Education Innovation: Public Impact

Districts, states, and charter school networks around the country have found ways to elevate teacher quality, raise the prestige of the teaching profession, and promote equal access to quality education for all students. For our new “Education Innovation” blog series, we’re interviewing education leaders who are successfully using innovative strategies to make sure that every student has an effective teacher, every day. By removing the state laws handcuffing California to an outdated teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff system, the Vergara v. California lawsuit will give California schools the opportunity to join these education innovators. Stay tuned to read their stories and envision what’s possible for California!

Do you know of other states, districts or schools that are using creative strategies to support effective teaching? We want to hear about them! Tell us @Students_Matter #EdInnovation.


Interview with Bryan Hassel, Co-Director of Public Impact

What is your background in education and how did you become involved in Public Impact and the Opportunity Culture initiative?

I started my career doing anti-poverty work, aiming to create affordable housing and jobs in disadvantaged communities. I was drawn to education because it ought to be, and can be, the best anti-poverty weapon we have. But too often, it’s not. Emily Ayscue Hassel and I formed Public Impact in the ’90s to help make good on that promise by making great schools the norm, not the exception. The Opportunity Culture initiative is our effort to help schools reach all students with excellent teachers by 2025. It came out of a series of papers Emily and I wrote, beginning with 3X for All: Extending the Reach of Education’s Best. Opportunity at the Top and Seizing Opportunity at the Top followed that; in 2011, we launched the Opportunity Culture initiative.

How is Opportunity Culture different from the standard instruction or school structure in your district or state?

An Opportunity Culture uses job redesign and age- and child-appropriate technology to reach more students with excellent teachers, for more pay, within budget—every one of those elements differs from the standard. It takes teachers from the isolation of “one teacher, one classroom,” and puts excellent teachers—that top 25 percent who produce enough progress every year to close achievement gaps and let all students leap ahead—in charge of many more students’ learning.

How to Reach Every Student with Excellent Teaching: A New Virtuous Cycle

Along with extending the reach of excellent teachers, an Opportunity Culture provides multiple roles for new and developing teachers to aim for excellence themselves. Most of the Opportunity Culture jobs create teaching teams and provide school-day time for the planning and collaboration teachers desperately want. And they create savings that allow paying excellent teachers—and in some cases all teachers—substantially more.

So, for example, excellent teachers can continue to teach while leading multi-classroom teams—having the teachers they lead use their materials and methods, helping everyone on the team excel and develop. Because the leaders take accountability for the learning of all students in their “pods,” they get much higher pay—as much as 130 percent more.Or teachers can focus on the subjects or roles they excel in, with paraprofessionals taking on some tasks so the specializing teachers can reach more students and find time for team planning and development. Some Opportunity Culture models also use digital instruction for age-appropriate periods—as little as an hour per day—to teach the basics, so that excellent teachers have time to reach more students and focus on the higher-order teaching they do so well. For all of these roles, the higher pay that comes with extended reach comes through savings in regular per-pupil funds—not special grants that will soon run out.

What if any obstacles—political, financial, institutional— did you have to overcome to establish Opportunity Culture and what obstacles do you face on a regular basis?

We created the job and financial models for an Opportunity Culture, but it’s up to individual schools and districts to implement them—teachers should be heavily involved in choosing and designing what new roles work best in their schools. Through the Opportunity Culture initiative, we’re working directly with some pilot schools in Charlotte and Nashville to create Opportunity Culture schools—and we put all our materials online, for free, so that any school or district can do this without direct help from us. Several charter school networks have used the materials to inform the design of their new schools. We initially thought teachers might be wary, but we’ve been so inspired by how eagerly teachers on these design teams, and their colleagues across the schools, have embraced these approaches as ways to create more opportunities for growth and advancement. Teachers seem to be the new roles’ biggest fans, with more than 700 applying for the 19 new positions the Charlotte schools created in year one.

In districts, the move toward Opportunity Culture models can definitely run up against policy barriers, since most policies were designed around the one teacher, one classroom mode. In Charlotte, for example, implementing pay increases and new roles across the district, not just in today’s pilot schools, will require changes in state policy on how the district can use the money for state-funded positions. Charlotte can reallocate local funds to pay more for new roles without increasing school budgets, but scaling up will require more flexibility. The district’s evaluation system will also need to evolve to work for the new roles—for example, by including all of a pod’s student results fully in the evaluation of a team leader. And those are just a couple of illustrations. We highlighted many policy concerns in Seizing Opportunity at the Top, along with a checklist of what policymakers can do to help reach all students with excellent teaching.

How does Opportunity Culture foster excellence within the classroom?

Opportunity Culture roles allow our excellent teachers—those whose teaching produces far more than the typical “year’s worth of growth”—to reach more students. Schools can help all students aspire to excellence by giving them excellent teaching every year, in every subject. Having excellent teachers every year can bring students who started out behind up to speed, and allow students already at grade level and above to leap ahead as well. At the same time, recognizing and empowering those excellent teachers to help their peers use their strengths in a variety of new roles brings a culture of excellence and opportunity into every classroom, every day. Finally, that collaborative culture that recognizes and rewards teachers for excellence will make teaching a much more appealing—and excellent—profession.

How does Opportunity Culture identify and support teachers who may be struggling?

Because nearly all the Opportunity Culture models take teachers out of the one teacher, one classroom mode, teachers can quickly receive the support they need. If they struggle to teach all subjects in elementary school, they can focus just on those they excel in (such as math/science or language arts/social studies). By working on teams led by identified excellent teachers, they can learn those teachers’ methods while contributing their own skills to an excellent outcome for all students in their “pod.” Because these models free school-day time, struggling teachers will find more time for planning and collaboration with great teachers—the kind of professional development teachers say they want most.

How does Opportunity Culture identify, reward, and extend the reach of great teachers?

Each school or district must decide for itself how to identify its excellent teachers, preferably through multiple measures that include their students’ academic growth, their teaching practice, and other factors. We do offer online a selection, development, and evaluation toolkit that Opportunity Culture schools can use. An Opportunity Culture rewards its teachers with significantly higher pay, through having excellent teachers reach more students through multi-classroom leadership and age-appropriate amounts of digital instruction, thus freeing up additional per-pupil funds. This can also create teacher roles with lighter workloads that pay less for less responsibility or shorter hours. Our financial summary explains all the ways an Opportunity Culture creates the savings needed to pay teachers more. We extend the reach of great teachers through the changes in teaching jobs explained above.

How will you evaluate the success of Opportunity Culture?

We are tracking the results of Opportunity Culture schools, both for student learning and in other ways, such as teacher retention. We’ve begun a series of case studies looking at not just our pilot schools, but other promising programs around the country that follow the principles of an Opportunity Culture. If we can reach many more students with excellent teaching, keep excellent teachers in the classroom, pay them what they deserve, and attract more top candidates to teaching, we will know we’re on the right track.

Do you know of other states, districts or schools that are using creative strategies to support effective teaching? We want to hear about them! Tell us @Students_Matter #EdInnovation.