Maybe it’s because we’re turning 50 in the coming year and have together been pondering the plight of the poor and their lost human potential since we were 20. But we’re weary of hearing education reformers pretend that just changing policies and management systems—name your favorite—will put an excellent teacher in every classroom. Even though most of us have spilled voluminous ink on those topics.
What if, instead, change started where excellence already lives—in the classrooms and minds of excellent teachers? That is, those teachers who achieve large student learning gains and leaps in higher-order thinking, and who inspire and motivate students and colleagues alike.
What if all it took to launch were a handful of willing superintendents and some committed principals? Ones willing to empower those excellent teachers: to reach far more students, lead and develop teams of colleagues on-the-job, and help their principals lead their schools, for substantially more pay?
What if all “systems” changes were geared to make that possible, at large scale?
From that line of thinking was born Opportunity Culture, an initiative to try this idea: Let school teams with teachers on them redesign jobs and use age-appropriate technology to extend the reach of excellent teachers and their teams to many more students, for more pay, within regular budgets, adding more planning time, and having them take full accountability for the learning of all the students they serve.
Seven schools in two states began implementing these new school models in 2013–14. More than 30 schools in three states implemented last year, and more than 60 schools in five states will be implementing or designing their school models in 2015–16.
The Public Impact team facilitated school decision-making, along with Education First and Education Resource Strategies, and we produced many free materials to help. But the teachers and principals get all the credit for their outcomes. We’ve gathered data on their early results from the first two years, and we report all the data for which comparison groups were possible.
These outcomes are promising for students and teachers, but there is room to improve the support—and, yes, the systems and policies—that affect teachers in these new roles and their principals.
• More than 150 teachers held advanced roles, and more than 300 other teachers were developed on the job by Opportunity Culture (OC) teacher-leaders in 2014–15.
• Teachers typically reached 33 percent to 300 percent more students than average.
• More than 16,000 students were reached using OC models in 2014–15, over 70 percent of them in STEM classrooms.
• Districts launching recruitment by March received applications at a rate of about 30:1 applications per OC position. Those starting later had between 4:1 and 10:1 per position.
• Teacher pay supplements for advanced roles ranged from $3,500 to $23,000 and averaged approximately $10,000.
• All sites but one paid these supplements completely within regular budgets by reallocating funding, with no grants or special funding; all are within regular budgets for 2015–16.
• Average weekly planning minutes ranged from 225 to 450.
• Of the three schools that implemented Opportunity Culture models schoolwide in the first year:
• Two had high growth in both reading and math in the first year.
• The third school had high growth in reading and math by its second year (subject to state verification).
• In schools transitioning gradually over two to three years, significantly more students in OC classrooms made high growth in the second year than in non-OC classrooms in the same and similar schools—by March 2015, 42 percent to 70 percent more made high growth, depending on the comparison group. Fifty percent more students in non-OC classrooms made low growth. (Annualized data not yet available for OC classrooms; first-year data unavailable due to teacher privacy and lack of comparison data.)
• A significant majority of teachers agreed with a wide range of positive statements about the Opportunity Cultures in their schools in an anonymous survey.
These outcomes are promising, particularly because schools with reported student outcomes were very high-poverty.
However, some pioneering districts, schools, and teachers achieved better, faster results than others. Strengths and challenges varied across sites. Learning quickly from these differences is crucial to improved outcomes as more schools and districts create their own Opportunity Cultures.
Back to reformers: If these results stand—and possibly improve as more teachers hold these roles and help one another succeed—can we possibly all work together to change policies and systems to support giving every student access to excellent teaching, and giving every teacher outstanding career opportunities without being forced up and out of the classroom? What if we tried?
There would still be other challenges—starting with the effects of poverty and the distractions and stresses of many modern families. We think that excellent teachers, and their teams, can help figure out solutions to those problems, too. Meanwhile, let’s empower them within their own schools, take down the walls—figuratively if not literally—and let them spread, and enhance, their excellence together.
– Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel