By Kate Wright and Gretchen Weber

Differentiated staffing involves students in a classroom having multiple educators working with them in a range of capacities based on those educators’ strengths and skills. It has shown promise for reducing the burden on individual teachers, retaining teachers, and supporting new teachers, as well as advancing student learning. In this blog post, the third in the Money Matters: Conversations About Teacher Compensation Series, Kate Wright and Gretchen Weber discuss the model, its benefits, and possible barriers to implementation.

Wright serves as Co-Director of the Region 15 Comprehensive Center at WestEd. As a Senior Managing Director at WestEd, Weber leads a portfolio of work in School Choice, Literacy, and Talent Development and Diversity.

What is a differentiated staffing model?

Gretchen Weber: We have this outdated model of our teacher workforce that requires teachers to “be all things to all people all the time.” Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen other professions and workplaces change quite a bit. Work has become more flexible and collaborative with a lot more tech infusion and more diversity in the workplace. I don’t know if we’re seeing all those same attributes happen in teaching. So that would be an indicator that we need to rethink the education workplace and the way the workforce operates within it.

In other professions, we see a lot of specialization. Workers become deep experts in a particular area to serve the people they’re serving. Healthcare is a great example of that, but if you look at the teacher’s role and break down all the things we expect—you’ve got to be the content expert, you’ve got to know everything there is to know about teaching high school math or computer science or early childhood, and you’ve got to be a cognitive child development expert and adolescent psychologist. You’ve got to be a data specialist in assessment and engagement data, a family outreach and engagement coordinator, a materials specialist, a curriculum developer, a coach, an instructional coordinator, and do technology integration.

You have to stay up on the latest research in the field and apply that to your practice, and mentor new teachers, and be an equity specialist, and be a leader within your school leading the PLC or the community of practice, and a student and child advocate, and a services coordinator to make sure students are getting all they need in and out of the classroom. You could require someone to be specialized and just one of those things could be a full-time job.

Kate Wright: I totally agree and it’s not hyperbole—all those are pieces of a teacher’s job. The one-classroom, one-teacher model is the same model we’ve had in place for the entirety of public education. The class sizes might look different—we’ve evolved from the one-room schoolhouse to multiple classrooms—but that dynamic looks the same. If you think about other professions, there have been innovations as the culture and our communities have evolved and I think it’s time for us to be thinking the same way in education.

I know very few people who don’t operate on a team in their work environment, who are not doing some piece of the puzzle of the work that needs to happen for that organization. Something as challenging, as fundamental, and as critical as education requires a model that provides access for all students to as many experts and resources as possible.

GW: With differentiated staffing, you’d be taking this approach to all the responsibilities that have gotten bundled up into one person at the head of the classroom and unbundling it into specialists that all serve the group of kids. An entire grade is served by somebody who’s a content expert in what needs to be taught at that grade level, somebody who’s a data specialist, somebody who does technology integration, etc. You’re using all of the skills and expertise of multiple adults in a way that serves all of the students well.

I keep imagining that I am the teacher of record in a group of four 4th grade classrooms with a total of 120 total kids, but I have three apprentice teachers who I’m working with. I have an assessment expert, a family outreach engagement coordinator, and a data specialist. My job is to design and plan instruction and to deliver a lot of that instruction. The apprentice teachers support that. They work with small groups of kids—they might teach the mini-lessons, they might work one-on-one with students in more of a tutoring capacity. They might also teach 30 kids at a time and then we rotate kids through different lessons. And the apprentice teachers come to me to get the instruction.

This model really can work when you start to think more creatively about the expertise that people have. My data specialist meets with me during my planning time and says, “All right, you know last month[’s] assessment data shows ‘X.’ I think that means we need to regroup in math this week, so these kids go here and do this.” And my family outreach engagement coordinator has called a family because one student has been absent a lot lately. It’s just trying to unbundle all the things that one teacher would be doing for 30 kids, spreading it across 120 and serving them all better.

That’s what I would love and maybe I’d go back to being a teacher if that was the case.

KW: I would love that, too. I was a secondary teacher and they do have models in the secondary setting that are effective.

A differentiated or distributed leadership model allows for multiple entry points into the classroom. There is a Lead Teacher, an experienced instructional expert, who supports the academic content and pedagogical decisions for the team. There are also novice or apprentice educators who may be completing their student teaching experience or in their first year as a classroom teacher. Then, depending on the needs of the students, additional experts are added to the team, including social workers, technology specialists, reading interventionists, etc.

And the talents of all of these caring adults are in the service of a shared roster of students. It allows for not just sharing responsibility but giving students access to special expertise with multiple adults. It also creates a wider web of ownership, buy-in, and support for the group of students, which I think ultimately lends itself to elevating outcomes for kids and education as a whole. You’ve got more people who are committed to the success of a group of students.

What are some considerations associated with implementing this model?

KW: Implementing a differentiated staffing model requires rethinking the traditional model of a classroom. It is not just adding more adults to the same structures. And making big shifts like this necessitates professional learning. That’s really important, not just for the members of that team, but for instructional leaders at the site level. At the district level, you have to have a deep understanding, from a human resource position, of what this looks like. You have to redesign what human resources looks like within the district, so there’s professional learning there. There’s professional learning for the roles that exist for the lead teacher in the model and all the other people.

There needs to be an intentional understanding of individual roles and how they support their partners in the team, and how they support kids. The other thing that I think is a challenge in this model is evaluation. There are some traditional barriers to this model that would that need to be considered and need to be thought of because the way we traditionally evaluate one-teacher–one-classroom student outcomes can become an obstacle in thinking if we’ve got to really be redesigning not just staffing but systems and structures.

GW: I can imagine that another piece is related to the finances and compensation. Rethinking what you spend on salaries—which is a large portion of any school’s budget—and how that might be redistributed. We know that in the Opportunity Culture model that’s how they approach that. The teacher who takes on more responsibilities as a multi-classroom level lead teacher does earn more than somebody who has a different level of responsibility and a different kind of role, but it’s a redistribution of the resources you already have, not adding more.

How long does it take to implement a differentiated staffing model?

GW: There’s at least a year’s planning to get all of the details addressed to prepare for the change. Like you said, it’s not an inconsequential undertaking. We’re not tweaking the edges. We’re changing the fundamental structure of a school but also still working within the parameters of the existing school. We’re not building a brand new school where the building is going to be differently configured to support this. You’re still working within your existing school structure. What that does change is that students may move around between classrooms. You may combine a group of kids to be 60 instead of 30 and then split them into small groups.

There’s just a lot more flexibility, but that requires planning and professional learning to understand how to implement those changes, and you also need to take time to assess the staff you have, and their qualifications and strengths and expertise areas. Once you’ve mapped that out, you can have a sense of how you’re reconfiguring and where you may have gaps.

KW: I think a year is a good estimate and I believe that you can plan and establish expectations in that year for the people who will be participating. It’s a culture shift and you really want people to be positioned in the right way for it to be effective. Typically, at the schools I’ve been working with, they’ll pilot it at a grade level and then they’ll do some tweaking. Then, that grade level team can help to onboard another grade level team because you want family and community buy-in to the process. It’s not something that parents are used to, so if they say, “Who’s your teacher?” And their children responds, “Well today, it was Ms. Smith and in math, it was someone else,” parents need to be prepared for that answer.

What is the cost associated with implementing differentiated staffing?

KW: In the Next Education Workforce model, Arizona State University says that it’s cost neutral, but in our recent conversations with participating districts, because they do have some grant funding to build professional learning, they’re acknowledging that there are some startup costs. It’s not necessarily in addition to what you might already be budgeting for professional learning, but you need to know that you are dedicating funds to this process. Whether that exceeds your typical funding for teacher professional learning needs to be determined.

In some cases, they haven’t figured out the funding and some districts have been giving stipends to lead teachers in a way that is a little less sustainable, so there could be bumpy roads depending on how it’s implemented. But essentially, it should be something that can be cost-neutral. You’re redistributing your overall funds to support the model and we have seen that happen successfully.

What are the benefits of this model?

KW: In the first phase of this distributed leadership model, we conducted a literature scan to see what outcomes look like. While we didn’t find a lot of student outcome data, there’s a lot of outcome data around teacher retention, teacher efficacy, morale and confidence, and building new teacher expertise, which all we know all lead to improved student outcomes. What we see most overwhelmingly is that teachers want to teach in schools that have teams.

We found during COVID that two things people liked the least were isolation and lack of flexibility. They didn’t like being isolated, but they did like the newfound flexibility. These models address both of those essential human needs—you’re no longer isolated and there’s much more flexibility, not only for the educators but also for the students.

GW: So I will say on this student outcomes, Opportunity Culture has done some research on the multi-classroom leader model. Teachers working in that model moved students from the 50th percentile of student learning growth to the 77th percentile, on average. That’s an extra half year of learning for students each year.

KW: If you’re distributing for content knowledge and for expertise, then your kids are getting the best instruction that can be offered at that grade level.

GW: And you have opened a whole set of things—multiple pathways into the profession, more support and coaching, a more sustainable workload, job-embedded professional development, opportunities for leadership and growth, and specialty. With a sustainable workload and pay that is commensurate with the work, differentiated staffing has the potential to make the profession more attractive and allows us to have a more dynamic model of teaching and a more dynamic model for compensation than we currently have.

KW: Differentiated staffing makes teaching manageable. We need to face the fact that teaching can be an impossible task. With the current model, in a lot of places where teachers are needed the most, it’s just more than one human being can possibly do. That’s why teachers burn out.

GW: According to a study by Richard Ingersoll, about 44 percent of teachers leave within the first five years and about half of all teacher turnover takes place in 25 percent of our public schools.

KW: A lot of times, it’s because they don’t feel successful and supported. According to the Learning Policy Institute, compensation isn’t even one of the top three reasons educators leave the profession. They cite [a] lack of support for new teachers and challenging working conditions as having greater impacts on teacher retention than compensation. I think people know to some degree what a teacher makes when they choose the profession, and if they feel valued and successful and they have camaraderie and a team, those things go a long way to making teaching attractive.

KW: Another benefit of the model is that it allows for [an] apprenticeship. Right now, we expect a first-year teacher to do the exact same job as a 10-year teacher and there’s no real space for growth and learning. Differentiated staffing allows a teacher to grow into the profession and become the expert that they ultimately will be. It doesn’t require you to be an expert from the very first day that you’re in the classroom, which I think also helps students. Students are getting access to these excited, apprentice, newly-graduated educators, as well as tenured, seasoned educators.

GW: What you’re describing is like a medical residency model or a fellowship. So, right now, I’m a fellow and I’m still apprenticing and learning with the chief of a specialty area, and I am not expected to be an expert.

KW: Often, we call those year one-to-three teachers “provisionary teachers,” and often they’re not given additional supports and their workload isn’t any different from tenured and experienced teachers.. They’re doing the same job as an experienced teacher and we’re just checking in to see if they’re good or bad. There’s no advantage to a new teacher to be probationary. In this model, there is, because you really have the opportunity to learn from a wealth of experts.

GW: Right now, you can be a new teacher with 144 students and six class periods, and only one prep and lunch break during the day. In fact, one of the consistently identified factors that contribute to new teachers leaving their current school, district, or the profession overall is that they receive very difficult teaching assignments and heavy teaching loads.

KW: This really prevents that practice because now expertise is distributed, and all students have access to every bit of expertise of a whole team of people.

GW: All that said, there are challenges to implementing this model. It is a big cultural shift. It’s not like you’re starting over with a clean slate, opening a new school with the new model. When you do decide to make the change, you’ll have to overcome the mindset of people who think, “I know what school looks like because, during my entire career as a student, this is what school looked like.” You have to figure out how to break that mental model for kids, teachers, parents, and community members—everybody whoever went to school—and then get them comfortable with what the new model looks like and how it works.

KW: You have to have a change agent as a leader and that’s not always the case. That’s not necessarily how we train our principals and assistant principals. We’re really good at education and sustaining the status quo and layering on to the system that’s already in place instead of redesigning and thinking outside the box.

KW: I was thinking back to the benefit for students. There’s a real equity benefit because, in most schools, not all kids did get access to high-quality teachers. This spreads that wealth much more fairly around the building. But it could also be a barrier to equity. You can’t restrict this model only to high-functioning districts where you’ve got principals and superintendents all on the same page because where we really need to be focused on [is] retaining and attracting high-quality teachers and distributing expertise in high-need areas.

This is the third in a series of four blog posts on teacher compensation. These posts address issues raised during a Teacher Compensation Roundtable held in Washington, DC, in November 2022. The event brought together educators, researchers, policy experts, and other leaders to discuss addressing teacher shortages through innovations in teacher compensation. Read all four posts in Money Matters: Conversations About Teacher Compensation Series.