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Lesson Study in a Turnaround School: Local Knowledge as a Pressure-Balanced Valve for Improved Instruction

by Vicki S. Collet - 2017

Background: Federal and state accountability policies attempt to improve educational outcomes but have been blamed for a breadth of ills, including minimizing local knowledge and reducing teachers’ ability to respond to contextual needs. Teachers in high-needs schools, especially, feel the effects of constrained curricula and increased testing, resulting in increased workload and anxiety.

Purpose: This article explores the impact of professional development on teachers and students in a time of high-stakes accountability. Specifically, we ask: Does Lesson Study impact teachers’ instruction and students’ achievement in writing? And how do pressures imposed by policy impact efficacy and collaboration in a high-needs school?

Research Design: This study uses data from 20 Lesson Study meetings at a high-needs, “Turnaround” school and considers changes in students’ writing achievement. The mixed-method approach and high-stakes context offer a unique contribution to Lesson Study research.

Conclusions: Findings indicate that instruction changed and students’ writing significantly improved, with the mean growth percentile increasing from the 30th to the 46th percentile on state assessments. Further, we found that during the Lesson Study process, teachers moved through six Stages of Transformation in response to a high-pressure context, moving from feelings of anger and blame-shifting to eventual feelings of empowerment.

At the conclusion of a district-wide training for elementary teachers, I was approached by Linda, a compact, energetic woman who came to me with determination, angst, and mildly muted anger. She pointed repeatedly at a page in the notebook in her hand. “Here’s what we’re doing,” she said. “We are really good teachers; we are working really hard. I just need you to tell me if we’re doing the right thing. I don’t want them to come at the end of the year and say, ‘You were doing this all wrong.’” The “them” whose retribution Linda feared was district personnel, who had targeted teachers at Linda’s “Turnaround School” because of low test scores. Unfortunately, as the district’s literacy coordinator, I was one of “them.” What could I do to relieve the pressure and increase the performance at Linda’s high-needs school? This article investigates the use of Lesson Study and its impact on teachers and students in a time of tension and high-stakes accountability.  

Since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became law in 2002, both accolades and criticism of this federal policy have proliferated. While the Act proclaimed the responsibility for every student to be provided with high-quality instruction, it has been blamed for a breadth of ills from destroying students’ critical thinking to eliminating recess (Kennedy, 2006; Moses & Nanna, 2007; Paige, 2006). In addition to criticisms about the policy’s effects on students, voices have been raised about how teachers were impacted by this policy’s implementation. Accountability policies can challenge teachers’ sense of professionalism and self-worth. NCLB policy described teachers as both the problem and the solution with regard to educational reform, and teachers’ voices have typically not been represented or considered in reform efforts (NCLB, 2002; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2006).

Although there is considerable agreement among the educational community that teachers play a major role in achieving educational outcomes, it is also recognized that other salient contextual factors influence educational opportunity. Unacknowledged by education reform legislation, these factors (e.g., lack of resources, poverty, poor health, etc.) place additional pressure on teachers in an educational climate marked by high-stakes testing (Smith, 2008; Elstad, 2009). Increased teacher anxiety, frustration, and workload and decreased teacher morale, motivation, and commitment have been described as responses to accountability policies in schools that struggle most (Kelley, Heneman, & Milanowski, 2002; Leithwood, Steinbach, & Jantzi, 2002; Machtinger, 2007). Increasingly, attention has been focused on teachers in highly impoverished school settings, where the grip of accountability policies seems tightest. Teachers in such settings often have minimal influence on how the curriculum is constructed and how student progress will be evaluated (Allington, 2002; Moloney, 2006). Although waivers for NCLB sanctions were made available and the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), which replaces NCLB, eliminates federal sanctions, state-level accountability systems have filled the void with similar demands and consequences.

This study examines school-based teacher learning, writing instruction, and student achievement in a high-poverty “Turnaround” elementary school in the western United States. The school had been designated a “Turnaround School” because state growth targets had not been met in previous years (Turnaround Schools have earned less than 37% of points possible for academic achievement and growth). In this school, 80% of students qualify for free- or reduced-lunch; 59% are ethnic minorities, and 26% are English Language Learners. This mixed-method study considers how the collaborative advantage of Lesson Study (Steele & Boudett, 2009) supported instructional planning and whether the resulting instruction significantly improved students’ writing achievement as measured by the state accountability assessment.



The current dominant paradigm of public education in the United States is that schools, rather than social forces, are responsible for academic outcomes and that external assessments can measure school success (Mehta, 2013). This paradigm is driven by a theory that focuses on mandates and sanctions over capacity building and incentive, asserting that consequences lead to increased teacher motivation, which then leads to increased student performance (Finnegan & Gross, 2007; Lee & Wong, 2004). Research suggests that these pressures do affect teacher practices and student outcomes, in both intended and unintended ways (Booher-Jennings, 2005; Hallet, 2010; Simon & Johnson, 2015; Spillane, Parise, & Sherer, 2011).

Some researchers have documented the intended increases in student achievement as measured by external standardized assessment; however, these improvements often disproportionately benefit already high-achieving schools, with lower achieving schools becoming further marginalized (Darling-Hammond, 2007; Dee & Jacob, 2011; Diamond & Spillane, 2004). Further, accountability policies may result in practices that inflate scores without improving student learning as teachers under pressure game the system and find loopholes to enable them to meet external requirements (Booher-Jennings, 2005; Fuller, Wright, Gesicki, & Kang, 2007; Koretz, 2008). In addition, reform initiatives that constrain teachers’ decision-making power may negatively impact teachers’ self-efficacy (Moloney, 2006; Valli & Buese, 2007). This is an important consideration, since teacher efficacy (the “belief or conviction that they can influence how well students learn,” Guskey & Passaro, 1994, p. 628) is linked to effective classroom practices and higher student achievement (Bruce, Esmonde, Ross, Dookie, & Beatty, 2010; Caprara, Barbaranelli, Steca, & Malone, 2006; Palardy & Rumberger, 2008; Puchner & Taylor, 2006).  

Reciprocity of School Reform and Self-efficacy

Because teachers’ feelings of self-efficacy are related to increased student achievement, efficacy is an essential issue in school reform. Teachers’ efficacy influences their effort and persistence toward goals and their use of instructional time (Bruce et al., 2010), thereby positively impacting reform efforts. However, school reform efforts have also been shown to impact teachers’ self-efficacy; thus, the relationship is a reciprocal one.

Pressures of accountability policies linked with school reform may create a rigid response that includes top-down decision-making and lack of flexibility in using local knowledge. Such a response reduces the system’s ability to meet demands and may decrease teachers’ feelings of efficacy (Butler & Schnellert, 2012; Ciminelli et al., 2009; Daly, 2009; Jaffe-Walter, 2008). For example, Plank and Condliffe (2013) found that classrooms with the greatest pressure to improve had lower classroom quality, and Lasky (2005) found that teachers who felt forced to act in specific ways exhibited feelings of inefficacy. Reform policies may also increase teacher stress, which has been associated with lower self-efficacy and effectiveness (Betoret, 2006; Kokkinos, 2007; Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2007). Accountability systems tied to school reform may create an overemphasis on testing, constrain the curriculum, decrease teacher efficacy, and reduce teachers’ responsiveness to specific needs of the student populations.

Considering both testing results and other measures of instruction, the record of whether mandates and sanctions are achieving their intended results is ambiguous. What is clear, however, is that improving student learning is a complex process, and it is unlikely that mandates and sanctions alone can accomplish this goal.


Professional development is frequently cited as a method for enacting educational improvement and is tied to teacher self-efficacy (Bruce et al., 2010). Research suggests that effective reforms include strong professional development (Borman et al., 2005; Taylor et al., 2005). For example, in their study of reading growth in a high-poverty elementary school, Amendum and Fitzgerald (2013) found that the degree of professional development support was positively correlated with changes in student learning and that high levels of teacher support facilitated teachers’ autonomy and professionalism, encouraging them to reflect and grow.

Reciprocity of Self-efficacy and Professional Development

As noted above, reform efforts and teacher self-efficacy are mutually impactful. Similarly, there appears to be a reciprocal relationship between self-efficacy and professional development, with each impacting the other. Previous studies suggest that teachers with higher efficacy are more likely to take risks and experiment with challenging instructional strategies (Allinder, 1994; Bruce et al., 2010). Teachers’ confidence in their ability to implement new strategies that have been introduced determines how effectively they will employ these strategies (Bruce et al., 2010; Shachar & Shmuelevitz, 1997). Thus, teacher efficacy impacts the effectiveness of professional development. Similarly, gaining competence with new strategies increases teachers’ feelings of empowerment (Cantrell & Hughes, 2008; Johnson & Fargo, 2010; Puchner & Taylor, 2006; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2007). This increased competence is enhanced when professional development includes opportunities for teachers to gauge the effectiveness of their work, observe the teaching of colleagues similar to themselves, and then try the practices they are learning (Bruce et al., 2010). As teachers have experiences that emphasize the impact of their work, their efficacy increases. This reciprocal relationship between efficacy and professional development has implications for school reform initiatives.

Role and Form of Professional Development

There are conflicting assumptions about the role and form of professional development in affecting instructional change. Schools and districts not meeting targets on large-scale assessments are often required to generate improvement plans that include designs for professional development. These plans sometimes devalue local knowledge and inhibit teacher agency and innovation (Butler & Schnellert, 2012; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009; Darling-Hammond, 1996). This is problematic, in that instructional flexibility is linked to improvements in student achievement.

A growing body of research on professional development highlights principles for designing effective teacher learning experiences. Professional development should (a) be intensive and ongoing, (b) be situated in practice, (c) focus on student learning and address methods and teaching of specific content, (d) build strong working relationships among teachers, and ( e) be supported by and accompanied with research (Darling-Hammond, Wei, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009; Horn & Little, 2010; Marrongelle, Sztajn & Smith, 2013; Whitcomb, Borko, & Liston, 2009).

Lesson Study. Despite research describing principles of effective professional development that incorporate school-based teacher learning, such opportunities are not common in the United States (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009; Hill, 2011). One method of professional development that meets these criteria is the Japanese practice of Lesson Study, which was introduced in the United States over 20 years ago (Lewis & Tsuchida, 1998). Lesson Study is practice-based professional learning that works directly on developing local knowledge and improving instruction. In the Lesson Study model, teachers, usually of the same grade level or course, meet regularly to collaborate and plan lessons that become the focus of inquiry for effective teaching practices.

As part of the Lesson Study process, a lesson is crafted and then one teacher teaches the lesson while other members of the group observe. The lesson is then collaboratively revised and taught by other members of the group. This process provides both vicarious and enactive experiences, characteristics which increase teacher competence and efficacy (Bruce et al., 2010). During Lesson Study, teachers have the opportunity to try out new instructional routines and refine and recalibrate their teaching as effective practices are identified within specific lessons and become generalized. By starting with their own ideas, Lesson Study opens teachers to critique, learning, and an expansion of their instructional repertoire (Lieberman & Mace, 2010). By making teaching public and collaborative, teachers learn from their own practice, from others, and from research—both their own and studies in the field. This method of “growing your own” professional development impacts teachers’ pedagogical and content knowledge and empowers them as instructional decision makers (Lewis, Perry, Friedkin, & Roth, 2012, p. 86).  

Participants strive to establish a non-threatening atmosphere that enables teachers to perceive feedback from colleagues as an opportunity for instructional improvement rather than as a personal evaluation (Hughes, Smith, Boston, & Hogel, 2008; Puchner & Taylor, 2006). Teachers’ continued work together builds a culture of participation as teachers consider problems of practice, learning from and with their peers. Working with colleagues avails use and construction of collective knowledge (Horn & Little, 2010). Although the products of Lesson Study, such as annotated lessons, are important, the process of Lesson Study also supports teacher change.

As a tool for school reform, Lesson Study generates new knowledge that is adapted to local contexts and improves instruction, including instruction for English Language Learners (Honigsfeld & Cohan, 2008; Lewis, Perry, & Hurd, 2009; Perry & Lewis, 2009; Puchner & Taylor, 2006; Sibbald, 2009). Recent research suggests that Lesson Study creates communities of experts by foregrounding the study of teaching in situ, with teacher learning as a natural consequence (Dierking & Fox, 2013, Hierbert & Morris, 2012). By locating professional learning at the classroom level, Lesson Study enhances understanding of school, student, and teaching contexts and provides opportunities for sustained change (Lewis, 2002; Lewis, Perry, & Murata, 2006; Puchner & Taylor, 2006).

Although a body of research is developing related to adaptive forms of professional development such as Lesson Study, a better understanding of the impact of school-based teacher learning on teachers, instruction, and student learning is needed (Koellner & Jacobs, 2015; Myers, 2012; Sleeter, 2014). Amendum and Fitzgerald (2013) have called for additional research on professional development as part of school reform efforts to determine what types of teacher support matter most. More specifically, Daly (2009) and Stillman (2011) have encouraged a study of conditions that support schools under sanction. Desimone (2009) provides a strong case for the use of mixed methods that include measures of teacher knowledge, observed practice, and student outcomes in order to make progress in the field. The current study responds to these calls.


This study examined teachers’ participation in a Lesson Study on writing, considered structures that supported their collaboration, and assessed the impact of this work on students’ writing instruction and achievement. The study sought to answer the following questions:

Does Lesson Study impact student achievement in writing?

Are changes in teachers’ instructional practices evident?

Does the Lesson Study process increase teacher efficacy?

How do pressures imposed by policy impact collaboration in a high-needs school?

These questions suggested a mixed-methods approach, with quantitative data providing information about student achievement and qualitative data providing information about other research questions, as illustrated in Figure 1. As suggested by Creswell and Plano Clark (2011), a mixed-method approach may be warranted when a need exists to explain quantitative results. In this study, connections between qualitative and quantitative data could provide complementary data, and thus a more complete picture, of the impact of Lesson Study in this Turnaround School. For this reason, a fixed, sequential mixed-methods design was incorporated, with qualitative data taking prominence (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011; Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1998). Although the study prioritizes insights gained from qualitative data, the quantitative data set, in the form of students’ writing assessments, is an important layer of the results.

Figure 1. Description and explanation of mixed-methods design, adapted from Creswell, Plano Clark, Gutmann, and Hanson (2003)


In this study, quantitative data could be used to corroborate or refute claims that Lesson Study led to improved instruction, if the state assessment is accepted as an accurate measure of student achievement. Qualitative data collection and early analysis verified the benefits of including this quantitative data: State assessment scores were frequently referenced by teachers, who viewed these assessments as the crucial measure of student achievement. Thus, analysis of test results was called for, and dialogue between qualitative and quantitative results is warranted (Hammersley, 2005). Combination of data sources occurred during analysis and reporting.

Qualitative measures were used to consider policy, teacher efficacy, and instructional impacts from a phenomenological perspective. Phenomenological analysis foregrounded the experiences and perceptions of the individuals involved, allowing for robustness in identifying factors related to the research questions and their effects in this context (Creswell, 2007). Additionally, this approach allows for participant observation, important since I served as both researcher and facilitator of the Lesson Study. Flyvbjerg (2006) suggested that “the most advanced form of understanding is achieved when researchers place themselves within the context being studied” (p. 236). As a participant observer, I was “exploring phenomena firsthand instead of reading maps of them” (Flyvbjerg, p. 240) to better understand the viewpoints and behaviors represented. My position allowed for sustained engagement and the opportunity to investigate the “backstage” of the phenomenon as well as its more public aspects (Goffman, 1963). Taking a hermeneutical phenomenological approach provided for not only description, but also interpretation of the lived experiences of participants (van Manen, 1990). It was through this approach and with this purpose that the qualitative data in this study were analyzed.

As a matter of both pragmatic and research significance, I continuously considered what structures and processes might support collaboration and teacher buy-in into the Lesson Study process throughout the course of the study. As an “outsider” from the district office who had been invited by these teachers to collaborate, I recognized the roles that trust and rapport might play in our interactions and made notes about these aspects. Understanding the importance and impact of teacher efficacy, I attended to and noted interactions that seemed relevant to this construct.

The Lesson Study experience preceded the state’s accountability test for writing, which provided data for quantitative analysis. Student achievement data from this assessment were used to consider the possible impact of teachers’ professional development experience. These scores were significant not just from a research perspective, but also from a practical perspective, as test scores are what count in high-pressure educational settings. For the teachers in this study, student test scores mattered a great deal, because the scores determined whether or not their school would get off of the “Turnaround” status that attracted unwanted scrutiny.


Case Selection

Strategic sampling, which allows for greater generalizability, was used for case selection. Strategic sampling is an information-oriented selection technique that increases the usefulness of information gathered from single cases. I selected Parker Elementary School (all names are pseudonyms) as a critical case to examine the impact of Lesson Study. Critical cases are strategically selected to permit logical deductions (Flyvbjerg, 2006). In this case, since Parker was under extreme pressure and complying with significant district and state constraints, Parker allowed for consideration of the ability of Lesson Study to impact change: “If it is valid for this case, it is valid for all (or many) cases” (p. 230). As a “least likely” case, Parker allowed for verification of the hypothesis that Lesson Study can impact teacher efficacy, collaboration, and instruction and student achievement.

At Parker Elementary School, 80% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch; 59% are identified as ethnic minorities, 26% are English Language Learners, 24% are homeless, and 14% have been identified for special education services with Individualized Education Programs. The school’s three fifth-grade teachers (Kim, Linda, and Allie) and their special education colleague (Alice) voluntarily participated in Lesson Study. The teachers represented a range of experience and education (see Table 1). From the outset, these teachers displayed a caring attitude about their students and dedication to their work; as stated by one participant, “When you’re dealing with kids’ lives, and when you are dealing with this school, I take personal ownership of my job and how my job directly will impact. It’s just, that’s how it is. When my kids go out. It’s all about them.” These teachers’ 58 students were also included in the study. Fifth-grade students’ demographics closely mirrored those of the school, with 31% ELL, 71% free and reduced lunch, and 9% special education students. Many students lived in difficult situations. For example, one of the teachers explained, “You can understand the kid who was almost taken away by a cop today. You understand what we’re up against and how hard and how different our work is than a south-side school. Our work is just different.”

Table 1.



Total Yrs Teaching

Years at Parker

Years in Grade level

Education Level



















14 (spec. ed.)




Teachers in this study participated in 20 Lesson Study meetings, which were held from October 2011 through February 2012. These meetings included planning, observing lessons in each other’s classrooms, and reflecting and revising lessons. In all, there were 13 planning/reflecting meetings and seven class observations.

Participants’ negative notions about requirements from the district had been both reported and perceived in my initial interactions with these teachers, so I introduced Lesson Study in an organic, conversational way rather than as a structured requirement. For example, when I asked how I could help, we decided it would be useful to plan an upcoming writing unit together. As we planned the unit, I asked if it would be helpful to look closely at a particular lesson. As we looked at that lesson, I asked if it would be helpful for substitute teachers to be provided so that they could watch each other teach the lessons. Conversationally, we addressed questions to guide our focus as we planned the research lesson, such as, “How does this lesson fit with what students already know?”, “What will make this lesson meaningful to students?”, and “What evidence should we gather about student learning?” Similarly, we took an informal approach when debriefing after lesson observations. In a casual way, I posed questions such as, “How did the lesson compare with what we thought would happen?”, “What did you figure out while teaching this lesson?”, and “What changes would we make for teaching this lesson again?” I took this approach, rather than presenting a formal protocol, to honor their professionalism, increase their buy-in, and build trust while allowing us to proceed through the effective cycle of Lesson Study. During our time together we revised a unit they had already begun on expository writing, crafted and taught a unit on narrative writing, and drafted a unit on argumentative writing (see Appendix E), which they intended to modify and implement on their own by using the Lesson Study structure.

Qualitative Data Sources

Artifacts were gathered during all Lesson Study sessions. These included meeting agendas, lesson and unit plans, rubrics, and provided and co-constructed resources. Additionally, field notes were taken during all Lesson Study sessions, and audio recordings were made of the final four meetings (after rapport was established); these recordings were transcribed. Instruction was observed on 10 different occasions before, during, and after the Lesson Study process. Observation logs were completed by teachers as they observed one another and field notes were taken by me during these instructional observations. Field notes were also taken during informal teacher interviews that occurred during the process. These sources provided data that was both rich and thick (Denzin, 1989; Geertz, 1973).  

Qualitative Data Analysis

Questions about how pressures imposed by policy might impact collaboration and what structures might support collaboration guided analysis of qualitative data. Additionally, I wanted to know whether the Lesson Study process seemed to influence teachers’ instructional practices and their feelings of efficacy.

Qualitative recursive analysis (LeCompte & Preissle, 1994) was used to consider the impact of Lesson Study on instruction, efficacy, and collaboration. Initially, I memoed and developed codes (see Appendices A, B, and C). During this analysis, as artifacts (unit and lesson plans, rubrics, anchor charts, worksheets, etc.) and field notes were reviewed and reread, and audio recordings were listened to repeatedly, I noticed changes over time in both descriptions of practice and teachers’ responses and reactions. As part of this iterative review of the data, I collected and named examples of these changes. I then compared, contrasted, and aggregated the examples to establish relationships and create linkages. For example, when reviewing the episode described at the beginning of this article, I noted and named “anger” as a teacher response, an attitude that was similarly noted elsewhere in the data. Another example highlights changes in instructional practices: Field notes taken before the Lesson Study process began noted a lack of writing anchor charts in teachers’ rooms; later, these artifacts were abundant, and they were also discussed during Lesson Study meetings. Extracting and sequencing notations such as these allowed me to recognize significant patterns. Once patterns were noted, I again reviewed the data, excerpting and coding relevant examples. This iterative process is detailed in Figure 4 and Appendix D.

To increase reliability, half of the excerpts were re-coded by an outside researcher, resulting in 84% match. To consider the validity of qualitative findings, an early analysis was shared with the teacher participants in this study, who indicated that it was an accurate representation of their experience. They also reviewed a final draft of this paper and did not express concerns or suggestions for revision.

Quantitative Data Sources

Research questions and initial qualitative analysis pointed to students’ scores on the state writing assessment as a relevant data source. This quantitative data was collected after the conclusion of qualitative data collection. Analysis of test results suggested that what had happened during Lesson Study may have made a difference, and it prompted an iterative review of qualitative data as described in Appendix D.

Students took the state’s writing achievement test in March 2012 after Lesson Study had concluded. The test consisted of 40 multiple choice items, which accounted for 58% of the total score, and six constructed-response items, which accounted for the other 42% of the score. The constructed-response items were four short constructed responses (one paragraph each) plus an extended response based on a prompt that included one session for planning and drafting and a session the next day for finalizing the writing. Assessments were externally constructed and individual student responses were externally evaluated; response items were scored by readers trained in using the state writing rubric.

State writing assessments used a continuous-scale score across grades three through ten, with possible scores between 150 and 950. Data from the state provided for comparison of both individual student’s scale scores and their growth percentile scores. Growth rates for individual students are calculated by comparing their state assessment scores over consecutive years.

There are several characteristics that make growth percentiles useful for this study (see http://www.schoolview.org/ColoradoGrowthModel2.asp). First, there are known state norms for every quartile. For instance, the state norm for the 50th percentile is 50. The state norm for the 25th percentile is 25. This means that when investigating growth for a particular group, outcomes can be compared to the known state norms. The normative nature of the growth model provides for a built-in statewide comparison group based on current grade level and prior score trajectory. A second useful characteristic of the student growth percentiles is the property of probabilistic equivalence. This property indicates that the likelihood of attaining any given level of growth, as quantified by the state growth model, is independent of the starting point of a student relative to the state’s proficiency cut-points. These properties are important given that participating students had scores on previous years’ tests that were significantly lower than average, a situation that created the school’s designation as a Turnaround School.

Quantitative Data Analysis

Statistical significance of changes in students’ scale scores was determined using the median test with a p value of .05. The median test was used to provide more robust data in the presence of outlier values, considering all possible permutations of the observations with respect to both pre- and post-test samples. Of the 58 students in this study, 51 had scores for both the 2011 and 2012 tests; this allowed for pre- and post- test comparison using a one-tailed paired-samples t test (seven students were missing one or more scores, so change scores could not be calculated).

Only 46 students had scores for third, fourth, and fifth-grades, allowing for comparison of changes in growth between assessments using a one-tailed paired-samples t test. Students’ median growth percentiles were compared with the growth percentiles of the same group during the previous year and were also compared to the same-grade-level group for the previous year.



Students’ scores on the state standardized writing assessment were used to measure changes in students’ writing achievement, with both scale score and growth percentiles being considered. Of the 58 fifth-grade participants, writing test achievement scores were available for 53 students (five students were either exempted or scores were not reported). The mean average scale score for the 53 fifth-graders tested was 492.30 (the state mean score was 509). Of these 58 fifth-grade students, 51 had scores for both fourth and fifth grade, allowing for pre- and post- test comparison of individual scale scores using a one-tailed paired-samples t test. Students’ scale scores on the standardized writing assessment showed a statistically significant increase from fourth to fifth grade, from a mean score of 468.13 (SD = 41.59) to a mean score of 491.67 (SD = 46.77); t(50)=6.49, p < .001, α = .05, or a mean difference of 23.54 (SD = 25.89; SEM = 3.62; see Table 2). By comparison, expected change for fifth grade, according to state data, was 13 points.

Table 2.

t test: Paired two sample for means of scale scores


5th Grade Scores

4th Grade Scores










Pearson Correlation



Hypothesized Mean Difference






t Stat



P(T<=t) one-tail



t Critical one-tail



P(T<=t) two-tail



t Critical two-tail



Growth scores for the group also evidenced improvement, both across and within groups. Individual growth scores are calculated by the state, comparing each student to other students with a similar score history on the test. Fifth-grade writing scores at Parker, as calculated by the state, went from a median growth percentile of 39% in 2011 to a median growth percentile of 52% in 2012 (the state median growth percentile for any grade is 50% by definition). Of the 58 fifth-grade students in this study, only 46 had scores for third, fourth, and fifth-grades, allowing for comparisons of growth of the mean between assessments using a one-tailed paired-samples t test. Scores for participants went from mean growth percentile of 29.65 (from third to fourth grade) (SD = 24.86) to a mean growth percentile of 45.61 (from fourth to fifth grade) (SD = 27.40); t(45)=3.42, p < .001, α=.05, or a statistically significant mean difference of 15.96 growth percentiles (SD = 31.63; SEM = 3.67).

Importantly, during the 2011–2012 school year (the year in which this study was conducted), Parker Elementary School went from being identified as a Turnaround School (less than 37% achievement points) to being identified as a Performance School (above 59% achievement points). Gains on the fifth-grade writing assessment contributed to this important change.


In addition to analyzing quantitative measures of student achievement, qualitative data was analyzed to consider both changes in instructional practice and changes in teachers’ efficacy and collaboration. Qualitative analysis of data from Lesson Study meetings and observations revealed that teachers’ instructional practices had changed to incorporate more high-yield strategies. A variety of data were collected from and created with the four teachers who participated in this study. Artifacts such as unit and lesson plans, anchor charts, and student work substantiated changes that were described during informal conversations and Lesson Study meetings. These changes were also noted during lesson observations. Some of the changed practices were intentionally introduced by me during Lesson Study discussions (backwards planning, rubrics, exemplar papers, anchor charts, and use of mentor texts,) and others were spontaneous outgrowths of the Lesson Study process (peer discussion, appropriate scaffolding, conferring). Evidence for each of these findings is discussed below.

Intentional Changes

Changes that were intentionally introduced and then taken up by the teachers in this study included use of backward planning to design units (McTighe & Thomas, 2003) and use of rubrics and student exemplars (Andrade, Du, & Wang, 2008), anchor charts (Vlach & Burcie, 2010), and mentor texts (Dorfman & Cappelli, 2007; Gallagher, 2014). Although not evident at the beginning of the study, these practices became an ongoing part of teachers’ instruction.

Backwards planning. The three writing units developed during Lesson Study were planned backward by initially considering the writing goals that teachers wanted their students to achieve and how those goals would be assessed. As we began planning units together, teachers reported that, in the past, they had planned units by creating sequences of lessons. A review of two of their previous writing units confirmed that these units were collections of materials and activities that did not state objectives and referenced assessment only as a concluding activity for the unit. During Lesson Study sessions, teachers referred to grade-level standards for writing while planning individual lessons, using them to choose the lesson’s focus. Sometimes Kim would show the standards on the SmartBoard; at other times one of the teachers would pull out a three-ring binder containing the standards. Linda commented that “it feels so good to know where we’re going,” and Kim reported that the group continued to use backward planning as a process for instructional design after our formal Lesson Study ended. Planning units by first articulating objectives and how those objectives would be assessed was a change in practice.

Student exemplar papers and rubrics. Teachers came to recognize that using exemplar papers during instruction enhanced student learning. As we worked together during planning, teachers described exemplar papers as approachable models for writing attributes. For example, Linda said, “Sometimes they just don’t know what we are looking for if we don’t have that right in front of them.” But Allie noted that when exemplar papers were provided, “The kids can go through and see and compare what it means to tell versus what it really means to show.” Similarly, teachers felt they had improved their use of rubrics, and that this had been a boon to student learning. As we discussed use of rubrics, teachers said they had used rubrics themselves in the past and had displayed or given students copies of rubrics, but that students had not actively used them. This changed during the Lesson Study process, however. Allie noted, “We actually look at kids’ work on the document camera with the rubric and score it.” Later, Kim commented, “Students understand. Every time we look at somebody’s work, the kids have their own copy (of the rubric) and they’re using the rubric.” Teachers adjusted their lessons to allow time for student evaluation of writing: “Because I feel if we’ve got a rubric that we can use with them, I want to use it!” They felt that incorporating more student use of rubrics was a valuable practice that improved their students’ writing.

Anchor charts. During our early planning meetings, I encouraged teachers to incorporate anchor charts into their lessons. Such charts are constructed during learning experiences to hold the class’s thinking and are referenced later during class and individual work. Although the teachers were initially unsure of their purpose, as the Lesson Study progressed they commented on the effectiveness of this tool and self-initiated its use in instruction. Thinking back to an anchor chart created in an earlier lesson, Allie said, “For the longest time I kept it right up in the front of the room.” In a later lesson, Linda excitedly planned for creating, displaying, and comparing multiple anchor charts to help students generalize characteristics of narrative texts “so we can then have all of those to talk about!” Describing the information that would be displayed on the charts, Kim added, “Even if the stories are totally different, every story has those pieces.” She was emphasizing how anchor charts would help students recognize and understand textual elements by comparing across texts. As our Lesson Study progressed, using anchor charts became a routine and effective component of these teachers’ instruction.

Mentor texts. When I began meeting and planning with teachers, I shared examples from district resources that teachers might use as “mentor texts” to provide models that could support students’ writing. Teachers sifted through and selected texts they felt would be useful. By our meeting on December 1, teachers were the ones bringing up the need to select mentor texts. They talked about texts they had selected, saying, “We have plenty of mentor texts to show them.” At that meeting, Linda reflected on her learning so far from our Lesson Study experience, saying “What I got out of this more than anything, this whole thing that we’ve been doing, was the whole mentor text thing. Once you said that, that was it. That was like, ‘Oh, my God. This is how they learn. This is what they’re understanding.’” Linda’s comments reflected this groups’ recognition that providing a memorable example could support students’ use of writers’ craft. Kim described how they were integrating the curriculum to provide these examples, using texts from reading to support writing. She said, “Every single thing is revolving around writing now, no matter what we’re reading.” Linda pointed out that students were making connections to writing, even during math lessons. Allie added, “It’s there, it’s in the forefront of our minds, too.” Having the need for mentor texts at the forefront of teachers’ minds appeared to support another best practice: integration of the curriculum. This was one of several unintended outcomes that grew from the Lesson Study experience.

Spontaneous changes. Teachers identified additional effective writing practices as they studied their own teaching. During Lesson Study, teachers observed each other teaching a lesson they had planned together. Afterwards, we reflected on what seemed to work in the lesson—what they wanted to continue incorporating as we moved forward. As part of this reflective process, teachers refined their use of peer discussion (Peterson & Portier, 2014), scaffolding (Englert, 1992; Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976), and conferring (Fletcher & Portalupi, 2001), and they recognized the important role of these processes in students’ learning.

Conferring. Although teachers had previously used conferring as a practice for supporting students’ writing, the process felt unmanageable. Early in our Lesson Study, Linda said, “It’s like if I only had 12 kids, I could really do this!” As Lesson Study progressed, teachers described efforts to link conferring to whole-group or small-group mini-lessons so that they could make writing conferences shorter and more impactful. Teachers later described conferring as an effective practice, saying they could “draw so much out” of their students during these brief conversations. Observations indicated that, as the Lesson Study process moved forward, teachers were routinely conferring to provide feedback during the writing process.

Peer discussion. Although peer discussion was not a practice I intentionally highlighted, teachers mentioned it as something they “wanted to hang on to” when we considered our take-aways after two lesson observations. Subsequently, they built into their lesson plans time for students to talk with peers about revisions, and they discussed effective ways that students supported each other’s learning. Although peer discussion had previously been part of these teachers’ lessons, the Lesson Study process heightened their awareness of effective peer discussion practices and increased their intentional use of this strategy.

Scaffolding. Another unexpected learning that grew out of our lesson observations was the importance of appropriate scaffolding—especially not over-scaffolding. After realizing the effectiveness of a lesson that provided minimal scaffolding, Allie admitted that using an approach like this would be hard. Alice, her special education colleague, pushed, “But they need to learn how to overlay an organization themselves. Our kids need structure. They need to know that they can make order.” At a later meeting, Kim added, “I’ve talked to teachers at (our feeder middle school), and they say that, particularly those kids who have been in Title One, they can’t do it on their own. So I try to be really careful not to over-scaffold. They didn’t really need a procedure for organizing. We do them a disservice if we don’t make them think.” Later, she said, “Sometimes the kids get too used to the support. Giving less scaffolding helps with transferring all across levels. I’m trying to be really rigorous, forcing them to figure it out.” These teachers described knowing how to give “just enough” support as another important learning from their work together.

As an outcome of Lesson Study, teachers modified previously used practices or incorporated new ones to strengthen their writing instruction. Whether these practices were intentionally introduced or growing from careful observation, these shifts were a result of collaboration that was transformative not only to practice, but also to teachers’ attitudes, as described below.


Effects on teacher efficacy and collaboration are considered together here because they seemed intertwined as these teachers experienced change. Phenomenological analysis considered these teachers’ experience with Lesson Study as a transaction where the individuals and their context both constitute and are constituted by each other (Munhall, 1989). Analysis suggested that the impact of Lesson Study on efficacy and collaboration may have been intensified because of the high-pressure situation at this “Turnaround School.” Initially, teachers seemed unconfident about how to use their existing knowledge, a characteristic that has been noted in connection with the pressures of accountability policies (Booher-Jennings, 2005; Stillman, 2011). They looked for outside verification rather than valuing local knowledge. Analysis of teachers’ changing attitudes revealed stages of transformation that these teachers seemed to move through over the course of the Lesson Study.

Stage One: Anger

As teachers looked back on their experience, the most frequently-occurring word as they described their initial feelings was anger. “We were really angry!” Linda said. Kim later remembered, “We felt angry and stressed coming in.” Even though their instructional coach assured me that she had worked with Kim to “tone it down so that it would be more professional,” an e-mail that I received from Kim in September was pointed and accusatory. At the time, the coach explained, “I’ve got teachers crying in my office. Everyone is working so hard. There is so much pressure. I feel like they are going to snap.” They described, “meetings, meetings, meetings” that were “stealing time from students.” Linda said, “I was just like, ‘Oh my God, don’t tell me we have to do all this stuff.’” In addition to expressing anger at the process, they were angry at the people directing them. They explained that the district assessment coordinator, when he initially shared achievement test scores with the staff and announced their “Turnaround” status, had flatly said, “This data is terrible!” and that, at the same meeting, the assistant superintendent was “very harsh” with the staff. The conversation did not inspire effort and hope but instead created doubt, fear, and anger. These feelings were intensified when district personnel changed their recommendations after plans were in place.

Stage Two: Blame-Shifting

In the next phase, teachers looked for ways to deflect responsibility for the negative news they had heard. At an early meeting, they talked about misalignments of having to deal with both federal and state accountability requirements that had different targets. They described the detailed School Improvement Plan that had been imposed on them, stating they were just “doing what we are told to do.” These attempts to relieve feelings of accountability and create implied “prebuttals” are a procedural defense against blame (Hood & Rothstein, 2001), suggesting that “it will be your fault if we don’t make the achievement targets.” Linda seemed to be attempting to shift blame to me when she first approached me saying, “We are really good teachers, we are working really hard. I just need you to tell me if we’re doing the right thing. I don’t want them to come at the end of the year and say, ‘you were doing this all wrong.’” The fifth-grade team requested a top-down solution, saying: “(This school) is where you (district personnel) should be,” and “Tell us what to do and we’ll do it.” These teachers’ feelings of efficacy deteriorated in the face of high-stakes accountability.

Stage Three: Reflective Consideration

Less than three weeks into our Lesson Study process, teachers showed evidence of reflective consideration. They opened themselves to planning for instructional improvement and began considering their own roles within that change. They made professional decisions about the resources that I presented to them and shared some of their past practices. They began to value the time that was created for us to work collaboratively. On November 11, Allie said, “This is why it’s working—it’s allowing us to process.” At a meeting early in our Lesson Study process, teachers shared a writing rubric they had created; they reviewed examples of student writing they’d recently scored using the rubric, and they talked about what these student scores might mean for future instruction. They unrolled a chart with a simpler rubric they sometimes hung on the wall and wondered aloud about whether it needed revision. By bringing these materials into the conversation, teachers were opening themselves and their work for contemplation.

Near the end of our Lesson Study process, teachers spontaneously reflected on factors that moved them from a negative stance to a more positive, reflective one. Their conversation emphasized the importance of relationships and trust:


You have had the credibility and the expertise to be able to build a

 relationship . . .

Linda: . . . And the trust. That’s what it is.


Yeah, it is about trust.


It’s a trust issue. And the fact that you showed that you trust us. But we don’t feel

that from everywhere else. And that’s an important piece. When you don’t feel like people trust you it’s very hard to even have a conversation. So.

Perhaps this credibility and trust began to build before we even began our Lesson Study. The team had asked me to visit their classrooms so that I would “know what it’s like” at Parker. On the day of my scheduled visit, I heard that the assistant superintendent had announced he would do a walk-through of their building. I made a point to arrive early and ask what I could do to help them prepare. I helped put up a bulletin board in the hall that they wanted the superintendent to see. The coach later told me, “You won a lot of trust that way.” Teachers felt that I was on their side, working with them, not on them. Taking them up on their request that I visit their classes also garnered trust. I sat and watched and noted good things that were happening that I could share and that we could build from. This was remembered and noted months later when Linda said, “You came in and saw our kids and saw our classes and watched us before you did anything else. That, I think, went a long way to building our trust.” They contrasted this approach with the messages they had gotten from other district personnel: “Even if they couldn’t relate, it would be nice if they made an effort to say, ‘Before I do anything, I want to see who your audience is.’”

Trust was also built by acknowledging teachers’ efforts. Working with their principal to allocate school improvement funds, I arranged for teachers to be paid for their off-contract time during our Lesson Study, funded substitute teachers so that they could observe one another, and provided professional development credit for our work. In addition, I found the opportunity to provide authentic, specific praise in front of their peers at both a school faculty meeting and a districtwide grade-level training. Spending time in their school and acknowledging their effort helped to build the trust that seemed to create a climate for teacher reflection.

Stage Four: Shared Responsibility

Lesson Study encouraged teachers to examine their instruction and created opportunities for shared responsibility. They began to embrace shared practice as they worked together to identify areas for improvement and plan together. This process created change, and initially it created tension. Allie said, “I want to hold my kids’ hands and have them do it my way,” she said. “I have a hard time changing to try it this way.” However, as they continued to work together, they developed trust in their shared knowledge and recognized the support gained by relying on one another.

By December meetings, teachers were continually posing and responding to each other’s questions as they created lesson plans. “How do we help kids take a boring detail and make it in their own writing?” One of them posed. The rest jumped in with ideas, and they settled on a plan for moving forward. During another planning session, Kim said, “There are things in the lesson plan I never would have thought of because I’m brainstorming with others. It’s that collaborating.” Their focus on collaboration and observation continued even after our formal Lesson Study process concluded. They found ways to get their classes covered so they could observe as the lessons they co-created were taught. This ongoing effort attests to the attitude of responsibility they had developed together.

Stage Five: Redesigning Practice

The teachers in this study generated local knowledge and incorporated new instructional practices while working through the Lesson Study process. Teachers crafted lessons together, observed one another as they taught these lessons, refined the lessons, and taught them in another classroom. Seeing new practices in action opened their eyes to new possibilities. After observing a lesson on organization, Allie said, “I seriously couldn’t believe that (students) could group those ideas!” They explored, rather than being told, what worked.

They later wondered over a lesson they had planned together and then taught, and they considered modifications: “That conversation wasn’t as deep as it had been the day before, because we were cramming two things at once,” Linda reflected. “Maybe we should finish up with juicy details before starting on organization.” Refinements came as a result of their collaboration.

As we began working on our final unit together, Allie said, “Now that we’ve done this cycle, I mean it’s just like anything, once you’ve done it and tried it, it’s going to go better the next time.” She saw Lesson Study as a process of ongoing improvement.

Reflecting back on the process, Linda said, “It honestly has changed the whole direction of where we were going to go.” “I think it has made a million times difference,” Allie added. Participants’ instruction was transformed because of their shared experiences.

Stage Six: Empowerment

Redesigning practice seemed to lead to increased feelings of empowerment for these teachers. Reflecting on her experience with Lesson Study, Linda said, “It’s made a huge difference for me, especially because I’ve never even done this before, never. And, I feel so comfortable. I feel like, I could do this!” During a planning session on December 15, teachers accessed multiple resources, including publisher-produced curriculum materials, as they planned a narrative writing unit. They reordered and revised components in the published resources and drew on multiple additional sources to craft their lessons. Their discussion reflected confidence in their abilities, as demonstrated in this dialogue:

Kim: We just need to talk to (the publishing company), and we’ll be the ones to rewrite the next edition.

Linda: Why does it take people (like us) sitting around talking about it when these people got paid, and then we had to pay millions of dollars for it and then we can’t even use it. That drives me crazy.

These comments reflect teachers’ self-assurance in their instructional expertise and conviction that they had found a better way than that proposed in the published resources.

By the formal end of our Lesson Study, teachers showed additional signs of empowerment. During one of our final sessions, Linda said, “The fact that I can now go out and feel comfortable getting (my students) excited about something and present something in a way, which I know I could have, but now I have a direction.” Allie echoed this confidence during our final session: “I definitely feel ready to do this!” she said. They then made plans for continuing the Lesson Study process without my support as facilitator. These increases in teachers’ comfort and sense of direction suggest efficacy and empowerment. Although teachers eventually celebrated increases in test scores, expressions of empowerment were evident even before these outside tests were administered. Through the stages of transformation illustrated in the change process, teacher efficacy appears to have increased as teachers moved from feelings of an external locus of control to an internal one.



This study tells a story of instructional change in a high-pressure situation, a change that had both statistical and practical significance, especially for the students and teachers involved. Participants’ scores on the state writing assessment went from the 30th mean growth percentile in the previous year to the 46th percentile after a Lesson Study process focused on writing. This hefty increase contributed to their school’s success in moving from being classified as a “Turnaround” school to being classified as a “Performance” school. Qualitative data analysis helped to account for these changes. Teachers’ practices changed in both intentional and unplanned for ways that improved instruction. For example, the process intentionally focused on evidence-based practices such as backwards planning to design units (McTighe & Thomas, 2003) and use of mentor texts (Dorfman & Cappelli, 2007; Gallagher, 2014), rubrics and student exemplars (Andrade et al., 2008) and anchor charts (Vlach & Burcie, 2010). Unplanned improvement in the use of peer discussion (Peterson & Portier, 2014), scaffolding (Englert, 1992; Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976), and conferring (Fletcher & Portalupi, 2001) also occurred during the Lesson Study process. The collaborative process appeared to support teachers in mapping effective practices onto their own teaching because many highly contextualized instructional issues were commonly shared with their Lesson Study colleagues (Horn & Little, 2010). Their learning was focused on best practices and deeply situated.

Although their context was unique and their experience personal, the transformational stages through which these teachers progressed may be helpful in considering educational reform in other contexts. Equally important is an understanding of factors that may have contributed to their change.


An examination of the impact of Lesson Study on efficacy and collaboration revealed that teachers in this high-pressure context seemed to move through six stages, as depicted in Figure 2, the Stages of Transformation Model. Negative feelings of anger and a desire to shift blame gave way to the more positive emotion of reflective consideration of their roles and resources and to feelings of shared responsibility and a desire and ability to redesign their practice. Like the stages of grief model (Kubler-Ross, 1969), this representation is a heuristic device that artificially separates into stages changes that were in actuality more continuous and overlapping. The stages are not meant to be a complete description of the changes and feelings that occurred but may be helpful in understanding or guiding other educational change processes. Factors that may have contributed to transformation within this high-pressure context are also important for consideration and remind us of the complexity of the work of educational change. These factors are described below.

Figure 2. Stages of Transformation in a High-Pressure Context


Initial Anger

Teachers initially felt anger, a response that is not uncommon to educational mandates (Darling-Hammond, 2007; Elstad, 2009; van Veen, Sleegers, & van de Ven, 2005). Anger may be a response to feelings of fear, vulnerability, or inefficacy (Lasky, 2005; Schmidt & Datnow, 2005) and may result when “purposes are unattainable, when other people’s agendas control and deny our purposes, or when goals are so numerous and scattered that we cannot achieve any of our purposes properly” (Hargreaves, 2001, p. 103). Similar to van Veen et al.’s (2005) findings that being dealt with in a demeaning way may cause anger, in the present study, initial feelings of anger appeared to be heightened by the abrupt and unsupportive feedback teachers were provided about their achievement status. Excess meetings and changing recommendations added to their frustration.

External Blame

A connection between the emotions of anger and external blame during educational reform has been theorized and substantiated in previous research (Lazarus, 1991; van Veen et al., 2005). In the current study, these emotions appeared to take dominance sequentially as stages of transformation in a high-pressure context, with anger giving way to deflection of responsibility. Attempts to transfer accountability were a manifestation of personal blame-avoidance (Hood, 2007; Howlett, 2012). During this blame-shifting phase, teachers expressed frustration at federal, state, and district mandates but simultaneously used them to provide a procedural defense against blame (Hood & Rothstein, 2001). By shifting accountability to others, teachers sought to relieve themselves of blame if future test scores were unacceptable. This appeared to be a move to protect themselves personally from the disapproval they felt from outsiders who were imposing solutions.

Transition to Reflection

Not long after initiating the Lesson Study process, the emotional climate began shifting from emotions that were strikingly negative to more positive ones as teachers began to reflectively consider their own role and the resources they were bringing to the change process. Reflective consideration may have both resulted from and contributed to the shift in the emotional climate. In her research on professional vulnerability in school reform, Lasky (2005) found that reflection can precipitate emotional changes. Others have similarly noted the positive impact of reflective dialogue in improvement-oriented collaborations (Horn & Little, 2010; Taylor et al., 2005). In the current study, two factors were identified that seem to have contributed to the transition from anger and blame-shifting to reflective consideration; these are described below.


Acknowledging teachers’ efforts and offering authentic praise in front of their peers seemed to encourage reflection. As teachers’ positive practices were spotlighted, they seemed more willing to examine their own instruction. The role of praise in fostering teachers’ reflective behavior has been noted in previous research on effective schools and seems relevant within the context of school accountability and reform (Blasé & Kirby, 2008). Specific praise has been found to increase motivation, efficacy, creativity, and willingness to take risks (Blasé & Blasé, 2000; Dweck, 2002; Margolis & Nagel, 2006; Stone, Deci, & Ryan, 2009), all relevant characteristics in environments of school accountability. Importantly, Stone et al. (2009) note that, for praise to be motivating and supportive of competence, it must be sincere and specific, acknowledging proactive engagement or unique contributions. In contrast, praise that acknowledges compliance tends to feel controlling and could be counterproductive in contexts of educational reform. In the current study, praise that acknowledged teachers’ proactive engagement appeared to support teachers’ reflective consideration of their roles in the school improvement process.


Another factor that seemed important in the transition to a more positive stance of reflective consideration was teachers’ development of trust toward me as a facilitator of the change process. Teachers identified reasons for this change; they described the importance of credibility in building trust and identified trust-building as a reciprocal process. Teachers indicated that the fact that I showed trust in them and took time to understand their situation before offering solutions made a difference.

The emphasis that teachers in this study placed on trust is consistent with previous research on instructional improvement and school reform. Bryk and Schneider (2002), described trust as “a critical resource as local leaders embark on ambitious improvement plans.” Other researchers have similarly noted that trust is a key resource that supports professional development, is necessary for teacher collaboration and learning, promotes instructional change, and enhances student learning (Johnson & Fargo, 2010; Lasky, 2005; McQuillan, 2008). Trust is built through deliberate actions that make others feel safe and secure and requires respect, personal regard, perceptions of competence, and personal integrity. The extent to which these characteristics are present in a school-change setting influences the trust that is built and subsequently the changes that take place in teacher and student learning.  

Teaching as Collaborative

During the Lesson Study process, teachers’ work was both specific to their own needs and connected to the larger purpose of school improvement. Lesson Study moved teachers from a view of teaching as private activity to a view of teaching as joint and public, a stance which contributes to continuous improvement (Rust, 2009). The collaborative features of Lesson Study created a common purpose and enhanced teachers’ capacity as they problem-solved together. Such practices support teachers’ views of themselves as having shared responsibility for each other, their instruction, and their students. Within contexts that emphasize mandates and accountability, collaborative professional development opportunities such as Lesson Study can enhance support as teachers work together to create common goals and focus on compelling questions that are significant to them and specific to their context (Simon & Johnson, 2015). Such practices support teachers’ views of themselves as having joint responsibility for each other, their instruction, and their students (Simon & Johnson, 2015). Change is then viewed as an ongoing, collective responsibility (Hadar, 2013; Opfer & Pedder, 2011) rather than responsibility imposed from above.

Improved Instruction

Teachers in this study were under tremendous pressure because of their identification as a “Turnaround School.” Within this context, teachers redesigned their practice in ways that positively impacted student achievement. Lesson Study situated teachers as knowledgeable collaborators and provided a structure for critical evaluation of their own instruction and pedagogical problem-solving. Using the design of Lesson Study provided a pattern for incorporating these important characteristics. However, presenting the Lesson Study process in an organic way, rather than providing the process as a fixed recommendation, may have supported teachers’ desire and ability to redesign their practice. Because of mandates they had been given earlier by district personnel, these teachers were leery of imposed solutions. Rather than officially presenting Lesson Study as a solution or requirement, giving teachers the opportunity to buy in to the process one step at a time seemed to empower them as they saw the impact of their collaboration. Rather than answering to imposed accountability systems, teachers answered to each other as they worked together to improve instruction.

Lesson Study provided a context for considering ideas, questions, and challenges and highlighted collaboration as an ongoing means of improving practice (Lewis et al., 2012, Lieberman & Mace, 2010). Working with colleagues seemed to provide both the responsibility and the energy for teachers to redesign their practice, a characteristic of collaboration that has been noted by others (Levine, 2011). This characteristic is of increased importance in high-pressure contexts, where stress and accountability requirements may leave teachers feeling overburdened. In this study, opportunities for collaborative exploration, observation, and ongoing reflection appeared to support teachers as they redesigned their practice.

Empowerment and Efficacy

The process of redesigning their own practice through Lesson Study appears to have contributed to teachers’ feelings of empowerment, providing reassurance, satisfaction, and direction. The Lesson Study process allowed them to explore, rather than be told, what worked. They no longer looked for district personnel to provide solutions; instead, they generated solutions collaboratively. Previous research suggests that, as teachers gain competence with new strategies, they begin to feel more empowered, realizing that through their collaborative work they can impact students’ learning (Puchner & Taylor, 2006). Recognizing the connection between one’s own actions and the results that follow develops self-efficacy and internal locus of control, which in turn may lead individuals to work harder, show persistence, and be more resourceful (Cantrell & Hughes, 2008; Schwarzer & Warner, 2013; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2007). By the end of the formal Lesson Study we did together, teachers appeared to have moved from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control and felt empowered to use the Lesson Study process on their own as a means of continuous improvement.

Although factors contributing to instructional change that are highlighted in this study have been described separately in previous research, the current study is significant in that it situates these factors within a high-pressure context, brings the factors together into a descriptive model, and emphasizes attributes that may contribute to positive changes in student achievement and enhanced teacher collaboration and efficacy.


External and Internal Pressures

As noted by Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999), accountability systems may lead to reform efforts that emphasize the authoritative role of outsiders in school improvement. Analysis of qualitative data from the current study indicated that teachers initially viewed instructional improvement as a top-down directive. Teachers were under pressure not only from the No Child Left Behind Act’s Adequate Yearly Progress requirements but also from the State’s School Performance Framework, which had additional metrics for evaluation. The classroom teachers, who were veterans to working at this high-needs school, also felt self-imposed pressures for success, recognizing the importance of education in helping their students to overcome negative impacts of poverty that they perceived. They also recognized the increased demands of teaching second-language learners. These teachers initially felt that a plan for school change had been imposed and thus district-level solutions should be provided.

Contextualized Process for Change

Participation in Lesson Study, however, increased teachers’ ownership in the instructional improvement process and their feelings of efficacy. As they constructed knowledge that contextualized effective teaching practices, teachers recognized their own roles as change agents. Use of Lesson Study provided structures that supported this shift, and the factors described above that triggered changes seemed important to this transformation. Planning together incorporated opportunities to consider instructional best practices, and observation allowed the teachers to see these practices in action in a classroom other than their own. Structures for observation and lesson revision made teachers more willing to collaborate and try something new. Because Lesson Study is a contextualized form of professional development that values the creation of local knowledge, the plan for change was sensitive to teachers’ individual strengths and needs. The instruction they planned was also sensitive to the individual needs of their students.

Balancing Pressures

In this investigation, Lesson Study acted like a pressure-balanced valve. In plumbing, a pressure-balanced valve provides water at nearly constant temperatures despite pressure fluctuations in hot or cold water supply lines. This specialized valve compensates for changes in water pressure with bearings that regulate forces to provide even heat. Similarly, in this investigation, Lesson Study provided a pressure release so that students received effective instruction despite increased tensions in the system due to testing and accountability measures (see Figure 3). Reducing pressures seemed to create a “productive tension” that supported both teacher learning and student achievement (Stillman, 2011, p. 148).

Figure 3. Pressures and Balances of Lesson Study in a High-stakes Context


Lesson Study contributed to increases in teachers’ collaboration and sense of efficacy, enhanced their instruction, and supported increases in student achievement. The study has increased significance because these results were achieved in the context of a high-stakes environment created in this school by state and federal policy. In an era where school reform often restricts teacher agency, this study contributes to understanding of how teachers’ professionalism can be acknowledged, accessed, and supported rather than dismissed. The study elucidates factors that contributed to lower levels of anxiety and increased levels of productivity, and therefore adds descriptive detail to how the structure might be used effectively in high-pressure school contexts.


Previous studies of educational reform have indicated that accountability systems sometimes result in top-down decision making, constrained curricula, and reduced responsiveness to students’ specific needs (Butler & Schnellert, 2012; Ciminelli et al., 2009; Daly, 2009; Plank & Condliffe, 2013). In contrast, qualitative and quantitative data analyzed in this study demonstrate the ability of teachers’ collaborative work to generate local knowledge that improves student achievement.

Factors that account for this impact include attitudes and actions that are supportive of teachers, such as providing feedback and consistency, showing trust in teachers’ abilities, acknowledging teachers’ work and dedication, and offering authentic praise. Additionally, the study suggests the positive impact of providing structures for collaboration that emphasize common goals and compelling questions; unfold organically in response to teachers concerns, needs, and strengths; and provide opportunities for uncovering best practices.

Although these factors are grounded in previous educational research, this study emphasizes their importance in high-stakes accountability contexts and frames the factors within a descriptive model that positions teachers’ local knowledge at the center of change. This Stages of Transformation Model (Figure 2) might serve as a guide for both understanding and implementing school change initiatives.  


Because of its emphasis on empowering teachers as initiators of instructional improvement, this study is important to those with interest in advancing educational practice. Building capacity within schools increases the likelihood that reform policies will be translated into desired practices. Focusing on collaborative practices that build local knowledge empowers teachers and helps them recognize their important role in educational change. In addition, understanding the Stages of Transformation (Figure 2) may help leaders and teachers more effectively navigate the stressful terrain of educational reform in high-pressure contexts.

To reduce negative reactions and limit blame-shifting, schools and districts seeking to improve school performance could examine procedures and practices in light of the factors outlined in Figure 3. When hierarchical leaders provide supportive feedback and consistent recommendations, minimize meetings that focus on non-instructional concerns, and give teachers responsibility for collaborative problem-solving, they empower teachers to improve instruction. Simon and Johnson (2015) emphasized the importance of focusing on collegial interaction that is congruent with individual teacher needs and with a larger, meaningful agenda for improvement within their school. Such interactions seem even more important in high-poverty, low-achieving schools that face significant challenges for improving student achievement.

This research suggests the Lesson Study format as a professional development structure for increasing student achievement and teacher efficacy and reducing teacher stress in high-stakes environments. It appears that Lesson Study can build on teachers’ existing strengths, introduce additional high-yield strategies, and uncover areas ripe for improvement. In addition, Lesson Study provides a structure that allows teachers to be contextually responsive and to consider and build upon students’ variances and assets. Emphasizing and encouraging these attributes during implementation would capitalize on a strength of the Lesson Study approach.


The study also provides considerations for those with interest in advancing educational research focused on school-based teacher learning. As a phenomenological case study, this research foregrounds the experiences and perceptions of the individual teachers involved to consider the research questions and illuminate patterns of change in relation to this specific context. However, as a critical case, it tests the hypothesis that Lesson Study positively impacts teacher instruction, efficacy, and collaboration by examining its use in a context in which it may be considered less likely to succeed because of external pressures, prescribed solutions, and constraining requirements. Additionally, the study illustrates ways in which pressures imposed by policy impact collaboration in a high-needs school and how pressures might be intentionally mitigated by empowering teachers and emphasizing the creation of local knowledge (Figure 3).

The Japanese practice of Lesson Study has been used successfully in the United States for over 20 years, but there is still much to be learned about its impact in school-based teacher learning. The current study has limitations that could be addressed with future research. Data from this study came from one team of teachers in one high-needs, “Turnaround School.” As such, it provides a thick description of their experiences, but generalizing findings to other contexts is problematic. Future research could test these findings in other contexts, garnering additional insight about the impact of Lesson Study on teachers’ efficacy and collaboration.

Analysis indicated that during Lesson Study teachers strengthened existing practices, intentionally incorporated new practices, and used practices that, although unplanned for, became focuses of teacher investigation. Additional research might test the relative occurrence of these three types of instructional improvement during Lesson Study or other school-based teacher learning experiences. An ancillary finding of this study was the identification of six instructional practices that appeared to enhance writing instruction and improve students’ writing achievement: backward planning to design units and use of mentor texts, rubrics and student exemplars, anchor charts, peer discussion, scaffolding, and conferring during instruction. These could be tested, singly and in combination, to determine their impact on students’ writing achievement.

Finally, this study has implications for additional research about change in contexts of high-stakes accountability. The Stages of Transformation Model (Figure 2) could be explored in differing contexts to examine whether the Model holds true and whether similar factors to those identified here facilitate movement from earlier stages into the more collaborative and proactive stages of the Model. Understanding the relative impact of these factors would also be a valuable question for further research.

This study considers factors that empower teachers as initiators of instructional improvement in an era of high-stakes accountability. When teachers are provided supportive structures for problem-solving, a “collaborative harvesting of knowledge” (Jaffe-Walter, 2008, p. 2058) creates approaches that are responsive to “the local particularities of a school system” (Gergen & Dixon-Roman, 2014, p. 11). Rejecting the notion that solutions should be administered from on high and focusing instead on the creation of local solutions creates a “pressure release” that contributes to professional learning and instructional improvement.

Educators and educational researchers are interested in understanding how to support instructional improvement in today’s high-stakes educational climate. This research suggests not only what structures might be used to support such change, but also sheds light on factors that could be considered in order to build confidence and effectiveness in high-needs schools.


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I sit down with every kid and go through their cards and have that discussion about what's on here, what connects, where they go.



I would say, I'm just looking at the rubric here, where it talks about development of ideas. It’s mostly ideas.



But they need to learn how to overlay an organization themselves. Our kids need structure. They need to know that they can make order.




One thing that could have been tweaked was making sure to go back and be explicit about why we are doing this activity.



This lesson might be a good segue to word choice.  How do you make the bridge? How do we help kids take a boring detail and make it in their own writing?



It’s a trust issue and the fact that you showed that you trust us.




What's frustrating, I guess, or hard, is getting to that point and not . . . I mean, because some of my students who I would think would be able to go ahead and expand and use their own words, my kids are having a really hard time going from their details to their own language, like their own words. Some kids are like, oh, if I just change one word. I'm like, no, no, no.



But when you’re dealing with kids’ lives and when you’re dealing with a school - I take personal ownership of my job and how my job directly will impact. It’s just, that’s how it is. When my kids go out . . . It is and it’s all about them



Because we didn’t know you coming in and we felt angry and stressed coming in.


List of initial codes:

Instruction: Standards (Is), examples (Ie), rubrics (Ir), anchor charts (Iac), student talk (Ist),

scaffolding (Isc), time (It), conferring (Ic), change (Ich), individual student (Iis), resources (Irs), integration (Ii), assessments (Ia), process (Ip), mentor text (Imt), learning progressions (Ilp)

Collaboration: Planning together (Cpt), Observing (Co), Reflecting (Cr), Trust (Ct), Praise (Cp),

Expertise (Ce), respect (Crp), time (Ctm)

Efficacy: difficult (Ed), choice (Ech), responsibility (Er), confidence (Ec), frustration (Ef), anger

(Ea), pressure (Ep)


Notes: Example codes can also include negative instantiations.


standards (Is): References to standards, objectives, goals, outcomes

exemplar papers (Ie): Differs from mentor texts; rather than using texts from published

authors, exemplar papers are student samples or teacher- or publisher-constructed papers used to illustrate expectations

rubrics (Ir): Includes rubrics and checklists used for assessing or self-assessing work

anchor charts (Iac): Charts that are co-constructed by teachers and students and posted in

the classroom as a reference to guide learning

student talk (Ist): Student-to-student dialogue, discourse, or discussion intended to

facilitate learning

scaffolding (Isc): A form of assistance that enables a novice to solve a problem, carry out

a task, or achieve a goal which would otherwise be beyond his ability.   

time (It): references to lack of time, time spent, required time in relation to instruction [in

contrast to Collaboration Time (Ctm)]

conferring (Ic): Time spent by the teacher in one-on-one dialogue with a student with a

focus on learning

change (Ich): References to differences in instruction or student learning

individual student (Iis): Name of individual student is used in reference to teaching or


resources (Irs): Curriculum materials

integration (Ii): More than one academic area taught together

assessments (Ia): Both formal and informal assessments of student learning*

process (Ip): Focus on the learning process rather than the end product

mentor text (Imt): Published texts or excerpts from published texts that are used to

illustrate aspects of writer’s craft.

learning progressions (Ilp):


Planning together (Cpt): Discussions for designing learning activities, lessons, or units of


Observing (Co): Teachers observing one another’s instruction

Reflecting (Cr): A mental process for revisiting past experiences, in this case vocalized to


Trust (Ct): Evidence that parties in a relationship have confidence in one another

Praise (Cp): Statements that directly commend or portray another in a positive way

Expertise (Ce): Reference to proficiency on the part of the facilitator or teacher


respect (Crp): valuing or giving deference to a colleague’s contribution or abilities

Time (Ctm): references to lack of time, time spent, required time in relation to

collaboration [in contrast to Instruction Time (It)]


difficult (Ed): References to effort and problems involved in doing the work of the work

choice (Ech): Instructional decision making; having options

responsibility (Er): Feeling ownership for instruction and learning

confidence (Ec): Self-assurance about instructional ability

frustration (Ef): Disappointment, dissatisfaction, or annoyance related to the work;

anger (Ea): Anger!

pressure (Ep): Weightiness, stress, or evidence teachers are feeling that burden

*This frequently-used code drew attention to the need for quantitative analysis of state test scores.


Figure 4. Qualitative Data Analysis


Qualitative data analysis was recursive and iterative, but in general included multiple passes through the complete data set to notice and name patterns, followed by decomposing, sorting and assigning codes, and collapsing, shifting, and sequencing. These phases are described below.

Using complete data sets, I first memoed and began developing codes, as illustrated in Appendices A and B. By reviewing artifacts and repeatedly listening to recordings of meetings and rereading transcripts, I noticed patterns, and codes became more refined. For example, memos initially labelled “emotion” became more precisely labeled, “frustration,” “anger,” and “pressure.”

Next, I decomposed the data by excerpting passages that illustrated these patterns, including both positive and negative instantiations. The excerpts were copied into an Excel spreadsheet for ease of manipulation. Additional passes through the data resulted in excerpts that provided rich illustrations of the 31 codes described in Appendix C.

Recursive review of data, including use of the codes and their synonyms and antonyms as search terms in original documents and transcripts, yielded additional excerpts. Next, I sorted the excerpts according to the three qualitative research questions (instruction, collaboration, and efficacy). Some codes were collapsed or shifted, as illustrated in Figure 4. For example, conferring (Ic) and individual student (Iis) were collapsed into one category, conferring, since it was noted that almost all of the excerpts coded as individual student described conferring. Two codes were subsumed in the larger data set. The code of change (Ich) became an overarching idea guiding analysis, since I noted that excerpts with this code were broad representations of shifts described more specifically by other codes. Similarly, references to assessments (Ia) validated the benefit of including quantitative analysis of state writing assessment data as part of the study, since the numerous references to assessment focused almost exclusively on this high-stakes test. In this sifting process, excerpts that had been coded time and resources were subsumed into the data sets for collaboration and efficacy, because they fit within the newly developing categories that led to the Stages of Transformation model.

Reviewing these collapsed and shifted codes, I noted that, among those excerpts coded as instruction, there were some practices I had intentionally introduced, but others had arisen spontaneously. Instructional codes were grouped according to this characteristic.

Reviewing excerpts coded as collaboration and efficacy, and listening again to Lesson Study session recordings, I noted a different tenor to the conversations as the work progressed. After sequencing these excerpts chronologically, this shift became more apparent (with the exception of the January 15 meeting during which participants spontaneously reflected on the whole process they had been engaged with.) Noticing and naming these transitions resulted in the Stages of Transformation Model depicted in Figure 2.

Once again, all data sources were reviewed to confirm/disconfirm final categories, and additional excerpts were added. To consider validity, findings were shared with participants. Half of the data set was double-coded for inter-rater reliability.


Overall Objective:

Students will be able to write opinion pieces, supporting a point of view with reasons and information. (Standard 3: Writing; GLE 2a)

Learning Progression:

Week 1: Understanding Characteristics of Argumentative Text/Expressing a Viewpoint

Chart characteristics of argumentative text

Use strong words to express a viewpoint: Introductions

Supporting a viewpoint with relevant evidence

Organize ideas to support viewpoint

Week 2: Organizing ideas and Presenting Relevant Evidence

Supporting a viewpoint with relevant evidence


Addressing opposing views

Organization:  Transitions & Conclusions

Week 3: Crafting and Revising a Argumentative Text

Letter to the Editor

Specific Objectives: (from standards Evidence Outcomes)

Students will be able to include opinions (and opposing viewpoints) in argumentative writing.

Students will be able to introduce a topic clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which ideas are logically grouped to support the writer’s purpose.

Students will be able to provide logically ordered reasons that are supported by facts and details.

Students will be able to link opinion and reasons using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., consequently, specifically).

Students will be able to provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.

How does this lesson fit with prior learning?

During their study of expository texts, students focused on organizing rich details.  They will build on this ability by organizing evidence to support opinions in a argumentative text.

Argumentative Writing: Week 1

Purpose:  Students will understand the characteristics of argumentative text and be able to organize ideas to express and support a viewpoint.

Specific Objectives:  

Students will be able to include opinions (and opposing viewpoints) in argumentative writing.

Students will be able to introduce a topic clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which ideas are logically grouped to support the writer’s purpose.






(In preparation, you may want to review Transparency 20 and keep features in mind as the group creates charts)

Whole Group: View an advertisement* and chart argumentative elements. Read a argumentative text** and chart argumentative elements. Compare & synthesize to create anchor chart. (See T245A “Features of Pers. Essay” in side column.  Consider ?s from “Discuss the Features” as you consider the ad & text).

Whole Group: Intro to O/P Statements as one type of topic sentence for argumentative essay.  On doc cam, present list of words or phrases that begin O/P statements [see SU 2-39]

Partner Work: Find sentences that begin with these words in newspapers & magazines and copy them down.   

Whole Group: (later?) Describe the structure of an O/P sentence; share examples. Share some of the examples students found on Smartboard. Sort into those that are O/P statements and those that are not. Sort again into those which are argumentative and those which are not (use anchor chart)

Whole Group: Use strong sentences to express a viewpoint (T215A)

Small Group: Brainstorm list of things about which they have strong opinions

Whole Group:

Review how to write O/P statements or other strong topic sentences

Partner Work: Choose 3 ideas from list and write O/P statements or other strong topic sentences

Whole group: Use mentor texts** to examine organization of argumentative text

Partner Work: Choose a mentor text** and write an outline for the text (use only words & phrases)

Whole group: Discuss how to determine details for supporting a viewpoint; use shared writing to create an example O/P statement and outline of details [Consider T179A Mini-lesson 1 & Teacher’s Resource Book p. 184, EW115

Independent Work: Create outlines for possible essays using the O/P statements written Wednesday

*Infomercial, commercial, Fox News, etc.    **Coloradoan editorial or other argumentative text (see also EW Argumentative Writing, pp. 164–167 for examples)

Argumentative Writing: Week 2


Plan and draft argumentative essays that include all components

Revise argumentative essays using relevant details

Specific Objectives:  

Students will be able to include opinions (and opposing viewpoints) in argumentative writing.

Students will be able to provide logically ordered reasons that are supported by facts and details.

Students will be able to link opinion and reasons using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., consequently, specifically).

Students will be able to provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.






Whole Group: Model using questions to generate details (EW) p. 163 and/or T157A Mini-Lesson 2].  Using shared writing, create an outline and begin drafting a whole-group essay.

Partner or Independent Practice:

Choose one of the outlines created Friday and draft an argumentative essay.

Whole Group: Using essay drafted Monday, add details that use Argumentative techniques (see SU 3-42).

Partner or Independent Practice:

Revise draft by adding or modifying details to use argumentative techniques.

Whole Group: Using essay drafted Monday, add info. to address opposing views (see T191B &C and Transparencies 22-23 plus and “Yes, but…” from EW 163 – see previous). Using mentor texts,* find examples of addressing the opposing argument.

Partner or Independent Practice:

Choose an issue and consider pros and cons (EW 81-90). Add a section addressing opposition to Monday’s draft.

Whole Group: Attention Getter: reorder and add transitions to sentences from T179A Mini-lesson 2. Then revise order and add transitions to draft from shared writing

Partner or Independent Practice:

Revise draft piece for order and transitions—don’t forget “consequently” and “specifically” (from standards!)

Whole Group: From the student anthology, review the mentor text on p. 190. Chart what makes this conclusion strong; add other elements that make a strong conclusion.

Partner or Independent Practice:

Students write a strong conclusion that restates the appeal.

*See, for example, T Transparencies 22, 26, & 27 and EW 182, 184

Argumentative Writing: Week 3


Plan, draft, and revise a letter to the editor for the Coloradoan.

Specific Objectives:  

Review all






Whole Group: Brainstorm possible topics.  Look at additional mentor texts*

Independent Practice: Write O/P or other intro. statement and outline for letter to editor.

Whole Group: Review anchor chart and guidelines for argumentative writing (SU 3-43, T217AMinilesson 2).  Show rubric and 1 and 4 pt. anchor papers

Independent Practice:

Revise order if needed and draft letter.

Independent Practice:

Finish letter.

Whole Group: Revision mini-lesson (T191D & Transparencies 26 & 27)

Independent Practice:

Revise letter.

Whole Group: Minilesson: Conventions (T Opinion Essay p. 9 & 10)

Independent Practice:

Edit letter.

*EW p. 37–38, 44–45

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 6, 2017, p. 1-58
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21788, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 6:42:39 PM

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About the Author
  • Vicki Collet
    University of Arkansas
    E-mail Author
    VICKI S. COLLET is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Arkansas. Her research interests are professional learning for in-service and pre-service teachers and literacy learning. Recently published articles include: "Transforming instruction: How collaborative professional development changed the teaching of argumentative writing" in English Leadership Quarterly and "Scaffolds for change: The gradual increase of responsibility model" in International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education.
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