Opportunity Culture: A New Model for Education

Published on Real Clear Education, May 8, 2015 by Public Impact Co-Directors Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel

Schools don’t have enough truly excellent teachers to fill all our nation’s classrooms. Even if schools use all their best recruitment and retention strategies for several years, they still won’t have enough — not even close.

Meanwhile, millions of teachers know they aren’t really getting the outstanding results they want. Their students, especially the ones who come in behind, need to make more than a year’s worth of growth each year to catch up and leap ahead. And all students need the higher-order thinking skills that research indicates excellent teachers foster so well.

And yet, what about the truly excellent teachers that schools already have? There are hundreds of thousands of them in schools today — teachers who produce well over a year’s worth of growth. What if schools could extend their reach to more students, even all students? What if these teachers could earn more, within existing budgets, for extending their reach directly and by leading teams of their peers?

What if other teachers could earn more, too, for working on these teams? We believe that most teachers who today are good, or even very good, could make the leap to excellence — by playing to their strengths on a team, and by working side-by-side, daily, with excellent teachers fully responsible for their success.

This would create what we call an “Opportunity Culture” for both students and teachers.

To put these ideas into action, education policy and consulting firm Public Impact and partners are working with six districts in North Carolina, Tennessee, New York and Texas, with more than 50 schools in some stage of design or implementation of new school models that extend the reach of excellent teachers.

The work happens at the school level, led by teachers. Each school creates its own design team of teachers and administrators to adapt and combine the staffing models that best suit the school. They decide how to reallocate the school’s own budget – without increasing costs — to pay teachers more, and how to change schedules to add planning and collaboration time. Models include:

 Multi-Classroom Leadership: An excellent teacher — the multi-classroom leader, or “MCL”–reaches more students with excellent instruction by continuing to teach while leading a team of teachers who use the MCL’s methods and tools. The MCL is accountable for the learning results of all the students reached by the teaching team. By co-teaching, co-planning, and coaching, the MCL provides the frequent, on-the-job development and collaboration teachers consistently report wanting.

— Time-Technology Swaps: Teachers use digital instruction for limited, age-appropriate periods (as little as an hour daily), freeing teachers’ time to teach more students, plan, and collaborate with peers. Some schools do time swaps without technology, rotating students between personalized, enriched instruction from teachers and skills practice and projects under a paraprofessional’s supervision.

 Specialization: Elementary teachers specialize in their best subjects or roles, with paraprofessional support saving time for team collaboration and reaching more students.

None of these models requires increases in instructional group size — the number of students with a teacher at one time — and some decrease it. Some schools with small class sizes have increased them somewhat and gotten great results.

The schools’ designs follow the five Opportunity Culture Principles, which call for school teams that include teachers to:

Reach more students with excellent teachers and their teams;

Pay teachers more for extending their reach;

Fund pay within regular budgets (not with temporary grants);

Provide protected in-school time for planning, collaboration and development; and

Match teachers’ authority and accountability to each person’s responsibilities.

This all adds up to a new set of roles and career paths for teachers. Paying more is important. Pilot schools are paying teachers in advanced roles supplements of up to 50 percent of average pay. Schools are funding this within existing budgets, reallocating funds rather than relying on temporary grants. These roles are here to stay, as long as teachers want them. And recruiting results suggest they do, with districts able to fill even persistently hard-to-staff schools with strong candidates from selective pools of applicants for Opportunity Culture positions.

That’s Opportunity Culture in a nutshell. We’re in only the second year of implementation and continue to get feedback from teachers, principals and administrators that help us refine the initiative. For example, feedback from multi-classroom leaders led us to better tailor their training and to help schools change their schedules even more for increased collaborative work time. Meanwhile, our data team is collecting information that helps us improve and add to the models, materials and support for schools and districts. We post all publications on OpportunityCulture.org for free.

No change this big is perfect from the start. But with the enthusiasm and feedback of the pioneering teachers, we’re learning every day how to meet our collective, ambitious goals to reach all students with excellent teaching consistently and provide outstanding career opportunities for teachers, too.

The best way to understand these new roles and models is to hear straight from those educators themselves. We encourage you to read their thoughts, and listen to their voices, because they are leading this work where it counts: in schools.

Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel are the co-directors of Public Impact, which founded and organizes the Opportunity Culture Initiative.

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