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School Board members got a couple of video glimpses into classrooms and participated in some learning activities themselves when Dr. Jon Saphier, a longtime consultant to School District 202, gave a presentation at the March 28 Board meeting. Board members also questioned Dr. Saphier about the value of his work to the District and asked for his perspectives on differentiated instruction and teacher expertise.
Dr. Saphier, who has been a consultant to the District for 15 years, is the founder and president of Research for Better Teaching, Inc., “an educational consulting organization in Acton, Mass., that is dedicated to the professionalization of teaching and leadership,” according to the firm’s website. He is also the author of a book, “The Skillful Teacher,” that is used extensively in teacher training at Evanston Township High School, administrators said.
Several months ago, Board member Martha Burns asked what Dr. Saphier’s role was at ETHS, and he was invited to make a presentation to the Board. He showed a video of an ETHS mathematics class and one of a science class at an elementary school as examples of skillful teaching. He also led Board members in a brainstorming exercise as an example of the teaching methods described in his book, particularly related to differentiated instruction.
Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said Dr. Saphier has been involved in a wide range of projects at ETHS, such as training administrators on observation skills, developing the induction program for new teachers, developing professional learning communities (PLC) and working with staff developers.
Several Board members challenged Dr. Saphier about the value and outcomes of the work he has been doing at the District and sought clarification of his role.
“What’s your mission, what’s your purpose?” asked Board member Gretchen Livingston. “How do we assess you? How do we measure what you’ve done? Are we getting value for whatever we’re paying you?”
Dr. Saphier did not answer the question directly. Instead he said that he kept coming back to the District because ETHS was serious about staff development and teacher training.
Ms. Livingston pressed him for a more direct answer. “How do we measure your contributions?” she asked.
Dr. Saphier responded that one thing that Board members could look at is whether or not the District’s teacher evaluation system “looks at important things. You should look in all of those corners,” he said.
Dr. Witherspoon tried to put the consultant’s work into context.
“When you bring someone in as a consultant … you bring in expertise. … It’s really up to the District to bring about system change – one consultant is one element of that,” Dr. Witherspoon said. “[Dr. Saphier has] helped us leverage certain elements of what we want to do here,” Dr. Witherspoon continued. “He has helped provide feedback and another set of eyes – it’s up to us as an organization to use the evaluation system Ms. Burns said, “What isn’t clear … [you’ve] been here 15 years – [working on the] induction and evaluation system. My expectation was that you were working with students and teachers. Something is not lining up for me about what you do.”
“I work mainly with people who work with teachers,” responded Dr. Saphier. “It’s more indirect.”
“[He teaches the] supervisors what skillful teaching is,” said Dr. Witherspoon.
“I take it you’re satisfied [with the staff developers],” said Ms. Burns.
Dr. Saphier responded that he was, but that finances were limiting the amount of time that the staff developers could spend with teachers. He recalled that when he had been in a similar position it was his full-time job, but at ETHS, staff developers can only spend one period a day working with their colleagues.
“One of the most powerful things a school district can invest in is teachers who can help you look at kids and what you’re doing,” he said, ” but you’ve run into a money ceiling and can’t liberate them enough.”
“You’re in the building … dealing with [staff developers]. … The bottom line is in the translation,” said Ms. Burns. “What students have benefited from it … may not be a question you can answer. … Some students are benefiting – where is it? I can’t get a sense if everyone is experiencing this.”
“So many elements – are all these elements combined helping us move to where we want to be?” Dr. Witherspoon interjected. “The trend lines are going up, although not as much as we would want them to be. Is Jon Saphier having an impact? Absolutely. Is he the only one? Absolutely not.”
Board member Mark Metz said that one of the persistent themes that came out of the recent controversy over the restructuring of Freshman Humanities to a completely mixed-level class was a concern about the perceived difficulty of differentiated instruction.
“What can you tell us to help us alleviate these concerns?” Mr. Metz asked.
“Not many know how to do [differentiated instruction],” said Dr. Saphier. “[But] they don’t work in a place which supports it and asks for it. If you provide the right growth environment, and challenge and support them, just about everyone can do it,” he continued.
The discussion with Dr. Saphier concluded with an exchange about outcomes.
“What is the effectiveness of these efforts?” asked Mr. Metz. “What we want to evaluate is outcomes. How can we really measure quantitatively these outcomes in a way that gives us a clear picture of what we did to get there? The Board has to hold our administrators accountable for the outcomes if they’re not good enough.”
“The bottom line is, how we know if teachers or strategies are successful,” asked Board member Mary Wilkerson. “You may not be able to measure this with a test.” She suggested that a value-added approach might be appropriate. “Where was the student when [he or she] came into the classroom and where did [the student] end up at the end?”
Dr. Saphier confirmed that the value-added notion “is powerful” and that every teacher “ought to be able to tell you what growth each kid has made over a period of time.”