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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What It Takes: Teachers Take on the Distribution Challenge

By Guest Blogger — May 02, 2013 6 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are teachers from Teach Plus. Today we have Maria Fenwick. Maria taught in Boston Public Schools for six years, and is the former Executive Director of Teach Plus Greater Boston.

I entered teaching with a mission. I was motivated by the research showing that students in chronically underperforming schools were least likely to get the high-quality teachers they deserve. I was troubled by the fact that there could even be “chronically” underperforming schools - schools that seemingly no one could figure out how to turn around so that they “performed” for students. As a beginning teacher, I sought out a struggling school, a school where I could make a difference with students. I went there to teach and to learn what it is like on the inside of one of those schools.

What I found, unsurprisingly to me, was a school full of children with great potential. I watched my fourth graders learn to really engage in their class work, to maintain a positive culture within our classroom, and to take their homework seriously. The work was challenging and rewarding. It was not without a battle that I got Rayana to stop having temper tantrums in class or that my students learned to focus intently on their writing for long periods of time. I was so proud of them and felt like my decision to teach had been worth all the hard times and struggles that any beginning teacher encounters.

But I also got an inside view into an adult culture where I did not see a real sense of urgency to improve outcomes for all students. I felt that no matter how hard I worked in Room 10, I couldn’t really change the bigger picture.

In my third year of teaching, I joined the inaugural cohort of Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows, a group of local teachers who were similarly driven to impact education policy beyond their classrooms. In our monthly meetings, we gravitated towards various interest areas. I found myself working with a group of teachers who wanted to solve this seemingly intractable problem of low student achievement in some of our nation’s schools. As we dug into research on the inequitable distribution of effective teachers, a surprising narrative came to light: many policymakers thought it wasn’t possible to convince experienced, effective teachers to teach in the so-called “worst” schools.

From our experience, we knew that was incorrect. We believed teachers like us would be eager for the challenge to teach in an under-performing, “hard-to-staff” school...if the right conditions were in place.

Over the next several months, we set out to define what those conditions would be.

We delved into research on teacher effectiveness, including the difference between the rhetoric of “highly qualified” teachers and what was actually needed - teachers who were highly effective and could make real gains with students. We studied research on the relationship between experience and effectiveness. We found that data supported what we had experienced as beginning teachers--first and second year teachers are generally not as effective as they will become, and we learned that teachers are leaving the profession in droves just as they are becoming most effective.

We also spent long hours talking about our own experiences. I worked at a school where teachers did not readily collaborate and were not passionately rallying around the mission of closing the achievement gaps within our own school. Another Teaching Policy Fellow had a different experience - her school day included collaboration time, and the culture was such that teachers were not afraid to accept constructive criticism from each other. At her school, everyone, from the teachers to the principal to the custodian, took collective responsibility for students’ success. I was often the last teacher in my building at the end of the day; her school’s hallways buzzed with teacher activity long after students had left. We took lessons from our different experiences. While my school highlighted a need for adult culture to lead the change that would benefit students, her school was a proof point that schools with high-need populations can be high-achieving as well.

From our research and our experiences, we honed in on five conditions that we believed would be necessary to attract outstanding, experienced teachers to work in struggling schools:

• First and foremost, a guarantee of working with a sizeable cohort of like-minded teachers who would be effective both in the classroom and as peer leaders who could lead a transformation of school culture.

• A rigorous selection process to ensure that teachers selected for leadership roles have a proven track record of success with students, in addition to the capacity to be peer leaders. We felt this type of recognition would also potentially boost retention of top teachers, who might be seeking a way to advance their careers...without leaving teaching.

• A defined leadership role that would give teachers authentic influence on school-based decisions. We believed giving teacher leaders authority over decisions of importance would be vastly more successful than prescribing programs or structures that teachers would be forced to follow. We also felt that it would be important to get the right support structures in place for the teacher leaders--such as coaches who could help them hone their leadership skills.

• A principal who would truly support and “go to bat” for the teacher leaders.

• Additional compensation in recognition of the additional work it requires to take on leadership in a really meaningful way.

After many months of collaboration, we published a report detailing our idea. We framed the model with a strong research base, emphasized the fact that we were current classroom teachers, and laid out our five conditions with supporting evidence that came from personal vignettes. We launched the report in front of an audience of nearly 100 prominent education leaders and local decision-makers in Massachusetts, generating interest that landed us in meetings with everyone from local union leaders to the Boston Public Schools superintendent.

The program that resulted from our efforts, known as T3: Turnaround Teacher Teams, is now in place in eight Boston public schools, as well as schools in Fall River, MA and Achievement School District in Memphis. T3 plans to expand soon to D.C., too. In the first two years of the T3 Initiative, students in T3 partner schools in Boston closed the achievement gap in math with all other Boston public schools and other Massachusetts turnaround schools, and they’ve nearly closed the gap in English language arts. And T3 teacher leaders speak of school cultures where everyone--teachers, administrators, students and parents--are actively engaged in making positive, lasting change.

When we developed the idea for T3, we didn’t know that the program would someday become a reality in districts across the country. Now we have proof that when teachers are allowed to define the conditions that would enable them to make huge progress in struggling schools, and are then empowered to enact that change as teacher leaders, tangible school-wide change is possible.

- Maria Fenwick

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.