New Research on Opportunity Culture: Multi-Classroom Leaders’ Teams Produce Significant Learning Gains

What if every student actually could have an excellent teacher?

According to a new study released through the CALDER Center, it might be possible. Study authors Ben Backes of American Institutes for Research (AIR) and Michael Hansen of the Brookings Institution found that students in classrooms of team teachers led by Opportunity Culture “multi-classroom leaders” showed sizeable, statistically significant academic gains. There’s interesting fine print, so read on.

Multi-classroom leaders lead a teaching team, providing guidance and frequent on-the-job coaching while continuing to teach, often by leading small-group instruction. Accountable for the results of all students in the team, multi-classroom leaders also earn supplements that thus far have averaged 20 percent (and up to 50 percent) of teacher pay, within the regular school budget.

In the study, the team teachers were, on average, at the 50th percentile in the student learning gains they produced before joining a team led by a multi-classroom leader (MCL). After joining the teams, they produced learning gains equivalent to those of teachers from the 75th to 85th percentile in math, and, in six of the seven statistical models, from 66th to 72nd percentile in reading, said the report, released on January 11 through the CALDER Center.

With these results year after year, students starting kindergarten one year behind can catch up by the end of second grade—and spend the rest of their school careers on advanced math. The haul is longer for reading, but a kindergartner starting a year behind can catch up by the end of fourth grade.

The study compared student growth in classrooms led by teachers in Opportunity Culture roles to student growth in non-Opportunity Culture classrooms in both the same schools and in different schools, controlling for various factors including student background and prior performance. The researchers’ findings indicate that gains in Opportunity Culture classrooms were substantially higher than those in schools with no Opportunity Culture roles, and in Opportunity Culture schools prior to the implementation of these roles.

Selectivity may have been critical: The researchers found that among MCLs whose teaching effectiveness could be quantified through student learning growth data, all were in the top quartile of effectiveness before being selected as MCLs.

When we launched Opportunity Culture, our goal was to boost student learning by extending the reach of excellent teachers to more students, for more pay, within schools’ regular budgets. But we didn’t know what methods of extending teachers’ reach would work best for students: reaching more students directly with extra paraprofessional support, or leading teams.

Now we know more. Not only does multi-classroom leadership reach more students—MCLs led a median of five teachers—it works best. In contrast, the researchers’ findings were mixed for teachers who reached more students directly without an MCL’s leadership. Fortunately, most schools have chosen to use multi-classroom leadership, alone or in combination with other advanced roles.

15,000 students, mostly Title I schools

The study covered about 15,000 students and about 300 teachers, looking at two to three years of data for North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Cabarrus County Schools, and New York’s Syracuse City School District. About 90 percent of the students included were in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. In these three districts in 2015–16, 74 percent of Opportunity Culture schools were eligible for Title I based on the percentage of low-income students. (The national Opportunity Culture initiative now includes more than 160 schools in about 20 districts in nine states.)

In each Opportunity Culture school, a team of teachers and administrators adopts new roles and plans implementation. The school teams decide how to reallocate their budgets to pay MCLs more, and they redesign schedules to provide additional school-day time for teacher planning, coaching and collaboration.

“Spillover” effects

Students’ math gains were statistically significant in all seven of the researchers’ statistical models.

Reading gains were statistically significant in six of the seven models. The seventh, comparing classrooms within schools that did and did not have an MCL, showed no statistically significant impact, because reading improved in both types of classrooms after multi-classroom leaders began leading some of the teachers in each school. (Most schools implement the roles gradually, allowing in-school comparisons.)

Similarly, differences in math gains were smaller within schools, though statistically significant.

The researchers acknowledge that these smaller differences could indicate positive “spillover” effects.
We expected significant “spillover” based on our work with the CMS schools. Applicants who didn’t get Opportunity Culture roles took other teaching jobs in the district in hopes of proving themselves to obtain OC positions later. The superintendent at that time announced his plans to expand it to half of the district’s schools; local media repeated his message—likely fueling teachers’ hopes for future positions.

And in interviews, Opportunity Culture educators reported that multi-classroom leadership changed their schools’ culture. Collaboration, coaching and support for everyone quickly became the norm. In schools that didn’t have MCLs for all teachers, some MCLs reported that they were coaching teachers outside of their teams, who wanted what they saw team teachers getting. Some or all of these things undoubtedly affected student learning, even if the study could not tell us which factors made a difference.

Superintendents, it’s your move

We feel confident of this based on the study results: Great teachers can lead small teams to reach a lot more students with high-growth learning—and support their colleagues’ success really well.

The question we still have is whether enough district leaders will give them the chance to do it.

—Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel

Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel are Co-Presidents of Public Impact.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College