Stephen Smith / American Public Media
Jennifer Larsen guides her third-grade class through a story-telling exercise at Edison Elementary School in Long Beach, Calif. She's one of three teachers at the school who coach other teachers on teaching writing.
Jandella Faulkner crouches beside a table of busy third-graders in Jennifer Larsen’s class at Edison Elementary School. The students have pencils in hand, outlines spread around them, and a story about penguins and otters in progress.
Faulkner stands to call across the room: “Loving how this group is already talking, Ms. Larsen.” Then she swoops down on another table of young authors.
Jandella Faulkner is a teaching coach in the Long Beach, Calif., school district. Her job is to train a select group of teachers at Edison Elementary, including Jennifer Larsen, in a new literacy curriculum called Write From The Beginning. It’s part of a district-wide training system that relies on teachers working with each other to improve classroom practices. So, with Faulkner’s help, Larsen and the other site coaches at Edison train their colleagues at the school how to use Write From The Beginning in their own classrooms.
Many American school districts rely heavily on outside experts, professional conferences and traveling consultants to conduct on-the-job training (also known as professional development). New York City, the nation’s largest school district, spent about $100 million last year on professional development consultants. In most cases, there’s little evidence to show whether the outside groups are helping schools improve, says Pamela Grossman, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.
“There is a lot of money spent on professional development that does not really support teachers in learning how to improve,” Grossman says.
Long Beach creates its own training teams. For years, the Long Beach Unified School District has had one of the nation's best-regarded professional development programs for new and veteran teachers, according to Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward, a national nonprofit organization focused on teacher education.
“Our system is really invested in building internal capacity,” says Jill Baker, the district’s assistant superintendent for elementary and K-8, and chief academic officer. “What that means is teachers become leaders and trainers. We’re not bringing someone in from the outside. We’re teaching teachers within to go back to their school sites to train others.”
'Ahead of the curve'
Professional development is seen as a critical component of many education reform initiatives. National studies show that good training programs are especially important in high-poverty districts like Long Beach, according to Learning Forward. With some 84,000 students, Long Beach is California’s third-largest district. Most of the students are from families of color. Some 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indication that families live at or below the poverty level.
Education experts say that good, independent research on what constitutes professional development for teachers is relatively scarce. Even so, more than $1 billion is spent on teachers’ on-the-job training each year in the United States, according to an analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.
The Long Beach district is “ahead of the curve,” Pamela Grossman says. “Professional development that’s embedded in teaching and embedded in practice is likely to have more impact on what teachers do,” Grossman says. “A model where coaches are familiar with the schools, the districts and the curriculum ― and are therefore able to offer fairly tailored coaching ― has a better chance of moving practice along.”
Long Beach administrators credit the Write From The Beginning curriculum ― and the teacher training that accompanies it ― with turning around dismal test scores at many of the participating schools. District figures show that schools scoring at or below 20 percent proficiency in state writing tests have boosted their numbers above 50 percent since 2007. Some once-struggling schools have posted writing test results above 80 percent.
Long Beach administrators say there have been no independent, peer-reviewed studies of its professional development program. But the district has been a winner, and a five-time finalist, of the prestigious Broad Prize, given by the California-based Broad Foundation to recognize urban school districts that improve student academic performance and narrow achievement gaps between poor and more affluent students. The Broad Foundation cited the district’s professional development program as an essential element in Long Beach’s ability to outperform other high-poverty school districts in student achievement. (Disclaimer: the Broad Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)
Stephen Smith / American Public Media
Third graders at Signal Hill Elementary work on a writing assignment.
Writing 'so difficult to teach'
At Signal Hill Elementary, another Long Beach school, Principal Lauren Price points out that elementary school teachers must master a range of subjects, while middle and high school teachers specialize in single subject areas. Professional development is “essential” to keep teachers up to speed, she says. “Every year, researchers are learning more about the way kids learn and grow and develop,” Price says. “There are new and different ways to do things.”
The principal at Edison Elementary enlisted Jennifer Larsen and her colleagues, Kevin Quinn and Ruby Gaytan, to be the Edison site coaches for writing. They’re veteran teachers; all have been in the classroom 15 years or more. Each member gets 48 hours of training in the curriculum, starting with a summer workshop. Faulkner visits their classrooms about once a month. The Write From The Beginning curriculum was developed by Thinking Maps, a North Carolina education company.
“Writing was something that had been neglected for so many years because it was so difficult to teach,” Larsen says. “I saw this as something the kids really need.” Long Beach writing teachers are being trained to use graphical organizers ― the so-called “thinking maps” ― to help students organize their thoughts, describe characters, marshal evidence, come up with key words and plot other writing elements.
Fourth-grade teacher Ruby Gaytan points to a thinking map projected on her classroom wall with a list of qualities that describe Ivan, a character her students are writing about. He wants to sell salt but is thwarted by a greedy king. How to describe Ivan?
“Broke, no money!” one student calls out.
“Determined!” another declares.
Gaytan directs her students to use their freshly minted list of adjectives in Ivan’s story of struggle. “If you can think it ...,” Gaytan prompts.
“You can say it,” the class responds in unison.
Gaytan says the off-hours training she gets with the writing curriculum keeps her fresh in the classroom. “The majority of teachers love to learn, that’s why we teach. It keeps me motivated,” Gaytan says.
Eye on Common Core standards
Kevin Quinn, also a fourth-grade teacher, says the training will help teachers stay “ahead of the game,” as Common Core State Standards are adopted by California schools in 2014. The Common Core curriculum puts a heavy emphasis on student achievement in writing.
Larsen says the curriculum and the coaching have made her both a better writer, and a better writing teacher. “I’m more aware when I’m reading aloud to the kids of all the great descriptions and the vivid language in every text,” Larsen says. “When I model writing for them, I express myself better.”
Coaches and teachers get paid for the time they spend on professional development, but Quinn and others describe it as “minimal compensation.” Meanwhile, the budget woes and accompanying teacher layoffs of recent years mean that Larsen, Gaytan and Quinn face classrooms of 30 children every day instead of 20.
“Whereas the majority of our staff wants to participate in the professional development, there is a lot of burnout,” Quinn says. “My workload has increased, my accountability has increased, but my discretionary time has not increased. So it becomes very difficult.”
Lisa Worsham, the head of English curriculum for K-5 schools in Long Beach, acknowledges that teachers are under stress. But she says professional development can help overcome the sense of isolation a busy teacher can feel. “There are a lot of us in the building, but we show up for work, we close our door, we teach all day, we’re exhausted, we leave the classroom and go home,” Worsham says. Without signing up for training, “there’s not a lot of opportunity to sit down with five other teachers and collaborate,” she says.
In addition to the in-class training, local site coaches meet four times a year with Jandella Faulkner at the district’s training center. Faulkner’s classroom is stocked with flip charts, baskets of colorful markers and a small mountain of sticky notes ― the raw materials of professional development workshops. A tall and magnetic figure, Faulkner encourages a group of nine site coaches to swap stories about what is working ― and what’s floundering ― back in their respective schools.
Faulkner holds up a training notebook. “When do you have the time to open up this binder and say, ‘what does my site need?’ This is your time to do it,” she declares.
Coaches as politicians
Coaching one’s colleagues can be a politically tricky enterprise. “It’s about having a rapport, really forming a relationship with each individual teacher,” says Jeff Lamperts of Willard Elementary.
Cheryl Hubert of Starr King Elementary, another site coach, says being a teacher in the local trenches gives her more credibility with her peers than some outside consultant who parachutes in. “They know who I am,” Hubert says. “They feel more comfortable with me than someone from a business [where they] think, what are they selling?”
Faulkner says many Long Beach teachers are eager to take up the new writing techniques that she’s helping to spread across the district. But not all. “We have teachers at the end of their careers say, ‘I’m not trying anything new.’ And convincing them to try something is a huge challenge,” Faulkner says.
At Lindsey Middle School, the language arts staff is using a similar literacy curriculum called Write For The Future And Beyond. The local site coaches at Lindsey get released from class nine days during a year for training. The district also sends teaching coaches to the school for in-class visits once a month or more, depending on how well the writing program takes hold, according to Stacy Casanave, a middle school literacy coach.
Lindsey teacher Shauna Hutchinson says the fat curriculum binder looked overwhelming at first. “But once you went to training they broke it down for you,” she says.
Another facet of the Long Beach professional development program is a close, long-standing relationship with the College of Education at California State University, Long Beach. School personnel help with teaching and research at Cal State. Students at Cal State do their student-teaching in Long Beach schools.
Historically, most of the district’s beginning teachers have been Cal State graduates, according to Jill Baker, the district’s assistant superintendent. The district requires newly minted teachers to go through a prescribed on-the-job training program in their first years. But California’s fiscal crisis and the Great Recession have caused the Long Beach school district to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget, laying off hundreds of teachers and cutting programs. Newer teachers were the first to go. Few beginners get hired.
Long Beach spends $5.4 million a year on professional development, less than 1 percent of the district’s $691 million budget. Professional development was cut nearly in half during and after the recession. In fiscal year 2006-07, 4,546 employees attended 11,763 training sessions. In fiscal 2011-12, 1,945 employees attended 6,982 sessions. Baker says the district has focused teacher training on areas that can have the most impact on how students learn. These include writing, mathematics and school behavior programs. There is less opportunity for individual teachers to select workshops or training programs in other areas such as creative arts and social studies.
“We’ve had to take a lot of things that we liked to do in the past and really narrow it down to what your students are showing us they need,” Baker says. “Professional development for teachers, and for principals as well, has been at the core of the work that we’ve done that has garnered results. “It’s part of the district culture, and it continues to work over time.”
This story was reported by Stephen Smith of American RadioWorks, in collaboration with The Hechinger Report, a non-profit, foundation-funded education news site based at Teachers College, Columbia University.
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