Teachers at Work

Improving Teacher Quality Through School Design

Reports & Briefs | October 19, 2009
Related Issue(s): Teacher Quality
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Furman Brown has spent over a decade figuring out how to design a better school. As a first-year teacher in South Central Los Angeles in the early 1990s, he got a taste of what was wrong with the traditional public school model: It was not designed to serve students or teachers well. Convinced there was a better way to organize and distribute work inside schools, Brown joined the staff of a start-up school in Brooklyn, New York, and slowly, over the years, pieced together the sides of what he calls the "Rubik's Cube" of school design. With his Generation Schools model and its pilot, Brooklyn Generation public high school, which opened in 2007, he thinks he may have solved it.

Brown's solution, along with the larger ideas behind it, comes at an important moment. State and federal policymakers, along with a wide range of philanthropists and education leaders, have rallied around the cause of improving the quality of teaching in the nation's public schools. Their proposed reforms center on two worthy goals: recruiting more talented people into the teaching profession, and raising the stakes and incentives for existing teachers—particularly those in high-poverty schools—to help students thrive and learn.

But these reforms are likely to disappoint if nothing is done to fundamentally overhaul the way the work of teachers is organized within schools. Better teaching, in the long run, will come not just from attracting a strong pool of talent and giving them boosts in pay, but from changing the nature of the job. And the teaching profession is in many ways defined by the way schools are designed. Today, most teachers' work is isolated and fragmented, with no defined pathways for career development, few mechanisms for feedback, and a schedule that is disconnected from the reality of what teachers actually do and what students actually need. As a result, many schools are insufficiently attractive to talented professionals, and they squander the talent of those they manage to employ.

The Generation Schools model, at its core, is about solving these design problems, primarily through the strategic use of people and time. It is a combination of several big ideas, borrowed and built, that are put together in just the right way. While it starts with recruiting the best available talent, it doesn't end there. "We get the best teachers we can," Brown says. "But then what do we do with them? We combine them, build on their differences."

Instead of isolating teachers, the Generation Schools model organizes them into grade- and subject-based teams, designed to blend different types of expertise and levels of experience. The daily schedule and calendar are designed with time for regular and ongoing teacher collaboration and planning, giving teachers "time to learn from each other and to learn from their work," Brown says. In the mornings, all teachers teach 90-minute academic classes that average 14 students; afternoons are divided into shorter, larger elective courses and two hours of daily planning. Twice a year, grade-based teaching teams get a four-week break—three weeks to rest and one week to meet, plan, and observe colleagues. The breaks are staggered throughout the year, and while one group of teachers is on break, another team of their colleagues steps in to teach their students "intensive" monthlong literacy courses focused on career and college planning. The result is a school year that is extended to 200 days for students—20 more than the national average—without having to extend work time (and pay) for teachers.

All of this happens for the same cost as a regular school. "We do more with the same amount of resources," says Jonathan Spear, the nonprofit foundation's co-founder. "We work with the same budget; we have the same number of teachers. But we've reconfigured things to make it a school that works better for students and for teachers." In this way, the model addresses the other major shortcoming of today's typical teacher reforms: They are terribly expensive to scale and sustain, particularly in a time of limited public funds.

Brown and Spear are classic reformers, eager to expand the model in New York City and eventually build a nationwide network of Generation Schools. The model has already won praise, earning the Echoing Green Prize in 2004 for being one of the "World's Best Emerging Social Innovations." So far, annual progress reports and school report cards from the New York City Department of Education show impressive scores that surpass those of schools serving similar populations of students.

Generation Schools is just one model, and today, it is determining the outcomes of only one high school. But its design and the principles that it rests on—using people strategically and time intentionally—represent a new way of thinking about how to approach the teacher quality challenge in public education. As the student population grows increasingly diverse and the pressure to demonstrate results at the school and district level intensifies, teaching will only become more demanding, increasing the urgency to not just attract a new generation of workers, but to create more effective workplaces to receive and develop them. With both President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declaring teacher quality as a top priority, education leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to not only expand the pipeline to teaching but also to rethink the outdated design of teachers' work.

The Joyce Foundation provided funding for this project. The findings and conclusions are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the foundation.