Yes, Good Teaching Can be Taught

By Patrick Haugh and Dottie Smith

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 “Can good teaching be taught?”

That was the difficult question posed by a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, which told the story of Peyton Forest Elementary in Atlanta, and its principal, Cynthia Gunner. The overall message was that leaders, like Ms. Gunner, are often held accountable for student achievement, and while they have a will and deep desire to meet these goals, they are often left stranded on an island without support or true authority to assemble the talented team needed to guide all students to achieve their potential. The answer to the titular question remained ambiguous.

 As leaders of two organizations working in North Texas focused on developing educators to be their very best and ensuring all students have access to great teachers and schools, we wanted to weigh in. We are witnessing dramatic progress in student achievement in Dallas ISD, and the district-wide focus on school leadership is a large contributor to that success. 

People grow, evolve, develop, improve every day - it’s one of the most beautiful aspects of being human. But, it requires a lot. Not just from the leaders and teachers working in schools every day, but also from the system. Great teaching blossoms when courageous principals with a keen, unapologetic eye for excellent instruction provide teachers with support and direct, frequent feedback on their instruction. Great teaching grows when a system clearly defines what students should be learning, reading, solving for to be college ready and clearly defines the kind of instruction that gets students there. Great teaching thrives when district and school leadership cultivate a reflective, growth-oriented approach to teacher support and development - providing meaningful opportunities to learn, grow, and get better.

Districts looking to drive transformational change in urban school systems should not only rely on finding a few superhuman school leaders.It is critical they build the capacity not only of these school leaders but their teams as well, by providing high quality learning and development opportunities that prepares them for leadership roles. Further, districts that clearly define excellence and align expectations, systems, and tools to this vision -- and then implement them with excellence -- see achievement growth begin to take off. 

This has been the inspiring story of Dallas ISD.

Dallas ISD leadership, particularly Superintendent Hinojosa, Stephanie Elizalde, and Jolee Healey should be applauded - not just for the gains they have driven in student performance, but more importantly for how they have led this transformation. Through a disciplined, focused investment in systems and practices that are all grounded in developing and leveraging great talent, they have built a solid foundation upon which sustained progress and accelerated performance are far more likely. That is the key: people-centered design has acted as the common thread that is advancing the capacity of educators and leaders at every level within and across schools.This kind of investment has seen encouraging returns, with Dallas ISD outpacing its urban school district peers in terms of growth, making it one of the most rapidly improving urban districts in the country. 

This is a success story that deserves more positive attention.

In Dallas ISD, there are several key elements that are helping more and more Dallas ISD school leaders be their very best for their staff, students and parents. First, there's a rigorous performance system, the Teacher and Principal Excellence Initiative (TEI and PEI) that looks at several, critical areas of an educator’s practice. For example, teachers receive points for student achievement growth, the perception of students, and the strength of their instruction. The observation rubric, which makes up most of a teacher's evaluation, is used by school leaders to help diagnose strengths and areas for development relative to this bar. Principals are expected to observe teachers regularly, not only as part of the evaluation cycle, but also to ensure teachers are getting real-time feedback to improve. 

Teachers find great value in receiving this kind of professional development. In fact, teacher satisfaction with their school increases by 60% if they are provided with differentiated, effective development[1]. And, satisfaction increases with teaching overall when teachers receive this kind of support[2], which improves instruction in the short-term and retention of teachers in the long-term. TEI identifies the best teachers and then pays them more. This understanding enables the district to keep its best, support and grow others, and part ways with a smaller number who are not meeting expectations. At the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year, 90% of proficient or better teachers returned to their classrooms, and 95%+ of the three highest ratings returned to their classroom; both of which far exceed state retention averages of 84%[3].

With this wealth of knowledge, we not only retain more of our master educators, but deploy them to campuses that need them the most. This the strategy behind the district’s Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) initiative.

Rusk Middle School, a historically underperforming school in Dallas enrolling students predominantly from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, is an example of the power that can be unleashed when everyone is focused on excellent instruction and a community-driven set of wraparound services are provided for students. As an ACE campus, Rusk students received a new principal who hand-selected a new teaching team, most of them with a strong track record of success. In just one academic year, the students of Rusk Middle School experienced dramatic (double-digit) growth across every subject and grade, including an astounding 31.7% increase in the number of 8th grade students scoring proficient in math. These are the results that are possible when school systems share a belief in and commitment to all students achieving at a high level no matter socioeconomic status, race or language spoken at home.

 “Results like what we’ve seen at Rusk are not an anomaly in Dallas,” said Jolee Healey, deputy chief of school leadership at Dallas ISD. “We understand the importance of a targeted investment in school leadership, and believe it’s paying off when we look at the turnaround in performance of many of our historically underperforming schools.” 

Outside factors that influence student learning and are outside of the school's control, like educational background of parents, are often cited as challenging hurdles faced by schools. These factors matter -- and point to one reason why it’s important for schools to have access to community partners that can provide additional supports to meet the needs of each student. That’s why, if we look at the power of teachers working under an exceptional leader who is provided the resources needed to fully support students (like social-emotional learning, trauma support, counseling, even washers and dryers) we see great gainsAnd, when this happens within a supportive district with great principal managers and the willingness to provide extra resources to the kids with the greatest needs, we see the odds change. Dramatically and consistently. 

To answer the question directly, yes, good teaching can be taught. But, the bigger question on our minds is: Are we willing, as a system, as tax-payers and as parents and as educators, to invest in education as if our future depends on it? Are we willing to pay teachers and leaders based on the impact they are making, and pay them enough that they don’t have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet? Are we willing to meaningfully invest in the people doing the most important work?  Because our kids are showing us they are fully capable of greatness when the adults in their lives do their part. 

Dottie Smith leads the Best in Class Coalition, a local initiative focused on increasing access to well-prepared, effective, diverse educators so that a greater proportion of our region’s students can be on track for college and career success. A unique partnership between Communities Foundation of Texas and The Commit Partnership, Best in Class has over 50 educational entities committed to this goal, focusing the groups efforts on four strategic parts of an educator’s pathway: attract, prepare, develop, and retain.

 Patrick Haugh is the Chief Executive Officer at Teaching Trust, a school leadership development organization preparing educators to lead the change needed for the academic success and equity of all students. Founded in 2010 with a small program of fewer than 20 educators, Teaching Trust’s community of program participants and alumni across Dallas and Tarrant Counties has grown to 900 educators in 150+ schools serving 80,000 students for the 2018-2019 year.

[1]Source: Third Annual Teach DFW Teacher Survey, slide 9

[2]Source: Third Annual Teach DFW Teacher Survey, slide 37

[3]Source: Dallas ISD, Department of Evaluation and Assessment