August 14, 2019

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


August 13, 2019

How Bellwether Transformed Agencies Supporting Youth in Utah, California, and Louisiana, Part 1

Quote from Atila in El Dorado County, CA saying "I just always felt behind/I never felt smart" and ""as far as learning went, there wasn't a whole lot of that. i never was able to stay in one spot for one full school year, until 7th grade. really didn't even learn to read until about 6th, 7th grade."

Atila in El Dorado County, CA (from a series of Bellwether visuals)

Young people served by multiple agencies — like schools, mental health providers, child welfare agencies, and community nonprofits — experience a fragmented network of care. In fact, as Bellwether has pointed out again and again, fragmentation across care agencies results in uncoordinated, poorly communicated, and insufficient supports for some of our nation’s most vulnerable young people. And this means they are not getting the education they need and deserve.

We’ve been working on these issues, both as researchers and consultants on the ground, for more than two years. We’ve developed a unique approach to supporting local leaders as they streamline the educational supports for high-need students and break down the silos that exist between care agencies at the state and local levels.

Our approach places the education system at the center of all services, acting as the through-line for students. We do this because schools are the places where every kid shows up — education can be the one constant in the midst of chaos. Continue reading


Media: “Washington, DC, showed how to do universal pre-K right” in Vox

For a Vox series looking at the “nation’s most intriguing experiments in local policy,” Conor Williams of The Century Foundation takes a deeper look at Washington, DC’s program of universal public prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. He argues that the investments are already paying off in terms of benefits for children and families,  and quotes me:

Nationally, private pre-K education tends to be either fancier, smaller early education programs or larger ones with shorter schedules, lower-quality instruction, and less material support. Access usually comes down to income level. This disparity has led some cities and states such as Boston and Oklahoma to extend public school offerings to pre-K kids starting at age 4 (or even 3). But DC’s program is the nation’s most comprehensive. For instance, Washington state, which began its public pre-K program in 1985, enrolls fewer 3- and 4-year-olds combined than DC, even though the state’s public school system is 12 times the size of DC’s.

DC is “the only place in the country where every family can be reasonably sure there’s a place for their 3-year-old,” says Sara Mead, an early education policy expert at Bellwether Education Partners.

Read Conor’s full piece here, and see Bellwether’s work on early childhood education here.


August 8, 2019

Media: “Private Schools Are Ready to Serve Low- and Middle-Income Students” in ExcelinEd

I have a post up on the ExcelinEd blog today (co-authored with Victoria Bell), applying the takeaways from the report Bellwether released last week, “Working Toward Equitable Access and Affordability: How Private Schools and Microschools Seek to Serve Middle- and Low-Income Students.” The post explores how Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program improves access to private school education and how financial aid from private schools helps fill the gap between average scholarship amounts and average tuition. Here’s an excerpt: 

As highlighted in the Bellwether report, participation in private school choice programs is one strategy to improve private school affordability. Florida’s choice programs make the state a strong example of how the private schooling sector can serve students from low- and middle-income families. 

[…] Relatively low rates of tuition, combined with the support of private school choice programs, increase the likelihood that middle- and low-income families in Florida can afford a private school education if that is what they choose for their child. The average scholarship amount of $6,300 covers 84 percent of tuition at half of the private schools in Florida.

Read more at ExcelinEd here, and read our posts connected to the new report here.


The Power of Asset-Based Thinking for Native Students

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