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UNC partnership with Pitt County Schools to drive development of ‘learning ecosystem’

Effort is part of a $5.4 million project funded by U.S. Department of Education

The UNC School of Education will help establish a continuous improvement program in a North Carolina school district as part of a multi-pronged project aimed at expanding the professional learning of and diversity among the district’s teachers and school leaders.

The project in Pitt County, in Eastern North Carolina, funded by a $5.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, will work to create programs and processes over three years to build the knowledge, skills, and capacities of school leaders and coaches — all with the aim of better supporting teachers and the quality and effectiveness of their instruction.

Lora Cohen-Vogel, Ph.D., the Frank A. Daniels, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Education, will lead a component of the project aimed at infusing continuous improvement processes into the district’s work.

“The idea behind this project is to create a “learning ecosystem” that encourages and supports learning by both students and the adults who work in schools,” said Cohen-Vogel, a co-principal investigator of the project and a leading expert on implementing continuous improvement systems in education settings.

“Research has demonstrated that one of the best ways to improve student learning is to create local capacity to learn through disciplined inquiry about what works for whom and under what conditions,” Cohen-Vogel said. “This project is aimed at doing just that.”

Pitt County was one of 22 school districts nationwide to win one of the Department of Education’s Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program development grants in 2021. The project builds on work funded by a 2016 Department of Education Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant that was used by Pitt County Schools to develop career pathways for teachers, helping boost teacher retention, professional growth, and, consequently, student learning.

The new project — titled “Recruit, Retain, Reward (R3) Phase II: Cultivating Exponential Leaders and Highly Effective Systems” — expands on the earlier work to bring new focus on school executives and other instructional leaders. The work will center primarily on the 27 schools in the district defined by federal criteria as “high need” schools.

Implementing continuous improvement

One of the components of the project will be the establishment of a continuous improvement initiative.

“The field of education has come a long way in knowledge production. But more must be done to put that knowledge to work,” said Christopher Harrison (’15 Ph.D.), the School of Education’s improvement and community engagement associate and a collaborator on the project. “We need better ways of designing professional learning opportunities for educators that draw on their insights and experiences and engage them in the work of continuous improvement.

“To do so, school and district leaders can work together to understand their problem of practice and establish build-test-learn cycles, in which they initiate tests of small changes, study the results, and adjust interventions based on those results before scaling them with a larger number of classrooms or schools,” Harrison said.

To enact continuous improvement, the grant leadership team will create an Office of Continuous Improvement and Program Effectiveness within Pitt County Schools and develop and promote a set of professional development opportunities for district leaders and coaches to learn about and use cycled testing and improvement approaches. The approaches will be used to measure the impact on student achievement of an instructional coaching program, the impact of intervention efforts to close learning gaps, and the effectiveness of a beginning teacher support program to recruit and retain teachers of color, among other areas.

Leveraging long-term connections

Pitt County serves 23,300 students and operates 38 schools, with about half of its student population living in the city of Greenville.

UNC’s partnership with Pitt County leverages long-term connections with the UNC School of Education. The project leaders in Pitt County Schools are both alumni of the UNC School of Education.

The principal investigator on the project, Thomas Feller, Jr. (’20 Ed.D.), is director of professional learning and leadership development for Pitt County Schools and will move into the role of director of continuous improvement and professional learning. Seth Brown (’97 A.B.Ed.), the district’s director of educator support and leadership development, is a co-PI on the project. Cohen-Vogel and Harrison will provide support.

By building on these connections, the project reflects the values embedded in continuous improvement approaches — namely, the importance of practice-based evidence and social networks for transformative educational change, Feller said.

“The implementation of a systematic continuous improvement process in our district is a natural evolution and extension of the work our teacher leaders have been doing the last five years under our TIF grant, and we are excited to partner with UNC on this next step toward reaching our vision to ensure the success of every child every day,” Feller said. “By focusing on school leaders and coaches, our goal is to empower learning leaders who develop learning leaders who support students.”

Cohen-Vogel added: “This is an exciting initiative to be a part of. It’s always gratifying to have the opportunity to work with our graduates and the communities we all serve.

“The ability of Pitt County Schools to twice receive a prestigious award like this is a testament to our graduates and their orientation as change makers in their schools and school districts,” she said.