Donna, a 4th grader in Ms. Jackie and Ms. Brenda’s class, explained her work on the fractions grapple problem under the document camera, and when she finished, several thumbs were raised. She called on Luis first, who asked, “How did you get your answer by using this strategy?” As Donna reflected on her work, questions were posed by Denelis, Evelyn, and Eleanor before the teacher, Ms. Jackie, acknowledged the creativity in Donna’s method and asked another student, whose method she had observed during her strategic monitoring of the classroom, to share her method for the next discussion. To launch this discussion, Ms. Jackie used equity sticks so that all students felt a greater sense of accountability to the discussion and to the community of problem-solvers, and to check her own biases when determining on whom to call. She had reflected on her inclination to call on many of the same students repeatedly, and through coaching and observation feedback, she built in this intervention. Overall, three students presented their work, over 70% of the students asked questions or shared ideas, and there was greater evidence of students engaging in meaningful math discourse.
WHEELS, our school, is a NYC Outward Bound School implementing the EL Education school model. The core practices establish our vision of project-based learning, deeper instruction, and Crew, our advisory program that focuses on creating a sense of belonging and agency for students and staff. We believe that our students, 93% of whom identify as Latinx and over 80% of whom received free and reduced lunch, should be “leaders of their own learning”, but our math classrooms have not always featured this much student-led, collaborative problem-solving. We face similar challenges to other schools: teachers’ mindsets on math instruction and their own math histories, the pressures to remediate and accelerate coming out of the pandemic, and students’ mindsets about math, their intelligence, and classroom discussions. In the 2021-2022 school year, our school applied our continuous improvement (CI) cycles toward mathematics, focusing our elementary grades and our math classrooms in Grades 6-12 on bite-sized, evidence-based practices that we would develop together.
In our roles as principal and school coach at WHEELS, we are deep believers in the power of continuous improvement cycles to increase the collective efficacy of teacher teams to ultimately produce more equitable student outcomes. In the NYC Outward Bound Schools network, continuous improvement is our engine for disrupting historical systems of racial and social inequity and a process to remove the predictability of success that correlates with any singular factor to ensure high outcomes for all. Within this approach lies a significant tension between the convergence toward a shared vision, shared practice, and consistent, quality implementation across classrooms, and the divergence of teachers taking risks, learning from failure, and increasingly taking ownership over their collective practice, or what Allison Gulamhussein describes as the dual roles of teachers as both technicians and researchers. As technicians, educators are converging to implement and codify shared, evidence-based practices across classrooms. Equally important, as researchers, educators in their classroom and on their teams are making decisions and modifications in concert with their students and based on their data, occasionally varying their implementation and analyzing their impact. Constantly tending to this balance between convergence and divergence is one of the primary tasks of school leaders and continuous improvement coaches as we build our teams’ collective efficacy and drive overall improvement in student learning.
Jenni Donohoo and Steven Katz (2019) identify four processes that create “mastery experiences” and cultivate collective efficacy: learning together, cause-effect relationships, goal-directed behavior and purposeful practice. We have learned, reflected on, and implemented different change ideas for each process as we have tended to the balance between convergence and divergence, and we highlight key decisions for each process that have propelled our CI work forward while deepening our commitment to collective efficacy.
|Process of Collective Efficacy
|Steps to Promote Convergence
|Steps to Preserve Divergence
|Common Problems of Practice and Root Cause
|Staff choose PD group with predetermined problem of practice and root cause
PD Group and Facilitators choose change idea based on criteria
|Workplan with leading and lagging Indicators for whole school
|Each inquiry group chooses their leading indicators that they are monitoring within their cycle.
|Shared Agendas with shared criteria for each part of the cycle
|The leads of each group make changes based on their specific change idea
|Common protocols to focus learning, with aligned artifacts
|Choice from menu of artifacts
Donohoo and Katz describe the first process, “Learning Together,” as teams coming together working to solve problems that ultimately will support the learning needs of their students. Each June, our Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) establishes a school-wide goal, written as a theory of action. By establishing one common goal, three changes in student experience, drawn from EL Education’s Deeper Instruction Framework, and three changes in practice, we are converging, establishing parameters for our high-powered professional development (PD). PD groups and grade-level teams to select problems of practice, root causes, and change ideas that align. After multiple iterations of guiding this process, we created an opportunity for divergence by providing a menu of options of problems of practice that are aligned to the theory of action (structured choice), fishbone protocols to generate root causes collectively (open-ended), and a menu of change ideas that align to a shared set of criteria (structured choice). Tweaking the decision-making process in this way focuses teams on quality change ideas and allows us to learn from different groups’ shared practices or variability while honoring the authentic and nuanced problems that teams want to tackle together.
For example, our two Math PD Groups both focused on students engaging in more flexible problem-solving and collaborative discussions as a means to all students accelerating their math proficiency, and while they initially chose different problems of practice — PreK-7 started with anticipatory frameworks and 8-12 started with grapple problem design — they eventually converged again by Cycle 2, when both groups were anticipating the methods that students would use to grapple with a task. As an ILT, we provide feedback to each other on the alignment to the larger goal and use common criteria to evaluate ‘change ideas’, but we want the PD facilitators and groups to make choices that are rooted in the needs of their classrooms and students. “At the culmination of our first cycle of Math PD, teachers were invigorated by the results of their collective efforts!” said Grace Dircz, a member of the ILT leading the PreK-7 team. “As we celebrated immense gains in productive struggle, we noticed that higher order questioning was an area that we could continue to build out. But perhaps even more importantly, we saw that teacher voice continued to dominate class discussions and we committed to change that in the subsequent cycles.”
Donohoo and Katz describe a second crucial process of collective efficacy, “Cause-Effect Relationships,” as teacher teams connecting “evidence of student learning” and “what caused those results (implementation of evidence-based strategies).” This provided an immediate opportunity for fostering divergence: If we only value one type of evidence for all groups, we see team engagement decrease. However, if we invite all groups to select their own measures of impact locally, it is difficult to compare learning across teams. Further, without some centralized support and accountability, the data might not get collected consistently. Therefore, we establish convergent lagging indicators for the entire school, aligned to our theory of action (e.g., NWEA MAP Growth). This convergence allows us to compare growth, brightspot certain grade-level teams, and leverage their promising practices as future change ideas, while also allowing us to assess the impact of our larger CI process each semester.
Since our CI cycles require more frequent progress monitoring on leading indicators, our teams of teachers are connecting shorter-term evidence to decisions in their classrooms. The most common leading indicator for us is classroom walkthroughs. We learned last year, however, that if every PD group chooses different walkthrough indicators and changes them each cycle, it is difficult to monitor growth across groups and time. So this year, we have PD groups choosing some indicators and all PD groups and accompanying walkthroughs using three primary indicators, one for each change in student experience, so that we can again compare across groups and over time, increasing our opportunities to learn from each other.
In practice for our Math PD groups, teachers began the year with different walkthrough indicators based on their different change ideas but converged so they could compare growth based on their moves in PD. The walkthrough data combined with other leading indicators of their choosing allowed teachers to connect their individual and collective efforts to the impact they were having on student learning.
Our PD groups focus on what Donohoo and Katz call “Goal-Directed Behavior,” their third collective efficacy process, where they distinguish between mastery goals (how to teach a skill) and performance goals (how students perform the skill), and conclude that strong teams know that when they are learning together as a team, they need a mastery goal to target their implementation as well as a performance goal to monitor student progress. Change ideas that meet a set of criteria enable teams of teachers to focus on how to teach better, but we have found that teams can still run across pitfalls if the time they spend together is not primarily focused on how to improve their practice. On the side of convergence, our PD has grown with a common cycle process that includes common agendas. On the side of divergence, these agendas can be adapted to meet the groups’ needs, culminating with common learning summaries. In practice, our Math PD groups allowed teachers like Ms. Jackie to not only focus on broad notions of collaborative problem-solving but to also drill down on concrete, daily practices like equity sticks and the equitable selection of student work. Her practice improved as a result of the work in her group, pursuing the criteria of quality implementation she co-created from a change idea she helped to select, all while working toward our larger school-wide goal.
Donohoo and Katz’s final process, “Purposeful Practice,” is described as “specific, deliberate efforts to improve.” The selection of artifacts and accompanying protocols is an opportunity to ensure accountability to the shared commitment of implementation while also offering room for thoughtful improvisation if a teacher sees an opportunity to learn from a tweak in the classroom. We have found that teachers recording themselves is the gold standard for artifacts, and although we cannot mandate it, we provide it as the first option in all PD groups and highlight the growth groups see when they embrace the vulnerability. We provide additional choices, including looking at student protocols, but we have PD groups decide what makes the most sense for their learning based on their change idea. Once again, convergence with structured opportunities for divergence. This connects back to the leading indicators they established together, and when teachers provide input into the what and the why, we have found greater degrees of implementation and mutual accountability. For our Math PD groups, our PreK-7 embraced the trust and vulnerability of recording their grapple problem debriefs and our Grades 8-12 started with tasks but eventually embraced more video sharing as well. Ultimately, we want teachers accountable to each other in implementing their change idea so we can all learn together, and being strategic about the artifacts and protocols engages their “technician” and “researcher” roles.
Between the winter (mid-year) and spring (end of year) assessments of the NWEA MAP Math Assessment, eight of the 13 grades that administered the assessments were in the 98th or 99th percentiles in the “school conditional growth percentile,” meaning most grade levels in our school grew more than those same grade levels in almost all other schools. This growth was achieved in large part thanks to teams of teachers learning together through a disciplined CI process that balanced convergence toward our goal and divergence in what to learn and how to learn it together there. In order to build the collective efficacy of teacher teams, school leaders and CI coaches must tend to the balance of convergence and divergence that result in teachers improving the quality of their implementation of shared practice across teams while continuing to take risks, try new approaches, and make decisions for and with the students in their classrooms. Within CI cycles is the need for many decisions to be made, and the way those decisions are made, by whom, and for what purpose will determine how much these methods can actually build teacher teams’ sense of collective efficacy.
1. The names in this article are pseudonyms.
Argyris, C. (1977). Double loop learning in organizations. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/1977/09/double-loop-learning-in-organizations
Donohoo, J., & Katz, S. (2019). What drives collective efficacy? Educational Leadership, 24–29. Retrieved from https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/what-drives-collective-efficacy
Gulamhussein, A. (2013). Teaching the teachers: Effective professional development in an era of high stakes accountability. Alexandria, VA: Center for Public Education, National School Board Association.