States Lend a Helping Hand

Rebecca Kockler is the Assistant Superintendent of Academic Content at the Louisiana Department of Education, and Melissa Mainiero is the Deputy Director of Academic Content. As many states grapple with how to support schools and teachers with the shift to the Common Core Standards, we wanted to know how Louisiana leaders were approaching the challenge. We sat down with them to learn about Louisiana’s state-developed curriculum and assessment resources—and their success supporting districts transitioning to higher standards.

You and your team have done a lot of work at the state level to provide resources for educators to promote strong, standards-aligned instruction in classrooms. How do you think about the state’s role in supporting schools and districts with the transition to college and career readiness standards?

Our role at the state level is to set the bar for excellence and then hold people accountable to that bar. We trust teachers and principals to do their jobs and we believe that control over what happens in classrooms, and in schools, belongs in their hands. Our role is to give educators guidance about the best tools and training available to them, including creating those tools when we cannot find them.

What kinds of curricular resources and materials have you developed for teachers? 

We provide resources at the teacher, principal and district levels that are most relevant to each. For teachers, we created our Teacher Toolbox as a resource hub. The toolbox includes, among other things, standards for both math and ELA classrooms for grades K-12, and unit assessments and planning resources. We also provide direct training and collaboration for teachers through our Teacher Leader program.

At the principal layer we are releasing a principal guidebook that illustrates the key decisions principals make and the tools available. In addition, we are kicking off a principal fellowship program.

Finally, at the district level we have a District Toolbox that houses all of our resources to support districts as they plan for each upcoming school year. Our network teams work individually with districts and we hold monthly collaborations for all district academic supervisors to build plans for curriculum, assessment systems and professional development strategies in their districts.

What prompted you to begin developing these resources?

Before we began this work, we wanted to see what the need was. We started by looking at our current textbook reviews and also talked with teachers and district staff. We learned that so many of the tools they used were incomplete. For example, our old review process yielded only two answers: yes, districts can purchase this product, or no, they can’t. That wasn’t helpful to districts, so we changed it. In our updated process, we provide more detailed information about a product’s standards alignment to help districts understand the benefits and risks of tools they purchase.

But ultimately, we realized we needed to create our own tools since the publishing industry wasn’t changing fast enough. So we built a comprehensive ELA curriculum for K-12 teachers. In math, we built tasks to support students’ conceptual practice and guidance on effective remediation. Throughout the entire process, a group of teachers wrote tools, tested them in their classrooms, led our trainings and helped us communicate changes. They helped us know that what we were creating was good. We wanted that level of credibility.

What is the EAGLE assessment platform? How does it work? And what changes—if any—have you made to it in order to support your transition to higher standards?

EAGLE is our online formative assessment system for math, ELA, science and social studies. The system includes tasks for grades K-12 and allows teachers, schools, and districts to build tests that fit their needs. Our tasks are fully aligned to our standards and we prioritize the types of tasks most item banks do not yet include (like text-based prompts and open-ended math tasks).

At first, EAGLE was hard to use and wasn’t aligned to our standards. We gathered our teacher leaders to brainstorm how to make it functional for teachers. The goal was to produce a variety of items aligned to the curricular unit plans we developed. Now, we are releasing between 200 – 300 new items each month into the system. Teachers can build the test that works for them. Basically, we want standards-aligned content to be in the hands of our teachers. We will do whatever it takes to make that happen.

What have you done to engage teachers during these transitions?

Two years ago, we gathered 50 teachers to be teacher leader advisors. They create unit plans and items for EAGLE. We consider them our brain trust. Today, we have 90 teachers on board.

In the early stages of our work, our teacher leaders made it clear that we should actively communicate with districts. So, we created an even larger teacher leader group of 2000 teachers: One from every school is invited to come to trainings and get resources directly. In our second year we doubled that number. Today, we have 5500 teachers (at least two from every school) who receive over ten full days of in-person trainings and access to virtual resources and tools.

In what ways do you see the quality of instruction changing?

In just two years, our classrooms have changed. Today we see students writing every week, and students reading texts that matter and are on grade level. We also see students defending their answers in both English and math classrooms. These are major shifts.  

A combination of factors led to these improvements. First, we have better assessments—ones that require students to read, write and explain at a level they have not before. This provides clarity for educators. Second, we have brought content into everything that we do: teacher rubric tools, coaching tools, planning tools, etc., are all focused on math and ELA content. Finally, our districts are seeing faster growth where they have strong curricula and benchmark assessments, principal support grounded in strong collaboration and teacher support focused on content. When districts integrate the layers, more growth happens faster.

In the coming years, how will you continue to promote standards-aligned instruction in Louisiana?

On the teacher front, we want to dig deeper into content. We’ve made strides helping teachers understand the instructional shifts, but we need to ensure we provide the best content specific support so that teachers are deepening their understanding of content and the standards.

At the principal level, our focus is on helping school leaders take on instructional leadership. We are putting together an intensive program for current principals that will focus on collaboration, goal setting, observation and feedback. And at the district level we will continue to work together to build strong assessment systems that include tasks to extend learning time and reduce testing time. This includes work at the kindergarten through second grade levels, where we have not provided enough support.

Our staff is small, which means we have to be creative and constantly collaborate across our agency and with our teachers and districts. But we would not have it any other way. Through this approach we have found that we learn more about the real needs in schools and create higher quality resources that get broader use and more effective results. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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