Expanding the Impact of Excellent Teachers

By Celine Coggins, 10/26/2012

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If you are a teacher who helps students learn exceptionally well, this is your moment—schools and policymakers must vastly expand your impact, now.

Today, our nation is at a crossroads; we simply cannot fall short educationally for another decade as other countries surge.

Why is this time unique? Two crucial trends are at play. First, the United States has begun to act on the compelling data showing great variation in teachers’ success in helping students learn, as well as the monumental impact this variation can have on the life chances of students. As states and districts work to build better teacher-evaluation systems, schools will have increasingly accurate and useful data to identify which teachers are exceptionally effective.

Second, we are experiencing a major generational change. For the first time in memory, a majority of teachers have fewer than 10 years of experience. In the coming decade, they will decide whether to stay in the classroom or move on. Opportunities for leadership and compensated professional growth will weigh heavily in their decisions. As the Teach Plus report Great Expectations: Teachers’ Views on Elevating the Teaching Profession shows, early-career teachers want clear standards of excellence, performance measurement, and overhaul of compensation and tenure. They also want to get out of their classroom walls and collaborate with peers to meet student needs in flexible instructional groups.

Ever since the release of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, the United States has tried dozens of reforms that have not capitalized on the excellent teachers already working in schools. Meanwhile, growing volumes of evidence have shown large differences in teachers’ effectiveness. Excellent teachers more consistently help students close achievement gaps and advance individually, in spite of students’ differing familial advantages.

Reforms that do not acknowledge this truth and expand the impact—and number—of excellent teachers are bound to fall short. Schools must stretch their thinking far past the current mentor/master paradigm for teacher advancement. To do so, schools must extend the reach of excellent teachers to more students, couple teacher collaboration with teacher leadership, and empower top teachers to shape school culture. Meanwhile, policymakers must clear away the policy brush that holds great teachers back and boost the national will to put an excellent teacher in every classroom.

Altogether, these changes provide the linchpin for what we call an Opportunity Culture, one that embraces excellence and opportunity for students and teachers alike.

How should schools go about this?

First, they must help excellent teachers reach more students. Using job redesign and age- and child-appropriate technology, schools can help great teachers teach more students, paying more for their additional responsibility from existing per-pupil funding. New models can also free teachers’ in-school time for collaboration and improvement.

For example, excellent elementary teachers can reach two to four times more students by specializing in their best subjects, while less costly paraprofessionals supervise students during noninstructional time, such as recess and transitions between classes, and complete paperwork.

Alternatively, teachers at all levels can reach substantially more students by swapping teaching time, as little as an hour daily per student, with personalized digital instruction supervised by paraprofessionals. With the right schedule changes, teachers can collaborate, reach more students, and maintain personalized instructional time. The charter school network Rocketship Education provides one example of schools that combine subject specialization and digital instruction to achieve stellar results in high-poverty elementary schools while increasing teacher pay, within budget.

Teacher-leaders can bring excellence to multiple classrooms by leading teams. Of course, some schools already have grade-level or department leaders. But rarely do these teachers have accountability for other teachers’ student outcomes, authority to select and evaluate peers, and enhanced pay that is sustainably funded. With full accountability for all students in a set of classrooms and explicit authority to lead teams, teacher-leaders have an enormous incentive to develop others and help all of them do their best. Lastly, master teachers can teach larger classes—within reason and by choice—allowing other teachers to have smaller classes.

These models let schools create instructional career opportunities for excellent teachers, for more pay, within budget. They also create opportunities for teamwork, job flexibility, funded planning and development, and varying roles that fit each person’s talents, all helping to retain teachers and increase their satisfaction. These models also support sustainable pay increases of up to 130 percent for multi-classroom leaders and 40 percent for others.

Second, schools must couple collaboration with teacher leadership. Professional learning communities are not new, but their developmental potential is squandered when individual teachers are unaware of which of their peers achieve the best outcomes and when excellent teachers are isolated. Moreover, schools find scheduling a challenge and paying teacher-leaders unsustainable.

Efforts like Teach Plus’ highly successful Turnaround Teacher Teams, which infuse schools with trained teams of excellent teachers and acknowledge excellence openly, give great teachers license to lead and good teachers license to learn.

Combining collaborative efforts like this with reach models makes collaboration and pay increases sustainable. When paraprofessionals supervise students during noninstructional time and digital learning, teachers can collaborate.

Third, schools must empower excellent teachers to influence not just classrooms, but also school culture and policies. Excellent teachers should play a prominent role in determining peer selection, instructional practices and materials, evaluation methods, and retention decisions.

Policymakers must remove barriers that prevent schools from boosting the impact of great teachers for more pay, within budget. The policy changes needed are many (see the full article for more). In summary, states must improve teacher evaluation, track the number of students with excellent teachers, and let these teachers obtain automatic multi-state licenses. Excellent teachers must be able to vary their class sizes, use paraprofessionals, and change roles, schedules, and technology to help more students and peers.

Policy must enable districts to pay excellent teachers more for advanced teaching roles—routinely and within budget—with even more for those succeeding with the most-challenging students.

States must insist that schools report retention rates of excellent teachers, protect them from layoffs, and limit tenure to those who achieve consistent excellence. To save teachers time, states must give all students access to wireless learning, and all teachers access to student data and matching instructional options.

Finally, state and federal policymakers must build public will for reaching every student with excellent teachers. A blend of powerful mandates and incentives must define core policies and funding, not just special programs. In other words, creating an Opportunity Culture must be this nation’s No. 1 education priority. Other reforms cannot succeed, sustainably and at scale, without attracting and developing highly capable teachers who stay in the profession longer and expand their impact within schools and their profession.

— Bryan C. Hassel, Celine Coggins & Emily Ayscue Hassel

Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel are co-directors of Public Impact. Celine Coggins, a former middle school teacher, is the founder and chief executive officer of Teach Plus, which is based in Boston.

This is an abridged and edited version of an article published on EducationWeek.org.

Comment on this article
  • Miller Guidance says:

    The “what” of school reform has been well stated. The “how” of school reform is what is keeping change from occurring –moving from the theoretical to the practical.

    The majority of districts and schools need specific guidance on how to get from the existing model to a model characterized by the components listed in this article.

    What is needed is an overarching system of routines and policies that structures school reform over multiple years and aligns the various components into a well integrated system. The resulting system puts the child and his family at the center of all district activities.

  • Carol Burris says:

    I think a read between the lines….bigger class sizes, using paras and technology, removing prep time for elementary teachers…demonstrate what these authors mean by reform–saving money. There is no research basis for these recommendations. One more faux reform group pushing the same corporate ideas…

  • Bryan Hassel says:

    Ms. Burris,

    None of us represent corporate interests. You won’t find removing prep time in any of these models — indeed, the opposite! Teachers tell us that they want opportunities for collaboration, peer leadership, and paid career advancement. These models provide them. Anyone who reads the model materials will know that. The goal is to increase the number of students and peer teachers who benefit from better teachers’ instructional methods and materials, pay teachers more (in many model options, all teachers can earn more), and — by making good design choices — provide MORE in-school time for teachers to plan and collaborate in teams. And to do all of this with funds that are available permanently, so teachers who are accomplishing great things with students don’t have pay cuts after a few years of special funding. Teachers and leaders who want to achieve those goals can make it happen, and indeed they must get involved to make sure that both teachers and students benefit from more access to our nation’s hundreds of thousands of great teachers.

    Of course, a school could implement changes that resemble these models on the surface, but without accomplishing these goals — e.g., larger classes for all teachers without regard to whether a teacher is ready and willing for such a change, not paying teachers more despite savings, having students use technology for too long, or not building planning and collaboration time into the daily schedule. These are the kind of changes that sometimes happen now and that we hope to help schools avoid in the future.

    We encourage all readers who are teachers and education leaders to get involved and shape these changes to accomplish the values you hold dear. It’s you who will decide how to make these models work in real schools. Those of us working from afar need to be respectful of your knowledge of your students’ and faculties’ needs.

  • Mike Wetzel says:

    Interesting ideas for teacher leadership, but the reliance on paraprofessionals to fill in the gaps to free up time for excellent teachers to branch out doesn’t fit the current reality for many state education budgets. In Colorado, the state has cut several hundreds of millions out of K-12 over the past few years, and school districts often eliminate parapros, literacy coaches and many of the other classroom specialist who help teachers deliver personalized instruction to make budget. This leaves excellent teachers with less help as they take on larger class sizes, with more students needing specialized attention (English language learners, for instance). The increased workload and responsibility can impact their effectiveness, which is problematic when you talk of paying teachers according to effectiveness evaluations. We need to be careful that we’re not settting our best teachers up for failure when we increase the effectiveness stakes with the left hand at the same time we’re chopping away at their support with the right hand. Until such time that Colorado and many other states remedy their budget shortfalls and fix their K-12 funding formulas, it’s difficult to put many of your recommendations to a fair test.

  • Bryan Hassel says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mr. Wetzel. Indeed, “reach” models count on districts making the right changes in roles, not just indiscriminately cutting jobs. There’s a big difference. If a school indiscriminately lets go of staff, then larger class sizes for all teachers is the default — a poor substitute for taking noninstructional tasks and monitoring of digital learning time off of classroom teachers’ plates, which frees time for reaching more students, planning, and peer collaboration. We recommend looking at the financial summary (and ones for specific models) here to see how making changes in the right ways redirects a portion of available funds to higher pay. Whatever a school’s budget is, it should be able to make some changes in this direction.

    And when the economy rebounds and funding increases, schools and districts that have already established these models should find it easier to let the additional funds flow to higher pay for classroom teachers.

    All that said, states that cut budgets to the bone in schools serving many economically disadvantaged students and English Language Learners typically are making bad decisions about how to invest public dollars.

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