State Leaders, Seize ESSA's Opportunities for Excellence. Here's How.

State Leaders, Seize ESSA's Opportunities for Excellence. Here's How.
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President Barack Obama talks with student Sofia Rios, of Arlington, Va., right, as he signs the Every Student Succeeds Act. (AP Photo)

RCEd Commentary

State and district leaders have a great new opportunity under the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act: more flexibility in spending the funds they receive than in prior versions.

But let’s face it: Most states won’t seize this opportunity to strive for greater excellence in students’ learning. Even fewer are likely to do so in a way that really helps teachers and principals excel.

Too bad for the kids. Decades of reform and school improvement efforts, beginning long before 2001’s No Child Left Behind, strongly indicate that more freedom to spend federal funds is not enough. Achievement across socioeconomic levels was lower before NCLB’s strict directives than afterward. For example, just 8 to 13 percent of low-income students were proficient in reading or math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2000, rising to 18 to 24 percent by 2015. Despite progress across income levels, though, achievement gaps remained intact and about 40 to 50 percent of economically advantaged U.S. students still were not proficient in basic academic skills by 2015.

Yet more jobs than ever will require post-secondary education and training, and job growth is high in STEM subjects, for which schools face some of the greatest teacher shortages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that STEM occupations employment will grow by 10 percent from 2015 to 2025, compared with 6.5 percent growth for non-STEM occupations. Students need advanced coursework and strong thinking skills in all subjects. But entry into teaching preparation programs has fallen.

If state leaders want learning outcomes that truly prepare students for their future, they need a new approach. Instead of retreating to pre-NCLB terrain, leaders must use the lessons from NCLB to leap ahead to approaches that both work for students and feel great to educators. Among those lessons: a focus on good, solid teaching is not enough to propel the mass of students ahead of their beginnings, and reforms must help teachers improve and excel in their careers, while inspiring promising, new teachers to enter the profession.

School designs, teacher and principal roles, and strategies for change in struggling schools all must focus on achieving excellence, not merely “effective,” or average, teaching and learning. How can leaders get these elements right to build a real culture of excellence—one that attracts even more talented people, keeps them for longer careers, and helps them excel?

In a new report, we lay out four key opportunities in ESSA for state leaders to substantially increase the positive impact of federal funds on students’ learning and educators’ careers—and strategies to take advantage of those opportunities:

1. Supporting Excellent Educators. Establish strong incentives for local education agencies (LEAs) to adopt team-based teaching models that extend the reach of excellent teachers to more students, with formal authority for those students’ outcomes; pay team leaders more from sustainable sources; and ensure that all teachers have daily, job-embedded support to improve. Add paid teacher and principal residencies and multi-school leader roles for greater impact. These models can be used in all types of schools, not just low-performing ones. Use Title II state set-aside funds to support LEAs in making these changes.

Schools and districts using a multi-classroom leadership model, such as Ranson IB Middle in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, let excellent teachers continue to teach part of the day while leading a teaching team, taking accountability for the learning results of all the students on the team—for much higher pay within the school’s budget. After taking the model schoolwide in 2014–15, Ranson had the highest growth among Title I district schools in the state and was in the state’s top 1 percent overall for growth.  Schools in at least five other states are trying similar models to extend great teachers’ reach to more students and develop all teachers on the job. Some are adding paid residencies for aspiring educators on these teams and adding multi-school leadership.

2. Academic Standards, Assessment, and Supports for Students. Instead of just setting high standards, help students achieve them by ensuring that great teachers are formally responsible for more students’ growth and have time to lead all teachers toward excellence on the job, for much higher pay that lets teachers earn more without leaving teaching. Use Title II for transition costs.

At Ranson and most schools using multi-classroom leadership, teacher-leaders have school-day time to coach, co-teach, plan and collaborate with their team teachers, supporting them in instructional and classroom management techniques and analysis of their students’ achievement data. Teacher-leaders are accountable for the outcomes of all the students served by their teaching teams.

3. Accountability, Support, and Improvement for Schools. Pursue turnarounds or restarts in the lowest-performing schools —that is, a state’s bottom 5 percent of schools, or those that fail to graduate more than two-thirds of students -- using methods that have worked best elsewhere. Build a pipeline of turnaround principals and schoolwide teams of teacher-leaders to help all teachers excel. Fund transition with the 7 percent of Title I, A dollars set aside for school improvement.

Ranson Middle’s principal created a “team of leaders” made up of assistant principals and multi-classroom leaders. The “team of leaders” approach clarified responsibility for analyzing student data and leading change in each grade and subject, much like unit and department heads in successful turnarounds across sectors—with more manageable spans of staff to lead than principals have.  Some of these teacher-leaders will likely supply the future principal pipeline, for Ranson and beyond.

4. State and District Reporting. Go beyond reporting the percentage of ineffective, unqualified teachers.  That’s a low bar when students need great teachers, not just adequate ones, to close gaps by inducing more than a year’s worth of learning each year, so students can leap ahead. Reporting numbers of lagging teachers also does not reward schools that find ways to offer paid career paths that extend the reach of their strongest teachers to more students. Address these shortfalls by requiring LEAs to report the percentage of students who have excellent teachers formally accountable for their learning.  Break down the results by student subgroup and school. 

Schools like Ranson would stand out under such a metric, and states would begin to see that their most precious assets—the great teachers they already have—can help far more students, and teaching colleagues, if given the chance.

Instead of settling back into the old days—when states were freer, but children learned less—state leaders must choose excellence. They must lead the way toward choosing school designs, new educator roles, and strategies for change that help a lot more teachers and principals excel in the chief job of schools: teaching and learning. Without that leadership, we’ll realize how bad the old days were when we see the impact on students’ learning, their job prospects and our nation’s economic fate.

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