Education Opinion

How the STEP Model Uncovers Local Bright Spots and Transforms Instruction

By Matthew Lynch — March 01, 2017 7 min read
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By Jason Stricker and Steve Cantrell

Exceptional teachers understand what students should know and do. These teachers know how to help every student make steady progress toward their goals every day. Exceptional teachers, however, are rare.

As a nation, we need to figure out how to support more teachers to become our best teachers. Despite costing an estimated $18 billion annually, professional development has largely failed. Most teachers are not improving fast enough to ensure that their students are prepared to pursue rigorous college and career opportunities. Additionally, a variety of data has shown that teacher effectiveness rises and then plateaus after educators spend approximately five years in the classroom. It is therefore critical that we focus more squarely on the ongoing engagement and effective development of teachers to propel meaningful improvements in teacher effectiveness.

In all schools and districts, there are teachers whose students consistently outperform their peers. These teachers’ students succeed in the same schools, under the same conditions, and facing the same problems as struggling students. While we know that these teachers exist, they seldom get the recognition they deserve. And, all too often, their expertise--what they know and are able to do better than most--remains an untapped resource on the path to broader improvement. Professional learning communities (PLCs) have long served as a common structure to address this very problem. However, there are some inherent problems in current PLC structures that prevent us from finding the root cause of instructional deficiencies and identifying solutions.

The PLC Challenge

We’ve learned that improvement is both a technical and a social process. Superior technique alone is insufficient to bring about improvement. Teachers, like doctors and other practice-based professionals, are most willing to try something new when someone they trust recommends it.

PLCs have tremendous potential to improve teaching. In PLCs, teachers can work with one anotherto discover and develop new practices to help their students succeed. Teachers in PLCs can develop trust with colleagues who support their efforts to improve. Improvement isn’t guaranteed, though. Most school system administrators who have had experience with PLCs know that they differ widely in their ability to transform teaching practice. As Jason discusses in a recent blog post, The 5 Shifts Healthy PLCs Make, often they only help individual teachers improve, and there are very few that help schools themselves improve.

In our own quest to find systems and structures that help solve some of these challenges related to teaching and learning, we discovered the concept of positive deviance. Positive deviance is an asset-based, problem-solving, and community-driven approach that enables the community to discover successful behaviors and strategies from within and develop a plan of action to promote their adoption by all concerned. It has been used to solve issues like childhood malnutrition and hospital acquired infections, so we wondered if positive deviance could be applied to solving the challenges that plague instructional improvement efforts. Further, could positive deviance serve as the catalyst to pivot the goal of PLCs from mere collaboration structures to analysis sessions in which teachers were answering the question, “How do we know when a change is an improvement?”

How Do We Know When a Change Is an Improvement?

In 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invited Long Beach Unified School District, American Institutes for Research, Kitamba, and Insight Education Group, to work together to find solutions to the pressing issues that PLCs have been wrestling with. Out of that partnership, the Supporting Teachers Effectiveness Program (STEP) was born to help teachers find, share, and test positive deviant practices with their peers--and then replicate them.

STEP follows a four-step continuous improvement process, with each step following a natural learning progression towards improvement. It provides a structured yet nimble way to conduct PLCs that attends to the technical and social aspects of improvement, and ultimately helps answer that central question: How do we know when a change is an improvement?

How STEP Builds Both Capacity and the Profession

When the STEP framework is put into practice, it provides three powerful ways to simultaneously build capacity and the profession--something that very few PLC models do today.

  1. “Bottom up” change management and the “top down” conditions support and encourage teacher-led innovation. The direction from which improvement should come is, at best, a distraction. District mission and vision statements often reflect leaders’ perspectives on what matters most, but to realize such a vision requires teachers to take action. STEP recognizes the responsibility for the leader to set direction. It also recognizes that most districts fulfill only a part of their mission and vision. Implementation is hard, and often, unknown obstacles slow progress. STEP engages teachers as essential partners in improving teaching and learning. It reframes improvement as a process of discovery and testing. In doing so, it places teachers on the front line of instructional improvement, helping school districts identify and spread effective practices.
  2. Leadership development is one of the most important levers to improving instruction.
    Many districts struggle to identify and develop effective instructional leadership. This makes sense, since there are so few opportunities to cultivate the habits and practices that facilitate teacher growth and development. STEP changes this. STEP facilitator training helps future instructional leaders develop the key skills of feedback, process consultation, inquiry and dialogue, and measurement for results. As STEP participants work toward improvement, they will, by design, uncover exceptional talent--helping the school system to better understand the environments and practices that foster excellence.
  3. When teachers take on a “pilot” mindset, they are helping to ensure that change is an improvement and determine when it should scale.
    There is no shortage of good ideas in education. School systems and the teachers within them are constantly trying new things. Teaching and learning should be getting better, faster. But there’s a catch: Not all ideas are good. It is extremely difficult to sort the good ideas from the bad without a process to determine when a change in an improvement. STEP offers a way to engage teachers in testing whether the latest program, practice, or product works--before an initiative rolls out district-wide. STEP teachers, using skills they have learned, notably within the “discover” and “confirm” stages of STEP, can help determine whether the problem identified is salient and whether the program, practice, or product is demonstrably better than what they are currently doing.

STEP as a Paradigm Shift

STEP is designed to be a paradigm shift. Rather than telling teachers how to improve instruction, STEP empowers teachers to authentically select and hone the tools and mindsets that allow them to improve their practice and positively impact student learning. And it’s working.

To date, STEP is now being implemented in more than 20 schools (and growing) nationwide, including Long Beach Unified School District, Aspire Public Schools, and Boston Public Schools. Teachers participating on STEP teams consistently share how the process has provided a meaningful way to collaborate with other grade levels and departments and encourage an open-door policy with their colleagues. In addition, teachers share how STEP has provided them with the opportunity to develop common assessments, learn teaching strategies, and most importantly, self-reflect on teaching practices.

STEP has been successful at delivering a model that drives teacher engagement in improving their own practice; builds authentic collaboration processes and teacher community; creates meaningful, embedded teacher leadership opportunities; builds teacher measurement literacy and capacity; and influences teacher instructional practices. We’re excited to already see positive impact on student learning and initial outcomes demonstrating the power of the model.

Jason Stricker is a cofounder and CEO of Insight Education Group. With extensive experience in education as a teacher, coach, chief academic officer, and consultant, Jason brings to his work a deep understanding of educator effectiveness and organizational change and its impact on stakeholders at all levels. Follow him on Twitter at @stricktlyjason.

Steve Cantrell is founder and principal of Middle, LLC. He is co-author of Better Feedback for Better Teaching: A Practical Guide to Improving Classroom Observations. Steve began his career teaching middle school students and, more recently, led K-12 research and evaluation for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @stevecmeasures

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.