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.

You’ve already talked about how Opportunity Culture works from a teacher’s perspective. What would it look like from a student’s perspective?

In Opportunity Culture schools, students would notice more adult contact. The multi-classroom leader might be in and out of the classroom, or they might be working with them (the students) in a small group setting. The students perceive that as an additional teacher added to the mix, somebody else who knows them. The multi-classroom leaders are often supplemented by paraprofessional “reach associates,” another person who will get to know a student and their personal learning goals.

Can you walk me through how Opportunity Culture started, and where it is today in terms of number of cities, schools, and students?

We initially started six years ago. Public Impact is a research and consulting firm, and Opportunity Culture was a concept that we put forward. We began working with a set of Innovation Zone schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg to put these ideas into practice. That was where the work began, but it quickly spread beyond the Innovation Zone within the district. Now there are 58 schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg using Opportunity Culture, and they add new schools every year.

We’re in several cities in North Carolina, including some small districts. There’s a state grant program in North Carolina to support districts to create advanced teaching roles, and six are using that program to adopt and implement Opportunity Culture. In total, we have more than 25 districts in nine states that are now implementing Opportunity Culture.

What have you learned so far? What sort of results have you seen?

We’ve seen some pretty exciting results. Last year a third-party study came out that drew largely from Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where we have the most implementation data. The study looked at 300 teachers and found that, before teachers joined the multi-classroom leadership teams, they started on average at the 50th percentile in reading and math. When they joined the multi-classroom teams, their teaching rose to the 66th to the 72nd percentile in reading, and in math from the 75th to the 85th percentile. That’s a really big jump in the performance of teachers and their students. 74 percent of those schools were Title I schools, so we were really excited to see those results.

We’ve also seen some schoolwide results in North Carolina. Among schools that are not implementing Opportunity Culture, about 27 percent exceeded their student growth targets. If you look at schools implementing Opportunity Culture, 53 percent of schools exceeded their growth expectations.

If a district or school wants to join Opportunity Culture, what sort of changes would they have to make?

The design work occurs on two levels. First is district-level design. The district must create the Opportunity Culture roles. How will they define the multi-classroom leadership roles? What will their selection process look like? The district will also need to make decisions about what funds the school will be able to use for their design.

The second level of design is at the school level, led by a team of each school’s teachers and administrators. Schools need to have a picture of their budget and be able to make decisions in the context of that budget. They’ll carve out the stipends to pay the multi-classroom leaders and the paraprofessional associates from their existing funds. They’ll figure out how many multi-classroom leaders they’re going to have in their school and how those roles will be placed within the school, in a way that meets their unique needs. And then they’ll design a schedule to allow the multi-classroom leaders to work intensively with their teams.

What are the biggest barriers or obstacles you face? What are the hardest things for a new Opportunity Culture school to adapt to?

Usually when people come to this work, they’re excited and ready to make decisions about trade-offs. But one of the biggest challenges for the design teams is needing to think strategically about what the staffing schedule should be, without being tied to what exists today. The principals who put their design teams together are very careful to select folks who can design out of the box and keep students first in their decisions.

Are there other things you want people to know about Opportunity Culture?

There’s an important role that states can play in this work. A state could measure and report the percentage of students who are “reached” by excellent teachers. That’s the goal of Opportunity Culture, to extend the reach of excellent teachers.

There’s been a lot of work on equitable access to high-quality teachers, but the data commonly used to express that is exposure to teachers who are ineffective, inexperienced, or teaching out of field. That data ignores the aspirational side of the equation. It’s more than if a student happens to land in the classroom of an effective teacher; states should be setting goals to track whether students are reached by effective teachers, to ultimately ensure students have consistent access to excellent teaching.

This blog post is part of a series on teacher residencies. Read the other posts in the #ResidentExperts series here.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *