The One-Teacher, One-Classroom Model Needs an Upgrade. Here’s What’s Next.

PK-12 School Models

The One-Teacher, One-Classroom Model Needs an Upgrade. Here’s What’s Next.

By Stephen Noonoo     May 24, 2018

The One-Teacher, One-Classroom Model Needs an Upgrade. Here’s What’s Next.

Emerging school models are supposed to ease the transition to personalized and blended instruction—or at least make it possible. But new ways of teaching like station rotation and fluid-schedule flex models can hit a snag when they run up against the familiar one-teacher-one-classroom setup. According to the authors of a new report, it’s not schools that need a “rethink” as much as school staffing.

“The mental model of how schools are organized is very strong, especially when it comes to staffing,” says Bryan Hassel, the co-president of Public Impact, which authored the report along with the Clayton Christensen Institute. “So changing that requires some effort.”

For the report, called “Innovative Staffing to Personalize Learning,” the two organizations scoured their personal networks and lists of high-performing schools to find ones that took a different approach to classroom organization, eventually finding eight schools and school networks with instructive lessons to share.

Staffing models varied, but most schools featured in the report used a variety of new but related roles. Some created teacher leaders who head up small groups of teachers to instruct students together. Others used non-certified support staff to mentor and tutor one set of students while teachers worked with a different set.

8 Key Staffing Elements

From the research, the authors pointed to eight key elements that can help make new staffing models a success. They include providing:

  1. differentiated roles for educators, like teacher-leaders, collaborating teachers, support staff, and teachers-in-training;
  2. intensive collaboration on small teaching teams;
  3. cultures of intensive coaching;
  4. paid fellowships and residencies that enabled schools to build their own pipeline of future educators;
  5. school leaders who reinforce high standards;
  6. educator schedules that allow for school-day collaboration and coaching;
  7. higher compensation for teachers and teacher-leaders at many schools, within existing budgets;
  8. facilities created or adjusted—generally not at great expense—to support team teaching.

Challenges and Solutions

To kick things off, “Many of the schools had a startup grant to help them get things off the ground,” says Thomas Arnett, a Christensen Institute co-author. While the grants supported the transition to new staffing models, after they ended, schools “went back to operating in their fixed budgets.”

The report singles out a number of schools that have made staffing reconfigurations a priority. Among them: a model called Franchise Schools in Nevada’s Clark County School District. There, principals in high-achieving schools take on multiple campuses attempting to replicate the successes they had at their “flagship” or original schools. The idea is to prevent schools from having to start from scratch when new models are introduced. Additionally, teachers are split into three distinct roles—subject-specialized lead teachers, certified temporary tutors and growth analysts—depending on how they work with students.

Realizing that teachers would need extra support in these new models, many schools focused heavily on professional development. The California charter network Navigator Schools and the private Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School used an approach known informally as “deep coaching” where teachers were observed daily and provided with feedback on a weekly basis to help bake teacher growth into the overall culture.

Yet the authors found challenges as well. Among them: How to coordinate classes with many moving parts, as well as how to plan lessons together or to teach multiple small groups in the same room. “One thing that’s convenient with a one-teacher-one-classroom model is that the teacher has full discretion to figure out how to operate,” Arnett says. In non-traditional models, however, “you had teachers who were co-teaching or team teaching with different support staff in the room.”

Teacher compensation was another prickly issue, and many of the schools highlighted in the report had previously struggled to retain staff under more traditional staffing models.

To help secure teacher buy-in, many schools looked for ways to pay them more for added responsibilities. To do so, some places like North Carolina’s Cabarrus County Schools stretched student-teacher ratios to their legal limits, meaning teachers were responsible for more students and thus eligible for more pay. But in practice, they “used technology to reduce their student-to-teacher ratios during teacher-led instruction” to help lighten the load, according to the report.

Both Ranson IB Middle School, also in North Carolina, and Franchise Schools threaded a fine needle by collapsing grade levels, increasing class sizes and (in Ranson’s case) reducing the number of teachers hired for a grade level. At Franchise, growth analysts earned an extra $2,400. Other teachers received up to $15,000 extra depending on their duties.

At other schools, lower-paid support staff, pre-service teachers and even volunteer tutors were recruited to shoulder some instructional duties rather than hiring additional experienced teachers. The reason? Cost savings.

The Brooklyn LAB School in New York, for example, used a tiered salary program. Lower-level staff received about $15,000 a year plus some student loan forgiveness, before graduating to $50,000 annual salaries. Eventually, they would be eligible to earn about $60,000 as experienced teachers. At Navigator, pay for part-time small-group instructors was as low as $15 per hour.

All schools profiled in the report claimed its students were high achieving learners, although the authors take pains not to explicitly say whether staffing changes were responsible. With that in mind,“the school leaders believe that this combination of staffing changes and how they’re using technology is key for them to get the results they're getting,” says Public Impact's Hassel.

The authors add that the inevitability of technology means tomorrow’s classrooms will probably be staffed differently than the ones many of us grew up with. And that’s not a bad thing, provided that a strong emphasis is placed on developing and nurturing good teaching.

“These case studies point to some new ways schools can start to think differently from the ways they typically have, which is how can we fill up our existing structure with the best possible people we can find,” Hassel says. But without rethinking teaching roles, he adds, “that’s proven over the years to be a strategy that only gets you so far.”

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