On the East Side of Pittsburgh, Vonnie Holbrook is known as “the math lady.” A teacher in Pittsburgh for 24 years, she has taught mathematics in many schools and to many children from kindergarten to eighth grade. But for the last six years Holbrook has found herself teaching mathematics to a new group of students—her colleagues in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Holbrook is a math resource teacher, one of many different titles given to a growing cadre of seasoned educators across the country known more informally as “teacher leaders.” As a resource teacher, she is responsible for helping her colleagues implement a new, standards–based mathematics curriculum in eight elementary schools.
Like teacher leaders across the country, Holbrook has a varied set of responsibilities, including coaching, co–teaching, joint lesson planning, and staff development activities—but all of this work keeps her close to the classroom. She feels welcomed by her teacher colleagues, perhaps because she has worked alongside them for so long: “With the new teachers, the relationship is a formal one—classroom observations, joint lesson planning, that sort of thing. With the older teachers the relationship is less formal—I’ll run into someone in the corridor and they’ll say, ‘I taught that lesson and it just didn’t work.’ And I can say, ‘Well, when I did it recently, I tried this or that… ’ This kind of support really works with teachers.”
Pittsburgh’s curriculum implementation and teacher leadership programs are part of a national standards-based reform effort known as the Urban Systemic Program (USP). Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), USP is helping to bring top–quality mathematics and science programs to big–city schools around the country as those schools work to meet the new national standards in these subject areas.
As part of Pittsburgh’s reform initiative, staff development time for mathematics is used to bring groups of teachers together to actually do the mathematics lessons themselves. To date Holbrook has led teacher sessions on geometry, invented algorithms, and strategies for allowing children to share their work constructively. Holbrook is also leading teachers in dialogue across grade levels and across subject matters: “Recently some of the middle school teachers testified to the impact the program is having on their work—there is a big improvement in the amount of math they’re able to do with the kids. It was important for the elementary teachers to hear that.”
According to EDC’s Brian Lord, the long–term success of standards-based reform ultimately hinges on teacher learning initiatives like those underway in Pittsburgh, “because these reforms call for a new depth of mathematical understanding and ability on the part of teachers as well as students.” Lord, along with his EDC colleague Barbara Miller, co–directs an NSF research project, Teacher Leadership for Systemic Reform, studying the effectiveness of teacher leadership programs in six different USI and USP sites. More broadly, they are interested in learning whether teacher leadership programs have the potential to bring about the kind of deep and lasting improvement in teaching and learning that the standards movement requires. “Assessments alone won’t do it. Curriculum alone won’t do it. High standards alone won’t do it,” says Lord. “At some point you have to ensure that teachers are learning what they need to know to help kids meet these tougher requirements.”
In El Paso, Texas, Blanca Lopez–Martinez has recently witnessed the importance of teacher learning in the process of school improvement. A teacher–mentor for elementary science in the El Paso Independent School District, she is an experienced classroom teacher who now commits herself full–time to working with her colleagues in the science department as a coach, mentor, co–teacher, and professional development provider. As part of the USP program in El Paso, Martinez–Lopez is also helping to lead the science department in the “lesson study” model of professional development. In this model, a pair of teacher–mentors leads a cohort of six teachers from across grade levels in regular lesson–planning sessions. After a planning period, one member of the group teaches the lesson in her classroom while the rest of the group observes. The group then meets again to discuss and offer feedback on how the lesson went. The mentors also meet individually with the teachers to follow up on the group sessions and sometimes team–teach. “Based on the feedback, the teacher might decide she needs to reteach the lesson, or maybe someone discovers an interesting extension to try, or a variation for a different age group. Or two in the group might decide to team–teach the lesson,” says Martinez–Lopez. “Everybody’s participating and everybody is learning a lot from each other.” She has found that the cross–grade collaborations have been especially enlightening. As an example, she cites a recent discussion between first and sixth grade teachers: “First grade teachers aren’t always aware that what they’re doing with patterns is laying the foundation for algebra. When they see this, they come to understand how important their work is.”
According to Brian Lord, the potential of teacher leadership as a far–reaching professional development strategy lies in the intimate knowledge of the day–to–day life of classrooms and schools that teacher leaders bring to the work of improving instruction. As Martinez–Lopez explains, “The mentors all have different backgrounds, but we’re all teachers. We know the struggles firsthand—the time constraints, the pressures with testing, and so forth. It really helps our credibility with the teachers. I don’t see how someone could do this work with just the theory. You need to know the practice.”
Vonnie Holbrook agrees: “I think this program is working because it reaches the teachers where they live. If you’ve been teaching in a traditional style and you were taught that way yourself, you don’t really believe that kids can reach this depth of mathematical under–standing until you see it happening with real kids in real classrooms. Then you’re willing to go ahead and try it yourself in your own classroom.” Holbrook adds that the impact cuts across disciplines: “I was reading teacher evaluations recently, and teachers were writing things like, ‘This has had a deep impact on the way I’m teaching right now–and not just in math.’”
For his part, Lord is cautiously optimistic about the potential impact of teacher leadership models—provided that they are integrated into a district–wide approach. “We’re in the same place now with teacher learning that we were 20 years ago with student learning and standards,” he says. “Twenty years ago, everyone would have laughed if you had said we were going to have national standards in all subject areas, that we would have curriculum written to those standards, and that we would have a set of criterion—referenced tests based on those standards. Well, we’ve seen all that happen. The missing piece is teacher learning. Right now most people see only the obstacles—the institutional changes that need to happen, or the changes in the profession. But we’re beginning to see how those obstacles can be overcome.”
Originally published on June 1, 2002