Education Collaboratives as Leaders for Sustainability
What Regional Collaboratives Can Do
This article lays out a new and inspiring view of what a regional education collaborative can accomplish or what its members can ask it to accomplish for the improvement of instruction. A collaborative can push beyond the traditional role of service provider to special education students and broker of professional development services. It can orchestrate sustainable improvement for its clients in critical areas of instruction.
When there is sustained focus on a high-power instructional practice in professional learning for six years, the odds are good for widespread application in classrooms. When there is accountability for teacher implementation by LEA leadership, the odds get higher. When there is continuity of leadership behind the initiative over many years, the odds spike. When the leadership comes from a regional collaborative that can consolidate resources, the odds are even higher. When the practice finds a place in institutional structures and routines of participating school districts, the odds go through the roof. All these factors converged for an inspiring story in northeast Ohio with three organizations working collaboratively:
- State Support Team Region 9 (SST9),
- The Stark County Educational Service Center (Stark ESC), and
- The Stark Education Partnership (SEP)
The instructional practices under study were academic talk structures and teacher skills to maximize student talk and intellectual safety. The constellation of skills studied was crafted to make student engagement universal through teacher moves that produce productive struggle with higher-level thinking and at the same time a low-risk, supportive climate. The course was a rigorous online program with individual coaching called Making Students’ Thinking Visible hosted by Research for Better Teaching (RBT). What gave the course sustainable power was the role of the three collaboratives.
Regional collaboratives of school districts exist all across the United States. Sometimes their primary purpose is to provide special education services that small districts cannot fund on their own. Sometimes they serve as a broker for providing professional development services their districts request. They go by various names in different parts of the country. Readers may be familiar with collaboratives like BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) in New York State, or the ESDs (Education Service Districts) in Oregon. Ohio’s State Support Teams and Educational Service Centers are two such collaboratives across the state of Ohio. This article is about three regional collaboratives that went beyond service to their client districts and became leaders for sustained improvement of teaching.
To date, over 370 educators across seven districts in Stark County have participated in the Making Student Thinking Visible course, and were instrumental in carrying the work forward to put into practice in classrooms. There is visible evidence of this work making a difference in schools. However, more than just a good professional development course was involved.
What ingredients led to this success?
A critical set of factors the collaborative leaders added to the course to ensure that good professional development transfers into practice.
The factors were:
- Selecting a high-power instructional practice: Identify a high-powered instructional practice and commit to an ongoing focus on this practice over several years
- Identifying high quality professional learning experiences with coaching: Identify an effective way to train educators in the instructional practice that includes ongoing coaching along the way.
- Leadership Support:
- Ensuring Participation and Collaboration:
- Practitioners from participating districts brought together quarterly by the regional collaboratives to share ideas, experiences, and get new input.
- Leaders ensured that educators at all levels participate fully in the training - from collaborative leaders to building leaders, classroom lead teachers to support staff. Building leaders participate fully in the training.
- Ongoing Accountability: Teachers are held accountable by LEA leadership for implementing the instructional practices.
- Continuity of Leadership: Leadership in the three regional organizations remains stable and committed to the identified instructional focus
- Pooling of Resources of the Collaborative Organizations: Leadership team represents a large region, and can maximize and consolidate the resources from multiple parties.
- Use of Institutional Structures: Capitalize on existing structures within the districts to embed the practice into district routines and instructional structures.
This is the story of the partnership of State Support Team Region 9 (SST9), Stark County Educational Service Center (Stark ESC), and the Stark Education Partnership (SEP). Teresa Purses (SEP), Candi Hazelwood (SST9), Julie Weyandt (SST9), and Tom Nunziato (Stark ESC), in collaboration with the school leaders, served as wise change agents to their client districts by applying high caliber wisdom about sustainability to professional learning.
SST9, Stark ESC, and SEP support and overlap many of the same districts. Their overlapping districts represent urban, suburban and rural communities serving over 80,000 students. SST9’s charter set by the State of Ohio covers over 30 public and community schools based on differentiated accountability status. The Stark County ESC is organized geographically around 22 public school districts and 1 career center. The Stark Education Partnership is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in Stark County, Ohio. They serve as a catalyst, engaging and collaborating with education, business, civic and community stakeholders to drive sustainable improvement and innovation. This partnership is unique in the state of Ohio as the three collaboratives work together in many facets of school improvement.
A Conversation with Jon Saphier - Stark County ESC Curriculum Department
Candi Hazelwood, Julie Weyandt, and Tom Nunziato interview Jon Saphier about the partnership between Ohio's State Support Team Region 9 (SST9), Stark County Educational Service Center (Stark ESC), the Stark Education Partnership (SEP), and Research for Better Teaching for the past six years to bring Making Student Thinking Visible (MSTV) to the region.
The partners organize multiple-day institutes for members on topics of urgency, such as school organization for equity. Collaborative team structures such as District Leadership Teams (DLT), Building Leadership Teams (BLT), and Teacher Based Teams (TBT) are already in place in many of the districts served due to their implementation of the Ohio Improvement Process (OIP). For several successive years, these institutes included a presentation on teaching skills for generating robust student talk - including all students of all academic levels in high level thinking. Leaders of the three organizations decided to recruit an outside provider with an online course that provided extensive scaffolding, application assignments with feedback, and coaching support for learning these multi-layered skills. The provider was Research for Better Teaching and their course, Making Student Thinking Visible (MSTV). The 24 operating principles of MSTV explored in this course lead to the robust talk environment that increases students’ confidence and extends their capacity to manage discussions.
Sequence of Steps
First, with district and building team structures in place, participants in the course were invited to take the course as a team that included an administrator, general educator and special educator. Teams signed up to be part of a cohort with the course running each year from October to March. Running the course as a cohort provided opportunities for coaching, networking, and additional professional development. Educators in each cohort had an opportunity to network and problem solve together because they were brought together by the leaders of the collaborative.
Second, it was essential for participants to view the MSTV operating principles in action. RBT recommended a visit to Revere High School in Massachusetts. This blue collar urban high school had a multi-year focus on the implementation of MSTV principles and integrated the skills in all subject areas. Teresa Purses, President (now former) of the Stark Education Partnership secured a Timken Grant to fund the visit that included individuals from eight districts and consultants from SST9 and Stark ESC. Revere High School had a track record of successful implementation school-wide with teacher champions leading the large-scale adoption. This school had gone from Level 4 to Level 1 in the state ranking system. Seeing the skills in action uniformly across a big high school was inspiring.
Third, widespread participation was encouraged and facilitated. To begin, the Stark Education Partnership funded the first three years of tuition for all educators who took the course. This planted a seed that took root and spread enthusiasm for the work, so that even when the funding shifted to the districts in the fourth year, there was an increase in participation. This bears witness to the internal advocacy done by educators in the districts for continuation of the work; these programs so often disappear when external funding ends.
Next, it was key to provide opportunities for participants to connect outside the course. SST9 and Stark ESC leaders brought all the participants together throughout the year for an opportunity to deepen their skills and engage in conversation with one another. This was accomplished with coaching sessions and additional professional development often provided by Research for Better Teaching. The SST9 and Stark ESC consultants, all of whom had taken the course and practiced the skills, supported the districts as they implemented their learning in a variety of manners. During this six-year span, cohort participation and buy-in steadily increased building the collective efficacy of the work. In addition to the course, the collaboration continues their ongoing partnership with Jon Saphier and Deborah Reed.
Fifth, involving and training administrators was critical to the success of the implementation of MSTV. Principals and Central Office administrators had the opportunity to attend coaching sessions during their team planning. The Principal Network, a monthly roundtable, allowed for leaders to focus on MSTV and be part of professional development that strengthens student talk, discourse, and adult professional culture. This provided leaders with the knowledge to generate buy-in for the importance of the work and its role in creating equitable schools. Providing these and other opportunities allowed for growth in collective efficacy across the region. Leadership matters! Observing teachers for use of the skills began to show up in evaluation walkthroughs, classroom visits, pre and post conferences, and building and district wide professional development.
MSTV was a game-changer! We focused on the principles during staff meetings and PD opportunities. Now, MSTV principles are woven into walk-throughs and observation data.
Stark County, OH
Finally, local district leaders found ways to fold these skills into existing structures that could perpetuate their life in the practice of current and future teachers. For example: One district built monthly professional development sessions into their local Teacher Academy. Another made MSTV a focus for its local Resident Educator program, an Ohio program designed to improve new teacher retention and enhance teacher quality. Some districts used their instructional coaches to support teachers learning the principles. Others paid attention to where these skills showed up in Ohio's educator evaluation systems. While several districts used their current Teach
This uplifting story from Ohio shows that educators in regional collaboratives can lead for high-leverage sustainable improvement. We believe that when you multiply regional collaboration x high quality professional development x leadership support in LEAs x the utilization of existing infrastructures, the results are sustained high power improvement of instructional practice. Take away any of these variables and the results are less impactful. This unique formula from Ohio can be duplicated across systems to reach what we all strive for in education - sustainable learning of high power instructional practices that impact all students.
Jon Saphier is the founder of Research for Better Teaching in Acton MA. He is the author of 8 books including The Skillful Teacher, now in its 7th edition.
Candi Hazelwood is a recently retired Educational Consultant with the State Support Team Region 9, focusing on school improvement and educational equity. She started her career as a special education teacher in an urban area before becoming a principal. Over her 49 year career in education she has held a variety of positions that impact student learning.
Julie Weyandt is an educational consultant with the State Support Team Region 9 where she supports districts in the area of school improvement. Prior to joining the State Support Team, Julie worked as a curriculum director, gifted coordinator, RE coordinator, testing coordinator, elementary principal, third grade teacher, and adjunct professor for Walsh University.
Tom Nunziato is an Educational Consultant with the Stark County Educational Service Center in Canton, Ohio where he supports the ESC’s partnering school districts in many facets of education, including data analysis, evaluations and instructional practices. Tom was a middle school math teacher during his first 16 years in education.