Continuous Improvement has a great deal of potential as a method for identifying and dismantling the structures that uphold white supremacy, patriarchy, and other engines of oppression within schools, but it doesn’t do so “automatically.”
In this piece, High Tech High GSE’s Director of Liberation, Dr. Michelle Pledger, describes how she is turning continuous improvement into an instrument of liberation. To learn more about Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, check out the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings, Geneva Gay, Zaretta Hammond, Django Paris and H. Samy Alim.
In the fall of 2019, I was entering my third year as an Induction Coach for the High Tech High Teacher Center, and I knew I needed to do something dramatically different. Newly credentialed teachers in California complete a Teacher Induction Program, which provides job-embedded support and mentoring that must be completed to finalize the credentialing process. HTH facilitates an induction program in which participants self-select into teams focused on topics of their choice. Although the previous inductees that I had coached and mentored were lovely humans and we were able to learn and grow together, I knew that we could go deeper and further by addressing an opportunity gap in the structure of our induction program, especially because our team’s induction focus was Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP).
CRP is a research-based pedagogy that leverages cultural competence, critical consciousness, and cognitive capacity development to improve engagement, access, and learning outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse students. In other words, students see themselves reflected in the curriculum in accurate and affirming ways, they have opportunities to learn about social justice movements of the past and participate in social justice initiatives of the present that are relevant to them, and they develop routines to problem solve when faced with cognitive challenges. In a culturally responsive classroom, students are seen, heard, respected, trusted, challenged, and transformed.
Truth be told, at the start of the course, I felt equipped as a CRP educator, but I still felt like a novice improvement coach, and I wanted to grow in my practice to better serve my inductees so that they could better serve their students. Three factors led to teacher transformation during this induction year: time, identity work, and a culture of loving accountability, and they built on each other in tangible ways.
In the past, the High Tech High Teacher Center’s induction program had consisted of eight meetings, though the first of these is orientation and last is a “celebration of learning,” so in actuality there are six sessions devoted to continuous improvement. My previous experience attempting to facilitate a team striving to strengthen their efficacy as culturally responsive practitioners in just six sessions substantiated my hunch that we needed more time.
I reached out to the Director of the Teacher Center and the Director of Continuous Improvement to propose a pilot for the upcoming Culturally Responsive Continuous Improvement group with double the opportunities of face time, and a limit of ten participants. Thankfully, they eagerly agreed. This meant seven additional virtual meetings for my group. The compensation for this additional commitment was two-fold: materially, it meant a greater number of continuing education units, which move teachers up the pay scale; more important to me, it meant a greater sense of self-efficacy that would allow them to positively impact the lives of historically underserved students.
The nature of continuous improvement means you are trying things out, collecting data, and reflecting, but, in my experience, teachers do better by first shifting their mindsets by doing their own identity work. For example, teachers may unpack deficit thinking about the capabilities of culturally and linguistically diverse students or examine how their sociocultural identity impacts their curriculum and classroom decisions—just two of the competencies of a culturally responsive teacher. For example, when I was a classroom teacher I engaged in self-analysis around how my background influenced my beliefs and biases, and how they manifested in my teaching behavior. I noticed that, as a person of color, I was intentional about integrating black and brown narratives in my curriculum, but as a heterosexual and cisgender person, I had blind spots when it came to incorporating LGBTQ+ narratives in my curriculum. When I became aware of this blind spot, I was able to interrupt the inequitable practice.
The emphasis we placed on identity work was imperative to establishing relational trust with inductees, because we cannot trust people if we do not know them. I noticed that the previous year, there wasn’t sufficient time and opportunity to get to know my inductees on a deeper level or strengthen the coaching relationship, so even when I did notice deficit language or problematic change ideas, it was challenging and uncomfortable to surface them because the coaching relationship was fragile to non-existent. Inductees (who come from a variety of schools) also were not able to truly get to know each other to engage in authentic collaborative learning.
The relational trust these new inductees established and maintained by spending more time together was a tremendous gift that led to tangible transformation. With more time to explore culturally responsive pedagogy and continuous improvement tools, inductees were able to co-create Plan–Do–Study–Act (PDSA) cycles that were informed by content and collegial expertise.
During our first PDSA cycle, the elementary school teachers created space for information processing by using a practice introduced by Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Hammond shares a framework called, “Ignite-Chunk-Chew-Review,” which basically means you get the brain’s attention, present information in digestible chunks, facilitate the processing of new information, and provide opportunities to apply the new learning.
The elementary educator group provided “chew” time after “chunked” learning time, and they did this in various ways: pair shares, drawing, application time, and open-ended discussions. One inductee reflection stated, “With open-ended questions, students have a variety of very interesting thoughts, questions, and ideas after Math discourse. It feels valuable to give them this processing time and allows me to see what is sticking with them.”
During our second PDSA cycle, a secondary Humanities teacher wrote that he wanted to improve “the quality and sincerity of the feedback that students give each other in their bi-weekly writer’s workshop,” by thoughtfully incorporating the use of “beautiful exemplars” and the use of a feedback-focused protocol. As he examined the data from three focus students, he found that his students were providing more specific feedback, as well as engaging in authentic revision based on the examples. They told him they appreciated the new protocol, but still found it challenging to process feedback at times. I was encouraged by how much inductees were learning with each PDSA cycle.
Inductees interrogated their identity and curricular decisions through protocols and practices that placed value on caring for and encouraging each individual to grow and learn. Our practice of engaging in conversations about race, intersectional identity, and trust generators fostered a strong sense of psychological and emotional safety that allowed us to employ what I refer to as “loving accountability” when we needed to call each other in, to engage during challenging moments.
In our first week together, we developed a “problem statement” that would define the focus for our work in the coming year. One inductee noticed that the way their group had phrased their problem statement—“Too few students are carrying the cognitive load in the classroom”—placed the onus of change and the blame on the students rather than placing the change practice on the teacher. The group worked together to revise the problem statement so that the teacher became the unit of change: “Teachers are providing too few opportunities for culturally and linguistically diverse students to carry the cognitive load effectively.” At another point during the year, when a couple of induction candidates felt like they did not know enough to begin the PDSA cycle, we discussed how we often fail to try things in education because we are waiting to know enough, waiting to feel like experts, when in reality, continuous improvement is an opportunity for us to learn and improve by doing. I felt comfortable reminding inductees that the goal is not to learn first and then practice improvement; the goal is to practice improvement so we can learn.
When I think about this group now, what stands out most vividly are the various ways that inductees implemented change ideas and created a set of change packages that are available to other educators striving to facilitate learning experiences in which culturally and linguistically diverse students have more opportunities to carry the cognitive load in class, and improve their ability to do so.
Upon evaluating the change packages, there was a notable difference in the depth and breadth of ideas in comparison to the previous year. After reviewing the post-induction evaluation, participants reported a strong sense of belonging, as well as an increased understanding in both continuous improvement and culturally responsive pedagogy. My decision to expand the course so that I could build relationships with my students resulted in authentic improvement for equity by design.