implemented it with pride and creativity, and saw enhanced outcomes, is a force to be reckoned with. A force for good.

Remembering Al Shanker: Teachers and Professionalism

Back in the day, I knew Al Shanker, the founder of the American Federation of Teachers. No one has ever been more of an advocate for teachers’ rights – or for their professionalism. At the same time, no one was more of an advocate for evidence as a basis for teaching. He saw no conflict between evidence-based teaching and professionalism. In fact, he saw them as complementary. He argued that in fields in which professionals possess unique knowledge and skills, backed up by research, those professionals are well respected, well compensated, and play a leading role in the institutions in which they work.

If teachers want to be taken seriously, they must be seen to be using methods, technologies, and materials that not just anyone knows how to use, and that are known to be effective. Think physicians, engineers, and lawyers. Their positions in society depend on their possession of specialized and proven knowledge and skills.

Yet when I speak about evidence-based reform, I often get questions from teachers about whether using evidence-proven programs will take away their professionalism, creativity, or independence. I am sympathetic to this question, because I am aware that teachers have had to put up with quite a lot in recent years. Teaching is increasingly being seen by government and the public as something anyone can do.

But how can the teaching profession turn this around? I think Al Shanker had the right answer. If teachers (and teacher educators) can honestly present themselves to the public as people who can select and use proven programs and practices, ones that not just anyone could use effectively, that would go a long way, I think, to enhancing the public’s perception of the professionalism of the field. It would also be awfully good for students, parents, and the economy, of course.

Al Shanker knew that teachers were going to have to publicly and fervently embrace evidence, both to do their jobs better and to make it clear that being a teacher requires knowledge and skills than the general public can respect. I’m certain that he would be a big fan of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) evidence standards, which will help educators, policy makers, and researchers identify and put to use proven programs and practices.

Evidence-based reform is essential for kids, but also for teachers. Al Shanker knew that 30 years ago, and his AFT has been a champion for evidence ever since.

Love and Evidence

Valentine’s Day is this Sunday. If you are spending it thinking about effect sizes or research designs or education policy, shame on you. Unless, of course, that sort of thing turns you on.

So what does love have to do with evidence? Everything, actually. Our field is education. Education is empty without love. Evidence helps teachers and principals give every child the best possible chance to achieve success in school and in life. An educator who loves children wants the best for them. The purpose of educational research, development, and evaluation is to provide educators with pragmatic means of showing their love for children. Love without effective teaching is not enough, of course, and technically proficient teaching means little without love. But the two together are the most powerful force in education.

Children, especially young ones, completely trust their teachers. They look up to them with hope and respect. They are easy to love, even if sometimes hard to teach. But how can we give them any less than what we know how to give? Evidence does not provide all the answers or solve all the problems, but how is it responsible and loving to ignore evidence that could help students succeed?

I recently heard a story that illustrates what I’m talking about. A mother in a poor, Appalachian school in Kentucky came to meet with her daughter’s middle school principal. The school was using our Success for All program, which was adopted to improve very low reading proficiency rates. Even though the staff voted to adopt the research proven approach, there was some grumbling about the instructional processes that were required by the program among some of the staff. After all, change is hard. The principal was considering letting some teachers opt out.

The mother told the principal that her daughter, now in eighth grade, had never been able to read. Because of the school’s new program, she was now learning, excitedly bringing home books to read aloud to her.

The mother burst into tears. She’d never heard her daughter read to her before. She urged the principal to hold her ground and keep the program. Ultimately she did so.

This incident, repeated thousands of times every year for many proven programs, is a direct product of decades of research, development, and dissemination. All that R&D might sound technical and boring. But the outcome is a concrete expression of our love for children.

Love comes in many forms. On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate one of them. But the rest of the year, let’s remember that as educators, our love for children has to drive everything we do, including our choice of programs and practices that work. How can we want anything less than the best for the children who depend on us?