Changing the way many of the roughly 1,000 Dayton Public Schools teachers teach is key to the district avoiding a state takeover, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.
The issue is so critical Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli took what she called an unprecedented step to shut down schools for mandated training for all of their teachers. She also has beefed up their curriculum department, increased classroom oversight and placed significantly more teachers on corrective action plans.
The Dayton Daily News is taking a comprehensive look at the changes Lolli and the school board are putting in place to turn around the district. We will analyze each of these in the coming months as part of our initiative, The Path Forward, which seeks to find solutions to the area’s most pressing problems. The performance of Dayton Public Schools, many believe, is key to the region’s economic prosperity.
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For this story, we visited classrooms, attended teacher training and spoke to experts about whether these actions could move the needle.
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Here’s what we found:
•When Lolli visited 68 classrooms this fall to see how her teachers were teaching, she observed only eight of them using the research-tested strategies the district tells them to use.
•The district has placed more teachers on corrective action plans so far this school year than it did all of last year as administrators stress teacher performance.
•Dayton has more experienced teachers than the statewide average, who are paid less than the statewide average.
•Experts say teacher training involves more than just a one-day seminar, it requires coaching and continued support for teachers to be effective.
•Dayton already requires more teacher training than many districts. But consistency in teaching methods used from one classroom to another is vital, which is something DPS has lacked for years.
• Teachers should be the No. 1 priority of district leaders, according to an analysis of public feedback from a town hall meeting held by the Dayton Daily News.
•It’s hard to track success, as there is no uniform way of evaluating teacher quality, even though teacher quality is vitally important in a child’s life.
“Classroom teachers are a very big deal,” said Laura Hamilton, a behavioral scientist and education expert at the RAND Corporation. “Research has shown … that teachers exert a larger effect on student test score growth than other school-based factors.
“If you are just focused on what you can do in the school to improve student outcomes, focusing on teacher quality is probably your best bet.”
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Dayton teachers aren’t bad at their jobs, Dayton teachers union President David Romick said, but for too long they’ve lacked direction and support from the administration. They’re getting that now, he said.
Dayton teachers have a lot of ground to cover. This includes Erica Denham, who teaches seventh grade math. Only a quarter of DPS seventh-graders are grade-level proficient at math, compared to 59 percent statewide.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Denman moved non-stop from table to table in her classroom at Edwin Joel Brown Middle School. Five groups of students were each engaged in a math-related activity. Her voice changed constantly, at one moment loud and stern, the next quiet and patient.
“Just do your best,” she consoled one student. After checking another’s work, Denham walked her to a poster on the wall with the process for handling positive and negative numbers written on it.
“If we have signs that are different, we subtract,” Denham reminded the student.
Shortly before class ended she boomed: “I need you to grab your homework and line up!”
The Dayton school board’s plan is to train more teachers to replicate what was going on in Denham’s classroom.
“High quality teaching is the means to the increase in test scores,” said Lolli when asked if teacher instruction was the key to avoiding state takeover.
Do Dayton teachers stack up?
In May, the Ohio Department of Education visited DPS classrooms and issued a stinging assessment.
The panel rated Dayton teaches on a scale from 0 to 5 on measures such as teaching aligned to state standards, assessing student understanding and adapting instruction, and students and teachers using technology. A zero meant the review team saw no evidence a specific practice was occurring. A five represented exemplary practice. In every area listed, the district scored less than a 1.
Lolli has more than doubled the curriculum support staff from five people to 12 and given teachers tools to better track student progress.
“I don’t think in the past the high-yield strategies, or the expectation to actually … use them in your classroom on a regular basis has been emphasized for the classroom teacher,” Lolli said.
When asked if DPS teachers are a problem needing to be fixed, she said, “No.”
“What we’re trying to do in the Dayton Public Schools is to make sure that every classroom has the opportunity to experience the high-quality instruction our teachers deliver,” she said.
At the same time, district leadership is more aggressively overseeing teacher performance. So far this school year, 89 teachers have been placed on corrective action plans for sub-par perfomance. That’s compared to 76 for all of last school year.
The district also has terminated 14 employees so far this year, compared to 11 in all of last year.
One factor that research shows correlates with student gains is experience, according to Hamilton.
“Having a novice teacher typically results in lower test score gains than more experienced teachers,” she said.
State data shows that Dayton has experienced teachers — 64 percent of DPS teachers have 10 or more years of experience, more than the 52 percent similar districts have or the statewide average of 56 percent.
But the average Dayton teacher salary of about $45,000 is far below the nearly $59,500 at similar districts or about $60,400 statewide. The most recent data is from fiscal year 2017, and the Dayton school board has since voted to give its teachers raises.
‘Teaching is not telling’
Dayton already requires more professional development than a lot of other districts.
The typical district requires 15 hours of training a year, Lolli said. But schools within two years of state takeover because of their state test scores — nearly all urban districts in the state — must provide at least 20 hours.
Dayton teachers received 12 hours of professional development on Monday and Tuesday while children were home for Thanksgiving break.
Six DPS schools also have special improvement grants to provide another 40 hours of training for teachers at six schools on weekends, after school or during the summer. These cover topics such as trauma and technology use.
On a recent Thursday, Lolli spoke to more than 100 teachers from Fairview Elementary and Belle Haven Elementary, those schools closed for the day to make time for the additional training. The teachers assembled instead at the Mandalay Banquet Center. The district booked the venue, Lolli said, to make it more like a conference.
Lolli opened by saying the district is moving in the right direction.
“We have to keep the forward progress, because in three years we don’t want to be sitting here again talking about a state takeover,” she said.
She then spoke about the fundamentals of how kids learn, about clearly stating each lesson’s learning objective, scaffolding lessons to build up to knowledge, reinforcing things over and over and building up a child’s ability to independently understand something.
“Teaching is not telling,” she said. “Teaching is modeling, teaching is showing.”
It’s like teaching a kid to ride a bike, she said. You show them how, help them get started and gradually let go.
It breaks down into a six-word process for teachers to remember: “I do. We do. You do.”
Homework, she said, should only be to reinforce subjects the student has already learned.
“My homework should always be something I’ve done two to three weeks behind me,” she told the teachers.
Before breaking into groups with experts talking about how to implement this method in different grades and subjects, Lolli finished with a pep talk.
“You are the hope of the children you serve,” she said. “We’re here to support you as the hope of the children you serve.”
Consistency, follow-through key
Rusty Clifford, operations director of the Montgomery County Educational Service Center, said the teaching model adopted by Dayton Public Schools is accepted as among the best in the country.
But more important than the model itself is making sure all teachers in the district use the same playbook.
“That gives teachers the opportunity to give some depth into what they’re doing, and they aren’t spending all their time teaching kids how we do things in this classroom in this grade level,” said Clifford, also a member of the Dayton Daily News Community Advisory Board. “It’s the consistency is where the success comes from.”
Hamilton said the key now is follow-through; a one-day training session is a starting point.
“The challenge is a lot of the research suggests that a lot of the professional development that is given to teachers isn’t vey effective,” Hamilton said. “Rather than sending teachers to workshops where they sit in a big group and listen to lectures and get advice, you might want to do something like coaching.”
That’s part of the plan, Lolli said. She increased the size of the team that helps teachers develop lesson plans and tasks school building leaders with helping teachers properly implement the strategies.
“Principals, assistant principals, teacher leaders and the entire curriculum team are all involved in supporting and making sure that the practices are implemented in all classrooms,” she said. “Informal walkthroughs, formal observations, as well as follow up professional development sessions will continue to keep the focus on instructional practices that work.”
Teachers interviewed at the Mandalay were receptive to the training and curriculum support.
“The support we’re feeling is great,” said Fairview phonics teacher Nicole Bellard. “You know, teaching is hard. And the more support we feel, the better we do in our classrooms, the more we can relate to our kids.”
“Getting everyone on the same plan is important,” said fourth grade social studies and science teacher Ben Coffey. “It’s kind of like playing a sport, if we’re not all going out with the same plan, we’re going to have a lot of problems.”
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