Picture the possibilities for remotely located teachers: If you find this sort of teaching hard to envision, Grand Rapids, MI, physics teacher Andrew Vanden Heuvel has an exciting video to show you how it’s happening now—through his virtual field trip to Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider as the first person to teach a science class from insider the collider’s tunnel (and one of the first to bike through it!). As Andrew says on his blog about the trip, “It’s not about the technology, but what you can do with it.”
I spent two years teaching in a diverse, high-poverty school on the northwest side of Chicago. And I was fortunate enough to say that even with the incredible growth my students showed in my classroom—in my second year, students averaged more than four years of growth—I was not the best teacher in the building.
On the contrary, I worked with teachers who were simply amazing—who had dedicated five to 10 years to this profession, who made strong gains with their students every year, and who served as models for me. They knew how to develop supportive relationships with parents and work with peers collaboratively in ways I was just beginning to understand.
Most of the excellent teachers were founding members of the school, and were extremely invested in it and the students whom they watched grow from kindergarteners to middle-schoolers.
But after giving five years of 14-hour workdays in a high-stakes environment with high expectations and little reward, all of the best teachers, one by one, left during my two-year tenure there.
Blended learning holds unique promise to improve student outcomes dramatically. Schools will not realize this promise with technology improvements alone, though, or with technology and today’s typical teaching roles. In a new Public Impact policy brief, A Better Blend: A Vision for Boosting Student Outcomes with Digital Learning, which we co-authored with Joe Ableidinger and Jiye Grace Han, we explain how schools can use blended learning to drive improvements in the quality of digital instruction, transform teaching into a highly paid, opportunity-rich career that extends the reach of excellent teachers to all students and teaching peers, and improve student learning at large scale. We call this a “better blend”: combining high-quality digital learning and excellent teaching.
A year ago, Public Impact began working with school design teams of pilot schools in the Charlotte and Nashville public school districts to choose and tailor school models for extending the reach of excellent teachers to more students.
We didn’t know for certain how well the design processes would go. We chose these districts because they had leaders who showed real commitment to expanding the impact and authority of already-excellent teachers and a burning passion to help disadvantaged students. But would that be enough?
We shared design process principles, which include teacher involvement in design decisions. We shared five Opportunity Culture Principles for the new school models they would craft or tailor to their needs; they call for reaching more students with excellent teaching, higher pay, sustainable funding, job-embedded development opportunity, and authority and accountability aligned with each teacher’s responsibilities.
But we didn’t know how school teams would respond. Could they make design decisions that gained administrators’ support? How would the many good, solid teachers in these schools who were not on the design teams respond to their peers’ design choices? Would the teams craft roles that appealed to excellent teaching peers for recruiting purposes? All of these schools are high-poverty, and these teachers are no strangers to repeated “school improvement” efforts that can easily provoke skepticism.
On all fronts, these school teams exceeded our expectations.
Do teachers care about terrific career opportunities that let them stay in the classroom? Do teachers long for jobs that pay them more—substantially more—for leading their peers and reaching many more students with their excellent teaching? Do teachers want jobs that give them time during school hours to collaborate with and learn from their peers? Judging from the 708 applications now stacked at Project L.I.F.T., teachers are thundering, “Yes!”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools started Project L.I.F.T. to support gap-closing reforms in high-need and historically low-performing schools; it and three pilot schools in the Metro Nashville Public Schools’ “Innovation Zone,” are the first district sites to use Opportunity Culture school models developed by Public Impact to reach more students with excellent teachers, for more pay, within budget.
The flood of applications didn’t surprise Zone Superintendent and L.I.F.T. Executive Director Denise Watts. “Teachers really want to have an impact in the classroom—they don’t all want to be principals.”
And to those who argue compensation doesn’t matter to teachers, “be real,” Watts says. “I’ve been on the other side of the desk when a teacher tells me she’s pursuing other opportunities because of the compensation. Teachers are not afraid of the accountability if we provide them those compensation avenues.”