A large percentage of public school districts across the U.S. are comprised of 15 or fewer schools; 46 percent of districts have fewer than 1,000 students and a third have fewer than two schools. While many of these smaller school districts face the same challenges as larger school systems, they often lack the infrastructure and supports of larger districts—especially in the form of peer collaboration.

Several research studies have pointed out that educators in these districts—many of which are located rural areas—often experience “professional isolation,” making it hard to gain traction with the greatest school-related influencers on student achievement: the recruitment, development, and retention of teachers, teacher leaders, and principals.

As research has clearly stated for decades, there is no greater school-related impact on student achievement than the teacher in the classroom. The second-greatest school-related impact on student achievement growth is principal effectiveness. Not surprisingly, the largest impact on teacher retention is administrative support and school culture, both of which are impacted directly by the principal.

Unfortunately, the research is also clear that our most economically disadvantaged students—many of whom are in small, rural districts—are disproportionately served by higher percentages of ineffective and/or first-year teachers.

While smaller districts have advantages over larger districts, including less anonymity and more opportunity for tight-knit communities where students and faculty are more connected, they face unique challenges in recruiting, developing, and retaining human capital— especially in high-need schools.

Many lack the support infrastructure to provide aligned resources and systems to support their educators’ growth, including such supports as coaching for both teachers and principals and content-specific professional development.  As researcher J.D. Johnson explains, “The larger the district, the more magnified the negative effects of poverty over student achievement, and the smaller the district, the more poverty’s effects are muted.”

How Cross-School Collaboration Will Bring Change

However, for five districts—all with fewer than 15 schools each—in Delaware, Indiana, South Carolina, and Texas, there is good news. Through Insight Education Group’s Empowering Educators to Excel (E3), with multi-year funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s new Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program (TSL), educators in these districts, including principals, assistant principals, teacher leaders, and teachers, will soon form a groundbreaking networked improvement community (NIC) and receive new levels of support for school effectiveness.

(Next page: How the educators collaboration network will work)

Building on the former USDOE Teacher Incentive Fund program, TSL is a new discretionary grant program that focuses on professional development, performance-based compensation, and comprehensive human capital management systems for teachers, principals, and other school leaders.

The concept of a NIC stems from the ground-breaking work of improvement science originated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. With E3’s 47 schools each having 50 percent or more free- and reduced-lunch rates, the goal of the project is to open up systemic pathways for effectiveness and successes to permeate across (not just within) schools. This “cross-school collaboration” will aim to help reduce professional isolation and provide educators with a broader network of peers for meaningful, job-specific collaboration for school improvement.

E3 participating districts include Colonial School District (New Castle, DE); Gainesville Independent School District (Gainesville, TX); Marion County School District (Marion, SC); Marlboro County School District (Marlboro, SC); and Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township (Indianapolis, IN).

A Systemic Approach to Improving Student Achievement

E3’s theory of action is that all schools and participating districts are working to create or enhance the most powerful levers to improve both principal and teacher effectiveness—at the systems level, with a constant focus on results. E3’s project objectives are purposefully transparent and aligned to the theory of action:

  1.  improve student achievement;
  2. increase and support teacher and principal effectiveness; and
  3. evaluate the return on investment of every project activity versus student achievement.

The core of each partner district’s efforts to improve teaching is leveraging current human capital. Grounded in research and experience, E3 employs systemic approaches from the macro to the micro level of instruction, including rigorous academic standards with wrap-around supports and the following levers:

  • NICs for school leadership teams and teachers to learn from one another by sharing resources as well as leveraging educators’ expertise inside and among districts;
  • instructional leadership teams through TRACTION for School Improvement;
  • creating a career ladder continuum at E3 schools for teachers;
  • leadership academies for aspiring and current leaders;
  • professional learning communities (PLCs) using Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project, an evidence-based, asset-based model developed in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the American Institutes of Research, Kitamba, Kerri Kerr Consulting, to identify bright spots to replicate in local schools and across NICs; and
  • job-embedded individual and peer coaching in-person and by video using Insight’s Coaching for Change model and a video-based observation and coaching platform.

With stakeholder engagement and local control as major drivers, there will be an advisory council comprised of representatives from participating schools that will serve as the governing body for TSL implementation across all partner districts. Each district partner will in addition have a standing stakeholder group to decide the local, contextually specific items.

E3 will afford smaller, rural districts many of the same advantages of larger districts, including the opportunity for their educators to become part of a much wider community of educators for professional growth purposes, while at the same time allowing them to maintain and grow their local professional communities.

About the Author:

Jason Stricker is a co‐founder and CEO of Insight Education Group. Follow him on Twitter: @stricktlyjason.

Jason Culbertson is president of Insight Education Group. Follow him on Twitter: @JCulberts0n.