A Conversation With the Rodel Foundation: Why Teacher Leadership is Instrumental for Effective Education Reform

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

“Teachers are essential…They are important collaborators to help set the direction—and should be treated as such and included in strategic conversations.”

Melissa Tracy (HSG National Teachers Fellow ’14) spoke with Madeleine Bayard (Rodel Foundation’s VP of Policy and Practice) to discuss the essentiality of teacher leadership and Rodel’s vision for education reform.

The Rodel Foundation of Delaware is dedicated to making the state home to one of the greatest public school systems in the world by 2020. How does Rodel support teacher leadership as part of this system?

The Rodel Foundation works to implement our mission by promoting policy changes, providing seed funding, and creating and leading statewide partnerships. We work with policymakers to support collaborative time for teachers, led by teachers; tools like student surveys and peer evaluation that can help improve instruction; and including teachers in the development of assessments and policy itself through initiatives such as our Rodel Teacher Council. We have provided seed funding for organizations including Schools That Lead, which implements a Teacher Leadership Initiative, and Hope Street Group, which supports fellows like Melissa and Robyn Howton, a current fellow. And we are a member of and staff support to a statewide coalition, the Vision Coalition, which is focused on six core areas to support student success—one being educator support and development.

Hope Street Group believes working across sectors is often key to tackling many of the country’s largest challenges. How does Rodel believe foundations, government and private institutions can work together to improve student learning?

We believe in the collaborative approach as well and a couple of ways that we put this into practice are the Vision Coalition and the Rodel Teacher Council.

The Vision Coalition is made up of union, district, charter, nonprofit, foundation, government, higher education, early learning, and business leaders. They first came together in 2005, and in 2007, they created the Vision Network to bring together district and charter schools to share and implement best practices. Today, the Vision Network is called Schools That Lead, and it is implementing a number of initiatives focused on student learning, instructional improvement, and educator collaboration.

 The Rodel Teacher Council, of which Melissa Tracy (HSG ’14) and Robyn Howton (HSG ’15) are members, intentionally brings teacher voices to the policymaking conversation. The Council has already met with leaders from the General Assembly, Department of Education, and State Board of Education—and some of the regulations they have proposed are in front of the State Board now for consideration.

The Rodel Foundation also has helped provided catalytic funds to cross-sector projects that support educators, such as the BRINC Consortium, which is focused on personalization and blended learning, as well as the Charter Collaborative, an alternative teacher evaluation system in several schools.

 What personally drives you in your work to improve the Delaware Public School System?

I am committed to making Delaware a better place; I have always wanted to contribute to the public good, especially in a community that provided me so many opportunities. I believe education is a key to addressing many of the issues our community faces—one that provides individual and societal rewards and is sustainable. In particular, I am personally committed to improving the quality of early learning experiences—decades of research tell us what should be intuitive: that the early years are the most formative ones on which a foundation is built.

In your time working on education policy in Delaware, what have you seen to be the most effective or most promising path to meaningful education reform? What essential role do you believe teacher can play in these efforts?

I believe the most effective paths to meaningful reform have included some key elements: solid data, strong collaboration, and support for the implementers. One example would be our work in early learning. When I moved back to Delaware in 2005, a study indicated that 70 percent of our early learning programs were poor or mediocre, with many considered hindering children’s development. That was a wakeup call for the field, which really hadn’t come together as a system to build a strategy. Over the last 10 years we have gotten better data about children themselves, as well as programs serving the children, and we have brought together systems so we could have better information to guide decisions. The Early Childhood Council did not exist until about 15 years ago. It has been a convening function for stakeholders in public and private settings—and a strategy development opportunity for the state. We now are implementing our second strategic plan. One result of the collaborative interest and good data was the state’s investment of $22 million several years ago, which was a 35-percent increase in what the state had been investing. This funding, and another $49 million from the federal government, enabled us to support early learning providers, health care providers, community organizations, and kindergarten teachers to implement stronger practices to help children. Today, 58 percent of those children in greatest need are enrolled in our highest quality programs.

Teachers are essential: They gather data and make meaning out of it for the benefit of their students every day. Some of these data help the system get better, too. They are important collaborators to help set the direction—and should be treated as such and included in strategic conversations. Delaware has been able to include teachers in working groups, committees, councils, and other opportunities—and we can do more of this. And teachers are the critical on-the-ground force to implement improvements. The system needs them to report what’s working and what’s not, and to bring others on board. This is how the Early Learner Survey—administered for all kindergarten students this year—was rolled out, over the course of four years with the input and counsel of many teachers. It’s not perfect, but it’s been a better success than other assessments because of the involvement of teachers.

As a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow from Delaware, I have seen firsthand the benefits to students that your support has created, including giving them a voice in improving instructional practice. In September 2014, as part of my HSG project, I surveyed more than 220 Delaware teachers and specialists on the use of student experience surveys in schools. Nearly half the respondents (44%) had not yet used a student experience survey in their classroom to inform instructional practice. This clearly shows that we’re missing opportunities to tap into student feedback to grow as educators.   Why does Rodel believe in the importance of giving students a voice in education? 

Students have been called “the most valuable and least consulted education-policy experts in America” (in The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley). We can all think of when we were students—we knew good teaching when we saw it, and recognized when it wasn’t as strong. We could see through teachers who didn’t know their content area. But we probably can’t think of many times when we were asked how it could be better and this is a missed opportunity.

We are excited about the Vision Coalition’s plan for the next decade, Student Success 2025 (to be released September 16, 2015), because the Coalition started with students: What did students need to know and be able to do? We asked 1,000 of them, as well as recent graduates, and another 3,000 Delawareans. The answers to this question drove the vision for the future, and the strategies needed to support them. One principle of the report—which is shared with the Rodel Teacher Council’s Blueprint for Personalized Learning in Delaware—is that students should be empowered to take ownership of their learning: understanding their goals and having choice about how to reach them.

We are proud to support state-level initiatives that are designed to meet the needs of students in new ways, including Melissa’s Student Survey project, Schools That Lead’s work on student efficacy, and Delaware Goes to College.

Madeleine Bayard is the Vice President of Policy and Practice at the Rodel Foundation. She lead the Foundation’s education policy and research efforts, and she manages implementation and evaluation initiatives. Previously, Madeleine worked as a Senior Policy Analyst at the National Governors Association and as an Associate at The Alford Group, a consulting firm dedicated to strengthening nonprofits in Washington, D.C. Madeleine is the Co-Chair of the Delaware Early Childhood Council. She serves as a peer reviewer for the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Delaware Division of the Arts and volunteers with the Delaware Community Foundation and United Way. Madeleine earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Wake Forest University and a Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown University.

Melissa Tracy is a high school social studies teacher in Wilmington, Delaware at Conrad School of Sciences and was a Hope Street Group National Teachers Fellow in 2014 during which she completed an in-depth policy project. She is National Board Certified educator and teaches AP Human Geography in a distance-learning lab, along with world history, personal finance, and legal process. Melissa is a Delaware Teacher Institute fellow and serves on the Rodel Teacher Council. D.E.L.R.E.C., the National Council for Geographic Education, and the Delaware Geographic Alliance each recognized Melissa for her excellence in teaching. Melissa earned a BA in History from Tulane University and a Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction in Social Studies from the University of Delaware. She is currently pursuing an MA in History at Villanova University as a James Madison fellow.

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