Teachers v. Schools as the Locus of Transformation

Would you go for “shock and awe” concentration or “a thousand points of light” distribution?
Monday, January 14, 2013

Harley Ungar is a veteran Teach For America staff member who also serves on the school board in Englewood, New Jersey. This post was originally published on withGanas and has been reprinted with permission.

Thought exercise: if you ran a school district and had a hundred transformational teachers to deploy however you saw fit, would you put them in one school or distribute them throughout the system? Put differently, would you go for “shock and awe” concentration or “a thousand points of light” distribution?


A young female teacher with shoulder length light brown hair preparing lesson plans in an empty classroom.


Photo by Patsy Lynch via WikiCommons

Recognizing that there are always trade-offs in lifeand trade-offs in this case involve consequences as serious as a child’s life prospectsI would personally opt for the concentration approach. I think having transformational teachers embedded in all schools has tremendous value in terms of setting a high bar for what’s possible, not to mention potentially serving as a lifeline for those kids lucky enough to be in that classroom. However, the sad reality (or at least my perspective on reality) is that the impact of one transformational teacher is too easily eroded by the inexorable tide of sub-par teachers. I do believe that a phenomenal teacher has the power to change the life trajectory of his/her students, but without the proper reinforcement, the vast majority of students’ profound gains are likely to erode over time.

More and more, I’m coming around to the belief that (statistically speaking) a sole transformational teacher is insufficient. Students need multiple years of exposure to strong teachers for their gains to be enduring. Either we ensure that the same transformational teacher follows a cohort of kids from early elementary through high school (an impossibility given grade level–specific content and pedagogy), or we surround this cohort of students with a whole team of transformational teachers.

So this all begs the question, of course: how can we ensure that we have many more transformational schools?


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