To support teachers to introduce content logically and clearly, leaders in high-performing urban schools make time for teachers to work together to identify learning goals, create assignments and discuss if their efforts lead to student learning. By working together, leaders know teachers are better able to identify all steps in a sequence and create meaningful lessons that students can engage in and develop their skills. Moreover, collaboration does not just occur within grades and subjects. Leaders value planning across grades so teachers can benefit from the expertise of teachers teaching a grade above or below their grade level. Teachers are able to focus on the skills and sequences within their grade knowing teachers before and after them will elaborate on these skills.
In many of the successful schools NCUST has studied, vertical-planning structures enhanced access to curricular rigor for all students, connecting learning expectations horizontally within and across content areas and contexts, as a means to develop accurate frameworks of knowledge. At regular intervals, teachers met with their colleagues from different grade levels to examine each other’s plans for teaching academic standards. In elementary schools, teachers met with their colleagues in adjacent grades to discuss their plans for teaching standards associated with specific academic disciplines. For example, at Myrtle S. Finney Elementary in Chula Vista, California, teachers begin teaching close reading strategies to kindergarten students. At each subsequent grade level, teachers build upon this strategy in ways that have resulted in high rates of reading proficiency.
In secondary schools, teachers met in departments to discuss the standards they planned to teach across a sequence of courses. For instance, at James Pace Early College High School in Brownsville, Texas, math teachers worked together to help make sure that ninth grade math offerings would lead high percentages of students to be prepared for high-level math offerings (including college algebra) by the time students entered the twelfth grade.
Also, vertical planning helped teachers identify and question both duplications and gaps in their vertical articulation of learning expectations. For example, planning meetings might lead a group of elementary math teachers to discover that third-grade teachers were addressing several math topics with the same level of rigor expected by second-grade teachers. The discovery might move teachers to explore options for elevating expectations for the third-grade students.
Conversely, a planning meeting might lead high school social studies teachers to realize that their writing expectations for juniors and seniors were dramatically beyond the writing expectations for freshmen and sophomores. In response, teachers might elevate the rigor of writing expectations for sophomores so that students might have a higher likelihood of experience success when they reached 11th grade.
Vertical planning helped ensure that learning expectations were clear, public, and consistent throughout the school. Because of vertical planning sessions, teachers better understood what they needed to help students master in order to succeed in subsequent grades. It is important to note, that in many of the high-performing schools, these vertical-planning systems extended beyond the school. For example, upper elementary teachers collaboratively planned with the middle school teachers who were likely to serve their students, and middle school teachers engaged in planning experiences with high school educators. Similarly, we saw powerful examples of high school teachers reaching out to college professors to learn more about the learning expectations for college freshmen in various disciplines.