Lessons from Louisiana: Collaborative Planning that Works


Written by Sara Neal

Lessons from Louisiana: Collaborative Planning that Works

Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

When I begin to work with a new group of leading educators, this quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie often comes to mind.

Teachers hold great responsibility for shaping young lives, so teachers’ convictions are deeply meaningful. Your story and the stories you help students build for themselves can be a source of power. Teachers believe their students are capable of incredible feats. It’s our responsibility to create experiences every day in the classroom that help students use their inherent strengths. That’s why lifelong learning, as educators, is so critical to students’ success.

As an educator and someone who has designed and led countless hours of professional development, I know much teacher support falls short. When teachers do not have the support they need to teach their students to their best ability, opportunity gaps persist. Teachers make important instructional decisions each day, and they should be able to draw from deep content knowledge. Also, they should be able to use their students’ stories to build excellence and equity. It’s a huge responsibility for teachers to own.

So, how can we redesign support to promote shared practice and collaboration? At Leading Educators, we believe we’ve found a way forward to help teachers and students tell a new story for education in their community.


Many existing professional development options fail to address the core principles of a strong instructional vision: deep content knowledge, equitable and inclusive teaching practices, and grade-appropriate expectations. We’ve tackled these shortcomings by working with schools to establish professional learning systems. These systems help teachers collaborate while using strong curricula to create lasting improvement in schools, even as student needs and standards change. Teachers build their understanding of grade-appropriate content and teaching so they’re more likely to make choices that support every student to succeed. With the right time, tools, and focus, schools have the power to create and sustain solutions that will work for them.


Since teachers can only effectively teach what they understand, we support schools to create strong cycles of continuous improvement. That means teachers’ learning follows a sequence that responds to what they will be teaching next. Using collaborative planning as a strategy, schools provide a series of weekly content-based professional learning sessions on planning, facilitating, and reflecting on their instruction.

Research shows that continuous improvement requires time for teachers to learn. That time can be spent learning high-quality instructional materials and analyzing standards and tasks. We work with schools to use these practices during collaborative planning time. The cycle below shows what the time looks like:


Here’s a brief example of shared learning from an early math session. This session would cover the shifts within mathematics standards.

What is rigor? Take a minute to jot down the definition that comes to mind.

Rigor is one of three key shifts in mathematics introduced by college and career readiness standards. Many of us at some point have thought of rigor to mean the same as “harder.” However, math standards ask us to think of rigor differently. We refer to these three aspects identified by Student Achievement Partners:

  1. Conceptual Understanding: The standards call for a conceptual understanding of key concepts, such as place value and ratios. Students must be able to access concepts from a number of perspectives. They should see math as more than a set of mnemonics or discrete procedures.
  2. Procedural Skill and Fluency: The standards call for speed and accuracy in calculation. Students are given opportunities to practice core functions such as single-digit multiplication. They should have access to more complex concepts and procedures.
  3. Application: The standards call for students to use math flexibly for applications in problem-solving contexts. In content areas outside of math, particularly science, students are given the opportunity to use math to make meaning of and access content.

The phrase, “with equal intensity” doesn’t mean every standard or lesson has an equal balance. Rather, over the course of learning in a year, instruction and learning should reflect a balance of the aspects of rigor. When the Education Trust looked at math assignments across schools to identify all three aspects, the results were disappointing: 38% addressed conceptual understanding, 87% addressed procedural skill and fluency, and 39% addressed application. As educators, we need to learn to create more balanced instruction by planning with all aspects of rigor in mind.

By solely focusing on procedures, students miss deep learning around content that connects to future learning in mathematics. This causes variance in the bar of mastery. When the bar of mastery differs from teacher to teacher, country to country, students do not have equitable access to rigorous content.

The big picture

For the remainder of this shared learning, I might:

  • introduce our Math Continuous Cycle of Improvement Guide
  • guide teachers through a case study of one teacher’s planning and practice for an upcoming Illustrative Mathematics lesson,
  • guide the group to reflect on observed “look-fors” related to the aspects of rigor,
  • and identify adjustments to come back to in our next meeting.


Diagram of a math lesson showing a teacher's annotations

On the left side of this lesson plan, you can see questions that ask students to explain their thinking and how they arrived at their answers. To the right, this teacher has named big ideas for conceptual understanding. While providing feedback, this teacher’s peers would be asked to consider the following questions: Which standards and objectives are taught in the lesson? What is the flow of lesson tasks? Based on the recent learning, what would successful implementation look like for these standards and objectives?


In my work with Louisiana schools, I’ve seen the power of the time teachers get with one another to drastically improve student achievement. As you think about how you can ensure collaborative time in your school is spent well, look to us as your partner. Helping systems make sustained progress across schools is our specialty. Whether it’s designing custom professional development resources aligned to Tier 1 curriculum or providing coaching to support the implementation of sustainable professional learning systems, let us know how we can help.

Sara Neal is a Senior Director at Leading Educators. She has supported dozens of Louisiana schools to establish strong leadership and professional development systems since 2014. Sara has been an educator for more than 20 years and was a member of Leading Educators’ first cohort.

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