Education Resource Strategies Creates Opportunities for Teacher Collaboration

Our report "Teachers at Work: Designing Schools Where Teachers and Students Thrive," identified several organizations and models to learn from as we aim to nurture positive work environment in schools. ERS's Strategic School Design focuses on creating a strong school culture where teachers have space and time to collaborate in a meaningful way. We want to spotlight this for the field to consider and watch when contemplating broader action to address these issues.

Q: For readers who may not be familiar with your organization and its work, please provide a brief description of your organization.

Education Resource Strategies is a national nonprofit that partners with district, school, and state leaders to transform how they use resources (people, time, and money) to create strategic school systems that enable every school to prepare every child for tomorrow, no matter their race or income. Our work integrates data analysis, design, and implementation, with a focus on these five areas: school funding and portfolio, teaching, leadership, school design, and school support and accountability. ERS has partnered with more than 40 school systems since 2005, as well as several states. In all our work, we focus on the larger picture — how resources work together to create strategic systems that support strong schools.

Q: In what ways are you/your organization ensuring teachers have sufficient high-quality,
relevant opportunities for professional growth  and collaboration during the school day? Why do you see this as core to the work?

High-performing schools begin with a clear vision of student success and instructional quality, and then deliberately organize resources — people, time, technology, and money — to implement a coherent set of research-backed strategies to reach this vision. We call this practice Strategic School Design, and for the last decade, ERS has been working with schools and school systems to develop strategic school designs that improve instruction and student learning. While there is no one “right way” to organize resources, we’ve seen high-performing schools serving high-need students organize around six common design essentials:

1. Instruction: Uphold rigorous, college- and career-ready standards and use effective curricula, instructional strategies, and assessments to achieve them.
2. Teacher Collaboration: Organize teachers into expert-led teams focused on the design and delivery of instruction, and provide ongoing growth-oriented feedback.
3. Talent Management: Attract and retain the best teachers and design and assign roles and responsibilities to match skills to school and student need.
4. Time and Attention: Match student grouping, learning time, technology, and programs to individual student needs.
5. Whole Child: 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.

ERS works alongside principals and their leadership teams to help them create strategic school designs, often focused on creating more opportunities for professional growth and collaboration during the school day. We also work with district leaders to help change system conditions that can lead to more strategic designs.

Q: What are the key elements of your work that best enable these opportunities?

Our school design process helps school leaders identify their students’ most urgent needs and then change how they allocate people, time, and money to address those needs. We begin with a comprehensive needs assessment that goes beyond the steps of a typical improvement process to build a nuanced understanding of school need and enable school leaders to make strategic resource decisions. This means working with school leaders to analyze student data, assess instructional practice to identify instructional priorities, and analyze how a school’s resources are currently used. This culminates with helping school teams identify priorities for change and research-based strategies for improving teaching and learning. 

With those priorities in mind, we share different options for schools to consider, discuss the tradeoffs of each, and help school leaders make decisions that deliberately match the needs of their specific students and teachers. And then we roll up our sleeves and provide technical support to think through every possible scheduling, staffing, and budgeting configuration that will help get them  here.

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Q: Can you give one or two specific examples of what this looks like in practice?

One component of the comprehensive needs assessment includes reviewing administrator and teacher schedules, as well as conducting qualitative interviews and/or surveys with school staff to understand the state of professional learning at the school. For example, we want to learn:

- How many minutes grade level content teams spend each week collaborating
- Whether collaboration time is used well, has a clear purpose, and is supported by instructional experts
- How often teachers are observed and what the debrief conversations look like 
- How much time instructional experts spend growing their expertise and preparing for and giving coaching

By learning about current practice and resource use, we can identify priorities for change, like increasing the amount of collaboration time content teachers share weekly from 45 minutes to 90 minutes, or increasing a school’s investment in instructional expertise to ensure that each teacher is observed biweekly and the observation is followed by a 20- to 40-minute conversation.

We often find that the path to addressing those priorities for change takes solving very difficult technical challenges related to a school’s schedule or budget. So we work alongside school leaders and share our expertise about scheduling to help school leaders find time for collaborative planning in their schedules. Or when it comes to staffing and budgeting, we share options and discuss tradeoffs that can help schools address their priorities using their existing resources.

Q: What outcomes have you seen when teachers are provided these opportunities? Can you give one or two specific examples?

In districts that we’ve seen adopt and implement strong professional learning practices, we’ve also seen growth in student outcomes. For example, the four districts we profiled in our “Igniting the Learning Engine” study had growth that generally outpaced either peer districts or statewide growth. In Sanger Unified School District, an 11,000-student district in California, the district’s proficiency rates were two to three times those of peer districts on the 2015 Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) state assessment. For Duval County Public Schools, a 129,000-student district in Florida, students outpaced statewide growth in math for grades 3 through 5 and in reading for grade 3 on the Florida Standards Assessment in 2015–2016. Duval County Public Schools has also done well in national assessments, ranking fourth in the nation among large urban districts in fourth-grade reading and math on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress Report Card.

And at the school level, we’ve heard numerous stories from our school leaders about how the changes they’ve implemented have helped their teachers. For example, we worked with a school to increase the number of experts that were available and how often they could support teachers. That principal shared the following anecdote with us:

“By using all of our available experts, we’re able to provide more frequent support. One of our new teachers asked for support around routines and expectations. We were able to have her do a guided observation of a teacher at our school, as well as visit two other schools in the district to see how other teachers approached the material. She’s made significant progress since day one and is able to now spend more time on instruction, and I’ve seen her students using more and more academic language in the classroom as a result.”

Q: What are the next steps in your work? Meaning, what are you trying to figure out next in order to build on this work?

- Continuing to develop partnerships with instructional experts and developing our own instructional expertise. Helping schools create successful structures (e.g., 90 minutes for collaborative planning or investing in instructional experts to ensure teachers are observed biweekly) is necessary, but not sufficient. It’s critical that the strategic structures are executed well too. For example, this means ensuring that collaborative planning time is spent on the right things and that time is used well, or that the feedback teachers receive is focused and high-quality.

- Identifying opportunities and supporting districts to scale strategic school design. We believe in  creating strategic school systems that prepare every child for success and feel an urgency to do so quickly. We’re continually looking for new and different opportunities to help districts scale strategic school designs across schools, and believe that one opportunity is to help support existing experts, like principal supervisors. We are thinking deeply about how best to help principal supervisors to develop expertise about strategic resource use and incorporate it into their ongoing conversations with school leaders.