Interview: Painting the ESSA Canvas with Educator Recruitment and Retention

Public Impact's Brian Hassel & Stephanie Dean Provide Their "Big Idea" for States
Blog Post
April 11, 2017

A recent New America brief, Painting the ESSA Canvas: Four Ideas for States to Think Big on Educator Quality, includes interviews with individuals, selected for their individual and organizational expertise, that offer thoughtful, high-potential approaches to the preparation, recruitment, evaluation, development, and retention of effective educators. This post is the second in a series of four that will highlight the expert interviews from the brief. The interview on educator recruitment and retention below is with Brian C. Hassel, the co-director of Public Impact, and Stephanie Dean, the consulting manager and vice president of teaching and learning policy at Public Impact.

New America: We’d like you to help states think outside the box on employing the explicit uses of ESSA Title II, Part A state funds related to educator recruitment and retention (ESSA Title II, Part A, Section 2101(c)(4)(B)). If you were going to provide states with one idea for how to think big about improving educator quality within these areas of the Title II statute, what would it be?

Bryan Hassel: Public Impact’s recommended focus would be on creating high-paid, high-impact teacher leadership roles in every high-need school in the state.

What do we mean by “high-paid, high-impact” teacher leader roles? High-paid means enough of a supplement above normal teacher pay that it can really change who stays in the profession over time and induces the best professionals to take these roles. So not $500, but thousands of dollars. In Opportunity Culture sites nationally, the average supplement is $12,000…so enough to change someone’s mind about what they’re doing [career-wise]. High-impact means a lot of things…but it primarily means the teacher leader role is organized in such a way that lets an excellent teacher have a deep impact on the teaching of a team of teachers and the learning of the team’s students. They have defined authority to lead a team of teachers (but a size they can deeply impact; three to eight, not 20 to 40 like many coaches have), have time in their schedule for the leadership work, and are responsible for the advancement of teachers on their team as well as their students’ learning.

Stephanie Dean: The most important thing is leveraging the skills of excellent teachers. If the strategy isn’t extending the reach of those teachers to impact more students, then it’s falling flat.

BH: Why focus on teacher leadership? We see it as a lynchpin that affects a lot of different key talent levers at once.

One, it provides advancement opportunities for your best teachers, so they can continue teaching but get a promotion. Helping them move on in their careers without becoming administrators is potentially a retention strategy for your best teachers.

Two, it’s a potential recruitment strategy in high-need schools because if they can offer a career path with higher pay, it looks like a better place for teachers to work when they are shopping around for a position.

Three, it provides a mechanism to offer much deeper and richer support to new and developing teachers. Often we rely on principals and instructional coaches to play that role, but they are stretched across so many teachers it’s hard to provide meaningful support. A smaller team led by an excellent teacher has more opportunity for daily, job-embedded, real-time coaching, planning together, and professional development that’s really geared towards the need of teachers.

Finally, it provides a way for more students in a school to have access to its best teachers. If those best teachers are being held responsible for those students’ learning, and for guiding the teaching of those students, then those students will benefit more, both directly and indirectly.

NA: What evidence exists to support this idea? Can you point to examples of any promising states or districts currently employing this strategy?

BH: New Leaders’ study of 100 high-gaining, high-poverty schools found that all the schools had multiple teacher leaders helping to “elevate teaching.” And the The Center on International Benchmarking’s research concluded that in high-performing systems globally, accomplished teachers served as mentors and led teaching teams via observation, feedback, data review, and more.

SD: Public Impact has also seen evidence in our work with 17 districts across the country. These districts have 115-120 schools between them that are designing and implementing these types of teacher leader (TL) roles. Among the schools that are a few years into this work, we are seeing great trends in student growth on state tests compared to those that aren’t implementing these TL models. Implementing schools are achieving growth at twice the rate of other schools (59% vs. 28%), and are less than half as likely to show low growth. If you envision student growth on a bell curve, you see a dramatic shift to the right with schools implementing this TL model, including turnaround schools (see figure below).

Source: Adapted from: Public Impact, “N.C. Opportunity Culture Schools Beat State Rates of Student Growth,” news release, September 14, 2016.

Also, we’ve been getting great feedback when we interview staff at those schools-- not just from the teacher leaders, but the teachers they support--about a culture shift, where people feel more supported.

NA: Are there states that have made it easier for this kind of work to occur?

SD: Districts creating high-paid, high-impact TL roles need to be able to carve out sustainable sources of funding. This is easiest in states where funding flows to districts in a flexible manner, and more challenging where allotment for funding is tied to teacher positions in the state, or bogged down in restrictions on categorical funding.

BH: In addition to clearing those barriers, another role for states is incentivizing or stimulating the work of the districts to make changes that allow those roles to work. I can offer three state examples. First, during Race to the Top, New York funded districts to strengthen teacher and leader effectiveness through its STLE grant, including efforts to rethink teacher roles and leader pathways; Syracuse is one district that chose to do so. Second, the Texas Education Agency earmarked improvement dollars for technical assistance to schools to revamp in this way. Roughly 20 Texas schools in five districts are now using this model. Finally, the North Carolina legislature passed a competitive district pilot program on “advanced roles” for teachers. Six districts were chosen to create advanced teacher roles that other districts could learn from.

So several different concepts of “let’s create a competition, find funding, put forth some parameters inducing schools to try things that are different.”

NA: Do you see this area of Title II intersecting with other areas of ESSA? If so, how should states think about coordinating their efforts here? Are there examples of states already doing this?

BH: The main connection I would make is with Title I’s focus on struggling schools. These schools are arguably most in need of this kind of teacher leadership, and the evidence cited above suggests employing this method could be particularly powerful there.

States could blend Title I and Title II funds for this purpose. For example, Title I funds being put out for comprehensive school improvement plans could also focus on funding transitions to new teacher leadership models as part of the strategy for turnaround. Or they could provide technical assistance to schools wanting to move in this direction, as Texas did.

SD: I want to emphasize the importance of turnaround work beginning with getting a powerful talent structure in place. Having that framework sets the foundation for a school to drive any type of instructional coaching or behavioral model it believes will lead to improvement.

NA: What are potential obstacles or challenges to implementation that states should be aware of, and can you provide any suggestions for side-stepping them?

SD: When dollars are available for funding these types of teacher leadership roles, there is a tendency to structure them as an add-on to what currently exists. So really helping districts commit to designing and implementing models like this sustainably is one of the biggest challenges.  

BH: That is a big one. And the solution to that is for states to focus the funding they have on the temporary transition costs rather than the ongoing costs of operating a teacher leadership model. So instead of giving districts a big lump of money to use toward teacher salary bonuses, say to them, “here are some funds to put a staff member in place, or hire a technical assistance provider to help you transition your model to teacher leadership-centered staffing out of your own funds, so you can keep doing it forever after that.”  

The other challenge we have seen is it is easy to proliferate low-paid and low-impact or poorly designed teacher leader roles. So the flipside of everything we mentioned earlier about what an effective teacher leadership role should look like: little or no pay bump; an unclear role; spread too thin, not really responsible for anyone’s learning; not given the time to lead. So how could you guard against that as a state? For one, as Public Impact has outlined in our The Whole Package brief, states can set some parameters for what they mean by “high-impact, high-paid teacher leadership,” while leaving flexibility for districts to customize. And that could be for any activities states are funding directly or passing through from Title II or Title I.

Two, states could provide schools with a lot of ideas and examples of what could work (what Federal Education Group calls “Activity-Based Guidance”). Three, states can provide or fund technical assistance aligned to these parameters and guidance. So third parties can help schools that want to move in this direction so they are not going it alone.

Finally, gathering data that show what is happening, what is the impact, where leaders and laggards are, and then sharing that information with districts statewide.

NA: Besides offering parameters and guidance and the other things you have just mentioned, are there other things can states do to ensure that these models are implemented well at the local level?

BH: Creating some kind of community among the leading districts and/or schools could be valuable, where they convene and share lessons learned. In North Carolina, this is done by BEST NC (a nonprofit coalition of business leaders focused on improving education), but could also be done by the state.

SD: One more thing for states to think about is teacher evaluation and how students are assigned to teachers. We tend to design accountability assuming “one teacher to one classroom.” But when you have teachers who are responsible for the learning of an entire teacher team’s students, you need to consider how to share accountability accordingly. Often, teacher leaders are just kind of figuring out with their team what percentage of responsibility to take on for each student. It would be better if states could offer models for how to assign students to teacher leaders that are also assigned to individual classroom teachers.

NA: One thing I haven’t heard you mention is the role of principals in schools where these models are being put into place and any kind of assistance of guidance they need in helping implement these models.  I’m curious whether you think there is a role the state can or should play here?

SD: It’s definitely a shift for school leaders to distribute leadership and become an instructional leader who works through a team of teacher leaders. So training and support in figuring out how to do this well is important. States could specify some funds for schools transitioning to these models to be used for that kind of training and support.

The introduction to this post was updated on 4/25/17.

Read the first interview in the series, on educator preparation, here