How One Principal Fosters Teacher Collaboration to Increase Academic Rigor

Marisa Castello

Principal, PS 176Q, The Cambria Heights School, Queens, NY

This story is part of the Follow the Leaders project, an ongoing series from Relay Graduate School of Education to share insights and inspiration on leading for equity, wellness, and achievement.

The Challenge

How can I ensure all students have the opportunity to meet a high bar?

After a few years of hard work leading PS176Q in Queens, NY, principal Marisa Castello continued to see stagnant improvement in student outcomes even after implementing supports such as tutoring and afterschool programs. Says Castello, “All of the structures were there, but we weren’t getting specific about the [learning challenges] the kids were facing and what we were going to do about them. We needed to figure out the learning gaps to bring about real change.” 

The Solution

Ensure all teachers offer high-level learning tasks 

After discussing the challenge with her community superintendent and a leader coach from the Relay Graduate School of Education, Castello committed to getting closer to student work by implementing weekly observations and meetings with teachers centered around analyzing student work. Even so, outcomes continued to vary during the 2021-22 school year, which led to what Castello calls an “aha moment.” After reviewing interim assessment results in early January, the principal realized that the student work used to guide her weekly observations and meetings showed wide variability in alignment to standards and year-end expectations. Says the principal, “Teachers were all asking different questions with different levels of sophistication and explanations.” 

The principal resolved to have teacher teams examine student tasks and performance to align expectations. Says Castello, “It’s hard to come up with the gap if the work we’re asking kids to do isn’t what it should be. So we had to make sure that we all had the same understanding that this work is our expectation for the grade level.”

In her theory of action, if she:

  • Encouraged teacher teams to examine each other’s student tasks,
  • Fostered discussion of whether classroom tasks were aligned with grade-level standards, the curriculum, and the end of year assessment, and
  • Supported teams as they selected key common tasks each week they would use to assess student understanding,

Then teachers would develop common expectations for student work which would be reflected in more rigorous, standards-aligned instruction. This, in turn, would make the principal’s own observations and teacher meetings more effective in identifying and addressing gaps—a process which resulted in significant gains in student achievement by year’s end. Says Castello, “Teachers came to meetings with stronger tasks aligned to end-of-year expectations, and student work got better. Sometimes you can get too close to the work if you don’t take a step back.

The Strategy

Team review of learning tasks

The principal’s goal was to have teachers recognize the variability in expectation in the tasks they assigned, set common expectations for student work, and put in place a protocol with which teacher teams would meet weekly to norm expectations and create a common aligned task and exit ticket that reflected a high bar for instruction.

A picture containing text, indoorDescription automatically generated
Example of a classroom exit ticket

Exposing Variability in Teacher Expectations

Castello initially began the task audit process with her third grade team, which had already been the focus of her intensive observation and coaching efforts. 

As a first step, the principal called a team meeting where teachers displayed representative samples of their exit tickets on a table so that they could examine what they were each asking of students each day.  They noticed the same things the principal had—that while some teachers developed standards aligned, rigorous tasks and required students to explain their work in writing, others were “lifting everything from the book or Teachers Pay Teachers and not making sense of what they wanted kids to do,” Castello says. 

With these different examples in front of them, teachers were then asked to write questions about each other’s tasks on sticky notes and put them on the table. Questions included:

  • Why are the exit tickets different?
  • Do they address the same standards?
  • Are students required to explain their work?

This exercise helped teachers understand that while many student tasks may have come from the curriculum, they didn’t always align to grade-level standards. Says Castello, “Once everyone brings in their own work, they were able to see the variation.”

Setting Clear, High Standards for Student Tasks

Castello established common expectations for exit tickets, including:

  • Each task must be aligned to a specific standard and the adopted curriculum,
  • Each task must reflect the content in the year-end assessment, 
  • Each task must require students to explain their thinking or approach  
  • Each teacher team will create a common weekly exit ticket, which would guide the principal’s teacher observations and feedback.

Developing Common Exit Tickets with the Task Audit Protocol

After helping all teachers identify student tasks that align to an equally high bar, Castello introduced  a protocol for grade-level teams to use during weekly professional development time that would help them continue to grow both their content knowledge and a shared understanding of the bar for excellence.

Supported by the principal or an instructional coach, each teacher team worked together to examine benchmark data and interim assessments to understand student needs, identify tasks aligned to standards and year-end assessments, and develop a common exit ticket. The process follows the following protocol:

  • Identify the focus standard, based on benchmark data and interim assessments.
  • Create a know/show chart for the standard. Teachers work together to identify the conceptual skills required to meet the standard (know) and the ways in which they teach them to students (show). For example, for a third-grade standard involving a conceptual interpretation of the products of whole numbers, the team used the know/show chart to identify the target concepts—multiplication, the representation of factors in groups, and the product as the total of items in both groups—as well as critical vocabulary (factors, equal groups, product). They then identified the procedural approach to teaching students these concepts, including numerical representation, explanation, a connection of the representation to the numeric expression, and modeling the process through the use of arrays representing rows and columns of the same object.
  • Create exemplar responses for the task. The team then identifies the most “productive struggle,” or greatest challenge, students face in mastering the standard—in this case, understanding the difference between factors and addends in order to accurately group items into arrays. Each teacher then creates an exemplar task based on this understanding. 
  • Review the tasks. Working with the principal or an instructional coach, teachers compare each of the team members’ tasks to the know/show chart.  They then answer three questions about each of their tasks:
  • ~Is the task appropriate for the grade level? 
  • ~Is it challenging?
  • ~Are there opportunities for students to stretch their understanding?

Through these discussions, teachers decide which of the exemplar tasks is most closely aligned to the level of thinking required by the standard before selecting a common exit ticket. Says Castello, “the exit ticket sets the destination for where we’re going with high-leverage steps, and [the discussions] ensure that teachers can solve for those steps. When they are aligned to rigor and standards, everything comes together.”

A group of people sitting at a table looking at a screenDescription automatically generated with low confidence
A teacher team collaborates on the task audit protocol.

Questions raised by teachers during the discussion also present opportunities for the principal or coach to deepen teachers’ understanding. For example, in response to a concern that one third grade exit ticket wouldn’t align to the school’s math program, the principal stated that the goal is to teach to the standards, saying “the pathway can be different, but the destination is always the same.”  Another question about how exit tickets looked like past questions on state exams allowed Castello to reinforce that it’s in the students’ best interest to be familiar with the language and level of thinking required by rigorous assessments.

Along with fostering discussion, the process of creating and discussing the individual exit tickets helps the principal or instructional coach identify which teachers on a team have a clear understanding of the standard and how to teach it and who needs additional support. 

The weekly professional development session concludes with the team reviewing student work from the previous week, identifying bright spots and areas of development across the team, and identifying next steps as a grade—including the creation of standardized exit tickets and problem-solving tasks.

The Result

Improved student learning

Over time, the quality of third grade student work and teacher conversations improved following the introduction of the task audit protocol during 2021-22, and year-end state test scores saw significant gains, with more than three-quarters of third graders scoring proficient or above in both ELA and math, above citywide averages. The protocol is now being rolled out to additional grade level teams, which in turn is helping strengthen the impact of Castello’s observations and meetings with individual teachers. Says the principal, “It's our job to really be able to figure out the gaps that students have. And that's how we bring about real change. And I think it's only through education that we are going to have a more equitable world for everyone.”

Taking it Back to Your School

  • To what extent do student tasks align to grade level standards, the curriculum, and the end of year assessment? 
  • What is the highest priority grade/subject that you might conduct a task audit in?  What do you predict it would show? 
  • Where there is misalignment in expectations across classrooms, what might you take to ensure all students have equal access to rigorous tasks and learning outcomes?

Marisa Castello is the principal of PS 176Q, The Cambria Heights School, located in Queens, New York. Prior to serving as the school’s principal, she worked as an assistant principal and has worked as a teacher in independent, district and charter schools. Castello received her B.A. in Communication Sciences from the University of Vermont, her M.S. in Childhood Education and Special Education from St. John’s University, and Ed.M.in Educational and Building Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University.