Top-down tactics a killer for top-notch program

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The San Diego Unified School District, the country’s eighth-largest urban district, has a plan for improving reading achievement that has won admirers both inside its classrooms and across the country.

Now in its fourth year, the plan dictates a structure for lessons that is supported by the latest research and replaces reading textbooks with children’s literature. To guide teachers through the whirlwind of new requirements, each school has a peer coach, and some large or low-performing schools have two.

However, the plan’s roll-out has stirred so much dissention among teachers and parents that some observers question whether it will survive.

San Diego teachers who asked for coaching praise it as invaluable and see the new requirements as good instructional practice, two independent studies have found, but teachers continue to resent the “top-down” way they were implemented.

A third study, conducted by the American Institutes for Research and released in mid-February, found that teachers are better trained but not necessarily motivated to use their new skills. Co-author Beverly Farr has observed disgruntled teachers mechanically complying with new lesson formats and having little impact on students.

San Diego’s reform effort is one of the few in the country that has focused on instruction and invested so heavily in professional development, she says. “We’re interested in whether it will survive the resistance.”

Meanwhile, the district’s 190 peer coaches press on under less than ideal conditions, but at times with heartening results. Their experiences as well as those of the district as a whole have identified a number of pitfalls.

Lesson #1

Politics can do you in.

In July 1998, Alan Bersin, a federal prosecutor, became the first non-educator in San Diego to hold the job of superintendent. He chose as his second-in-command Anthony Alvarado, superintendent of a New York City subdistrict whose professional development practices had long been considered a national model.

Bersin believed that only a quick, corporate-style shakeup could overcome the system’s inertia; Alvarado thought that any delay would ill serve the students. Charging ahead, the team made enemies by failing to seek input from teachers and parent groups.

The previous superintendent, Bertha Pendleton, had adopted a more collaborative style in the wake of a 1996 teachers strike. During her tenure, teachers union President Marc Knapp functioned almost as a co-superintendent, according to one university researcher.

With Bersin, Knapp saw his influence wane; he and others considered the team’s unilateral actions condescending. In Knapp’s view, the team was saying, “We need peer coaches because I went to six schools today and didn’t see one good teacher.”

A chief point of contention was who would select the peer coaches. Many teachers feared the coaches would be “spies” for a central administration they now distrusted. The union demanded that schools select their own coaches. Citing quality control, Bersin and Alvarado wanted the central administration to select them.

The union threatened not to approve the new position. The district then said it would call peer coaches “curriculum resource teachers,” a position already covered by the union contract. Thousands of teachers picketed district headquarters in protest.

Finally, after the president of San Diego State University stepped in to mediate, the district agreed to a compromise. Schools would select their own coaches, who would report to principals, not central office. Each year, the local school council would vote on whether to retain the coach. San Diego State helps monitor quality by screening and certifying coaches.

But the bad feelings linger on. “If you’re for the district, you’re on the dark side,” complains one peer coach at a low-performing middle school. “If you support the reform effort, you’re ‘Them.'” Colleagues warn her that if Bersin’s contract is not renewed—it’s up for a vote this month by a divided school board—she’ll be out of a job.

Even if Bersin remains, teacher resistance may undermine his efforts, according to the American Institutes for Research report.

Lesson #2

Building relationships with teachers is key

San Diego’s peer coaches cannot stress this point enough: Teachers will not accept feedback from a coach they do not trust. Period.

“If they feel you are non-threatening, you can make a lot of mileage,” says Shandon Harbour, one of two coaches at low-performing Mann Middle School. “If they think you are an evaluator, the road stops there. Nobody wants that in their classroom.”

Like other coaches, Harbour and colleague Tiffiny Shockley have found working with unwilling teachers an exercise in futility. Some have dodged their visits by canceling at the last minute or not showing up for work at all, they report.

Instead, the two concentrate on receptive teachers, a policy the district encourages as a way to entice others. “Teachers talk at lunch, in the hallway or the bathroom,” Shockley notes. “The unofficial modes of communication between teachers are very powerful.”

At Mann, building trust likely will take time, the two coaches believe, especially since both of them are new to the school this year. “You’re not from here, you don’t know our kids, you don’t know our problems,” they hear.

So instead of telling staff what to do, “We’ve turned it around and said, ‘You tell us what you need.'” They ask teachers to fill out applications describing the help they want.

Coaches who came from the faculty ranks at their schools report quicker progress, but even they find they need to tread lightly.

Coach Brenda Allen says fellow teachers at Fletcher Elementary School urged her to apply for the job. Still, the idea of being observed made them uneasy.

To break the ice, Allen took a tip from her district training. Explaining that she wanted to learn more about the needs of varied readers, she asked a teacher for a favor: Could the teacher identify three students in her 3rd-grade classroom: a high achiever, an English learner and one with a reading problem that puzzled her? And could Allen observe them?

The teacher agreed, and Allen got her foot in the classroom door. The problem solving that ensued intrigued them both. For instance, the “puzzling” reader could recount events from the story with great accuracy but failed to grasp abstractions such as the story’s message. Eventually, they hit upon a strategy that helped the boy figure out what the author was trying to tell him: They asked him to pick out story details that would create a picture in his mind.

At a faculty meeting, Allen casually mentioned her experiment with the boy. Other teachers chimed in, “I have a reader in my classroom like that.” Thus came more requests for classroom visits, which sparked further discussions at Fletcher about teaching reading, Allen recalls. “Focusing on the kids was the least threatening way to have these conversations.”

Lesson #3

Principals make or break the effort

With time, patience and a gentle touch, coaches say, they can make inroads even with resistant faculties. But one problem is insurmountable, they agree: a principal who fails to support them.

Some principals reportedly have asked coaches to perform tasks such as filing papers, supervising lunch or documenting teacher performance. This year, the district is requiring monthly workshops for principals and coaches to plan their work together.

Further, when teachers don’t trust the principal, they don’t trust the coach, teachers say. “They’re concerned that their peer coaches are reporting back to the principal what their problems are,” explains a kindergarten teacher at Carson Elementary.

At Carson, trust is the order of the day.

A diverse, low-income school, Carson has posted some of the district’s highest test-score gains. Here, teachers and their coach are constantly searching the professional literature for new techniques, trying and refining them, reports one 1st-grade teacher. “You take some lumps along the way.”

Carson’s principal, Carol Barry, says that in order to grow, teachers need to feel confident. When some returned discouraged from a district workshop because a demonstration varied from their own practice, Barry reassured them: Just because someone is teaching differently, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.

The purpose of peer coaching, she insists, is to get teachers to think critically about their own practice, not to blindly follow a district framework. “It’s working here because we make sure [teachers] understand they’re the experts.”

Lesson #4

Coaching is not for the weakest teachers

Barry has a theory about coaching that seems counter-intuitive: It’s for the best teachers, not the worst ones.

The weakest teachers typically struggle with the basics, such as classroom management, she says. “I can help them with that. Another teacher can help them with that. I’m not going to waste [the] time of a great staff developer.”

Lesson #5

Coaches are essential to change teaching

King Elementary School has two peer coaches. Principal Stacy Jones says she couldn’t get along without them. Her low-performing school faces state intervention if it fails to hit state test-score targets.

Each month, Jones sits down with teachers individually to discuss student progress. Those who have had coaching can diagnose reading difficulties with an insight that amazes her. She notices the change in their classrooms, too. “You can definitely tell the difference [between] who has been coached and who hasn’t been. It’s pretty startling.”

Manuel Gomez, who teaches 4th- and 5th-graders, is a case in point. A few years back, he used a reading textbook and conducted lessons for the entire class. During independent reading time, he didn’t pay attention to whether kids were reading or just flipping pages. “Before, you used to get upset with a kid and send him to a corner [to] read a book. It was a punishment.”

Now Gomez juggles seven reading groups, tailoring each reading lesson to students’ needs. For instance, one group might interpret metaphors while another analyzes graphics from a non-fiction selection. For each lesson, he must select a children’s book that matches the group’s reading level and the skill he aims to teach.

Learning the new strategies often frustrated him, Gomez recalls, but his coaches were with him every step of the way. They modeled lessons, they gave him ideas, and they never put him down.

Without their support, he would have given up on the district’s literacy plan. “I would have refused to do it,” he says.

Lesson #6

Coaches can’t do it all

With so many teachers needing so much help, some coaches say they tried to take on everybody at once. That was a mistake, they found.

This winter, the two coaches at Central Elementary School, Diane Lott and Dana Benevento, got together over coffee to plot a new strategy for their large faculty.

For each grade level, they would concentrate their coaching efforts on a single teacher and one new teaching technique at a time. That teacher would then serve as a “lab teacher,” or model for others to observe.

The idea came from their district training, but Lott and Benevento knew it would be easier said than done. They drew up a list of likely candidates. “Then we tightened our belts and said, ‘OK, we’ve got to talk to them,'” Lott recalls.

As expected, teachers balked; they were afraid of being portrayed as “the expert.” The coaches countered with lots of reassurance and a few carrots: Lab teachers would get extra planning time. They would get help planning model lessons.

“That’s the kind of support they like to see,” she says.

The teachers agreed to give it a try. When their lessons were ready, the coaches gathered each grade level to explain the purpose of the observation: “We’re not going in to look at her room and criticize. We’re not going to look at the discipline. We’re going to look at the lesson and only the lesson.” Lott feared that a visiting teacher might say something that would undermine the effort.

The lab teachers were still nervous—one almost cancelled the night before. But the conversations stayed on target; the lab teachers were relieved, Lott reports. “Most said, ‘Hey that wasn’t so bad, when are we doing the next one?'”

Lesson #7

High schools are the toughestto change

By and large, San Diego’s elementary school teachers have been more receptive than high school teachers to the literacy plan. As one former coach explains: “The high school position is, ‘By the time they get to me, they should have those [reading] skills; I shouldn’t have to go back and teach them because that isn’t what I was trained to do.'”

To spur instructional change in high schools, the district created a new position this year that combines the instructional know-how of a peer coach with the power of an assistant principal. “Literacy administrators” run the English department, organizing staff development, supervising the peer coach and evaluating teachers.

Unlike other high school administrators, they have a reading background and a job free of building and discipline duties. Unlike a peer coach, they can hold teachers accountable, explains Brenda Bilsted of the Secondary Literacy Department. “Peer coaches haven’t been able to make the impact in high school that they have in elementary school. …We needed to get more administrative support.”

Finding teachers to fill the high school coaching bill is more difficult, she adds. Instructional coaches with high school experience are unlikely to know how to teach reading, and those with elementary school experience have less credibility with high school teachers.

Bilsted senses high school English teachers beginning to accept their new role. Finding enough teachers qualified to coach them remains a challenge. “That’s the next struggle for us,” she says.