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Teaching Career Pathways: Curriculum Design and School Partnerships

November 9, 2012

Note: in November 2012, Accomplished California Teachers (ACT) released the policy report “Promoting Quality Teaching: New Approaches to Compensation and Career Pathways.”  The following post is the second in a series of profiles showing how California teacher leaders are beginning to develop and follow diversified career pathways.  California teachers, and our peers around the nation, are looking for opportunities to innovate and lead in our field, but without having to leave the classroom.  Our argument is that educational leadership will improve the more its carried out by those still in the classroom, and that students will benefit from having more accomplished educators remaining the in classroom rather than taking on entirely non-teaching positions.

This profile focuses on the Algebra Success Academy (see video, below), a project founded and directed by math teacher Wendy Gallimore, and funded in part by the California Teachers Association through its Institute for Teaching.  The program has become a model of collaboration involving a district, union, and university.  The policy recommendations in our report, if adopted, would pave the way for districts to staff similar programs, and to cultivate the conditions that lead to similar innovations aimed at improving student learning.

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There’s a significant leap that takes place in mathematics education, right around the time students hit middle school.  After years of dealing with mathematical concepts that have, for the most part, concrete corollaries and clear visual representations, students must leap into the more abstract curriculum of algebra.  It’s a tough transition for many students, especially if their foundation isn’t particularly strong.

It’s also a high-stakes transition.  California has been wrestling with the idea of making algebra a requirement for all eighth graders, a policy shake-up that is still being worked out.  Algebra is widely understood to be a gateway to high school and college success.  Students who do not master algebra are often knocked off track towards high school graduation and college preparedness.  Taking the issue a step further, California colleges have advised high schools that student success in college is much more likely when students have passed not only Algebra, but also Geometry and Algebra II in high school.  And beyond college, there’s the broader national focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) that’s driving education policy and finance discussions.

With this backdrop, there are always intense debates around what math to teach, how to teach it, to whom, and when.  In one case in, at Twin Rivers Unified School District, teacher leadership has been instrumental in brining an innovative math program to the district, while also building a collaborative approach among teachers, administrators, the teachers union, and a local university (U.C. Davis).  It’s an excellent example of good work that could be replicated around the state in part by establishing formal roles and responsibilities for teacher leaders, as suggested in the ACT report Promoting Quality Teaching: New Approaches to Compensation and Career Pathways.” 

The classroom teacher who took the lead in this case is Wendy Gallimore.  Seeing the challenges described above as students approached algebra, Gallimore began looking for new ways to organize and coalesce resources to address her students’ needs, and as an active union member, turned to the union for a solution.

The California Teachers Association supports the Institute for Teaching (IFT), which focuses, as their web address suggests, on teacher-driven change.  IFT grants support a variety of projects around the state, including academic programs, teacher leadership efforts, early childhood education, and more (see this one-page summary).

equationThe model Gallimore believed would help her students was the Algebra Project, founded by civil rights leader Bob Moses.  His involvement in his daughter’s education, back in the early 1980s, led him to wonder if the transition to algebraic thinking might be facilitated  by using some concrete methodology.  (For more on the origins and growth of the Algebra Project, see their website, or this article from U.S. News and World Report).  However, Moses designed a program for 9th graders.  With California aiming to put algebra in 8th grade, Gallimore looked at ways to adjust the program to meet that need, and even to pave the way by supporting students as early as fifth grade.

At the same time that Gallimore was looking out for her students, the California Teachers Association (CTA) was working to develop stronger ties with university researchers; Marlene Bell of CTA had begun the work of forging a partnership with the School of Education at U.C. Davis, and Bell suggested Gallimore’s project as a potential area of collaboration.

Jumping ahead a few years, what began as an after-school program at Gallimore’s school turned into a larger program integrated into the students’ regular math instruction.  Taking the program to scale in a school, and then district wide, required training, and training means funding.  The IFT grant by itself would not be enough, but the partnership has the moral and financial support of the district as well.  Gallimore’s role has expanded from teacher leader to a hybrid, teacher-administrator role, with her salary covered partially by the IFT grant and partially by the school district.  At the same time, school budgets are stretched so thin – not just stretched, broken – that the IFT grant money is helping to fill in some of the gaps to provide basic classroom supplies.

The program, now called Algebra Success Academy, has expanded to include a total of 24 staff members to cover all of the teaching, administrative, and support duties involved.  New teachers entering the program receive one year of training.  Gallimore had been dividing her time between classroom coaching and program coordination, and is now concentrating more on providing support at the school level.  Rotating among schools, she describes her job as learning from the school’s teachers and administrators what they need to be effective; it’s a mindset that definitely shows the value of experience, as teachers have long complained about the ineffectiveness of programs dropped in to schools with insufficient consultation or collaboration with teachers.  This program is not “curriculum in a box,” but rather a set of instructional principles and strategies, based on students’ needs.

That means that implementation can look different and different sites.  At one school, the Algebra Success Academy teachers are also P.E. teachers, so they have an integrated approach that blends the use of time and instructional strategies across disciplines. Another school already had a stronger focus on parent engagement, so implementation of the new algebra program will be tailored to enhance and take advantage of the parent program.

You can also see the importance of teacher leadership in the program’s dedication to understanding the whole child.  In addition to dealing with instruction in mathematics, the program has offered students interactive team-building activities like a ropes course, aimed at building a sense of teamwork and family among students.  They’ve sponsored field trips to universities, allowing younger students to talk to college students of similar background.  Good teachers understand that so much of our work involves knowing our students well, and helping them see the purpose of their education – the “why” and not just the “what” and “how.”  An educational aphorism comes to mind: students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.  That aphorism may apply more in some situations than others, but there’s no doubt that students frequently cite “the teacher cares about me” as an important factor in effective and formative learning experiences.

Asked about how this program might work elsewhere, Gallimore is clear about an essential condition: “It has to be run by teachers.”  This thinking is informed by her experience in the classroom and now outside of it as well, by her union background, and by Bob Moses, whose thinking about this kind of change is that you must work from grassroots up.

However, teacher leadership comes with challenges.  For Gallimore, one challenge is finding the right balance to be an effective instructional coach without straying into the realm of evaluation, how to have hard conversations.  (The tension between mentor and evaluator roles is common among teachers in leadership roles, and is handled quite differently from place to place.  For further discussion, see the ACT report on teacher evaluation reform).  In Twin Rivers Unified, the issue is addressed successfully in part because of the partnerships with CTA and U.C. Davis.

Still, it’s important not to look at the partnership and assume the process is simple, smooth, or guaranteed to work.  “It took some work to bring everyone around to teacher leadership for this program.  But you have to assume positive intent.  We’ve gained allies by proving it can work.”  Gallimore adds that the success of the program was aided by her ability to keep control over the direction and pace of its expansion.  Another challenge is that teachers need to be student-centered in their approach, but Gallimore observes that recent reliance on scripted teaching has negatively affected teachers’ skills and mindset; as a result, some teachers think of their job as controlling students, and scripting every minute of every lesson.

Does Algebra Success Academy work?  The first students to enter the program a few years ago are now hitting high school algebra, and Gallimore says they’ve been successful.  More detailed evaluations of the project have been produced through their association with U.C. Davis, generating a variety of publications examining various aspects of the program (see the UCD website).   For a greater understanding of the role of teacher leaders in their districts and in partnership with outside organizations, I’m indebted to one of those papers in particular: “The Algebra Success Academy, Institutional Collaboration and Teacher-Driven Change” (Bookmyer, Watson, Gallimore and Bell).  From that paper, I pulled this final list of recommendations for institutional partnerships.  I think it applies just as well to institutional changes and expanding teacher leadership roles:

* Collaborations are built on relationships and trust on the part of the individuals and the institutions they represent.

* Collaborating institutions need to agree upon and coalesce around key priorities. It isn’t necessary for each partner to be in complete ideological agreement. What is important is that the perceived benefits of working through those ideological differences outweigh the costs.

* Successful collaborations require the buy-in and commitment of the institution’s leadership and those leaders need to be willing to “stay the course” when it might be easier to acquiesce or revert to the status quo.

* Successful collaboration requires staff that is willing to challenge the system on an almost daily basis (and that sometimes requires both a willingness to roll with the punches and to be seen in a less-than-positive light by their colleagues).

* High-dose strategies, intense interventions that impact a large percentage of the target population, are more likely to lead to significant changes. An inherent challenge of any small school-based pilot project is that it’s difficult to document any significant change in student achievement because the results don’t always show up in the data.

* While state and regional institutional partners may call for change and may provide the resources to allow it to happen, the reality is that real change happens at the local level (and so we must look to teachers’ classrooms for evidence that change is actually taking place).

* A stable and predictable funding stream is essential. It takes time for institutional change to happen and having the amount and/or the ‘rules’ for how resources will be allocated change along the way further complicates an already complex scenario.

* When your ultimate goal is to “level the playing field for youth,” institutions shouldn’t have the option of trying to make it happen. Institutions need to keep students at the center of our work and find ways to eliminate the barriers that impede the very work they are challenged with doing.

For more on Algebra Success Academy, take a look at this video, below.  And for policy recommendations on teacher compensation and career pathways, see the report by Accomplished California Teachers.

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