Part I: Innovation Fund
The Innovation Fund is an initiative of the American Federation of Teachers, and it's designed to give our local and state affiliates the resources that they need to put teachers at the forefront of education reform and improvement efforts.
I think the design of the Innovation Fund is what makes things unique. It's to provide resources to teachers through their unions to bring unions to the table…bringing solutions. Often unions are seen as part of the problem. So, we set out to disprove that. And we think we've been very successful, and this project is an example of that.
Common Core work
The Innovation Fund has seen a great deal of interest in the Common Core from our members, and we've supported lots of different initiatives around Common Core. And interestingly, they took different forms, but lots of people wanted to get right to writing lessons and units that are aligned to the Common Core. This is a reflection of the fact that many of our members are not seeing districts actually provide instructional materials. I mean they also have wanted to do a lot of deep professional development to make sure they understood the Common Core.
And so this is the kind of thing we funded in Albuquerque with Colorín Colorado; in Boston; in Chicago; Cleveland; Jefferson County, Alabama; and in Quincy, Illinois.
I think the unions are a great partner for this because this allows them to tap into their members' desire to have an impact in the classroom and to bring their skills and knowledge and partnership with the district. Sometimes the other parts of things that unions do in terms of representing their members in their contracts and grievances and political action don't appeal to large numbers of classroom teachers. This is a way the unions can really tap into their perhaps members who haven't been involved and can be at the table with the districts. And we've had great collaboration around this. These districts need and want partnerships with teachers around this work. So, it's really been a great experience.
Initially what we realized and we heard a lot of was that the applicants felt ready to get to this work. They really wanted to roll up their sleeves and write either lessons or units or both. Initially that confidence, they all had to kind of take a step back and say, "Wow, when we started the work and we had some experts look at it, when we would check it again against the Common Core, we realized that our teachers didn't really have the full grasp of the intention behind the Core."
So, we've in many cases had to do PD and then restart with lessons and units, but it's been terrific because teachers are much more – they learn better when they've started some things, just like a student. It's like a first draft. Then they get expert help, commentary. And this is what the Innovation Fund providers, researchers and others who can sit with the teachers and provide feedback. Then they've restarted their work, and it's been an amazing professional development experience for all of the teachers involved.
I think the work could absolutely be scaled up in school districts. However, it is not cheap, and it is not fast. And it's worth doing because in the end you've invested in your professionals in a way that changes the course of their teaching careers, frankly, and it will enable schools and students to reach the Common Core's goals. That said, you know, I think that part of the point that we make is that if you invest in teachers, it's worth doing. We don't see too many districts that are willing or capable of doing the kinds of work that we can do.
However, when we do work in districts, we make sure that what we do permeates the district. In Cleveland, for example, the Innovation Fund work – what the teachers have learned from the feedback from the lessons has been fed into all of the PD that's done with all the teachers in the district. So, if there are gaps in knowledge, for example, you know, writing text-dependent questions was proved to be more difficult than people had thought, then they feed that into the district's PD for all teachers. So, it isn't just a slice who are benefiting from the work.
Well, the thing that we've noticed across the Innovation Fund grants on the Common Core is to a location and to a teacher. Once teachers have really been supported around understanding the Common Core as an original source document, I mean reading the core, understanding what the shifts mean, they've all been incredibly enthusiastic about it. I think there's a lot of negative commentary about the Common Core, but we have not come across that in any of our work. And no one wanted to stop the work.
Everyone has fulfilled their commitments. We've posted, you know, here we have the lessons on Colorín Colorado, but we also have Share My Lesson, which is a project of the American Federation of Teachers. It's a lesson-sharing website. So, we have lots of content from our projects there. And the views and downloads are in the hundreds of thousands. So, we believe that this is something where our teachers are properly supported can really work, but the lesson is that they have to be supported, and you have to spend the time. It's not going to happen quickly or overnight or without proper tools and materials.
District planning for Common Core
I think that if districts are really serious about the Common Core and implementation, then they have to work with and through the teachers and with the unions. The unions are a great vehicle to bring, as I've said, interested teachers together. And it's interesting to me that now that the Common Core has been taught for a couple of years, the emerging examples of success are places that have worked very closely with teachers. It is just not a "do-to" teachers sort of initiative.
And because of the need for teachers to choose the right materials, they really need a very sophisticated understanding of this. And when that's done, then we are seeing a lot of success, a lot of buy-in. And teachers are also the foremost spokespersons for the Common Core. So, when districts do this, they're also accomplishing the goal of giving accurate information in their communities because we know that people get their information about schools largely from teachers.
And so when teachers are well-supported, understand the Core, and are positive about it, then it makes the job that much easier in terms of communicating and getting public support for the Common Core too.
The Innovation Fund in its earliest days funded a lot of work around teacher evaluation, and this was very successful. We had – New York and Rhode Island we had grants that involved several school districts and partnerships with unions and superintendents and school district officials. And they created entire new evaluation systems. I think the issue is that work began before the Common Core was even adopted.
Then came the Common Core. Now the work is to understand the connections between the Common Core and evaluation and make sure the evaluation systems are looking for proper implementation of the Common Core and looking for the shifts. So, we do have a project in Cincinnati where we're hoping to get to that level of work. What we found there is what I've described, where teachers, they weren't quite ready to do that part of the work because they really had not yet had the kind of PD they needed around the Common Core.
And we're working on how to get teachers time to work together. So, what we want to do is have them use certain tools where they can observe and coach one another around the Common Core but carving out the time and having classrooms where we know that the materials are aligned to the Common Core is still the challenge for us.
Well, in Quincy, Illinois, the Innovation Fund has a project to help parents in the community understand the Common Core. And it's been a very interesting experience. They started with the community at large with business, Kiwanis clubs. They made presentations in housing projects. And then the second year they got more specifically to the parent community. And again when teachers themselves feel that they understand it and when teachers can sort out some of the competing claims about what the core is and isn't, it helps them explain the stuff to parents.
And it's been very successful. They've also seen some of the same conservative kind of backlash comments in Quincy, but they have personally addressed these people. It's a small community. People know one another. And it's been great. It is still a challenge to involve parents of older students. So, we've tried various different kinds of – they had an institute, you know, on a Saturday.
The Quincy, Illinois teachers are using materials developed by the national PTA to explain the Common Core at each grade level. And then the PTA has a new set of materials around state assessment policies. So, they're using those this year, and they're proposing to us for next year to focus on helping the community and parents understand the new assessments, what the students will be asked to do. So, sharing some of the tasks, contrasting those with assessment items from other kinds of tasks explaining why these are deeper kinds of questions that initially look harder but are worth having students learn to do, and trying to develop supports because they know that when the assessment results come out, they're likely not going to be – the students won't have done as well.
So, the goal is just that they prepare the community for the Common Core in general then to try to pave the way for a community that understands and can support teachers as they get kids to the next level.
Part II: ELL Projects with the Innovation Fund
The projects in Albuquerque and Poughkeepsie were almost irresistible to the Innovation Fund because we knew that teachers who work with students who are learning English really needed a lot of help around the Common Core. And we have a great partnership at the American Federation of Teachers with the Colorín Colorado website. And so it was a natural fit to work through that partnership and try to find some school districts where teachers really wanted to get into this in depth. And to my knowledge, this is still some of the only material that's been created specifically for this group of teachers and the students.
So, in Albuquerque we were dealing with a district that has lots and lots of English language learners, and the teachers are certified to teach this group of students. The challenge that we found there was that much of the material they've been given to work with was fairly low-level. And so it was clearly, you know, the teachers did not believe this was going to help them reach these standards with kids. So, part of the challenge was to figure out how to write lessons and teach them on a grade level where the students were but that would also enable them to support students to reach the grade level.
When we moved to Poughkeepsie, the situation was quite different. This was a district where there were English language learner students, but the teachers themselves hadn't necessarily been dually certified. It was a changing demographic, and the students were also older. So, our interest was then to create lessons for the older students and to help the teachers who were more I think representative in some fashion of teachers across the states that are learning how to reach this population. So, that's why we wanted to do the work in both of the communities.
Teachers in Poughkeepsie
In Poughkeepsie, New York we saw real evolution in terms of teachers' attitudes toward the project. I mean they were – I would say at the beginning they were interested, they were a little hesitant. Once they started the work, I think they became fearful because they realized that again, you know, the practice that they had been using was fairly far from what the Common Core demanded, but what we saw over time as they worked with Diane August and worked together and develop these lessons that they could then share on Colorín Colorado, a real shift and lots of enthusiasm, confidence.
They saw a change with their students, which I think of course for teachers is a number one most motivating thing that can happen. And by the end of the project these teachers were presenting at a national conference on their work, which was just, you know, that kind of an evolution is something, you know, if we could do that for every teacher in America, then we would really, you know, we'd have it made. So, it was really – it was supremely gratifying. We're really proud of the teachers.
They put themselves forward and they took risks and they opened up their practice, and as a result, they're in a much better place than they were before.
Well, I think that, you know, I've heard a lot of commentary from teachers saying, "Well, but what about special ed and what about English language learners?" And when teachers all come together around the same set of standards, there's an opportunity for collaboration there that I think is different from the current practice where everyone is sort of in their own silo. And so our work has shown that through this Colorín Colorado partnership how ELL students can meet the standards.
And I think that this work is very beneficial for all teachers because some of the scaffolding is the kind of thing that many students need. And the same is true for special education. So, it brings teachers together and helps them collaborate. And more and more these are skills all teachers need to have. So, there are many English language learner students. There are many students with special needs. And so to the degree that they can come together and collaborate around the clear high standards, I think we're seeing, you know, a lot of interest.
And anecdotally, we had a project where they were presenting at a conference and someone in the audience said, "Well, but what about special needs students?" And the teacher said, "Well, but for the first time they were in the class, they received grade-level text, and we did a close reading. They were part of that and then they did a writing exercise. Now, other students may have written more, but the special education students wrote a paragraph."
And she said in some cases it was the first time they'd ever done the same work as the other kids in the class. And it was a really powerful exchange. It went on – there were four or five interchanges here where a practitioner was helping a colleague understand yes, it can be done and how it could be done. But we need a whole lot more of that kind of dialogue, but I think it can be done.
I think classroom video is a very powerful tool. When teachers see other teachers working with students in classrooms like theirs and see specifically how things are done, and in the case of Colorín Colorado where we're annotating the videos and showing there's a little commentary we can link to the standards, I think it makes things seem more real, more doable. Less of a feeling among teachers of here's another thing that people are saying we should do, and these people don't have any idea of what my reality is when they're seeing their colleagues.
And then the video where teachers are reflecting and talking about their practice I think is very inspiring. And there's a great deal of interest in video across the country and having teachers learn from and contribute to banks of videos that can demonstrate this sort of learning. So, we're excited to have been part of something like that.
Teachers & researchers
It's been fascinating for us to see teachers and researchers working together. In some cases teachers were a little bit defensive and believed that they were the experts. So, some of it is a language problem. Everyone is an expert, but they're expert in different things. And when we've overcome some of these initial sort of discomforts, I think for both parties and even particularly more for the researchers in some cases and for the teachers to be able to work together on something that's very real that's going to be taught in classrooms has been really rewarding.
And we think it's increased the knowledge of both parties. And we'd like to see more of these sorts of bridges. But I have to say, teachers are really, really hungry for contact with people who can help them understand the deeper intentions behind the Core and then they in turn can help the researchers understand the realities in the classroom and what it will take to get all students to these higher levels of learning.
Well, Diane August is one of the foremost researchers in this field in the country, and we're just delighted to be able to work with her. She was very patient and spent a lot of time with the teachers. And I think that they just want more. More and more, you know. If we could fund this for the next 10 years, I'm sure we would have people who wanted to work with her.
Debbie and Pam
We couldn't have done this work in Poughkeepsie without Debbie Kardas, who's the president of the teacher's union, and Pam Knittel, who's the ESL support teacher. They really hung in there and problem-solved with this group of teachers and got us over the hump and then some and showed a tremendous amount of leadership. And we're very grateful to it. And it's a best practice of they're all teachers and all coming together. And we believe this will have a significant effect on the school district and how ELL students are taught in the future.
Ann Bradley is the director of the AFT Innovation Fund. She joined the American Federation of Teachers in March 2010 after more than 20 years at Education Week, where she was a reporter and editor. Before joining American education's newspaper of record, she was a reporter and copy editor at The Miami Herald and a copy editor at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. She is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.