Learning from our efforts: Improving teacher effectiveness at scale

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By Irvin Scott 

In the summer of 2008, during a basketball game with a group of guys half my age, I ended up tearing my Achilles tendon. I had surgery to have the tendon repaired, and was back again playing basketball three summers later, only to suffer the same exact injury, on the other foot. I visited my doctor expecting to need the same exact surgery and recovery regimen, but to my surprise he recommended a new technique that would help me make a speedier recovery. They had learned a lot over the past three years, my doctor told me, and the field was advancing. 

Education, like medicine, is a field that should constantly advance. Today, we know more than ever about what it takes to help students succeed. Research shows that the quality of classroom instruction has a greater impact on student outcomes than any other in-school factor. And I know from firsthand experience that consistent access to effective teaching can be especially transformational for low-income students and students of color. That’s why, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we believe one of the best ways to give every student the opportunity to succeed is to support effective teachers in every classroom. 

For many school systems, however, it has been a challenge to accurately identify effective teaching and use that information to help all teachers improve and become great. In 2009, this challenge led the foundation to invest in three school districts and a group of charter management organizations (CMOs) where teachers, leaders, and community members committed to making big changes to their teacher evaluation, feedback, and staffing systems. Through the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching initiative, the three sites and CMOs committed to giving teachers the feedback and support they need by incorporating multiple measures of teacher effectiveness—including classroom observations, student achievement measures, and student surveys—in their evaluation systems. We wanted to learn how these improved evaluation systems could form the basis for improved staffing decisions, as well as enhanced feedback, professional development, compensation, and advancement opportunities for teachers. 

Together, these improvements could help teachers and leaders come together around a shared understanding of effective teaching, measure their progress toward that vision, and ensure that highly effective teachers were in the classrooms where students need them the most. In working with those on the ground in the sites, I’ve heard from teachers who have benefited from personal coaching, collaboration with colleagues, and opportunities to take on leadership roles to support their peers as a result of the improved systems. Leaders also have shared with me how over the past few years, they’ve seen good teachers become great, talented new teachers come to their district, and excellent teachers rewarded and recognized for their skills. And all of this work revolves around the goal of making sure that every student has the opportunity to succeed. 

At its core, the Intensive Partnership initiative is about maximizing learning—not just for students and teachers, but also for the entire education field. To help everyone better understand what works in giving more students access to an excellent education, researchers from the RAND Corporation and the American Institutes of Research are tracking the progress and impacts of the sites’ efforts. The researchers recently shared their interim findings, which reflect data from only the first year or two in which the changes were fully implemented in the sites. 

During the first years of full implementation, progress in terms of student achievement outcomes was slow. The impacts on teacher effectiveness and placement are inconclusive during the first couple of years of study; however, majorities of teachers have indicated that the feedback they received, especially from classroom observations, has prompted them to make changes in their practice. When it comes to student achievement, there have been small gains when compared to other interventions, as well as varied impacts on graduation rates. We are hopeful we will see more progress: The analysis of the three school districts—Pittsburgh, Memphis, and Hillsborough County—indicates an upward trajectory in five of the six achievement areas in the most recent year of the study, which suggests the reforms may be on the way to having a positive impact on student outcomes. These results provide valuable learnings for us at the foundation—and for the entire field of education—to consider:

Making large-scale changes to help all teachers within a district or CMO continuously learn and improve is a complex endeavor, but it’s a worthwhile one. As Charlotte Danielson recently wrote, “Teaching is simply too complex for anyone to believe that there is no more to learn.”

Just as every student deserves access to engaging, challenging learning opportunities, so does every teacher deserve opportunities to learn and grow throughout their career.

Teachers also deserve high-quality curriculum and instructional tools to support them in their craft. In any profession, a big change—whether it’s a new set of standards or a different protocol for receiving feedback—requires time and tools to aid the adjustment process. That’s why we must support teachers with effective instructional tools and time to learn from one another so that they can in turn support their students.

School systems need to build the capacity of school leaders and teacher-leaders to create cultures of trust where educators feel safe making changes to improve their practice. We’ve seen that meaningful teacher observation requires an immense amount of time and effort, and so it’s critical that school systems find ways to train both principals and teacher-leaders to do this important job.

To that end, a new free e-book based on insights from MET project researchers and practitioners provides practical guidance on ensuring that classroom observers have the skills to provide teachers with accurate, actionable feedback to improve their practice.

It’s critical for teachers to be directly and deeply engaged in this work. Teachers in the Intensive Partnership sites play an active role in improving their evaluation systems and shaping their professional learning. In fact, the Intensive Partnership work helped pave the way for Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2), a network of teachers who share best practices and raise their voice to advance their profession. Listening to educators and tapping into their insights helps ensure that systems meet their—and their students’—needs.

At the Gates Foundation, we pride ourselves on being a learning organization. This commitment to learning from our investments is at the core of the Intensive Partnership work. We are inspired to learn by the great teachers in these sites—and around the country—who seek out ways to grow in their practice and better support their students, just as great doctors look for new ways to improve their patients’ health. As we reflect on the hard work the Intensive Partnership sites have done over the past several years, we look forward to continuing to learn with them, share their insights, and build on the progress they’re making to give all students access to a high-quality education.