If you are a teacher who helps students learn exceptionally well, this is your moment—schools and policymakers must vastly expand your impact, now.
Today, our nation is at a crossroads; we simply cannot fall short educationally for another decade as other countries surge.
Why is this time unique? Two crucial trends are at play. First, the United States has begun to act on the compelling data showing great variation in teachers’ success in helping students learn, as well as the monumental impact this variation can have on the life chances of students. As states and districts work to build better teacher-evaluation systems, schools will have increasingly accurate and useful data to identify which teachers are exceptionally effective.
Second, we are experiencing a major generational change. For the first time in memory, a majority of teachers have fewer than 10 years of experience. In the coming decade, they will decide whether to stay in the classroom or move on. Opportunities for leadership and compensated professional growth will weigh heavily in their decisions.
Using job redesign and age- and child-appropriate technology, schools can help great teachers teach more students."
Ever since the release of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, the United States has tried dozens of reforms that have not capitalized on the excellent teachers already working in schools. Meanwhile, growing volumes of evidence have shown large differences in teachers’ effectiveness. Excellent teachers more consistently help students close achievement gaps and advance individually, in spite of students’ differing familial advantages.
Reforms that do not acknowledge this truth and expand the impact—and number—of excellent teachers are bound to fall short. Schools must stretch their thinking far past the current mentor/master paradigm for teacher advancement. To do so, schools must extend the reach of excellent teachers to more students, couple teacher collaboration with teacher leadership, and empower top teachers to shape school culture. Meanwhile, policymakers must clear away the policy brush that holds great teachers back and boost the national will to put an excellent teacher in every classroom.
Altogether, these changes provide the linchpin for what we call an opportunity culture, one that embraces excellence and opportunity for students and teachers alike.
How should schools go about this?
First, they must help excellent teachers reach more students. Using job redesign and age- and child-appropriate technology, schools can help great teachers teach more students, paying more for their additional responsibility from existing per-pupil funding. New models can also free teachers’ in-school time for collaboration and improvement.
For example, excellent elementary teachers can reach two to four times more students by specializing in their best subjects, while less costly paraprofessionals supervise students during noninstructional time, such as recess and transitions between classes, and complete paperwork.
Alternatively, teachers at all levels can reach substantially more students by swapping teaching time, as little as an hour daily per student, with personalized digital instruction supervised by paraprofessionals. With the right schedule changes, teachers can collaborate, reach more students, and maintain personalized instructional time. The charter school network Rocketship Education provides one example of schools that combine subject specialization and digital instruction to achieve stellar results in high-poverty elementary schools while keeping teacher pay within budget.
Teacher-leaders can bring excellence to multiple classrooms by leading teams. Of course, some schools already have grade-level or department leaders. But rarely do these teachers have accountability for other teachers’ student outcomes, authority to select and evaluate peers, and enhanced pay that is sustainably funded. With full accountability for all students in a set of classrooms and explicit authority to lead teams, teacher-leaders have an enormous incentive to develop others and help all of them do their best. Lastly, master teachers can teach larger classes—within reason and by choice—allowing other teachers to have smaller classes.
These models let schools create instructional career opportunities for excellent teachers, for more pay, within budget. They also create opportunities for teamwork, job flexibility, funded planning and development, and varying roles that fit each person’s talents, all helping to retain teachers and increase their satisfaction.
Second, schools must couple collaboration with teacher leadership. Professional learning communities are not new, but their developmental potential is squandered when individual teachers are unaware of which of their peers achieve the best outcomes and when excellent teachers are isolated. Moreover, schools find scheduling a challenge and paying teacher-leaders unsustainable. Teams that acknowledge excellence openly give great teachers license to lead and good teachers license to learn.
Many models that extend teachers’ reach—including Teach Plus’ 3-year-old Turnaround Teacher Teams initiative, with which we’re both very familiar—make collaboration and pay increases sustainable. When paraprofessionals supervise students during noninstructional time and digital learning, teachers can collaborate. The models support sustainable pay increases of up to 130 percent for multiclassroom leaders and 40 percent for others.
Third, schools must empower excellent teachers to shape school cultures. Expanding these teachers’ impact will require them to influence not just classrooms, but also school values and policies. Excellent teachers should play a prominent role in determining peer selection, instructional practices and materials, evaluation methods, and retention decisions.
At the same time, policymakers must clear what we call policy brush. Without policy changes, schools cannot boost the impact of great teachers for more pay, within budget. State officials must fund research to identify great teachers increasingly well and guide them into impact-expanding roles. Schools should be compelled to report the percentage of students who have these teachers.
States should also use job redesign and technology to extend strong teachers’ impact. That means eliminating class-size limits for willing teachers, reducing seat-time requirements that limit teachers’ use of paraprofessionals, automatically licensing excellent out-of-state teachers, and allowing individual schools to invest in the roles and technology needed to support excellent teachers.
Policy should also enable districts to pay excellent teachers more—routinely and within budget, not just as part of temporary, specially funded programs. Schools should provide exceptional rewards to teachers who succeed with the most-challenging students.
States and schools must work to retain top teachers, to protect them from layoffs, and to pay for advanced teaching roles (for example, leading multiple classes or taking part in a school turnaround team) within budget. Tenure should be awarded only for consistent excellence.
Also critical: Policymakers should build instructional and data systems. To save teachers time, states need to invest in giving all students access to wireless learning, and all teachers access to student data and matching instructional options. States should track schools’ progress in retaining top teachers and determine the methods that work best.
Finally, state and federal policymakers must build public will for reaching every student with excellent teachers. Removing barriers will not be enough. A blend of powerful mandates and incentives must define core policies and funding, not just special programs. In other words, creating an opportunity culture must be this nation’s No. 1 education priority. Other reforms cannot succeed, sustainably and at scale, without attracting and developing highly capable teachers who stay in the profession longer and expand their impact within schools and their profession.
A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Expanding the Impact of Excellent Teachers