How a Multi-State, Networked Improvement Community Empowers Educators to Excel

In small, rural schools, a new professional learning partnership solves a major problem.

PANEL DISCUSSION | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT John Warg.png

Technology making better connections is the theme here; an exciting new partnership is underway where teachers feel the benefit.

One of 14 projects funded by the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program (TSL) Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Empowering Educators to Excel, or “E3,” is bringing much-needed support and growth opportunities for teachers and school leaders in 47 relatively small and rural schools in Delaware, Indiana, South Carolina, and Texas by creating a networked improvement community (NIC).

In this panel discussion, project director Jason Culbertson and three district leaders share details and features of this new professional learning partnership designed to combat geographic isolation in smaller and rural schools.

Jason is president of Insight Education Group and the project director for USDOE’s TSL Empowering Educators to Excel project.

His experiences as a former classroom teacher, leader for state and non-profit organizations, and thought partner for districts, states, education organizations in the U.S. and abroad, including the U.S. Department of Education and Queen Rania’s Teacher Academy, provide him with unique expertise in solving the challenges of underperforming schools.

Rural Background

The average school district in the U.S. serves 3,659 students, with one in six students attending a rural school. While both large and smaller districts face many of the same challenges when it comes to student achievement, including educator effectiveness, smaller school districts often lack the infrastructure and supports of larger districts, especially in the form of professional development and peer collaboration.

“In the schools served by the E3 project, many of the teachers do not have anyone to provide content-based feedback to improve their craft,” says Jason.

Recent research from meta-analysis from Brown and Harvard indicate that the most effective form of professional development to increase student achievement is one-on-one coaching, according to Jason.

“Further, the most effective coaching is not just general pedagogical feedback, but rather coaching with a content focus,” he explains.

“Today, schools and districts should not accept geographic isolation, but instead need to find ways to leverage technology to forge partnerships with districts across states with similar needs, goals, and philosophies,” he says.

“The good news is that E3 program, led by Insight Education Group, seeks to do just that. It will focus on the greatest school-related influencers on student achievement: the recruitment, development, and retention of teachers, teacher leaders, and principals.”

Excellent. Alright, well let’s get started, then. Who are the participating districts and how were they selected? And why did districts decide to participate?

CREDIT Jason Culbertson image.jpgJason Culbertson: All five participating districts have 10,000 or fewer students, most of which are located in rural areas, and see the critical need for inter-district collaboration as well as a systems-based approach to increase student growth. The districts are as follows:


Through the network, educators from across the districts—where there is a disproportionately high percentage of economically disadvantaged students and students of color—will learn and share together on three powerful levers that lead to improving both principal and teacher effectiveness, including instructional leadership teams, instructional and executive coaching, and professional learning communities.

CREDIT Pete Leida.jpgPete Leida, Director of Schools, Colonial School District: This was an easy decision for us in Colonial for two reasons, the first of which is our focus on leadership. This is an investment in our educators. One of our priorities as a district is to ensure that a team of high-quality school leaders leads every school.

This goes well beyond ensuring that the principal is an exceptional individual surrounded by other administrators. We have committed to ensuring that each school has an instructional coach who supports schools towards the improvement of classroom management, engagement, rigor, and content.

Additionally, as a district we are working to develop our teacher leadership role to support classroom teachers who are seeking opportunities to promote positive change in their classrooms and schools. All of this is coupled with a focus on improving outcomes for our almost 10,000 students.

The second reason was our experience with Insight Education Group. We partnered with Insight to facilitate the development of a new evaluation system for teachers in Colonial. During this partnership, we were thoroughly impressed with all aspects of Insight. They were incredible thought partners, researchers, and facilitators.

Ultimately, they helped us develop our current framework to support our educators, which is focused on growth and aligned with research-supported practices and Colonial ideals.

Deborah Wimberly.jpgDeborah D. Wimberly, Office of Public Relations & Special Projects, Marion County School District: When looking over the Empowering Educators to Excel project, we realized how closely the project aligned with the initial goals set by the district leadership team prior to the start of this school year.

The project seemed like a perfect fit and would provide additional resources the district could use to accomplish the goals.

CREDIT Dr Danny MendezDanny Mendez, Director of Secondary Education, MSD of Decatur Township: We decided to participate in E3 because of the benefits of the frameworks associated with it. The focus on coaching, professional development, and leadership development will allow us to positively impact our student achievement.

We also see great potential in leveraging the collective capacity of the partnering districts.

What advantages will a networked improvement community provide the E3 partner districts? At the end of the five-year grant period, what changes do districts expect to see?

Culbertson: E3’s logic to improve teaching and learning is quite linear—there is no greater school-related impact on student achievement than the teacher in the classroom. The second greatest school-related impact on student achievement growth is the effectiveness of the principal, which also affects teacher retention through administrative support and school culture.

The research is also clear that our most economically disadvantaged students are disproportionately served by higher percentages of ineffective and/or first-year teachers. As mentioned earlier, the schools and districts participating in E3 have disproportionately high numbers of economically disadvantaged students.

E3’s goal is to implement and enhance the most impactful levers to improve both principal and teacher effectiveness at the systems level—with a constant focus on results.

Educators in smaller and/or rural districts often feel often experience “professional isolation,” making it hard to grow professionally and get feedback on their practice. Through E3, educators will have access to an array of key practical and impacting PD opportunities and supports, including:

  • Networked improvement communities for school leadership teams and teachers to learn from one another by sharing resources as well as leveraging educators’ expertise inside and among districts;
  • Instructional leadership teams (ILTs) through TRACTION for School Improvement;
  • Creating a career ladder continuum at E3 schools for teachers;
  • Leadership academies for aspiring and current leaders;
  • PLCs using an evidence-based asset-based model, Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project, that identifies bright spots to replicate in local schools and across NICs; and
  • Job-embedded individual and peer coaching in person and by video using Insight’s Coaching for Change model and a video-based observation and coaching platform.

Mendez: We expect to see sustainable systems of growing teachers and leaders that allow us to better grow and serve our students. It is our hope that this grant allows us to find the levers that are most impactful on student achievement so that we can narrow our focus to maximize our financial and human capital to invest in those levers.

Wimberly: First and foremost, we expect to see better student achievement. We also expect to see processes and procedures embedded into the system that will maintain student achievement after the grant funding is finished.

Based on the experiences provided to our school administrators and teacher-leaders during the five years of the grant, the district expects to understand and implement coaching strategies that have a positive effect on student achievement, as well as build on the strategies proven to have an impact on student learning.

Skills acquired by our administrators and the opportunity for professional growth will also translate into a school climate that will encourage teacher retention.

Leida: We are looking at this opportunity with great hope. We would like the grant to achieve the following three goals:

1) Improved student outcomes using multiple metrics. (such as SBAC scores, graduation rates, SAT scores, and student survey responses);

2) a strong, sustainable pipeline of school leaders who have the mindset and skills that support continuous improvement over the next decade; and

3) a tipping point of teacher-leaders who have strong leadership skills at leveraging data to develop action research within the district that can be replicated to achieve positive results.

Since the partner districts are spread across four states, how do you anticipate leveraging technology for educators to collaborate and learn from one another?

Culbertson: Instructional feedback and timely, relevant coaching are critical to improving classroom instruction. Every level of educator in E3 receives ongoing coaching and support in two ways.

First, building-level administrators provide feedback to teacher-leaders and teachers, who provide feedback to one another.

Second, as part of the networked improvement community, building administrators are coached by the project-level team, while principals, teacher leaders, and teachers may give and receive feedback from colleagues and peers from other schools in the NIC via Insight ADVANCE, an award-winning video-based coaching and feedback platform.

In March 2018, through the National Education Leaders’ Workshop (NELW), the first annual gathering with E3 administrators and teacher leaders, educators had the opportunity to network with one another and share and learn about what’s really working in the classroom. Future plans include an online platform where educators can share and access resources created from the NIC.

The E3 schools and districts are only in phase 1 of this initiative. We look forward to expanding our work in coming years to include more educators from similar districts across the country who will participate in our annual workshop and engage through our content-specific video coaching initiative.

What is the incentive for districts to participate in E3?

Culbertson: In addition to the advantages of being a part of an NIC and the many professional development opportunities described above, districts will benefit in several additional ways:

  • Recruitment: Diversifying teacher and leadership roles with educators who have shared experiences with students they serve is critical to ensuring E3’s long-term impact. We plan to partner with HBCUs and IHEs to recruit effective educators. In addition, beginning in Year 2, the NIC will also establish a cohort of the Aspiring Leaders Academy specifically for leaders of color to provide training, coaching, support, and a pipeline into E3 districts committed to ensuring a diverse cadre of leaders.
  • Career ladder: All participating schools will have at least three rungs on a career ladder, including teachers, mentors, and lead teachers. The career ladder in E3 schools provides a career trajectory which includes eligibility for additional compensation commensurate with additional work and responsibilities.
  • Performance pay and incentives: To promote retention, E3 schools will use a combination of salary stipends for lead and mentor teachers as well as recruitment/retention bonuses for new teachers. School leaders who remain and are effective are eligible for performance-based compensation.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for this type of project, and how will E3 seek to overcome them?

Culbertson: With the cross-state project, there will be a number of challenges. One of the biggest challenges is related to evolving current structures and practices related to professional development within the districts.

Currently, there is a wide variation in the types and frequency of support for teachers—varying from a lack of school-based, job-embedded PD to basic professional-learning groups. In addition, the current PD efforts are generally not connected to ILTs or instructional coaching.

Similarly, for principals, districts typically provided PD for principals through monthly/quarterly district-level meetings or workshops; however, there are minimal connections to teacher effectiveness and support.

Through E3, teachers will be provided with extensive, job-embedded professional development that is directly linked to the classroom, including the Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project (STEP), a PLC model whereby teachers identify the bright spots to replicate, as well as ongoing instructional coaching (from coaches within the schools and NIC).

The ILT serves as the school-based quality assurance mechanism for professional development within the building, and the instructional coaching is aligned to STEP, thus creating one coherent system of professional learning.

In addition, professional development for school leaders will be comprised of individual, on-site (executive) coaching and cohort-based experiences facilitated across the network by project coaches and through the Leadership Academies for Principals, Assistant Principals, and Aspiring Leaders.

Professional development will be tightly aligned to teacher effectiveness priorities.

As a district partner, what excites you the most about E3?

Wimberly: As a small, rural school district with limited resources and opportunities, we are excited about participating in programs such as the NIC and STEP, allowing our district the opportunity for collaboration outside of our area and personalized job-embedded professional development.

We also look forward to providing our schools and leaders with systemic skills that provide enriching classroom experiences for our students.

Mendez: We are most excited about utilizing the systems within E3 to grow and develop the capacity of the ILT. We believe that leveraging the collective capacity of administrators, lead teachers, and mentor teachers in the ILT will allow us to have a vehicle for driving, monitoring, and sustaining school improvement.

We believe that the ILT will exponentially magnify the impact of leadership within our schools.

Leida: We are incredibly excited about the opportunity afforded to us through our participation in the E3 cohort.

We are excited about the ability for us to work with Insight and collaborate with other districts across the country focused on the same ‘problem.”

Districts of our size/demographic exist all over the country, and we hope to be able to be a model of systems improvement for others.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


    Leave a Comment

    %d bloggers like this: