Working to help teachers help teachers

By Todd Cohen

CARRBORO, N.C. — High-need public schools — those with a large percentage of students living in poverty — typically lose at least half their teachers every year, compared to a loss of 15 percent of teachers at the average U.S. public school.

To help reduce teacher turnover, the Center for Teaching Quality in Carrboro has begun working on a pilot project with 12 high-need public schools in South Carolina to make it easier for excellent teachers to share their teaching strategies with colleagues.

“Not just in the U.S., but in the best-performing systems of education around the world, you will find very sophisticated systems of teacher development,” says Barnett Berry, founder and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality. “We know that the systems that work the best create opportunities for teachers to develop and use their knowledge of children to solve their problems of practice.”

Founded in 1998 as the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, at the time an arm of General Administration of the University of North Carolina System, the Center in 2005 became a separate nonprofit and got its current name.

It operates with an annual budget of $3 million and a staff of 15 employees, and is shifting its business strategy to at least double, from 15 percent now, the share of revenue it generates from fees for services, and to reduce, from 85 percent now, the share it gets from foundation grants.

The Center works with state education agencies, schools districts, other nonprofits, businesses, and networks of schools to find ways to help good teachers become leaders in efforts to improve public schools.

The Center supports professional development of teachers that helps them measure their impact and share their knowledge with other teachers and administrators in “virtual communities of practice” and through systems of “collective leadership,” Berry says.

“Most teachers are very much siloed from each other, with very few opportunities for even our our best teachers to share their expertise with their colleagues,” he says. “We have excellent teachers and excellent teaching going on, but it doesn’t spread from classroom to classroom.”

Realigning education resources to support more professional development also is  critical, Berry says.

In Singapore, with a school system that ranks among the best in the world, teachers have 15 hours a week to plan with their colleagues, Berry says. In the U.S., most teachers get less than two hours a week for planning.

And for every 100 educators in the Singapore schools, 75 are teachers, compared to 45 to 50 in the U.S., he says.

In Jefferson County, Ky., the Center has worked with 30 effective teachers to create online study groups to share their teaching expertise with 1,500 other teachers in the school district, which includes 180 schools, 6,000 teachers and 100,000 students.

And two years ago, the Center worked with teachers in 15 schools in the Daytona school system in Volusia County, Fla., to improve their own teaching practices and those of their colleagues. In just one year, Berry says, student achievement in those schools improved 10 percentage points.

But metrics alone will not be enough to persuade elected officials, educators or the public about the value of shifting resources — such as reorganizing the school day and making more time for teachers to lead — to enable good teachers to teach another, Berry says. Also critical, he says, is finding ways to help good teachers use technology and social media to raise awareness about their work and its impact on students.

“We’re certainly cognizant of the mountain we’re trying to climb,’ Berry says. “We cannot do this alone.”

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