IT Infrastructure & Management

Principal-Training Portal Aims for Ease of Use

By Dakarai I. Aarons — March 30, 2010 6 min read
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As it compiles information on “effective” leader and teacher practices from its third cohort of low-income schools across the nation, the New York City-based New Leaders for New Schools principal-training program is pushing to make the resulting resources more user-friendly.

The organization launched a new version of an online portal on Mar. 22 for its Effective Practice Incentive Community, which was launched in schools in early 2008. The portal is designed as a Web-based compendium of professional-development resources for principals, staff-development coaches, and teachers.

The portal is a key element in the EPIC initiative, which is funded by the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, along with private funds raised in participating cities. The initiative operates in Denver, the District of Columbia, Memphis, Tenn., and Prince George’s County, Md., as well as a consortium of 179 charter schools spanning 20 states and the nation’s capital.

Traditional pay-for-performance programs pay school staff members bonuses based on test scores. But with EPIC, schools in high-poverty areas chosen because they are making strong student-achievement gains are given monetary awards in exchange for going through a process that documents their work.

Sharing What Works

In the first two years of the program, EPIC has paid more than $7 million in awards to nearly 2,700 educators in 70 schools in 19 cities and 13 states, according to the organization. This year, the third in which awards are being given, New Leaders officials expect to award $5.7 million to an estimated 1,800 educators. The incentive pay has ranged from $2,000 to $8,000 for teachers, $5,000 to $8,000 for assistant principals and $7,500 to $12,000 for principals.

At a Glance

• The Effective Practice Incentive Community is an initiative of New Leaders for New Schools, the New York City-based principal-training program.

• High-poverty schools in participating school districts and a consortium of charter schools are chosen to participate based on the academic growth of their students.

• Teachers and administrators in those schools are given incentive pay—up to $12,000 in some cases—in exchange for agreeing to have their schools’ practices documented and shared with similar schools nationwide.

• The information, cataloged through written and video case studies, along with example documents used in the schools, is housed in an online “knowledge system” for professional-development use by those in the New Leaders network.

SOURCE: New Leaders for New Schools

“It really, for us, is about knowledge and sharing what is working in schools that are making strong or dramatic gains,” said Dianne M. Houghton, New Leaders’ chief community resources officer. “We aren’t just looking at awarding the best-performing schools, but instead we look for schools that are serving high-needs kids who are making strong gains and that are open to allowing us to spend time learning about the school.”

The materials on EPIC’s “knowledge system” portal are fully accessible to educators in about 1,150 schools that work with New Leaders for New Schools, not only the EPIC schools. The organization hopes in future years to make the information accessible to a broader group of educators.The portal was first launched in fall 2008 as a place to house the emerging information from the participating schools and to give people a place to find the collection of practices in which they might be interested. (“New Project Details Low-Income Schools’ Avenues to Success,” Oct. 8, 2008).

Participating schools are identified and invited into the community based on an examination of value-added data on student-achievement gains, using a methodology designed by Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research. The cohorts of schools can vary from year to year, but have often included schools that received incentive awards in previous years.

Evolving Design

The portal’s design has evolved, making it easier for educators to find individual materials, said John Lent, a New Leaders executive director responsible for the development of the knowledge system.

Among the most popular features on the site are video case studies of practices in EPIC schools. Mr. Lent’s team has worked with leaders in the schools to gather the video case studies and other materials to build professional-development workshops. The workshops are targeted at current and aspiring principals, teachers, and staff-development coaches, as well as whole school teams.

“For most schools, using video as a core element of professional development is relatively new,” he said.

The goal is to provide easy access to “rich, highly contextualized case studies of how a school leader moved a school for successful implementation of a practice,” Mr. Lent said.

In one video, viewers enter a California classroom where a principal is observing a teacher’s math lesson. The principal explains the questions she uses to guide her evaluation of teachers. Viewers see the principal talking with the teacher about what she observed.

In addition to videos, the portal is filled with “artifacts,” such as a data-analysis tool created by staff members at the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in D.C. That tool can be used directly or adapted by others in the EPIC and New Leaders network.

Another type of material is a “practice profile,” usually a first-person narrative from one of the school leaders.

Interactive professional-development resources are also included; one example is a 90-minute workshop on preparing to enter a new school, designed for aspiring principals. Another session talks about how to establish a school vision.

But the organization cautions against using the well-worn term “best practice” to describe what users see going on in each school. Instead of claiming that the practices will be successful in every school if used the same way, New Leaders officials say the actions can be adapted in ways that make sense for individual schools.

“I think the way EPIC can help [schools] is by giving these real-life examples with the people who designed, led, and executed them talking about what worked, lessons learned, and what they want to accomplish next,” Ms. Houghton said.

Focus on Practice

Tamika L. Carwell, the principal of the Ida B. Wells Academy, a public middle school in Memphis, said participating in the EPIC program has prompted the faculty and staff at her school to really think about how each minute of the day is spent.

The schools’ master schedule, for example, has been revised three times to reflect the need not only for more time for teachers to spend with students, but also for teachers to collaborate.

“We sit down and tease out everything that has to do with [each] practice, and every step that has to do with that practice,” she said. “We look at why it was effective or why it was not effective.”

Ms. Carwell’s school has made sufficient gains to get an EPIC monetary award three years in a row, twice as a Gold-Gain school, the highest level. Ms. Carwell said the EPIC process has been crucial in helping to create a culture focused on developing both students and teachers.

“As we start to plan our professional-development calendar for the next year, teachers can contribute to that discussion based on what they found to be useful on the [EPIC] knowledge system,” she said.

Ms. Carwell said the system allows her to learn at her desktop what has worked for principals in other parts of the nation.

“EPIC has really hit the target for finding one of the most innovative ways to share effective practices across the nation,” she said. “There is no way I could visit all of the schools, even within a five-year period, to help me as I plan for my staff.”

Maureen Sanders, director of leadership development for the 78,000-student Denver school system, said the district uses the EPIC materials as part of its training for new and current principals. The case studies, some of which feature Denver principals, have prompted school visits to see good practices in action and given principals an opportunity for reflection.

“If you look across the nation and look for Web sites that have this kind of work, they are nonexistent,” Ms. Sanders said. “They have existed for teachers, but not for leaders. And none that are as current as this is.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as Principal-Training Portal Aims for Ease of Use

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