Tag Archives: Teacher Effectiveness

Finland and a Pandemic Taught Me That It’s High Time We Start Trusting Teachers

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

For years, Finland has been known for having one of the best education systems in the world. Much of this attention has stemmed from Finnish students’ high performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In the most recent PISA, conducted in 2018, Finland ranked sixth in reading, seventh in science, and 16th in math worldwide. The United States ranked 14th, 19th, and 38th, respectively, spurring yet another discussion about what Finland is doing right.                                                              

In 2016, when I decided I wanted to study education, Finland was an easy choice. A product of the U.S. public education system, it was hard for me to fathom a country where children didn’t start formal schooling until age 7, had little to no homework, and didn’t sit through yearly standardized tests. Finland was intriguing and I needed to find out what the buzz was about.

I spent five years as a student in the Department of Education at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland’s first teacher training college. I gained firsthand access to Finnish teachers and students, and quickly realized that the Finnish education system had earned its hype. I immediately noticed many of the things that I had read on the “top 10” global education lists such as well-resourced schools, nutritious (and appetizing) school lunches, and students who worked hard but played even harder. But the one thing that stuck out to me more than anything, was hearing people from all parts of the country say, “In Finland, we trust our teachers.” I didn’t realize that such a simple and straightforward statement could be so impactful. But as a former teacher, it was. 

Teachers in Finland are viewed as trusted professionals. Much of this trust has its origins in rigorous, highly selective teacher training programs. These programs use a high-quality teacher training model in which practical skills are taught alongside research skills. Teachers graduate from the program with a master’s degree and deep understanding of research-based pedagogical practices. Once teachers enter the classroom, they’re given autonomy to teach and assess the outlined Finnish curriculum as they see fit. Without the pressure of standardized assessments, teachers have even greater pedagogical freedom and can focus on inclusion, equity, and the diverse needs of learners. This freedom comes with great responsibility, but Finnish school leaders and teachers take this responsibility in stride with a shared goal to do whatever it takes to support and educate the nation’s youth. 

In stark contrast, it took a global pandemic for many in the U.S. to realize that teachers deserve a greater degree of recognition and respect. For decades, teachers across the U.S. have been fighting for greater pay and better working conditions. Unlike Finland, the U.S. places an ever-increasing emphasis on standardized testing, which puts pressure on schools and teachers, limits curricular flexibility, and exacerbates inequities. As schools prepare to reopen this fall, many teachers are contemplating whether they want to return to the classroom after one of the most challenging chapters of their careers. 

My experience in the Finnish education system made me not only realize how little we trust teachers in the U.S., but how that trust deficit impacts student learning and a healthy education sector as a whole. What should the U.S. do differently? 

  • First, we must do more to prepare teachers for the job through greater investments in redesigning teacher training programs and in continuous professional development. This should include not only pedagogical and practical training, but also training in research methods so that teachers are able to think analytically and critically consume innovative developments in the field. 
  • Second, teachers deserve to be given back the autonomy that factors such as high-stakes testing strip away. While autonomy is not a one-size-fits-all solution, teachers with demonstrated high performance should be allowed greater decision-making power particularly in terms of learning materials and student assessment. Teacher autonomy has been linked to greater job satisfaction, and would give teachers the flexibility to cater to the diverse needs of students in their classrooms and create greater equity and inclusion. Giving teachers this flexibility and responsibility would allow them to feel like the trusted professionals they are. 
  • Third, it’s important that school leaders emphasize building a culture of trust in their schools. Teachers should be viewed as credible experts. Giving teachers this credit and trusting them more would allow them space to feel safe and thrive in their careers.

For more than a year, we’ve been dependent on our teachers to guide our children through a pandemic. Isn’t it high time we start trusting them? 

Priyanka Patel is completing a project internship at Bellwether Education Partners this summer focused on evaluation. She has taught third and fourth grade in India and is currently pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

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 York City Comptroller Wants to Start Country’s Largest Teacher Residency; Here’s 3 Ways to Make it Successful” in Gotham Gazette

Today in the Gotham Gazette, I have a new opinion piece about a proposed teacher residency in New York City. The residency, put forth by Comptroller Scott Stringer, would be the largest in the country and cost $40 million a year.

An excerpt from my op-ed:

Teacher residencies are a high-potential pathway into the classroom. And Comptroller Stringer’s plan is particularly promising. The residency would be an alternative certification program to prepare new teachers for the classroom. In it, residents would complete a year of training, primarily in the classroom, under the tutelage of an effective mentor teacher. Classroom experience would be complemented by relevant coursework completed at an institution of higher education. Residents would receive a living stipend during the program, and at the end of it, would be able to teach in a classroom of their own.

And there’s reason to believe that Comptroller Stringer may get his way on this. Past analyses out of Stringer’s office called out issues in physical education and arts education, which ultimately led to $124 million in investments in those programs.

Stringer obviously did his homework, and proposed a residency program built on current best practices in the field. But now is the time to think through implementation. Operating an effective residency requires careful planning and design choices. Here’s what would need to be done to ensure this idea works.

Read the full piece in the Gotham Gazette.

This op-ed is part of a series on teacher residencies. Read Bellwether blog posts in the #ResidentExperts series here.

Which Aspects of the Work Environment Matter Most for New Teachers?

As a member of Bellwether’s evaluation practice, there’s nothing I love more than connecting research with policy and practice. Fortunately, I’m not alone: The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) has launched several initiatives to succinctly describe empirical research on contemporary topics in education and encourage evidence-based policymaking.

At CALDER’s recent 12th annual conference, I had the opportunity to serve as a discussant in a session on the career trajectories of teachers. The papers in this session illustrated the potential for research to inform policy and practice, but also left me wondering about the challenges policymakers often face in doing so.

Taking their First Steps: The Distribution of New Teachers into School and Classroom Contexts and Implications for Teacher Effectiveness and Growth” by Paul Bruno, Sarah Rabovsky, and Katharine Strunk uses data from Los Angeles Unified School District to explore how classroom and school contexts, such as professional interactions, are related to teacher quality and teacher retention. Their work builds on prior research that suggests school contexts are associated with the growth and retention of new teachers. As my Bellwether colleagues have noted, to ensure quality teaching at scale, we need to consider how to restructure initial employment to support new teachers in becoming effective.

In “Taking their First Steps,” the researchers developed four separate measures to understand the context in which new teachers were operating.  The measure of “instructional load” combined twelve factors, including students’ prior-year performance, prior-year absences, prior-year suspensions, class size, and the proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, eligible for special education services, or classified as English learners. “Homophily” was measured by a teacher’s similarity to students, colleagues, and administrators in terms of race and gender. “Collegial qualifications” consisted of attributes such as years of experience, National Board certification, and evaluation measures. “Professional culture” was a composite of survey responses regarding the frequency and quality of professional interactions at teachers’ school sites.

Which of these factors had impact on teachers’ observation ratings and teacher attendance? As seen in the figures below, instructional load had a significant negative relationship with teachers’ observation ratings, meaning teachers with higher instructional loads (such as students with lower prior performance, more prior absences and suspensions, or larger class sizes) received lower ratings. On the other hand, professional culture had a significant positive impact on observation ratings, meaning that in schools where teachers had more and higher-quality professional interactions, new teachers received higher observation ratings. Instructional load also had a strong negative relationship with attendance rates, meaning teachers with higher instructional loads took more personal days or used more sick leave.

Figure based on Katharine Strunk’s presentation from January 31, 2019.

Continue reading

Supporting Teachers and Leaders in Minnesota and Beyond

UPDATE: The website referenced below has been archived as of February 2020. For more information about this work, contact Jennifer O’Neal Schiess.

Minnesota is a fascinating place when it comes to education. Student populations are increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse, especially in the Twin Cities. Overall child outcomes have been historically high relative to national averages, but wide and persistent achievement gaps reveal unacceptable disparities by race, ethnicity, immigration status, and income. Local education leaders, funders, and advocates are increasingly seeking change in policy and educational programs. In this environment, it’s interesting to zoom in on work happening at a local level, to identify lessons that can be applied elsewhere in Minnesota, and in other schools, states, and cities.

Today we release Supporting Minnesota Educators, a new website from Bellwether Education Partners. This project began by looking at the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative, which aimed to improve pre-K to third grade reading outcomes in seven schools in Minnesota’s Twin Cities via formative assessments, educator professional development, and leadership supports for principals. McKnight and its partners began with bold ambitions to support significant improvements in student learning, but those gains haven’t materialized in most participating schools. These results show how complicated school improvement work can be, and also point to how policymakers can better set schools and principals up for success.

In examining evaluation results and speaking with initiative stakeholders, we found three key lessons that can inform future efforts:

  1. Foster stability among educators and leaders to allow for instructional and school culture changes to take hold
  2. Build leadership teams in schools focused on improving teaching and learning
  3. Improve training for educators so they have the knowledge and skills to provide excellent instruction for all students

Supporting Minnesota Educators expands on all three of these lessons, and brings together results from the Initiative with national research and resources. The website will also serve as a home for more resources to come on these topics in the year ahead – you can sign up for updates here. I hope this website will be a helpful resource for leaders, teachers, and advocates and generate conversation about pre-K to third grade and school improvement in Minnesota and elsewhere.