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i3 Study Takeaway 3: Teachers matter most, but the rest of us can give them a tailwind.

Research shows that teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor influencing student achievement. But we learned that helping district leaders provide coherent support for high quality instruction can help create “tailwinds” behind teachers for more student learning.

As we’ve been reflecting on the data from our evaluation, there’s something that’s been very hard for us to get our heads around: CEPR studied several practices related to data use and analysis. Virtually all of these practices were positively correlated with student achievement, and virtually all of these practices were more common in schools working with ANet than the control schools. So it’s puzzling that overall we didn’t see students in our partners schools significantly outperform students in the control group.

In their technical report, CEPR explores potential explanations for this finding—maybe the period of the study was too short to show results; maybe school attrition during the study limited its ability to detect results; maybe one or two key practices had a particularly strong impact on student achievement. They ultimately identified one pattern that might help to explain their findings: teachers in schools working with ANet perceived their interim assessments to be less well aligned to their school’s curriculum than did teachers in schools supported by their district. The level of alignment teachers reported varied significantly from one classroom to the next, even within the same building. This indicated that perceived misalignment was not a problem of content mismatch or technical inaccuracy. Rather it was driven by individual teachers’ perception of how the material covered on the interim assessments each quarter aligned with the specific content they had taught in their classroom.

Digging deeper, CEPR found that ratings of alignment were lowest when teachers a) were less confident about fitting re-teach time into their instructional schedule and b) made less frequent use of planning tools to shape the material they would cover over the course of the year. In other words, teachers saw less alignment in instances where they didn’t feel empowered to adjust through planning and pacing.

This analysis was powerful to us because of a theme that underlies both of CEPR’s deeper data points: the degree to which a teacher is able to shape his or her instructional routines is often determined by actions taken at the district level.

We felt that if we developed greater coherence between our support, the district’s academic strategy, and the everyday realities of educators in schools, we could create “tailwinds” for teachers.

Partway through the study we started to recognize this challenge, and so we adjusted our model to more deeply engage district leaders. We felt that if we developed greater coherence between our support, the district’s academic strategy, and the everyday realities of educators in schools, we could create “tailwinds” for teachers. We could make it easier for them to use the different tools at their disposal—curricular materials, assessments, planning protocols, standards guides—in a focused and effective way.

Here’s one example to illustrate what this engagement with district leadership looked like. In one district, we convened district content specialists, the academic leaders who oversee principals, and school-based staff. Our goal was to ensure horizontal alignment—that is, consistency across the decisions that district curriculum, assessment, and professional development teams were making—as well as vertical alignment—consistency between central office resources and the implementation needs in classrooms. So often, well-intentioned district leaders provide guidance and resources for schools but they fail to link up with guidance and resources provided by other district leaders or the priorities set by teachers, principals, and their managers. Adding a partner like ANet can further complicate the array of guidance that teachers and school leaders receive. Our goal with our partner for this convening was to overcome any inconsistencies teachers were experiencing in the guidance and support they were receiving. Rather than our partnership contributing to constantly swirling and shifting winds of support, we wanted to give teachers a steady, consistent tailwind.

As part of this collaboration, district leaders supplied perspective on curricular content and pacing. Teachers shared their on-the-ground experience of how support tools actually played out in the classroom. ANet’s team shared insight on the sequencing called for by new standards and how our assessments and planning tools incorporated that content. This side-by-side work not only ensured that content was aligned between standards, instruction, and assessment but also built trust, a shared sense of purpose, and a common understanding of the expectations we would all be working to help students master.

So what happened after we made this shift to engage district leadership toward greater coherence for teachers? Our partnerships got more effective. In fact, schools that were part of the second wave of schools enrolled in the study—and therefore experienced ANet primarily after this shift in our approach—significantly outperformed controls in both ELA and math. Students in ANet schools during this part of the study achieved 8 extra months of learning in math and 6.5 extra months of learning in ELA. To be clear, all of this positive impact may not have resulted from our district-level work. Schools in this second wave also demonstrated greater readiness conditions in the ways discussed in our previous post. And while the CEPR study was not designed to show the impact of this shift, our perspective is grounded in our interpretation of CEPR’s evaluation and is consistent with our direct experiences working with nearly 30 districts and CMOs over the past four years.

Looking ahead, we are building out more ways we can help create this through line between district strategy and the real, daily work of classroom instruction. Without stronger connections between the two, the practices we share won’t help teachers in the way we intend. Here is a short list of the questions we’ve learned to ask to spot opportunities for improvement:

  • Who in the district owns individual decisions about curriculum, assessment, instruction, and professional development? Who ensures that those decisions are well-aligned with each other?
  • How do you ensure that resources provided by district-level content teams are cascaded through Principal Managers to school leaders and teachers effectively?
  • What rhythms (regular meeting structures and times) do you have to foster communication between district teams and school-based teams? What is their purpose?
  • What are the non-negotiables from the district to schools? Where are schools allowed to make flexible choices? Why? Could the schools articulate these choices and flexible options?

Since the launch of our i3 grant, we’ve learned so much about the complexity that system leaders, school leaders, and teachers encounter on a day-to-day basis. As a partner, it’s our duty to help create greater coherence among the different supports and resources that influence what happens in classrooms. If we can align all our various efforts so that we are providing educators with a steady, consistent tailwind, the data from this trial show the promise in store for students. 

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