Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

How Indiana Schools Are Fighting A Decrease In Teacher Collaboration Time

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Second grade teachers at Anderson's Eastside Elementary School meet before school on a recent Wednesday morning. The teachers are sharing student quiz results and swapping teaching strategies as the principal (at center, faced away from the camera) takes notes.

It’s no secret that job dissatisfaction among teachers has reached an all-time high. But among the predictable factors behind this trend — shrinking budgets, increasing class sizes, frustrations over policy — there’s another reason that’s not talked about as much: not enough teamwork.

In a recent survey, 36 percent of U.S. teachers reported seeing time for collaboration with their peers decrease over the past year.

But several Indiana schools say they’ve found a way to reverse that decline, and in the process, more closely track students’ readiness for high-stakes tests.

The method is called “the Eight-Step Process,” an instructional practice that ties state standards directly into teachers’ lesson-planning on a day-to-day basis.

The practice’s critics fear the Eight-Step Process’ reliance on student-level data is a distraction from the lesson-planning teachers ought to be focused on. But the method has also won allies in teachers for its emphasis on teamwork — and among school administrators and state officials for its potential to increase in test scores.

The concept of the Eight-Step Process originated in Texas. But in Indiana, it’s been used in schools from Warren Township — one of the earliest adopters of the method — to Muncie,  Elwood, Indianapolis, Gary, Batesville, and Anderson. The Indiana Department of Education is one the consultant behind the Eight-Step Process’s clients. State officials list more than a dozen school districts using the system.

Marion Community Schools deployed the Eight-Step Process as part of a state-sanctioned turnaround program for the district’s high school. (We profiled the effort last year.) Superintendent Steve Edwards gives the system’s implementation partial credit for pulling Marion High School off the state’s failing schools list.

“The heart of it was using those formative assessments,” Edwards told StateImpact in November.

To summarize, the Eight-Step Process relies on two critical pieces:

1.) Frequent, ‘Low-Stakes’ Assessments

Every three weeks, students in each class take a four-question standardized quiz on a subject they’ve been working on in class. Each quiz reflects a specific state standard they have to meet to pass statewide tests, like the ISTEP or IREAD-3 exams.

Every day in school, students leave their home classroom to work with another teacher for thirty minutes on a concept in reading or math during a “success period.” Based on their quiz scores, the students are sorted into three groups:

  • Mastery Group. These students correctly answered all four questions on the original quiz. Teachers interpret this result to mean these students know the material backwards and forwards. During success time, these students are able to work ahead or delve deeper into a subject.
  • Partial Mastery Group. These students missed one out of the four questions on their original quiz. They’re sorted into a group where teachers will reinforce concepts and address any gaps in students’ understanding.
  • Non-Mastery Group. These students missed two questions on their original quiz, which signals to teachers that they’ve fallen behind. Teachers use success periods to remediate these students.

Anderson Community Schools curriculum director Janet Burrows says teachers know from these quizzes, given once every three weeks, how well students are doing before they take the ISTEP.

“Gone is the day when our teachers say, ‘We taught it, [the students] just didn’t get it.’ We don’t do that,” Burrows says. “The Eight-Step gives us the structure in which we can follow-up with children during that success period and fill in gaps, reteach, and move kids to mastery.”

Burrows predicts the implementation of the curriculum changes could bump up district’s test scores by double digits when the results come back later this year.

2.) Collaboration Time For Teachers

At Anderson’s Eastside Elementary, teachers from each grade level meet once every week with principal Pat Cox.

They use the time to share lesson plans, swap ideas, and try to make sense of quiz results.

They ask “‘What went wrong? Why are [the students] stagnant?'” explains second grade teacher Susie Miller. “And then we start realizing, ‘Okay, maybe it’s a test-taking skill. Maybe they don’t understand the standard. Maybe how I taught in [success period] for three weeks wasn’t toward what that particular standard meant.'”

The process fits with many of the Indiana Department of Education’s policy goals — from holding teachers to task for student performance, to using test score data to determine what skills need the most work.

But former teacher Anthony Cody is skeptical. The California-based educational consultant says a focus on numbers doesn’t necessarily help teachers grow.

“A lot of professional development has turned into data sessions where teachers pore over spreadsheets to find out where they should focus their energy. We’ve moved away from the open-ended work of figuring out what do we really need to do in our classrooms to make them come alive,” Cody says.

Cody says teachers need to be planning engaging lessons and trying new teaching methods — something they can’t learn from datapoints and test scores.

But Cox says she feels as though the entire staff has bought into the idea. She says she has had the support of Anderson’s teacher union in implementing the curriculum changes, and says the change has turned her teachers into a team.

“So often in the past, we taught in isolation,” Cox says. “I had good ideas, but I didn’t want to share them with you. Who are you to get my ideas? And now we’re all sharing, and it’s making us all better.”


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