In Chapter 6 of Excellence Through Equity, the groundbreaking new work edited by Alan Blankstein and Pedro Noguera, contributors Avram Barlow and Ann Cook describe a nationally-recognized consortium of New York State public secondary schools that shifted our current, test-centered assessment paradigm by introducing an innovative, more equitable, student-focused, performance-based assessment system.
STRATEGIC STAFFING FOR EQUITABLE OUTCOMES
As we began our work on designing the Strategic Staffing Initiative, we met with principal and teacher focus groups to understand what it would take for them to choose to lead an underperforming school. The message was loud and clear from these focus groups and helped shape the five tenets of the district turnaround strategy. Specifically, our teachers told us the following five things:
- A great principal with a proven track record is critical to a decision for a highly effective teacher to leave a current teaching assignment and move to a struggling school. Over and over again, our rock-star teachers told us the leader of the school would be the determining factor in a decision to transfer to a struggling school. Teachers described a principal with the ability to masterfully strike the balance of pressure and support for the academic and cultural changes required to address the lack of student achievement in the school. The teachers were quick to remind us that the principal would need to lead with teachers, not charge up the mountain and leave behind the teachers and staff. While strong instructional leadership was a nonnegotiable for the principal, teachers emphasized the need for strong human relations skills as the game-changer for a principal in leading a turnaround effort.
Realizing how critical the principal position would be in our turnaround strategy, the district immediately mobilized an effort to develop a principal pipeline program to develop leaders to fill the inevitable vacancies created by the Strategic Staffing Initiative. The district forged formal partnerships with two local universities that included joint design of the program components aligned with the district priorities and initiatives, selection of candidates for the program, and determination of a candidate’s successful completion of the program. This unique partnership allowed the district to be in the driver’s seat with the higher education programs, ensuring that the principal candidates who completed the program would be ready to lead in Charlotte- Mecklenburg Schools. Today the district has approximately 40 school leaders completing these partner programs each year ready to move into assistant principal and principal leadership roles. The combination of strategic staffing and the principal pipeline program has strengthened the leadership talent bench in the school district and positioned the district to more aggressively place principal and teacher talent in the lowest performing schools.
- A principal cannot take on the leadership challenge at a struggling school without a team of talented educators. Teachers want to transfer as a part of a high-functioning teacher team as opposed to transferring solo to a challenging teaching assignment. Moving to a tough assignment with a group of student-centered and mission-focused teachers is a second critical ingredient in the recruitment of the district’s best teachers to a turnaround effort. Teachers were enthusiastic about a leadership role in a like-minded group of colleagues with a genuine belief in every child, a proven track record of moving the achievement dial, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to improve educational outcomes for students. Based on this feedback from teachers, each principal was able to recruit a team of teachers to join the reform effort at the struggling school. This team was asked to make a 3-year commitment to the school and was recruited based on a proven ability to achieve more than a year’s worth of growth in a year’s worth of time with students. In addition to signing a contract, teachers were expected to help instill a culture of high expectations for students, collaborate and build the capacity of existing teachers at the school, and be a model of belief in the potential of every student.
- Teachers and staff not supportive of the reform strategy were removed from the school in equal numbers to the number of teachers coming into the school. Teachers were emphatic that toxic teachers at the school needed to be removed in order to allow immediate traction in the entry plan for the strategic staffing team. Teachers who were identified for exit from the school resigned, retired, or, in a few situations, were reassigned to another school. Teachers identified what they described as a toxic teacher-lounge mentality where a culture of low expectations, complacency, hopelessness, and adult-centered attitudes prevailed. The challenge of entry into a low-performing school needed to be mitigated with an opportunity to balance an infusion of talent with a departure of an equal number of teachers who lacked the will or skill to tackle the academic challenges on the horizon.
- Principals must be given the freedom and flexibility to reform the school without the constraints of district regulations that limit the ability to use time, people, and money and resources to impact academic progress for students. As part of the contract for strategic staffing, principals were granted freedom and flexibility with accountability to design a tailored turnaround strategy for the school based on an extensive review of a variety of data points. Teachers understood that if their principal earned autonomy, this would trickle to the classroom and provide them with the necessary flexibility to teach without constraints and unleash their innovation, passion, and creativity to meet the needs of each child. The autonomy for principals included flexibility with staffing, scheduling, budgeting, training of staff, and selection of instructional strategies. Each strategic staffing school improvement plan was built on the specific strengths of the faculty at the school. At Ashley Park, principal Tonya Kales created a Family Model where a team of teachers owned a grade level of students. Each day, students were grouped based on the previous day’s accomplishments. Students, if asked, could not identify a homeroom teacher and instead named all teachers at the grade level as a teacher. The Family Model allowed teachers to teach in areas of their expertise and for the entire grade-level team to touch every student each week. Teachers in turn evaluated their success individually based on the overall grade level performance rather than on the accomplishments of one group of students on the grade level.
Suzanne Gimenez, a strategic staffing principal at Devonshire Elementary, compared her role to the leader of a wagon train in the Old West. She had to line up her experienced drivers every four or five wagons to make sure all wagons stayed on track. As the leader of the wagon train, she would circle back periodically to make sure everyone was still on track. Ms. Gimenez placed a highly effective teacher at each grade to allow that teacher to assist in building the capacity of the entire teaching team. Grade-level meetings occurred on a daily basis, led by a literacy facilitator and a math facilitator. As principal, she realized that a small team of effective teachers could not turn around a large elementary school without a commitment to build the entire school’s belief in students and capacity to individualize instruction.
- Compensation matters. When district officials talked to other districts about strategic staffing, educators were frequently shocked that compensation was not the most important decision-making variable for principals and teachers taking on the turnaround assignment. Certainly, our teachers knew that compensation did matter—as one teacher reminded us, the compensation needed to pay for more than a monthly dry cleaning bill. Financial incentives were structured to recognize that strategic staffing teams were taking on an arduous challenge, and compensation should reflect that. Principals and assistant principals received a 10% pay supplement on top of their base pay. Teachers received a $10,000 recruitment bonus for the first year and $5,000 for years two and three. At the end of 3 years for the first cohort of seven schools, the district realized the need to extend the compensation for years four and five in order to continue to build the teaching capacity of the school staff.