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DCPS's LEAP Initiative: The New Kid in Town

Note: This week, Kelsey Hamilton, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, will be guest-blogging.

On Monday, I gave a quick run-down of DCPS's teacher evaluation system, IMPACT, and how it measures teacher performance. Though positive results have emerged from the program, some felt that the system was overly punitive and needed a stronger emphasis on supporting struggling teachers. These critics will be pleased to hear about LEAP, DCPS's new professional development initiative. The new program provides staff with guidance from seasoned teachers on content mastery and teaching methods. So just what is this new initiative, and how will change the status quo?

LEAP shakes up traditional teacher professional development, which generally relies on infrequent workshop-style training, by providing weekly group sessions with teachers of the same subject. These teacher teams meet for at least 90 minutes a week (this time is a part of the already-allocated 225 minutes of weekly planning for teachers). These sessions are led by a "LEAP leader," which tend to generally be department heads or administrative figures who have experience in the subject and have been evaluated as "highly effective" under IMPACT.

These meetings revolve around one key topic drawn from each week's curriculum. For example, when the students are learning about Pearl Harbor, the weekly meeting might center on how to best examine the Japanese motives behind the attack by using various teaching methods. The LEAP leader guides the discussion, and teachers are encouraged to share their own classroom dynamics and experiences so that the group can tackle issues and problems together and hear from a range of voices.

Teachers are then expected to take the weekly topic and incorporate takeaways from the discussion into their own classroom teaching. In order to gauge the teachers' mastery of that content, LEAP leaders do weekly observations, noting how the teacher includes the session materials for that week. These observations differ from IMPACT teacher evaluation in several ways. First, the observations are shorter, only taking 15 minutes instead of 30. LEAP leaders will also be the sole observer of the teacher, unlike in years past when principals, assistant principals, and master educators all observed teachers. Lastly, this process is not punitive, but rather offers an informal look at how teachers are responding to feedback and main discussion points. The LEAP leaders then debrief with the teachers about how well they incorporated materials and how they could improve.

This past June, I got the opportunity to sit in on a LEAP leader training session for social studies teachers. The leaders there seemed to be learning just as much as I was—several program specifics were new to them, and certain details on the program had yet to be solidified. However, session structure was very well-developed. The particular session I saw focused on training the LEAP leaders to give constructive, unbiased advice to the teachers they would be observing by encouraging them to focus on objective rather than subjective observations.

For example, rather than noting to a teacher that her student "looked confused," the leaders were told to quantify that statement. Did the student not write any notes? Did the student ask for clarification of a concept multiple times and still not demonstrate understanding? DCPS clearly outlined what was expected from the leader, and laid out a model for what type of feedback was most useful.

The leaders were then instructed to give a "key action step" for the next week— what could this teacher do in her classroom to better demonstrate content mastery? By giving the teacher something small and concrete to work on, the feedback provides the leaders with tangible results to look for, and teachers something defined to strive for. The frequent collaboration may take some of the edge off IMPACT criticism in providing more communication between teachers and observers, as well as more time for their professional development. ¬†

It is a major overhaul for DCPS, but it is not the only change this year— IMPACT has also undergone a few tweaks. Master educators no longer observe teachers, and principals are the only evaluators. Additional changes to the system include adding student surveys to the teacher evaluation, as well as the return of value-added assessments after a brief hiatus while Common Core-aligned tests were phased in.

On Friday, I'll share my thoughts on the LEAP program with you all from its promises to potential snags. Until then!

--Kelsey Hamilton 

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