In-School Instructional Support

Aims, Actions, Adaptations:
Initial Successes and Challenges

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Curricular expertise a major asset

Facilitator expertise was a major asset of the Chicago Math & Science Initiative (CMSI). One year into the CMSI, OMS staff and facilitators reported that their role as experts could be seen as a major success. One senior OMS administrator said, “These people are more knowledgeable in Everyday Math and Trailblazers and CMP and Math Thematics than anyone in the city.” OMS senior staff and facilitators also reported that major strengths of the science facilitators were excellent coordination and cooperation among science facilitators, as well as strong mentoring and leadership in schools. One Lead Team member noted, “We are lucky that we have a group of science people who make teachers and specialists comfortable in the learning process.” Through this expertise, the strategy of creating an instructional support “scaffold” within OMS contributed to the goal of workforce development.

Clarity of the CMSI message

Throughout the first year of implementation, facilitators and area coaches experienced challenges in their charge to maintain and promote a clear, consistent, and coherent message throughout the district. A major concern for area coaches was that of what messages they were to convey across the areas with respect to current and future CMSI goals. A 2004 external evaluation report indicated area coaches had a number of questions concerning this issue, including:

Math and science facilitators experienced different issues with coherence. CMSI math facilitators expressed frustration during the first implementation year at a perceived lack of cohesive management and direction. They associated this with personnel gaps within the OMS at large and some specific staffing issues. Science facilitators felt that the CMSI’s policy directives regarding science were inconsistent, and lacked sufficient emphasis on the subject. While this situation was partially attributable to messages from within OMS, much of the lack of science emphasis could be traced to the district focus on literacy and math, over every other content area. Thus, the contextual factor of district policies affected some facilitators’ ability to promote the messages of the CMSI.

The challenge of role ambiguity

One issue that emerged very early in the implementation of the CMSI was the lack of clear definitions for instructional support roles. The resulting role ambiguity had implications for all three major aims of the CMSI. In envisioning facilitator and area coach roles, CMSI planners decided to provide a great deal of latitude. Their hope was that the individuals in these positions would define their own roles, in response to the circumstances they encountered in the field. While some facilitators and area coaches did seem to embrace the openness of their role definitions, most were adamant in their concern about role ambiguity. From the start, facilitators expressed their discomfort with what they called an “ill-defined” job role, and area coaches echoed this sentiment. One area coach explained there “must be a plan in somebody’s head about what the coaches’ job was but this plan was not clear to the coaches.”

Although in-school specialists also mentioned role definition as an issue, they were less likely to report it as a major concern. A 2004 “In-School Specialist” evaluation report referenced “clarity of job description” as a concern mentioned by specialists. However, this issue was not the main concern identified. The report goes on to say that , “… it is important to note that [OMS staff’s] verbal description of the specialist’s role did not appear in writing—neither in the application guidebook distributed to Intensive Support applicants nor in the Intensive Support application.”

Without a documented set of job-related activities and expectations, individuals in both area coach and facilitator roles had to undergo an extensive period of sense-making. While a period of sense-making is expected in any new role, the level of ambiguity of the facilitator and area coach positions seemed to have created a situation in which these individuals felt they had too many choices. This situation challenged the development of the in-school instructional support workforce more broadly. To begin with, area coaches and facilitators had difficulty determining what exactly their own roles were meant to be, as well as how they could develop professionally.

In addition, this role ambiguity may have had an adverse effect on relationships between different groups of support personnel. For example, from the perspective of area coaches, facilitators were at times “missing in action.” Many area coaches indicated to evaluators that facilitators were not helpful enough to schools and/or to them in their work. The frustrations and confusions expressed by area coaches with respect to their colleagues may have been a consequence of the prevalence of role ambiguity across the various positions. Ironically, the inconsistencies in how instructional support staff understood each other’s roles challenged the goal of coherent policies by creating a lack of coherence within the OMS.

As facilitators and area coaches struggled to make sense of their roles, they expressed their discomfort with this ambiguity to OMS senior staff. Over time, senior staff responded to these concerns, but role ambiguity continued to be an issue. The persistence of this issue within OMS may have eroded support personnel‘s trust in their managers’ ability and willingness to address their most pressing concerns. Such an erosion of trust may have contributed to area coaches’ concerns about the future of the CMSI. Some expressed a lack of confidence that OMS leadership was sharing the whole picture with them, and thus they did not feel able to communicate to their schools the CMSI vision for the future. Thus, role ambiguity may have challenged the ability of those in instructional support roles to serve as ambassadors for coherent policies, workforce development, and, by extension, improved instruction.

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