Rigor: Teachers need it as much as students


Jennifer Priest Mitchell

How can we improve teacher effectiveness and attitudes to increase student achievement in Arizona’s high-needs K–12 public schools?

One grant-funded project team aimed to answer this question, and is now sharing the results of five years of work in 58 public schools across the state.

According to a 2007 Arizona Teacher Working Conditions Survey, teachers reported feeling frustrated with a lack of professional development, no mentoring systems, low pay and few opportunities for professional growth. To address these needs for teachers, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College partnered with the National Institute of Excellence in Teaching, the Arizona Department of Education and participating schools from 10 Arizona districts. They created the Arizona Ready-for-Rigor Project.

“While the problem we were addressing was student learning, we realized the most significant in-school influence on student learning is the classroom teacher,” said Virginia McElyea, executive director of the Arizona Ready-for-Rigor Project at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “If you change teacher behavior in a positive way—particularly the teacher’s instructional skills, delivery skills and interactions with kids— that can only be a good thing.”

In 2010, the project was awarded a $43.8 million, five-year Teacher Incentive Fund grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The agencies began working with teachers by utilizing NIET’s TAP System, a student and teacher advancement program with four elements of success: instructionally based accountability, ongoing applied professional growth, multiple career paths and performance-based compensation.

The districts and schools, which included 100 administrators, 2,100 teachers and 40,000 students, used guidance from the ASU grant team to implement AZRfR. Each school had its own leadership team, made up of the principal, assistant principal and master and mentor teachers. The teams developed annual school-wide goals based on student achievement data. The goals were specific to each school’s student population, needs and resources.

Additionally, cluster teams, which included all career teachers, met weekly during the school day to discuss how to meet classroom and student goals while building a collaborative community within the schools. All educators were provided mentors and group support, individualized professional development, data-based strategies based on regular observations and immediate feedback targeted to specific teachers’ needs.

“I have grown as a teacher because now I’m doing more reflecting. I think about what I am doing that will help my kids reach the right point,” said Cat Thompson, a teacher at Tsaile Public School in Chine.

The AZRfR Project distributed $20 million in performance-based compensation to the teachers, principals and assistant principals based on multiple evaluations and schoolwide growth, while allowing educators to increase their responsibilities and duties. The grant supported these compensation rewards at a gradually decreasing rate over the course of the grant so that districts could budget for the funds in the future.

The AZRfR Project staff found that the longer schools and districts implemented the program, and provided the necessary support, the more confident teachers felt and the better students performed in the classroom.
“We also learned that leadership does matter — in the classroom, at the grade level, department level and at school and district levels. The longer school teams and entire schools were involved in the project, the greater the gains in teacher effectiveness, principal effectiveness and student achievement,” McElyea said.
“After one year in the project, the Osborn Elementary School District leadership team decided unanimously to continue participation,” Superintendent Patricia Tate said. “We knew all of this work would find its way to strong student achievement. We were making progress in that direction, it all came together and every school blew it out of the water.” In 2013-14, the last year the state released A-F letter grade ratings for schools, Osborn Elementary was the only district in the valley to have all of its schools earn an A or B grade.
The value of the project is evident in the plans of the majority of the partner districts to continue with this school improvement plan after grant funding concludes in 2016.
“The current research on the importance of district and school leadership is clear: District and school leaders who provide a vision for improvement, resources and training to engage in and measure improvement lead schools with effective teachers and strong growth,” said Pam Santesteban, director of leadership for the AZRfR Project.

Explore the Arizona Ready-for-Rigor Project and its results in the interactive impact report.