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An Innovative Way to Improve Teacher Quality

By / 12.3.2009

How does a school or school district consistently attract, develop, and retain effective teachers? If you can answer this, you’ll not only boost your chances of receiving some Race to the Top funds — you’ll also put to rest one of the hotly debated topics in education today.

A recent report from Education Sector, titled Teachers At Work: Improving Teacher Quality Through School Design, examines a less widely discussed approach to improving teacher quality: school design. The report argues that in order for reform initiatives to be sustainable, we need to “fundamentally overhaul the way the work of teachers is organized within schools.”

The report focuses on the Generation Schools model, developed by Furman Brown and Jonathan Spear, which restructures the traditional school day and school year. The average Generation Schools day for students consists of two 85-minute foundation courses in the morning during which students focus on core academic learning (English, math, science, and social studies) and three 60-minute studios in the afternoon, during which students take additional required courses, electives, or mandated services such as art, foreign language, and fitness. Students also participate in two month-long career and college planning units at staggered times during the course of the year, and the overall school year is 200 days, about 20 days longer than the typical school year.

In addition to rethinking the way time is used, the model reconsiders the way teachers interact with one another. Among other things, teachers are organized into grade- and subject-based teams and are allotted two hours per day for planning and preparation. These changes are intended to “blend different types of expertise and levels of experience” and allow time for teachers to reflect on their work and learn from one another. It’s not only whom you hire to teach and how you evaluate and reward them – it’s also about the structures in place to support and develop teachers. And all of this is achieved without increasing the time required from teachers – and, by extension, the costs to a school.

The student performance results at the Generation Schools pilot school, Brooklyn Generation School, a public high school in New York, have been positive so far. Teacher satisfaction also seems high, with only one teacher electing to leave after the first year, although all had the option to return to their previous schools. The United Federation of Teachers has also supported the initiative. In order to implement their unique organizational structure, the school entered into a side-letter agreement to the teachers’ contract, initially for one year in 2007, then an additional three-year period.

The Generation Schools model is not alone in thinking creatively about the use of people and time. Education Resource Strategies, an organization focused on the strategic use of resources, has done an in-depth study of nine high-performing high schools across the country that have also rethought the traditional school model with positive results. Many charter schools are also experimenting with innovative ways to use resources. While no one model is right for all schools, the basic idea is key: examine your resources and think creatively about using them efficiently and effectively to maximize teacher effectiveness.

To be sure, there are impediments to this kind of creative thinking, ranging from laws restricting the length of the school year to rigid line-item budgeting requirements for school funding. Models like Generation Schools will have trouble being scaled up unless policy makers act to remove such obstacles. State and federal governments should continue to find ways to encourage experimentation on a local level — even as they continue to hold schools accountable for the results.