Category Archives: School Leadership

Three Lessons From a Former Educator to Make Data-Driven Instruction (More) Simple

I began each school year as a teacher and eventually instructional leader with goals posted on the walls and highlighted in yellow on team documents. “+5% increase in English Language Arts proficiency.” “Growth percentile at 65 or higher.” But by November, I invariably felt overwhelmed. I’d often ask myself: “How exactly are my students doing? And what in the world should I do tomorrow?”

A reading teacher I know uses this data tracker to share growth on academic standards with her classes

Fortunately, for instructional leaders wrestling with how to spend precious time and achieve their goals, there is an approach that can help. If there’s one practice I could go back and infuse into my early days as an educator, it’s data-driven instruction (DDI). DDI, which describes using data to analyze student learning and determine next steps for teaching, helps instructional leaders prioritize teacher development while keeping the spotlight on student growth.

As a former teacher at KIPP* and director of curriculum and instruction at DSST Public Schools, I know that DDI is one of the most impactful systems a school can establish. And it doesn’t need to be complicated. 

My time as a summer fellow at Bellwether has led me to three clear lessons about DDI:

DDI doesn’t exclusively mean numbers.

Looking at student work can be a profoundly productive process for teachers and coaches. Grab a pile of papers from class, and see what students were actually doing. What steps did they take or not take? What does this tell you about how they were thinking? The simple act of discussing how a student solved a math problem or responded to a writing prompt can help a teacher know what to do to help students grow. What’s more, engaging in this discussion as a department team can lead to greater collaboration and alignment between different grade levels. 

Continue reading

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

The Power of Asset-Based Thinking for Native Students

This post was written by a past Bellwether intern. Read more about our internship program here.

During a phone call with our partners at the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), I used the word “impoverished” to describe some Native communities. I was politely corrected by Jacob Tsotigh, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe and tribal education specialist at NIEA. Jacob explained that the word “impoverished” suggests Native communities are devoid of resources, and that using this word paints an untrue and incomplete picture of the complexity and value of Native culture.

He explained that while there is some level of poverty that exists for Native students broadly, characterizing Native students as simply impoverished misses the mark and diminishes Native cultural strengths. In a later conversation, Jacob told me:

Our Native people are not consumers, we’re not middle class, we don’t aspire to the American dream necessarily. We have a different set of values that permeate within our community. The essential value is that we are a collective. We believe that what we do as Tribal Nations reflects on the wellbeing of our families and communities — so if we don’t have the things that you do, we don’t feel ourselves as less than or deprived of. It’s not who we are.

2018 NIEA convention attendees via NIEA’s Flickr account

Jacob’s comment made me think more about why deeply understanding and respecting communities matters. In this situation, characterizing Native people only by their economic situation ignored the value that Native students bring to the classroom. This focus on deficits rather than strengths, a practice sometimes referred to as deficits-based thinking, is a common pitfall in many schools. This mindset leads educators see Native identity as a marker for failure, which puts students at an extreme disadvantage by making them less likely to garner high expectations from teachers. Additionally, given the fact that Native students encompass only 1% of the total population of public school-aged children, a focus on deficits can further isolate a group of students already dealing with invisibility.

Valuing Native students and their contributions requires a shift towards assets-based thinking, which encourages educators to understand and enrich the strengths of Native students to support their educational journeys. This requires getting to know Native students, and then working to share and amplify individual and cultural values, experiences, and perspectives — work that can improve cognitive processing in students.

Simultaneously, this approach creates an environment of mutual respect and reciprocal learning, where educators learn from the Native communities they serve and use this information to improve their classrooms for all students. For example, research has long supported the idea that Native students benefit from holistic and collaborative learning — a practice present in many Native cultures. This whole-child approach to education — one that holds health and wellbeing at the same level it does academics — is now taking off in schools around the country, proving we all have much to learn from our Native peers.

To be clear, educators shouldn’t ignore the challenges Native people face. NIEA education specialist Kurrinn Abrams, member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, explains that it is necessary to find a balance between addressing challenges and celebrating strengths: “Acknowledge the shared history and pain of Native people, but don’t use it to identify them.”

Continue reading

Teacher Residencies in the Early Childhood Space: A Q&A With Kelly Riling of AppleTree Early Learning Teacher Residency

Last summer, Justin Trinidad and I published a paper exploring the role that teacher residencies can play as a promising pathway into the classroom. We found that while interest in residencies is exploding across the field, residencies face substantial policy and practical barriers in their efforts to expand.

To better understand these barriers, I spoke to Kelly Riling, who manages the AppleTree Early Learning Teacher Residency in Washington, D.C. In our paper, we profiled AppleTree’s unique residency model, which exclusively prepares early educators; you can read more about it on page 30 here. In this conversation, I asked Kelly for more details about how they’re dealing with the common challenges that residencies face.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What are the barriers that you face in expanding the AppleTree residency?

The first thing that comes to mind is that we have a limited bench of mentor teachers. All of our residents work with a mentor teacher in the classroom. We need to make sure that the mentor teacher is highly effective and will provide a good model for the resident. We’re expanding the residency program, but we don’t have enough mentor teachers to keep up with the increased enrollment. Our hope is that people who are currently in the program will eventually be mentors, but until then, our solution is to build the capacity of current mentors by developing their leadership skills.

We also struggle with raising awareness of the program and making sure we’re recruiting the highest quality candidates to serve within our schools. 

And then finally — but maybe most obviously — we face challenges with funding. We leverage the available funding as best we can, but we need to balance funding the residency program against other AppleTree priorities. Because public funding isn’t enough to provide a high-quality program, we’re constantly making the case to philanthropists that investing in the teacher pipeline is worthwhile. We’ve had to make difficult tradeoffs: We prioritize providing a salary and benefits for our residents, as well as subsidizing tuition for their master’s degree. But in order to do that, we have a very lean administrative team actually running the program, which comes with its own challenges. Continue reading

Three Myths I Often Hear About the Dreaded Financial Model

This is the seventh blog post in our #SGInstitute series, led by our Strategic Advising practice on lessons learned from advising schools, networks, and districts on growth and expansion.

Most people groan when they think about financial modeling, but it’s the part of strategic planning that I look forward to most. To be fair, I was the kid in math class who found it incredibly satisfying to see how numbers fit together in a clean and orderly way. A prime number is ALWAYS only divisible by one and itself. The angles in a triangle ALWAYS add up to 180. Algebra is like a riddle whose answer you can ALWAYS figure out — just isolate the X! (I know this makes me a nerd, but I embrace it.)

In my adult life, I get the same satisfaction from a good financial model that pieces together all the parts of a strategic plan in a logical way. For those new to the process, a financial model is basically a big, usually Excel-based, spreadsheet that lays out all the costs and revenue streams associated with a strategic plan, as well as the relationships between them, to calculate a total funding need. This spreadsheet can then be used as a “model” that helps you test various decisions associated with plan implementation, just like a blueprint is a model that guides construction of a new house or building.

Financial models help growing schools or networks understand their funding need, plan for the future, and justify budgets to potential funders. What I like about financial modeling is that it makes a strategy feel concrete. Before you get to modeling in the strategic planning process, the various goals, priorities, and action steps that make up your school’s plan for growth or improvement can feel like vague ideas. Once they’re in Excel and defined by real-world cost estimates, the ideas come to life.

For instance, let’s say you want to build out your data systems to support a growing organization. Okay, but what does that actually mean? Translating your ideas into spreadsheet form will require you to think through what the work will look like on the ground and what specific resources you will need to accomplish various tasks. You’ll probably need to invest in new or upgraded software, train your staff to use it, and perhaps bring a data expert on board to manage it. If you can make some informed guesstimates about how many of each thing you’ll need, when you’ll buy them, and how much they’ll cost, with a bit of math you can get to a reasonably realistic estimate of investment size.

Then you can use that estimate to adjust your strategic plan to better fit the reality of your day-to-day.  Back to our data systems example: Don’t think you can afford an investment of that size? To save costs, perhaps you can find less complex software, limit licenses to a few key staff members, or allocate time from a current resource to data management rather than hiring a new staff member. If you flex the inputs in the model to reflect those changes, what happens to the final number? I, for one, feel much more comfortable making decisions armed with numbers.

Now you’re probably thinking: “But financial modeling requires a skillset I don’t have (and don’t really have the time to build)!” Yes, you need to be comfortable with Excel, but I promise that comes with a little practice — and there are simple video tutorials readily available the internet. Beyond that, it’s much more approachable than you think.

Here are three common myths I hear about financial modeling from people unfamiliar with the process: Continue reading