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During 'Learning Walks,' Miami-Dade, Palm Beach Districts Will Offer Lessons For Improving Teaching

Lily Oppenheimer
Seventh-grader Jada Smith from Dr. Henry W. Mack Middle School participates in a coding program at the Arsht Center earlier this year. Miami-Dade County's strategies for training middle school teachers will soon be on display in a statewide program.

In February, groups of educators from five school districts throughout the state will be visiting classrooms in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, in hopes of learning how to improve teaching throughout Florida.

The observations are called “learning walks,” and they’re the main events for a new partnership organized by a statewide association for school district superintendents and a new education policy-focused group called Impact Florida.

After the visits in all five districts — Pasco, Osceola and Collier counties are participating, as well as the districts in southeast Florida — the group of mostly district-level administrators will publish reports on what they learned. Their aim is to create a guide for better teaching, especially for students who have often been disadvantaged with unequal access to experienced educators, advanced courses and high-quality curriculum.

The “learning walks” will take place starting this fall and continue through the spring. Impact Florida executive director Mandy Clark said it doesn’t cost the school districts anything to participate. Travel expenses and other costs of the initiative are being covered by her nonprofit group as well as the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. That's a lobbying organization whose CEO is state Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and former elected leader of the Leon County district.

The districts were chosen because they enroll large numbers of traditionally underserved students, they're trying some innovative strategies to improve teaching and they seem open minded to making changes, Clark said.

“They all did show a real strong commitment to examining their own data with a critical eye,” she said, “meaning that they know that they've got some strengths and some weaknesses, and they're willing to address those.”

Clark has been visiting schools already this year and shared how powerful an experience it can be to witness teaching in action.

In May, she visited a sixth-grade math class in Pasco County.

“That's kind of a tough age, especially when you're going in and observing. Sometimes, kids are shy, and they're kind of looking around at who's watching,” she said. “But this particular class was so absorbed in the task, and they were debating with each other — not arguing but they were debating — about where to plot something on a number line. They were disagreeing with each other but doing so respectfully. They were helping each other. And there were a lot of subtle moves that the teacher was doing to make sure that there was a diversity of viewpoints being expressed in the room.

“I had such a flashback to my math experience, and I thought, ‘I would never have dreamed that this was what math could look like.’ I mean, they were having fun, and they were learning so much," she said.

Clark said she expects educators from the participating districts to learn a lot from each other than can be applied across the state.

Miami-Dade will be showing off its programs for training and evaluating teachers on an ongoing basis, particularly in middle school. And the district will share how teachers have used high-quality curricula to help students who are learning English as a second language.

“They also do a lot of work in making sure that their administrators share a common sense of expectation, almost calibrating with each other: ‘Are we saying the same thing? Are we looking for the same thing? Are we offering the same supports?’" Clark said. "And that takes a lot of work to do in a district that big.”

The Palm Beach County district has used data to determine whether students were being offered equal access to higher-level coursework in high school and tried to address inequities. Then they applied the same analysis to elementary and middle schools, as well, Clark said.

“I think that both counties will have a lot to share with the other districts,” she said. “But, likewise, they also share a desire to learn how to be even better.”

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.