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Investing in Educators to Create District-wide Change in Ascension Parish, LA

Great educators can transform the lives and learning of students. To ensure that every student has access to great educators, particularly in our nation’s most underserved schools, The U.S. Department of Education (Department) recently released non-regulatory guidance on Title II, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Title II, Part A funds can be used to train, develop, and support educators, and the new guidance encourages states and districts to think boldly about how they use these funds. The guidance highlights recommended strategies and creative approaches currently being implemented by organizations throughout the country, including grantees supported by competitive grants run by the Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII). Several of OII’s grants support innovative approaches by states, districts, teacher preparation programs, and nonprofits, to realize the goals outlined in Title II, Part A – improve supports for educators to increase student academic achievement. States and districts may want to consider some of these approaches as they begin planning their Title II, Part A investments.

“I had a plan and knew I would figure out the dollars later, to make it happen.” Then-superintendent of Ascension Public Schools in Louisiana, Dr. Patrice Pujol, recalls her plan to put people at the center of the school district’s reform efforts, and in particular, develop the leadership and capacity of teachers, principals, and other district staff. It all began with the implementation of the TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement in two of the district’s lowest-performing schools. Funded in part through a 2010 Teacher Incentive Fund Grant to the state, Ascension implemented TAP as a way of developing teacher leadership in a small cohort of instructional coaches, master teachers, and mentors, critical roles needed to implement the new rubric for measuring teacher practice and improvements to student learning. They also utilized TAP’s data management system that produced robust reports on improvements in teacher practice, allowing for data sharing between principals and the district office.

By “preaching and praising” the progress of the pioneer schools, the pilot grew from 2 to 4 and then from 4 to 8 and from 8 to 12 schools, where they continued to see positive results for both teachers and students. “Results built efficacy and efficacy built buy-in,” says Pujol. She took teachers and principals from across the district and even school board members, to visit the schools, to build demand and interest in the program. Before the TAP rubric was deployed district-wide, they began with the investment of an instructional coach in every school in the district. However, teachers and principals quickly realized that this coach could not be nearly as successful as those they’d seen in the TAP schools, in part because the coaches lacked a concrete tool to guide their work supporting teacher practice. Demand for the TAP rubric had been created, along with greater demand for other teacher leadership and support roles within schools.

To pay for the investments necessary to implement her human capital vision, Pujol spent significant time with her staff and all the people on her team that managed any part of the federal program dollars, as well as those most in charge of implementing programs that supported teachers and principals. To them she said, “Here’s our human capital management system and here’s how we want to support teachers to support student learning. What dollars do we have on the table and how can we use them to support this plan?” She and her team analyzed how their dollars were currently being spent and used the data to engage with stakeholders to show that some of the programs and strategies the district had long-pursued weren’t getting the return on investment—results for kids—that the district would hope and expect to see. With some creativity on the part of her staff, and buy-in from the school board and other stakeholders, they were able to identify diverse sources of local and federal dollars to expand TAP and to use the TAP Teaching Standards Instructional Rubric district-wide.

As teachers began to see their practice improve, they were able to make the connection between the positive data trends in their performance against the TAP rubric and improved student learning. “To lead change like this, you have to find short-term wins,” says Pujol. “And just as important is having ways to track what’s happening with kids and how the tools and supports you’re providing are or aren’t working.” To her, what began as a teacher leadership strategy developed into a broader human capital management system throughout the district. It became clear that additional supports were necessary to enable principals and other district staff to develop critical skills and tools; this support would drive implementation of the system and guide the important professional learning conversations teachers were now having with one another and their colleagues. By connecting adult behavior with improved student outcomes, they were able to establish a culture of collaboration and desire to improve individual practice to further improve student outcomes. Pujol says she heard teachers asking themselves the question, “How can I improve my practice, to improve student outcomes?”

None of this came easy, according to Pujol. To lead change like this takes a “steel will and commitment to making the change happen no matter what, and not allowing anything to stop you.” Following Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change, and grounded in the belief that the only measure that truly mattered was improved student achievement, Pujol led Ascension Parish Public Schools to marked improvement: between the 2010-2011 and 2013-14 school years, Ascension went from having 8 D and F schools to having no F schools and only 3 D schools. The trend has continued, and now there are only 5 C and D schools. They also saw improvement in their higher-performing schools and increased the number of A schools in the district from 6 to 16. Pujol, for her leadership, was named the 2015 Louisiana State Superintendent of the Year and was one of four finalists for the 2015 National Superintendent of the Year.

When reflecting on her challenges and successes while leading Ascension Public Schools, Pujol, now serving as President of NIET, The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, will be the first to tell you that it wasn’t always easy, and that there were myriad challenges to implementing this kind of significant change. While she had built a strong guiding coalition, she says that given the opportunity to do it again, she would have spent more time, sooner, developing the capacity of more of her colleagues at the district-level; she believes this could have helped secure greater buy-in earlier on. “It’s really important that everyone sees their role in this work, and everyone needs to feel like they own and are a part of it.”

She points out that getting buy-in from some of her higher-performing schools was initially quite difficult, too. At one point, to create a sense of urgency, she brought back student work from a public school in Harlem, where most students were from low-income backgrounds, but where she had seen students demonstrate particularly strong writing skills. In fact, the Harlem students’ writing was stronger and required them to respond to more sophisticated prompts than the students in some of her high performing schools. She showed some of the students’ outstanding writing to teachers in her higher-performing schools, where most of their students were affluent, to demonstrate that there’s always room for growth and improvement in student learning and outcomes.