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North Carolina experiment shows promising early results on keeping best teachers in the classroom
"Opportunity culture" program offers pay and career incentives to teachers to teach rather than administrate, and the results just in are looking impressive. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Keeping teachers in the classroom by rewarding them with leadership opportunities and financial incentives can measurably improve learning outcomes, according to early results from a North Carolina-based program.

The program, called "Opportunity Culture," offers exceptional teachers a hands-on supervisory role, known as a multi-classroom leader, in which they coach and coordinate several classrooms, help improve classroom management, work with students who need special attention and take responsibility for outcomes.

"The results so far are very promising," said Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, the nonprofit group that developed and implements the program. "But there is a lot of room for improvement."

By the second year of implementation, Hassel said, schools showed up to 70 percent better learning growth compared to similar classrooms in the same and other schools.

The outcome reports cover seven schools that have completed their second year in the program, all of which are high-poverty schools. Last year, the Opportunity Culture initiative reached 30 schools, 450 teachers and 16,000 students. Next year, the program is slated to expand to 60 schools.

Currently in most school districts, the only career advancement path available is to move into administration. The goal of the program, Hassel said, is to keep great teachers in the classroom.

"The most important factor in learning is the effectiveness of the teacher," Hassel said. "We are placing excellent teachers in charge of more students' learning."

Coaching biology

One of those teachers saved for the classroom is Erin Burns, who would be an assistant principal now had she not become a multi-classroom leader at West Charlotte High School in North Carolina last year.

When Burns, 28, learned the school was looking for a multi-classroom biology leader, she had just finished her master's degree and was considering an assistant principal position, the only real career advancement path for most teachers.

But Burns loved the classroom and jumped at the chance to gain leadership experience without leaving teaching. She now teaches one advanced, college-level biology class every other day while coaching in the classrooms of six other 10th grade required biology classes.

Burns said with her new job her pay bumped up $16,000, equivalent to what she would have been earning as an assistant principal. She now has a year-to-year contract in her MCL position, and while she doesn't have pay incentives tied to student test scores, her retention on the job will depend on student performance.

Burns helped shape the lesson plans and assessments used in the school's biology program. The bulk of her time is now directed at helping 500 students a year pass the state-required biology exam. Her job is to improver the biology test scores of those students, compared to their predicted scores based on their 8th grade English and math scores.

Her teaching load has fallen from three classes a semester to one class stretched over a year. She coaches teachers, helps analyze data from student assessments and offers direct tutoring to students struggling with a given concept.

The measure of her success will be test scores on a required state biology exam, and her progress will be measured against the predicted scores of her students. Those scores are predicted based on 8th grade math and English scores.

"It is controversial," Burns said, "but it does a decent job as a predictive score for the biology test."

Burns won't find out for sure how things went this past year until September, but early indications are good. "But I will be shocked if we don't have most of our students meet proficiency," she said.

Burns is making much of this up on the run, but she has been working closely with the MCL for earth science at her school. The whole approach, though, is still very much evolving.

"One teacher many be struggling to teach a module on DNA," Burns said, "and I can offer suggestions for approaches that I have seen work in the classroom. Then we give a quiz on DNA, and there might be five students who are still not getting it and I can work with them individually or in a small group."

On the fly

Karen von Klahr kind of chanced into her MCL reading position last year. She had been offered a lead teaching position at another school, she said, and when her school learned of that offer, it created a new MCL position for her on the fly.

"If you are looking to be a lead teacher," her principal said, "we have something that might be good for you." But at that point, it was an idea, not a program, and the school did a lot of improvising in figuring out the pay and teaching structure.

Von Klahr now gets a small stipend to compensate for her added workload, but she also has an incentive structure that gives her a chance at more pay if the students she supervises perform very well.

"You have to be super careful," she said, "because teachers are not very good with having something they've been offered taken away from them." Concord started the program with modest pay incentives, von Klahr said, to make it sustainable. But she also indicated that some administrators balked at a pay structure for MCLs that would put them on par with the assistant principal.

Despite the hiccups and improvisation, von Klahr is very pleased with the arrangement, particularly because she gets to remain in the classroom. If she had taken that lead teacher position, she said, she would have left the classroom and been immersed in data and professional development for other teachers.

Her job now is to help other teachers teach reading. Last year, she focused on third-graders. The school had enough students for a seventh classroom of third-graders, but instead it bumped each classroom up by three or four students and hired von Klahr as the multi-classroom reading teacher partly responsible for all six classrooms.

Knowing that her school has struggled with helping both "high fliers" and struggling students advance, von Klahr focused much of her effort on those two extremes.

She would pull out advanced kids to give them challenging projects while pulling out some of the lower-performing students and working with them at a table. Von Klahr's flexibility allowed her to mentor a new teacher last year, modeling behavior management and helping her build a classroom community.

"Education has looked pretty similar for years and years and years," von Klahr said, "and it's nice to see this change because we are losing a lot of teachers into administration.

"In the future, there might be fewer classroom teachers but more teachers in the classrooms," von Klahr said.