Future of Learning

Using teacher-leaders to improve schools

“Opening the door for innovation” by extending the impact of the best teachers to more students

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Edgecombe County Public Schools in rural North Carolina has long had trouble filling all of its open teaching positions. Historically, there just hasn’t been enough interest among qualified candidates. But that’s changing.

Edgecombe is still a rural district with a high-poverty student body, but a new staffing model has made its schools newly desirable for teachers who want to be school leaders without leaving the classroom. The model stems from an idea laid out in a paper almost a decade ago by Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan Hassel, co-presidents of Public Impact, an education advocacy organization. That idea is simple: Students chalk up three times the learning gains in classrooms with the most effective teachers (those in the top quintile), so if it’s not possible to hire only the most effective teachers, why not expand those teachers’ reach?

The first schools to implement what Public Impact calls an “Opportunity Culture,” did so during the 2013-14 school year, and Edgecombe County Public Schools is set to become the first district to bring the model systemwide. So far, eight of its 13 traditional schools have hired teacher-leaders who not only put their great teaching to use in front of students, but also coach their colleagues to spread their best practices. Next year, the remaining five schools will do the same. In each school, teacher-leaders get paid more to compensate them for taking on the extra work and responsibility of their expanded roles.

Erin Swanson, the district’s director of innovation, said administrators latched onto the model as both a recruitment tool and a way to retain good teachers who might otherwise be tempted to leave Edgecombe County Public Schools for more money elsewhere or school leadership positions outside of teaching. They’d also had a hard time supporting the many early-career teachers who dominate their staffing pool and saw Opportunity Culture as a way to do that better.

While the eight schools using this model have historically started the year with two to four empty teaching positions, Swanson said this year they had none, which she attributes to Opportunity Culture. And beyond the staffing solution, Swanson said the new model has led to profound collaboration among teachers and created a sense of momentum for other school improvement efforts.

“It really opens up a door for more innovation,” Swanson said.

Each school that embarks on creating an Opportunity Culture does so in a unique way, based on its needs. One of Edgecombe’s elementary schools created three teacher-leader positions to focus on improving literacy among students in third grade and younger. A middle school recognized its area of need was in high-quality math instruction, so it hired a teacher-leader to work in that subject. Another elementary school has a teacher-leader supporting English language arts teachers in grades three through five, as well as one focused on supporting both special and general education teachers to improve services for students with special needs.

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Schools also pay for the teacher-leaders differently. Public Impact encourages sustainability, asking schools to fit the extra pay for teacher-leaders into their core budgets, rather than turning to grant money, for example. Some schools hire fewer teachers overall, increasing the number of students each teacher-leader works with by having paraprofessionals help out in their classrooms. Some pull money from other parts of their school budgets to cover the supplemental salary.

Making all these decisions takes time. That’s why Edgecombe County Public Schools rolled out the model districtwide over the course of three years. Already, though, the district is seeing results from its early adopters on standardized test scores. Based on state expectations for student growth, a middle and elementary school went from underperforming during the 2016-17 school year to meeting growth expectations last year, according to Swanson. North Edgecombe High School has exceeded growth expectations two years in a row and entered the top 20 percent of schools in the state on that measure. All three schools that started using the model last year met or exceeded growth expectations.

These are major accomplishments in Edgecombe County. Swanson said that Opportunity Culture could be transformational.

“We know that in order to really do things differently,” she said, “to reimagine what education looks like for our kids, we have got to have the most amazing people at every level.”

About 250 schools nationwide are either designing an Opportunity Culture or have already created one, according to Public Impact. That means approximately 1,600 teachers and 50,000 students are teaching and learning under this model, the group says.

Educators have been particularly enthusiastic about the extra coaching and support from the teacher-leaders, according to Sharon Barrett, vice president of communications for Public Impact. Teachers essentially get real-time professional development targeted to the exact areas in which they need to improve. And while they are opening themselves up to critiques, it’s not by the people who conduct their formal observations (which have consequences for their pay and job security).

“There’s a feeling of ‘we’re all on the same team,’ and people feel more open to having their challenges exposed because they know they’re going to get the support,” Barrett said.

This story about innovation through teacher-leaders was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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