As future-thinking schools experiment with ways to personalize learning—such as blended, project-based, exploratory, and mastery-based learning—it seems only logical that they also reconsider how they organize their instructional teams. This hypothesis guided our research with Public Impact over the last year, and culminated in a white paper released last month. Given the persuasive anecdotes and achievement results we saw from the schools we studied, innovative approaches to staffing seem like a worthwhile idea.
But do they actually work? Does non-traditional staffing help schools improve their outcomes?
Unfortunately, our qualitative research—as valuable as it is for capturing the motives, strategies, and tradeoffs at the schools we studied—cannot answer those questions. But coincidentally, a few quantitative studies published during the last few months shed light on whether some non-traditional staffing arrangements can be linked to better school results. So, let’s take a look at the current evidence for what works and doesn’t work in innovative staffing.
Teacher coaching fuels personalized learning success
Ranson IB Middle School, one of the schools in our study, selected teachers with strong classroom results to lead teams of four other teachers as multi-classroom leaders (MCLs). These teacher-leaders coached the other teachers on their teams by analyzing student data, preparing all the lesson plans for their teams, providing regular observations and feedback, and at times modeling or co-teaching lessons. They also shared accountability for the student learning outcomes across their team. (The MCL arrangement is one of the staffing arrangements promoted through Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture initiative.)
In January of this year, the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) published a working paper evaluating how Opportunity Culture models impact student outcomes. The researchers found that schools using Opportunity Culture models, of which the MCL model was most common, produced statistically-significant improvements on students’ math test scores. These results suggest that teacher coaching, which was a frequent practice not only among Ranson’s MCLs but also at many of the schools we studied, may be a crucial strategy for schools to incorporate as part of their personalized learning efforts.
Elementary specialization has drawbacks
At two of the three elementary schools we studied, teachers specialized by content area—either in math and science or language arts and social studies. The rationale behind this approach was to reduce the volume of lesson plans teachers had to prepare each day so that they could focus on quality over quantity and really hone their teaching skills in particular content areas. Unfortunately, however, a new study casts doubt on the value of elementary teacher specialization.
A study by Harvard Economist Roland Fryer published in the June 2018 issue of the American Economic Review tested whether the theoretical benefits of elementary teacher specialization bear out in practice. Fryer randomly assigned teachers at schools in Houston to specialize by subject area and then measured the effects of this specialization over two years. In surprising contrast with the perceived benefits of specializing, the study revealed that students with specialized teachers had lower scores on standardized tests, more frequent behavior infractions, and more absences. The negative effect on test scores was highest for students with special needs. Furthermore, specialized teachers were less likely to report increases in performance or job satisfaction.
A cursory reading of Fryer’s research would suggest that the schools we studied should abandon teacher specialization. But a closer look at the research gives room for pause. Fryer hypothesized that teachers who worked with more students due to specialization had fewer opportunities to get to know their students and were therefore less aware of how to tailor their instruction to students’ individual needs.
Extrapolating from that hypothesis, schools like those we studied that use both teacher specialization and personalized learning might be able to counteract the drawbacks of specialization with personalization. If personalized learning strategies create more opportunities throughout the day for teachers to interact with students one-on-one, teachers may still be able to get to know their students while working with more students overall. We need more research to verify whether personalized learning can improve student-teacher relationships and thereby mitigate the drawbacks of teacher specialization.
Support staff offer powerful personalization
A different staffing strategy that we saw at nearly all schools we studied was the use of support staff—such as paraeducators, small group instructors, teaching residents, or tutors—as key members of instructional teams. Support staff primarily provided students with extra individualized instruction in small groups or sometimes one-on-one.
According to recent meta-analysis studies from Johns Hopkins University, teaching assistants can be just as effective as teachers when it comes to providing students with small-group or one-on-one tutoring. And for helping struggling elementary-aged readers, teaching assistants were more effective than teachers. Tutoring through online software, in contrast, although often producing positive results, was not as effective as tutoring from teaching assistants.
Robert Slavin, the director of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Research and Reform in Education and one of the researchers on each of the studies, provides an interesting theory to explain why computer-based individualized tutoring doesn’t seem to be as effective as individualized tutoring from teaching assistants:
“Tutoring does not work due to individualization alone. It works due to individualization plus nurturing and attention.”
Elaborating on this idea, Slavin suggests that individualized tutoring works well because students, especially low achievers, are eager to please adults who relate to them personally. It isn’t just success that motivates students, but receiving recognition for their success from someone who cares about them.
The findings from these last two studies suggest a note of caution for personalized learning advocates: Personalization focused merely on academics might hurt student learning more than it helps if it corrodes the relationships between students and educators. On the other hand, these studies suggest a valuable pivot in how we define personalized learning: The strongest outcomes from personalization will likely come not only from individualized instruction, but from staffing arrangements that offer more personal, human connectedness.