Improving instruction at scale in Illinois

Alignment is the cornerstone of teacher preparation, my colleagues Benjamin Riley and Valerie Sakimura wrote in Educational Leadership last year. Last week in Chicago, participants in the Illinois Ed Prep Impact Network continued to redesign their programs with that idea in mind. 

Now entering its second year, the network is a co-constructed effort among five educator-preparation programs and their school partners to improve the instructional preparedness of beginning teachers, with an emphasis on culturally, racially, and linguistically diverse classroom contexts. Network participants have analyzed common data, observed together in K-12 classrooms, and interviewed teacher-candidates and program graduates. With support from Deans for Impact, they have reviewed the evidence and developed action plans, which aim to revamp coursework, coaching, and support for beginning teachers. The scale is significant: institutions participating in the network prepare a fifth of all new teachers in the state.

And at the heart of every plan lies a simple truth: you cannot improve instruction at scale without increasing alignment among all those involved in the preparation of beginning teachers. By increasing alignment, we mean ensuring not only that coursework faculty, field supervisors, and mentor teachers use a common terminology for teaching about instruction, but also that they are able to articulate, concretely, what future teachers should know and be able to do and intentionally design coursework and practice around mastery of those competencies.      

For example, it’s not enough to say that we want beginning teachers to “enact equitable instruction.” We need to be specific about how teachers create opportunities to validate and affirm the thinking of all students, and how they communicate to children that they are valued and belong. Similarly, it’s not enough to say that beginning teachers should “promote critical thinking.” Drawing upon our best scientific understanding about how children learn, we need to be specific about how teachers engage students in rich instructional tasks that surface prior knowledge and link new ideas to this knowledge.   

So, how do you achieve alignment among program faculty and administrators, school system leaders, mentor teachers, and supervisors? As one participant in the Illinois Impact Network put it: “Ample time, honesty and openness to hear and sincerely consider one another’s views.” 

Here are a few things that we’re learning:

  1. Less is more. Educator-preparation programs and hiring districts alike often list voluminous expectations for what beginning teachers should know and be able to do (if they list a coherent set of expectations at all). These are codified in page upon page of instructional rubrics that are rarely actionable. By contrast, participants in the Illinois Impact Network are focused on just four “instructional look-fors” that have been mapped to key sections of the edTPA, the summative performance assessment mandated by the State of Illinois.
  2. Observing instruction has no substitute. Partners need to observe and debrief instruction – frequently and together. That’s why participants in the Illinois Impact Network watch and analyze classroom video at each network meeting and why a core expectation of network participation is that teams observe instruction together in local partner schools.
  3. It takes a village. Network teams include program faculty, staff and partners, and over the past year, teams have honed their understanding of instruction through frequent tuning sessions. These sessions have been deliberately designed to engage an ever-broadening group involved in the preparation of teachers. For instance, in July one team rented out a community space and invited school partners and program alumni to help deepen understanding of instructional look-fors across different grades, subject areas, and school settings. “This work has reiterated the importance of engaging multiple stakeholders. It takes a village!” wrote one university faculty member.   

This type of alignment work is time-intensive. But we believe that the payoffs are immense in terms of beginning teachers’ instructional preparedness. Network participants, together with Deans for Impact, are gathering multiple forms of data to assess the impact of changes to coursework, coaching, and support. 

In a future post, we will share strategies used by program leaders in Illinois to incentivize and support this type of work, and we will offer recommendations to states that want to see educator-preparation programs and school partners come together in meaningful ways to improve instruction at scale.

Peter Fishman

Vice President of Strategy

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