AUSL Supports Teachers at all Stages to Grow Into Leaders and Collaborate Through PLCs

Our report "Teachers at Work: Designing Schools Where Teachers and Students Thrive," identified several organizations and models to learn from as we aim to nurture positive work environment in schools. AUSL’s focus on professional development and teacher collaboration during the school day is a place we want to spotlight for the field to consider and watch when contemplating broader action to address these issues.

Q: For readers who may not be familiar with your organization and its work, please provide a brief description of your organization.

The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) is a nonprofit organization operating in partnership with Chicago Public Schools to manage 31 public schools, and is the largest and oldest teacher residency program in the nation. With this knowledge and experience, AUSL provides consultation services to school districts all across the country to further our impact on public education. To learn more about AUSL, visit

Q: In what ways are you/your organization ensuring teachers have sufficient high-quality, relevant opportunities for professional growth and collaboration during the school day? Why do you see this as core to the work?

When it comes to driving student achievement, research shows that teachers matter most among school-related factors. At AUSL, our theory of change pivots on creating highly effective teachers as well as leaders. We are continuously focused on providing coherent, ongoing support for our science teachers throughout the various stages of their career, from the time they are in our Chicago Teacher Residency (CTR) program, through the induction period and beyond.

Our CTR residents benefit from multiple layers of support. Residents are paired up to promote peer-to-peer collaboration and support, they spend a year in their Mentor Teacher’s classroom learning in action, and receive coaching from an AUSL Mentor Resident Coach.

AUSL teachers in the induction phase (i.e., new to teaching in general, new to teaching science, or still getting their bearing when it comes to teaching the Next Generation Science Standards [NGSS]), have opportunities for ongoing support through our Summer Science Institute and Follow-Up Quarterly PDs. AUSL coaches also provide teachers with one-on-one support during the school day.

As our teachers progress in their careers, they have the opportunity to apply to become members of our Science Professional Learning Community (PLC), where members serve as thought partners as they dig into problems of practice and hone their skills as teachers and leaders. Our PLC teachers then become another layer of support for AUSL science teachers within their buildings (through leading cluster meetings and school-based professional development [PD], coplanning with grade-team colleagues, etc.) and across our schools (through leading Summer Institute and Quarterly PDs, and serving as PD classrooms in which AUSL teachers can observe high-quality instruction in action).

AUSL collaborates with National Louis University, where our CTR residents take classes and earn their master’s degree, in order to ensure a coherent vision for science teaching and learning that aligns with the PLC’s work. Moreover, CTR science mentor teachers have all been a part of the Science PLC for at least a year, which ensures our residents’ in-classroom experiences with their mentor align with their NLU coursework. Our work has been funded through a Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) grant, shared with National Louis University, that helps to support our residency program and provides PLC teachers with stipends and compensation for leading network-level PDs.



Q: What are the key elements of your work that best enable these opportunities?

In order to design our AUSL Science PD program, we grounded our approach in the research literature. Effective professional development programs:

- Address teachers’ actual needs (Davis et al., 2006)
- Model the strategies that teachers are expected to implement (Freeman, Marx, & Cimellaro, 2004)
- Situate the learning in the teacher’s own classroom context (Putnam & Borko, 2000)
- Are sustained over time (Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001)
- Foster the development of collegiality and peer collaboration (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001)
- Allow for feedback and subsequent refinement of practice (Prawat, 1992)

PLCs are central to our teacher development model. Teachers at the same grade level come together six to eight times a year (during and after school) to explore an agreed-upon problem of practice by reading and discussing literature on the topic, experimenting with strategies in their own classrooms between PLC gatherings, and then coming together to engage in Studio Days in order to observe specific strategies in action in a PLC member’s classroom. AUSL curates resources around the team’s problem of practices, facilitates after school PLC gatherings and during-school Studio Days, and provides biweekly one-on-one support to PLC members as they test out their learning in their classrooms.

Studio Days are an approach to PD that the AUSL team experienced on a visit with the University of Washington (UW) Ambitious Science Teaching (AST) group (AUSL first learned about UW’s work through a 100Kin10 Meet Up grant). Studio Days are an opportunity for teachers to visit a host teacher’s classroom to experience specific strategies in action. PLC teachers observe the lesson and gather evidence of student learning by scripting student talk and collecting student work. Teachers then analyze the student data and collectively determine implications for instruction and next steps. On the same day, the PLC team return to the host teacher’s classroom to test out one to three of those cogenerated next steps and observe their impact on students.

Each year, our Science PLC focuses on one or two problems of practice and creates a product, based on their learning, that can be shared with teachers across our network through our Summer and Quarterly PDs, as well as on our AUSL Science website.

Q: Can you give one or two specific examples of what this looks like in practice?

In Year 1, we started with a team of high school teachers wondering what NGSS-aligned instruction ought to look like in the classroom, and the team found Model-Based Inquiry (MBI) and UW’s AST practices to be the secret sauce. MBI is a pedagogical approach in which students develop, test, and refine models to explain phenomena. AST is a framework of four core teaching practices that work in tandem with MBI to support authentic science learning: 1) planning for engagement with important science ideas, 2) eliciting and working from students’ ideas, 3) supporting ongoing changes in student thinking, and 4) pressing for evidence-based explanations. In pairs, PLC members used their learning around MBI and AST to develop an example unit for each science subject area.

In Year 2, a couple of middle-school teachers were recruited to join the team in order to expand our reach. The group decided they wanted to spend time honing their enactment of the AST practices. At the end of Year 2, they created “how to” guides with accompanying classroom videos illustrating their learning around four areas they found to be most high-leverage for student learning: planning units around a rich phenomenon; engaging students in developing and refining explanatory models; student-student discussion; and ensuring coherent instruction through the development and use of summary charts, which are a tool for tracking evidence/learning from sense-making activities and then applying it to the unit phenomenon.

Over time, we’ve expanded our impact by bringing additional middle school teachers into the fold and starting an elementary PLC. The focus of the PLCs has progressed over time, in responses to the teachers’ problems of practice, following this trajectory:

1. Developing a vision for NGSS-aligned instruction (MBI/AST) and planning MBI units
2. Exploring best practices for implementing MBI/AST
3. Investigating how to assess student learning of the three dimensions of NGSS (practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts)
4. Experimenting with strategies aimed at supporting students to improve the quality of their written work
5. Piloting curricular resources in order to limit teacher time spent on designing units and maximize time spent on translating the curriculum into effective instruction that maximizes student learning.

A PD program is only as good as the content of that program. We owe much of our success in transforming classroom teaching and learning to the high quality and feasibility of the MBI framework and AST practices. Moreover, the PLC model of professional development enables us to ensure our PD content is well-aligned with our teachers’ and our students’ needs. The PLC also provides a space for teachers to become leaders with the experience and knowledge necessary to lead quality PD for colleagues across our network.

Q: What outcomes have you seen when teachers are provided these opportunities? Can you give one or two specific examples?

Analysis of student work and student discourse during Studio Days and classroom visits shows an increased ratio of student-to-teacher talk in PLC teachers’ classrooms and increased use of relevant evidence and science ideas in student writing and discussion. Students are also better able to explain what they are learning about on any given day and why. Changes in teacher practice have been observed, such as 100 percent of PLC teachers teaching phenomenon-based units, engaging students in developing and refining explanatory models, and using the claim-evidence-reasoning framework to support students in constructing explanations. In addition, PLC teachers spend more time on student-to-student discussion with fewer interjections from the teacher. K–5 teachers also have increased the time they spend teaching science per week since joining the PLC.

Here is what folks in our network have had to say about the impact of our science PD program:

“Being a part of the AUSL Science PLC has helped my colleagues and I reach our students by using engaging, inquiry-based instruction. We focused on addressing big problems of instruction with research-supported best practices. My teaching has transformed from covering biology topics to creating units that are aligned with the NGSS and engage students in investigating, sense-making, and building connections in their knowledge.” (Deanna Digitale-Grider, AUSL Science Teacher)

“AUSL has completely transformed science instruction at my school. Students are now engaged in trying to understand puzzling phenomena through content. They regularly summarize their learning and make connections to other science content… Students are completely engaged and excited about what they are learning.” (Johanna Klinsky, former AUSL Assistant Principal)

Q: What are the next steps in your work? Meaning, what are you trying to figure out next in order to build on this work? Where do you see opportunities for further innovation, development, or learning?

This year our goal is to expand our science learning community further, ensuring just-in-time support for all teachers across the network, not just PLC teachers. We will be using Google Classroom to begin to cultivate an online community where teachers can share ideas, student work, questions, and needs related to MBI, AST, and our new science curriculum. With PLC teachers at each grade level facilitating the discussion board for their same-grade colleagues, all teachers across the network will have access to ongoing support.

This year we plan to develop additional teacher leaders through PLCs at each grade band: K–2, 3–5, and 6–8. The areas teachers would like to focus on this year are: 1) access to supplemental, vetted sense-making activities aligned with each unit in our new curriculum that can be used to differentiate instruction and support deeper learning of NGSS core ideas as needed; and 2) exploring how to implement the new curriculum in ways that align with MBI and AST (e.g., developing explanatory model scaffolds for each unit that teachers can use to elicit students ideas and evidence around how and why the particular phenomenon for each unit occurs).