In-School Instructional Support

Context: What the Literature Tells Us

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Research has shown that the impact of professional development on instruction is positively affected when it is sustained over time and when there is follow-up support work in the schools (Blank, De las Alas, & Smith, 2008). Numerous studies have identified features of professional development programs that make a difference on teachers’ teaching and student learning (Little 1993; Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin 1995; Garet et al 2001, Darling-Hammond & Richardson 2009). In addition to a focus on math and science content, these features include many hours of professional development per year, the extension of professional development activities over time through the use of mentors or coaches, a connection between teachers’ professional development and instructional materials, and a connection between the professional development and school structures and routines. According to the review of research, this last feature – the connection between professional development and school structures and routines – supports the development of “professional learning communities.” Teachers use professional learning communities for lesson study, reflection on teaching experiences, and/or working in grade-level teams.

Cost is often the rationale for using teacher leaders in instructional support roles. The expense of developing teachers to take on these roles is lower than the cost of hiring external vendors. However, studies provide inconclusive evidence that the use of teacher leader roles consistently promotes improved classroom instructional practice or improvements in student performance (Wynne, 2001; RAND, 2009). One reason proposed for these uneven impacts has to do with what happens to student learning when teachers leave the classroom to become teacher leaders. Individuals recruited and trained to take on these leadership roles tend to be thought of as the best teachers. When “instructional leaders” are released from classroom teaching, the overall quality of classroom instruction may suffer. Therefore, while apparently efficient in terms of building internal capacity, this model can be costly in terms of student performance.

The research literature documents a range of models of how teachers support other teachers to improve instructional practice and student outcomes. There is a similar range of roles, relationships, and functions that are associated with teachers-as-supports, and a range of locations that supporting teachers occupy within a school and school district. A continuum can describe the range of these various models. At one end of the continuum are models that emphasize minimal role distinction and flat, or egalitarian, relations of peer-to-peer supports. These kinds of models tend to focus on in-school, teacher-driven professional development; the cultivation of professional learning communities; and peer assessment. Models at this end of the continuum take a more decentralized approach to supporting improved instruction. At the other end of the continuum are models that emphasize greater role distinction and tend toward professional hierarchies. In these models, expert teachers are pulled out of classrooms and act as in-school coaches; others are pulled out of schools and provide instructional coaching for clusters of schools or to teachers across the district. Models at this end of the continuum take a more centralized approach to supporting instruction.

In the more hierarchical, differentiated models, “teacher leader” does not refer to someone who takes a leadership role as a teacher advocate within the school or district. It refers to someone who teaches or supports teachers. An effective classroom teacher may not be an effective “teacher leader.” Therefore, reform efforts that implement this model of teacher support tend to incorporate a “leadership” dimension in the preparation of teachers-as-supports.

Research provides conflicting evidence about the most effective way to provide instructional support. Studies have evaluated different models, including those that use teachers as “teacher leaders,” or use dedicated staff (“freed teachers”) who take on school-based, multi-school, or district-wide roles such as coaches and mentors.

Most research and policy studies identify the use of teachers as “instructional leaders” as a necessary if not sufficient facet of school reform efforts (Conley & Muncey, 1999); (Lieberman, 1988); (Urbanski & Nickolaou, 1997). These studies have an underlying assumption that improved teaching through effective teacher leadership support should involve a move away from top-down models of support and a move toward shared decision-making and teamwork (Alvarado, 1997); (Coyle, 1997). This approach is consistent with the research-identified value of school-based learning communities connected to ongoing professional development. However, a move away from a top-down model may entail risks in relation to reform efforts that have as a key aim the coherence of policies and messages.

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