Implementing Best Practices in a Professional Learning Network

In partnership with the School District of Philadelphia and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Partners in School Innovation began supporting a network of ten Philadelphia schools focused on improving math instruction in the fall of 2018. Partners has brought together teachers, instructional coaches, and leaders to strengthen their skills in intervening with middle grades students who are working below grade level while still providing effective standards-aligned instruction.

The Middle Grades Math Network got off to a strong start, and we’re excited to be continuing the work in 2019-2020 with renewed support from the foundation. The project has shown positive signs early on because it embodies the elements that researchers have found promote success in networks.

Specifically, our network aligns well with “six ingredients of network success” identified in a research synthesis on improvement networks in education by the Columbia University Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL). Below, we list the six factors and describe how the project embodies those factors.

SECURE FUNDING

According to CPRL, one factor that contributes to network success is secure funding that remains stable even if the network does not demonstrate immediate student outcome improvements. The Gates Foundation has seen that our network sessions and follow-up support have been well-received by Philadelphia educators, and that we have helped participants achieve gains in professional learning. All three members of the partnership are optimistic that our network will lead to gains in student achievement, and, as a result, the foundation has so far provided enough funding to cover project costs for two years.

STAKEHOLDER INVOLVEMENT AND CLEAR GOALS

Two additional ingredients for success, according to CPRL, are:

  • All relevant network participants, including school district leaders and non-school based stakeholders, need to be fully involved early on.
  • Networks need to establish a clear goal and problem of practice that is highly relevant to schools’ needs and contexts.

Partners decided early on that we would build on our existing relationships with schools in Philadelphia and support teachers of middle grades there. To determine the specific problem of practice that the network would address, we engaged local stakeholders to determine which area of focus they most needed help with. We met with assistant superintendents and principals about middle schools’ challenges in preparing students for success in high school and beyond. They described a strong need for support in math, with very few students performing on grade level and little in the way of professional learning available for middle grades math teachers. Thus, we agreed that the network would focus on math teachers working with 6th-8th grade students needing intervention while still providing access to rigorous grade level content.

We then began designing the structure of the network, wanting to harness the power of collaborative adult learning while still providing differentiation for participants. Our solution has been to conduct group sessions that are highly relevant to the work of each member of the network and provide individualized follow-up support.

The whole-group sessions have had multiple benefits, including providing thought partners for network participants who do not have colleagues at their schools who teach the same grades and subjects because their schools are relatively small K-8 schools. These group sessions occur frequently enough to build momentum without excessively pulling educators from their daily responsibilities. Once per month, network participants gather for a full-day session of deep discussions and hands-on learning about instructional strategies, data analysis, research, and collaborative unit-planning. With sessions occurring monthly, participants have enough time between sessions to experiment with new instructional approaches in their classrooms and reflect on progress.

Differentiation occurs in two ways. First, we set up activities and groupings in our network sessions so that each teacher’s experience will be highly relevant to his or her daily teaching responsibilities. Second, we conduct periodic in-school observations so that teachers can get personalized feedback that will help cement the learnings from the group sessions.

The work has included deep dives into math methods research, assessments, rigorous tasks, and unit planning. It also includes implementing continuous-improvement cycles and having equity-based conversations focused on building student agency.

TRUST

The fourth ingredient is trust. CPRL’s research synthesis describes the factor this way: Network sustainability rests upon relational trust that enables network participants to feel comfortable acknowledging challenges and accepting the benefit of each other’s expertise. One of the network’s participating teachers, Daayiah Green, puts it succinctly: “Trust helps the learning tremendously.”

Partners has taken several steps to create an atmosphere of trust within the network. First, we explained at the project’s outset our organizational history, mission, and methods; the design principles of the network; and the type of support we would offer during and between sessions. It was important to us that the participants understand who we are, what we are about, and what they should expect from us in exchange for their investment of time. In addition, Partners staff members who would be facilitating the network described their professional background in both teaching and providing professional development so that participants would have confidence in our knowledge base.

Second, we were explicit about norms for the group sessions.  For example, we set expectations that all voices would be heard, participants would listen actively, and confidentiality would be maintained. Ms. Green found this norm-setting beneficial, stating “the facilitators did an excellent job of establishing that this is a safe space from day one.”

Another way we foster trust is by creating a learning environment in which teachers get to know each other and us, the facilitators, in comfortable, low-key ways. One small way we do that is by beginning group sessions with short games that get participants moving and interacting.  

Perhaps the most important action we take to foster trust is to demonstrate confidence in the participants. Sessions are not set up as lectures but as interactive sessions that call on participants to share assets — for example, useful resources and successful strategies — so that colleagues can learn from one another. Promoting a sense of collegiality is key to building trust.

SYSTEMS AND STRUCTURES FOR CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT

Beyond stakeholder involvement, a well-defined problem of practice, and trust, certain systems and structures need to be in place for an improvement network to be effective, according to the CPRL researchers. Their research synthesis states: Effective continuous improvement implementation requires implementation cycles supported by strong data infrastructure for assessing causal processes and outcomes.

Partners promotes continuous improvement not only for the network’s participating educators but also for the network itself. We implement a continuous improvement method known as the results-oriented cycle of inquiry (ROCI). It’s a five-step process that includes setting goals, planning, acting, assessing, and reflecting and adjusting. We discuss with network participants our vision for the implementation of ROCI in cycles that are nested in time (from weekly to annually) and scope (from individuals to entire schools). However, we have asked network participants to begin with implementing ROCI in quarterly cycles aligned with the student benchmark assessment calendar and applying it to their own practice. In our group sessions, we have worked with participants to use data analysis protocols to help them engage in ROCI.

For the network itself, we ask participants to complete anonymous surveys about how well each session was designed and whether it met the stated goals. We incorporate that feedback into the design of subsequent sessions in an effort to address all participants’ needs.

DISTRIBUTED LEADERSHIP AND TEAM DIVERSITY

The CPRL’s research synthesis states that spreading ownership of school improvement across multiple roles is necessary for a network to be effective. The researchers put it like this: Supportive and distributed leadership facilitates the shared decision-making processes, and team diversity expands the sets of skills and experiences, which together help solve complex problems.

Partners has sought to create a network that embodies this principle. The network includes teachers, school-based teacher leaders, instructional coaches, and principals. Our goal is to create a thriving and coherent “math ecosystem” in which educators in different roles all support improvement in math education. While teachers and teacher leaders spend much of their time during network sessions on math content, instructional strategies, data analysis, and standards and assessment, coaches and principals spend the bulk of their time on schoolwide strategies for supporting teachers’ implementation of rigorous, culturally responsive instruction and monitoring progress of their students and teachers. With several educators in each school striving to improve math education from different angles, the probability of achieving substantial gains increases.

DELIVERING OUR BEST FOR OUR STUDENTS

Creating a successful network requires a great deal of attention to technical and relational elements as well as an ability to adjust rapidly and often. In other words, it requires a continuous-improvement approach. When an external support provider such as Partners models this type of approach, the network is strong, participants are inspired, and ultimately our students benefit greatly.