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October 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 2

Bringing Great Teachers into High-Needs Schools

A rural district finds that boosting student achievement and building teacher capacity are two sides of the same coin.

Three years ago, Pitt County Schools in North Carolina launched a pilot program to attract high-performing teachers into schools in which achievement was perilously low. The district drew on the premise of Charlotte Danielson that true teacher leaders develop collaborative relationships among colleagues and inspire fellow teachers to join them on a journey toward excellence. Little did we know that our vision of bringing good teachers into schools in need would lead us to develop a comprehensive, successful model for teacher leadership that other districts could replicate.
Pitt County Schools is a rural district in eastern North Carolina with 36 schools and approximately 23,000 students. We have schools located in the town of Greenville, home to East Carolina University, as well as in rural areas of the county. Sixty-seven percent of our students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Some Pitt County schools are struggling. As the 2010–11 school year began, four county schools were identified as being in the lowest 5 percent of schools across the state in terms of standardized test scores.
In response, the district created the Teacher Leader Cohort (TLC), a way to encourage good teachers throughout the district to transfer into low-performing schools and commit to spend at least three years at the new school, using financial rewards as incentives. Our original vision was that teacher colleagues from the same school would transfer into a low-performing school in groups of five and would work together to improve capacity at their destination school. To encourage enough teachers to leave the security of their familiar placement, however, we needed to adjust this vision and allow individual teachers as well as cohorts to transfer.
After three years, the model we're carrying out in Pitt County remains a work in progress, but it has met a need within our schools in an innovative way. Data from the 2011–12 school year (the most recent available) indicate that 80 percent of participating schools met expected growth standards on the state's accountability program, and 60 percent met high growth standards. The average growth for schools that had a teacher leader cohort in place was nearly two times the average of all schools in the district. Although the county doesn't yet have data showing whether student achievement changed at the schools the teachers transferred from, it appears to be remaining stable.

Program Basics—and Growing Pains

The district identified Pitt County teachers who had high scores on EVAAS (the state's value-added teacher evaluation model) and had taught in schools with high concentrations of poverty. We actively recruited teacher leaders from this group. We also put out the word for applications. Participants were offered a $3,000 annual bonus, distributed in monthly payments.
During the pilot year, the program placed only three teacher leaders in one school; it has expanded to bring 22 teacher leaders into six struggling schools, including the four schools in the lowest 5 percent of achievement. One group of recruited teachers moved as a cohort from their school to a different elementary school in the county, and another group became a cohort within their existing struggling school. However, most participants came to their new schools individually.
Teacher leaders in the program serve as regular classroom teachers in addition to guiding and mentoring colleagues. This wasn't true initially; our first three participants focused solely on coaching and mentoring, meeting with groups of teachers, coteaching, and modeling lessons. This situation didn't lead to ideal capacity building. Because TLC teachers had no classes of their own, fellow teachers were reluctant to accept their advice and support. After the pilot year, all participants taught their own classes. Educators in this initiative are not full-time coaches, but full-time teachers who perform leadership duties—teachers of students first and leaders of other teachers second.

TLCs in Action

Each school and grouping of teachers is different, with a different culture and needs. Individual principals tapped the talents of the leaders assigned to their schools quite differently and gave them a wide variety of responsibilities. Generally, they provide leadership within their grade level and school by
  • Serving as grade leaders or representatives.
  • Helping teachers adapt instruction for a diverse student population through coplanning, coteaching, or lesson modeling.
  • Mentoring beginning and veteran teachers to improve student learning.
  • Improving their own leadership and team-building skills through participation in professional learning experiences.
Cary's experience with the 4th grade team at Valley Elementary is typical. Cary introduced his colleagues to the practice of data analysis and building common assessments. Once the teachers began giving frequent common assessments and looking at the data together, they realized what they were and weren't teaching successfully. They began working to fill the gaps and used fluid student groupings to give kids remediation and enrichment. They started maintaining data notebooks and encouraging other teachers to do so.
When Cary realized, through listening to teachers, that they'd begun taking ownership of their students' learning, he knew he was having an effect. At year's end, Valley's 4th graders had the top scores in math in the district and the second highest in reading.
Another TLC teacher worked with 8th grade teachers in a professional learning community to coach them in cross-curricular integration strategies. Benchmark data indicated that students struggled with reading and writing informational texts, so the teacher leader coached social studies and science teachers on how to integrate content-appropriate informational texts into their classes to address appropriate English language arts standards.

Lessons Learned

Although there's no one-size-fits-all approach to teacher leadership, Pitt County learned three lessons that applied to all participants.

1. Leadership must reach inside and outside the classroom.

The most important lesson was this: An individual teacher's work to raise his or her students' achievement is only one component of an effective model for teacher leadership. Our leaders decidedly didn't want to limit themselves to this component.
Program participants overwhelmingly indicated that the two ways a leader can make a difference in a school—through improving achievement by working directly with hard-to-reach students and through building the capacity of other teachers in the building who instruct the same or similar students—cannot be separated from each other. In the first year of full implementation, some principals asked their TLC teachers to focus only on teaching one group of students and hold off on coaching colleagues. Several of these teachers indicated that they were considering withdrawing from the program while remaining in their low-performing schools (which would have meant forfeiting the monthly stipend) because of being limited to working with students.
TLC teachers wanted to receive rewards when their students performed well on state tests, but they didn't want student performance data to represent all their influence and value. They wanted to lead in their classroom and throughout the school.

2. Financial incentives are important, but not sufficient.

We found that money isn't the only incentive needed to recruit teacher leaders to at-risk schools. TLC teachers certainly reported that the monthly stipend of $300 affected their decision to join the program, and they welcomed the funds. But they weren't looking just for money. Most participants reported that a good work environment, a principal and school that were open to their leadership, the knowledge that they were having an effect on fellow teachers as well as kids, and a sense of being valued were what made them stay in a high-needs school.
In addition to the stipend, the county gave teacher leaders other rewards, including an iPad for classroom use and professional development opportunities. During the 2012–13 school year, the district invested more than $40,000 in professional development specifically for TLC teachers. Because these educators were already accomplished at working with students, professional development focused on leadership development and how to work with adults. Some of our leaders faced skepticism or resistance from a school's long-standing teachers when they tried to bring in new approaches or instructional methods. They needed strategies for successfully introducing change to colleagues and for working well with groups that included many different types of personalities and learning styles.
In summer 2013, TLC teachers received 10 paid days of professional development through the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, to attend the ASCD Conference on Teaching Excellence, and to collaboratively design professional learning for teachers at their schools, drawing on what they'd learned in these programs.

3. Leaders need support outside their school.

In the district's original vision, three to five TLC teachers would work as a cohort in a high-needs school and provide a built-in support system for one another. We learned that this support system was not enough. Teacher leaders needed support from outside the building; they needed chances to converse and collaborate with TLC teachers in other schools and a designated person to contact with concerns and questions. So the district set up an opportunity for all TLC teachers to meet monthly as a group to share ideas and support. We provided substitutes so they could visit one another in their respective schools to observe and collaborate.
During the 2012–13 school year, Pitt County Schools hired a part-time liaison between the district and the TLC program. A central office coordinator assumed responsibilities for the professional development of the program and was another contact person for teacher leaders. These supports gave program participants confidantes with whom they could share successes and challenges—and possibly bring about change at the system level.

Moving Forward

Although TLC participants found their monthly meetings helpful, they reported that it was difficult to support and guide one another because they held such a wide variety of responsibilities and roles across the district. To better guide both principals and TLC teachers, we developed a three-tier framework for the program, spelling out the conditions, responsibilities, and incentives for all teacher leaders participating in the program. The district began implementing this model this school year. The framework, shown in Figure 1, was designed to be flexible enough to accommodate site-based needs but specific enough to ensure consistency across the district.

FIGURE 1. Criteria, Expectations, and Incentives in Pitt County's Teacher Leader Cohort (TLC) Program

Bringing Great Teachers into High-Needs Schools-table

Tier I

Tier II

Tier III

Criteria for teacher leaders at this level Identification through EVAAS3 as "Exceeds Expectations" on individual teacher effectiveness data Recommendation from school principal Two letters of reference from fellow teachersCriteria for teacher leaders at this level Two years as Tier I-level TLC teacher or two years in an identified school Identification through EVAAS as "Exceeds Expectations" on individual teacher effectiveness data Recommendation from principal at high-needs school where teacher works Two letters of reference from fellow teachersCriteria for teacher leaders at this level Two years as TLC teacher Identification through EVAAS as "Exceeds Expectations" on individual teacher effectiveness data Recommendation from principal at high-needs school where teacher works. Two letters of reference from fellow teachers
Expectations Accept reassignment to identified school4 Provide leadership in assigned department or grade level Work through the PLC process to analyze data, improve teaching strategies, and increase student achievement Attend required professional development Focus: Classroom and team/gradeExpectations Continue work as Tier I TLC teacher Provide leadership within the school on School Improvement Team, Leadership Teams, etc. Mentor an assigned BT15 and BT2 teacher Focus: Classroom, team, & schoolExpectations Continue work as Tier I and II TLC teacher Supervise and train two student interns as assigned by East Carolina University Mentor an assigned BT1 and BT2 teacher Facilitate the planning and teamwork of student interns and BT teachers Focus: Classroom, team, school, and BTs and Interns
Incentives $3,000 + technology + 10 days Professional developmentIncentives $5,000 + technology + 10 days professional developmentIncentives $8,000 + technology + 10 Days professional development

The new model refines the focus on building capacity in high-needs schools by better defining expectations across the county at three different tiers. It increases the compensation and professional development opportunities for teacher leaders and differentiates expectations while maintaining the structures already put into place.
As TLC teachers' students continue to perform well on state tests and teachers receive recognition as successful leaders from their colleagues, they can progress through three tiers, receiving increased responsibilities and compensation with each tier. A leader at the higher tiers may be reassigned to a new low-performing school. Tier II leaders continue to work as classroom teachers, mentor beginning teachers, and lead existing school teams, such as our School Improvement Team. TLC teachers at Tier III (master teachers) work with beginning teachers and student interns pursuing a teaching degree, thus influencing the next generation of teachers. University interns serve as coteachers in the master teacher's classroom and may also work with beginning teachers who are under the master teacher's tutelage. This helps free the master teacher up to work with other teachers in the building.
Building the capacity of teachers is the surest way to improve student achievement. Pitt County's success building a process to bring capacity-building teachers with a track record of success into schools with low student achievement confirms the findings of York-Barr and Duke that the development of teacher leaders affects not only the achievement of students, but also the practice of teachers throughout the school.
Author's note: All teacher and school names are pseudonyms.
End Notes

1 Danielson, C. (2006). Teacher Leadership that Strengthens Professional Practice. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

2 The financial bonus was especially welcome because North Carolina teachers' salary steps were frozen by the state in 2008 and required contributions for health insurance and state retirement increased in that time. Many county teachers actually make less money now than four years ago.

6 York-Barr, J., & Duke, K. (2004). What Do We Know about Teacher Leadership? Findings from Two Decades of Scholarship. Review of Educational Research, 74(3), 255–316.

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