Student Improvement through Teacher Empowerment
By Dr. Ivan Cheng, Department of Secondary Education
Can the achievement gap between ethnic groups be closed? That is the focus of an Improving Teacher Quality (ITQ) grant awarded to a team of CSUN faculty members and partners from Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Local District 2, and Project GRAD Los Angeles to improve algebra achievement at Maclay, Pacoima, and San Fernando middle schools.
In 2009, CSU Northridge was awarded a $1 million grant from the California Postsecondary Education Commission to help close the achievement gap through a project called Student Improvement through Teacher Empowerment (SITTE). This project is based on an alternative approach to professional development that leverages teacher knowledge rather than assuming deficits in their knowledge. In the SITTE approach, teachers are provided opportunities to collaborate in preparation for their upcoming lessons. By engaging in this collaboration, teachers are empowered to apply their collective knowledge of content and pedagogy, as well as their knowledge of students’ learning needs in order to develop ways to get through to students rather than simply get through the book.
Even though substantial research exists to suggest that generative change in teachers’ beliefs and practices requires a social environment that allows teachers to think, discuss, experiment, and reflect, the current structure of most American schools does not afford teachers the time that they need in order to engage in such learning experiences. Thus, the SITTE project utilizes teachers’ own classrooms as the spaces for ongoing collaboration in lesson planning based on the observed needs of students.
The SITTE approach for teacher collaboration occurs in two places. First, during the summer, teams of math and English teacher leaders from the three middle schools are provided opportunities to teach and collaborate daily in preparation for their upcoming lessons. This daily collaboration is facilitated by Drs. Mira Pak and Ivan Cheng, both from the Department of Secondary Education, and Dr. Kellie Evans, Department of Mathematics. What is innovative about the SITTE approach is that the teachers are able to make rapid adjustments to instruction in response to the needs of the students rather than follow a scripted protocol for lesson design. Because of this explicit focus on addressing the immediate learning needs of the students, the SITTE approach to collaboration has been dubbed the Responsive Teaching Cycle (RTC).
As a result of the summer work, a culture of collaboration and collegiality is developed which can then be exported into the regular academic year. Following the summer program, the teachers engage their colleagues at each of their own schools in weekly or twice-weekly meetings to continue the process of examining the learning needs of the students and immediately developing interventions. In this process of designing interventions, teacher learning becomes the byproduct of collaboration, and their professional development becomes a part of their daily work rather than just another workshop to attend.
To study the impact of SITTE on students and teachers, a team of researchers led by Dr. Jonah Schlackman, Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling, and Dr. Julie Gainsburg, Department of Secondary Education, has been collecting data to see what is actually occurring at the schools.
Three key measurable indicators guide their research:
- Improved student performance as measured by course grades, district periodic assessments, and CST scores in algebra when compared to students in other classrooms in the district.
- Demonstrable implementation of teaching practices that reflect current understandings of effective practices in mathematics instruction that also support students in their academic language needs, as well as improved teacher attitudes about their students’ abilities.
- Institutionalization of teacher collaboration opportunities that are structured into the school day as well as summer school at all three middle schools.
Preliminary results from surveys, interviews, and observations of collaboration meetings also suggest positive results in the indicators of success. Specifically, teachers have begun to normalize the practice of working collaboratively. They are engaged in working together to plan lessons and develop learning activities in response to the needs of their students. Through this responsive cycle, the teachers have generated a number of lesson activities that have led to improved achievement in algebra.
Interviews of teacher leaders suggest that they have experienced a gradual transformation in the nature of the collaboration:
In the beginning, our meetings were mostly about discussing what was going on in the classroom. Some teachers were venting about issues they had, like classroom management problems—basically kid issues. After a time, we refocused our goals for the meetings and started developing lessons. Eventually, we developed four activities. More recently, we have started discussing strategies that we can use to get kids to participate more in our classes.
At the same time, the teacher leaders are experiencing growth in their own capacity to facilitate collaborative conversations with their colleagues:
It’s not as easy as I thought—every person is unique. They have their wants and goals. I mean, you tend to put your own goals into them, but it’s not necessarily what they want to do. ... A leader can be coercive, but in this kind of situation, you cannot be coercive; you have to be understanding; you have to be open; and you have to work with what you have. ... But at the end, I opened up, and I understood that in order to get things done, you have to be open minded and patient.
Can SITTE help close the achievement gap? We have preliminary evidence suggesting that the target population of math teachers has helped to close the gap between Latino students and the general population of LAUSD based on the percentage of 8th-grade students scoring proficient or advanced on Algebra 1 California Standards Test (CST).
Even though the graphs represent aggregate data that have not yet been analyzed using statistical models, they do suggest an overall positive effect of SITTE in conjunction with what the schools are doing already. In other words, SITTE is not the only intervention that the schools implemented. However, the school-sponsored interventions have been generic in nature and none have targeted 8th-grade algebra specifically. For more definitive answers, the researchers are examining their data and will share those results at the conclusion of the grant in 2013. Stay tuned!