Professional Development Opinion

My Favorite Genuine Education Reform Stories of 2011

By Anthony Cody — December 30, 2011 2 min read
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A couple of weeks ago I posted a look back at 2011, with a list of all 170 of my posts to this blog. I am afraid I have spent a great deal of energy taking issue with what I see as very bad ideas being promoted in the name of reform. But I also have spent some time trying to support GOOD reform ideas, and I want to share some highlights from this year.

First, there is this report, TeamScience Tames Teacher Turnover, focused on the mentoring program I initiated four years ago. This project is a partnership with the New Teacher Center, and it pairs experienced Oakland science teachers with novices, and has helped create a supportive community of science teachers in Oakland. The project has made a real dent in the turnover rates of these teachers, and has also helped support growth in student achievement in science.

We have seen our mentors grow in their expertise, and they are true leaders in our District. And we have started to see some results in the level of turnover. In the year prior to TeamScience, 32% of our secondary science teachers were in their first year. This year, we have that portion down to 13%. Some of this may be due to hard times in the economy, so we cannot take all the credit. But we feel as if we have had a real impact, and our mentees indicate that they feel more effective as a result of our work. And while the state tests in science are not a full indicator of student learning, we have seen the portion of tenth graders proficient in science rise from 20% to 30%, and eighth graders go from 35% to 45% proficient, just in the past two years.

Next comes a report, Grassroots Teacher Convention Makes Waves in Oakland, that describes an event put on by Oakland’s Effective Teaching Task Force, of which I was an active member. The report describes a bit of the process we went through to bring together this dynamic group of more than 200 teachers, and the recommendations that emerged from the event. There was a great deal of energy when teachers were given space to debate how to improve their schools, and make proposals that might be acted upon.

The recommendations were concrete and many focused on changes that can be made without great expense. Around professional development, almost every group expressed a desire to see expert teaching recognized and elevated. Teachers suggested we be given time to observe one another, and that professional development be built around reflective practices such as Lesson Study or teacher action research, both of which are already under way in Oakland. Teachers recommended we make sure principals allow their staff to participate in the decisions around selecting their forms of professional development, and that real time be set aside for this collaboration. There was a very strong recommendation that Oakland teachers be the leaders of this work, rather than the reliance on expensive outside consultants.

One of the big ideas that emerged from this teacher convention was for teachers to take on more leadership of our own professional development. Connected to this was the idea that we build on existing efforts. I sought to highlight two such projects. The first was a report from a high poverty school about the ongoing project, described in this guest post by Anna Richert, Claire Bove and Carrie Wilson -- Oakland Teachers Show the Power of Action Research -- Aija Simmons’ presentation brought this to life. She explains:

My reading classroom is alive with clarifying conversations between my whole class, small groups, and even individual readers. Students are developing identities as comprehenders and clarifiers of text. I am teaching more targeted and strategic reading lessons. We are developing into more powerful readers. I say we because as this process happened I was becoming more aware of my own reading identity. Do I think I have the solution to my troubles of teaching reading comprehension? Not exactly. What I do have is a way to communicate effectively with my students about what they were thinking about a text and how they came to their conclusions. What I do have is a community of readers who no longer leery of saying, 'wait lets use a strategy because, I'm not understanding.'

I followed this up with an interview with Dr. Richert, where we explored the ins and outs of teacher research in more depth. Improving Teaching 101: Teacher Action Research She explains how it affects teachers to engage in this work:

In my experience (including my own experience as a teacher researcher) the process of engaging in teacher research is transformative. Looking in a systematic and careful way at students learning and one's teaching brings agency to the work of teaching and allows the teacher to act with intent. It is a relief to name the uncertainty of teaching, which is inherent to the research process that begins by framing a question about one's work and thus undo the myth of certainty that pervades our field these days. The teacher researchers I have spoken with about this report that it is liberating to know what you know and what you need to know more about so you can continuously improve your practice. Teacher research allows you to do just that. The teacher often finds herself assuming a new sense of professional authority as she becomes the author of her professional understandings. It is she who becomes the expert rather than outsiders who tell her how to think and what to do.

Then we took a close look Lesson Study, titled Lesson Study Works! An Interview with Dr. Catherine Lewis. Here is one quote from a teacher that captures the spirit of this endeavor:

Mathematically, I learned a lot about fraction concepts. I've always understood how to work with fractions but didn't understand all of the "why's" behind the procedures.
Since the lesson study I have been much more aware of the ways in which I tend to focus too much on completing the activity or playing the game, and my...teaching has become more purposeful and focused as a result.
I am including more presentations, and problem solving. My students are thinking more. I am finding some resistance. They want the formula and to repeat back to me. But I think they are growing.

We also spent some time building a positive message around public schools, in support of the Save Our Schools protest last July. Talented film makers Tom and Amy Valens created a four part series of short videos, called Here’s to our Schools, Here’s to the Parents!, Here’s to the Students, and Here’s to the Teachers.

And last but definitely not least, a look back at the highlight of the summer, with Save Our Schools March Rocks the Capital, featuring videos of speakers Matt Damon, Diane Ravitch, and John Kuhn. And MORE Save Our Schools videos here, of Jon Stewart, Jose Vilson and Taylor Mali.

It was an exciting year for me personally. I engaged in some of the most intense activism of my life working on the Save Our Schools March, and I had my last year working with my wonderful colleagues in Oakland. I hope those relationships persist, and I look forward to more genuine education reform in 2012.

What do you think? What is your favorite story of genuine education reform for 2011?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.