At the Education Writers Association conference in Nashville on Tuesday, I listened to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan reiterate his belief that “education is the civil rights issue of our generation.”
On that, we at Public Impact couldn’t agree more.
He also talked about the outrage over our nation’s achievement gaps and worries about opportunity gaps. The country has, he said, a “courage gap” and an “action gap.”
We’d like to direct his attention to some teachers and leaders showing both courage and action.
In Opportunity Culture pilot schools, teachers are taking action, redesigning their schools to extend the reach of great teachers and their teams to more students, for more pay, within current budgets. Their leaders are showing courage by finding ways to make these redesigns possible within state rules and tight budgets. Creating Opportunity Culture schools means letting go of traditional one-teacher-one-classroom mindsets—and opening the door to career paths that let great teachers lead while continuing to teach, to opportunities for great teachers to reach more students directly with their inspiring instruction, and to opportunities for all students—not just a lucky few—to get excellent teaching, consistently, from teachers who get the pay and respect they deserve.
Where are those schools? Several were right under Duncan’s nose yesterday—in the iZone in Nashville. Schools in Cabarrus County, N.C., and Syracuse, N.Y., plan to implement their own Opportunity Cultures this fall. And in Charlotte-Mecklenburg (CMS), four schools participated in the pilot this year—to be joined by 17 more this fall, and by nearly half the schools in the district by 2017–18.
The pilot schools’ learning results will start rolling in this summer, with more robust data from more than 30 schools nationwide next year. But CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison saw one significant result already that led to his January decision to scale up from those first four pilots: Enthusiastic teachers, in a state where teacher enthusiasm may be at an all-time low. The pilot schools were swamped last year with applications for these Opportunity Culture jobs, even in high-poverty schools. Despite the hard work of implementing something completely new, teachers’ enthusiasm continues (see what they’re saying here).
What makes an Opportunity Culture different enough to resonate so profoundly with teachers and district leaders?
- More students reached with excellent teaching: For great teachers, the chance to affect many more lives remains the biggest draw—it’s the reason they got into teaching, after all.
- Increased, school-day time for collaboration and planning: This gives teachers what they consistently say they want—in-school time to plan and collaborate, and to get genuine, useful, on-the-job professional learning from their great teaching peers, week in and week out.
- Higher pay: Of course teachers don’t go into teaching for the pay. But let’s stop insulting them with the attitude that pay doesn’t matter. Getting the pay they deserve, without having to leave the students they love, matters. Not sure about that? Just ask the teachers leaving North Carolina this year for higher pay in South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee.
- Sustainable higher pay: An Opportunity Culture doesn’t just pay teachers more, it does so within current budgets. No special, temporary grants here, no using TIF to pay teachers more … until the funding runs out. By redesigning jobs and making better use of paraprofessionals, as so many other professions do, an Opportunity Culture school can offer pay supplement stability to those teachers it wants and needs to keep.
- Accountability: In an Opportunity Culture, authority and accountability match up with each person’s responsibilities. So if you’re a multi-classroom leader in Charlotte’s Project L.I.F.T schools, leading a team of teachers, you can receive a pay supplement of up to $23,000 (that’s 50 percent more than average N.C. teacher pay). In return, you take accountability for the learning results of all the students in your team. If you’re a great elementary teacher extending your reach by specializing in your best subjects—say, teaching math and science to the entire third grade—you may make up to $9,000 more. In return, you know you’ll be accountable for the results of all your students in math and science—with the supports, collaboration, and on-the-job feedback from peers to help you continue to achieve great results.
We believe every student has a right to an excellent teacher, every year, in all core subjects. We believe every teacher has the right to learn on the job, and the chance to advance for more pay—a lot more. Duncan was right on Tuesday: “We don’t have a knowledge gap.” We know what we need to do, and we know some ways to get there. And in Opportunity Culture schools, courage and action are on full display.