In-School Instructional Support

Aims, Actions, Adaptations

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This section describes how the Chicago Math & Science Initiative (CMSI) originally designed and deployed components of the in-school instructional support strategy. It describes some of the successes and challenges of the initial deployment from the viewpoint of the original CMSI personnel.

As discussed elsewhere, the CMSI designers planned to support the goal of improved instruction through a strategy of selecting and supporting a small number of high quality, research-based sets of instructional materials. These instructional materials provided a framework from which to scaffold other CMSI components. In-school instructional support was one of those components. Professional development in the use of the selected instructional materials was another. CMSI planners recognized that to get improvements in math and science classrooms, teachers would need support in the content and pedagogy they had learned at professional development. They understood that it would be necessary to extend that support into the schools and classrooms for at least three reasons: (1) to support teachers in adapting their own instructional practices to the new materials and the learning approaches embedded in those materials; (2) to help teachers adapt the new instructional materials and approaches to their students; and (3) to ensure that consistent messages about the instructional materials and approaches were reinforced and sustained within the school setting. In a sense, then, CMSI planners conceived these ongoing instructional support roles as bridges connecting professional development experiences with classroom practice.

As the OMS leadership developed its instructional support strategy, they weighed the benefits of using centrally located support staff against the benefits of using a decentralized model to provide instructional supports to teachers. The benefits of using a decentralized, “peer-to-peer” approach have been described in the research literature: school-based learning communities are associated with a decentralized, peer-to-peer model. School-based learning communities are also associated with effective professional development programs. The benefits of a more centralized, “expert peer” or “freed” support model are associated with more consistent reform messages. For the CMSI planners, the value of having more consistent messages (enabled by “freed” and centrally located staff) seemed to outweigh the risk of less opportunity for school-based learning communities to support the reform efforts. The OMS leadership conceived three separate instructional support roles: “facilitators,” “area coaches,” and “in-school specialists.” In addition to providing instructional support, these roles were also conceived as providing leadership for the reform effort. In other words, individuals in these roles were expected to share and model the CMSI vision for and approach to high quality math/science instruction. In this way, the CMSI planners designed these roles to support the reform across all levels of the organization. In the CMSI planners’ effort to balance the goals of coherent policies and improved instruction, the decision to create dedicated instructional supports roles deployed through OMS took priority over a decentralized model of instructional supports.

It is important to note a distinction between two facets of these instructional support roles: their role as teacher leaders in the sense of being peer mentors, and their role as reform leaders. As the CMSI defined them, the instructional support roles integrated these two facets. However, the CMSI was more explicit in developing the first facet -- that of teacher leaders as peer mentors. The CMSI recognized that teachers who support other teachers need a different set of skills than classroom teachers. Even the most experienced, content knowledgeable, and pedagogically sophisticated classroom teacher needs a complementary set of knowledge and skills to work effectively with their peers or less experienced teachers. They need to have a grasp of effective teacher education. They also need the ability to link teacher education to both a particular content area and the pedagogical approaches relevant to the content area. CMSI professional development for individuals in instructional support roles developed and integrated of three kinds of skills and knowledge: (1) knowledge about and ability to be an adult educator, (2) general math/science content and pedagogical knowledge, and (3) specific knowledge about the particular instructional materials supported by the CMSI.

By contrast, initially the CMSI was less explicit in developing the reform leader facet of the instructional support role. The leadership training programs that the initiative provided to the first cadres of instructional support staff did not prepare them well to carry a consistent reform message. However, when the CMSI planners developed the (PDL) program, they more explicitly addressed the instructional leader as “CMSI ambassador” in professional development for instructional support staff.

The design of the CMSI instructional support strategy was based on a more hierarchical and centralized model of teachers-as-supports. Those “expert peers” – teachers having expertise in a specific aspect of the CMSI -- were freed of classroom responsibilities in order to provide full-time instructional support. It is also worth noting that the CMSI instructional support roles varied in the extent to which they removed excellent math/science teachers from classrooms. For instance, one could compare the role of the in-school specialist with that of the professional development leader (PDL). In-school specialists occupied “freed” positions in their schools; PDLs provided professional development at the district level while continuing to serve as classroom teachers in their schools.

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