Conversation on Improving Teachers and Teaching
With Ellen Moir, The New Teacher Center, and Bryan Hassel, Public Impact. Interviewed by Kate Hovde, Center for High Impact Philanthropy
Ellen Moir is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of New Teacher Center, a national organization working to improve student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of new teachers and school leaders. She is a recent recipient of a Skoll Foundation award for social entrepreneurs, and is also an Ashoka Fellow. New Teacher Center was profiled (pgs. 21-23) in the Center’s High Impact Philanthropy to Improve Teaching Quality report.
Bryan Hassel is the co-director of Public Impact, a nonprofit whose mission is to help dramatically improve learning outcomes for all children in the U.S., with a special focus on students who are not served well. Bryan has written extensively on a range of education topics, including the evolving role of technology. Public Impact employs a team of researchers, thought leaders, tool-builders, and on-the-ground consultants who work with leading education reformers.
Both organizations are also partners along with the Center in 100Kin10, a national effort to recruit, train and retain more high-quality teachers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).
1. Both your organizations are focused on improving teaching, as a primary means for improving student outcomes.
What do you think the balance should be between improving the skills of the average teacher, versus extending the reach of truly excellent teachers?
Ellen: You pose an interesting question. If we are focused on moving the bell curve to the right and having a greater number of above average and highly effective teachers, it makes sense to place increased focus on improving the skills of the average teacher.
The great news is this can be done while also extending the reach of truly excellent teachers. In the work that we do at New Teacher Center we employ both the strategies simultaneously. We take talented, experienced teachers and train them to coach and mentor new teachers who, because they are inexperienced, are known to be less effective. This is a key component of the high-quality, comprehensive teacher induction model we implement with our district partners.
One benefit is that the new teachers become better faster, moving that bell curve to the right. A second benefit is the multiplier effect of mentoring activity, through which that excellent teacher reaches more students.
There is one caveat I would place on the question as framed. It is the implication that teachers and teaching is somehow static. Even the very best teachers can find themselves struggling to make gains in student learning when placed into a new school environment or a new, more challenging classroom setting. In our research and work, we’ve identified that great teachers possess three habits of mind; they are reflective (i.e., consistently able to review and improve their practice), persistent and collaborative. Teachers are learners, too. At least, those truly excellent teachers you refer to are.
Bryan: I completely agree with Ellen that these two strategies can go hand in hand. But schools have many more opportunities in addition to mentoring to reach students with excellent teachers. Even better: many of the new school models that Public Impact is helping to develop and test also provide more time for collaboration and development and allow excellent teachers to receive more pay, without increasing budgets.
Here’s why it’s worth the effort: students who start behind need to make annual gains of well over a year’s learning, consistently, to close achievement gaps meet rising global standards. But only a fraction – some 20-25 percent – of U.S. teachers help their average student learn that much.
With a gap that big, we need not one or two strategies, but an array of strategies. We need to recruit more high-potential candidates, retain more excellent teachers, and replace teachers who aren’t improving swiftly enough. We need to develop existing teachers and extend the reach of the excellent teachers we have. (See answer to question 2 for more on how).
2. There are aspects of both your organizations' work that could be characterized as "Scarcity Leading to Innovation." For example: Public Impact's work on Opportunity Culture and NTC's e-Mentoring for Student Success program.
Can you talk a little about the how and why these programs came about?
Bryan: When we modeled out what it would take to get a great teacher into every classroom, we determined that even if we were much better at recruitment, much better at retaining our best teachers, and much better at professional development, too many classrooms still wouldn’t have an excellent teacher. It was this scarcity that led us to think “how can we think differently about this problem?” Recruitment, retention and professional development are critical, but what else can we do? It was the “what else” that led us down the line of extending the reach of the best teachers to more students.
By “extending reach,” we mean that these teachers are fully accountable for more students’ learning and are paid more, sustainably. This means treating teachers’ time with the utmost respect. This requires new ways of organizing classrooms, often so that teachers are collaborating in teams. One way is what we call Multi-Classroom Leadership. Excellent teachers with leadership skills take full responsibility for a “pod” of students by leading teams. Teachers, including the teacher-leader, play instructional roles assigned by the leader and use the leader’s methods. The teacher-leader chooses, evaluates, and develops team members and facilitates collaboration and planning. The leader is accountable for team success and all students’ learning, and she earns more for her added responsibility. Since all the students’ outcomes become part of her record, she has an enormous incentive to develop the whole team and help them use and build strengths.
And we shouldn’t stop there. Not every excellent teacher wants to, or can, lead or assist other teachers. Schools need to offer great teachers other ways to reach more students. We’ve published 20+ school models to do just that: enabling excellent elementary teachers reach 2-4 times the students by specializing in their best subjects; using age-appropriate portions of blended learning to save time, or by taking on larger classes.
Between these opportunities, schools could offer teachers a wide array of career paths. By making the best use of teachers’ time, these models create many opportunities for built-in collaboration and development and let teachers earn far more and help more students – without reducing the personalized instruction they do so well. That’s what we call an Opportunity Culture.
Ellen: So, like Bryan, we’re trying to solve for a problem, and the problem is that nationally we’re losing nearly 50% of all new teachers in the first 3-5 years. We believe all new teachers need onboarding support, and if we’re going to build an effective teaching force, we’ve got to figure out how we better recruit candidates and accelerate their development. A further challenge we identified was that for teachers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), particularly in rural and under-served urban areas, it is very difficult to find an expert teacher in their discipline to help them. That got us thinking. We had already been building out induction programs and mentoring models where expert teachers are released full time to support a case-load of new teachers in some of America’s largest urban districts. But we hadn’t really figured out a solution for new teachers in rural and urban settings where expert STEM or special ed teachers are scarce and the demand on the time of those that do exist does not support this model. And that led us to begin our e-Mentoring for Student Success.
For this program, we recruit across the country to find some of the best science and math expert teachers. And then we carefully select and train them: all online. Online right now, we have about a thousand math teachers, STEM teachers, and also special education teachers. We have found incredibly talented math and science teachers. We have Eisenhower scholars, National Board Certified teachers, and award winning expert teachers.
What’s been so unique about the online environment is that we have been able to pair a (new) teacher with an expert teacher in their specific discipline. If you are a chemistry teacher teaching in a rural setting, we can find you a top-notch chemistry teacher from somewhere else in the country and pair these two teachers together. And the online environment has also allowed us to experiment with different communities of practice. You could have just the mentor and the new teacher, or a community of new teachers with several mentors, or you could have just new teachers or just mentors together. We’ve built out a whole curriculum that new teachers and their mentors work through over the course of the year. The content is really inquiry-oriented; it allows us to be able to tap into a new teacher’s need in a “just-in-time” way. If a new science teacher, for example, is having trouble doing an inquiry lesson, we can actually bring together the new teacher, the mentor, and a group of other new teachers to help that teacher figure out how to deliver a science lesson, including using experiments for greater student engagement.
Also, with the advance of technology, we’re now able to actually see new teachers teaching in their classroom. The mentor can be anywhere in the country, and by using a swivel camera or a web-cam, we can actually see the teacher teaching and we can give “just in time” feedback through using an ear bud technology, or we can upload the video and go over it with the new teacher at a later time.
We’re really experimenting with many different resources now, so that we can give rich feedback to the new teacher as quickly as we possibly can.
We’re also finding that the mentors are saying this is the best professional development they’ve ever gotten. I think part of the reason for that is that it is very content-specific. You can have a cadre of chemistry teachers talking together about how to really engage students in various aspects of the teaching of chemistry. And that specificity holds across all the various content areas. The physics teachers, and math teachers, algebra teachers are all talking about not only how much they are able to share and teach new teachers, but they’re learning with and from the other mentors in the community as well as the new teachers themselves.
3. What role do you see technology playing in your work going forward?
Ellen: I think technology is going to play even a larger role as we go forward, for a number of reasons. We just completed a strategic planning process with the Monitor Institute, which we were able to do as part of the New Profit portfolio. Our board and my leadership team have all worked together on this and we’ve decided that we’re not only going to grow our face-to-face work, we’re going to dramatically grow our online presence.
Right now, we’re in the process of launching our Learning Zone. This moves online much of the printed material that guides our formative assessment system, which is really at the heart of our mentor/mentee relationship; the online platform also allows networking to other resources that we think will really help new teachers. We’re planning to continue to mentor within content areas; we also think that there is a a core group of skills and knowledge and competencies that every new teacher needs to know and be able to do, and we’re hoping to use technology to reach more new teachers around those areas. We’re going to be building in common core standards and assessments. We also think technology can help us in assessing our own impact. We can request data from the school districts as well as the data we’re collecting on the quality of the mentoring and everything can be in one place.
A final point, and I know Bryan has commented on this as well, is that we need to be thinking about hybrid models of teaching and learning. As the New Teacher Center, we need to be teaching new teachers how to use technology in their classrooms to drive for greater student learning. And that’s a whole other area that we are building out at this point. Similarly, we are working on hybrid models of professional development for teachers. There’s no reason why you can’t have a talent development strategy in a district that is part face-to-face but also part online. We’re actually experimenting now with using technology to host what we are calling mentor forums. Rather than flying in and working with a district to build mentor knowledge in person, we can do that now via Blackboard Collaborate, an interactive, mobile learning software platform that allows us to create virtual classrooms and meeting spaces. In fact, we currently have a contract with Singapore to introduce our mentoring model, and they’re learning about mentor development through Collaborate as well.
Bryan: I think in addition to all the things that Ellen is talking about, which are all very exciting, there are two big ways you can think about how technology can help excellent teachers have a greater impact. One is by freeing their time. If students spend part of their time during the day learning digitally, and going through self-paced online learning experiences, which we think are going to get more and more engaging, and more and more high quality as they’re developed – that frees time for the teachers. Great teachers’ time is a resource that we have just completely undervalued as a country.
Digital learning is one way we can make great teachers’ time go further. If students alternate between digital learning and the teacher – for example, one day they are doing digital learning, the next day they are back with the teacher – she can reach many more students. And because a lot of the basics are being covered during the digital time, she can delve into higher order learning with students when she is with them. That’s the first way.
The second way, which really relates to what Ellen is talking about with e-mentoring, is the prospect of technology enabling expert teachers to teach students (or teachers) remotely, in places where there are not enough expert teachers locally to get the job done. It’s encouraging that New Teacher Center will e-mentor those teachers in rural areas. In the best of possible worlds, every student would have access to a great teacher in person. But if there are shortages, and there always will be, how can we let great teachers live where they want to live, but reach the students who need them in other places? Two-way video technology and other forms of e-communication allow teachers access to students in ways that they can still be their actual teacher – not just broadcasting video of a great teacher, but actually take responsibility for those students’ learning. And the technology for that is getting better and better.
4. What about the relative lack of a research or evidence base about what works with regard to digital learning?
How do you think about this as practitioners?
Bryan: Well, because it is uncertain how different digital learning technologies will work, we think the best strategy is to couple them with excellent teachers. If you say “here’s this great technology to teach X, and instead of having the teacher teach X the computer is going to do it,” then you’re betting all your chips on that digital learning being really fantastic. Instead, we’re saying “let’s blend this” by using digital learning to give more students access to great teachers. Then if the digital learning is fantastic and engaging and brings the students to new heights on its own power, great. But whatever the quality of the digital learning, more students have excellent teachers who can intervene and supplement the tool to advance what they see as needed for the students.
Ellen: In addition, I think that small pilots are the way to go. That’s how we built out the e-mentoring work. We had an NSF grant, and we had the opportunity to work with the Horizon research unit, and we were getting feedback all along the way. And we were persistent at analyzing that data and making changes accordingly. So small pilots.
I’ve also watched a lot of schools and districts purchase technology equipment, and sometimes that equipment just sits. I think it is much better to engage teachers from the get-go in the conversation about how technology might advance their work. Not just laying the technology on them, but learning with and from the teachers, and again, testing out different pilots to see which ones are working.
5. How has philanthropic capital contributed to your work thus far (this does not need to be limited to money)?
Where do you see philanthropic capital playing an important role in moving both your work and your broader agenda forward?
Ellen: I’m happy to take a stab at this. Philanthropic capital has helped New Teacher Center scale pretty dramatically. And not just in terms of dollars, but also in terms of intellectual capital. The networks we have been able to build in the philanthropic community have really helped us build a high performing organization. We were incubated in a university setting, and then spun out three years ago; at the time, we were really an anomaly in the field. We’d had eleven years doing this good work, but when we spun out, we were a brand new non-profit, and we didn’t have any of the back end capabilities, or any of the finance capabilities, the HR, the IT, and so forth. We’ve had to build all this out, and I think in the transition the philanthropic community and capital helped us tremendously. And they have continued to help us. When I started this work, I would hear people talk about how funders get tired of the work, and may tire of your focus, and you should be prepared to continue to get new funders, and I’ve found just the opposite. The funding community has been terrific at staying with us, as we’ve developed and grown and innovated along the way.
Thinking about going forward…I think non-profits have trouble getting the kind of capital that they need in order to innovate at their highest level, be entrepreneurial, hire the right staff at the right time, and do what a for-profit company can do when it raises capital. I’m really hoping that Philanthropy 2.0, or whatever the next generation of philanthropy is, that much like venture philanthropy would do, it will invest in an organization, invest in the kind of things that you’re seeing this organization deliver in the field, rather than continue to focus on one project or another project. A non-profit could scale more dramatically – and I don’t just mean breadth, I mean depth as well – by having this kind of growth capital.
And on the intellectual capital and social capital – our board, and the connections we’ve made through our board members – really for us we had the amazing opportunity to get into the New Schools Venture Fund, New Profit, SeaChange, Skoll, and Ashoka, and these groups have opened up their networks to help improve teacher effectiveness across the country in partnership with us. It’s been phenomenal, and an incredible learning opportunity for me personally and for all of my colleagues. I also believe that making a difference for underserved communities and kids is the most important thing that the philanthropic community can work towards for our country right now.
Bryan: Let me really focus on one issue, which is the need for the country to have new school models that are really different from the status quo for the last 50 years. We need these because it is becoming clearer and clearer that both financially and in terms of human capital, we probably can’t pedal the bike we are on dramatically faster than we are pedaling it now…maybe somewhat, but we probably need a different vehicle. There’s a huge need to re-think the basic delivery mechanisms that we have in schools.
What can philanthropy do on that front? Three things come to my mind. First: research and development. Organizations need funding to develop and test, and refine, and develop and test, ways people can be rearranged to work, and the way technology is used in a quest to get dramatically better results with the same dollars. The second task that philanthropy can help with is dissemination and idea sharing. It’s not that there are not great new models on the table in a lot of places, but they’re little known and little spread. When new ideas emerge, try to make sure that a lot of people find out about them, including teachers, schools, districts and policy makers. And then finally, I think that there is a philanthropic role in the start up and transition toward new models. We shouldn’t be creating new models that are going to cost more on an ongoing basis, but there may be additional costs associated with transition to a new model or system where philanthropy has a role to play, especially if there is light at the end of the tunnel in models that are sustainable going forward.