Archive for September, 2015

Breaking Down Funding Silos

Another presentation that I attended at the Closing Opportunity & Achievement Gaps conference was on breaking down funding silos and featured the work of the Federal Education Group. The two attorneys, Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric, discussed many issues related to using federal funds more effectively and a couple of the most poignant pieces (and my commentary on those pieces) are below: 

  • “It’s not a funding problem, it’s a lack of understanding about the work.” (Sheara Krvaric). I see this all too often in my work with states and districts. There is a lot of money for school turnaround efforts, but SEAs and LEAs continue to plan for this work in a piecemeal way. SEAs and LEAs should begin with a set of goals, and then backwards map what needs to happen to reach those goals. Then, find the funds to implement that work. Until we have a better understanding of what the actual work is and how the funds can be used, we’ll continue to implement silo’d and ineffective practices – as opposed to comprehensive aligned systemic improvements.
  • One of the attorney’s also noted that states are so fearful of auditor findings that it limits their creativity. Instead, she recommends using funds in innovative ways (as long as the compliance pieces are met) and then risk a finding from the auditors. If a finding occurs, appeal it. As long as the state is not breaking compliance requirements, the appeal will likely be effective.
  • This is an area that is finally coming to the forefront of states and districts and several organizations are developing tools to assist states navigate the craziness that is federal funding.

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Innovative Approaches to Building Teacher & Leader Capacity

Last week, I attended the Closing Opportunity & Achievement Gaps conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Center on School Turnaround, Council of Chief of State School Officers, and the National Center for Systemic Improvement, and several of the presentations have stuck with me. One of those presentations was by Bryan Hassel of Public Impact and Scott Thompson from DC Public Schools. Bryan provided great information on the Opportunity Culture Initiative and presented innovative approaches to getting the most highly skilled teachers in front of the greatest number of students. Scott followed Bryan with some examples of policies and practices DCPS has implemented to improve teacher quality and retention. Below, I’ll highlight some of the pieces that I found most interesting:

  • DCPS launched a new program, called the Strategic School Operations program, to create new positions in schools that focus on the operational aspect of school relations. This allows the principals to focus on the instructional part of the school. These two leaders must work together to run the school, but the pilot program saw strong results. Scott reflected that before the position was created, school leaders spent almost 50% of their time on operations, and within 4 months, that percentage dropped to 20%. The positions were funded with existing budgets by reorganizing existing staff and FTE positions. The model was developed after looking at key components of successful charter school models. This is a model that should be closely watched and likely replicated in schools and districts across the country.
  • As a result of the SOS program, teacher satisfaction improved as schools are better managed (i.e. they don’t run out of paper, copy machines are fixed, busses run on time) and they receive more support (i.e. principals actually have the time to support and mentor teachers with job embedded professional development).
  • DCPS talks about transactional vs. transformational change – with an emphasis on transformational change.
  • DCPS has experimented with increasing base salaries and offering bonuses and has found that increasing base salaries is much more impactful than offering bonuses (even substantial ones). Scott Thompson stated, “People don’t make life decisions based on bonuses.”
  • Teacher candidate quality drops drastically as the hiring window moves along, e.g. the teachers hired in May are found to have much higher capacity and effectiveness than the teachers hired in August. As a result, schools and districts need to develop practices and policies that allow for the most in need schools to hire earlier (such as bonuses for teachers to alert the district of their non-renewal by an early deadline, preferential treatment in the candidate pool, etc).

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The value of PD – or lack thereof

A new report by The New Teacher Project (TNTP) entitled “The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development” highlights the collective lack of knowledge regarding what helps teachers improve, despite a myth that we know what works and that teaching excellence is “just over the horizon.” TNTP’s exploration of teacher development activities across three large urban districts finds that school systems neglect to clearly define expectations for teacher performance and growth and do not provide development opportunities that conclusively improve teacher performance.

We know that teacher quality is the most deterministic factor of student success. So, how can school systems promote work cultures that value and support teacher improvement? When teachers, as this report highlights, “are told in innumerable ways that their level of performance is good enough,” what incentive do they have to master this complex job that requires mastery of a “daunting list of individual skills?” In order to drive teacher performance, we must focus on developing and supporting work cultures which value teachers’ individual needs, provide differentiated professional supports, and set an expectation that growth is the norm.

We spend millions of dollars on professional development (PD) each year, but what proof do we have that the PD results in improved capacity and better instructional effectiveness? We know teachers (and district leaders for that matter) need PD, but is the PD we provide working?

This report also highlights some interesting ideas for revamping both teacher training and how schools allocate teacher resources. They suggest that the best professional development for new teachers may well be gained on the job (i.e. job embedded PD)  – new teachers would begin by taking on small (but important!) responsibilities such as grading homework, managing extracurricular programming and communicating with parents. More effective teachers (those with both more experience and a track record of driving student achievement) would mentor these new educators and focus on lesson delivery. Through this system, everyone maximizes their current skill set to deliver the best educational opportunities for youth. Win, win?

Ultimately, this report shows that we have a long way to go in terms of best determining how to support, motivate, and drive the performance of millions of teachers across the country. Innovative ideas need to be tested and evaluated so that resource-constrained districts can begin to use valuable resources to support evidence-based systems for teacher development.

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