A Fresh Start, With Students at the Center

The Every Student Succeeds Act is an opportunity to look at what works when it comes to improving teaching and learning.

By Harriet Sanford

Now that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is no longer the law of the land, education policymakers at all levels are talking about the importance of a fresh start. The Every Student Succeeds Act--NCLB's successor--is more than a new name for the law. It's an opportunity to rethink how educators and school leaders can work together to improve student learning, starting right where such efforts should begin--in the classroom.

While evaluation and other top-down efforts to improve learning have typically focused on the adults in the classroom, we know that the process, when done right, is really aimed at ensuring that all students are taught in ways that help them succeed. For the first time, the new law explicitly allows states to invest in evaluation systems that go beyond ratings and instead provide teachers with "useful and timely feedback" and help to "inform decision-making about professional development and improvement strategies." The jury's still out on what these changes will mean, but from our work with forward-thinking districts and teacher unions over the past decade, we know that this approach can put students, not adults, at the center of the discussion.

That's what happened in the San Juan Unified School District outside of Sacramento, California, where a joint committee of teachers and administrators created a new professional growth system, which was introduced in fall 2014. Shallow classroom evaluations were replaced by deeper and broader measures of teaching practice that gave teachers a roadmap to improve instruction, not just a rating. Teachers are asked to reflect on their students and the strategies they are using to teach them and based on those reflections, propose next steps for action. Those teachers who are struggling to meet their students' needs are coached by their colleagues, other teachers, to help them improve.

The California district isn't alone. Across the country, a small but influential number of school districts have worked with closely with their educators to develop stronger, smarter evaluation systems that focus on improving teaching--without sweeping poor instruction under the rug.

In these districts, teachers play an outsized role in determining if struggling teachers are improving with support. If they do not, teachers and administrators, as equal partners, decide together if a teacher should be dismissed. "In the event that a person is unwilling or unable to meet standards, they should exit the profession," says Shannan Brown, president of the San Juan Teachers Association in California.

This collaborative approach is typified by Montgomery County, Maryland, where my colleague Bonnie Cullison served as president of the Montgomery County Education Association. A respected former educator and a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, Cullison led an organization which had empowered teachers to co-create a professional growth system that included a collaborative approach to evaluation, peer support, and improved professional development led by educators.

But Cullison is quick to point out that when districts and teachers are focused on the same things--teaching and learning--the impact goes far beyond evaluation and professional development. It results in improved collaboration at the school level, where teachers and administrators share decision-making responsibilities and guide instruction and professional development, as is the case in San Juan. It allows for creative approaches to challenges such as improving parent involvement, as is the case in Springfield, Massachusetts, where teachers and their union have taken the lead in scheduling home visits with families. And it provides new opportunities for teachers to play a role in improving student learning at scale. In 2014, Montgomery County Public Schools implemented the final phase of what it calls a "career lattice," which provides new opportunities for exceptional teachers to lead without becoming administrators and leaving the classroom. Selected by a panel of teachers and administrators, "lead teachers" play additional roles such as coaching other teachers and coordinating schoolwide projects in high-need schools.

"I passionately believe that education transformation can only happen if educators lead the way," Brown says.

These kinds of collaborations can also help address significant shifts in schools and the students they serve. In 2000, Montgomery County became a minority-majority school district--a harbinger to the demographic shift that's now happening nationwide.

"Our union, the Montgomery County Educators Association, took the lead in creating an initiative to train teachers to better meet the needs of this increasingly diverse group of students, developing a 15-credit graduate certificate program in culturally responsive teaching in partnership with a local college," Cullison says.

"In our schools today, we often struggle with troubling questions about equity, access, and fair play--questions that are not easy to answer in isolation from colleagues or simply through self-reflection," adds former MCEA president Doug Prouty. "We recognized that we needed to act quickly [to]... do our part to educate and support our new student populations."

In her role working with other innovative unions and districts at the NEA Foundation, Cullison has seen the impact of these kinds of projects firsthand--improved collaboration between teachers and administrators, professional development more suited to the needs of our students, and the right kinds of support for teachers who need help improving their practice.

"What we've learned from these partnerships is that when teachers are given the opportunity and take on the responsibility of addressing what their students need most--and when school districts see them as authentic partners in the work-- the focus invariably shifts to the students we all serve," Cullison says.

While it's too soon to know if the Every Student Succeeds Act will live up to its name, we hope that it will provide an impetus for more districts and their teachers to pursue the proven partnerships we've seen in Montgomery County, San Juan, and elsewhere to focus on what works best in our classrooms--and for all of our students.

Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

The NEA Foundation is a public charity supported by contributions from educators' dues, corporate sponsors, foundations, and others who support public education initiatives. We partner with education unions, districts, and communities to create powerful, sustainable improvements in teaching and learning.

Interested in learning more? Read our latest issue brief, Education Associations: Putting Students at the Center, and others, here. Find and download any of our free, online courses developed by experts in the field and designed to promote union-district collaboration as a tool for systems change here.