Innovative staffing to personalize learning:
How new teaching roles and blended learning help students succeed

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May 24, 2018
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[Editorial note: This paper was co-authored with Public Impact.]

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In today’s classrooms, teachers face a tall order. They want to differentiate instruction, develop students’ social-emotional skills, and strengthen the bonds among students and caring adults. But addressing all these needs for dozens of students at a time is a herculean task. Many schools have started to help teachers use blended learning as a tool to personalize instruction to the individual needs of their students.

Yet most teachers, including many seeking to adopt blended and personalized learning, remain stuck in a one-teacher, one-classroom model where teachers work largely alone, with only sporadic feedback and support, and new tasks associated with personalizing learning are often added to already overwhelming workloads.

In this paper, we examine how eight pioneering district, charter, and private schools and school networks with notable student success adopted blended learning and new staffing arrangements to better enable personalized instruction. Blended learning gave teachers more real-time student learning data so that schools could frequently regroup students, quickly respond to struggling students, and help teachers improve by pinpointing instructional planning and professional development issues. At the same time, innovative staffing arrangements helped the schools personalize learning by providing more students with great teaching. Key elements of these innovative staffing models included:

  • New roles for educators, often as part of a career path allowing development and support. Roles included teacher-leaders of small instructional teams, who often planned and directed the team teachers’ instruction, coached the teachers, and analyzed data; collaborating teachers who worked in teams and supported one another more than typically happens for classroom teachers in traditional schools; support staff who tutored or mentored students, providing more one-on-one or small-group time; and teachers-in-training, who supported other teachers and taught while learning on the job.
  • Intensive collaboration on small teaching teams. Collaboration gave teams broader insights into individual student needs, helped develop their instructional skills faster, and helped improve accountability for student outcomes.
  • Cultures of intensive coaching, with weekly or even daily observations and feedback. Roles, responsibilities, and schedules were all designed to support this.
  • Paid fellowships and residencies that enabled schools to train their own teachers, building the pipeline of future educators.

Other keys to quality and sustainability also went hand in hand with blended learning and innovative staffing. School leaders reinforced high standards, teacher’s schedules allowed for school-day collaboration, and many schools provided their staff with higher compensation within existing budgets. Additionally, many schools built or adjusted their facilities—generally not at great expense—to support team teaching.

As schools adopted these new approaches, the student experience changed. With staffing arrangements that supported increased small-group and online study, students had more opportunities to work on individualized, self-paced instruction. Schools also supported student engagement through personal goal-setting with teachers and providing more choices in where and how they learned. Additionally, these arrangements allowed schools to place a premium on enabling multiple adults to form strong relationships with students.

As we and others do more research to test and validate the factors that contributed to success at these schools, what can the field do right now? First, expose school designers and system leaders to examples of innovative staffing to reveal what’s possible. Second, create and share a growing set of tools and examples for support.

With the combination of blended learning and new staffing models, schools are starting to unleash their most valuable asset for improving student outcomes: excellent teachers. The organizational inertia of traditional staffing arrangements may take some time to change. But as schools like these produce strong results and then refine and codify their practices, more schools across the country will have the will and the means to follow in their footsteps.

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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.