Category Archives: Talent

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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.

How Teacher Turnover Hurt Improvement Efforts in These Minnesota Schools

This is first 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.

As students come back to school this fall, many will find teachers and principals they’ve never seen before. About 16 percent of teachers leave the profession or change schools every year, and that number is even higher in high-poverty schools, urban schools, and low-performing schools.

How does teacher turnover affect students and schools? The research is not always clear. Several studies in urban districts show a general negative association between turnover and student achievement. One study found negative teacher turnover effects spread even to students with veteran teachers, suggesting turnover can impact schoolwide achievement and morale. But a certain amount of turnover is inevitable, and in some cases, staff changes can improve student scores by exiting ineffective teachers or allowing teachers to take on new leadership roles in schools.

The experience of the Pathway Schools Initiative, a seven-year effort to improve third grade literacy in seven Minnesota elementary schools, sheds further light on how turnover can hurt the momentum of school improvement efforts. With the support of the McKnight Foundation, schools participating in the initiative worked with the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI) to implement PreK-3rd improvement efforts.

All seven Pathway schools were urban (located in the Twin Cities metropolitan area), relatively low performing, and predominantly low-income. But rates of teacher turnover varied widely between schools and from year to year. The graph below shows the differences in PreK-3rd grade teacher turnover among four participating schools over a two-year period.

Ultimately, schools in the Initiative struggled to make significant progress in improving PreK-3rd grade instruction and literacy outcomes. An independent evaluation conducted by SRI International identified teacher turnover as one of the major challenges, among many, facing schools in their professional development and instructional change efforts. Evaluators also found some cases where newly hired teachers were associated with lower student performance, but results were inconsistent by school and by year.[1] Overall, professional development was a huge component of the initiative, and when large numbers of teachers left, that institutional knowledge and investment left too. As one teacher told evaluators, “We’ve had so much turnover among the staff that we’re reinventing the wheel every year.”

Data collected by SRI International, from SRI 2016-17 Pathway Schools Initiative Annual Report. Note: Data were not available in this time period for every school in the Initiative.

School improvement efforts like the Pathway Schools Initiative, which focused on assessment, instruction, and professional development, need a certain level of stability to succeed. But chronic educator turnover in high-need schools should not be viewed as an inevitable reality. In blogs to come in this series, we’ll continue digging into data and stories from these schools to look at the impacts of teacher and leader turnover and examine potential action steps schools, districts, and states can take to ensure turnover is not a roadblock to school improvement.

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[1] Schmidt, R.A., Chen, W., Torre, D., Woodworth, K., and Golan, S. (2017, April). The Role of Student and School Characteristics in Predicting Early Literacy Gains. Poster Presentation at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), Austin, TX, and Pathway Schools Initiative Phase 1 Case Study

Executive Coaching is a Key Ingredient of Strong Leadership — Not a Luxury

As a leader, how often have you been in a position where you had to start something new — whether it was a new role or a new project — and you knew you had to bring your leadership A-game in order to empower your team to achieve a challenging task?

As we, ourselves, stepped into new roles — Lora as Chief Talent Officer at Cleveland Metropolitan School District and Paul as Dean of Students at Achievement First Crown Heights Middle School — we found ourselves in this position. We had our sights set on success, held a vision we felt passionate about, and benefitted from a highly skilled team around us, but we knew that we would only meet our goals if our entire team was invested in that vision. We quickly learned that while having a vision is easy, bringing the team along can be really tricky.

In our experience, there are several factors that make it hard for leaders to achieve their goals or lead major reform efforts:

  • Lack of candid feedback: In most organizations — and for entirely valid reasons (e.g., fear of retaliation for providing critical feedback, bad experiences with prior bosses, unconscious biases and race dynamics, etc.)  — folks don’t often give leaders candid feedback. Indeed, the more a leader is struggling, the less likely they are to receive frequent critical feedback.
  • Difficulty gaining perspective: It can be hard to understand the interpersonal dynamics that are constantly changing while you’re in the thick of day-to-day existence. Amidst a blur of meetings, deadlines, and reports, it’s challenging to get a bird’s eye view and understand the dynamics that are truly at play.
  • Blind spots: Every one of us — leaders especially — has blind spots. By definition, these are invisible to us. It’s hard to just self-reflect your way into finding your flaws. Leaders who don’t receive candid feedback often find themselves dismayed to see their flaws mirrored back to them in their team.
  • It’s hard to row alone: Even if you get great feedback and have fantastic self-awareness, who is going to help coach you to make that change? Who will hold you accountable? Who can you thought partner with?

While these challenges are real, each of us found one invaluable tool that helped our ability to grow as leaders: executive coaching. Weekly executive coaching from a trusted adviser helped Paul see how his “let’s get things done” approach disempowered and alienated some of his teammates. Since Paul still viewed himself in the role of “doer,” he did not give his team enough autonomy to lead their own work and instead stifled their energy and creativity. For Lora, coaching helped her navigate relationships and build trust with peers by listening more, asking for support instead of expecting it, and spending time in one-on-one relationship building. For both of us, coaching helped us to be stronger leaders and to empower our team to produce stronger outcomes.

Now that we sit on the other side of the table as consultants who help coach leaders, we see firsthand the advantages of external coaches. Here are some of the most important things to consider if you’re hiring a coach:

  • Ease of perspective: Just as it’s easier to see the flaws in your in-laws’ family, identifying the dysfunctions in an organization is significantly easier when you haven’t lived in that environment. Likewise, an external perspective can be just as helpful in identifying unseen strengths that can be further leveraged. When searching for a coach, look for someone who can provide a fresh perspective on your work.
  • Freedom: As external coaches, we have no “stake in the game” in terms of office politics or interpersonal relationships. This freedom allows us to voice the uncomfortable truths that are difficult for internal teammates to share and to focus solely on the development of a leader, not the advancement of any internal agenda. Beware of coaches who don’t share uncomfortable feedback with you.
  • Trust: Because leaders often report to a boss who must both coach AND evaluate them, it can be hard to develop a rapport of trust. As external consultants with no evaluative role, it’s easier for us to build a rapport of trust with leaders because their development is the only thing we have in mind. What’s most important when searching for a coach is making sure they are someone you can deeply trust.
  • Pattern recognition: Through our work with multiple leaders and organizations, it’s easy to develop an eye for patterns that repeat themselves time and again. In searching for a coach, look for someone who has worked in similar contexts or faced similar challenges as you. Their experience will allow them to spot patterns more easily.

If you find yourself in a situation similar to ours — taking on a new challenge that will require you to be a better leader — we encourage you to consider what’s riding on your success. In our experience, external coaches can be a tremendous resource in helping you to overcome some structural challenges to becoming a stronger leader and an extremely worthwhile investment, both for you and your organization.

Our closing question to you is this: what are you willing to do to become a better leader?

Exciting News

I have two pieces of news I’m thrilled to share:

"Unrealized Impact"First, today marks the public release of “Unrealized Impact: The Case for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” This report is the product of a collaboration with a diverse group of stakeholders, including funders, leaders in the sector, and members of our Talent team. It’s also the first report from Promise54 — more on that in a moment! “Unrealized Impact” is an important paper that is the result an effort to gather data and promote progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the education sector, and it is authored by Xiomara Padamsee and Becky Crowe. I invite you to visit the study website to download your copy today!

Second, the tremendous anticipation for the “Unrealized Impact” study has prompted the launch of a new organization: Promise54. Xiomara Padamsee and Monisha Lozier —  partners and management team members who lead the Talent Services group at Bellwether —  were inspired by the report’s data to explore an expansion of their team’s work and impact. After months of extensive business planning, these two leaders, the rest of the Bellwether leadership team, and our Board of Directors determined that Promise54 should be established as a standalone organization. Its goal will be to aggressively pursue the opportunity to support education organizations in building and sustaining healthy, inclusive, and equitable environments where a diverse set of staff choose to work — and can thrive.

Promise54Promise54 will enable organizations to deliver on the promise of educational opportunity for all students, symbolized by the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Xiomara Padamsee will serve as the organization’s founding CEO and will lead in partnership with Monisha Lozier, one of Bellwether’s founding partners. In addition to new services, Promise54 will continue to offer the full range of services (executive search, talent structures and systems, coaching, etc.) that Bellwether’s Talent Services practices offers today with a deeper focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Bellwether is committed to supporting the launch of Promise54 because we share a common understanding that diversity, equity, and inclusion are bedrocks of strong organizational effectiveness. We know our sector is in urgent need of support on this vital work and believe the launch of a new organization will allow both Bellwether and Promise54 to hone our focus to better meet the needs of education organizations.

Helping seed and support crucial ideas for the field and helping those ideas grow is a core component of Bellwether’s mission, and launching a new organization is another way to grow our impact. I know I speak for all of my partners at Bellwether when I say we are thrilled to support the launch of Promise54.

This work is so important, and I could not imagine more capable, passionate leaders than Xiomara and Monisha to lead it.

And, as excited as we are about the impact that Promise54 will have, this news is also bittersweet. We love our colleagues on the Talent Services team and will miss how our day-to-day-interactions enrich Bellwether. It’s in this spirit of collaboration and camaraderie that we’re committed to the creation and continuation of two transformative organizations.

I hope you will join me in celebrating Unrealized Impact and Promise54!