This piece is based on our conversation with Genevieve Quist Green, Consulting Manager, and Melissa Galvez, Senior Editor for Content and Distribution, at Education Resource Strategies (ERS). Before joining ERS, Genevieve was the Massachusetts Policy Director at Stand for Children and a middle school English teacher in Los Angeles. She also holds her Doctorate in Social Policy from Oxford. Melissa previously taught English with Teach for America in Houston and has worked with several education non-profits. She holds her Master of Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. ERS is a national non-profit that partners with district, school, and state leaders to transform how they use resources (people, time, and money) to prepare every child for tomorrow.
What Can We Learn From The Fastest Improving Schools?
In this piece, we’ll be reviewing some of the key findings from ERS’ report: Designing Schools That Work. You can check out the full report here. You can also check out the new Get Started section on the ERS website where you can explore tools, worksheets, videos, and briefs on each of the topics we cover below.
Through years of research and practice around strategic resource use, Education Resource Strategies (ERS) has found that high-performing, high-growth schools use their resources – people, time, and money – in ways that look very different from the status quo. Let’s face it – although education has changed dramatically in the last several decades, the way that we allocate resources remains very much the same:
“Students are divided into classrooms of 20 to 30 students, and they study a particular subject for a set period of time – usually about 50 minutes per day for 180 days – instructed by one teacher. Teachers have roughly the same set of responsibilities on day one of their job as they will have on the last day of their career.”
In order to improve student outcomes, it’s clear that schools have to think far more deliberately about how they deploy resources. Indeed, ERS has found that high-performing schools serving high-need students organize around six design essentials. Below, we list and describe each of them:
1) Empowering Curricula, Instruction, and Assessment: Uphold rigorous, college- and career-ready standards and use effective curricula, instructional strategies, and assessment to achieve them
2) Expert-led Collaboration and Professional Learning: Organize teachers into expert-led teams focused on the design and delivery of instruction, and provide ongoing growth-oriented feedback
3) Talent Management and Teacher Leadership: Attract and retain the best teachers and design and assign roles and responsibilities to match skills to school and student need
4) Personalized Time and Attention: Match student grouping, learning time, technology, and programs to individual student needs
5) Responsive Learning Community: Ensure that students are deeply known and that more intensive social and emotional supports are integrated when necessary
6) Growth-oriented Adult Culture: Grow a collaborative culture where teachers and leaders share ownership of a common instructional vision and student learning
Note: This is a recently updated graphic depicting ERS’s Strategic School Design – one should be aware that the wording has changed slightly from the original 2017 report. To maintain consistency with the original report, we use the language and terms contained in it.
In this piece, we’ll take a deeper look at the four components that are most closely linked to a school leader’s decisions around people, time and money – Expert-led Collaboration and Professional Learning, Talent Management and Teacher Leadership, Personalized Time and Attention, and Responsive Learning Community.
While we will set aside the two remaining components – Empowering Curricula, Instruction, and Assessment and Growth-oriented Adult Culture – for now, it should be noted that both are very important. The curriculum a school or district selects will clearly shape decisions around the delivery of instruction, and the culture of an organization permeates throughout everything it does. We’ll examine these two essential in greater depth in a future piece.
Finally, it should be noted that these design essentials are dependent on each other. For example, you can’t have expert-led collaboration without experts on campus. And you can’t have true content experts if you haven’t built the systems for talent management and teacher leadership.
Designing Expert-led Collaboration and Professional Learning
ERS Conclusion: “We’ve consistently seen that instruction in high-performing schools is not performed by individual teachers, but by teams of educators who all work together to achieve the best possible results for their collective students.”
There are 3 common elements of schools that do this very well. Their professional learning communities have:
1) Content-focused, expert led collaboration: Organize teachers into teams, led by content experts, that have the time, support, and culture of trust and learning to collaborate on instruction
2) Rigorous, comprehensive curricula and assessments: Ensure that all schools have access to rigorous and coherent curricula, assessments, and other instructional resources, aligned to college- and career-ready standards
3) Frequent, growth-oriented feedback: Provide regular feedback from content experts that helps teachers improve instructional practice
One of the most significant reasons that teachers rate PLCs poorly is the lack of highly specific support for their content needs. And one of the reasons for this is that schools lack enough content experts that can skillfully navigate the more rigorous demands of the Common Core standards.
What’s the solution? Over time, schools need to plan for and invest in well-designed teacher leadership roles with teachers who are highly specialized in their content areas. As you can imagine, this also allows for the creation of strong career leadership pathways.
Designing Talent Management and Teacher Leadership
Talent management at school has traditionally been very difficult. Here’s how ERS describes the problem: “We’ve seen that in many schools, the urgent day-to-day work of implementing instruction, responding to behavior, and managing operations crowds out critical efforts to deliberately manage and organize available teacher talent. In most tradition schools, there is only one teaching job. The roles and responsibilities are the same for a first-year teacher as they are for a highly effective veteran.”
What can be done?
ERS Conclusion: “High-performing schools break from the tradition of a one-size-fits-all teaching job by differentiating teaching roles and assignments to match individuals’ unique skills and expertise to the needed roles.”
Put another way, a key part of managing talent is organizing well-defined teacher leader roles for vetted content experts who support collaboration and growth-oriented feedback cycles across teams. ERS has found that these new positions are most effective when teacher-leaders become highly specialized in their content areas, are given enough time to complete their newly added leadership responsibilities, and are connected to an integrated development model (where the same individual providing coaching support on content is the same person who is coming into the classroom to coach).
ERS provided us with several additional resources for schools to explore when considering their leadership and career pathways.
1) The ERS Leadership and Career Pathways Checklist (excerpt shown below):
The following excerpt (from Designing Schools that Work) is a case study on how one school went about improving talent management and implementing teacher leadership roles:
Designing Personalized Time and Attention
ERS Conclusion: “Critically, high-performing schools also build schoolwide systems that support more targeted and flexible use of the resources that support differentiated and individualized instruction: people, time, programs, and technology. This means tailoring schedules, class sizes, teacher loads, and technology to the specific needs of individual students, content areas, and lesson types.”
This means that schools have to get creative with the use of their resources and recognize every decision it makes has the power to further improve student outcomes. The ERS report gives many examples of how this could look – here are just a few:
Provide writing teachers with smaller student loads so they can provide more meaningful written feedback to students several times a week
Key transition subjects (like Algebra 1) could be given additional time in the master schedule or be instructed by a school’s most expert teachers
Science courses may have extended blocks once a week to facilitate hands-on lab work
Resources can be flexibly applied for individual students over time (for example, if a student is placed into an additional reading block, they can exit at midyear based on performance, just as new students would be able to enter)
Flexible blocks can be built into the schedule to provide for tutoring, intervention, or enrichment
Designing Responsive Learning Community
ERS Conclusion: “We’ve seen that leaders at high-performing schools view the work to create a responsive learning community as the job of a broad group of stakeholders, including every staff member, students, and parents . . . They then invest in specific structures, processes, and routines that bring to life these shared values in the context of caring relationships between students and adults and students and students.”
The basic idea here is that schools should be constantly responding to the needs of students. If instruction needs to be adapted to provide students with more support, then a school’s resources should be adapted to provide it. Once again, ERS provides several suggestions on how this could happen:
Provide smaller class sizes for core classes (and larger class sizes for electives)
Encourage teachers to further split students into smaller groups within their core classes to provide data-informed, small-group instruction
Ensure that teachers who share students also share planning time
Provide for meaningful advocacy or advisory blocks – this might be where 10-12 students meet with teachers and school staff for 30-45 minutes a day to identify academic concerns and build school relationships (but would look different at the elementary, middle, and high-school levels)
Don’t hesitate to provide targeted support and programming for students who need it
Stay tuned! Later, we’ll share a follow-up piece that covers ERS recommendations on the final two design essentials – curriculum and growth-oriented adult culture.