School & District Management

New Project Details Low-Income Schools’ Avenues to Success

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 07, 2008 7 min read
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The principal of Noyes Education Campus in the District of Columbia remembers when, in exchange for hefty staff bonuses for outstanding performance, the school hosted a team of visitors armed with video cameras, tape recorders, and piles of interview questions.

The focus of their queries: To what did the school attribute its success? What had made Principal Wayne Ryan an effective leader?

The answers are now fully documented in an online case study, part of a new initiative that combines compensation reform, human-capital strategies, and professional development—and that adds a new twist to the debate about how performance-pay programs ought to be structured.

The Effective Practice Incentive Community, or EPIC, a Web portal unveiled last week by the New York City-based principal-training organization New Leaders for New Schools, contains in-depth analyses of low-income schools that, like Noyes, are producing strong student-learning gains. The case studies consist of recorded testimony, video clips documenting instruction, and artifacts, such as lesson plans, culled straight from the schools.

“Teachers are notoriously private about what they do in their classrooms,” Mr. Ryan mused about the documentation process at Noyes.

“But we were able to quickly understand that this was for our benefit and to help up-and-coming educators learn from our experiences,” the principal says.

In a nutshell, that is EPIC’s goal. Each case study contains a facilitator’s guide on how educators can use the system’s features to guide conversations about how to improve their practices.

“This [system] is focused on making available practices ... to educators who are focused on the right goals and have the right commitment, but who often have not had direct access to schools and classrooms that are making dramatic improvements for low-income kids,” Jon H. Schnur, the organization’s co-founder, said.

The portal is fully accessible to educators in Denver; Memphis, Tenn.; the District of Columbia; Prince George’s County, Md.; and a consortium of charter schools spanning 18 states, as well as to participants in New Leaders’ principal-training program.

A New Perspective

Funding for EPIC comes primarily from New Leaders’ three federal Teacher Incentive Fund grants and private foundations. TIF, a Bush administration initiative designed to seed performance-based teacher- and principal-compensation systems, was first funded by Congress in 2006. The Denver and Prince George’s County districts, the fiscal agents for two additional TIF grants, also are participating.

Some performance-pay plans include staff training so teachers have opportunities to win bonuses. Typically, such programs then use a “recognition” system to single out teachers whose students make academic gains.

In essence, EPIC flips that model on its head. It identifies the most effective low-income schools in these districts and awards bonuses not just on performance, but also on these schools’ commitment to share their teaching practices.

“Successful educators want to contribute to leading the profession. It’s very motivating for them to have impact outside their classroom and their school,” Mr. Schnur said.

Schools making the greatest gains for students are documented for full case studies; schools with slightly lower gains receive less extensive profiles. Both case studies and profiles are used for professional development aimed at struggling schools with similar demographics.

In a departure from other types of educator development that rely on video clips, educators from low-income schools who visit EPIC can identify with the schools they find there, since all serve high numbers of low-income students, said Dianne M. Houghton, the New Leaders official charged with oversight of the EPIC system.

She expects those educators to say, “This school looks like my school, the kids look like my kids, and these issues are my issues.”

Focus on Context

EPIC offers case studies of schools’ achievement on its Web site, including LaRose Elementary School in Memphis, Tenn.

Ms. Houghton and other members of the team that created EPIC shy away from describing it as a clearinghouse of “best practices.”

Rather, the case studies illuminate the school context that permitted the practices to leverage increased student learning in that setting, they say.

In turn, EPIC’s embedded professional-development pieces focus less on the mechanics of a specific intervention and instead emphasize how school leaders and teachers used the intervention fundamentally to shift the school’s operating culture.

One case study available on the site, for instance, analyzes the efforts of Principal Tonya Cooper of LaRose Elementary School in Memphis to create literacy “workstations” centered on the discrete components of scientifically based early-reading instruction.

Video clips, first-person testimony, and artifacts document how Ms. Cooper, formerly a secondary school principal, worked to gain buy-in to that vision from skeptical elementary teachers.

They also show how Ms. Cooper got students to take ownership of the concept. She designated five students as “captains” of the literacy workstations; they remind their peers how to proceed with activities.

On the EPIC site, the case study is accompanied by materials from the school. Visitors can download the back-to-school unit Ms. Cooper crafted for her teachers. And the site contains prompts on how to connect the cases to teacher practices.

“What are the benefits of gradually building or ‘piloting’ an initiative compared with a more quickly implemented change?” asks one such prompt after a video clip on the workstations.

Case studies of school successes constitute a good chunk of the research on school improvement and are not novel in that regard. Where EPIC’s studies differ is in their microscopic level of analysis, New Leaders officials said.

The documentation process is both collaborative and extensive. To begin, each principal in an award school, along with that principal’s leadership team, completes a written self-study, said John Lent, the executive director for EPIC.

“We are asking them to think about the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ in a very granular way,” Mr. Lent said. “Frankly, there’s an enormous similarity between all the schools in the types of practices they’re implementing. They are working in professional-learning communities and most of them will tell you they’re doing data-driven decisionmaking.

“What we’re interested in is really digging much deeper below the surface level.”

The process continues with a series of visits to the schools from a team that includes New Leaders officials, district officials, and personnel from SchoolWorks, a Beverly, Mass.-based school-evaluation consulting group. The teams use the self-study and other protocols to identify the schools’ effective practices. The visits culminate in videotape and audiotape documentation, a process that typically takes two days.

New Training

As with any new professional-development tool, the challenge in scaling up EPIC for widespread use lies in how to persuade educators, especially those struggling to raise achievement, to adopt the system.

“My hope for districts is that [EPIC] wouldn’t fall into becoming a training program that seems disembodied from the perplexing things principals face about student achievement,” said Darlene Merry, the chief academic officer of New Leaders.

An advantage for the organization is its access to a pipeline of school principals. New Leaders’ own training program has placed more than 400 principals in cities such as Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, and Oakland, Calif.

Ms. Merry said New Leaders has already used EPIC with the coaches who support the program’s 140 current “resident” principals—those who are still apprenticing in schools.

Participating Teacher Incentive Fund districts also are grappling with the integration of EPIC into professional training.

Maureen Sanders, Denver’s executive director of leadership development, said that an August meeting of district principals featured sessions with the leaders of the 20 schools that won bonuses. The next steps are to integrate the system into cross-school-site professional networks and the district’s own in-house training program for aspiring principals.

“There are very, very few places where you can find documentation of effective leadership practices,” Ms. Sanders said.

Questions Answered

For now, the system’s most direct effects are felt by those educators who have gone through the documentation process. Mr. Ryan, the District of Columbia principal, said participating in EPIC gave him and his colleagues welcome opportunity to reflect on their successes.

“Sometimes, you do things instinctively and under pressure, and you don’t sit down to analyze what you did and why you did it,” he said. “We were happy to actually sit down and start to codify some of the things that we actually do around here.”

And as for his answer to the questions—to what did the school attribute its success? What makes an effective school leader?—Mr. Ryan cited his shift away from a top-down leadership approach to one that nurtured budding leadership skills among instructional staff.

He has found a protégé in a young teacher who planned to teach for just two years—and now, after seven years, serves as the school’s special education coordinator and guidance counselor.

“I quickly learned that there is a need to spread the leadership among all the stakeholders in the building,” Mr. Ryan said. “A lot more is accomplished that way.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as New Project Details Low-Income Schools’ Avenues to Success

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