KEY INITIATIVES AND STRATEGIES
The first year of QEIA was intended to be a planning year characterized by needs assessment activities to guide the development of the school plan and preparation for implementation (facility development for class size reduction, staffing, etc.). In surveys of principals during Spring 20086 (the end of the first funding year), the most common activities noted by principals were indeed planning activities. Schools participated in district, county, and union-led QEIA related trainings to learn more about the reform and its requirements (87%); needs assessment activities to guide school site improvement plans (87%); and staff meetings focused on making decisions and disseminating information about QEIA (79%). A little over half of schools represented held parent and/or community outreach events to inform stakeholders about QEIA (58%). Half of principals reported putting in place a new leadership team or committee focused solely on QEIA efforts in preparation for implementation.
Once implementation began in Year 2, key initiatives at QEIA schools were largely focused on meeting program requirements –hiring staff and teachers; engaging in professional development; and gearing up for and implementing class size reduction. Other strategies of schools involved implementing new structures for teacher collaboration, increasing the use of data to guide decision-making, and implementing new curricula, frameworks, and instructional strategies to support student learning.
HIRING STAFF AND TEACHERS
In order to meet the QEIA accountability targets, schools often needed new and/or additional staff and teachers. By Year 4 of implementation, Regular Program schools were required to have in place highly qualified teachers, as defined by ESEA, and the school wide average teacher experience had to be at or above the average of the entire school district. Additional teachers were also required to fulfill class size reduction requirements. Furthermore, every Regular Program high school was required to have student-to-counselor ratios of 300 to one.
The presence of high quality staff who were focused on improvement was considered by many QEIA stakeholders to be one of the most important factors to a school’s success. Schools sought and appreciated “teachers who continually strive to improve their practice; who challenge themselves.” In fact, stakeholders in a couple schools explained that QEIA provided an opportunity to select and hire new teachers who were the best fit for their school and open to change. As explained by one teacher in an elementary school:
And it’s really influencing how we hire and how we think about hiring. So instead of just focusing on cheap new teachers, we think about what would be the best fit for the school. We don’t just focus on money in terms of hiring and…hiring people who are lower on the salary scale as an incentive. But to really think about how we can hire somebody that would best fit our school. And that means no matter how much experience they have and where they would be, somebody that would work out here in terms of our overall program.
Another intermediate school – considered a struggling school for nearly a decade before QEIA – used QEIA to make several staffing changes at the school. Since QEIA began, the school has moved from decile 1 to decile 5 and has a similar schools ranking of 9. One teacher credited the principal for making some very tough staffing decisions:
[Our school] was the lowest scoring school in the county for many years and it’s really hard to take that exact same staff and flip it. And we had a very courageous principal that made some staffing changes. And almost half the staff is different. And part of that’s because of layoffs, declining enrollment and budgets and things like that, but our principal did a non-reelect. She didn’t rehire a temporary teacher that was very unpopular. Best thing she could have done. She encouraged two teachers that have been at this school forever that everyone loved…she encouraged them both to retire at 55. They made that decision and that’s when we took off, because it’s all about teaching.
District offices often assisted schools with staffing and the monitoring needed to ensure that highly qualified teachers with the appropriate number of years of experience were in place at QEIA schools. About a third of principals surveyed during the second and third years of implementation indicated that districts assisted with hiring and/or transferring teachers to help meet QEIA requirements. In interviews with district representatives responsible for working with QEIA schools, interviewees commonly described their involvement in tracking and monitoring the QEIA requirements (51%). As one district official explained, “We wanted to make sure we had CSR implemented correctly…we were also looking at the teacher experience index…As you know, the oversight after the first year goes to the school sites, but the District still has to ensure that they’re being compliant.”
Furthermore, district officials were often responsible for working with county offices to report progress on requirements: “We oversee and help schools with paperwork. We do all their reporting for them. Keep track of teachers, staff development, attendance, do any report they need.” Another added, “We deliver the report. We monitor their budget; make sure they are expended accordingly to plan and requirements.”
In addition to securing an adequate number of teachers and counselors with the right credentials, schools also often chose to hire coaches in core content areas (i.e., literacy, math), intervention specialists, special education teachers, or other content specialists. For example, at one middle school, with QEIA funds, they put in place two academic coaches – one in ELA and one in math – to work directly with teachers on improving instruction and with the principal on core decisions related to teaching and learning at the school. As explained by one of the coaches, “Because we have QEIA, I’m able to work with the teachers on all kinds of things that I don’t think I would have the opportunity to do otherwise…because I wouldn’t have that release time.” The principal and teachers at the school viewed these coaches as key leaders and facilitators. The principal, noted: “The fact that the coaches are here is a big help.” A teacher leader at the school explained, “They play powerful roles. I mean they really know the material. They really know what it’s all about. We all know about QEIA but I think if there are any questions to be asked or answered, most people would go to those two.”
Some elementary schools elected to bring in personnel to teach non-core subjects such as music, physical education, and art or librarians. Students would rotate through these subjects throughout the week. These rotations provided core subject teachers with additional time to intervene with struggling students as well as common preparation time across grade-levels that could be used for collaboration.
Moreover, one middle school elected to use some of their QEIA funds to hire additional classroom aides in order to increase the numbers of adults who could make positive connections with students. One teacher explained:
We use the money to buy extra campus aides. It really helps. It changes the environment of the school but it really helps in the classroom. It really helps all the way around....because the environment of the school really affects the kids...The kids get to know them [the aides] and it really helps because if the kids build these kind of relationships....it creates connections. And if the students don’t have these connections, they’re not going to be motivated to learn or they’ll bring their problems that they feel at home and they’ll bring them here. Instead, if they feel like there’s connections to them, even on a friendly basis, not just on an academic basis, it just improves the environment of the school, including academically, everything.
By adding additional counselors, per QEIA regulations, Regular Program high schools were also able to provide more one-on-one time with students and better address individual student needs. One principal explained:
I think we have a far more thriving academic school culture as a result of QEIA… for counselors also to truly access the students in ways in which they never were before…That piece right there alone is huge. I am very, very fortunate to have a wonderful counseling staff. So I see the difference it makes because they know each student individually, and they can work with them and what their needs are and address those.
ENGAGING IN PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
One of QEIA’s core requirements for Regular Program schools involves developing a coherent plan for the professional development of teachers and paraprofessionals. QEIA provisions specifically noted that professional development in self-contained classes include content in mathematics, science, English/language arts, reading, and English language development. Professional development in departmentalized classes should include the specific content area as well as English language development. Not surprisingly, a large amount of professional development noted by teachers in case studies schools was focused on core content areas such as ELA and math and on English language development.
Consistent with one of the key goals of schools – to use data more effectively – many teachers interviewed also reported professional development focused on interpreting data and creating effective assessments. Finally, with many schools electing to adopt new programs and frameworks as part of their QEIA implementation, teachers were often engaged in additional training to learn more about those models.
EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
As seen in Figure 3, the most effective professional development – training that led to sustained implementation – was described by teachers as having the following features:
➋ Personally Relevant
➍ High Quality
➎ Support and Feedback
➏ Actionable and Immediate
As noted previously, legislators intended for professional development decisions in QEIA schools to be made collaboratively by interested parties. In interviews, teachers overwhelmingly agreed that professional development was most effective when teachers had input on offerings. Teachers were more satisfied with their professional development when they were able to provide feedback through leadership teams, committees, and staff meetings.
One teacher explained, “And I think a program like this is successful in main part because as a staff we chose to do it, and it wasn’t something that they gave to us and said here, you do this.” A principal shared his belief that teachers should drive the professional learning communities at his school, and the collaboration within them: “So I would say that probably our professional development has become smarter because the teachers and the administrators are better at knowing what it’s really about and the value of it…We communicate better and we build the capacity among our PLC group also. So [administrators] used to drive that, now [teachers] drive it. We just facilitate it.”
Moreover, teachers noted that when professional development was offered on the school site and directed by teacher input, the quality was generally better and more relevant. As noted by teachers in interviews: “The ones we have picked have been great. The district trainings are not great… too fast. The PD we have chosen can be implemented in the classroom,” and “When we have a say-so, it’s better… PD on site is much more relevant to us.” Another teacher explained that when teachers are able to participate in professional development decisions, they have more buy-in for the offering: “Teachers are more receptive because they chose the PD. The district trainings are not as effective.” Additionally, teachers must be able to see the connections between the professional development and what they need to do every day in their classrooms with their students. As one teacher put it:
They have to be something that is going to have some purpose in the classroom, in other words, some way we’re going to be able to actually put into practical use. At this point, I’m not sure if theory is going to help us a whole lot…I think it has to relate to our school, our demographics, and not just be generic…When the district has given us in-services, sometimes they don’t fit us, because they’re made for everybody, which really doesn’t cover our problems and our needs.
According to QEIA stakeholders, professional development that has the potential to change practices school wide must be very focused and targeted. Interviews in higher performing schools consistently revealed that professional development was more effective when it was tightly aligned with the school goals and part of a cohesive plan for improvement. One district representative attributed the success of one particular high-performing school to a coherent and cohesive plan for professional development:
It’s their laser-like focus on professional development and consistency throughout their schools. Knowing what their teachers need and providing specifically what they need to make a difference for kids. It might be helping them with data inquiry, it might be helping them with professional learning communities, it might be beefing up their content knowledge, but not doing the wholesale professional development that we’ve seen over the last several years.
One elementary school teacher likewise proclaimed that school change depends on being clear about your goal and maintaining an unwavering focus on that goal instead of becoming distracted by the newest thing:
I think before QEIA, it was kind of like what everyone else was doing or this is popular – this guru in math or this guru in differentiated instruction is hot right now, let’s see them or whatever…It wasn’t as focused, whereas now we know what our needs are because of our assessment and our class size reduction and our intervention. And we have a goal. We have a target. We know what we need to do. So we look at our data and now our professional development tends to be data-driven whereas before it was kind of like whatever great things are out there right now.
In school visits, many teachers stressed the importance of trainings that were of high quality:
➊ organized and useful materials;
➋ opportunities for collaboration with colleagues;
➌ hands-on practice, reflection, and feedback during training;
➍ based on sound teaching principles and research; and
➎ led by knowledgeable experts with good facilitation, modeling, and training skills.
For example, one teacher in a middle school defined high quality as: “There’s an actual agenda, an actual goal to the class. There’s a process or syllabus they’re following. There’s an assessment that you learn what they’re supposed to teach you. There’s a pre and post reflection on what it was that was being taught. And then there’s discussion on how we implement what we learned in theory to practice. Those are good indications of a good quality professional development.” Another teacher explained: “I really enjoy PDs that are presented by people with very clear ideas, and really good presenting strategies…you know, people that really persuade you of what they’re doing, and who give you things that you can take notes and use in the near future.” One teacher interviewed explained the importance of modeling and facilitation during training:
In the last few years we’ve had somebody come in. They actually do the modeling. They present the research, of course, and then why it’s best to do it this way. They model it. We can see it actually work with our children, or not work. And they’ve been open, too. We’ll tell them, well, that doesn’t always work because of this, and then they’ll say, well maybe you can try this. Those are always the best, the ones that are willing to work with you, and work with what you have.
Support and Feedback
Several teachers mentioned that ongoing support and feedback – after training – was paramount to successful implementation of strategies learned during professional development. One teacher summarized:
Let’s see, it needs to be monitored. The implementation of it needs to be monitored. You need follow-up and you need to have resources for teachers who need help individually… That’s the biggest thing, follow-up. Because what happens, that one-time shot, doesn’t work. You need to have follow-up, repetition as a mode of learning, not drilling, but repetition. Because you need to have that repetition, otherwise you lose it and you don’t sustain it.
Actionable and Immediate
Teachers were also most satisfied with professional development when it was actionable and worthwhile. They sought learning opportunities in which they could obtain specific and clear strategies and skills that could be implemented and tested immediately. Moreover, teachers valued strategies – and continued to use them – when they were able to see immediate positive results with their students.
One middle school explained, “I’m very satisfied. I think because you can see the results. They really have relevance to the lesson like the next day. You leave with immediate strategies, lessons that are tailored to your content to present the next day.” Another teacher noted: “If it’s applicable, then it’s good. If it’s not, then it’s a waste of time. Quite frankly, if I go in and I’m going to sit there, I don’t want to sit there for hours and just pick out one thing that I can apply in my classroom. I want something that’s going to be enriching. I want something that’s going to be worthwhile.”
SUPPORTING TEACHER COLLABORATION
As noted on page 9, teacher collaboration time could be used to satisfy the professional development hour requirement for QEIA. In Year 2 and Year 3 surveys of school staff, about two-thirds of respondents indicated that they spent at least 30 minutes in teacher-directed collaboration each week.
In case study schools, collaboration was often cited as a core component of the professional development plans adopted by schools. In fact, all schools engaged in some form of collaboration; however, the nature of the collaboration – frequency, purpose, activities – varied considerably. In some schools, stakeholders relied heavily on collaboration to guide change in teaching and learning school wide, meeting regularly and often. In other schools, collaboration happened incidentally, as needed, and infrequently. Stakeholders commonly noted that collaboration was particularly fruitful when it began with certain foundational prerequisites and was nurtured through key supportive structures.
According to QEIA stakeholders, successful collaboration among teachers required adequate commitment, willingness to innovate, sufficient trust and respect among participants, and supportive leadership. It was not necessary for all teachers to “be onboard” with collaboration prior to beginning; however an adequate amount of commitment was required to get the effort started. For example, one teacher explained: “It has to be a climate, and the staff wanting to participate, and your administrator not, making it mandatory… If you want to do it, if you’re interested in what’s going on, you’re going to show up. If you don’t care, then you’re not going to go. But you have to have buy-in. I don’t know if it’s ever been 100 percent buy-in, but you have to have buy-in.” Many stakeholders noted that teachers were sometimes resistant to the openness and transparency that collaboration required, but in time, even the most resistant teachers eventually saw the benefits. One teacher in an elementary school shared:
I think we’re really seeing the benefits of what good collaboration means. I mean you can get together after school and sit for an hour and just whatever, talk and try to do your lesson plans or whatever, but unless you’re open to really collaborating – and again, I think it’s taken us some time, but I really think that we’re starting to see that teachers value it, and they look forward to it, because I realize that there’s a lot of schools in our district that don’t get this opportunity, and they’re not given that opportunity to collaborate like we are.”
In addition, teachers need to be willing to think outside the box and push themselves to try something new. For example, one teacher shared the importance of collaborative colleagues open to change: “Thinking outside the box, which so many people are stuck in, ‘Well, this is how it was.’ And, it’s like, we’re doing the same thing over and over and it’s not working. You’ve got to start thinking differently.” Another teacher described how the best ideas for change often come from colleagues: “But the real difference comes when you’re just talking and you’re being honest with your coworkers about daily struggles in the classroom. ‘Have you tried this?’ ‘No, I haven’t. I think I’ll give that a shot. Can I watch you do it?’ ‘Yeah, come in next week.’”
Trust and respect were considered key to ongoing collaboration. As one teacher explained, “You need to be able to respect each other professionally to admit that you do have something you can learn from each other but understand that you can be kind about it.” Another teacher amplified the importance of true communication: “Honestly, true communication and just talking about each other’s needs and feelings and what we’re struggling with, that’s what makes a difference.”
Finally, stakeholders in highly collaborative schools commonly highlighted the importance of a supportive principal to help get the effort moving. Principals often rearranged schedules to make time for collaboration and sent the message that teacher-driven change was important. As one teacher summarized, “The administration needs to set the bar. There has to be that expectation. It’s not mandatory by any means, but there is that expectation that teachers do get together and that we do work with each other for the benefit of our students. It’s no longer what I do in my classroom that is golden. You have to go out and you have to start talking to each other.”
Six core supportive structures were identified by teachers in highly collaborative schools:
➊ Defined Teams;
➋ Scheduled Time;
➌ Specific Purpose;
➍ A Dedicated Architect;
➎ Clear Expectations; and
Collaboration truly flourished when it was not left to chance. In more successful schools, defined collaborative teams were present. Collaboration occurred by grade-level, department, professional learning community, or small learning community.
Moreover, in successful schools, regular, frequent time for collaboration was built directly into the master schedule. One teacher emphasized the importance of regular, frequent contact:
Before, it was every six weeks only. It wasn’t on a weekly basis. Now, we can go more in-depth. Once every six weeks was really awesome, compared to what we’ve ever had at any other school where it was directed by the principal. But now, on a weekly basis, you can just be more strategic about how you’re going to get to your goals with your kids.
In some schools, they banked time to support more frequent collaboration; other schools scheduled common prep periods for collaborative teams or rotating non-core classes (i.e., physical education, art, music, etc). Additionally, wild card days, release days, and substitute teachers provided opportunities for intensive day-long activities in teams and school wide. For example:
We get grade-level meetings once a month or once every other month. We get to meet during prep periods. And, we’re actually able to get subs to cover our classes so we can all meet together.
Central to effective collaboration was a specific and targeted purpose to work together. One teacher commented: “We’re very focused. We have a goal. We want to see if our prior goals have been met, what worked, what didn’t, and how we’re going to go from there. And pretty much, that’s how the meetings are.”
Common goals of collaboration among teachers included: the creation of common assessments and lessons to promote greater consistency in instruction; sharing challenges in the classroom and identifying the best practices of colleagues; and discussing potential interventions for struggling students. The review and interpretation of data was often a focal point during collaboration meetings. Teachers reviewed results from annual standardized tests (e.g., CST, CAHSEE, CELDT), district-created benchmark exams, teacher-created assessments, and formative assessments from curriculum programs. Data were analyzed to determine professional development needs and guide decisions about interventions. Formative assessments – often reviewed frequently throughout the year by high-performing schools – yielded suggestions for concepts in need of re-teaching and were also used to identify staff that were particularly effective at teaching a specific concept so they could share their instructional strategies with others.
In highly collaborative schools, a dedicated architect was responsible for structuring an agenda and plan for the collaboration time. This person often facilitated meetings and kept the team focused on the specific purpose. They championed the effort and ensured everyone could participate by disseminating information, creating a safe space for collaboration, and reminding stakeholders about meetings and upcoming tasks. In some schools, the principal was the architect; in other schools, teacher leaders such as instructional coaches, department chairs, or grade-level leaders assumed the role.
Furthermore, highly collaborative schools had clear expectations to guide the work of teams. Teachers understood what was expected of them; they held each other accountable to show up prepared and engage in meaningful dialogue. For example:
Well, I definitely think now we do have more [collaboration]. It’s not like we just sit there and gossip. Now it’s more like “Okay, we have to get this done. We have to do this.”
Before, I literally would see some of them reading magazines and others were correcting their papers. We don’t do that anymore. Honestly, it should never have been done. But they did. But now you better not be doing that at a meeting.
Lastly, in the most collaborative schools, collaboration was branded; everyone at the school conveyed the same message about the purpose of, need for, and core activities of collaboration time. For example, in one successful high school, stakeholders coined the term “Harvesting Teacher Brilliance,” to describe their collaboration time focused on sharing best practices. Another school adopted “SMART Wednesdays,” to describe their collaboration focused on setting goals and collecting and reviewing data to evaluate progress.
When collaboration began with the foundational prerequisites and was accompanied by the supportive structures discussed above, several benefits resulted, including:
➊ Enhanced data use;
➋ A stronger professional community;
➌ Increased cohesion and coherence; and
➍ Greater collective accountability.
Enhanced Data Use
When data was a focus of collaboration time, teachers grew more confident about their data use. Moreover, they began to trust data more and use it more often to inform their practice. One teacher explained how collaboration transformed her perspective on data: “But now, it’s shifted –it’s now, ‘So what does the data say? How do we meet the needs of the kids? What information can I pull from this test in order to meet the needs of my kids?’ So now it’s more refined and a lot more focused, whereas before I think it was…really a shot in the dark.” A teacher in another school elaborated:
There’s really been a focus on the data teams. Quite a focus. Using the data, gathering it, how we’re going to gather it and how we’re going to use it. Looking at specific growth patterns, areas that need the most help. When you’re talking about certain standards, some of them are more difficult for students. Even some classes a teacher might say, my class is having trouble with this standard, what are you doing in yours? Okay, how are you getting that information? Let’s compare it.
Stronger Professional Communities
Stronger professional communities – in which teachers authentically engaged in reflecting on their own teaching and sharing practices to learn from one another – emerged in many highly collaborative schools. Over time, even resistant teachers began to see the value in sharing with one another rather than remaining isolated. For example:
We need to work together, no one person is an island. You need to collaborate. You need to share.
So I think [teacher collaboration] improved instruction because if you have run out of ideas, you borrow one from a friend and then you try it. And either it worked or it didn’t. But rather than have nothing, you have your peers to lean on. And it’s in a non-judgmental way. I think it’s forced teachers to look at their data and say, ‘Well, this is not working,’ or ‘My kids did great,’ or ‘[My kids] did not do great compared to others, to other peers in third grade.’ It kind of forces you to look at your instruction… ‘What am I doing…Do I need to do better?’
I think it helps us be more aware of ourselves. It helps us reflect on what we’re doing. We’re able to learn more from our peers. And sometimes it’s humbling. And I think it helps us be vulnerable, but it’s also helping us be stronger teachers in the classroom, because we have to admit when we have a weakness.
Increased Cohesion and Coherence
Teachers also reported increased coherence and cohesion (e.g., more consistent instruction across classrooms and between grades; more alignment to standards, etc.) as a result of effective collaboration. For example, one teacher described the positive impact of collaborative lesson planning on teaching and learning at her school:
Now we do all our lessons together. They’re pretty much all written by one of us, and then we all look at it, modify it, and then make the final copy. So it’s more driven by the group, as opposed to I think at first, we were doing our own things....As we talk and collaborate more and more, we realize a lot of our kids have similar misconceptions. They have similar things that need to be retaught. So that makes it a lot easier to plan, and we’re just more uniform, I think, but in a good way.
Greater Collective Accountability
Finally, teachers in highly collaborative schools reported greater collective accountability and shared responsibility to follow-through and meet the needs of all students. One principal shared that collaboration has resulted in more follow-through since QEIA began: “I don’t think before QEIA we really collaborated. I just think everybody just sort of got together and then people did their own thing. And I don’t know that there was any follow-through or follow-up.” A teacher in another school elaborated, “It’s changed practice in a big way because we all are relying upon each other…we’re going back to being a team versus an individual teacher. And I know our big focus here is they’re not my students or your students, but they’re our students.”
REDUCING CLASS SIZES
QEIA legislation requires funded schools to achieve and maintain small class sizes in all core subjects.
As seen in Figure 6, according to stakeholders, the immediate result of reducing class size was greater ease of classroom management. With fewer students in the room, teachers simply had an easier time managing student behavior. One principal explained, “Class size reduction has also improved classroom management; we have fewer disciplinary issues in the upper grades.” Moreover, non-instructional routines – students lining up for activities, passing out materials, cleaning up at the end of the day – went smoother with fewer students in the room. Classrooms were less cluttered and could be used more creatively with fewer desks. And, materials went further because they were to be shared among fewer students. Finally, the flow of instruction – moving from one subject to the next, switching tasks and activities – was more seamless with a smaller number of students to manage. As explained by one teacher: “It really helps with classroom management. There’s always maybe one or two that have really special needs and with a smaller class, you’re able to help them and not lose the whole class’ focus.”
Because there were fewer students in each class, three direct changes were observed by QEIA stakeholders: 1) Better learning environment; 2) More instructional time; and 3) Decreased workload (see Figure 7) that led to two core impacts: 1) Increased student engagement; and 2) Increased teacher morale.
Teachers noted that the learning climate greatly improved due to better classroom management. The learning environment was less stressful and chaotic for learners. One teacher described: “Because there are less kids, the classrooms are less congested. We have more freedom and space to move around, to do activities, to be in different parts of the room, to have different students doing different things and it’s less chaotic; so, just a lot of flexibility.” The smaller, more intimate classroom setting also improved student engagement by encouraging students to participate more – raise their hands, ask questions, and provide answers. One teacher shared: “And, [without CSR], I just feel like a lot of kids wouldn’t get to share their opinion or what they’re thinking and then I wouldn’t know what they’re thinking. I feel that it would affect the pulse that I have on my class. Are they getting it or not getting it? It would just be that much more difficult.”
With fewer students to teach and manage, the overall workload of teachers was reduced, providing more time to attend to other tasks and activities. Decreased workload also resulted in increased teacher morale. As explained by one principal: “I think that the teachers feel like it’s more doable” with class size reduction. Another district representative echoed, “Teachers know that QEIA schools ensure lower class sizes, which really makes a difference in their motivation.”
Additionally, because teachers were spending less time managing the classroom, they had more time for instruction. Several teachers noted that class size reduction resulted in more minutes for key instructional content. One teacher emphasized: “You can get through things faster. You can explore more, whether it be more problems, whatever it may be. You can definitely have teachers reflect on their teaching but also students can reflect on their learning.”
With a decreased workload and more instructional time, many teachers reported: 1) Varying instructional methods; 2) Assessing and reviewing data more often; and 3) Strengthening relationships with students. These activities resulted in: 1) Greater awareness of student needs; 2) Higher quality instruction; and also further influenced 3) Student engagement (See Figure 8).
With more time, teachers felt more willing to innovate and try something new. With fewer students in the class, it was much easier to vary instructional methods and try out new strategies. Teachers reported an increase in small group instruction due to class size reduction, including dyad instruction (e.g., “Pair share”). It was also much easier to assign meaningful independent work while meeting with a small group of students or working with a student one-on-one because there was less risk of misbehavior with fewer students in the room. Teachers described:
We’ve been able to do Universal Access now…which is having every student working on something that is at their level, while you are pulling back a small group, doing small group instruction. So, the other ones might be at their seats working out of folders, they might be at a center working, but they’re all working at something that’s at their level, not everybody’s doing the same thing.
I am able to do more small group instruction, spend individual time one-on-one with students, more closely assess each individual student.
You can do small groups much easier. You can visit kids more frequently. Kids don’t get lost in the shuffle.
Teachers also experimented more with project-based learning and with student-led lessons because they had the time and the environment to support the innovation. For example, one teacher commented on the benefits of student-led lessons: “If you train students right, they can really help each other learn…like for example, the student-led lessons once a week, after they’re done teaching a specific lesson or standard, they’re kind of experts.”
Many teachers used their time to assess student learning more effectively and more often. With fewer students in the classroom, grading is less cumbersome; hence, many teachers created more rigorous assessments and administered them more frequently because they had the time to grade them and provide solid feedback to students. Teachers indicated that they were also much more likely to review data with class size reduction than they were before; with fewer student records to examine, data use seemed more approachable and possible.
Other teachers focused time on strengthening personal relationships with students. With fewer learners to work with, they could be more intentional about getting to know their students personally and academically. One principal commented: “Class size reduction has allowed us to identify and assist…the kids that were blending into the walls.” One teacher explained: “I think you’re able to get more of a connection, which in turn helps them learn more because you know more about them…So, I think it’s really important to better know your students and what they like to do and what their home life is all about, so that you can understand, okay, this is where they are and this is why, let’s see what we can do to help them.”
By spending more time with students one-on-one, in small groups, and assessing more effectively, teachers reported a greater awareness of student needs and felt better prepared to differentiate instruction. One teacher commented: “I think for me, it’s given me the ability to really spend more time understanding how certain students are learning and to have a greater level of ability to differentiate. So, I can spend more time focusing on specific students’ needs and making school work for them.” Teachers and principals resoundingly reported that instruction improved because teachers had a greater awareness of student needs.
District and county representatives agreed with personnel in schools and consistently identified class size reduction as a critical success factor. According to one district representative, “It’s very clear the strides teachers can make with students in smaller groups. With the reduction in class size, it’s amazing what you’re able to do with instruction.” Other representatives echoed the comments of teachers and explained that size reduction allows teachers to spend more time with individual students. For example:
You can’t give good feedback to students with large classes, especially with writing. You need to spend time with students, ELL students to grow their writing. There is only so much you can do with 36 or 38 kids. QEIA gives teachers an opportunity to have lower class sizes and we can hold teachers accountable.
Smaller class sizes are helping teachers pay more attention to students and meet individual student needs.
Schools implemented a variety of new interventions, classroom strategies, and enrichment programs as part of their QEIA action plans.
FINDING MORE TIME FOR CORE INSTRUCTION
Central to many school efforts was the focus on more effective interventions for struggling students. Principal surveys revealed that about two-thirds of schools chose to implement Response to Intervention (RTI), and about one-fifth of schools restructured school days in order to group students differently for instruction or provide more intensive intervention for learners during parts of the week. In school visits, it was common for stakeholders to discuss additional instructional time for struggling students, such as after school interventions, Saturday classes, new summer programs, and lunchtime tutoring sessions. This extra time was used to supplement regular classroom instruction for students who needed it most. As explained by one elementary school teacher, “We have intervention classes. We do that at lunchtime, and we do it after school. So that’s able to help those kids.”
Schools also sought to maximize the time that struggling students could spend in core subject areas: ELA and math. Some middle and high schools added additional periods specifically for ELA and math. One middle school created a master schedule based on student proficiency and teacher strengths to match students with teachers and provide for additional instructional blocks in certain content areas. As explained by one teacher,
We were talking about exactly what we needed to do to make our master scheduling work more for the student rather than the teacher or the school. I think before we thought we were doing what was best for all of our kids and we’ve now come to find out through our different assessments and such that certain things aren’t working…And through scheduling, it can alleviate actually a lot of those issues. So just proper placement… Just as an example, we were placing kids in honors classes that were proficient and even though they’re proficient on the test, their work ethic and abilities aren’t holding up to the honors expectations. And we have kids who unfortunately are getting D’s and F’s in honors, which is completely unacceptable…We’ve started making sure our ELs are placed more appropriately…We’ve got teachers that are teaching within their subject. Now we need to look even further at really making sure those kids are placed where they actually should be.
A highly successful elementary school created a master schedule to promote curriculum fidelity and ensure that teachers provided the allocated instructional time for math and ELA. They used their master schedule to specify the subject being taught and the period of time dedicated to that subject. The principal explained, “I think that’s allowed the school to be consistent in providing those maximum minutes for mathematics and language arts each day, every day, by everybody.” The instructional coach further explained that the master schedule ensured that student interventions happened without pulling them out of core classroom instruction: “We have a master schedule so that any time if you say, if you ask me about a student and you mention a time, I actually know where they’re at, and I can problem-solve or set up an intervention for them without pulling them out of their math.”
It was also common for schools to cite strategies for grouping students so that struggling learners could receive more targeted and differentiated instruction. In one elementary school visited, they implemented Universal Access to provide more support for learners in the area of ELA. Teachers would use one hour of the day (15 minutes for each of four groups) to provide additional, targeted instruction. Student groups varied based on need but typically consisted of subgroups such as English learners, struggling students (far below basic, below basic, basic), proficient students, and advanced students. One teacher explained: “We have Universal Access…We take our kids and put them into advanced levels, mainstream, extra support so we can challenge the students in those groups with different language arts activities.”
Many schools used QEIA funding to upgrade existing and adopt new technology. Stakeholders commonly mentioned that schools purchased SMART Boards, additional classroom computers, and handhelds to supplement instruction. According to one teacher in a high performing elementary school, “SMART Boards have been absolutely wonderful, because now we have the ability to search for and use those different lessons for our SMART boards.” One teacher in an elementary school reported, “We’ve upgraded our technology. Every classroom has document cameras, mobile laptops to support learning.”
Another common upgrade reported was student responders, or polling systems. One intermediate school purchased the Qwizdom system in order to improve formative assessments and receive instant feedback on student learning: “Qwizdom is like a little computer for the students. The kids have a little device in their hand that they’ll use to answer questions. If I put up a question, like maybe that will prepare them for the California state test… I’ll shine it like a projector. And they would have a little device to answer the questions.” A principal in one high school explained the benefits of such systems: “We’ve got student responders in almost every single classroom…the teacher can get instant feedback on what those students are achieving on those daily learning goals or the learning targets. And I think that QEIA has been instrumental in helping us with the funding resource that we need to make some of these things happen.”
In addition to strengthening instruction, technology upgrades enhanced the school climate and boosted morale. As explained by one teacher: “It has been a huge, huge plus for the school. Compared to the old school I came from… bringing in new technology is really uplifting for the school and for the kids and for the teachers.”
ADOPTING ENRICHMENT PROGRAMS
Several schools also focused on bringing in enrichment programs focused on college awareness and readiness, character building, civic engagement, or art.
For example, in one high performing elementary school, teachers and administrators had become concerned about increasing violence in the surrounding neighborhood and sought a program that could make a difference with their students. They believed that in order to strengthen academic achievement, they also needed to attend to the social and emotional needs of students. As a result, school stakeholders collectively determined to implement the PeaceBuilders program, a comprehensive school wide intervention focused on changing school climates and reducing aggression. The program involves teaching children and adults peace-building behaviors, such as praising one another, providing help, and empathizing with each other. The principal explained, “The PeaceBuilder curriculum is new this year, and that’s been a real culture changer for us…You can see from the neighborhood. It’s a highly at-risk area with a lot of home dysfunction and crime, along with poverty. So those social and emotional needs are really playing a huge role in our ability to raise students academically.” Two teachers commented:
PeaceBuilders has helped a lot with [school climate] as well because we have a way of praising people when they’re doing well and acknowledging people’s efforts. And even the fact that we acknowledge our mistakes and apologize for them. Just a lot of those things that are part of PeaceBuilders, I think, have really helped.
We recently implemented the PeaceBuilders Program, which is awesome, because they’re learning how to verbalize their feelings. They’re learning, honestly taking some of the things that they see at home, where it’s like a physical reaction to things, they are now able to…say, I’m a peace builder and this is how you’re making me feel…But you will see that all over the school. Also, children holding a door open. Before they would have never even – honestly, that door would have just slammed in your face…I believe it has helped with the atmosphere, that program has.
Three case study schools – two elementary and one intermediate – applied to the No Excuses University (NEU) Network and adopted the approach in their schools to promote college readiness. One teacher explained the NEU program:
It focuses the children on college, starting from kindergarten, all the way through fifth grade. So our environment is a collegiate, university environment. Children are aware that when they graduate from high school, colleges and universities are opportunities for them. And we want to instill it in them at a very young age, so we even have college lingo here. We have our rooms dedicated to a different university. The children know the names of their colleges…We’ve got a college atmosphere at our school.
The NEU approach was credited for making very positive impacts on school culture and student attitudes about college. One school counselor noted, “I think the kids are very aware…I think it has made the school very close together, very united, and all the kids on the same page.” Parents in NEU schools also appreciated the approach and believed that it fostered a college-going attitude in their children. A principal shared her experiences with the program:
The whole college drive. That’s been a huge impact on our school culture. We wear college-bound shirts every Monday…And then on Fridays, we wear college shirts. Every classroom adopted a college…We start the day, and I get on the intercom, and we have our college cheer. So, everything that we do, we tell the kids, ‘this if for your future.’ And the community that we serve, we realize that if we don’t save them now, they’re going to fall into gangs because this is a very low-income, highly gang-affiliated neighborhood we’re serving. So this is it. If we don’t reach them now, if we don’t convince them that they can be successful, we’re going to lose them to a life that we don’t want them to have.
According to staff, participating in NEU also had a strong impact on them, as educators. One principal explained, “Going to the conference and joining the No Excuses network, just opened a completely different door…this is our responsibility. We can’t just prepare them for middle school. We have to prepare them for middle school and beyond. That has had the most powerful impact on me as a leader.”
FINDING THE “SPARKLING 10”
At one high performing middle school, school stakeholders realized that many of their struggling students – based on test scores – were also students who were being disciplined, suspended, and eventually expelled. Teachers and administrators determined that these students needed additional assistance – beyond instructional and remedial support. They decided to match teachers with students (10 students to 1 teacher) and called the intervention the “Sparkling 10.” One stakeholder explained:
We had what you’d almost want to call a Big Brother/Big Sister kind of scenario…Each teacher was responsible for ten kids…On a daily basis, they needed to make contact with the students – either through their classes, in the hallway, at some point just to help them know that they are not a number; they’re not a statistic. Somebody’s actually looking out for them.
During the first year of Sparkling 10 implementation, the school was able to significantly cut discipline issues by almost 90 percent. The principal noted, “Once we got the behavior in control, then we were able to have conversations about the academics.”
6 - 136 principals responded to the survey (Response rate: 28%)