New Teacher Paths in HISD

In most school systems, teachers who want more influence, responsibility and pay have one career pathway: out of the classroom and into administration. Yet many talented teachers have a desire to continue to work closely with students, and don’t want to leave the classroom. So for them, career advancement means doing the same teaching job and taking on more work on the side: by getting tagged as a department chair, a grade level leader, a curriculum writer, or any number of “leadership roles” that amount to a lot of extra work and not a lot more pay. There’s got to be something more.

The Houston Independent School District (HISD) is hoping to answer that call with its Career Pathways pilot. This year, more than 220 effective and highly effective teachers in 62 schools are taking on leadership roles designed to increase their retention, while taking advantage of their talents to help colleagues improve—all while remaining in the classroom providing direct instruction to students. We advised HISD on designing the new paths, and are watching closely to see their impact.

Each teacher in one of these new leadership roles has a job description that clearly outlines his or her responsibilities and goals. They each receive leadership training and specialized support in addition to meeting regularly with other teacher leaders to problem-solve. These teacher leaders earn a healthy financial reward of $2,000 to $6,000 for their hard work, and those who are required to observe colleagues also receive release time away from teaching in order to focus on their roles as coaches.

Here’s what it looks like for Shannon, a Data Tracking and Analysis Specialist at Madison High School who has been rated highly effective on HISD’s rigorous teacher appraisal and development system. She starts her day by teaching two sections of high school math, before spending an hour with her algebra team to update and analyze their students’ performance data and plan lessons appropriately. In the afternoon, she spends time updating the school’s data wall, which allows everyone to see student assessment data organized by teacher and subject. After school, she may spend time coaching an individual teacher on how to better use data in his or her classroom to differentiate for struggling students.

Down the road at Pilgrim Academy, a pre-K-8 school, Silvina, a highly effective-rated teacher and Instructional Practice Coach, spends her morning teaching language arts and science to first graders. After lunch, she walks down the hall, where she observes a colleague’s instruction and takes notes on strengths and growth areas. Later, she meets a group of first-grade students who are heading to an after-school enrichment activity. She wraps up her day at a Leadership Team meeting with her principal and other teacher leaders on campus, to plan for upcoming events and school-wide professional development activities.

In addition to giving these great teachers an opportunity to expand their influence, HISD’s career pathways pilot sends an important message: This school needs you. One of the top reasons why great teachers say they plan to leave is because of a lack of meaningful career pathways, and data from HISD show that traditional roles like department chair have almost no effect on how long a teacher plans to stay at HISD. Yet in the first year of Houston’s pilot (2012-2013), teachers in these new leadership roles reported that they planned to stay in the district an average of 1.5 years longer than their peers in traditional roles.

We know that keeping a great teacher for one more year can have a profound effect on student academic growth. In fact, these teacher leaders were more likely to demonstrate improved student growth results during the pilot year compared to other teachers across the district. Just as important, nearly two-thirds of teachers who received support from teacher leaders reported that the teacher leader had improved their instructional practice.  

Early results show promise, but Career Pathways in HISD is still in a pilot stage. The first year began with 23 campuses, and the program is aiming to reach 150 schools by next year, with all schools potentially offering these roles by 2015-2016. In the meantime, we're learning more every day about how a program like this can succeed—and how it can be improved. One of the key issues facing expansion is how schools can find the time in the day to give teacher leaders ample opportunities to coach, lead, and analyze data without adding more teachers to the staff roster. Looking ahead, more of the costs for teacher leader stipends and training will need to be absorbed by local school budgets, which are often tight.

The success of any new career pathways program will hinge on training and support: What skills do teacher leaders need to excel in their roles, what specific activities will result in improved instruction among peers, and what help do principals need to get the most out of their teacher leaders? To try to answer these questions, each teacher leader this year is carefully tracking their work with teachers and students. Linking this data with student and teacher performance information should help us identify the activities and skills that are essential to a teacher leader’s role.

The road to meaningful career pathways for teachers goes against the grain of decades of traditional staffing structures, and there are a lot of questions yet to be answered. But by providing teachers with a clear pathway to help their schools improve, Houston is setting itself up to keep more of their irreplaceable teachers—and help more students learn.

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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