April 15, 2016
Giving Teachers Support to Help Kids Succeed

Once a week, Nathan Pierantoni runs tape on the week that was, and preps for what’s ahead.

He’s a middle school principal in Farmington, New Mexico, and his weekly drill centers on instruction and support.

Pierantoni, a second-year principal in a school of 700-plus kids, wants to be an effective instructional coach. And to get there, he has a mentor. And that mentor he meets with weekly is provided through a program in New Mexico that aims to build support for principals and teachers.

New Mexico’s Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera created the Principals Pursuing Excellence Program and subsequently, the Teachers Pursuing Excellence Program, and has seen promising results. One year ago only one school earned the highest rating in the state accountability system, now there are 11 schools in Farmington with that status.

I recently visited Pierantoni at Heights Middle School, and sat in on a mentor session. Watching him compartmentalize the day-to-day shuffle to concentrate on instruction was powerful for me and my team at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which strives to help states improve the quality of their schools.

We have released standards of professional practice for principal supervisors who want to help coach school principals like Pierantoni, and just recently, CCSSO released Principles for Teacher Support and Evaluation Systems so these systems focus on the feedback necessary for continuous improvement of teachers’ day to day work.

While many states have designed and implemented new support and evaluation systems, passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act gives each state a valuable opportunity to take a renewed look at these systems and how they are helping improve the educator workforce.

Every kid deserves a great teacher in their classroom. CCSSO’s guidance focuses on three key principles for an effective support and evaluation system: Integrate teacher support and evaluation into broader efforts to develop teaching practice and improve student learning; drive continuous improvement of teaching practice; and ensure the system is fair, credible and transparent. The Aspen Institute also recently released its own Teacher Evaluation and Support Systems: A Roadmap for Improvement, aligned with our Principles.

Our team saw this kind of strong system in place in the Farmington School District, not too far from the Four Corners. Teachers were provided with meaningful feedback on their practice, and they had opportunities for professional growth as teachers worked in small teams to improve math instruction by looking at student work and evidence of when students were struggling with learning. This kind of support begins at the district and is visible when we watched what happens in the schools, between teacher and principal.

Administering an evaluation that doesn’t inform professional development for a teacher to improve their craft is no better than giving a student a test that doesn’t improve instruction or lead to better interventions. We are working to ensure every teacher receives the feedback and support they need to help all kids succeed.

After Heights Middle School, I visited Animas Elementary School, also in Farmington. Nancy Olivarez, a teacher there who participates in the Teachers Pursing Excellence program, works closely with several other teachers who are working to improve their practice.

The program, Olivarez explains, is not just beneficial for teachers who need assistance to be more effective in the classroom. The support helps teachers at all levels. Olivarez says the program has been better received over time, as mentee teachers realized that the mentors, who were chosen from teachers assessed to be highly effective, understand what they’re going through.

“They appreciate that I’m not just somebody who’s coming up from up above,” she says. “I’m in there with them, and I take the professional development at the same time they do.”

“They feel like I’m coming at them from a collaboration perspective as opposed to an authoritative perspective.”

Districts across New Mexico are seeing results through these programs, thanks in part to a buy-in from the state to school level. What works in other states will look different, based on what teachers, students and parents want from their systems.

It’s an essential conversation to have, though. One that should help support teachers as the professionals they are, and honor their work in the classroom, with the ultimate goal of increased student achievement.