Category Archives: School Leadership

Best in Bellwether 2017: Our Most Read Publications and Posts

Below are the most read posts from Ahead of the Heard and our most read publications in 2017! (To read the top posts from our sister site, TeacherPensions.org, click here.)

Top Ten Blog Posts from Ahead of the Heard in 2017

1.) Anything But Equal Pay: How American Teachers Get a Raw Deal
By Kirsten Schmitz

2.) Exciting News
By Mary K. Wells

3.) Some Exciting Hires and Promotions
By Mary K. Wells

4.) Where Are All The Female Superintendents?
By Kirsten Schmitz

5.) An Expanded Federal Role in School Choice? No Thanks.
By Juliet Squire

6.) Teacher Turnover Isn’t Always Negative – Just Look at D.C. Public Schools’ Results
By Kaitlin Pennington

7.) Georgia Addressed Its Teacher Shortages With This One Trick
By Chad Aldeman

8.) A Day in the Life: Bellwether Analyst Andrew Rayner [Andrew’s now over at Promise54!]
By Heather Buchheim & Tanya Paperny

9.) Welcoming Our New Senior Advisers
By Mary K. Wells

10.) How Will States Handle New Title I Powers with Minimal Federal Oversight?
By Bonnie O’Keefe

Top Five Publications & Releases from Bellwether in 2017

1.) An Independent Review of ESSA State Plans
Chad Aldeman, Anne Hyslop, Max Marchitello, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, & Kaitlin Pennington

2.) Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century
Jennifer O’Neal Schiess & Phillip Burgoyne-Allen

3.) Michigan Education Landscape: A Fact Base for the DeVos Debate
Bonnie O’Keefe, Kaitlin Pennington, & Sara Mead

4.) Voices from Rural Oklahoma: Where’s Education Headed on the Plain?
Juliet Squire & Kelly Robson

5.) The Best Teachers for Our Littlest Learners? Lessons from Head Start’s Last Decade
Marnie Kaplan & Sara Mead

To hear more, you can always sign up here to get our newsletter. Thanks for following our work in 2017!

A Day in the Life: Bellwether’s Aurelia Twitty

Aurelia Twitty with her honey badger award at the Bellwether Education Partners 2017 retreat

photo by Tanya Paperny

When Aurelia Twitty joined Bellwether in 2016, we learned about her 20+ years of volunteer service to DC-area schools and her commitment to educational equity. In addition to her role as executive assistant and office manager, she brings a wealth of experience as a parent advocate for education, a Certified Life Coach, and someone who has served with various organizations for over 25 years.

I loved getting the chance to talk to Aurelia about her background and advocacy. Whether as PTA president, member of a charter school Board of Trustees, or Bellwether’s own Operations team member, Aurelia brings energy and passion to everything she does. So much so that she received the top honor at this year’s Bellwether retreat: the Honey Badger Award! (See the photo above for her prize.) The award recognizes “exceptional perseverance and badger-ness marked by exuberant team spirit.”

Read our conversation below (and this Q&A is a great companion to our recent blog series on family engagement, which you can read here!):

You’ve volunteered with schools in the Washington, DC area for over 20 years. Why is it important for you to serve in this way?

I’ve always believed that a student’s chance for success is higher when the student, parents/guardians, and school all work together. I grew up a poor African American child in Washington, DC, and my parents did not invest in my education by visiting my schools or providing me with the at-home assistance I needed. I saw firsthand how my peers outperformed me while I was in elementary and middle school because they had the guidance of their teachers and their parents/guardians.

I made a promise to myself that if I ever had children, I would volunteer at their schools and work with them at home to ensure they had the best chance of success. I have three children — two adult daughters and one son who is a senior in a DC public charter school — and I’m proud to say I kept my promise.

What are the different roles you’ve held over the years? Continue reading

Supporting Teachers and Leaders in Minnesota and Beyond

Minnesota is a fascinating place when it comes to education. Student populations are increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse, especially in the Twin Cities. Overall child outcomes have been historically high relative to national averages, but wide and persistent achievement gaps reveal unacceptable disparities by race, ethnicity, immigration status, and income. Local education leaders, funders, and advocates are increasingly seeking change in policy and educational programs. In this environment, it’s interesting to zoom in on work happening at a local level, to identify lessons that can be applied elsewhere in Minnesota, and in other schools, states, and cities.

Today we release Supporting Minnesota Educators, a new website from Bellwether Education Partners. This project began by looking at the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative, which aimed to improve pre-K to third grade reading outcomes in seven schools in Minnesota’s Twin Cities via formative assessments, educator professional development, and leadership supports for principals. McKnight and its partners began with bold ambitions to support significant improvements in student learning, but those gains haven’t materialized in most participating schools. These results show how complicated school improvement work can be, and also point to how policymakers can better set schools and principals up for success.

In examining evaluation results and speaking with initiative stakeholders, we found three key lessons that can inform future efforts:

  1. Foster stability among educators and leaders to allow for instructional and school culture changes to take hold
  2. Build leadership teams in schools focused on improving teaching and learning
  3. Improve training for educators so they have the knowledge and skills to provide excellent instruction for all students

Supporting Minnesota Educators expands on all three of these lessons, and brings together results from the Initiative with national research and resources. The website will also serve as a home for more resources to come on these topics in the year ahead – you can sign up for updates here. I hope this website will be a helpful resource for leaders, teachers, and advocates and generate conversation about pre-K to third grade and school improvement in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Looking at Leadership to Combat Teacher Turnover and Sustain School Improvement

This is the third in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Photo by Eric E. Castro via Flickr

In recent blog posts, I’ve been looking at the impact of teacher turnover on school improvement efforts and ways schools, states, and districts can address this challenge. But what about turnover in leaders, such as principals, district leaders, and superintendents? Leaders can have a huge impact on the culture, priorities, and strategies of their schools and districts. Recent studies have found that principals had a significant effect on teachers’ overall job satisfaction, and that the quality of administrative support could strongly influence teachers’ decisions to leave or stay. Given this reality, efforts to address teacher turnover should not overlook leaders.

Despite the demonstrated importance of strong, stable leadership, leaders in urban schools and districts continue to turn over at high rates. Leadership turnover can be caused by some of the same factors as teacher turnover, such as retirement, performance issues, or competitive offers elsewhere. A single change in leadership can reverberate through a school or district, for better or worse.

Principals in the Pathway Schools Initiative were fairly stable over the course of the Initiative. Of seven schools participating in the Initiative, three retained the same principal throughout all five years of the initiative, and two experienced only one change in principal leadership. This is unusual for high-poverty, urban schools, where principals turn over even faster than teachers. Nationally, 22 percent of public school principals and 27 percent of principals in high-poverty public schools leave annually. Two schools in the initiative, however, experienced more frequent leadership transitions — including one elementary school that had a new principal almost every year of the initiative.

Even when principals stayed the same, changes in district leadership had an impact on schools. All three of the traditional school districts in the Initiative changed superintendents and reorganized district leadership at least once. This is not surprising based on national trends: The average urban superintendent lasts barely three years, and the role of an urban superintendent is increasingly high pressure and politicized. These people were key liaisons between the Initiative partners, schools, and districts, and every time a district leader changed, it took time for their successors to build working relationships and learn about the Initiative.

Churn in district leadership is also frequently accompanied by changes in district strategies, and teachers and principals in Pathway Schools reported to SRI International evaluators that this sometimes hindered progress at the schools. Especially in the larger districts involved in the Initiative, Pathway Schools had to negotiate for the flexibility to pursue their goals differently from what other elementary schools in their districts were doing. With changes in leadership and accompanying changes in district strategies, this process had to be repeated, creating potential uncertainty and mixed messages for principals and teachers.

A change is leadership isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a district or a school — like teachers, leaders change for all kinds of reasons. Still, districts should take every possible step to retain high-performing and high-potential leaders where they can, and to simultaneously plan for succession and create a pipeline of new leaders from within their staff. Potential solutions to consider include: building a complete district framework for principal talent management, instituting school leader residencies to create effective new leaders, and facilitating smooth transitions with extra support for new leaders. Schools and students shouldn’t start from scratch when leadership changes occur.

Local Turnover Challenges Require Locally Tailored Solutions

This is second in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Evidence show that high teacher turnover is hurting long-term improvement efforts in many urban schools, and yet the problem remains. To ensure improvement efforts actually take hold, education leaders at the state, district, and school levels must pay closer attention to teacher turnover, examine its causes within their own local context, and develop strategies that will keep highly effective teachers in schools where they are needed most.

Developing effective strategies to retain great teachers in high-need schools first requires confronting some common misconceptions about teacher turnover. First, there is not a nationwide, generalized teacher shortage, and the profession is not shrinking. In fact, the teaching workforce grew by 13 percent over the past four years, while the student population grew by only two percent. Instead, there are acute teacher shortages in specific geographic areas, districts, and subject areas. Second, while turnover tends to be highest in urban, high-poverty schools, not all high-poverty schools have high turnover, which means this challenge can be overcome. Third, higher turnover rates in high-poverty schools are not primarily because of students’ needs. Teachers who leave their jobs because of dissatisfaction often rank organizational factors in schools — such as administrative support, salaries, lack of time, and lack of faculty influence in school decisions — higher than student factors when explaining their decision to leave.

A local program in Minnesota’s Twin Cities is an interesting case study for turnover variation. Minnesota’s teacher workforce is growing overall, though not as much as national trends: Minnesota teachers grew by 5.8 percent in the past seven years, compared with 3.2 percent growth in the number of students. But, like national trends, in many geographic areas and teaching specialty areas, hiring and retaining effective teachers can be extremely difficult. In the first post in this series, I looked at a subset of elementary schools in Minnesota’s Twin Cities that participated in the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. These schools’ populations included high concentrations of students who are low-income (89%), students of color (91%), and dual language learners (50%). As I summarized, teacher turnover varied from year to year and between schools. Even within the small sample of the Pathway schools, some schools had little to no turnover some years, or turnover on par with state averages. The relationship between teacher turnover and student achievement was inconsistent, nevertheless, turnover affected school improvement efforts. 

The chart below, from the Minnesota Department of Education Teacher Supply/Demand report, can give some very broad ideas of why teachers leave the teaching profession or move to another school district in Minnesota, but it provides a limited picture because it does not include teachers who change schools within their districts or change roles within their schools. Moreover, teachers’ reasons for leaving likely look very different in the high-poverty, urban elementary schools in the Pathway Schools Initiative than they do statewide.

Some of the most common reasons for leaving, according to the data available here, are personal reasons, retirement, and interdistrict competition. 40 percent of teachers leave for “personal,” or “unknown” reasons. National data suggest common “personal reasons” could include things like caring for one’s own children or dissatisfaction with school leaders and school culture. Not all these challenges can be solved completely at the school or district level, but some can. Some promising solutions, drawn mostly from national examples, and inspired by conversations with stakeholders involved in the Initiative, are:

  • District Policy Incentives: It’s important for larger districts to consider how their staffing policies can impact teacher assignment and transfers, especially for high-need schools. Teacher contracts and district policies can sometimes encourage teachers to transfer schools within a district, prioritize transfers and placements based on seniority with no input from principals, or set up incentives for effective teachers to transfer away from high-poverty schools. Different district policies and contracts could account for some of the turnover differences among the Pathway schools.
  • School Strategy, Culture, and Leadership: School culture, school strategy, and school leadership are huge contributors to teachers’ job satisfaction in any school. District and school leaders need strategies and tools to track the experiences that teachers and students have in schools and identify implications for turnover, student achievement, and improvement efforts. Taking surveys of school climate or culture offer one way to uncover problems before they cause turnover. The Initiative required participating districts to use the 5Essentials school culture survey across all their schools — and these revealed a wide range of teacher satisfaction and experiences. These results could open up a dialogue that gets to the heart of some stubborn turnover challenges.
  • Targeted Incentives: 16 percent of Minnesota teachers leave their jobs for a teaching job in another school district. Minnesota district hiring leaders say salaries and a competitive teacher job market are their top barriers to teacher retention. To address this challenge, other district leaders could consider various kinds of performance-based pay structures and targeted incentives to retain high-performing teachers in high-need schools and subjects. Action is especially needed to recruit and retain highly effective teachers in hard-to-staff roles, like special education teachers and specialists in teaching English language learners.
  • Hiring and Induction Supports: Hiring and induction supports can be key to breaking cycles of high turnover. Evidence from other school districts suggests that induction supports for newly hired teachers can increase student achievement and improve retention, and in recent years many large districts have reformed their hiring practices to put more decision-making power at the school level.

There won’t be just one solution for teacher turnover in the Pathway Schools, or other schools struggling with teacher retention. But, to move forward, school and district leaders must better understand reasons for turnover and target appropriate solutions, including, but not limited to, targeted incentives; hiring supports; district policies; and school strategy, culture, and leadership, with a strong grounding in school-by-school data.