It Takes a (Whole) School

The organizational supports teachers need to serve students in high-poverty urban schools

By Bari Walsh, on February 1, 2016 11:44 AM
It Takes a (Whole) School: The organizational supports teachers need to serve students in high-poverty urban schools #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

The legend of the superhero teacher who steps into a crumbling, underresourced school and singlehandedly changes the lives of a group of indifferent or hostile students is a pervasive one in popular culture. But actual teachers at work in high-poverty schools know that individual effort and passion are rarely enough to ensure student success, superpowers or not. According to a new report, these teachers — while remarkably motivated by the challenge at hand — need and want school-wide, institutionalized supports in order to succeed in the face of the uncertainties that poverty brings. Schools that hope to retain these teachers and bolster their success must provide those supports, the report concludes.

A research team led by Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Susan Moore Johnson at the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers spoke to 95 teachers and administrators in six high-poverty, high-minority schools in a large, urban district. Researchers including Matthew Kraft and John Papay, both of Brown University, analyzed the data to study the effect of uncertainty — the instability that often disrupts their students’ lives and impedes their performance — on teachers’ work and career decisions. They wanted to look at what kinds of supports might make a difference for teachers, and to see how actively (or not) schools engaged with the challenges arising outside their walls. 

In in-depth interviews, the teachers said they contend daily with the obstacles their students face — obstacles caused by previous negative experiences in school, unequal opportunities, and limited services and poor support outside of school. They described their roles in students’ lives as extending beyond those of traditional instructors, and most said they stepped into those roles willingly. They spoke of the deep satisfaction they derived from helping students meet their challenges.

Schools as Open Systems — or Closed 

The teachers we spoke with had actively chosen to work in high-poverty schools. But they were only able to succeed — and were more likely to choose to stay — when those schools provided high-functioning organizational supports. - Matthew Kraft, Brown U.But these teachers consistently described their need for robust support from their schools and principals — and here, researchers found a great degree of variety in how school leaders responded to the complexities of their environment. The researchers characterized this variety as reflecting different organizational philosophies about how schools can and should engage with the communities around them.

In an “open-system” approach, leaders are inclined to acknowledge more explicitly that schools operate within a context of broader challenges and needs. Principals in an open system recognize the academic and social needs that students bring with them, and they work actively to develop school-wide practices to respond, offering a web of support for teachers’ work.

In a more closed system, administrators don’t deny the role that the outside environment plays, but they tend to respond to it as an intrusion that should be minimized or held at bay, rather than incorporated and addressed. Leaders inclined to this mindset believed they could buffer their school against the forces of uncertainty in the outside environment, the researchers explain.

Looking at how these two approaches shape teachers’ work and satisfaction, the report finds that leaders who recognize that schools are open systems that require coordinated organizational responses to uncertainty are better able to provide the support teachers want. “The teachers we spoke with had actively chosen to work in high-poverty schools,” Kraft says. “But they were only able to succeed — and were more likely to choose to stay — when those schools provided high-functioning organizational supports that were essential for their success in the classroom, so they could focus on instruction.”

To Retain and Support Urban Teachers

Using examples from the schools they studied, the researchers identify four effective organizational supports that help teachers manage the uncertainty of their environments. To retain and support teachers, schools should:

  1. coordinate instructional practices and curriculum across classes, while encouraging teachers to work together to differentiate instruction in response to their own expertise and the learning needs and range of proficiency of students in their classes.
  2. develop and consistently follow school-wide policies to promote orderly and disciplined learning environments as an important corrective to instability outside school grounds. Teachers told researchers that poorly conceived, rigid, or inconsistent disciplinary policies created disorder and frustration; those who had taught in several high-poverty schools observed that, although students were quite similar across those schools, student behavior varied considerably.
  3. offer school-based socio-emotional and psychological support to help students develop their strengths and skills, and make those supports central to (not ancillary to) a school’s ongoing work.
  4. create and prioritize school-wide initiatives, support, and expectations for engaging parents, inviting them to participate fully in the life of the school. All of the examined schools acknowledge the importance and challenges of engaging parents, but some followed a “push rather than pull” model, sending out information but doing little to draw parents into the life of the school.

“In low-income communities,” says Johnson, “a school’s success depends on organizing its resources to support students so that they can focus on learning. This study helps us to understand what that means, and how it plays out, day to day.”

Changing the In-School Dynamics

So, what are the options for a district leader who wants to change the in-school dynamics that might foster or impede these kinds of policies and supports? The answer is probably not a traditional top-down intervention, says Kraft, or a simple policy shift. Instead, these are factors that should guide superintendents in the decisions they make when hiring principals. “The principal’s role is essential in developing supportive organizational practices, and in galvanizing the collective support of teachers,” Kraft says.

And that last part is important, he adds. An open-system approach “can only be successful when teachers are proactively contributing to these efforts on a consistent basis,” he says. “Teachers who want to work in these environments have a responsibility and an important role to play in influencing and contributing to these approaches, so that when kids move across classrooms, they have common instructional experiences, a consistent understanding of behavior expectations, and teachers who are reaching out to engage their parents.”

Additional Resources


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Faculty in this article

Susan Moore Johnson

Susan Moore Johnson studies, teaches, and consults about teacher policy, organizational change, and administrative practice.