Opportunity Culture Lessons from the First Two Years

by | July 23, 2015

By Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

In our companion post, Opportunity Culture Outcomes: The First Two Years, we shared student, teacher, and design outcomes from the first two years of Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture initiative, which so far has affected more than 30 schools, 450 teachers, and 16,000 students.

The outcomes are promising—better student growth, higher pay, strong teacher satisfaction. However, some pioneering districts, schools, and teachers achieved better, faster results than others. Strengths and challenges varied across sites. Learning from these differences fast is crucial to improved outcomes as more schools and districts create their own Opportunity Cultures, extending the reach of excellent teachers and their teams to many more students, for much higher pay, within regular budgets.

These lessons we drew from these early years are based on data we collected and feedback from Opportunity Culture schools and districts, including teachers, principals, and district administrators. Implementation teams from Public Impact or its partners Education First and Education Resource Strategies solicited feedback using “exit slips” after every decision-making meeting with school and district design teams. We conducted interviews with staff and administrators at the school and district level. Implementation teams scheduled regular calls and made site visits eight to 10 times a year, during which we collected feedback and recorded our observations. With that and other data, we created the Opportunity Culture Dashboard, which contains indicators of implementation effectiveness, including student learning outcomes and teacher and staff perceptions from anonymous surveys.

Many of these lessons are no surprise—and yet still a challenge to get right. Some are a challenge only because the people who have power to change them must act with commitment and decisiveness—and the temptations to do otherwise are overwhelming.

Lesson 1: Address Necessary State and District Policy Barriers. Districts and states must identify and address Opportunity Culture (OC) policy barriers before the design process begins, and review annually at midyear in preparation for the next year.

Lesson 2: Establish District Support for Schools’ OC Implementation. District leaders must provide timely technical assistance, tools, decision-making power, and transitional support for small, temporary financial shortfalls for school models within Opportunity Culture Principles.

Lesson 3: Support Strong School Leadership for OC Implementation. Principals need training and support to lead a team of teacher-leaders and other teachers who extend their reach, and they need paid career advancement options that let them remain directly responsible for student outcomes.

Lesson 4: Build and Support Effective Design Teams. Form district and school design teams with clear goals, roles, and decision-making power, staffed with individuals committed to OC Principles; top district leaders must maintain direction and support to implement and scale up the Opportunity Culture designs.

Lesson 5: Create Complete School Design Plans. School designs should include long-term and next-year detail about roles, financial sustainability, technology, schedules, and how teachers will work together.

Lesson 6: Clarify MCL Roles and Build Teaching Team Leadership. Multi-classroom leaders (MCLs)—essential in schools that want to reach all or nearly all students with excellent teachers—need clear roles, advance training, ongoing coaching in leadership and management skills, and protected time to plan and lead.

Lesson 7: Build Schedules that Let Teams Collaborate. Schedule and protect additional in-school time for OC teachers to plan, alone and as a team; review student work; and improve together during the school year.

Lesson 8: Hire Early and Be Selective. Recruit early, advertise widely using multiple methods, make links to Opportunity Culture job openings obvious on the district’s website, and use the materials on OpportunityCulture.org to recruit and be selective among candidates.

Lesson 9: Give Everyone the Right Data to Improve. Interim and annual data should be collected and reported to match OC roles, to help teachers improve during the school year and help principals lead well; consistent interim assessments would help OC teachers.

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