How do you amplify a school’s impact on student outcomes?

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Jul 26, 2018

This is the second post in a three-part series on strategies for expanding the impact of schools and teachers. The other posts in the series are available at the following links: part 1, part 3.

Imagine a world with no achievement gaps; where every child excels in mastering age-appropriate academic content; where children’s confidence, creativity, critical thinking, and social skills blossom throughout their schooling; and where every student enters adulthood prepared to thrive.

The world above may be idealized, romanticized, or even utopian. But I suspect that most people working in education reform and many of those working in our school systems draw at least some of their inspiration from their own version of that world. They tackle daily work one challenge at a time, but at some point down the road they hope to radically expand the positive impact our schools have on students’ life outcomes.

In my last post, I argued that any meaningful efforts to dramatically improve how schools serve their students boil down to expanding schools’ impact possibilities frontier. Below I offer three options for how schools might do this.

Increase available resources

Many education advocates maintain that we’ll expand school systems’ impact once we pour more resources into the system. This argument follows a straightforward line of reasoning: the more resources available for productive activity, the more work can be done. With additional resources, schools might increase teacher salaries to attract and retain strong teachers, redistribute teachers’ instructional loads to give them more time for planning and professional development, hire more staff to run valuable programs and support functions outside of classroom instruction, or reduce class sizes so teachers can give their students more individualized attention. But setting aside any merits and critiques of this approach, it has one major holdup: most schools do not have easy access to additional resources. Unless states decide to substantially increase their education funding, schools will have to look elsewhere to expand their impact possibilities frontier.

Squeeze existing resources

When schools need to improve, but don’t have additional resources to support improvement efforts, the pressure to improve often falls on the shoulders of teachers and other staff. In district schools, collective bargaining agreements prevent school administrators from loading teachers with longer work hours or extra duties. But most teachers, seeing the needs of their students and recalling the reasons they entered the teaching profession in the first place, feel compelled to go beyond merely clocking their contractual hours and calling it a day. Thus the de facto reality in many cases is that teachers work overtime to try to expand their impact possibilities frontiers.

Having teachers work overtime may seem like an economical and practical way to amplify a school’s impact on student outcomes, but in the long-run, this approach takes a toll. Sixty-one percent of educators and school staff say work is always or often stressful, compared to just 30 percent among the general working population. Furthermore, 17% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years on the job, and many of the highest-performing charter schools suffer high rates of teacher burnout and attrition. Overworking school staff may work as a way to pinch out a few more points on standardized tests, but it is by no means a viable strategy for dramatic and lasting school system transformation.

Innovate

As I explained in my last post, when available resources are fixed, lasting improvements in student outcomes will only occur through innovation. Without innovation, school improvement strategies amount to doing more of the same thing and expecting different results. 

To be clear, innovation is not synonymous with screens and software. Innovation, broadly speaking, is any advance or improvement in the processes that an organization uses to convert inputs of labor, materials, and information into outputs of greater value. Thus, in the context of education, innovation can refer just as much to enhanced curriculum, improved classroom management strategies, or better instructional models as it can to adaptive learning software.

With that understanding as framing, consider how the following types of innovations expand a schools’ impact possibilities frontier.

  • Professional development makes teachers better at what they do, which in turn can both make their preparation time more efficient and decrease their need to spend time giving their students additional academic supports and remediation.
  • Improved curriculum can save teachers time designing their own teaching resources. Good curriculum also supplies teachers with effective instructional practices that decrease their students’ need for additional academic supports and remediation down the road.
  • New staffing models offer several ways to amplify the impact of a schools’ existing staff. Some staffing models boost teachers’ effectiveness by allowing them to specialize in what they do or by giving them increased opportunities to learn from one another. Other staffing arrangements use additional support staff to increase the number of adults available to support students.
  • Technologies that automate classroom tasks save teachers time by taking routine work off their plates, such as taking attendance, making copies, distributing and collecting materials, and grading assignments with discrete answers.
  • Blended, mastery-based learning allows teachers to step away from the demands of preparing and delivering all content instruction to instead focus on providing high-value learning experiences.

All of these innovations have one thing in common: they allow teachers to accomplish more with the fixed amount of time they have each day. In some cases, the boost comes from improving instructional quality, which means helping students learn and accomplish more within the same amount of time. In other cases, the innovations save teachers time on some activities, so they can reallocate that time to other important activities. But in all cases, time is the common denominator. As education leaders consider how to create the ideal education system of the future, the following question should be at the forefront of their minds: “How does this innovation allow my teachers to use their time with greater impact?”

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.