Empowered educators lead to better student outcomes

by Ben Kutylo ([email protected]) 73 views 

When making tough decisions that affect our children, many of us have been told to “trust our gut” or “lean into what feels right.” Parental intuition isn’t just a catchphrase – it’s a guiding principle.

As parents and guardians, we often have a keen sense of what our children need. We anticipate what they may like or vehemently dislike, how they may react to certain situations or when they may need us to step in and provide additional assistance—sometimes without them ever uttering a word. Effective teachers experience this same internal compass when interacting with their students.

Educators are a constant in our children’s lives. Students spend large parts of their waking hours in preK-12 classrooms. As the academic year progresses, educators become attuned to their students’ distinct personalities, preferences and learning styles.

Just as we would not give other parents a one-size-fits-all solution to raising their children, we should not expect to do the same for teachers as they guide classroom learning. Instead, we should empower educators to adapt or modify strategies to address the unique and nuanced needs of their students, schools and communities.

The Brookings Institution recently highlighted the importance of teacher agency in driving and sustaining school improvements, including the ability for “reforms [to] scale throughout education systems.” The public policy organization noted that when educators are allowed and encouraged to be part of the decision-making and implementation process, schools and systems are more likely to see higher rates of teacher retention, scaling success and student learning. Whether they are deploying new curricula or pedagogy, teachers can consider the greater context and adjust as needed to ensure the intended outcome—student learning—is achieved.

At Forward, we firmly believe that great Arkansas educators know what students and schools need to be successful. That is why we launched the LeARner Collective in late 2022. The initiative gives participating school teams in the Arkansas Delta and Northwest Arkansas the dedicated time, space and tailored support to develop innovative solutions to enhance student learning. During Phase I of the LeARner Collective, select schools received five months of personalized coaching to improve structures, practices and cultures.

Take, for example, the efforts of Ardis Ann Middle School in Bentonville. In Phase I, its team focused on giving teachers more ownership in determining and leading staff professional development and growth opportunities. They developed protocols and procedures to ensure educators learn from other expert teachers in the building, collaborating to enhance each other’s instructional practices. This process better reflects and accounts for the needs of team members and students. The hope is that professional development will become more applicable, effective and, ultimately, better utilized in classrooms and throughout the building.

Phase II of the LeARner Collective will allow participating schools like Ardis Ann Middle School to broaden the scope and impact of their solutions. In this next iteration of the initiative during the 2024-2025 academic year, teams will receive funding and additional support to pursue one of two pathways. The first is continuation, where teams will extend the work they began in Phase I.

The second is schoolwide transformation, which includes individualized support and on-site visits for a deeper, more comprehensive experience. This cohort will launch with a community-wide visioning process, gathering feedback from stakeholders to determine the greatest needs and priority areas. Both pathways will benefit from access to regular professional development learning sessions, individualized coaching and collective leadership development centered around topics like school culture, instructional strategies and change management.

Data affirms that teachers are crucial in fueling changes to enhance student learning. But as we are witnessing firsthand through the LeARner Collective, their ability to make sustained reforms and deliver long-term impact—in their schools and across our education system—requires empowerment and consistent support.

In the words of Brookings, “We should be asking teachers: Do these conditions support you to achieve your goals?” In Arkansas, we hope others will follow the LeARner Collective’s lead and let teachers play an active role in the educational improvement process.

Editor’s note: Ben Kutylo is the executive director of Forward Arkansas, a nonprofit whose mission is to accelerate the innovative and equitable transformation of education in Arkansas. The opinions expressed are those of the author.