Category Archives: Improve a School

Guest Post: Three Observable Expert Teacher Behaviors

By Kaitlin Pennington, Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress

Over the past several years, the connection between teaching quality and student achievement has been a much-discussed topic among education policymakers and practitioners—and for good reason. Research conclusively shows that quality teaching matters to student learning. In fact, it has been identified as the most important school-based factor in student achievement.

But until recently, what quality teaching looks like wasn’t at the forefront of the debate in education. Now, however, many state departments of education and local school districts across the U.S. are developing and restructuring teacher evaluation systems, with the goal of cracking the code of teacher instructional practices that lead to student achievement, and then holding teachers accountable for performing those practices. This is a difficult task that often prompts debate, but one worth pursing for the sake of student learning and the integrity of the teaching profession.

Colorado was at the forefront of teacher evaluation reform with the passage of SB 10-191, the Educator Effectiveness bill. As part of SB 10-191, through a collaborative effort involving diverse stakeholders across the state, leaders developed a State Framework for Teacher Evaluation unique to Colorado. Through this framework, education leaders in Colorado created a tangible idea of what quality teaching looks like regardless of where a teacher works in the state.

According to the Colorado framework, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is determined by professional practice and the other 50 percent by student growth. If the Colorado framework for teacher evaluation lives up to its design, a teacher’s daily practices rating on the evaluation observation rubric will align with student learning data. So, if a teacher’s daily practice rates high on the rubric, that teacher’s students will show increases in learning and vice versa. Therefore, the contents of the observation rubric are important to educators, and have the added bonus of being a useful guide for families when talking with students’ principals and teachers.


However, like most teacher evaluation observation rubrics, Colorado’s is long and quite detailed. I scanned it and summarized traits that I noticed across all of the standards into the three key teacher behaviors that I discuss below. This is by no means a complete list of effective teacher behaviors, but it can serve as a starting point for observing and talking with teachers:

Analyze Student Learning

Expert teachers have a clear understanding of their students’ strengths and weaknesses. They can speak at length about their students’ abilities and can support their claims with student work and data. These teachers are intentional about how they assess student learning and then use student assessment results to inform their instruction. Analyzing student learning is a part of high-quality instructional practice, which allows teachers to know what each of their students understand or misunderstand after each lesson. To have a conversation about student learning with a teacher, a parent or family member may ask the teacher to discuss a topic or concept the student understands particularly well or poorly. Ask the teacher to show student work or assessment results that connect to that topic. If it is something the student is struggling with, ask the teacher how she or he is working with the student to clarify misconceptions and how that instructional practice can continue at home.

Differentiate Instruction

Differentiating instruction is an extension of analyzing student data. After effective teachers analyze student data at the end of each lesson or unit, they then use the data to differentiate their instruction in order to ensure that all students are learning. A clear sign (though not the only sign) that a teacher is differentiating instruction is the use of student grouping. Teachers may put a group of students together who are not understanding a specific topic so that she can work with them one-on-one while another group of students who understood the topic move onto a project that applies it to real-life scenarios. When implemented correctly, this method allows for student misconceptions to be addressed while not boring other students who have already mastered the topic. Student grouping should not be used to teach some students less, but rather to give more time and attention to students who are struggling with a particular topic before moving onto the next lesson.

Clearly Communicate Academic Goals to Students and Families

Effective teachers create a roadmap for the academic year. They then break that roadmap up into weekly or monthly units and then, lastly, into daily lesson objectives. In addition to creating the plans, teachers relay those plans to their students and their students’ families so that they can be key players in their education, not simply compliant observers. If a teacher is proficient in communicating academic goals, students should have a clear understanding of their individual goals and a plan on how to achieve those goals. This communication allows students to take control of their learning and ask for help if/when they are not meeting their goals.

The shifts in teacher instructional practices expected due to new evaluation systems—and other concurrent reforms such as the Common Core State Standards—are just beginning and will take some time to fully implement. As the adjustment in the system takes place, asking teachers questions about their practice can help family members better understand students’ academic goals.

Kaitlin Pennington is an Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Previously, Kaitlin worked at Colorado Succeeds and in the office of Senator Mike Johnston. As a Teach for America corps member, Kaitlin taught middle school English and language arts in Washington, D.C.




3 Ways to Battle the Holiday Boredom

Happy FamilyAny break from school means an opportunity to spend some time relaxing and enjoying family. On the flip side, this time off can quickly lead to cabin fever. So, how can parents battle holiday boredom while also creating opportunities for academic growth during school holidays?

The key is to make the experiences and learning opportunities meaningful to kids. Some simple ways to do this are to focus on a child’s existing interests and offer choices so they can guide their own learning. Time off from school is a great time to help kids pursue their own interests and develop hobbies that can be their own sources of development and learning.

Boredom pops up quickly when activities get too repetitive. A school vacation is the perfect time to offer up some new learning experiences for your kids. Here are a few ideas:

1. Help you child develop a new interest by visiting a museum and following up on their favorite exhibits with a visit to the library.

2. Take advantage of extra time to be active outdoors by visiting a park, hiking trail, or other natural space.

3. Look online for inexpensive craft ideas, or turn their screen time into learning time by working together to learn a new skill. Check out this list of free winter activities in the Denver area to help spark ideas.

By using holiday time to help young learners further develop their own interests you can help them become more motivated and independent learners. Then when the next school break rolls around, they might already know how to cure their own boredom.

Not too pleased with your school’s grade this year? Here are 3 ways to start improving it

One of the reasons the Colorado School Grades coalition exists is to give parents the tools they need to choose as well as improve a school. If your school didn’t get a great grade, it’s not time to feel bad about it – it’s time to take action! We’re here to help. Here are a few simple ways to get started.

1. Contact your principal.

A great leader is one sign of a great school. Not sure how to connect with your school’s principal? Here are some tips for how to do so and a few questions you might ask.

2. Talk to your school board.

A lot of what happens at your local school is administered at the school board level. Colorado is a local-control state, meaning that school boards make a lot of important decisions that will affect your child. This is also an elected body, so they should be accessible to their constituents! Not sure how to reach out? We have a handy guide for that, too.

3. Understand your school’s accountability plan.

First thing first: does your school have an accountability plan? Probably! It’s the way the state and district tracks your school’s performance progress. Search on this statewide database, or ask your school board or principal for this important blueprint to your school’s improvement. Want to get even more involved? Every school has an Accountability Committee, comprised of parents. Ask your principal how to get placed on the committee and help hold the school accountable to its plan!






Be Informed – How to Track Education News in Colorado

Keeping track of the state’s education news is an easy way to stay on top of and get involved in important issues for you and your family. Here are a few ways to keep track of what’s new in education:

1. Sign up for email updates from Colorado School Grades

2. Like Colorado School Grades on Facebook

3. Looking for more in-depth resources on policy issues? Follow the Colorado Department of Education on Facebook and Twitter or read more online here.

4. Search for #edcolo on Twitter to see updates from a variety of education organizations in Colorado

You can also find education stories from several local media sources:

Chalkbeat Colorado

Denver Post’s Education Page

Colorado Public Radio’s Education Beat

9News’ Education Page


Improve a School: Get Involved with Your School Accountability Committee

All schools in Colorado have parents at the helm of an Accountability Committee, making sure performance, budgeting, and other important school issues are up to snuff.

Want to dig deep into what these Accountability Committees can and should be doing? Click here.

For a quick overview, here are four quick points on what to look for from your school’s Accountability Committee:

1. The School Accountability Committee can be elected or appointed – it’s up to your school board. Regardless, there must be representation by:

  • The school principal or the principal’s designee
  • At least one teacher who provides instruction at the school
  • At least three parents of students enrolled in the school
  • At least one adult member of an organization of parents, teachers, and students recognized by the school, and
  • At least one person from the community.

2. Whether elected or appointed, the makeup of the board should reflect student diversity.

3. A parent should be selected as co-chair or chair of the committee.

4. The committee’s duties include:

  • Meeting at least quarterly
  • Making recommendations about the school’s budget
  • Making recommendations about a school Performance or Improvement Plan
  • Holding public meetings about strategies for the aforementioned plans
  • Assisting the district and school personnel to increase parent engagement with teachers.

Never heard of a School Accountability Committee or want to know more about how to get involved? Contact your local school board or your school’s principal.

And, check out this blog post over at Chalkbeat Colorado with more about the nuances of School Accountability Committees, district-to-district.


Improve a School: Donate Time & Money

Here are a few ways that you can get involved and help improve your child’s school:

1. Volunteer in a classroom:

Teachers can always use more help, and your child may benefit from having you in the classroom. Be sure to talk to the teacher about volunteering expectations. You can find more information about volunteering in Denver Public Schools here.

You can also volunteer in schools through a variety of organizations. Reading Partners is a great example; make sure to check for similar organizations in your district.

2. Donate to a local classroom through DonorsChoose:

Did you know that 91% of teachers spend their own money on school supplies and basic necessities for their students? Ask your teacher how you can help cover for projects at your child’s school, or help another teacher by sponsoring a classroom on the DonorsChoose website.

3. Post a review of your child’s school:

You can do this on Colorado School Grades or If you love your school, share with other parents who are looking for a great school. If you feel that your school needs some improvement, posting some constructive feedback or ideas for improvement online might help motivate school leaders to make changes.

Three Ways to Get Involved in Your Child’s School

Staying involved in your child’s school is one of the best things you can do to improve their education. Here are a few tips for how to get involved:

1. Call your principal. photo credit flickr user amagill

The best way to find out ways to get involved in your school is to ask the leader directly. Not sure what to ask your principal? We have a guide to help you get the conversation started.

2. Check in with your teacher.

Do you have some time to volunteer in the classroom? Want to know exactly what kind of assistance your teacher could really use day to day?

Call them directly – they want to hear from you! Here are some tips for how to talk to your teacher for the first time.

3. Learn when all the open houses, and other school events take place and be sure to attend.

Sign up for any newsletters or email alerts and read them carefully. Schools should usually give plenty of notice for conferences and other school activities. If your school doesn’t send out a newsletter, check your school’s website at least once a week.