What is STEP?

The Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project (STEP) is an initiative which aims to understand and promote methods for improving teaching effectiveness by examining innovative ways to build teacher capacity while identifying and learning from teachers who continually improve their teaching practice throughout their careers. STEP explores how "Positive Deviance” and related approaches can be applied successfully in K-12 education. By creating a school-based approach to collaborative inquiry, we believe we can identify opportunities for educators to improve their practice and continue to improve student achievement. STEP involves a partnership between your district and a small cohort of participating schools, IEG and AIR, and a funding partner. For more information, go to What is STEP.

What is Adaptive Positive Deviance (APD)?

Adaptive Positive Deviance intends to address adaptive challenges (as opposed to technical challenges) in classroom learning. Adaptive challenges have no known solutions as innovators begin to work on improvement.  They require behavioral changes within the group experiencing the challenge.  There is an ongoing need for discovery and learning, as the participants strive to develop solutions that work within the often unique context of the communities STEP teams are working in.  Solutions that work for one individual may not work for another, and vice versa.  APD is not looking for one solution that fits all needs; rather, it seeks to ensure that all participating individuals uncover solutions that work for their particular needs.

APD begins with the concept that every group or community contains a small number of people who have developed solutions to big, universal problems despite experiencing the same barriers and available resources as their peers.

APD theory asserts that even the most intractable problems often have solutions awaiting discovery within the groups or communities experiencing the challenges. Once groups begin to engage in seeking solutions, they are poised to find new and better methods of operating.   

Has APD been used in K-12 education?

While APD has fostered new patterns of practice that have led to improved outcomes in complex organizations such as hospitals, prisons, and the military, there is a relatively small body of experience using APD in K-12 schools.  

However, the experience that exists is extremely encouraging.  High school students, teachers, and administrators in Merced, California have used APD to significantly reduce truancy and improve graduation rates.  A variety of districts in New Jersey have also experimented with APD in addressing problems such as parent engagement and disruptive student behavior in and between classes.  APD has also been used in other domains to work on behavior change and development of experienced professionals.

We view this work as truly groundbreaking and a significant learning opportunity related to the ability for APD to support improvement in K-12 education.  Successful outcomes in STEP can provide a pathway for schools and districts elsewhere to apply APD principles to solve important problems by similarly looking inside their own communities for effective solutions to the challenges they experience.

How is STEP different from other school-based inquiry and/or learning communities?

STEP is an innovative bottom-up approach with the goal of increasing teacher effectiveness and promoting College and Career Readiness for all students. Rather than first seeking outside expertise or “silver bullet” programs, districts can learn new skills to help them systematically uncover the uncommon but successful practices of colleagues within the system and collaborate in ways that allow new ideas to emerge that can be tested and implemented to improve outcomes.  STEP is unique in that it is a process to discover, codify, and amplify existing successful practices within a school or district community, making it easy to integrate in other improvement efforts. This empowering, inclusive approach leads to high levels of support and participation from teachers.  

How is STEP different from current professional development (PD) offerings? How can STEP support and enhance my current PD efforts?

STEP is a process that can easily be included in existing PD efforts.  However, it is different from typical PD practices in that it searches exclusively within the school community for challenges and data-based solutions. STEP is grounded in building a collaborative teaching community to support student outcomes and teacher practices linked to student achievement. STEP can enhance existing PD initiatives in schools and districts because it strives to improve student outcomes through teacher practice and collaboration.

Who's Involved in STEP?

STEP is an educator-led inquiry process that focuses on understanding teacher practice, identifying effectiveness through simple measurement, and encouraging innovation by educators to test and refine what might be working and why, in a community of their peers. STEP is a partnership between district and CMO partners, Insight Education Group (IEG) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR), and Kitamba Consulting and sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Current school district and CMO partners include: Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), Boston Public Schools (BPS) and Aspire Public Schools (APS).

For more information, go to Who's Involved.

What is required of my district if I choose to participate?

Districts are expected to commit time and resources to the STEP project. It can take up to two years to fully implement all six phases of work. District leaders must support the STEP team(s) implementation and community building activities. You should also consider how STEP will support existing district initiatives. 

What can I expect if my district participates in STEP?

You can expect your district to receive a full range of support for your STEP team through the entire process. This includes trainings, online support, comprehensive tools and resources to guide the STEP team’s cycles of inquiry, and a community of practice and guidance to replicate best practices from other districts and CMOs. By the end of the project, your school(s) will have accomplished the following milestones:

  • Created a readiness analysis
  • Created a budget and staffing plan
  • Created and implemented a communications and launch plan
  • Established a project roadmap and community of practice
  • Gathered data to identify instances of positive deviance
  • Performed cycles of inquiry to determine positive deviant practices that can be replicated and tested
  • Experimented with new practices in the classroom
  • Monitored and assessed data to measure impact
  • Shared effective practices with the broader school community
  • Built capacity and planned for broader implementation
How much time will STEP district teams be expected to commit to this work?

The school-based STEP team will develop a regular meeting schedule for in-person and virtual STEP meetings.

In addition, STEP project directors, coaches and data personnel will participate in an off-site STEP boot camp. The boot camp is led by facilitation experts and entail intensive training on STEP processes, including all data and measurement resources. STEP coaches will be expected to participate in quarterly virtual Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings with other district STEP coaches for ongoing training and support. Beyond these specific commitments, there is not a stated time commitment expected of the team. Our technical assistance team will work closely with yoy to set goals and timelines specific to each site.

STEP is an iterative process. As teams work through the process, things can and will change. The STEP process may require calling upon other members of the school community. Follow-up interactions will be necessary, and are likely to occur at least every one to two weeks in order to preserve continuity and momentum.

What is District/CMO Leadership's role in the STEP process?

The district/CMO leadership is to fully participate and engage to help create the conditions for the ongoing discovery and learning that is critical to STEP. The district leaders will need to help the school community and district interact, understand, and internalize new behaviors and practices. At times leaders may need to help remove obstacles as well as serve as a bridge between the STEP team and other key stakeholders.  The district leaders may be participants on the STEP team and/or committee, but it is not mandatory.

What is the main purpose of a STEP team?

Each STEP team is tasked with identifying a common challenge within a school or district. The team then collects data to prove that the challenge is meaningful, and identifies, refines, codifies, and shares teaching practices to address that challenge. STEP fosters a culture of collaboration, trust, and continual improvement within school communities.

What data will be used to identify the successful practices or behaviors that already exist in our schools?

STEP is unique in that each STEP team uses guidance from STEP measurement principle to decide what to measure and how to measure it in order to find and share solutions that may already exist within the school community.

Each STEP team measures data that is linked to its specific Challenge and Aim statement. The three main categories of data called the STEP ingredients that need to be purposefully measured are:

  • Student outcomes related to the STEP team’s challenge area
  • Teaching practices that may address those challenges
  • Professional conditions for teacher collaboration, or the opportunities and barriers for sharing effective practices among teachers in your school(s)

The type of data the STEP team needs to collect is contingent on the Challenge and Aim statement. It is important to note that the team will look at multiple sources of data, including district level data, student school-based test scores, exit slips, student surveys, teacher survey, interviews, and observations. Some of these tools may exist and the STEP team may need to develop others. With support for the STEP coach, data personnel, and the American Institutes for Research, the STEP team will identify what data they need, obtain that data, and analyze it to determine if there are relationships between the practices being examined and student outcomes.  

How can STEP be organized at schools?

Once a district or CMO selects the participating school(s), the first key role to fill will be the STEP Project Director. The Project Director will help manage the overall process and the other people on the STEP team. The second role will be the STEP Coach, who will be crucial to leading meetings, modeling facilitation, and preparing their team to eventually fully own the STEP process without the hands-on guidance of the STEP Coach. The STEP Coach will lead a small group of four to ten members of the school community, mostly teachers. This core team will be the school’s “STEP team.” It is the STEP team that will identify a data-based challenge, observe existing teaching practices and identify whether there are promising practices to share out and replicate.

Who should be included on the school’s STEP team?

With the support of school principal(s) and guidance from the technical assistance team, the key will be to engage educators who want participate and are key peer influencers. STEP will be successful with the the spirit of invitation and volunteerism is as well as diversity in perspectives.

How many participants should a STEP team have?

There is no magic number of STEP team members that make it better or worse. It depends on your district/CMO and school goals. We recommend between four to ten participants to ensure balanced representation and participation from team members.

How can I generate excitement about STEP with teachers?

Talk to your teachers about STEP! Schedule a meeting and show the STEP initiative video to demonstrate that STEP has impacted other school communities already. Share facts about Positive Deviance as a practice and how it has helped develop solutions to intractable social problems in other fields. Most importantly, explain to teachers that STEP is not about imposing a mandatory new technique, but rather teachers working together to find solutions to real problems they see every day.

Is there a point in the process when we can't add new STEP team members?

STEP is a process, therefore you may see the STEP teams contract or grow at different phases, it's natural STEP and STEP teams. Since STEP is not a "one size fits all" solution, STEP teams can look very different based on district/CMO goals and compositions.

What is a Challenge and Aim Statement?

Every improvement initiative begins with a statement about a particular challenge, along with a desired future outcome.  In STEP, this statement is called a Challenge and Aim statement. This statement is a clear articulation of an issue in teacher practice and student learning that your STEP team faces, along with the goal or aim the team will set to determine its success. The STEP team will start by defining a unique challenge that will frame and drive the work across each phase of STEP in their school community.

The challenge should consist of an important and common area for improvement in student learning or work, along with the classroom teaching practices related to this specific aspect of student learning. Challenge statements often originate from exploration of questions such as: What do we as teachers wish we could better help students know/do? “I wish my students were more proficient at…” The challenge the STEP team ultimately chooses should affect the larger school community and should be a shared experience or perception, rather than being limited to only members of the STEP team.


Will STEP team meetings occur during the school day or after school?

STEP teams will determine meeting schedules at the initial Kick off or Launch meeting. Meetings can be held during the school day or during common planning periods. Many STEP teams meet after school as well.

How long will each meeting last?

School-based STEP team meetings are typically 60-90 minutes in length and occur every week or biweekly.  One of the first tasks for STEP teams will be to establish meeting schedules that work for core team members.

What if there are no examples of exceptional practices in a STEP cycle?

STEP success is not solely based on identifying exceptional practice; it is a transformational process. Going through the process itself can be a tremendous learning opportunity for you, your school, and your educators to collaborate and learn from each other. It can establish collaborative teaching, which leads to better practices and educators.  In many ways, STEP is about the journey rather than the destination.

Still have a question? Contact Us!