Teaching Profession

Two Va. School Districts Invest in Teacher Training, See Student Achievement Gains

By Madeline Will — December 12, 2016 4 min read
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To improve student achievement, invest in teachers. That’s the conclusion of two five-year studies that used tools like professional development, on-the-job coaching, and performance-based compensation to turn around low-performing schools.

Two of Virginia’s largest school districts—Prince William County and Henrico County—underwent the experiments, which were supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund program. The Community Training and Assistance Center, a not-for-profit organization based in Boston, conducted the studies and presented the findings here last week.

Both districts measurably improved student achievement in their lowest-performing schools. The key to the success, said William Slotnik, the executive director of CTAC, was teacher buy-in that lasted throughout the five-year period. “Teachers have to have equal voice to not only shape the initiative, but also reshape it.”

While the two districts’ reform initiatives were both conducted from 2010-11 through 2015-16 and had similar themes, the specifics of their initiatives differed. Here’s how both districts structured their reform program—and their results.

Prince William County

The 87,200-student district, which is about an hour away from Washington, sought to increase student achievement in its 30 lowest-performing schools. The district had a $10.9 million grant and used the first year of the five-year grant period as a planning year, before starting implementation in the 2011-12 school year.

Initially, Slotnik said, the local teachers’ union was not on board. But by the following year, the union was fully collaborating with the district.

Prince William’s initiative was based on a “school-level model,” meaning the whole school was expected to coalesce around key strategies for student learning and focus on schoolwide instructional goals. To do this:

  • Teachers received “real time,” tailored professional development that addressed the immediate learning needs of students.
  • The district implemented a performance-based compensation system that used 23 measures of school effectiveness that all schools had to meet in order to be eligible for financial awards. Those measures included student growth, like test scores, but also indicators like attendance, parent engagement, and teacher leadership.
  • The district awarded school-based compensation bonuses. Teachers who teach core subjects (math, science, English/language arts, and history) were eligible for up to $3,200, while teachers who support core subjects were eligible for up to $1,000.

The district saw statistically significant increases in students’ scores on state tests in all four core subjects, particularly in math and science.

Henrico County

The 51,000-student district, which is just outside of Richmond, Va., focused on increasing student achievement and strengthening instruction in its eight lowest-performing schools. The district had an $18.5 million grant, and started implementation in the first year of the five-year grant period.

The district focused on an “individual teacher model,” meaning it set targets for individual students and individual educators. To do this:

  • Teachers and administrators received tailored professional development, including one-on-one coaching. This professional development was based on an analysis of student data and teacher observations: What skills did teachers need to work on to be successful right away?
  • The district set growth goals for each student, and students’ attainment of their targets partially determined educator incentive pay. Teachers of core subjects could receive bonuses of up to a $8,000 annually.
  • The district also enhanced the teacher observation process, by focusing on the standards that had the highest impact on student learning. Teachers received instructional feedback based on what was seen in their classroom observations, and evaluation outcomes determined another part of incentive pay.

This district also saw statistically significant student-test-score increases in all four core subjects, but especially so for history and science.

Other Conclusions

Neither district saw a significant change in teacher retention, Slotnik said, despite that being a goal of the initiatives. Still, Slotnik said that did signal that student achievement could improve despite high teacher turnover.

Teacher leadership was also a focus of both districts’ initiatives. Some teachers had formal leadership roles: They became mentor teachers, for example. But other, more informal forms of teacher leadership were also expected and encouraged.

“Take the teachers who are the ones respected for their pedagogy, regardless of their title—you want these people not to see their universe as the classroom and then shut the door,” Slotnik said. Instead, those teachers were encouraged to work with their fellow educators in professional development workshops.

In both districts, surveys showed that teachers and principals felt that the school culture and climate improved—even if they didn’t benefit financially from the grant.

Now that the grant money has run out, Slotnik said, the districts are working on how to sustain the reforms financially. But the changes to professional development and to the overall school culture are here to stay, he said.

“Both of these districts knew you can’t do this work on a piecemeal basis,” he said. “We’re not interested in doing five years and stopping when the funding ends.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.