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Contributions of the CSMPs to Teacher Leaders

author: Inverness Research Associates
submitter: Mark St. John
description: This is one of three reports (Including The Contributions of Teacher Leaders and The Work of Teacher Leaders) wrriten by Inverness Associates on the California Subject Matter Projects (CSMP). "The CSMPs consist of nine Projects providing professional development in nine different 101 regional sites--all of which are designed to attract, develop, nurture, sustain, and promote teacher leadership."

This report examines the "ways in which the CSMPs provided a bridge between classroom practice and leadership activities."

published in: Inverness Research Associates
published: 1999
posted to site: 01/14/1999

II. CSMP Contributions to

Teacher Leaders’ Classroom Practice


In this section, we put the spotlight on the respondents in their role as teachers of students. First, we present the teachers’ views on the overall conditions that affect their success as teachers and on the contributions CSMP experiences make to those conditions. Following that, we present their perspectives on specific classroom goals, teaching strategies, and assessment.


1) Conditions affecting teachers’ success in the classroom

Overall sources of effectiveness

We asked the teachers to rate the importance of a number of factors that might support or inhibit their teaching effectiveness. Their ratings, along with their written comments, support the following summary finding:

Þ These teachers identify two major sources of their effectiveness in the classroom:

1) their own pedagogical content knowledge (their own knowledge of the discipline and of specific ways it can be effectively taught to a wide range of students); and 2) a supportive local context that reinforces efforts they make to improve their teaching. They report that the California Subject Matter Projects contribute to both.

On the following page, we show the teachers’ assessment of specific conditions that act as supports or barriers to their effectiveness in teaching their discipline.

Conditions affecting teachers’ effectiveness in teaching the discipline

Percentages represent teachers who gave a rating of 1 or 2 ("barriers" - light gray) and 3 or 4 ("supports" - dark gray) on a 5-point scale where "1" = "a major barrier to my effectiveness" and "5" = "a major support to my effectiveness."

Over 300 respondents (78% of the total) wrote comments, many of them elaborating on the survey items. For example, teachers said their students’ enthusiasm is an inspiration, but they also say the stress of some students’ difficult family and social conditions creates barriers.

The teachers also identified school conditions that either support or inhibit their growth as teachers. Supports which teachers mentioned most frequently were opportunities for collaboration with school colleagues, and support from administrators for trying out new approaches. For example, one teacher said:

At my school we have teacher collaboration meetings regularly. We set concrete goals, discuss strategies, assess student progress toward goals, and adjust our strategies to increase student progress.

Comments such as this show there are limits on the degree to which the CSMPs, alone, can create optimal conditions for teachers’ ongoing development of practice. Teachers’ immediate school environment — in particular, the degree to which they find a supportive professional community there — is a powerful factor.

CSMP contributions to teacher knowledge

We asked teachers to tell us what specific kinds of knowledge they gained from their CSMP experiences.

Þ Nearly all teachers reported that CSMP experiences provide them with knowledge of subject matter, teaching strategies, and up-to-date reform initiatives. Nearly three-fourths also gained knowledge about meeting the needs of challenging students.

CSMP contributions to teacher leaders’ pedagogical content knowledge

In their written comments, teachers elaborated on the ways CSMP experiences deepened their knowledge of the discipline and of resources enabling them to teach it better. For example, a math teacher told of being made aware of "…NCTM standards, frameworks, round table standards, curriculum standards, etc." A history teacher said the content knowledge she gained enabled her and her students to "look at U.S. history with new eyes." A biology teacher said she and her students "are spending more time in the field." Many teachers said the knowledge they gained gave them the ability to rethink their entire approach or to make a coherent whole out of what had been "mechanical" sets of lessons. One teacher said:

It gave me not only ideas to use immediately in my classroom, it provided me with a base of knowledge with which I could form a philosophy of arts education.

Given the proliferation of standards, it is an important finding that CSMPs give these teachers access to current reform documents in a context enabling them to use them. Two teachers reported:

I have used the History/Geography Standards in my classroom.

My curriculum is now delivered with standards as the organizing framework.

We were somewhat surprised that more than a quarter of the respondents learned less than they wanted about meeting the needs of students they have a hard time reaching. Given that the teachers responding to this survey probably have stronger feelings of efficacy than the typical teacher is likely to have, we point to this area as one the CSMPs should address more intensively in all their programs.

CSMP contributions to classroom approaches

We asked the teachers to rate the extent to which their CSMP experiences are an important factor in their overall classroom goals and strategies.

Þ Nearly all teachers report that CSMP experiences influence their overall classroom goals and teaching practices, and four out of five say CSMP participation contributes to their assessment practices.

Overall assessment of the CSMPs’ contributions to classrooms

We believe this finding, while general, is important. These effective teachers say the CSMPs have a strong presence in how they frame their overall approaches.

CSMP contributions to teachers’ approach to assessment

Most respondents found opportunities in CSMP programs to expand their understanding of assessment.

Þ Participation in CSMP programs builds these teachers’ repertoires of approaches to assessing student learning.

On page 13 (below), there is a graph which shows that 80% of these teachers want their students to achieve the goal of critical awareness of their own learning, but only 68% feel they have the practical tools to assess students in that area. Above, we see that 90% of the teachers encountered some tools in CSMP programs that might help them expand their assessment repertoire in the direction of that ambitious goal.

CSMP contributions to supportive context

The CSMPs do more than create access to many kinds of knowledge these teachers can apply to improvement of their practice. Just as importantly, they provide a context which supports learning and change.

Þ These teachers say that CSMPs provide them with a professional community that motivates and supports ongoing development of their professional practice.

CSMP contribution to a context that supports improvement in teaching

A great many teachers wrote comments on their surveys which suggest that an important component of their CSMP experience is a quality more elusive than those we specified in the survey items. In working with their colleagues in CSMP programs, teachers gain both the enthusiasm and confidence they need to do the hard work that teaching — and changing their professional practice — requires:

CAMP has helped develop my confidence in effective practices, and this has encouraged me to take risks in my curriculum.

After 24 years I am still excited to be teaching.

I am more confident and professional. The Northeast California Arts Project family is always available to me for assistance and support.

2) Teachers’ perspectives on classroom goals, teaching strategies, and assessment

Beyond asking these teachers how the CSMPs were a factor in their overall teaching approach, we wanted to find out more about the actual content of their goals for their students, and about the strategies they use to teach students and assess their learning.

First, we asked teachers to rate the extent to which each of four broad goals for student learning were important to them. They used a scale of 1-5:

1= not a relevant goal
3= hope students achieve it, but not primary/formal goal
5= critically important, formally stated goal 5

The four goals cover a range of intellectual rigor and complexity:

RECALL: Students can recall important facts in a discipline (e.g., important authors’ names, historical dates, parts of plants).

MASTERY: Students master concepts and skills in the discipline (e.g., analyze a novel, carry on a conversation in French, draw in perspective).

APPLICATION: Students can apply concepts and skills within the discipline or to others (e.g., use the writing process in different situations; carry out a scientific inquiry; identify significant patterns in music, physics, or math).

CRITICAL AWARENESS: Students possess and demonstrate critical self-awareness of their own knowledge and level of skill in the discipline (e.g., as a mathematical thinker, writer, historical inquirer. Students have a view of their own learning — where they have been, where they need to develop next.)

Goals for student learning

Þ While these teachers have multiple goals for their students, the most important formally stated goals are conceptual mastery and application of concepts and skills. Four out of five also want their students to achieve critical awareness.

Teachers’ goals for students6

For this graph and the following three graphs, percentages represent teachers who gave ratings of either 5 (dark shading) or 4 (lighter shading) on a 5-point scale on which 1 is a low rating and 5 is a high rating. (See the survey form in Appendix D for the full wording of this and the following three graphs.)

With regard to concerns of the broader policy community, these reports are important because they help debunk the myth that the CSMPs advocate "fuzzy" approaches to subject matter and teaching. It is difficult to argue against "conceptual mastery" and "application of concepts and skills" as fundamentally important goals within the discipline areas.

Strategies for achieving goals

We asked teachers to rate the extent to which they possess a repertoire of teaching strategies that enable them to move students toward their classroom goals, and methods of assessment that enable them to gain concrete evidence of students’ progress. We also wanted to find out the degree to which these teachers are actually able to reach their stated goals with the students in their classrooms.

Þ These CSMP teachers possess solid repertoires of practice that enable them to teach and assess students in relation to their primary goals. They feel more successful in enabling students to reach conceptual mastery than to reach higher-level goals.

Teachers’ ability to reach goals

Percentages represent teachers who gave ratings of either 5 (dark shading) or 4 (lighter shading) on a 5-point scale on which 1 is a low rating and 5 is a high rating. (See the survey form in Appendix D for the full wording of this survey item.)

Overall, these teachers’ reports are consistent with their high ratings of efficacy. Their ratings also show that they feel less capable than they would like in assessing and fostering students’ higher order learning. As shown on page 9 (above), these teachers believe CSMP programs create opportunities for them to develop in this area.

Strategies for assessment

There is increasing interest in using standardized tests to "hold teachers accountable" for students’ learning. For our survey, we wanted to find out how CSMP teacher leaders actually assess student learning.

Þ These teachers employ multiple approaches in systematically assessing student learning. Their strategies include formative assessment embedded in their daily instruction, tracking of cumulative growth over time, and summative assessment of mastery.

Percentage of teachers who regularly and systematically use various assessment measures

Percentages represent teachers who marked 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale where "1" = "never or hardly ever" and "5" = "Very regularly and systematically in a way that is embedded in my teaching routine."

Two hundred and one teachers (50% of the respondents) added written comments about their approaches to assessing student work, many of them specifying individual versions of the above approaches. Forty-six teachers (11%) referred specifically to portfolio assessment. Their descriptions suggest that portfolio assessment is an approach that encompasses many of the above strategies, with an emphasis on cumulative and summative assessment. Portfolios typically contain many finished products over time, as well as informal pieces of work that demonstrate students’ thinking or problem-solving processes, and they often contain formal statements by students of their own progress.

Fifty teachers referred to both formal and informal ways of talking with students (and frequently with their parents) as a way of assessing learning: interviews, conferences, one-to-one discussions, and "just talking." Many of these strategies include both teacher assessment and student self-assessment. They are used typically for formative assessment, though in some disciplines (especially foreign languages), oral strategies are often used for summative assessment.

Teachers also specified other approaches to assessment, for example, evaluations by peers, teachers’ use of reflective journals and other teacher research methods, and data on college eligibility.

What became evident in these comments is that these teachers feel "accountable" primarily to their students (and the students’ parents). They have amassed sizable repertoires of practical assessment strategies that are designed both as a way to inform their teaching, and also to communicate with students (and parents) about their growth and mastery. These teachers also feel "accountable" to their subject disciplines. While teachers of different disciplines have many general strategies in common (portfolios, evaluation of finished products, etc.), their many written comments suggest that the specific character of those strategies varies dramatically depending upon the discipline.

Comparative value of different assessment approaches

It is not surprising that these teachers’ assessment strategies derive out of — and contribute to — their discipline-based learning goals and teaching practices. A common-sense view of assessment would assume those links. Given the increasing visibility of standardized tests in the current education reform environment, we wanted to find out the relative value that these teachers place on assessments that are designed by others.7

We asked them to compare the value and relevance to their teaching of three overall kinds of assessment: their own approaches, district-wide assessments, and commercially-produced standardized tests. The results show dramatic differences in the extent to which these teachers believe different approaches are consistent with their goals and are of value to their teaching.

Þ These CSMP teachers rely almost exclusively on their own assessment strategies to assess their students’ learning and inform their practice. They rely to a much lesser extent on district assessments, and regard standardized tests as having little value and relevance to their teaching.

Levels of assessment that CSMP teacher leaders find valuable

Percentages represent teachers who marked 4 or 5 on 5-point scales where, for the first two columns "1" = "Of little if any value" and "5" = Very valuable" and for the third column "1" = "Not consistent with CSMP approaches" and "5" = Highly consistent with CSMP approaches."

These ratings show that these teachers place value on assessment strategies to the extent that the strategies provide feedback that is relevant and connected to their own goals for students. To look at it another way, the more distant and disconnected assessment is from these teachers’ actual classrooms and students, the less it contributes to the improvement of their teaching.

This set of findings on assessment has an important implication for reform. Our survey results make it clear that these teachers feel accountable primarily to the students in their classrooms. They assess student learning regularly and use the results of assessment to improve their teaching. The findings also make clear that external standardized assessments are not winning these teachers’ hearts and minds. This suggests that existing California reforms — which tie accountability to one set of tests8 — may alienate the ranks of accomplished teachers the state depends on to improve teaching.


Overwhelmingly, teachers responding to our survey point to the CSMPs as an important contributor to the supportive conditions necessary to their effectiveness in the classroom. They say CSMP programs validate effective teaching in the disciplines, motivate them to learn, and provide them with valuable knowledge and skills. CSMPs also offer them ongoing contact with colleagues in a climate that supports critical reflection.

These reports suggest that the CSMPs can support the kinds of active professional learning communities that researchers say are necessary to improvement of teaching. In presenting findings from a five-year research project, Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert report: "Effecting and enabling the teacher learning required by systemic reform cannot be accomplished through traditional staff development models... The path to change in the classroom lies within and through teachers’ professional communities: learning communities which generate knowledge, craft new norms of practice, and sustain participants in their efforts to reflect, examine, experiment, and change."9

Teachers responding to our survey also identify many barriers to their teaching effectiveness: counterproductive working conditions within their schools, as well as some elements of the broad policy context that surrounds their teaching. In particular, these teachers see the need to prepare students for standardized tests as an obstacle to their classroom effectiveness. While this fact may be well known to those who talk with teachers on a regular basis, these survey findings provide more grounded evidence of a mismatch between policy assumptions and field realities.


5 See Appendix D for the full wording of these survey items.

6 Forty percent of the respondents rated "recall" as a goal which is not formally stated or emphasized, but which they hope students will achieve, and 19% rated "critical awareness" as a hoped-for goal.

7 The students of CSMP teacher leaders take a dizzying array of commercially produced standardized tests. In Appendix C, we list the tests which teachers identified, along with the teachers' estimates of how well their students perform on standardized tests compared to other students.

8 We conducted this survey one year before all schools were mandated to administer the Stanford Achievement Tests (SAT 9) as part of the new STAR system.

9 McLaughlin, M.W. and Talbert, J. (1993). Contexts that Matter for Teaching and Learning: Strategic Opportunities for Meeting the Nation's Educational Goals. Stanford University: Center for Research on the Context of Teaching, p. 18.

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