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Resources / Voices from the Field

Gerald L. Zahorchak, D.Ed.

August 2008

Dr. ZahorchakDr. Gerald L. Zahorchak has served as Secretary of Education for the State of Pennsylvania since 2006. Prior to his nomination, Dr. Zahorchak served as Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education where he was responsible for the education of more than 1.8 million school children in the Commonwealth. As Deputy Secretary, he worked on the development and implementation of support systems for public schools that are working to meet the high demands set by Pennsylvania and No Child Left Behind targets.

Dr. Zahorchak has managed an unprecedented expenditure of educational state funding that included $200 million in Accountability Block Grants that were used for tutoring, math and literacy coaching, the expansion of full-day kindergarten, and the creation of pre-kindergarten classes. He has led the development of Pennsylvania’s Inspired Leadership initiative to develop and support the state’s educational leaders. He has directed Pennsylvania’s leading role with the Council’s Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education initiative. Dr. Zahorchak has also played a prominent role in the Mid Atlantic States Laboratory for Student Success that leads the way for inspired leadership in six states.

The Best Evidence Encyclopedia interviewed Dr. Zahorchak about his experience with using research-proven approaches to improving student achievement.

BEE: Certainly educators are always trying to improve student achievement. Would you talk about some examples where there have been activities to improve efforts in your state using real evidence?

GZ: What we’re doing falls into three categories: we’re investing, we’re building, and we’re supporting those people who are building. First of all, we’re investing. We now have in this year’s legislative under the school code, a law that includes the targets per district. We have the unique dollar amounts per student, per district. We know how much of the money is due from the state for that district to get to its full capacity. For us, capacity is defined simply as having enough personnel (especially teachers), having enough resources and materials, and having enough funds to employ research-proven programs that are sustainable and based on proven practices through good, professional development.

The investments matter. We’re going to invest, just in subsidies, $2.6 billion more over the next five years. We’ve already invested generally, in basic education, $3 billion over the past five years. We want our investments to get 100% of the kids to proficiency.

BEE: In addition to investing, what building are you doing to increase student achievement?

GZ: To get the student results, we’re building a standards aligned system. From the state level on down, we want our standards to be clearly and vertically aligned from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. We want to identify the standards and the vital few things that should make up the curriculum framework. So, standards are aligned to a curriculum framework, aligned to assessment systems, aligned to best teaching practices pedagogy and emotional support practices, aligned to proven research materials and resources, aligned to best interventions for accommodations for children who struggle. Those are the six component parts.

All of this is what we’re building. On our website, you can find user friendly sections where, for example, if you’re a 3rd grade teacher teaching mathematics you can find the three competencies that you should work with all year, the two essential questions, and the four concepts you’re deepening across grade levels. You can even see the limited vocabulary for that grade level and some best practices for mathematics.

One statewide practice that’s research proven for mathematics, that is also in the President’s Advisory Panel and the National Council of Teachers, is cooperative learning. Cooperative learning teaching strategies lead to best results when they’re done with great fidelity. In mathematics, we’re systematically rolling out some of the macro teaching strategies for formative assessment as part of what we’re calling Pennsylvania’s Power Math approach. We’ve developed the Power Math approach in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University School of Education based on the Best Evidence Encyclopedia’s best evidence on what yields effective math results.

BEE: Would you talk more about your approach to assessments?

GZ: We’re doing assessments at three levels. First, we’re doing assessments at the formative level. For example, I may have five hinge questions that make sure I know that every kid is getting the competency or concept that we’re dwelling on in today’s lesson. I’ve engineered the questions against the state’s framework.

Above that is a second layer. The school needs to have teacher, diagnostic, and benchmark assessments (benchmarked against the summative assessment from the state). We use something that again came out of our partnership with Johns Hopkins University. We use the 4Sight Assessments that are congruently valid here in Pennsylvania against our Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). Three hundred and ten districts collect data and compare their end results with these benchmarks.

To help us analyze the data, we’re partnering with Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education, the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS), and a Tennessee value-added model organization.

We’re using those partners with our regional service provider’s intermediate units. We’re teaching principals, teachers, intermediate units, and each other to use the data. There are ways to really analyze this data to find a system’s weaknesses or individual student problems. For example, we can use the data to perform root cause analysis to really find out if it’s a system problem with one of those six component parts at the three levels (school, classroom, or state) or if it’s a problem just unique to that individual child.

BEE: What tools do you provide to schools to help them analyze their data?

GZ:The state is building an array of aligned tools; for example, benchmark assessment tools such as 4Sight, and tools such as what we call the Getting Results Planning Guide. The planning guide has step-by-step processes for building standards-based systems in the school and classroom. Our Data Dialogue is another tool. That’s where the Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education and PVAAS together teach people how to do that analytical work.

There are schools that are undergoing school improvement, and they use the tools. The intermediate units have been trained well enough to use all of the tools and the planning guide. You have to jointly, with your intermediate unit and the regional service provider, do the planning. Both the executive director of the intermediate unit and the superintendant of the school have to sign off that the planning was done jointly using the tools provided by Pennsylvania. If you’re in corrective action, we’ve trained about 80 distinguished educators to embed themselves for a year or two in a school district just for the purpose of teaching them how to use those tools and work with their intermediate unit. That’s the way we’re supporting school improvement through building the standards aligned system.

BEE: Would you talk about what this all means at the classroom level?

GZ: All parts of a standards aligned system are important and equal, but the biggest part, in my view, is what goes on at the classroom level. For instance, what pedagogical tools, emotional support tools, and formative assessment tools does the teacher have? Rolling that out in a very coherent way is what we’re trying to do. We want to pick the vital few strategies for helping kids know how to think positively (emotional support), how to have responsive classrooms and routines in the building (emotional social context), and how to do the motivation of engagement with the PowerTeaching cooperative learning kind of work (the pedagogy). When we do those kinds of things, we’re giving teachers the capacity inside their classrooms for every child to win.

Of the six component parts, it’s the teaching formative assessment part that matters the most to me. We know from the research-proven work of the past ten years what it is effective teachers should be doing. But what we’re dealing with now is the question: can you systematically make sure that effective teachers are doing that? We’re working at how we can bring to scale those vital few teaching practices. How do we help principals learn those? Underneath our system, we’re saying teacher preparation and principal preparation also have to be standards aligned systems. We’re working on that with legislation we call Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership. We partnered with the National Institute for School Leadership on how to prepare principals in building standards aligned systems and then in supporting standards aligned systems in their school. We have mandated continuing education by law in Pennsylvania and we’re changing the program approval process for teacher preparation to better standardize that. We’re investing to build standards aligned systems and we’re supporting this effort by making sure we have the role models of professional development, the necessary tools, a scheme for how to take it to scale with regional providers, and a plan for how we can help the people who are struggling most.

We’re also supporting professional development with science. We have a science elementary program that’s a non-profit partnership with ASSET Incorporated (Achieving Student Success through Excellence in Teaching, Inc.) in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. We’re also helping with engagement strategies for technology infusion at the high school. Those two programs alone are all about embedded teacher development, really good teacher development. It’s not about teaching teachers to turn on the computer or the SMART Board™. Rather, it’s about the effective engagement, emotional, and assessment strategies that you’re going to be using.

BEE: In a standards aligned system, we sometimes hear teachers talk about what role they have in the decision making process, where standards are flowing down to the teacher level. Would you comment about the roles teachers have in this process?

GZ: In every component part, teachers are vital participants and we take advantage of their leadership. When we’re preparing the summative assessment in Pennsylvania, or when we’re preparing the standards, it’s teachers that help us re-align our standards. It’s teachers who help us determine proficiency. We use pretty sophisticated processes that are done by statisticians and psychomatricians, but it’s teachers who inform the testing developers on what is proficient. For example, it’s the teachers who tell us if a benchmark is rigorous against international comparisons and what an 8th grader should be able to do.

Also, it’s teachers in their community practice who help coach each other and demonstrate best practices with our proven strategies. Teachers figure out the best ways to communicate that information to each other and constantly rethink it. In our professional development activities, we are always looking for reflection and improvement. The “wait until you see what I’ve been able to achieve with this” kind of thinking goes on in schools as you start to embed professional development.

BEE: As you have implemented your research-proven approach, where have you seen real improvement in student achievement?

GZ: We’ve seen it across the board. When we started, we had somewhere around 50% of the kids reach proficiency in all third grades. We’re about to announce in August that this year [2008], 80% of our third grades are proficient. In the eighth grade, we have proficiency in the mid-to-high 70’s in math.

Where we see individual successes, we can pull out schools that started to employ the effective strategies. I can pull out a school in western Pennsylvania that had 9% of their children with disabilities make proficiency and now they’re at 45%. The PowerTeaching experience for Furness High School is a story all unto itself. They have PowerTeaching as a math experience and are having success. It’s really a project that was designed for middle school, but as we’re testing it, we’re finding that high schools need to understand more pedagogy and emotional support strategies, as well as engagement strategies, for kids. We went with Furness High School in Philadelphia and the environmental turnaround was incredible. There are pockets of schools all over PA that are doing PowerTeaching, and they’re all showing evidence of turnaround.

My theory is this: with any one of these component parts, if you pull out a string and say, let’s do that alone as the silver bullet, you probably are not going to see results. But when you employ professional development against very clear standards and curriculum framework, assess it with carefully designed hinge questions, and create benchmarks and diagnostics, that is when you will see a difference. When you have an intervention tutoring program that is research-proven (we’re rolling out Reading Recovery statewide to build the capacity for first grades) and when you have interventions like the embedded interventions in many of our practices (for example, cooperative learning) then you will see success. Also, it is important to build accommodations for the kids who are generally left out. When you put these pieces together, it creates a really dynamic system. There are lots of little gears in that system, but it takes the whole set of gears to make student results.

If you look at our progress in closing the achievement gap, we’ve tripled the number of kids with disabilities in PA who are making proficient scores and we’ve doubled just about every other group. That number grows every year.

BEE: What are the key challenges you’ve seen in making research-proven approaches work?

GZ: The biggest challenge is history. We have created 50 unique state systems in the country. Underneath those state systems, we have multiple counties or district systems and no one’s developed a blueprint architecture across the board. No one has developed that clear, simple architecture for how curriculum aligns with standards, aligns with assessments, aligns with teaching, aligns with tutoring and accommodations, and aligns with selection of resources and materials as a framework. How does that vertically align down through to the classroom? We’re painting on a blank canvas.

Probably the only ones having real fun for the past many years, taking advantage of the way it’s been, are vendors. They get to drive around in the midst of chaos ducking the arrows saying, “Look, do this. It will get you to your end game of magic results by your summative assessment tests.” They say this with or without evidence that it’s even been tested against any set of circumstances. We’ve been sort of following that as opposed to following a framework.

However, I am after this nation to make a coherent framework. Not just with some of the parts, not just the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and the standards that go with the NAEP, but a curriculum that aligns with standards and assessments. I want to think about how we can systematically roll out a framework in our preparation institutions that goes beyond best teaching practices. I want to know the evidence on best practices for interventions aligned to those things. Again, how do we examine selection of resources and materials to make sure, in all six components parts, what we’re doing is research proven, as opposed to who’s got the best marketing firm? That’s a challenge because we’re talking about a huge culture change.

Underneath that challenge, there is a second major challenge. We are a country that has devoted itself to a bell curve where we test and distribute half the kids on both sides of the mean. We’ve become comfortable with that idea over generations. A lot of times, in the industrial period, that didn’t matter so much because there was enough employment and work for low cognitive skill jobs. However, that area is now gone. Today, the real growth is with the expert professional. High cognitive skills, across any of the licenses, trades, certificates, or associative degrees, is where the market could be for America to sustain itself and its place in the world market.

We still need to produce kids that are good citizens, etc. However, knowing that there’s a cultural change, the second challenge becomes, how can we help people understand that effort matters more than innate ability? In a standards-based system, mastery of the next level can be done. If you employ the right techniques, and you have good alignment, it can be done rapidly. For example, we want to get a child from scribbling, to picture drawing, to writing the letters of the alphabet. Writing development, the whole way up through high school, can be done if we clearly define the developmental expectations and have the best teaching techniques. If we’ve diagnosed where a child is along the ladder, mastery means that child would put in the effort and persist. That replaces a culture of thinking that innate ability will determine whether or not you can be smart. That culture existed here for 100 years, while other countries, who are outperforming us in math and science, understood that it’s effort and mastery that matter more.

The President’s Advisory Panel on math, and we here in Pennsylvania, believe in effort persistence and mastery against standards aligned systems. The beauty of the standards-based systems is that the standards won’t go away. They are there for you as a student to go to the next level. Also, the educators matter. The classroom matters most by a factor of four times to 14 times over other factors such as home conditions, economics and baggage, or the size of a class. Those are factors, too, though, not to be tossed aside. However, the most important factor is the teacher’s ability to employ the right strategies against a clear and consistent set of developmental targets for every child. The teachers should expect every child to grow to mastery and to give the effort.

The hard work, though, is building the blueprints, building the construction management systems, and then implementing day-to-day activities inside the classrooms and school buildings. The hard work starts with the blueprints and this country hasn’t done it. The states have done some of it. There’s a movement now by many people. I heard some educational leaders talking recently about starting to frame some common standards that would take us to the fewer, higher, and deeper levels. That concept has enormous potential and is probably decades overdue.

BEE: Do you have any advice for other states that would want to take a similar approach with blueprinting new architecture and creating a standards aligned system?

GZ: First of all, understand it. It may take multiple repetitions before you have an “aha” moment. Understand the thinking of a standards-based system and understand that it is an antithesis of a bell curve world. Once you have that value, you can embrace the idea that all kids can get to a level of proficiency. We’re not talking about everybody slam dunking or bowling 300 games, we’re talking about levels of proficiency in math, science, social studies, and communicative skills across the 21st century dimensions.

When we understand that all kids can get to a level that we would say is competitive, a level that can take them to high cognitive skills jobs or even expert jobs, we’ve placed our values first. If any, I think my advice would be to those around the country, if you find someone without those values, think about who’s driving your bus.

For more information:

Pennsylvania Department of Education

Related Resources:

Pennsylvania’s Standards Aligned System


Contact Information:

Angela Kirby-Wehr
Special Assistant to the Secretary
Bureau of Teaching and Learning Support

Pennsylvania’s Inspired Leadership Program for Development and Continuing Education


Contact Information:

Sharon Brumbaugh
Program Leader
PA Inspired Leadership Program

Pennsylvania’s Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS)


Contact Information:


Reading Recovery


Contact Information:

Janet Bufalino

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