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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: “New Report Shows 4 Ways States Can Innovate and Improve Their Exams — Even Without Joining ESSA Pilot Program,” in The 74

Today in The 74, Brandon Lewis and I summarize key findings from our recent report, “The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems,” in light of news about two new innovative assessment demonstration projects:

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education approved proposals from Georgia and North Carolina to pilot innovative models of student testing. When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) authorized its special program for innovative assessments, many states expressed excitement and interest. But more than a year and a half after the Department of Education started accepting applications, Georgia and North Carolina are only the third and fourth states to take advantage of the program. Does that mean that innovative assessments are dead in the water?

No. Exactly the opposite.

Read the rest of this piece in The 74, and dive into the details with the full report.

Design Convenings You’d Actually Want to Attend


via GIPHY

It’s an unfortunately familiar story. You’re invited to a convening on a topic that you’re interested in. When you get the agenda, you notice that the day starts with an 8 a.m. breakfast and keynote speaker, which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t 5 a.m. your time. After that it’s back-to-back sessions, some of which are good. In the others, the topics aren’t relevant or facilitation is shoddy. A working lunch, reception (with speaker), and dinner are all mandatory, forcing you to choose between skipping out for a break, catching up with colleagues, or giving away every minute of your day to the organizers. When you get back to your office and reflect on the experience, you want to connect what you’ve learned to your daily work but “135 unread emails” is screaming out in bold font.

Why does this happen? The impulse to program every minute of every day surely stems from the desire to take advantage of the unique time together, but it often ends up backfiring. People check email, skip out on sessions to talk with colleagues, or are too mentally and physically fatigued to fully engage with the content.

In a recent series of convenings I organized focused on increasing multiagency coordination and effectiveness, my team and I tried to design the kind of convenings we’d like to attend. That is to say, ones where the content was timely, relevant, and rich. The agendas took into consideration human needs such as movement, rest, and nourishment. The schedules balanced deep learning, reflection, peer-to-peer sharing, and direct application to daily work.

Here are five lessons that we’ve learned creating adult learning environments where critical work can get done: Continue reading

Media: “Democrats Want to Raise Teacher Pay. Here’s How the Government Can Really Help — By Promoting Pension Reform” in The 74 Million

My colleague Chad Aldeman and I have a new opinion piece out in The 74 Million. In it, we argue that many states are simply ill-equipped to address their rising teacher pension costs and mounting unfunded liabilities. We propose the federal government has a role to play here, by providing financial assistance in exchange for critical pension reforms:

…The federal government could offer states pension bailouts in exchange for changes that address longer-term systemic issues, such as meeting actuarially required contributions, using more conservative investment assumptions and implementing a risk-sharing pool for underfunded pension plans.

Read the full op-ed here. And check out our new report on teacher pension reform in West Virginia here.

Bellwether Is One of D.C.’s Best Places to Work

Bellwether Education Partners was just chosen as one of the 50 best places to work (find us on page 93) in the Washington, D.C. area by Washingtonian, the iconic lifestyle magazine. The publication releases its Great Places to Work list every two years and has, in the past, highlighted D.C.-based companies like NASA, Vox Media, and the Data Quality Campaign. A few years ago (more than I want to admit), Washingtonian put me on its list of “40 under 40” to watch on the Washington scene. That was a nice nod, but I can’t think of a better way to return to its pages than as part of an organization I helped launch. I’m pleased we’re being recognized for giving people a good place to work — after all, we spend a lot of our lives at work.

This year, nearly 200 companies applied for the title of Great Places To Work. Winners varied in size and sector, from big tech firms to lean nonprofits, like ours, employing anywhere from 11 to 8,000 people — we have about 60.

Winners were largely chosen by how employees rated things like pay and benefits, work/life balance, and their company’s commitment to charity and community. Bellwether scored at or above average on all categories (except the quality of our coffee, which currently sucks and isn’t especially environmentally responsible), including job satisfaction; feeling challenged, interested, and recognized in their work; and whether or not people on our team would recommend working at Bellwether to a friend. Our team also felt confident in Bellwether’s financial health, management structures, and professional development opportunities.

When we (the four co-founders) founded Bellwether in 2010, we put a premium on flexibility and working to results so our team could do their best work while making decisions that made sense for them and their families. “Live your life and get [stuff] done” was our informal motto. We also emphasized trust — trust that if we hired smart people, they’d make smart decisions about how to use their time, how to do the work, and how to improve Bellwether. That’s why we’re able to have a D.C. office but also lots of remote employees. This strategy also allows Bellwether to source the best talent in the country and our team members to, well, live their lives while getting stuff done. If you want the office experience, we have that. If you thrive with remote work, we have that, too, or a balance of the two (which is what I prefer).

That flexibility, trust, and convergence of identities, ideas, and geographies make us unique, give us a competitive edge, and make us one of the great places to work in Washington, D.C.

I hope you’ll join us in celebrating.