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Teacher and School Capacity for Meaningful Learning: Opportunities Under ESSA

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This post is by Elizabeth Leisy Stosich, research and policy fellow for the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).

States, both individually and collectively (e.g., those in the Common Core), have made great strides in designing ambitious standards but have struggled to identify and carry out promising strategies for developing the capacity of teachers and schools to support all students in meeting these expectations. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) focused primarily on the use of performance goals and sanctions to spur improvement in student learning. However, many districts, schools, and educators lacked the capacity to productively respond to state accountability policies. Consequently, some educators responded to these pressures in ways that reduced educational opportunities for students, including by narrowing the curriculum, "teaching to the test," or focusing on "bubble" kids who were just below proficiency on state tests. As we describe in a new report, the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signals a shift to a more balanced approach to accountability that encourages multiple measures of student and school success and greater flexibility in choosing approaches to support meaningful improvement in schools. 

Scholars argue that deep and sustained improvement in students' opportunities to learn depends on both teacher capacity--teachers' knowledge, skills, and beliefs--and school capacity--the collective ability of the faculty to improve instruction and student learning throughout the organization. ESSA creates three main opportunities for redesigning state systems of accountability and support in ways that grow the capacity of teachers and schools to support deeper learning for all students.

First, ESSA requires that states use multiple indicators, rather than only academic assessment and graduation outcomes, to measure student and school progress in meeting the state's academic standards. Thus, states could include measures of school capacity to both monitor and support the conditions that support student learning. Specifically, states or districts could use surveys of parents, teachers, and students about the school conditions that matter most for student learning, including strong principal leadership, opportunities for collaborative learning among teachers, a coherent instructional program, and high levels of parent involvement.

Second, ESSA allows states to determine how they will identify schools for intensive assistance. Rather than simply identifying schools based on student test scores or graduation rates, ESSA allows states to use a more comprehensive approach to identifying schools in need of support. For example, if states choose to include indicators of teacher capacity, such as access to qualified teachers, they can use these indicators to support early interventions in schools with high concentrations of inexperienced, ineffective, or uncertified teachers. This approach has important implications for improving equity in students' opportunities to learn because inexperienced and underperforming teachers are often concentrated in schools serving large populations of students of color and students living in poverty.

Third, states can choose "evidence-based" interventions to support these schools and allow schools and districts to determine which evidence-based interventions are most likely to work in certain contexts and with specific student groups. Thus, states have greater flexibility in matching interventions to the specific needs and existing capacity within a given school site.

Each of these provisions under ESSA creates opportunities for states to develop goals and determine interventions based on state and local contexts, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of NCLB.

What could this new approach look like in schools and districts? I recently conducted a study of a large urban district's efforts to design a professional development program that would grow the capacity of teachers and their schools to teach to the Common Core. My findings suggest that the level of support necessary for growing both the capacity of the teachers and their schools in teaching to these new standards was inversely proportional to the existing capacity in these schools. Schools with lower levels of capacity--weaker principal leadership, limited collaboration among teachers, lower levels of instructional knowledge among teachers--were less able to use learning from professional development to support schoolwide improvement and required greater external intervention for changes in teachers' practice to take root. By using indicators of school and teacher capacity, such as the surveys of school conditions described above, districts could take a proactive approach to identifying and developing more supportive conditions for improving student learning in schools with limited existing capacity and, in doing so, enable these schools to benefit more from professional development efforts.

There is a growing recognition among educational leaders that setting high standards for student learning and providing professional development to teachers about how to support students in meeting these standards is insufficient for making widespread changes in teachers' practice and students' learning. Teachers' work with students is embedded in their school context, and this context can support or constrain new learning from professional development. New opportunities under ESSA can allow states to develop more balanced systems of accountability and support that account for the important role of school conditions in improving the learning outcomes of all students.





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