Recovery 101: Stimulus for School Improvement

by Geoffrey Alan
Published in SEDL Letter Vol. XXI, Number 1, November 2009, Improving School Performance

Patti Hammel witnessed something remarkable in her school district at the start of this school year. Elementary and middle school principals, meeting to discuss teaching and learning issues, committed their schools to an ambitious slate of “non-negotiables.” Topping the list was a mandate for quarterly instructional conferences with teachers based on the SEDL model of professional learning teams. In these teams, teachers, administrators, and other school professionals collaborate to develop standards-based plans for addressing identified student needs. What is causing such changes in places like South Carolina’s Georgetown County School District? Improvements stem directly from some $100 billion in federal education aid slowly making its way to school systems and education organizations nationwide under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the economic stimulus law passed by Congress in February.

Online Resources for Unraveling ARRA

U.S. Education Department on Stimulus Funds

Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board


In Georgetown County, ARRA-funded efforts already are stimulating a culture shift among educators. The seismic effect, according to Hammel, the district’s executive director for student performance and federal programs, is a culture where educators are working collaboratively rather than in isolation to improve instruction systematically.

That educators can work in this way comes as no surprise to Robin Jarvis, a program manager in SEDL’s Improving School Performance work group. What is rare, in her opinion, is the chance that ARRA offers school systems to implement changes on such a systemic scale. “This is an opportunity for them to look at the whole of what they do, to pull all the pieces together, and really have a comprehensive plan for improvement,” Jarvis says. “We’ve never had funding at this level before.”

Innovation Investments

Overall, ARRA aims to pull the country out of its lingering economic downturn. But the law’s narrower education goals include providing targeted cash infusions over a 2-year period to prevent teacher layoffs; raise student achievement; and improve professional development, extended-learning, and related programs (see sidebar).

SEDL can play a special role here, says Jarvis, drawing on her vast experience, which ranges from that of classroom teacher, to professional development director for the Louisiana Department of Education, to superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans. The first round of ARRA disbursements, which began trickling out in the spring, primarily backfilled recent cuts made in the face of shrinking school budgets. student doing math homework In addition, districts such as Georgetown County have been able to apply a portion of the funds to improvement efforts such as SEDL’s Professional Teaching and Learning Cycle (PTLC), a job-embedded professional development process enabling teachers to collaborate on instruction aligned with state standards. (A more detailed description of the PTLC is provided in “Creating a Community of Professional Learners: An Inside View" in this issue of SEDL Letter.)

“Districts and schools are always bombarded by people who have the answer to their problems, people who have the prepackaged, silver-bullet answer that is going to make every child perform—but education is a lot more difficult than that,” she says. “The process we use with schools looks at what is happening and what needs to be done. It helps you think through all the different strategies and programs you could use, and what’s the best thing for your particular situation.”

SEDL’s process provides a way for school systems to make short-term investments that produce long-term gains, backed up by extensive evaluation—some of the biggest priorities of funding streams coming from ARRA. Edward Tobia, a project director in SEDL’s Improving School Performance work group, is leading the ARRA-supported SEDL effort in Georgetown County. SEDL’s approach succeeds, Tobia says, because it gets educators “moving from doing a lot of unconnected acts of improvement to focusing on the needs of their schools and students.” SEDL’s Research and Evaluation work group also plays an integral role, working with educators early on in the professional development process to help them plan for assessing the impact of their efforts.

Systemic Change

In truth, the district’s previous improvement efforts had prepared educators to take advantage of the opportunity presented by SEDL, says Georgetown County’s Hammel. Local educators had consulted various data sources—including the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress and the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, South Carolina’s state assessment—to identify instructional weaknesses and address them. District leaders believed that SEDL’s PTLC supported the direction in which the district had already decided to go, continues Hammel.“The process we use with schools looks at what is happening and what needs to be done. It helps you think through all the different strategies and programs you could use, and what’s the best thing for your particular situation.”
— Robin Jarvis, SEDL Program Manager

By implementing the PTLC, Georgetown County staff are creating professional learning communities in a way that improves professional development, alignment of content with state standards, instruction, assessment, collaboration, data use, and leadership support. SEDL will provide support for the PTLC in Georgetown County’s 19 schools over a 2-year period. From May 2009 through June 2011, SEDL will not only help build district, school, and classroom leaders’ capacity to sustain systemic improvement but also help design and implement an ongoing teacher development process, including building teachers’ content knowledge in reading or math. To support this process, SEDL is committing staff members with expertise in core academic content areas, district and school improvement, professional development, and research and evaluation. Tobia, who is working closely with Hammel, stresses the PTLC’s emphasis on simultaneously changing several components of instruction: how teachers and principals work, how educators’ time is organized, and how teachers need to be supported differently to have the “deep conversations about teaching and learning” that represent the centerpiece of the process.

In Georgetown County, this process began a few months ago with a 4-day summer institute to develop the leadership team at each school. Each leadership team—consisting of a principal, assistant principal, and instructional coach—learned how to introduce teachers to the PTLC and help them work through the process. “It’s more than just providing some professional development—it’s creating a culture of learning within schools through a set of processes that change the way teachers think about their job,” says Tobia. “Their job is to diagnose student needs by having conversations with other professionals about how well students are learning, what challenges students might be facing, and how they can adjust instruction.”

A Focus on Literacy

Georgetown County school and teacher leaders are pinpointing literacy as the core content area to target through the PTLC. “We realized that with all the things that were crowding our day, all the demands for the different things, reading instruction probably wasn’t getting the number of minutes it needed,” says Hammel. “So we’ve taken a hard look at reading instruction, and we’ve gone back to basics.”

School leaders are working in teams to identify relevant state standards, instructional strategies, and assessment techniques. Some of the approaches include independent reading, shared reading, read-alouds and think-alouds, and guided reading and writing. After developing and carrying out common lessons, teacher teams are holding follow-up meetings to talk about their experiences and refine their practices.

“The content of what we’re talking about is literacy—reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, anything related to communication,” says Ramona Chauvin, a SEDL program associate with expertise in K–12 literacy issues. Chauvin points out that some educators have failed to teach literacy across the curriculum in recent decades. “We’ve done a pretty good job in teaching kids how to analyze stories, but we haven’t done a whole lot with teaching them how to access information from informational texts.”

Whereas past federal funding for literacy mostly targeted young children, such as in Reading First, the ARRA’s priorities reflect a growing emphasis on later grades, Chauvin observes. “Now there’s this urgency across the country to help students beyond Grade 3, because those K–3 children are now moving up into intermediate grades and middle school, and they don’t know how to pull the information out of a text. And for the most part, their teachers don’t know how to teach them how to do that,” she says.

A Common Language

The key to the PTLC approach is collaboration. Georgetown County teachers, many of whom did common planning previously, now are meeting again to review student work and discuss evidence of learning. “The idea is to have them begin to be reflective about their own teaching,” says Tobia. “That’s when some real changes begin to occur in what teachers do. And that’s very different than typical staff development.”

Rather than urging teachers to adopt an off-the-shelf approach, SEDL encourages them to develop the habits and skills of sharing and assessing their own best practices, strategies, research, and expertise. “Because this process is much more job-embedded and teachers are having these conversations during their planning times, it’s really about their own teaching,” Tobia adds.

In a recent meeting, for instance, teachers discussed students’ failure to remember the steps of the scientific method. “They said, ‘We have to have a common language for how we talk about the scientific method.’ Apparently they didn’t before,” says Chauvin. “You have teachers who’ve been there for many years, and they talk about it their way. And you have new teachers coming in, and looking at it with different terminology. That was the piece that came out in their professional learning team.”

Research supports this emphasis on collaboration, Tobia explains. “When teachers are working together, there’s a great deal more that happens in terms of changing teacher behavior. It adds a level of accountability, so teachers are holding one another accountable.”

“For a long time, we went into our rooms and we went into private practice,” reflects Hammel. “We never shared what we knew. Now we’re allowing teachers to look at it all and talk about strategies they’re going to use together. If I’m a new teacher or a teacher who has difficulty with particular content, this gives me an open door with my colleagues so I can get some ideas.”

Evaluating Effectiveness

Evaluation is an essential component of this process. As the evaluator for the Georgetown County effort, Erin McCann, a SEDL Research and Evaluation program associate, will process and analyze data from a variety of sources: forms completed by meeting facilitators, discussion logs, focus group feedback, survey questionnaires, observations made by instructional coaches and administrators during classroom walk-throughs, student grades, and student achievement on standardized tests.

In addition to providing district leaders with summative evaluation results at the end of the process, McCann will offer formative evaluation findings on teacher and student progress at regular intervals, so any necessary adjustments can be made along the way. To evaluate teacher collaboration, for example, McCann will examine reading logs, process monthly reports, and interview technical assistance providers three times a year. An added benefit of this ongoing formative evaluation is that it will document short-term gains, which can be vital to building credibility and maintaining momentum, she says.

By using a variety of evaluation strategies, SEDL also is helping Georgetown County take a proactive approach to meeting the Department of Education’s expectations for evaluations under ARRA. “They haven’t been specific about what they want reported back from districts and schools that get these funds, so I’m trying to cover as many bases as I can to make sure we have data once those instructions become explicit,” McCann says.

In the final analysis, though, evaluation’s biggest value is in providing the feedback that teachers need to fuel improvement. “If teachers can really start engaging in these things, they begin seeing some immediate benefits for themselves,” notes Tobia.

“It really makes their job easier when they collaborate. But getting over that hurdle of opening up to other teachers, when they haven’t done that in the past, is one of the things that our structure helps to provide.”

How SEDL Is Helping
Title I, Part A Recovery Funds Title I, School Improvement Grants (103G Funds) Educational Technology State Grants IDEA Recovery Funds for Services to Children and Youths with Disabilities
Elementary Literacy
Adolescent Literacy
Mathematics and Language
Integrating Technology and
Core Content Areas
Response to Intervention
Extended Learning
Community Engagement
Professional Teaching and
Learning Cycle
Professional Learning
Program Evaluation

Capacity Building

“For a long time, we went into our rooms and we went into private practice. We never shared what we knew. Now we’re allowing teachers to look at it all and talk about strategies they’re going to use together. If I’m a new teacher or a teacher who has difficulty with particular content, this gives me an open door with my colleagues so I can get some ideas.”

— Patti Hammel, Executive Director for Student Performance and Federal Programs, Georgetown County School District
SEDL provides this structure in the form of technical assistance. More important, though, SEDL’s role as an external facilitator entails building school leaders’ capacity for educational improvement. “And as we build their capacity, we’re working our way out of the job,” Tobia laughs.

“One of our goals in anything we do is that gradually we withdraw, and they take the lead,” says Jarvis. “Educators change. The principal changes. Teachers change. But that process of continuous improvement that we’ve taught them—looking at student work, analyzing what you’re doing, planning lessons together—all of that should remain in place, no matter who the educators are in the school.”

Looking at the process beginning to take hold in Georgetown County, Hammel appreciates the way school leaders already are practicing new roles. “We’re following a prescriptive plan for professional learning teams,” in which principals, teachers, and coaches collaborate to lead school efforts, she says. “This happens now with a prescribed pattern. It’s our belief that after 2 years it’ll be automatic. It will be the way we do business.”

For now, SEDL’s work in Geogetown County is still in its early stages. Nevertheless, Hammel can barely contain her pride and optimism: “We didn’t just jump into something because it looked like something we could do. It was really mirroring the direction we were going. It was a logical next step. It really was. There is more buy-in than I’ve ever seen. We’re excited. We think we’ve turned a corner.”

Geoffrey Alan is a freelance writer who frequently covers education issues.

Next Article: Creating a Community of Professional Learners: An Inside View