National Spotlight: Teacher Leadership Changing School Systems


Title: Teacher Leadership Description: This graphic is a visual representation of the pathway to teacher leadership. The top of the graphic is labeled “In the Past.” At the top of the graphic and beginning of the path, there is a schoolhouse with a teacher walking out of the school. Next to the teacher is the text: “Teachers have had limited opportunities to lead in their schools, districts, or states without leaving their classrooms.” The path divides into two paths, one that goes off the graphic to the right and one that leads to the bottom of the graphic. The teacher “in the past” looks like he is about to walk on the path that goes to the right off of the graphic.  The path that continues on to the bottom of the graphic takes us into a section labeled “Today.” There is a second teacher on that path. The teacher has a thought bubble, dreaming of an opportunity both teach and be a teacher leader. The text next to that teacher says: “Research shows that a majority of all teachers want new roles, which allow them to lead without giving up the teaching they love.” That teacher’s path leads to eight teacher leadership opportunities, each represented by an icon and title. The titles of the eight teacher leadership opportunities are: mentor/coach, leadership team member, department chair, curriculum specialist, instructional specialist, lead teacher, advocate for change, and policy leader.Teachers who have opportunities to lead from their classrooms by participating in school decision-making and collaborating with colleagues are more likely to say “teaching is a valued profession in their society,” according to an international study. They also are more confident in their abilities and more satisfied in their jobs.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Teach to Lead initiative is designed to make available more opportunities for teachers to exercise leadership. “Teacher leadership means having a voice in the policies and decisions that affect your students, your daily work and the shape of your profession,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in March 2014, when he announced the initiative, which is a partnership with the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

Since then, the Department’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows—teachers who work to elevate the voices of teachers nationally—organized four Teacher Summits and one State Summit at which hundreds of teachers shared their ideas for how to improve their schools. They also created “Commit to Lead,” an online community where teachers can not only share their ideas but also collaborate with others to bring them to life.

State Strategies to Leverage Teacher Leadership

Several leading States are investing in teacher leadership as a core strategy to improve their educational systems.  Federal programs, such as Race to the Top and the Teacher Incentive Fund, have also been catalysts for creating more teacher leadership opportunities. For example, thirteen of the nineteen Race to the Top states either have in place or have proposed new policies that would create roles to encourage teachers to lead while remaining in the classroom. Policies include comprehensive teacher career advancement initiatives, multi-tiered certification systems with tiers for advanced or master teachers, and certification endorsements related to teacher leadership.

  • In Delaware, teachers are among those leading weekly meetings called “professional learning communities” that focus on helping teachers work together to use a variety of data to analyze and adjust their instruction to meet individual student needs. Teachers are also training their colleagues in the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.
  • In Florida, districts can select effective teachers who have completed clinical educator training supervising teachers or mentors to supervise pre-service teachers during field experiences or internships.
  • Project SUCCESS in Massachusetts trains experienced teachers to become Lead Mentors for new teachers, especially those in high-need schools and disciplines.
  • North Carolina is recruiting more than 400 teachers to serve on the Governor’s Teacher Network (and continue in their teaching roles) to design professional development and instructional and formative assessment resources for educators statewide.
  • The Tennessee Teacher Leader Council is developing flexible teacher leader models (designed to increase student achievement) for implementation in districts across the State.
  • In Ohio, teachers are playing a variety of key roles—training colleagues, writing curriculum, providing feedback to the State—in the transition to more rigorous college and career ready standards.

“We’re doing all of this to get a really good, strong movement in teacher leadership going because we know the best ideas in education are often borrowed or stolen from another teacher,” said Maddie Fennell, a Teaching Ambassador who worked on the initiative, “and somewhere out there in a classroom are teachers who have the ideas that can really transform the system if we can just raise their voices up to a level where they can be heard by people who are also making policy and can spread what they are doing to a systems level.”


Creating Sustainable Teacher Career Pathways: A 21st Century Imperative, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, December 2013.

Teach to Lead – Be Bold

Tennessee Teachers Learn How Peers in China Team Up to Improve Instruction

Peer observations, feedback and collaborative planning lead to increases in student learning.

In Shanghai, China, in one of the highest performing school systems in the world, teachers routinely observe their peers, give them feedback, work on lesson plans in teams, try out new lessons and collaborate on revisions—all to continually hone and sharpen their teaching.  This is very different from systems in the United States, where teaching historically has been a private activity and in-class observations are conducted mostly to evaluate performance.

Sign with the state of Tennessee on it reading, Teacher Town USA

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

Partners at Vanderbilt University, the Tennessee Department of Education, East China Normal University in Shanghai and 26 Tennessee schools are trying to make teaching more public and collaborative. Supported in school year (SY) 2013-2014 by one of eight TN LEAD grants from the State’s Race to the Top funds, the Tennessee-Shanghai Leadership Collaborative has for the past two years sent principals and teachers from high-achieving schools to observe practices in Shanghai.

The purpose of the TN LEAD grants was to help school leaders do more to improve student outcomes. Several research studies have shown that leaders are the second most important school-based factor in student learning, after teachers. The programs that received grants worked with school and district leaders already on the job as well as those still in training to increase their effectiveness.

State officials said the focus on school leaders would continue benefiting students long after the grants ran out.

Principals at the schools that participated in the Tennessee-Shanghai Leadership Collaborative formed Teacher Peer Excellence Groups (TPEGs) to try to emulate the collaboration among teachers in Shanghai. They were assisted by researchers from Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education.

Robin Newell, principal of Mitchell-Neilson schools in Murfreesboro, told Vanderbilt that the collaborative model has already proven beneficial. In SY 2013-2014, when teachers first began working in TPEGs, “we had the highest growth numbers in the district, and we blew our math scores out of the water,” Newell said. “I definitely attribute a great deal of that to the TPEGs …. The collaboration process was more valuable than any professional development I could have sent the teachers to. At the end of the year they said, ‘We can never go back to the old way of teaching—why didn’t we do this sooner?’”

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Top Atlanta Teachers Put Good Teaching on Display

Students sitting in English class

Eighth graders in Naja Freeman’s English language arts class practice their debating skills.
Credit: Reform Support Network

Demonstration classroom teachers help peers improve their instruction.

On a recent morning in Atlanta, eighth-grade English language arts (ELA) teacher Naja Freeman sat in the media center at Bunche Middle School describing to two visiting teachers the lesson she was about to deliver to her 27 students. Freeman told her visitors that she was going to use the Socratic Method, posing questions designed to get her students to think critically and discuss reading material aloud, while weaving in a lesson on metaphors.

“I don’t know what that’s going to look like,” she said as she told the others to join her in the classroom at the end of the hall. “I’m excited to see how it’s going to turn out.”

Freeman is a demonstration teacher—one of about 12  elementary, middle and high school standouts in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) who volunteered to open up their classrooms and allow colleagues to observe and learn from them. The program began in school year (SY) 2013–2014 with the costs covered by Race to the Top and district funds. The costs include a $1,500 stipend for the demonstration teachers, convening the demonstration teachers, salaries for substitute teachers filling in for the visiting teachers and, more recently, video technology to record the demonstration lessons so that more teachers can see them.

Georgia, like more than 20 States across the country, adopted more rigorous college- and career-ready standards for English language arts and mathematics. To implement the standards, teachers are providing opportunities for students to do critical thinking and problem solving, read more complex texts, and communicate their ideas. The standards require a shift in teaching practices and the demonstration classes are helping Atlanta teachers make that shift.

Typically, new teachers are afforded opportunities to watch more experienced mentors in action; however, Atlanta’s demonstration classrooms are open to all teachers, new and experienced alike.

The project showcases teachers who know the content, have a solid grasp on Georgia’s new college- and career-ready standards and are able to effectively engage students in their learning. It is one of many professional development tools the district relies on to help teachers improve their instruction, and it stands out for its innovative approach. Teachers say they like that the demonstration classrooms occur during the school day and offer them a chance to see what really works with students in a classroom led by one of their peers, instead of listening to lectures by non-teacher experts after school or on weekends.

Dr. Qualyn McIntyre, APS’ lead induction specialist, said the district chose the demonstration teachers based on interviews, recommendations, a classroom observation and their willingness to learn, even as they teach others. “We wanted reflective practitioners, because as long as you want to grow, you’ll help others grow,” she said.

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Open to New Ideas Stella May Swartz Elementary School, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois

Students at Stella May Swartz cheering

Students and teachers at Stella May Swartz Elementary School celebrate after learning their school had been designated a 2014 Blue Ribbon School.
Credit: Angeline Ross

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

 Stella May Swartz Elementary School, a grade 2–4 school located in suburban Chicago, has a diverse student body of 160 students, 45 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. In 2012, 100 percent of the school’s third-grade students met or exceeded State standards in mathematics, and 91 percent met or exceeded State standards in reading on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. The school uses Title I funds for reading specialists, reading materials and professional development.

In 2011, nearby Salt Creek Primary, which serves pre-kindergarten through first grade students, and Swartz adopted a new reading and language arts program that provided teachers with a wealth of materials, allowing them to differentiate instruction according to students’ needs. The materials were more advanced but students were able to rise to the challenge. Teachers closely monitored students’ progress and used data to tailor interventions to their specific needs. The staff took a similar approach in mathematics.

Q. How do you promote teacher and leader effectiveness?

 Angeline Ross, principal: Our teachers never say no and keep things positive—we are trying to teach that behavior to our students. Our teachers are always trying something new—we introduce at least one new strategy each year. One year it was guided reading; another year it was using smart boards. Our teachers are always brainstorming and problem solving because they care about more than just the kids in their grade levels. They care about all kids. I try to schedule common planning time for the teachers and they team teach. We also do a lot of professional development. I will go to a professional development workshop and bring information back to the school or bring in an outsider to the school.

Deborah Butman, fourth-grade teacher: It starts with the principal. She gets her hands dirty and is very collaborative, suggesting different ways to teach a specific piece. If the principal is willing to take risks and be open with teachers, teachers will be more open with each other and with the kids.

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Ohio Builds Principals’ Leadership Skills to Increase Student Achievement

A student, seated at his desk, is assisted by a teacher who stands over him and looks at the student's work.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

Lessons in leadership and management from business applied to turning around low-performing schools.

In her first assignment as a principal, Maria Carlson led a small school in Cleveland where 40 percent of the students were receiving special education services and a third were learning English.

“There was a whole perception that ‘We’re the kids who can’t succeed, and that’s why they put us all together,’” she said. “The kids would say, ‘No one expects anything from us except for us to go to jail.’”

At the time, Carlson was among a group of principals of low-achieving schools enrolled in the Ohio Executive Principal Leadership Academy at The Ohio State University (OSU), which was supported by the State’s Race to the Top funds. She said one of the lessons she learned from the leadership academy was the importance of establishing a school “brand,” a lesson from the world of business.

The leadership academy was a partnership between OSU’s Fisher College of Business, OSU’s College of Education and Human Ecology and the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). Its purpose was to give the principals of the State’s lowest performing schools a crash course in leadership and management.

Carlson said her students at the Community Wrap Around Academy, one of three schools-within-a-schools at Lincoln West High School, had begun thinking they had been assigned to the “dumb school” and that was not a good brand.

To change that perception, she told students and teachers alike to turn expectations upside down. “Be the unexpected,” she would say. “If they were fighting or arguing, or if a teacher was late or unprepared for a lesson, we could discuss what the perception of the school is and reflect on the fact that this is what everyone is expecting.”

In addition to getting students and teachers to think differently about their school she involved everyone in setting targets—just as many for-profit companies do and something she learned at the leadership academy. She worked with her teachers to establish a personal growth target for each student which, when combined, became a target for each classroom and then the entire school. The teachers met with each student to help them set interim goals for their performance on benchmark exams. The school’s professional learning communities keyed their discussions to hitting those targets.

The year after Carlson attended the leadership academy, her school’s proficiency rates on the Ohio Graduation Test rose by 13 percentage points for English language arts (ELA) and 2 percentage points in mathematics. The gains continued in subsequent years and exceeded those of the other two schools housed at Lincoln West.

Six groups of principals attended four intensive two-day sessions spread out over six months, with assignments, such as preparing a case study on their school and devising an action plan, to complete in between sessions. In total, 300 leaders from 155 of the State’s lowest achieving schools attended the academy between January 2011 and June 2013, followed a year later by a culminating gathering to which all were invited.

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Tennessee’s TEAM Coaches Cultivate Supportive, Professional Relationships

TEAM Coach Jack Barnes consults with Kyle Loudermilk, associate principal of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Kingsport, Tennessee.

TEAM Coach Jack Barnes consults with Kyle Loudermilk, associate principal of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Kingsport, Tennessee. Photo credit: Jack Barnes.

Last month, PROGRESS featured the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model (TEAM) program that provides coaching and support to Tennessee principals to improve the quality of teacher observations and feedback.  This month, we feature a Q&A with Jack Barnes, a TEAM coach.

The effectiveness of teacher evaluation and support systems depends in large measure on principals being able to observe teachers accurately and give them helpful feedback. To ensure that principals could discern differences in teacher performance and provide constructive feedback, Tennessee hired eight coaches to work with them side-by-side over the course of a year. In the first two years, those coaches worked with the principals at 116 Tennessee schools. One of the coaches was Jack Barnes, who had been a principal, principal supervisor and director of schools. He says serving as a coach was a “great learning experience” for him as well as for the educators.  With the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model now in its fourth year, Barnes says “everyone is becoming more tuned into what needs to be happening.”

Q. How did you approach the schools you worked with?

A. The first thing is to cultivate a relationship not only with the district but the school as well. Sometimes when you tell them you’re coming from the State that shuts them down. We come in with the attitude that we are a resource and we’re here to do whatever we can to help you so that you not only grow as an administrator but also help your teachers grow. If you can get their confidence and trust, that’s half the battle right there.

Q. How did you help principals handle the difficult conversations that are sometimes necessary in order to help teachers or anyone else improve the quality of their work?

A. We tried to get across three things to administrators and teachers. First, when difficult conversations have to happen, you have to go back to the core belief that everyone can always improve. Second, when you’ve done an observation, you have evidence that this is what happened and in these conversations you go back to the evidence. Try to stay as impersonal as possible. This is not about you, it’s about the lesson. Third, focus on what’s good for kids. If students are not performing, we have a problem. A principal should ask the teacher, ‘what can we do together to work on this?’ Sometimes that might mean having the teacher visit other classrooms or schools, taking classes online, working with the professional learning collaborative at the school or collaborating with other teachers.

Q. What was your biggest success?

A. Last year I had an elementary school that was a Level 1 on a 1 to 5 scale based on growth in student learning. Yet most of the teachers were highly rated. A new principal came to the school who had previously been an assistant principal at another school. We talked about the importance of the principal’s relationship with teachers and the importance of culture. This young man did it. The school went from a Level 1 school to a Level 5 school in one year, simply because he worked with the teachers and was able to get them the resources they needed, and they knew he wanted to do the best for them and for their students.


Learn more about the TEAM approach and Tennessee’s results here: Tennessee Principals Receive Coaching on Observing Teachers and Providing Feedback

Tennessee Principals Receive Coaching on Observing Teachers and Providing Feedback

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Accurate observations pinpoint strengths and weaknesses, and specific feedback helps teachers improve instruction, leading to increases in student learning.

At the end of school year (SY) 2011–2012, the principal at Erin Elementary School in Houston County, Tennessee judged nearly 90 percent of the school’s teachers to be exceeding expectations based on observations of their classroom performances.

But, according to results of the State’s assessment system, their students weren’t doing nearly so well.

How could this be?

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) discovered the mismatch at Erin and many others when it analyzed results from the first year schools used a new teacher evaluation system that includes multiple measures such as test scores, observations, student surveys and other elements to help identify teachers strengths and areas for improvement.

Many States have introduced such evaluation systems over the past several years, responding to strong evidence that teaching is the single biggest in-school influence on student learning. However, if principals cannot accurately discern differences in the performances they observe, they cannot provide teachers constructive feedback on how they can do more to increase student achievement.

After its analysis, the State identified schools with the biggest gaps between principals’ observations and student achievement. It then hired eight coaches over the next two years to work with the principals at 116 schools.

Improved Feedback, Improved Teaching, Improved Student Achievement

After the coaching, principals were able to give teachers better feedback, teachers’ performance improved and student learning accelerated, according to a State analysis. Luke Kohlmoos, the former director of evaluation at the TDOE, said observation scores changed immediately after coaching. But, he said, that was not the goal.

“The change is what happens after you score accurately,” Kohlmoos said.  “This is about feedback and development of teachers; it’s not necessarily about the number of teachers getting high observation scores.”

Kohlmoos said the coaching “was way more effective than anticipated” in terms of the improvements in teaching that resulted.

Student achievement across the schools that received coaching in the first year rose, on average, faster than the gains made statewide. The same thing happened during the second year of coaching at other schools in SY 2013-2014. “We are very optimistic that these gains are real,” Kohlmoos said.

But he said the State won’t know for sure until the results have been reviewed independently. He said the State is doing a formal evaluation to determine if the changes in student achievement were due to the coaching, resulted from other factors or occurred by chance.

Meanwhile, the State is continuing the coaching in SY 2014–2015, using a combination of State funds and foundation grants. For the current school year, in addition to working with schools with large disparities in ratings, coaches will work with principals’ supervisors to help them.

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Rural District Collaboration Increases Opportunities for Ohio Students and Teachers

State Superintendent Richard Ross stands with staff members at the front of a classroom. Meanwhile, four students sit at tables at the front of the classroom working on laptops.

State Superintendent Richard Ross visits a dual enrollment class at Maysville Local Schools in September 2014. Photo Credit: Battelle for Kids

More advanced classes, more professional learning available when small districts work together.

Like small school districts in rural areas across the United States, those in the Appalachia region of Ohio face particular challenges—teachers are harder to recruit and retain, professional learning opportunities are infrequent for the teachers who are there, and advanced classes are limited because there are too few students to justify offering them. Not surprisingly, perhaps, only 30 percent of those who graduate from this area of southeast Ohio go straight to college, less than half the national rate. The percentage of adults over the age of 25 with college degrees in the region is 12 percent, also less than half the national rate.

Believing that they could better address those issues if they worked together, 21 small school districts in the southeastern part of the State decided in the fall of 2009 to form the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative (OAC). The districts were small, with some having fewer than 500 students. Collectively, however, they had 34,000 students; only Columbus and Cleveland school districts had more.

The districts in the OAC have leveraged this partnership to attract more than $25 million in public and private grants from a variety of sources, including the State’s Race to the Top grant and Straight A Innovation Fund. That financial support made it possible to give teachers more opportunities for professional learning about formative instructional practices, the use of value-added data to adjust their instruction, college and career readiness planning, and change leadership. It also connected them with peers in other districts who they can learn from, and helped increase the number of advanced classes offered across the collaborative.

“The glue that brought the districts together was the goal of enhancing opportunities for kids in rural communities,” said Brad Mitchell, who facilitates the collaborative on behalf of Battelle for Kids, a Columbus, Ohio-based not-for-profit that works with school districts on instructional improvement through the use of data.

Those efforts are paying off: the graduation rate among the districts increased from 85 percent in 2010 to 92 percent in 2012, more students are earning college credits while still in high school, more students are taking the ACT college entrance examination, and college enrollment is up.

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Ohio Teachers Leading Transition to New Standards

Elizabeth Johnson (standing), a teacher at Ironton High School and a member of the Ohio Network of Regional Leaders for mathematics, reports to her District Leadership Team on students’ progress toward mastering Ohio’s New Learning Standards for mathematics. To her right is Bill Dressel, the Curriculum and Federal Programs Director of the Ironton City Schools. She is looking over the shoulder of Lee Anne Mullens, from the high school’s English Department. On her left around the table are Joe Rowe, principal; Travis Kleinman, high school guidance counselor; and Nancy Sutton, intervention specialist. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Johnson

Elizabeth Johnson (standing), a teacher at Ironton High School and a member of the Ohio Network of Regional Leaders, reports to her District Leadership Team on students’ progress toward mastering Ohio’s New Learning Standards for mathematics. To her right is Bill Dressel, Curriculum and Federal Programs Director of the Ironton City Schools. She is looking over the shoulder of Lee Anne Mullens, from the high school’s English Department. On her left around the table are Joe Rowe, principal; Travis Kleinman, high school guidance counselor; and Nancy Sutton, intervention specialist. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Johnson.

Teachers are advising the State, working with colleagues, and designing a model curriculum aligned with college- and career-ready standards.

Elizabeth Johnson has taught mathematics for 10 years in Ironton, Ohio, a town of about 11,000 people along the Ohio River. She also serves on the teacher leadership team at Ironton High School, as well as the building and district leadership teams.

Given all of her experiences as a leader, it wasn’t surprising that she also was one of about 50 educators who the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) asked in 2013 to join the State’s Network of Regional Leaders (NRL) for mathematics. The mathematics network is one of five in the State that were convened by the ODE to help lead teachers and school districts through the transition to new, more rigorous college- and career-ready standards and new assessments to go along with them.

Like other States, Ohio is using part of its grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program to support the writing of model curricula for mathematics and English language arts aligned with those standards, develop formative assessments, train teachers and redesign teacher evaluation and feedback systems.

In doing so, the State has made it a priority to ensure that frontline educators such as Johnson—teachers, coaches, mentors and curriculum developers—are taking the lead in these activities. They advise the State on how its policies are affecting their schools and classrooms and also help their colleagues understand and adjust to the changes that lie ahead of them.

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Tools for State and District Leaders: Personalized Learning Case Studies

Two classes of students work on laptops throughout a large iPrep mathematics classroom. Two teachers  walk around the room engaging students as they work on their laptops.

Middle school students work at their own pace in iPrep mathematics classrooms in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Photo Credit: Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Promising practices and lessons learned from four Race to the Top – District grantees released.

The traditional model of education has been based on a teacher delivering a fixed curriculum at a fixed pace. Educators across the country have increasingly been adopting a personalized learning approach that will prepare students to succeed in a 21st century, globally competitive society. Through this approach, educators can customize lessons based on the pace and learning style of each student and can actively engage the student by centering learning on student interests, progress, and mastery.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) supports school districts’ efforts to personalize and enhance student learning through Race to the Top – District (RTT-D) grants. The RTT-D program supports bold, locally directed improvements in learning and teaching that will directly improve student achievement. RTT-D districts serve as innovation laboratories, advancing new ways to educate students. OII recently released a report that highlights some of these districts’ initial experiences, which is intended to serve as a resource for school leaders pursuing a path to personalizing student learning.

Personalized Learning in Progress: Case Studies of Four Race to the Top-District Grantees’ Early Implementation shares the experiences of four diverse school districts as they adopt personalized learning approaches. The four districts — Iredell-Statesville Schools (N.C.), Miami-Dade County Public Schools (Fla.), New Haven Unified School District (Calif.), and Metropolitan School District of Warren Township (Ind.) — represent a range of geographies, student populations, academic content areas, and approaches to personalized learning.

Each district developed its own strategy catered to its students’ unique needs. For example, Miami-Dade County Public Schools focused its personalized learning efforts on a single subject area with a demonstrated need for reform — middle school mathematics. The district expanded their iPrep Academy concept that had been in operation in one high school since 2010. With the RTT-D support, iPrep Math learning centers were created at each of the district’s 49 middle schools starting in the 2013-2014 school year. This involved transforming the physical classroom environments and changing teaching methods to better support personalized learning. The new centers and personalized learning approach, for instance, fostered settings in which three teachers could work collaboratively with a class of 60 students at the same time.

Read more about the case studies and the four school districts through this post on the OII home page. Or click here to read and download Personalized Learning in Progress: Case Studies of Four Race to the Top-District Grantees’ Early Implementation.