Project to Seek High-Poverty Schools’ Best Practices

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Jon Schnur favors rewarding educators in carefully thought-out ways for significantly increasing their students’ performance.

But as the co-founder and chief executive officer of the group New Leaders for New Schools, he saw a new federal grant program designed to steer schools in that direction as the opportunity to do much more.

Jon Schnur

As a result, his organization, which recruits and trains promising leaders to be principals, proposed a national project that would launch an entirely new, largely Web-based tool for sharing the best educational practices of urban schools. Schoolwide awards would be paid for dramatic increases in achievement, but educators would also earn bonuses for helping their peers learn.

When the first round of grants from the federal Teacher Incentive Fund was announced in recent weeks, Mr. Schnur’s group and its partners won four of the 16 awards, expected to total more than $71 million over five years. The New York City-based New Leaders was the only grantee that was not a state education department or a school district, though three of its partners are the District of Columbia, Memphis, Tenn., and Denver school systems. ("More Teacher-Incentive Grants Trickle Out," Nov. 8, 2006.)

Among the project’s goals is to give both charter and regular public schools the chance to contribute to the archive of effective practices. The second-largest of the three U.S. Department of Education grants—nearly $5 million in the first year and a projected $20.8 million over five years—went to New Leaders and a coalition of charter schools and charter school networks.

Dubbed the Effective Practice Incentive Fund, the project wants first to identify high-poverty schools in the new network that are doing well or rapidly improving.

The initial criteria for inclusion are to be devised by Mathematica Policy Research, a research and evaluation firm, and the New Schools Venture Fund, which invests in charter schools, a process that will be vetted by the three partner school districts. But final selection of no more than 10 percent of the participating schools will also depend on visits from “effective-practice teams.” Teachers in schools making the list would get a bonus for the year in the range of $500 to $1,000, while principals might get as much as $15,000, Mr. Schnur said.

At the same time, criteria will be set for outstanding individual teachers, who must also pass the test of observation by the teams. Such teachers, no more than a handful in a school, would receive rewards of at least $5,000 in exchange for opening up their classrooms and sharing their expertise. Video of their teaching and documents related to their practice would be compiled on the Web, where they would be offered free to educators nationwide. The outstanding teachers might also expect in-person visits from educators wanting to learn from them or be part of teams that would visit schools needing help.

Blending Dimensions

The idea, said the 40-year-old Mr. Schnur, a former policy adviser to President Clinton, is to give incentives “to people who have demonstrated results and are taking on leadership roles by sharing their practice online and in person with other educators. It’s a blend of those two dimensions.”

It might even be possible, he said, to reward teachers further on the number of times their Web materials are viewed and the number of positive ratings the materials get.

Money from the Teacher Incentive Fund grants will pay for more than two-thirds of the projected $90 million initial cost of the project, according to Mr. Schnur. About half the remaining $20 million or so will be contributed by the school districts and charter schools and about half by private philanthropies. Some $8.7 million in philanthropic money remains to be raised, he added.

Jacquelyn Davis, who directs New Leaders in Washington, said she believes the project will be a boost for the District of Columbia’s teachers. “The grant is a stamp of approval at some level that there are really good people in these communities doing really good work … and if you don’t highlight what they are doing, you won’t keep them,” she said.

Vol. 26, Issue 13, Page 5

Published in Print: November 29, 2006, as Project to Seek High-Poverty Schools’ Best Practices
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