A Path for Irreplaceables

Schools across the country are working hard to identify and retain their irreplaceable teachers. How are they doing it? We’re talking with leaders to get the ground-level details.

Today, we hear from Harris Ferrell, chief information officer at Achievement First, a network of charter schools in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island that recently introduced a new career path for teachers to reward excellence and nurture growth.

How do you identify and reward top-performing teachers at Achievement First?

We have a Teacher Career Pathway project. First, we asked ourselves a question: If Achievement First believes that the single biggest driver to student success is having a high-quality teacher, what are we doing in order to make a bold statement of that value?

We took a lot of input from our teachers  on what they would find meaningful. We backed away from a possible focus on prizes and teacher-of-the-year types of things, because if someone is getting excellent results in his or her class year after year, a one-time prize doesn’t necessarily celebrate that. Instead, we created a meaningful career path that would allow high-quality teachers to advance and grow.

What does that look like in practice at your schools?

Well, in determining that, we encountered our next big question: How would we define steps on that career path? We wanted to divorce ourselves from more traditional district ladders based on years of experience and certification, and we wanted the advanced stages on our path to represent the highest bar of excellence in the teaching profession.

Our path has five stages, from a novice teacher on up to “distinguished” and “master” teachers. Once teachers reach those levels, they get a step up in salary and a new title. We also invest more in their development: teachers get a PD stipend to use however they wish, and we bring them together for special group trainings with other “distinguished” teachers in our network. When you start reaching this level of excellence, there may not be many other teachers at your school with similar expertise to learn from, so we bring people together across our regions.

What feedback have you heard about this so far?

Our experience has been that the financial reward is definitely something that people enjoy, and it feels great to get it. No one turns down the offer of more money. But what these teachers have told us anecdotally is that the money is not the driver of what is keeping them in the classroom. These folks are outcomes-driven, and it is the success of the students that they teach and our honoring them for their excellence that is the most significant reward.

How do you know you’re getting this right? Or, if you’re not there yet, what have your most significant struggles been?

We take a multiple measures approach, looking at a teacher’s instructional practice in several ways, as well as his or her contribution to students’ character growth and the adult culture at their school.

We think there is a real power in multiple measures because, given the grades and subjects and different people who do lesson observations, it helps protect against any one instrument being the defining thing.

In addition, we make sure our data gets vetted and reviewed by our senior organizational leaders. We’ve often found that the teachers earning the highest scores are generally considered the strongest in their schools, just by reputation. So that gives us a measure of confidence.

Is this having your intended effect of retaining more excellent teachers?

Our retention goal for our distinguished cohort of teachers is 95 percent; for our first year, we had 85 percent retention, which is in line with our network average of 80-85 percent. The announcements came fairly late in the school year last year; we’re looking to accelerate the time frame this year. I know a few “distinguished” teachers that explicitly stayed in the classroom at their schools for this school year, as a result of having earned that distinction. To me, that’s the best and most rewarding outcome we could have.

November 1, 2013: This post has been revised to specify that Achievement First operates schools in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

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