New Provisions in ESSA Cause Schools to Ask: How do We Improve Teaching?

The Every Student Succeeds Act has everyone wondering what it is going to take to meet the new responsibilities written into the legislation when it comes to struggling schools and entities that serve English Language Learners. While states now have greater autonomy and ownership over the goals they set for students, it is with the explicit understanding that with this responsibility comes accountability to show results. In the end, there are a number of changes that stand out of from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). However, one of the most interesting is the focus on professional development and efforts to retain high quality teachers in districts – particularly those teachers who serve the most needy and at-risk student populations.

In Title III (the part of the act that discusses supports and expectations for the academic achievement of English Language Learners), Section 3102 it states that, “the purpose of this part (is) … to help ensure that English learners, including immigrant children and youth, attain English proficiency and develop high levels of academic achievement in English … (by) improving teaching skills in meeting the diverse needs of English learners, including how to implement effective programs and curricula on teaching English learners.”

So in the midst of budget cuts, increased teacher responsibility, greater class sizes, and other challenging conditions, how can your school improve teachers’ skill set to serve diverse students and the implementation of effective programs designed to meet their needs?

  1. Plan like a teacher. But not just any time. Effective professional development begins with intense planning that includes the same components as those used by effective teachers: Clear objectives, the essential learnings that must result, clear assessment of its effectiveness, and delivery (or instructional) strategies for engaging each learner in the deep thinking required for lasting change.Schools will need to leverage their very precious time in new and innovative ways. This means that some information that previously dominated professional development may now need to be communicated via email or a brief staff meeting. People who work in schools, know the number of initiatives, critical deadlines, district updates, etc. that arise during the course of the year. However, if we are really going to “improve the teaching skills” of teachers who serve the most challenging populations, it is going to take time, at the very least.
  2. Think long term. Remember that the objectives do not need to be achieved today. School reform does not take place over night as it involves people’s beliefs and long-standing habits that have served them well. Each person in the school system plays a role in the success of every student. In order to meet their needs as a learner (to be challenged enough to want to engage, but not so hard that they give up), a plan must be devised. As part of planning to improve teaching, schools must evaluate what they are doing well and what critical steps will move them to the next level. By staggering these steps towards greatness, schools can ensure stakeholders that are willing to stick with the challenges that emerge along the way.
  3. Consider the number of initiatives. At any given time, schools are offered a wide variety of partnerships, initiatives, and other programs that are designed to help students succeed. The greatest challenge then, is that not every partnership supports the particular goal of all schools. And because schools move at lightning speed, when a partnership is brought in that does not support the goals of the school, it only works to distract from what is important. Consider staggering the number of partnerships, initiatives, and other programs to coincide with the measurable goals that you have for your learners. Not only that, but be sure that that the initiatives being implemented by schools are housed and monitored in one location. This way, the work load, manageability, and coherence of programming can be seen at a glance. Approaching it in this way, will also give schools a chance to see the sheer number of initiatives that teachers are trying to manage, which should give them a sense of the number of initiatives they will be able to do well.
  4. Focus on students. Do not implement without measuring. How are students responding to new initiatives? Are the programs being implemented positively impacting student achievement? What about for subgroups? Student success should be the number 1 deciding factor in terms of the implementation, retention, and cessation of programs and initiatives. Because without measuring the impact for children, we will never truly be able to target and reproduce success for our students.
  5. Drastically increase implementation support.  Consider how you fulfill these needs in your adult learners. Do teachers and other personnel who work with students have a model of what effective implementation looks like? Do they have the ability to observe someone else? Do they have the opportunity to be guided by an expert teacher when they are stuck in implementation? Is there someone checking in or conferring with them around they implementation goals? And what is the accountability for their implementation of the professional development that takes place whole group? Finally, and most importantly, is to increase the amount of support during the implementation phase of any program and initiative. During implementation, teachers are dealing with uncertainty, feelings of doubt, lack of expertise, and few references for what success might look like. It is during the implementation phase that most initiatives actually fail. Not because they are bad initiatives, or because they don’t potentially meet the needs of the student population, but because teachers lose the support when they need it the most. Think about effective literacy instruction. You have a model (an opportunity to see it in action with an explanation of what was seen and time to process that experience), shared practice, possibly partnered practice, guided practice, independent practice, conferring, accountable talk, etc. All these things serve to support students during the implementation of a new strategy.


More and more, we are seeing that professional development fails to produce significant change when it is approached as a one and done. However, there never seems to be enough time. Well, I leave you with the words that I’ve shared with so many teachers over the years as it relates to classroom management, “While you may lose 10 minutes now in teaching this now, you will lose much more than that if you don’t.”