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STEPSS Annual overview

submitter: Strategies for Teacher Excellence Promoting Student Success (STEPPS)
published: 12/09/1999
posted to site: 12/10/1999

Strategies for Teacher Excellence Promoting Student Success

Annual Overview 1998-1999

Project Director: Darryl Medders, Visalia Unified School District
Co-PIs: Dr. Carol Fry Bohlin, California State University, Fresno
Mr. John Stockton, Visalia Unified School District
Dr. Richard Thiessen, Fresno Pacific University

Strategies for Teacher Excellence Promoting Student Success (STEPSS) is a five-year, $3.8 million project that received initial funding in August, 1998. STEPSS is designed to strengthen and enhance the mathematics content knowledge and instructional expertise of approximately 900 K-6 teachers, administrators, and preservice teachers in the Visalia Unified School District (VUSD). The district is located in the heart of California’s agriculturally-rich San Joaquin Valley and serves 25,000 ethnically- and linguistically-diverse students in grades K-12. California State University, Fresno (CSUF) and Fresno Pacific University (FPU) are the major graduate universities in the region and are active partners in the STEPSS project. Faculty members from each campus coordinate the STEPSS master’s cohorts and deliver mathematics content classes for the Project participants. The Project Director, Darryl Medders, coordinates the grant activities within the District and oversees the four full-time teachers on special assignment, who serve as grade-level Math Coaches for the Project.

Project Goals The STEPSS project consists of a number of elements, carefully designed and interwoven to produce systemic, long-term change at each school site and to achieve the major goals of the project: (a) to increase and support elementary teachers' knowledge and confidence in mathematical content, learning theory, assessment techniques, and instructional strategies; (b) to develop administrators and teachers to serve as mathematics curricular leaders and peer coaches at their respective sites, and (c) to increase the mathematics achievement of all of the district’s students.

Teacher Institute Each year, the entire faculty from four to five K-6 schools participate in STEPSS-related experiences. This model (as opposed to a cross-district, grade-level-span model) is quite effective in developing a community of learners within each school. The initial experience in STEPSS is an intensive one-week Institute, "Teaching and Assessing for Understanding," led by Kathy Richardson and Deborah Kitchens of Mathematical Perspectives. During the Institute (which is held at least twice a year to accommodate various year-round teaching schedules), teachers learn ways to search for evidence that each student is effectively developing the capacity for independent mathematical thinking. Attention is given to creating a learning environment that allows teachers to assess individual children and meet the range of needs in their classrooms. This Institute is credited with challenging and changing teachers’ perceptions of the nature of mathematics and what it means to be an effective teacher of mathematics. During 1998-1999, 229 preservice teachers, administrators, and teachers from nine schools participated in one of these Institutes.

Teacher Leader Institute In addition to this Institute, a week-long "Institute for Teacher Leaders in Mathematics" is provided for administrators and for teachers desiring a greater leadership role at their school site. The institute provides an in-depth look into the theory of how children learn mathematics, effective instructional practices, and ways to provide peer support. The Teacher Leaders are looked upon as key mathematics resource teachers by others at their school site and supplement the support provided by the STEPSS Coaches.

Cognitive Peer Coaching Another important element of the STEPSS training is a seven-hour inservice in Cognitive Peer Coaching (CPC), provided by Bill Baker of the Institute for Intelligent Behavior. Teachers learn how to assist a partner in critically assessing and reassessing his or her lessons. "Planning" and "reflective" conversations are discussed and practiced during the CPC sessions.

Behind the Glass This training is followed by a half-day "Behind the Glass" (BG) demonstration and a Practicum experience (two half-days). The BG classroom is a large room that has been divided into an observation room and a classroom by a wall containing a one-way window. A sound system allows observers to hear easily what is being said in the classroom. During the BG demonstration, a Math Coach provides facilitation of a math lesson for the teachers in the observation room while the lesson is taught in the classroom by another Math Coach. Teachers are free to ask questions or dialogue with the Coach while the lesson is in progress. (Preservice elementary teachers from CSUF and FPU also participate in a BG experiences as part of their math methods classes.) At the conclusion of the demonstration, the two Math Coaches model a "reflective" conversation about the lesson. The teachers are then allowed time for collaboration on a lesson that one will present the next day in the Practicum.

Practicum During the Practicum, peer partners take turns observing and coaching each other. Following a lesson, the observing teacher leads a reflective conversation with the teacher who taught the lesson. The following day, the partners switch roles and repeat the process. The teachers are provided approximately two hours each day for collaboration and planning for future mathematics lessons. The Math Coaches are available for support as needed during these two days.

University Courses/Workshops Each teacher in the STEPSS program is required to participate in at least 30 hours of mathematics content courses, which many teachers satisfy by attending two series of five monthly half-day workshops offered by mathematics educators from the partnership universities. This requirement is waived for teachers who elect to pursue a master’s degree with an emphasis in elementary mathematics education from either Fresno Pacific University or California State University, Fresno. During the first year of the grant, over 80 teachers matriculated into one of these master’s programs, their tuition and fees supported in part by grant monies. A second cadre of master’s students is expected to matriculate in Spring, 2000.

On-site Coaching During the year following a school’s initial STEPSS experience, the four Math Coaches make monthly visits to the school for two days of coaching, support, collaborative lesson planning, and/or demonstration lessons. Two of the Coaches support grades K-2 teachers and two support grades 3-6 teachers. The first day, each Coach brings a substitute teacher with a prepared math lesson who provides thirty minutes of release time for each teacher so they can hold an individual planning session with their respective Coach. The Coach uses the planning map from cognitive coaching to clarify a teacher's needs. The support provided to the teachers during the second day is based on the needs identified during the first day coaching session. Support can take many forms but typically is modeling of teaching strategies, performing individual student assessment, and side-by-side teaching and assessing with the teacher. During subsequent years, Coaches visit school sites once a month, and the site Teacher Leaders assume more responsibility for site leadership and support.

Ongoing Support Opportunities are also provided during the year for teachers to visit any of the dozen Demonstration Classrooms (classes of Teacher Leaders who invite observers to drop in and observe lessons). In addition, teachers are invited to participate in a variety of after-school mini-institutes on topics ranging from developing number concepts to effective assessment strategies. Many schools hold Family Math Night events and host mini-workshops with math consultants. This April, over 40 teachers attended the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ annual conference in San Francisco, supported by Eisenhower funds. A team of 14 Project PIs, Coaches, Teacher Leaders, and principals gave a presentation on STEPSS at the California Mathematics Council’s Palm Springs Conference in November, 1999; and a half-day STEPSS workshop has been accepted for presentation at the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics’ 2000 conference. To facilitate communication and information distribution, the Project is developing a Web site (, and one of the Co-PIs maintains an online newslist that keeps STEPSS staff and interested teachers on the cutting edge of news, opportunities, and information related to mathematics education.