Education is a people business. It is a people business in that the “product” we offer is the development and learning of our young people. It is a people business because that “product” is created through the purposeful interaction of people, students and teachers. And, it is a people business because the vast majority of our financial resources are spent on people: about 85% of our operating budget is in salaries and benefits. Our people are our greatest and most valuable asset.
If we are to meet the ambitious goals and agenda we have set for ourselves, we must invest in our human capital, our people. We must ensure that we have the highest quality and most effective teachers, administrators and support staff. We must recruit, select, induct, develop, support, promote, compensate and retain our people with a focus on quality and instructional improvement. Appropriate investment in human capital will directly and positively impact student learning and achievement.
Effective leadership at all levels of our school system will be a key to our success. Strong and focused school leadership, system-wide leadership, and even teacher leadership are vitally important to our collective success.
Nowhere is leadership more important that at the helm of each of our schools. I believe strongly that the school principal is the critical lynchpin to the success or failure of any school. Outstanding principals create outstanding schools. They build an effective team, focus on student learning, engage families and the community in the education of children, and insist on accountability. Great principals hire, develop and support great teachers. They provide instructional leadership and create a culture of collaboration and professional learning. Research has shown unequivocally that strong effective leadership at the school level significantly and positively impacts student academic outcomes.
In the past, the development of school leadership in the Knox County Schools has been almost accidental. We have had many terrific school principals who have taken it upon themselves to train the next generation of school leaders. But many of our best principals learned the job the hard way: through experience of trial and error to find out what works and what doesn’t. The importance of the principal’s job is too great for us to allow its future to be governed by happenstance, and for the lessons learned through experience to be lost to those preparing for this crucial role.
I believe we must be proactive and purposeful in developing our future instructional leaders. The Knox County Schools must seek out and identify potential and aspiring principals who have the foundational skills to be excellent school leaders. We must then intensively prepare those candidates for the rigors of the principal’s job. Finally, we must support and develop all of our principals as they grow professionally as leaders, and give them the authority, time and stability to develop relationships in their community and a positive culture in their school. In short, we must deliberately and carefully create a talent “pipeline” to the principalship, and we must continue to support principals in their professional growth throughout their career.
High Quality Instruction
Research has shown, and common sense confirms, that perhaps the most important factor in student learning is the quality of the instruction the student has experienced. The Knox County Schools has an abundance of outstanding teachers in our classrooms. However, there are also classrooms where instruction is not high quality, expectations are low, and student outcomes are weak. We must take every opportunity to support all of our teachers and help them develop into truly excellent educators. We must provide them with the tools, materials, support and training to offer our students a high quality education. Helping our teachers further develop content knowledge and content-specific pedagogy in elementary school and middle school in particular will be critical to improving the quality of our instruction. But we must also be vigilant, and aggressively evaluate and dismiss those few teachers who, even with support, are chronically ineffectual. Our job is too important, and our students too precious to grant tenure to even one poor performing teacher, or to allow even one incompetent educator to remain in front of the class. High expectations, high standards, accountability, quality curriculum, excellent instruction and active student learning will be the hallmarks of our continued success.
Perhaps the most promising dynamic in supporting high quality instruction and continuous improvement is meaningful teacher collaboration. In today’s demanding and challenging educational environment, teachers must work together and learn from each other in order to maximize their effectiveness. Creating a community of learners, or what we often call a Professional Learning Community (PLC), is one of the key reforms in improving the quality of instruction in any school.
Traditionally, school teachers came to school, closed their classroom doors, taught for six hours and then went home. The innovative instructional practices of the teacher next door or down the hall were unknown to them. If they struggled with a concept or a particular pedagogical skill, they struggled in isolation, hoping that the weakness did not manifest itself on the one or two days a year that the principal might have visited their classroom.
Today we know that adult professional learning supports effective student learning. When teachers share practices, look at student work together, plan lessons collaboratively, and even model lessons and provide friendly critical feedback on each others’ teaching, they simply become better teachers. I will make it a priority to ensure that a viable, intensive, and active Professional Learning Community is developed and sustained at each of our schools. I am convinced that these vibrant PLCs will facilitate significant improvement of instruction, as educators enhance their teaching skills and knowledge together.
One of the great untapped opportunities in public education is to more broadly utilize the instructional expertise that our most experienced and excellent teachers possess. While we certainly benefit from the knowledge and skills of master teachers in their own classroom, providing them with instructional leadership opportunities would leverage their expertise to enhance and strengthen instruction in many classrooms, benefiting a larger number of our students.
Experienced teachers who are ready for additional challenge and responsibility but do not want to fully leave the classroom could ably mentor new teachers, serve as a curriculum specialist, facilitate professional development, lead professional learning communities, or engage in a host of other leadership roles that help improve instruction and student learning.
Teacher leadership benefits a broad range of educators and students, but it also renews, invigorates and challenges our experienced master teachers. I will develop, support and encourage a wide array of teacher leadership opportunities in our schools. These opportunities will convince many teachers, who might have otherwise pursued administration or other options, to keep a much needed hand in the classroom while also putting their experience and knowledge to good use both inside and outside their own classroom.
Simply put, we do not pay our teachers enough. We also have not fully aligned our compensation structure to support our most critical needs. While the current fiscal environment makes any significant compensation adjustment unlikely in the short-term, I believe our future success will be dependent upon our investing in our educators, while simultaneously holding them to very high standards of excellence and accountability.
We should also pay higher salaries for excellent teachers who work in our schools with the greatest need. As we continue to see great academic need in our schools, we have also experienced some migration of teachers with a great deal of experience and expertise to high performing schools with small low-income populations. I believe we must develop an incentive structure to reverse this trend, assisting us in addressing the significant challenges in our lowest performing schools.
Teacher Advancement Program (TAP)
Many of the elements of teacher collaboration, development, evaluation, leadership and compensation are integral parts of the very successful Teacher Advancement Program (TAP). There are not likely to be resources available to expand TAP in its complete form, but many of the concepts and components of the program can be replicated and implemented across the Knox County Schools. We will seek to expand those components of the program that are both highly effective and affordable.
The State of Tennessee is home to many fine institutions of higher learning that offer teacher preparation programs. While many programs are outstanding, there is a great need to train and develop aspiring teachers who have the knowledge and skills to be successful in a metropolitan school district like ours, with a diverse student population and very high expectations. To address this need, the Knox County Schools should consider developing an aspiring teacher residency program which will combine coursework and theory with extensive practical classroom experience, scaffolded by an experienced mentor teacher. The University of Tennessee has expressed some interest in this concept, and may be willing to partner with us to create more robust opportunities for high achieving aspiring teachers to become successful educators in the Knox County Schools.