Author Archives: Chad Aldeman

How Can We Extend the Reach of Great Teachers? A Q&A with Stephanie Dean on Opportunity Culture

How should we train teachers? How do we ensure that all students have access to great teaching?

Those questions are at the heart of many education policy debates. While it may be difficult to “raise the bar” on the teaching profession by erecting barriers to entry, recent studies show that teacher coaching and teamwork offer more promise as ways to help young teachers improve their practice and to create a real career ladder within the teaching profession.

Stephanie Dean

In order to find out more about how this work is going in schools, I reached out to Stephanie Dean, the vice president of strategic policy advising and a senior consulting manager at Public Impact. In that role, Dean is working with schools and districts to implement what they call “Opportunity Culture,” a way to re-organize schools into collaborative leadership teams.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tell us about Opportunity Culture. What’s the theory behind it, and what are you hoping to accomplish?

Opportunity Culture schools create high-pay, high-impact teacher leader roles. The cornerstone role in Opportunity Culture schools is the multi-classroom leader. Districts and schools must begin with very careful selection and design. They are selecting candidates who produce greater-than-expected student growth, and they’re also looking for competencies that are needed to lead adults and students. That’s the selection side.

On the design side, a school team creates a staffing model and a schedule that ensures each multi-classroom leader — who continues to teach in some way — has time during the day to work intensively with a small team of teachers. This means time to analyze data, plan instruction with the team, observe and offer feedback, and model and co-teach. The staffing model keeps the team size small to ensure the multi-classroom leader is able to provide the level of high-impact leadership that’s needed. We’re talking about a team of 3-8 teachers, similar to the standard we see in other professions.

Two things happen in this type of school staffing design. First, the school gains a powerful group of instructional leaders. They’re powerful in the sense that a multi-classroom leader shares accountability for their team’s student learning outcomes. They know the students, they’re working with them in small groups, they’re analyzing data, and they’re in the classroom helping teachers. This model helps create a sense of “being in it together,” and ensures teachers on the team are getting relevant coaching every day to help move their practice along.

The second thing that happens in this model is that a career path emerges for teachers. Too often teachers are forced to leave the classroom to pursue advancement in their careers. We know many of those teachers would stay in classrooms if there were some way to advance.

Multi-classroom leadership means taking on an essential role in your school’s leadership team for a very large pay increase. A multi-classroom leader will see their influence spread to more teachers and students, and in return the average pay supplement they earn is $12,000. The range nationally (among Opportunity Culture schools) is from $6,000 to $23,000. Those stipends are funded out of existing school budgets, so they’re designed to last, creating a meaningful job and a meaningful pay increase. That changes the way the profession looks today and the way it looks to prospective teachers as well. Continue reading

Media: “Kamala Harris’s Flawed Proposal to Help Teachers Could Make Problem Worse” in The Hill

Last month, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced a plan for a federal-state partnership to boost teacher salaries. In a new op-ed for The Hill, I write that Harris’ proposal relies on flawed data on teacher pay and ignores the real factors holding teacher salaries back — namely, the rapidly rising costs of teacher benefits like pensions and health care:

Of course, teachers can’t use their health care or pension plans to pay their mortgage or buy groceries, but total compensation is still the only apples-to-apples way to analyze across sectors — especially because deferred compensation through pensions is such a fundamental aspect of teacher compensation today.

Failing to accurately account for pensions and health care obscures the extent to which these costs are crowding out resources for teacher pay. To give one example from Sen. Harris’s home state, in Los Angeles, where teachers recently went on strike, spending on teacher salaries increased 24 percent over the past decade, whereas health care and pensions increased 138 percent. Overall compensation is rising even if teachers don’t see it in their paychecks or the supports they receive in their classrooms.

While Harris’ proposal is well-meaning, it would not address the root causes for why teacher salaries have been flat for so long. Without more meaningful attempts to control benefit costs, teachers are likely to see a growing disconnect between their take-home pay and their total compensation package.

Boston’s Education System Is a Microcosm for the Country

My colleagues Bonnie O’Keefe, Melissa Steel King, and I have a new report out this week looking at recent educational trends in Boston Public Schools (BPS). Even if you’re not from Boston, Boston’s educational outcomes are on a similar trajectory as the nation as a whole. We write:

In general, Boston’s performance on standardized tests has tracked the national trends since the early 2000s, but Boston made faster progress when the nation as a whole was improving, and Boston’s slowdown in the past five years has been more pronounced. Furthermore, while Boston continues to outperform many other large urban districts, some peer cities have instituted reforms…that have contributed to more rapid progress in recent years compared to BPS. Meanwhile, BPS has struggled to make a dent in persistent racial and ethnic disparities in test scores and graduation rates. Without the launch of new and innovative initiatives to improve equity and address stagnating achievement trends, BPS could be at risk of losing its status as a national leader in pre-K-12 education.

Speaking personally, I found writing the report to be a sobering exercise. BPS was certainly busy over the last ten years — including big changes to teacher hiring practices, an expansion of pre-K, and a change to how it funds its schools, among other things — and yet student achievement scores didn’t budge. Worse, some initiatives, like a re-designed school assignment system, led to increased racial segregation and may have contributed to declines in achievement for black and Hispanic students. Meanwhile, other efforts, such as plans to deal with Boston’s aging school facilities and to create a unified school application process, have struggled to get off the ground amidst political battles and public pushback.

Boston’s education system is unique in its particulars, but the broader story is similar to what’s going on in the rest of the country. And Boston, like the rest of the country, is now at an inflection point. Boston is currently searching for its fifth superintendent in 10 years, so it will be critical for that leader to articulate a clear vision forward. While we don’t claim to have answers, we hope our report is useful to leaders in Boston and elsewhere to diagnose current trends and give some historical explanations of what happened and why. (You can also watch a live discussion of this report here.) Like Boston, the country is becoming more diverse, and any future gains will depend on how well schools are able to provide educational services to our most disadvantaged students.

Media: “The L.A. District May Owe $13.6 Billion for Health Care & Pensions — and the Strike Made Things Worse. Obamacare Is a Way Out” in The 74

The recent teacher strike in Los Angeles was mainly over policy issues like charter schools, class sizes, and other school support staff. But the agreement largely punted on lingering financial questions like what to do about the school district’s $13.6 billion unfunded obligation for retiree health benefits.

In The 74, I argue that the district should look to the Obamacare markets as one way to focus their spending on the workers who need it the most:

This is where the federal Affordable Care Act comes in. Obamacare provides subsidies on a sliding scale to individuals to purchase health insurance, regardless of age; in 2018, a two-member household earning less than $65,840, or 400 percent of the federal poverty level, would qualify for assistance. If we assume that retirees have no income sources other than their pension (teachers in California do not have Social Security), publicly available data suggest that 87 percent of LAUSD retirees could qualify for Obamacare subsidies.

As I note in the piece, there is some precedence for this. In the 1980s, LAUSD began requiring retirees over age 65 to apply for Medicare benefits, making the district benefits more of a perk than a standalone offering. Districts like LAUSD could now do the same thing with the Obamacare markets and retirees under age 65.

Are Teacher Preparation Programs Interchangeable Widgets? An Interview With Paul T. von Hippel

Earlier this spring, Education Next published an article by Paul T. von Hippel and Laura Bellows questioning whether it was possible to distinguish one teacher preparation program from another in terms of their contributions to student learning. Looking at data from six states, von Hippel and Bellows found that the vast majority of programs were virtually indistinguishable from each other, at least in terms of how well they prepare future teachers to boost student scores in math and reading.

Paul T. von Hippel

Much of the national conversation around teacher preparation focuses on crafting minimum standards around who can become a teacher. States have imposed a variety of rules on candidates and the programs that seek to license them, with the goal of ensuring that all new teachers are ready to succeed on their first day in the classroom. Von Hippel and Bellows’ work challenges the very assumptions underlying these efforts. If states cannot tell preparation programs apart from one another, their rules are mere barriers for would-be candidates rather than meaningful markers of quality. Worse, if we can’t define which programs produce better teachers, we’re left in the dark about how to improve new teachers.

To probe deeper into these issues, we reached out to von Hippel, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Bellwether: Can you start off by describing your work on teacher preparation? What compelled you to do the work, and what did you find?

von Hippel: It started with a 2010 contract that some colleagues and I at the University of Texas had with the Texas Education Agency. Our contract was to develop a pilot report card for the nearly 100 teacher preparation programs in the state of Texas. The idea was to come up with a teacher value-added model and then aggregate teacher value-added to the program level. We would then figure out which programs were producing better and worse teachers in the state, with the idea that the state would at a minimum provide feedback, encourage programs that were producing effective teachers and ideally expand them, and, in extreme cases, shut down programs that were producing a lot of ineffective teachers. Continue reading