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Human Capital in Turnaround Schools

Emerging team-based approaches will address school districts’ vital needs of staff recruitment, retention and support.

Finding, keeping and supporting great educators presents the single biggest challenge to successful school turnarounds. Without teachers and administrators who bring the needed combination of skills and passion, nothing else will achieve the desired effect.

Further, research demonstrates that one of the most powerful ways to improve teaching effectiveness is to give teachers time to work together with expert peers using data to monitor student progress and adjust instruction. Thus, turnaround schools lacking a cadre of expert teachers are unlikely to meet the needs of their students today, and even less likely to generate the type of teacher professional growth required over the long term to succeed in the future.

The turnaround model supported by the U.S. Department of Education School Improvement Grant program requires the replacement of the majority of staff in turnaround schools, but most efforts to date have focused on terminating underperforming teachers and not on finding and keeping more effective replacements.

Early initiatives often used compensation as the primary incentive for recruiting and retaining talent. However, it has become clear the best solution will go far beyond additional pay to include changes to working conditions that make incredibly challenging turnaround work more doable and rewarding for teachers and leaders.

Six Components
Efforts in Boston, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C., are seeing early successes in recruiting and retaining top talent to their school district’s neediest schools through a comprehensive approach focused on changing working conditions. Based on these initiatives, research on workplace incentives, and Education Resource Strategies’ broader human capital and turnaround work in our partner districts, we see six essential components for success in recruiting, retaining and supporting top talent in the turnaround environment:

  • A team approach. Teams of teachers take on the turnaround challenge together. The teams may be handpicked by the principal or part of a broader district corps formed to tackle the turnaround challenge.
  • Strong leaders. Teachers work in partnership with an effective leadership team with whom they share a vision for school improvement. Rather than relying on one superhero principal, skill sets of teacher teams, staff and the principal are strategically combined to create the necessary leadership capacity.
  • Empowerment. Teachers have the authority to take action to meet the needs of their students through increased freedom/flexibility, longer accountability time horizons, formal teacher-leader positions, and strengthened linkages between teacher teams and relatively small groups of students.
  • Additional training and support. Teachers receive support and training specific to the turnaround environment, including support from school-based coaches and mentor teachers. They have additional time for collaboration; meetings with coaches and mentor teachers; data-analysis tools and support; and the opportunity to attend summer institutes and complete additional course work.
  • Prestige. Turnaround positions are viewed as desirable opportunities to do the most challenging work in the district.
  • Compensation. Teachers receive additional compensation for teaching in a more challenging school and for additional work hours and responsibilities.

Here, we profile two districts — Boston and Pittsburgh — to show alternative ways to implement these six components. (A third approach, which Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina refers to as strategic staffing, is available here: Strategic Staffing). While all three of these districts are large, smaller districts can apply the same principles.

Each effort’s emphasis differs based on the district’s theory of action about how turnaround will happen and the pre-existing capacity within the district and its schools. Central to the implementation of each component are changes to school designs — the way people, time and money at the school are organized.

Boston’s Teacher Teams
The Turnaround Teacher Teams effort, often called T3, recruits exceptional teachers with a proven record of success to work as part of a team at a low-performing school. T3 teachers make up at least 25 percent of the teaching staff at their schools. T3 teachers are assigned a role as team leader for a grade-level or subject team at the school, thus they are able to leverage their expertise to support their peers at their placement sites.

Six T3 schools currently operate in Boston, with three more targeted for opening in 2012-13. In all schools, T3 efforts are paired with a broader turnaround effort that includes reconstitution of staff. The theory of action underlying T3 is that a team of expert teachers, when empowered to support their peers through meaningful leadership roles on teams, can build immediate and sustainable instructional capacity throughout the school.

The district, however, realized that implementing this plan would require new human-capital capacity. While leaders believed they had the raw talent for T3 positions — two-thirds of T3 teachers come from other schools in Boston — they did not have the infrastructure to run an in-depth selection process nor support for teachers to take on the newly designed turnaround leader roles. Thus, BPS partnered with Teach Plus, a nonprofit focused on engaging teachers as leaders in transforming schools, in order to recruit, select and support T3 teachers.

The team concept is fundamental to T3, with significant teacher support organized through teams. Grade-level or subject team meetings are venues for collaborative problem solving with the support of both T3 teacher leaders and a school-based T3 coach who attends all team meetings. T3 teachers also frequently meet together and with their coach and receive additional training.

Strong leaders were selected by the district for T3 schools through the reconstitution process, but leadership is a shared effort at T3 schools, with T3 teachers, the principal and the T3 coach all playing central roles in leadership efforts that typically lie solely in the realm of the principal.

T3 positions are held in high regard due to teachers’ formal leadership responsibilities and their competitive selection. Teachers rated the opportunity for leadership roles and the chance to be part of a team as top reasons they were attracted to T3. The annual stipend of $6,000 was one of the least important reasons.

Several changes were made to the school designs at T3 schools to align resources with the components of the approach. An extended school day allows longer blocks for team collaboration. Teacher leaders’ roles and responsibilities have been carefully defined in relation to the teams they work on. And teachers have been strategically assigned across teams. Each team has one T3 expert, and the struggling and novice teachers who need extra support have been spread evenly to create teams with balanced expertise.

Pittsburgh’s Corps
Unlike the T3 approach, where expert teachers are spread across teams, teachers in Pittsburgh’s Promise-Readiness Corps, or PRC, are concentrated within grade-level teams in the 9th and 10th grades. This means that groups of six to eight PRC teachers on each grade-level team share cohorts of about 100 students. The approach has been designed around the district’s theory of action that a team of highly effective teachers who know their students well and share accountability for their progress can fundamentally change the trajectory of students as they enter high school.

District leaders realized it would require a special breed of teacher to implement their plan — someone who not only was strong in content and pedagogy but also treasured the opportunity to be deeply involved in the lives of adolescents. The Promise-Readiness Corps was designed to answer this challenge by defining a specific role to attract and leverage this teacher.

Each PRC teacher team is connected initially to a cohort of 9th graders, and that same team follows the student cohort through 10th grade. This grade-level team structure combined with the two-year loop enables the development of meaningful relationships and intensive, hands-on academic and personal support. PRC teachers are empowered through their collective ownership for supporting their small group of students to become “promise ready,” meaning they are on track for graduation.

They have additional tools to accomplish this. The school day runs eight hours, with additional time for teaming and collaboration that’s used to develop targeted plans for specific students in need or to align common procedures and expectations across classrooms. And, in addition to core-content teachers, PRC teams include a dedicated special education teacher and a social worker to help teachers support more intensive student needs.

Beyond their specialized role providing direct student support, PRC teachers are expected to take on leadership roles at their schools. They are evaluated in part on the basis of transformational leadership, which includes their work supporting other adults, and they receive training in this area throughout the year.

As compensation for their increased responsibility and ownership, teachers receive a pay differential of $9,300, plus they have the potential to earn a cohort bonus of $20,000, based on value-added modeling of their team’s contribution to student progress over the two-year looping cycle. Positions in the Promise-Readiness Corps are a part of Pittsburgh’s new career ladder, which provides career pathways for teachers with a proven track record of success. Prestige is attached to PRC roles not only through this formal career ladder, but also through a more informal culture that the district has created that recognizes PRC teachers for taking on some of the most important and challenging work in the district.

Like Boston’s Turnaround Teacher Teams, the Promise-Readiness Corps has required restructuring of resources in Pittsburgh’s high schools. Student schedules in the 9th and 10th grades had to be organized so cohorts of students shared the same teachers. The teacher day was extended, and teacher teams were deliberately organized to include not only core content teachers, but also special education teachers and counselors.

Finally, PRC fits into the district’s broader effort to reorganize teacher compensation, freeing resources from the traditional structure to pay for roles that come with increases in teacher responsibilities.

The Right Fit
The stories of these two approaches, including their similarities and differences, suggest how other school districts might determine the best approach to finding and supporting top talent in turnaround schools.

First and foremost, both districts clearly stated their theory of action for how the turnaround would happen. Then they used this theory to define a specific human-capital need. The district leadership in Boston decided they needed teacher leaders, while Pittsburgh focused on teachers prepared to develop meaningful relationships with small groups of adolescents. Each district then addressed the six components to attract, retain, support and leverage the talent it needed. And finally, the two school districts supported schools to reorganize resources, revising student and teacher schedules, and staff roles, responsibilities, assignments, support and compensation.

Ultimately, solving the human-capital challenge in turnaround schools means making sure every student attending a turnaround school has a highly effective teacher responsible for his or her instruction. These emerging comprehensive and team-based approaches, when developed to fit a district’s theory for how turnaround will happen, as well as system capacity, hold significant promise.

In 2010-11, student growth was significantly higher in most grades and subject areas at Boston schools using Turnaround Teacher Teams as a part of the district’s turnaround strategy compared to other Massachusetts schools, including other Boston turnaround schools. Pittsburgh does not yet have data on results, as its first cohort of students just finished 10th grade in June.

Perhaps most importantly, as school districts consider scalability and sustainability of turnaround efforts, the team-based structures of these efforts provide a solid basis for developing sustainable instructional capacity at turnaround schools. This means neither superhero teachers nor leaders will have to take on the turnaround challenge alone.

Kristen Ferris is a manager at Education Resource Strategies in Watertown, Mass. E-mail: kferris@erstrategies.org

Read the online version of the article here.

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