Opinion: Teachers in an Opportunity Culture: Well-Paid, Powerful, and Accountable

A decade ago, inspired by the best teachers we’ve known, we formed the seed of an idea — the notion that great teachers, those who induce high-growth learning and strong student thinking skills, could and should have far more power to lead instruction, help colleagues succeed, and innovate to reach more students. For a lot more pay.

Why? Because without high-growth learning consistently, students who start behind stay behind. Yet far too few teachers teach at that level consistently. And without pay to match more demanding expectations, these great teachers will keep leaving classrooms for administration and other professions.

When we finally published the idea in 2009, with more details in 2010, education leaders’ responses ranged from a head-scratching “What is this?” to “Here are the reasons this can’t work….” Only a few got it right away.

But when our team began working with schools in 2012, the odds flipped: Nearly every teacher understood immediately. Pioneering teachers in what became the “Opportunity Culture” initiative took these seeds and grew them into results.

That was tens of thousands of students ago. In four years, Opportunity Culture has grown from seven schools to about 120, and from two districts to 18 (with more joining), across seven states. It’s gone from reaching a few thousand students to about 34,000 this year alone, growing about 50 percent annually.

Not everything has been easy. We didn’t insist on perfect conditions, because imperfect conditions in schools are perfectly normal. Superintendent turnover, principals who have never led other leaders, schools with little experience hiring selectively, challenging implementation of new curricula — all these elements have been more common than not.

Despite the challenges — and ultimately due to the teachers and their supportive principals — Opportunity Culture schools are far more likely to make schoolwide high growth than others in their states. Last year in North Carolina, where the earliest and most extensive implementation has occurred so far, 59 percent of Opportunity Culture schools exceeded the state’s growth targets, versus 28 percent statewide. Nationally, teachers who have advanced roles in Opportunity Culture schools earn supplements that average an additional 20 percent of their base pay; they have earned supplements that are as much as 50 percent of average salaries. In surveys, 98 percent of teacher-leaders say they want Opportunity Culture to continue.

Teams made up mostly of teachers design each school’s exact approach, adhering to five Opportunity Culture Principles: reaching more students with excellent teachers, paying those teachers far more, funding extra pay within each school’s regular budget, adding and consolidating time for teachers to plan and collaborate, and matching teachers’ formal authority and accountability to each role. They use and combine core models as a start:

  • Multi-Classroom Leadership: An excellent teacher—the multi-classroom leader, or “MCL”—reaches more students, continuing to teach part of the time while leading a team of two to eight teachers who use the MCL’s methods and tools. The MCL is accountable for the learning results of all the students reached by the team. By co-teaching, co-planning, and coaching, the MCL provides weekly, if not daily, on-the-job development and collaboration.

  • Time Swaps: With creative scheduling and added support from carefully selected paraprofessionals, excellent teachers gain hours per week to teach more students, plan, and collaborate with peers. When students aren’t with the excellent teacher, they’re still learning, via tutoring, age-appropriate digital instruction, project work, or offline skills practice.

  • Specialization: Elementary teachers specialize in their best subjects, with paraprofessional support saving time for team collaboration and reaching more students.

None of these models requires increases in instructional group size, and some decrease it. The Multi-Classroom Leadership model also provides the foundation for paid, full-time residencies for teachers and principals, as well as a stronger pipeline of great principals.

With 1,250 teachers now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to learn from them about how to achieve instructional excellence, not just in a few small programs, but at scale. The teachers can tell us how they’ve done it, and they can tell us what needs to improve.

Nearly two years ago, Opportunity Culture teachers selected for their excellence and leadership began speaking out through a series of columns, now continuing here on The 74. We and these great teachers are grateful for the chance to share — because we’re all tired of reading columns about what should be done in education, when we know that something amazing is already happening. In the columns to follow, teachers will tell you how they’re getting to “amazing” in this financially sustainable, scalable, teacher-loving initiative designed to help all students excel.

The Opportunity Culture goal is to reach all students with excellent teaching and all teachers with the on-the-job support and the sustainably paid career advancement they need to achieve that goal.  This isn’t the end, but just the beginning — 74 million students and every one of their teachers need this.

Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel are the co-directors of Public Impact, which founded and leads the Opportunity Culture initiative.

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