Paula Richards, right, works with her sixth-grade students at Pomona’s Armstrong Elementary.

California’s recent historic investment of over $133 million represents a timely response to teaching shortages and provides much-needed support to help grow and keep talent in schools. One of the most effective ways to prevent turnover, reduce the need for new teachers and improve educator efficacy is to allow for meaningful opportunities for teachers to learn, collaborate and share ideas with one another.

Researchers have found that when teachers’ professional learning is grounded in structured collaboration and allows time to engage in inquiry, it can both improve teaching and retention.

Barnett Berry

Pomona Unified School District, situated near Los Angeles, is rethinking professional learning in light of California’s Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, and the flexibility it provides districts to invest in people and programs to improve academic outcomes for students historically not served well by our education system.

We spent a year looking at the impact of the district’s efforts to improve learning for low-income students of color, who represent the majority of students in the district.

Pomona Unified has begun to move professional development away from workshops and trainings to teacher collaboration and peer coaching as a way to accelerate innovations in teaching that incorporate social and emotional learning supports for students.

The results are promising.

Four years after pilot schools began implementing Positive Behavioral Intervention & Supports (PBIS) — a schoolwide strategy to improve school climate the number of discipline referrals decreased by 48 percent and suspensions have decreased by 61 percent.

When teachers have opportunities to teach as part of a team so they can both teach and lead, student achievement is two times higher when compared to traditionally staffed classrooms across the district. In co-teaching classrooms, the achievement gap between low-income students of color and white students is closing on measures such as sixth-grade mathematics and English Language Arts.

Joseph Bishop

But how did the district get to this point?

Much like many other districts, Pomona Unified offers a range of workshops on the six professional development days required under the district’s collective bargaining agreement with its teachers.

However, the central office recently tapped about 40 teachers, out of 1,400 educators in the district, to lead professional learning related to new student standards instruction, social and emotional learning, assessment and technology integration with a focus on the students with the greatest need for support.

Perhaps the most inspiring sign of teacher-led change can be found in the 6th-grade co-teaching classroom of Paula Richards and Jamie Santana at Armstrong Elementary. Three years ago, these two seasoned educators went to the administration with the idea of physically removing the wall between their classrooms to start planning, teaching and leading together.

Lori Nazareno

In visiting their classroom, one sees the seamless work of students leading their own learning, while one teacher may be tutoring a small group of children and the other works with visiting educators. For students, their classroom is a model for flexible learning spaces and peer-to-peer support.

Paula told us that co-teaching with Jamie means they have the benefit of “two minds working together,” and as a result, their classroom is “more relaxed” with the “kids feeding on that.” (See video of their teacher leadership story.) Armstrong rarely experiences teacher turnover.

However, our research also pointed to three key issues that must be addressed if Pomona’s new strategy is to reach all of its 24,000 students, 1,400 educators and 41 school sites: ensuring school (and administrator) readiness for teacher leadership, spreading teaching expertise across the district and rethinking the role of the entire central office in professional learning.

First, both teachers and administrators spoke about the growing expertise among some of their colleagues, witnessed through Professional Learning Communities, learning walks and occasional peer observations. However, the district still needs more deliberate strategies for identifying teacher strengths so that they may be strategically supported as leaders and deployed to share their expertise with their colleagues.

And while some principals have acquired knowledge and skill in developing individual teachers as leaders, their know-how seems to have developed informally and we are not sure how their expertise spreads.

Second, we found numerous examples of teachers improving their teaching when they had access to “more authentic collaboration” — i.e. when they had more say in the why and how of their work together. As promising as this is, there is no way to formally measure their leadership impact so others can learn how they get the results that they achieve.

Teachers in small schools who teach single subjects often struggle to find a professional learning community that meets their subject-matter and grade-level needs as well as the developmental needs of their students.

Finally, over the last several years, the district’s Office of Equity and Professional Learning has supported an array of efforts to spur teacher-led learning and leadership. However, teachers, even those who teach in schools with collaborative cultures, lament the limited time they have to learn and lead and are often overwhelmed by the wide array of programs offered by the district with sometimes different ideas of how to improve professional practice.

Clearly there is more work to be done to scale up and spread the district’s model of professional learning. We have a few recommendations for school systems looking to use teachers as leaders for more transformative changes in teaching and learning. In our full policy report we point to the need for:

  1. Gathering more detailed evidence on the impact of teachers as leaders.
  2. Identifying effective schools, like Armstrong, and turning them into learning labs for other teachers and administrators.
  3. Supporting administrators in developing specific skills in cultivating and utilizing teachers as leaders.

Pomona Unified is reminding our field that teacher-led change is possible and the pursuit of new ways to tear down walls like policies or district mandates that can unintentionally act as barriers to excellent teaching and learning. Their example can help inform California’s path for more powerful learning for students and teachers alike.

If more districts can follow Pomona’s lead, they may very well take full advantage of significant reforms of the Local Control Funding Formula and the state’s new $100 million-plus investment in one of its richest resources — teachers themselves.

•••

Barnett Berry is a professor at the University of South Carolina, where he was just named the founding director of ALL4SC; he also serves as a senior fellow for the Center for Teaching Quality. Joseph Bishop is director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences. Lori Nazareno is a services specialist at the Center for Teaching Quality, an organization that works with teachers and administrators to make public schools better.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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