The Foundations Of Making Schools Work – Research Paper

Abstract – J Higgins 2018

Numerous studies have pointed to teacher quality as a major predictor of student outcomes. To define quality teaching, this paper will focus on evidence-based strategies that can be implemented in a school network that will translate into student achievement.  The leadership skills needed to implement these strategies will be outlined and real-world application in a mid-size school district will show how these strategies can be.

Strong Teachers

The biggest predictor of success in the classroom is a strong teacher.  How do we find, train, support and reward strong teaching? This paper will spell out the importance of teacher quality as the single largest impact on student achievement. To arrive at teacher quality this paper will and analyze the myriad of attempts to impact teacher quality in the US. Putting the hypothesis that teacher quality will translate into market success, I will also lay out a real-world case with measurable outcomes to argue that there is a scalable way to fill schools, delight stakeholders (parents, regulators, teacher) and create a culture that leads to student achievement, all with a singular focus on strong teaching.  To improve our schools, leaders must learn from best practices from top quality schools, analyzing the data on teacher impact on learning and experimenting with real-world ideas in an active school network. Fixing American education can be done by one teacher and one classroom at a time.

Teacher quality and student outcome have been a much-studied topic in America. Work by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality aggregated the myriad of completed studies and surmised that not all measures of teaching quality produce results in the classroom. Of the four areas measured, I’m going to focus on two characteristics that as an operator of schools I have the biggest impact on. Those areas are Teacher Practices and Teacher Effectiveness. The other two areas that the study covers; Teacher Licensure and Teacher Characteristics are important but are more human resources and screening functions and should be implemented before a teacher joins a school. The focus of this paper is to use researched-based findings that can improve the performance of teachers in my school network.

The following research-backed techniques have been found to lead to higher student outcomes,

  • A induction and mentoring program for new teachers into the school network (Cohen & Hill, 1998; Kannapel & Clements, 2005; Wenglinsky, 2000, 2002),
  • Teacher subject knowledge, studies point to both elementary and high school teachers’ mathematics pedagogical knowledge as the strongest teacher-level predictor of student achievement (Hill, Rowan, & Ball, 2005; Rowan et al., 1997).
  • Attract students’ attention and interest in learning through creative and varied learning activities.  Engaged learning is important to hold student attention and for deeper learning.
  • Align the taught and tested curriculum so all students have opportunities to learn content and skills on which their academic progress will be measured (Hill and Crevola 1999).
  • Use student assessment data to diagnostically plan instruction for individual students and the whole class, determine student mastery and provide feedback to students that they can promptly use to increase learning (Danielson 1996; Darling-Hammond 1999; Hill and Crevola 1999).
  • Collaborative decision making between teaching staff and administration are some of several cultural characteristics that researchers say can differentiate high- from low-performing elementary schools (Kannapel & Clements, 2005).
  • Teachers that provide students with clear learning objectives and performance expectations is associated with student achievement in mathematics and reading at least at the elementary and middle school levels (Matsumura et al., 2006; Schacter & Thum, 2004).
  • Several researchers observe that teachers who consistently provide students with opportunities to explain and discuss projects and assignments is positively associated with middle school achievement in mathematics, reading, and science (Frome et al., 2005; Marcoulides et al., 2005; Matsumura et al., 2006).
  • Frequent assessment and feedback is one of the school-level practices that distinguish high- from low-performing schools (Kannapel & Clements, 2005)
  • Teachers’ use of interactive or hands-on teaching practices is positively associated with student achievement in elementary school mathematics and reading (Smith, Lee, & Newmann, 2001) and in middle and high school mathematics(Frome et al., 2005; Wenglinsky, 2000, 2002).
  • Jacob and Lefgren (2005) found that principals’ subjective assessments of teacher quality are substantially related to elementary school students’ mathematics and reading test scores.


School Leaders and Content

A comprehensive program to train teachers is the most impactful long-term strategy that a school system can implement. The research supports substantial investment in developing teachers. In order to lead a school, a leader must have a firm understanding of what makes teachers successful in the classroom. The leader must understand the role of standards-aligned curriculum that scaffolds from year to year and the role of constantly monitoring and assessing the effectiveness of the curriculum being used. Starting with a foundation deep rich curriculum and consistent use of data-driven instruction ensures that the school system has the WHAT to teach and the classroom teacher can focus on the HOW and WHY of the content.  

School Leaders and Teacher Development

The research points to a need for school leaders to create a training plan that encompasses the entire professional life of a teacher in the school.  From a new hire induction program followed up with a strong mentoring program to ongoing professional development programs, a school leader must recognize the time and investment required to perfect the craft of teaching. In addition to a comprehensive training program, a site leader must implement a culture of adult learning that is open and encouraging.  Feedback both informally and formally is an important step on a successful teacher development program. We’ve learned the difference between a Newtonian school culture that is rigid, bureaucratic and has silos throughout the campus in contrast to Glickman’s SuperVision model whereby the culture is collaborative and trust based. In a SuperVision school, the entire staff’s input is valued and there is a safety to experiment and share ideas is encouraged. Teaching is such a personal process. Good teachers pour their hearts and souls into not only the technical aspects of their job but the emotional connection that occurs between them and their students.  Giving feedback that is well received and taken constructively only occurs with school leaders that have built the trust with their staff.

School Leaders and Technical Skills Needed for Success

First and foremost a good school leader must possess a strong knowledge of what good teaching is.  From the almost 75 years of research in the field of quality teaching, student engagement is paramount to student achievement.  How one teacher achieves engagement compared to another is the art of teaching, but a strong school leader must respect the differences in style and personality but hold true to the end outcome of student engagement.  From humor to connecting uniquely with each student, to high energy and frequent formative assessments, each teacher has their own unique way of keeping students engaged. A school leader must know what engagement looks like and trust that their teaching staff is getting there in their own unique way.  A school leader must monitor, have a strong culture of ongoing learning and improvement and know the best way to impact each of their teachers without slaying their spirit. A school leader must also have a strong understanding of data-driven instruction and what story the data is telling. Data can point to global problems with curriculum, refinements needed with a particular teacher or issues within the classroom that may be beyond a teachers control. With a firm understanding of data-driven instruction, a school leader can adjust and monitor their teaching staff to ensure student achievement.

My District Wide Leadership Plan – Technical

The foundation that successful school has and that our organization strives for begins with a standards-aligned curriculum that matches our pedagogy, which happens to be classical education. A public school district in Arizona that consistently achieves the high end of year testing has developed a curriculum delivery model called Beyond Textbooks. Their content is now licensed to schools around the country.  Our network embarked on creating a similar program that is uniquely matched to Classical Education. The curriculum program launched this school year and teachers are discovering the benefits daily. With our Schoology (learning management system) we can provide our teaching staff with WHAT to teach and allow them to focus on the HOW and WHY of the content. The rollout process is intentionally explained as this the curriculum is available as guide rails and not a tract or script.  We are careful to respect the professional choices of the teacher in the classroom. We are finding that with the addition of 120 new teachers this year, having a foundation of standards-aligned curriculum that classically interconnects all the subject areas has taken a lot of stress off new teachers. We find that over time, as new teachers advance in our system they customize their content more to what their students engage with. With our Schoology program, we can quickly grow and add on campuses with the knowledge that we have a firm foundation of content at each campus.

The role of data-driven instruction is as important as the curriculum and content to our organization. Our team is in the fourth year of operation and each year our interpretation and adjustments towards data-driven instruction get better and better. Our team approach brings our leadership team together to go over the best practices that they have implemented at each campus.  Last year, I let each Principal develop their own corrective plans with approval and oversight by me. This year, our leaders met over the summer to codify the best practices for interventions and build out a toolbox of practices that each campus could choose from. We increase and formalized our intervention programs at each campus, we brought in digital tools to extend our intervention teams reach and each campus has a concerted focus on differentiation in the classroom and breaks intensive standard strand focus for those scholars in need.

Pulling It All Together

To exemplify how all these programs come together, last year our state tests showed a system-wide gap in grammar and editing and writing.  Since the problem was system-wide and not isolated to a campus or a particular grade we implemented the following fixes for this school year;

  1. Our virtual academy teachers and Principal built into our Schoology learning management system, writing prompts to mirror state standards by grade for narrative, informational, creative and opinion writing styles. We front-loaded narrative and informational text as the state tests are heavy in those areas. Schoology embedded writing prompts across subjects. Writing prompts are built into history and science to ensure emersion.
  2. Our campuses carved out specific time for writing to occur in the English blocks. We added in a grammar program from Shurley English with foundational memorization in K3 and application in 4 to 5 and made the grammar program optional (to new schools in particular) in 6-8th grades.
  3. Our Professional Development department held summer workshops including flying in Collins Writing to PD our English department and lead teachers on the program we embedded into our Schoology curriculum delivery. The PD department then holds campus-wide training once per quarter at each campus and offers full day, job-embedded training for teachers through the year.
  4. Our final step is to change our grading and assessment program to include campus-wide grading protocol that has a heavy focus on writing.
  5. We implemented a teacher evaluation program system-wide that was beta tested last year. The evaluation system was developed by Dr. Chris Moersche from San Diego and it focuses on the Danielson Rubric with elements of scholar engagement, teacher planning, and we’ve customized it to include aspects of classical educational elements that are unique to our model. The PD department and site leaders use the system teacher pop-ins or formal observations. We have a goal for each Principal/VPrincipal each month.  The 5 point scoring scale is tracked and aggregated system-wide. The benefit of the program is that if our district Professional Development Director and a site based Principal are off on their scoring of a particular teacher we can discuss the difference and move towards consistency. The aggregate data that comes back to us also helps us to tailor our future professional development offerings.

I call this our full court press on writing and we anticipate positive outcomes this year.

My District Wide Leadership Plan – Cultural

Struck with our rapid success in Arizona, I detailed out my ideas of the WHY of why our school system is working. I followed up the WHY is this working with my district team and site-based leaders. We spend intentional time in executing these five cultural foundations just like we do in curriculum design and data analysis.  The consensus from our team as to WHY this is working was, in order of importance;

  1. Trust – Relational Management style and a Family Feel and people feel that their co-workers genuinely care – the opposite being guarded and self-centered
  2. Servant Leadership – from every level, we model service to others. Glickman defines the concept as SuperVision, I’ve learned it as Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership. My entire day is anticipating the needs of those below me and sweating the small stuff. We’ve parted ways with Principal’s and in the end, life was about them and not about how to serve our families.
  3. Gratitude and Purpose – We all realize that we are a part of something big and important. Our staff came to this profession for a reason, we all desperately create an organization that focuses on kids first.
  4. Respect for the Profession of Teaching – I was CEO/COO of a mid-size medical and it was my first exposure to leading professionals. Medicine was changing and regulations were piling on. I watched these seasoned professionals that had dedicated their lives to their craft being relegated to button pushers. I make sure that in every decision my team makes, we don’t turn our teachers into robots. We welcome and encourage their creativity and uniqueness.
  5. Change is in our DNA – The hardest part of my transition from business to leading in education is instilling a culture of change. There are so many people that have risen up to leadership only in the teaching profession that falls back on what they’ve learned before and become resistant to change. In the business world we change or die, I’m trying to bring that mentality to the education field but it remains a daily struggle.




TQ Research and Quality Brief. Goe and Strickler.

Teacher Quality and Student Achievement. Kaplan and Owings. Research Gate