Inquiry Into Student Learning Gaps Leads To Better Teaching And Shifts School Culture

When teachers work collaboratively to identify specific student skill gaps, they can push learning for all students more quickly. (iStock/bobmadbob)

When Nell Scharff Panero walked into the high school math classroom, she couldn’t believe how bad it was. The teacher was at the board teaching his math, barely looking at the kids, while they ignored him and threw things across the room. She thought to herself: This guy shouldn’t be a teacher.

So she was amazed to see his transformation on a visit a few years later. He was curious to know whether students were actually learning what they were taught and actively searched for gaps he needed to help fill in so they could move forward. The transition was stark; and she thought to herself, “This is really working.” It upended her narrative that there was such a thing as good and bad teachers. If this guy, who epitomized bad teaching in her mind, could transform so dramatically with a good professional development program, so could many other teachers.

Scharff Panero, a distinguished lecturer at Hunter College and executive director of Strategic Inquiry Consulting, has been implementing and researching what she calls Strategic Inquiry with teachers for over 15 years. She became confident in her approach after watching it transform the professional culture and student outcomes at New Dorp High School.*

Peg Tyre documents the New Dorp High School turnaround in an Atlantic article, “Writing Revolution,” describing how teachers used techniques based on Judith Hochman’s work to transform students’ writing ability. Staff realized students, at what was then a persistently low-performing school, did poorly in many content areas because they were missing fundamental building blocks of good writing. Together they drilled down into the specific skills students were missing and discovered that many struggled with coordinating conjunctions like “but, because, and so.”

Scharff Panero was the lead facilitator of a new professional development program at New Dorp called Scaffolded Apprenticeship Model (SAM) that led to this transformation. She saw how powerful it was for teachers to work together to identify gaps in student learning, test strategies, and collectively assume responsibility for moving students forward. Not only had the process unearthed important insights into students’ writing, it was a powerful way to improve teaching, too. This on the ground work with teachers at New Dorp helped her study and refine the underlying model, which later formed the basis for Hunter College's educational leadership program.**

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The success of the New Dorp program led New York City education leaders to implement a similar program in several high schools that had been identified as low-performing -- called Renewal Schools. To keep costs down, Scharff Panero trained teacher-leaders to be inquiry facilitators at their school sites. She wasn’t sure this lower-touch model would work. When she facilitated inquiry groups at New Dorp, she’d been there three days a week to move the work forward. The leadership program work at Baruch College was also more hands-on. The train-the-trainer model was new and potentially risky -- implementation is everything.

A report from Columbia Teachers College found that students in Renewal high schools that adopted Strategic Inquiry were almost 2½ times more likely to be on track to graduate than students at comparable schools without Strategic Inquiry.

“I really do think that this model is different and pushes against typical ways of thinking,” Scharff Panero said.

HOW TO DO STRATEGIC INQUIRY

On the surface, Strategic Inquiry sounds like standard professional learning community (PLC) work: Teachers get together, look at student work, and design interventions to target skill deficits. But Scharff Panero points to subtle but important differences at the core of what makes Strategic Inquiry effective. Two things are especially important: the size of the problem the group works on and using student work as the evidence for both making instructional tweaks and determining if they worked. Assumptions about why kids can’t do something are actively discouraged in the process.

Scharff Panero used the medical drama “House” as a metaphor. In every episode, a patient comes in with an ailment that no one can figure out. Established tests and traditional diagnostic practices don’t give Dr. Gregory House enough new information to make a diagnosis. He has to invent new ways to access the problem until he gets to a small enough signal that he’s sure is the crucial issue and not a red herring.

Similarly, when teachers are tackling a broad problem like English Language Learners' ability to pass an accountability test, it’s easy to list all the things students can’t yet do. Teachers get overwhelmed by all the ways their kids are struggling. And that makes it hard to move from talking about the problem to action. Scharff Panero coaches teachers to look at the test itself, identify a section where students struggle the most, and then look for patterns in why they aren’t scoring well in that section.

She calls this identification process a high-leverage educator skill because even though it sounds like “teaching to the test,” identifying particular skill gaps and teaching to them is also an important instructional technique that many teachers haven’t had a chance to develop. Scharff Panero wants inquiry groups to be asking: What is the most foundational thing this group of students needs to be able to do in order to improve their scores? What skill do they need to improve the most quickly and is it something we can measure explicitly?

“It’s always an answer that’s equally offensive to teachers,” Scharff Panero said. Often by high school, students have deep learning gaps. In English, they may not understand coordinating conjunctions, which prevents them from writing rich, complex sentences. In math, it may be that they never understood fractions or they can’t express relations between things. It takes a lot of inquiry work to dig down to that level and choose a problem that’s the right “grain size.”

“The process is mostly about shifting beliefs for people on the team,” Scharff Panero said. It’s easy to see the many problems that exist in a kid’s life and to say they can’t do work at the expected level. But when they narrow it down with the help of a trained facilitator, and teach a small skill that moves learning, “they’re really transformed. ‘Oh my god, the problem is not the kids. The problem is they didn’t know this.’ ”

That process provides the beginning of a culture shift on staff. It can take all semester to drill down enough to find the high-level skill that teachers are going to focus on across disciplines, but the inquiry process with teachers requires going slow at first to make big strides in both student learning and in school culture, Scharff Panero said.

“Basically this is about how do we organize to make new learning,” Scharff Panero said. “We’re kinda doing what we know as a field and it’s not enough. So, how do we learn something new?”

STRATEGIC INQUIRY AT LONG ISLAND CITY HIGH SCHOOL

This process has profoundly changed teaching and learning at Long Island City High School (LICHS). Four years ago they started doing Strategic Inquiry work as part of the Renewal School program. In 2012, the school had a high school graduation rate of 57 percent. In 2018, after years of working collaboratively in inquiry groups to identify and teach skills, they’ve raised the graduation rate to 75 percent. This is the first year Long Island City High School has been in “good standing.”

“Looking at the data is really the buy in,” said Julie Bingay-Lopez, assistant principal of mathematics who helped facilitate this work at LICHS. Teachers looked at papers of students who came to school every day and did their work. “They were students who wanted to be successful,” so the fact that their writing didn’t have the richness it should have for ninth grade created buy-in for teachers.

“The hardest part of that first year was teachers sharing their own work and getting feedback,” Bingay-Lopez said. “They needed to refine the kinds of tasks they wrote so the students could show what they understood from the content part and the writing part.”

This is particularly important because the inquiry groups worked as cross-disciplinary teams, identifying skills that made a difference across classes. Often writing skills are high leverage because students have to write about their math thinking, explain their science conclusions, and expand on ideas in history and English. But after doing the work for several years, the LICHS teams continue to find new skill gaps that make a big difference: For example, students have trouble with multi-step problems and understanding implicit questions, ones that don’t start with a question word or end in a question mark.

“In the beginning we didn’t have a large sample of activities for teachers to try, and the hard part was having them write them,” Bingay-Lopez said. Task writing became powerful professional development. The granular focus, which allowed teachers to separate out various challenges and narrow in on one, is not present in most test prep or textbook materials, nor does it show up in an actionable way on benchmark tests. And learning to think like diagnosticians, without assumptions, improved teaching skills.

“Now we’re at a place where teacher teams are sharing all the sentence strategies they’ve tried, what were the ones that helped students the most,” Bingay-Lopez said.

In fact, inquiry team facilitators were shocked when right before the midyear holiday break, when staff are more than ready for a vacation, teachers enthusiastically attended a professional development session where the groups got to share their work with one another. There was a gallery walk and each group handed out exercises that had worked particularly well for their students. Those handouts went like hotcakes.

“There’s real ownership of the idea that we can shift achievement for students, and that’s part of the practice and culture of our school,” said Leo Smith-Serra, an English Learner teacher and inquiry facilitator.

As teachers at LICHS got comfortable with the Strategic Inquiry approach, the work became seamless. They meet twice a week for 45 minutes -- time that principal Vivian Selenikas makes sure to protect -- and facilitators often visit one another's groups to get ideas and be thought-partners. Selenikas also sits in on inquiry groups, using a low inference formative note-catcher to give feedback, and demonstrate by example that formative feedback is part of the learning culture at the school.

As teachers saw their students succeeding in concrete ways, the buy-in became even stronger. After the second and third year, Smith-Serra said she could see her students performing better on writing tasks across content. By looking at the work of just five students, teachers identified skill gaps that applied to almost all students in their classes and made measurable gains. That’s what going small to get big results can achieve.

“When you are looking at data, and when you’re keeping your vocabulary, your language, your focus on what you’re seeing in the work, it really does remove the conversations that aren’t grounded in anything that’s observable or isolated in what you see in front of you,” Smith-Serra said.”

SPREADING A CULTURE SHIFT

As LICHS teachers improved their ability to use Strategic Inquiry they also began looking at larger systems that supported or hindered their work. They began to make changes to their curriculum to ensure that certain skills are taught across content areas. And teachers who led the inquiry work became leaders in the school, pushing for other systematic changes.

When they started the work, LICHS had a ninth-grade academy to help students transition into high school. One group of teachers worked with those students, but then they went on to a whole different group of teachers for 10-12th grades. Only the ninth-grade teachers, and those who worked explicitly with language learners, were doing Strategic Inquiry in the first year. Those teachers soon realized they needed to reorganize their small learning communities so that all teachers across grade levels were engaged in the inquiry work. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t make enough progress to dramatically shift achievement in the ways they needed.

“I think it’s countercultural,” Scharff Panero said of this process. “Either people hear it and they think ‘that’s what we’re doing already’. Or they hear this piece about getting small and they actually don’t like it without knowing why.”

Her critique of a lot of inquiry work that goes on in PLCs is that it’s not focused enough or based on the evidence from student tasks. To know if an intervention is working, teachers have to pick a clear goal and a way to measure it that will give good information on whether teaching that new skill worked. Too often, teachers are trying to change many variables at once.

“I really do think that this model is different and pushes against our typical ways of thinking,” she said.

And when it spreads beyond classroom interventions this type of inquiry can have ripple effects. It forces staff to see how the systems work and to use their power as teacher-leaders to advocate for change.

“Get people thinking about how things actually work instead of how it should work,” Scharff Panero said.

The biggest takeaway from this work is that big shifts in culture and student achievement come from starting small. When the targets are clearly specified, measurable and high leverage, it not only creates teacher buy-in, but it may upend a lot of latent assumptions about what students can and can’t do. And when students start to have success because teachers have figured out how to close the disconnect between what they’re being taught and what they know, they’re more motivated. Success is motivating for everyone involved.

* This paragraph has been edited to clarify that Scharff Panero facilitated an existing professional development program at New Dorp. She did not pilot the SAM program there.

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** This paragraph has been edited to clarify that Scharff Panero was the lead facilitator of the SAM program at New Dorp. Her work there helped her study and refine the model that she later started calling "Strategic Inquiry."

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