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Team Teaching Is the Best Use of ESSER Funds to Boost Student Learning after COVID

Hassel & Hassel: Engaging many educators, not just the elite, delivers excellent teaching to the most students and yields the greatest impact.

By Emily Ayscue Hassel & Bryan C. Hassel, October 26, 2023

In a recent interview with The 74, Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek called for responding to the “current learning losses of the COVID cohort” by assigning a few more students to the most effective teachers, paying them more with ESSER funds and buying out the contracts of the least effective educators. We have a different view.

Hanushek is right about this: Teachers already working in schools are the key to addressing COVID losses. He would know, because he pioneered research in this area. However, his suggested remedy would reach far too few students to get the impact needed, and dismissing struggling teachers is premature in light of shortages.

Nearly 15 years ago, we drew on Hanushek’s research to create innovative school staffing designs, now known as the national Opportunity Culture initiative. After a decade of helping schools implement many variations of these designs and teaching roles, data from thousands of teachers — and this year, about 170,000 students in over 800 schools in 12 states — shows that it is possible to deliver excellent teaching to large numbers of kids by engaging many educators, not just the elite.

Schools using Opportunity Culture designs create small teaching teams led by educators with a record of producing high-growth student learning. In addition to teaching for part of the day, leaders observe, coach, model instruction and plan with their team members. They earn more and are accountable for the results of all the team’s students.

Team teachers may directly work with more students than usual, also for higher pay, but most use rotating small groups so children can receive individualized attention. Some schools reallocate funds from staff vacancies or interventions that aren’t showing results to hire paraprofessionals and create year-long teacher residencies to provide small-group tutoring. Pay supplements are about 20% extra, on average, for the team leaders, up to 12% for teachers and up to 10% for paraprofessionals. These are funded through reallocations of funds in regular school budgets, by repurposing salaries from vacant staff positions and sometimes by using sources such as Title I. Reallocating regular funds means schools can sustain these roles permanently, not just while ESSER or other grant money lasts.

Two third-party studies using teacher-level data show that with these teams, on average, student learning increases about an extra half-year annually and participating teachers move from the 50th to the 77th percentile in producing student growth in both reading and math. And annual, anonymous surveys show that teachers like this structure.

Critically, schools need fewer long-term subs to fill vacancies when they have these teams in place, and teacher shortages may decline when educators are offered better career opportunities. Providing team leadership, guidance and collaboration — and including more teachers, not just the “most effective,” as Hanushek recommends, in higher-paid roles — correlates in our data with greater odds of schoolwide high-growth learning.

Instead of spending on short-term, small results, states and districts should use temporary ESSER funds to create roles like the ones we describe here, which can reach far more students.

Every district committed to reaching all students with excellent teaching can run with it, leveraging the new roles to achieve student gains. Using McKinsey’s method of translating student learning gains into impact on economic growth, it would add $6 billion to $10 billion to an average state’s economy over the next 16 years if three-fourths of schools made the transition rapidly.

Nearly all districts could give students access to excellent teaching and high-growth learning while paying teachers more. There really isn’t any reason to ask students and communities to wait longer, or to accept small, temporary solutions.

Originally published by The 74.

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