Teaching Profession Opinion

In Iowa, Supporting Deeper Learning for Educators by Leveraging Collective Capacity

By Contributing Blogger — February 16, 2017 5 min read
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This post is by Elizabeth Leisy Stosich, Research & Policy Fellow, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).

My colleague, Soung Bae, and I have had the opportunity to study the efforts of state leaders who are redesigning their systems of support and accountability to create more meaningful learning opportunities for all children. I have been particularly excited about the pioneering efforts of Iowa in changing the way teachers work and learn together.

Like many people in education, leaders in Iowa recognize the essential role of teachers in creating meaningful learning opportunities for children. The approach to strengthening the teaching force in Iowa is unique, however, in that policymakers have made major investments in teacher leadership and compensation to strengthen the collective capacity of the teaching force. In contrast, many states have focused primarily on using teacher evaluation policies to identify, reward, and further develop individual educators.

Iowa’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) System includes a yearly investment of $150 million that “rewards effective teachers with leadership opportunities and higher pay, attracts promising new teachers with competitive starting salaries and more support, and fosters greater collaboration for all teachers to learn from each other.” In essence, the TLC System is intended to foster more supportive working conditions for all teachers by leveraging the expertise of accomplished teachers to support the learning and development of their colleagues as mentors to new or developing teachers, instructional coaches, model teachers who open their classrooms for demonstrations, curriculum developers, and other leadership roles. When teachers work collaboratively with their colleagues to improve instruction, knowledge about content, students, and pedagogy that was once private becomes public and can benefit a greater number of children.

Learning from Local and International Models

In designing the TLC System, state leaders described looking to international systems as well as successful local school systems for inspiration. As one state leader explained, they looked at high-performing education systems around the world and the common denominator was great teaching. Although some systems were more structured than others, these educational systems all created opportunities for teacher leadership. Finland, Ontario, and Singapore all have systems for teacher leadership and development. Singapore, for example, has a highly developed performance management system that clarifies the expectations for effective practice and offers various career tracks that accomplished teachers can pursue, including roles as mentor teachers, curriculum specialists, or administrators.

Research suggests that developing authentic opportunities for teacher leadership entails transparent selection criteria, stable and clearly defined roles, and deliberate support from school leaders. Some districts in Iowa already had successful teacher leadership systems in place, and the TLC System is designed to support and build on these efforts. In some Iowa districts, for example, accomplished teachers supported the learning of their colleagues as instructional coaches. In addition, some districts had adopted the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) model, which pairs differentiated career pathways--career, mentor, and master teachers--with opportunities for performance-based compensation. Iowa’s TLC System allows districts flexibility in designing leadership and compensation systems that build on existing teacher leadership opportunities and meet local needs. At the same time, the state conducts a rigorous review process of district TLC plans to ensure they meet the central goals of the legislation.

Why Iowa May Succeed Where Others Failed: Stable Funding

In conversations with state leaders in Iowa, one issue was raised again and again: the need for stable funding for teacher leadership. Often, states and districts adopt opportunities for teacher leadership that are dependent on external grants or other temporary funding mechanisms. Consequently, teacher leadership opportunities are seen as temporary add-ons rather than systematic changes to the way teachers work in schools. In Iowa, funding for the TLC System is built into the per-pupil funding formula at a rate of approximately $320 per student. One state leader explained the importance of this funding choice: “It’s no longer a line item in anybody’s budget. It’s built into our foundation formula for education.... It’s not just a simple little bill to pass or somebody taking one of the appropriations chairs and saying, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to do that anymore.’ We built it to last from the beginning.”

Opportunities and Challenges Ahead: Ensuring Equity and Excellence

In its first year of full implementation, state leaders are optimistic about the potential for the TLC System to support more meaningful learning for teachers and children alike. State leaders are working to learn from and disseminate lessons from the success of early implementing districts. Early evaluation results suggest that the TLC System may be improving the quality of teachers’ collaboration and professional learning opportunities.

One challenge the state faces is that some districts have farther to go than others in terms of meeting the higher salary expectations for beginning teachers required under the TLC System. Consequently, these districts are using TLC funds primarily to increase beginning salaries with little left over for compensating teacher leaders. Furthermore, all districts receive the same per-pupil funds for the TLC System and these additional funds are layered on top of an inequitable state funding system, which provides less funding to school districts with higher concentrations of children living in poverty. Importantly, high-poverty schools are more likely to have large concentrations of inexperienced or ineffective teachers than schools serving more affluent students. Thus, additional funding and professional learning support may be necessary to fulfill the promise of the TLC System in high-poverty schools and systems.

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