When I became executive director of high school education at Gaston County Schools three years ago, our student achievement was average when compared to other districts in North Carolina. That wasn’t good enough for us, but we also recognized that improving achievement, particularly at the high school level, is very difficult work.
We serve about 32,000 students at 55 schools, a diverse and economically challenged population in which approximately 62% qualify for free and reduced lunch. We have always had pockets of excellence happening inside our classrooms, but we needed to find a way to get those “pockets” occurring in 100% of our classrooms.
You can't keep doing the same thing and expect different results, but how do you get 700 teachers to buy into a new set of ideas? We started by taking a hard look at how we were supporting teacher development, and how we could improve.
Focusing on the best second- and third-year teachers
We have a nationally recognized Teacher Induction Program for Success (TIPS) that has been in place for the last 15 years. TIPS brings first-year teachers in before school starts for three days of professional development. New teachers meet the superintendent, the board attorney for the school system, the board of education chair and various other central decision-makers. They also work with curriculum facilitators, going over topics such as how to build a lesson, how to manage a classroom and various other components of instruction.
After the initial three-day induction, those first-year teachers attend monthly meetings for ongoing support. Monthly meetings offer support on issues facing new teachers, such as communicating with parents and participating in professional learning communities. They can partner with others who have similar concerns, share strategies and build a professional learning network across the district.
That’s been very successful, but to move the needle on student achievement, we decided to focus on second- and third-year teachers as well.
After working with education consultant Alan November during the 2016–17 school year, we chose to flip the standard approach on its head and, instead of working with teachers who were struggling, we chose to focus on those who were succeeding. At the same time, we began working with another company, Verso Learning, which offers a classroom collaboration and feedback platform and was offering instructional coaching to teachers at Horry County Schools.
We worked with 50 teachers who were among our best in each of our high schools. That set a tone that we really are interested in empowering successful teachers and investing in a different approach to achieve different results. We expanded to a second cohort of about 30 teachers last year, and this year we took a hard look at what actual practices we wanted to institutionalize.