San Francisco invests in teaching

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On a Wednesday morning in late October, three teachers at James Lick Middle School in San Francisco gather in an empty basement classroom and ask themselves where they went wrong. For two weeks, 6th-graders had conducted personal nutrition investigations. First, they recorded everything they ate for two days. Then, using food labels, they tallied grams of protein, carbohydrates and fat, converted each total to calories, analyzed the results, graphed the results, and compiled it all in reports that measured their eating habits against FDA standards. But they didn’t do it very well.

Reports came back with missing data, incorrect conversions, inaccurate graphs. “What we were doing in class was not preparing them,” says Audrey Soule to her colleagues, who concur. The three talk about how to prepare kids better next year. Soule comes up with a couple ideas—give them more practice reading labels and sample menus to analyze as a group.

This kind of reflection on teaching—what worked, what didn’t and what to do differently next time—is pretty rare, but San Francisco Unified School District is trying to make it common practice. For one, it gave middle school teachers an extra 50 minutes of planning time daily.

Lick juggled its schedule to provide planning blocks of an hour and 45 minutes each day.

Not a moment is wasted in Lick’s basement this morning. After a post-mortem on the nutrition unit, the three math/science teachers scrutinize a portfolio project, discuss how to condense a graphing unit and design a complex word problem for Thursday’s homework.

Guiding their discussion is Michelle Powers, one of San Francisco’s 42 teachers on special assignment, known around the district as TSAs. Powers wrote the agenda for the meeting and now takes notes for later reference, occasionally offers advice, and volunteers for tasks ranging from locating a book on nutrition to blowing up an overhead transparency.

San Francisco’s “Professional Development Initiative” began in 1993 under the spur of a new superintendent and got into full swing in 1995. The idea behind the initiative is to give the school system a sharper focus on its priorities for raising student achievement, while building the capacity of schools to plan and lead their own efforts. Nearly 5 percent of the district’s budget now goes to professional development.

“A lot of systems invest in a lot of things,” says Associate Supt. Maria Santos. “We believe the most important person to invest in is the teacher.”

Here are a few changes the initiative brought about.

One-shot workshops are out. Now teachers get together on district staff development days and summer institutes for a series of workshops that can last up to three years.

Central office staffers and publishing company reps no longer lead workshops on districtwide staff development days. Teachers do. In addition, these “teacher leaders” take charge of improving instruction at their own schools.

“Deadwood” school resource teachers are gone. Outstanding teachers are selected for three- to-five-year stints working as teachers on special assignment. TSAs split their time between the district office, working on tasks such as designing curriculum, and local schools, leading professional development. TSAs are assigned to 24 schools with low test scores or large numbers of African-American or Latino students. The district wants these two minority groups scoring at national norms by 1999.

Teachers in grades 6 to 9 get more time to collaborate. Hiring additional teachers in 1996 gave students 50 more minutes of instruction and teachers an extra planning period.

San Francisco’s math and reading test scores have risen steadily for five years, a period marked by a number of initiatives in addition to professional development, including smaller primary classes.

Here’s how the district used its new plan to overhaul K-8 mathematics instruction. Test data had long shown that students could compute but didn’t fully grasp the meaning of those computations. For example, they had difficulty applying equations to solve complex word problems. The district decided to correct this by giving kids more hands-on activities to help them grasp abstract concepts and more discussions around word problems with many possible answers.

That meant that schools would need new textbooks and professional development to get teachers comfortable with the problem-solving approach. In the past, publishing company representatives introduced new textbooks to teachers with a presentation in a crowded auditorium. After selecting textbooks in 1994-95, the district rolled out a new plan.

Teacher leaders were recruited to pilot the textbooks in the spring of 1995. Then, during three districtwide staff development days in 1995-96, leaders introduced the books one unit at a time to small groups of teachers. Training continued in 1996-97. “You would be out in the hallway measuring tiles and doing all the things students would do,” recalls 8th-grade teacher Joseph May. That, May says, helped him anticipate problems students might have.

Having tried out lessons during the pilot phase, leaders could alert teachers to problems with the textbooks themselves, which rarely get thorough field tests from their publishers. “We went through and tore the book apart,” reports 7th-grade teacher Sonya Black, who was trained as a math leader for Lick. “We told them, these answers are wrong, the scale on page 16 is off. …”

In 1995-96, selected schools were assigned one or two TSAs. Lick got two—one for language arts and Michelle Powers for math. Powers meets two days a week with math/science teachers at each grade level, mentors new teachers and keeps the ball rolling on instructional improvements.

“Our school was able, within two years, to go to full-scale implementation of the new math program. That’s almost unheard of,” says Assistant Principal Brad Stam. “Without that ongoing, close support and leadership from a teacher on special assignment, it would have been practically impossible.”

Lick is viewed as one of the most successful schools in the Professional Development Initiative’s uneven implementation. Lick staff say they have two advantages—a school culture that encourages teamwork and the extra support of a TSA.

When it comes to changing how teachers teach, staff at Lick say that a TSA can be more effective than can a school administrator or even a school resource teacher.

Unlike an administrator, a TSA can encourage talented teachers to share good ideas “without other teachers feeling that you’ve set up a competitive environment where people are being judged,” says Stam. He has seen well-meaning administrators “actually build resistance” to collaboration by praising the work of a few. When a TSA leads a meeting, “that takes the whole accountability or compliance atmosphere out it,” he says, “and focuses it more on professional development.”

Unlike a resource teacher, TSAs hold a temporary position, which gives them more credibility with classroom teachers, Stam believes. Until several years ago, the district employed hundreds of resource teachers, “many of whom were just deadwood,” he says. “It was a way for the school to get somebody out of the classroom who was detrimental to the kids, or it was seen as a cushy job you advanced to with seniority.”

“It’s an extremely expensive strategy,” Stam acknowledges. “But I’ve seen the professional development that can occur in teachers in two years that otherwise might never happen or might take a decade.” Among other improvements, he notes better planning, a wider variety of teaching strategies, more student assessment, fewer one-shot lessons and more emphasis on practice and revision.

Lick’s math/science teachers stress that the TSA’s job is not to direct them but to keep them focused—a task too large, they insist, for teachers to accomplish alone. “Teachers do not have the time or energy to affect school change if they also have to teach full time,” says 8th-grade teacher Branden Leach. “You need someone like a TSA to get the documents written, to schedule the meetings, to facilitate the meetings and also have a vision of where it’s supposed to lead. Michelle Powers does all that. She’s out of sight.”

Lick’s language arts TSA spends half the time at the school that Powell does, only one day a week. One result is that language arts/social studies teachers have to organize their own planning meetings. “Sometimes we just look at each other. ‘Why are we here? What are we doing? Who’s in charge?'” says John Hays, a 7th-grade teacher.

Not all Lick teachers make an effort to collaborate, but the school has come a long way in 10 years, Stam says. After Lick’s faculty was reconstituted in 1988 for low student achievement, a string of principals worked with staff on team building.

Some middle schools have yet to schedule common planning time for teachers, so teachers work alone during the extra period supplied by the district. Santos sees the problem as technical—schools need help manipulating their schedules. Stam sees the main problem as school culture.

In some schools “a staff meeting is typically a bitchfest,” says Stam. “People tell war stories, or people are checked out—doing homework and not really contributing—because the cultural assumption in the school is that meetings are a waste of everyone’s time.”

“You’ve got to attack that one head-on by involving everyone in identifying what would make an effective meeting and what are the goals that we could accomplish together,” he says.

A TSA can be instrumental in making meetings effective, Lick staff agree. But while teamwork is flourishing under Powers’s leadership, teachers worry it will flounder next year if the district reassigns her to a different school. “She’s the glue that holds the whole thing together,” says Soule.

The district is training teacher leaders at each school to guide school teams. But that initiative has been a slow-starter even at Lick—leaders say they aren’t sure exactly what they’re supposed to do.

“It’s important to define these roles clearly up front and not assume that it’s going to be a natural, organic process, because it’s not,” says Stam In the past, he’s seen colleagues with conflicting expectations pull a new leader in too many directions. Some teachers even resist new leaders, and administrators can fail to provide the right kind of support.

“I’ve seen teachers getting really angry and leaving the leadership role because their role hadn’t been clearly defined,” he adds.

Sandra Lam, the district’s mathematics program director, agrees that “we need to be in clearer communication with principals [regarding] what teacher leaders can help the school with.” Still, the district intends to leave the exact definition of that role to local schools. “Every school has its own school culture, and it takes being part of that community to know how best to reach teachers,” she notes. ” No one plan works for every school.”