Developing Great Teachers and Leaders in Knox County Schools: Interview with Superintendent Jim McIntyre

Year of publication
Annenberg Institute

AISR had a unique opportunity to observe, facilitate, and document the early stages of a comprehensive and successful districtwide reform effort in Knoxville, Tennessee, through AISR's Central Office Review for Results and Equity, or CORRE in 2008, and then follow up four years later. The Central Office Review for Results and Equity was developed by the AISR-convened task force School Communities that Work to help school district leaders and community stakeholders understand the strengths and weaknesses of the central office and assess its capacity to support high academic performance for all students in the district’s schools. For each CORRE, AISR staff worked with an Action Team of local stakeholders to identify high-priority issues in the district, analyze quantitative and qualitative data, develop action plans for improvement, and begin implementation.

Knox County, Tennessee: Raising the Bar on Student Success

From 2006 to 2008, AISR led a broad cross-sector review of the Knox County Schools’ central office functioning, culture, and relationship with the community. Jacob Mishook, senior research associate at AISR, followed up recently with Superintendent Jim McIntyre on the evolution of reforms arising from that process.

Image removed.In 2012, Knox County Schools (TN) superintendent of schools James McIntyre did something surprising in this era of diminished education budgets: he asked the community to provide $35 million in additional funds to support the school system. While he celebrated significant gains in value-added student growth and across subject areas on the state’s TCAP assessments, McIntyre noted that “only 19 percent of our high school students met all four ACT college readiness benchmarks” the previous year, and that achievement gaps by race, income, language, and disability “have begun to emerge.”

These additional funds, a “bold investment in our schools,” would be used not only for capital improvements, but also for additional instructional time, an expansion of performance pay, more support for classroom teachers, and instructional technology. This plan received immediate and strong support from the school board and local Chamber of Commerce, though it ran into resistance from the county mayor and commissioner because it would require a tax increase. Ultimately, the district and county compromised and Knox County Schools (KCS) received an additional $7 million. Increased property tax revenue will provide $15 million on top of that to the school system.

KCS, a large, diverse, county-wide school system of approximately 58,000 students, hasn’t received a lot of national attention. But it is at the center of major educational reforms like differential teacher pay, new forms of teacher evaluation, higher educational standards and more rigorous assessments for students, and public-private partnerships to support innovative practices in classrooms and schools. And AISR had a unique opportunity to observe, facilitate, and document the early stages of these efforts through its Central Office Review for Results and Equity, or CORRE.

Foundations for an Effective Systemwide Reform

Image removed.In 2006, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform began a relationship with KCS to facilitate a community-wide group of stakeholders – central office staff, principals, teachers, parents, and community members – to examine the school system’s central office functioning and culture and its collaboration with the broader community.

In 2007, in the middle of the CORRE process, Dr. James McIntyre – formerly the Chief Operating Officer in Boston Public Schools – became superintendent of Knox County Schools. Dr. McIntyre was supportive of the ongoing CORRE, and many of the recommendations of the final Knox County CORRE report, released in 2008, dovetailed with the KCS Strategic Plan.

A Broader View of Human Capital Management

One of the key recommendations from the CORRE report was to look closely at “human capital management.” Traditionally, school districts have a human resources department that is primarily transactional and focused on the hiring process.

The Human capital management approach, however, conceptualizes the development of teachers as professionals along a continuum – from recruiting through hiring, induction, professional development and advancement, and retirement or exit from the system. It is one the key elements of AISR’s Smart District framework. In Knox County Schools, AISR recommended developing a human capital management strategy, including partnering with external organizations and higher education institutions to develop more high-quality teachers and leaders.

Four Years Later: Interview with Superintendent Jim McIntyre 

With Tennessee named as a winner of the federal Race to the Top competition and a new teacher evaluation system, as well as Dr. McIntyre’s appeal to the Knox County community for additional funding and Knox County Schools’ strong showing on the 2012 state Report Card, we wanted to know how KCS had changed and adapted to this new policy landscape, especially around issues of human capital management, since the CORRE report’s release in 2008. I recently spoke with Dr. McIntyre about the work of Knox County Schools.

Q: What were your initial impressions when you came to the district?

My impression was that this was a school system that was fairly solid, one that had done well academically. A system that was good but had the potential to be great, and hadn’t realized its potential. My impression coming in that there was a good deal of satisfaction here. A good, solid, but not outstanding education was what we were providing kids. We want to continuously improve and put systems and structures in place to achieve excellence. We have the potential – people in our system, support from the community, and a policy environment in the state of Tennessee – to make that happen. The last four years, we’ve put together a strategic plan, and we’re following it.

Human Capital Management: A Key Lever for Change

Q: Developing human capital strategies was a recommendation from the CORRE report, as well as the KCS Strategic Plan. How has that grown and changed during your tenure?

A couple of things happened that were important. The CORRE report suggested that focusing on human capital would be an important lever for change and improvement. The state of Tennessee gave us tools to focus on human capital in important ways. The strategic plan incorporated that, and that we needed the “right people doing the right work” to be successful. There are four components to the strategic plan: focus on students, effective educators, engaging families and community meaningfully, and the infrastructure to support [schools]. The overriding component is accountability.

We took the CORRE report seriously. There were key insights there, along with work in my first year [as superintendent] to really do a lot of listening and hear from teachers, parents, students, taxpayers, and citizens about what their hopes, Image removed.priorities, and aspirations were for educating children in our community.

Another important piece is the TAP System. TAP is an excellent school reform and instructional improvement initiative that includes four major components: teacher collaboration, teacher leadership, clear accountability, and performance-based pay. We had four TAP schools in Knoxville [when I arrived]. Now we have 18. We have tried to take what we’ve learned from TAP and apply that to the rest of the district. In the TAP schools, [there is] purposeful collaborative time. The professional conversation revolves around how to improve instruction. We’ve tried to incorporate teacher leadership in a variety of ways: leadership roles at the school level, instructional coaches, and peer evaluation. One really positive development is the “lead teacher” role: regular classroom teachers who get extra money to be evaluators in the TEAM model. I believe teacher leadership is very powerful and important and this structure will lead to potentially significant instructional improvement.

In terms of accountability, TEAM is the new state teacher performance evaluation system. TEAM relies on student outcomes for 50% of the evaluation, and the classroom observation tool is essentially the TAP evaluation instrument. We have taken what we’ve learned in four TAP schools and have put these elements in place in all of our schools. There have been some implementation bumps to iron out, but it has generally been a very positive experience. It is positively impacting the conversations teachers are having and the quality of instruction that they are able to deliver.

Higher Standards, New Leadership Skills

So there has been a great deal that has happened at the state level in Tennessee that has positioned us well to effectively develop and maximize our human capital. In the last four years in Tennessee, we have moved to radically higher academic standards – from among the lowest standards [in the nation] to one of the highest. Second was a new evaluation system that required every teacher to be evaluated every year, and 50 percent of that evaluation to be based on student outcomes. Prior to that, it was twice every ten years. Third, [we gained the] ability and encouragement from the state for districts to explore differentiated compensation for teachers. And finally, the state significantly restructured tenure and replaced collective bargaining with a collaborative interest-based discussion.

Q: What are the different kinds of skills needed for principals with this shift?

Managing and leading this type of instructional improvement effort takes a special kind of leader to do this work successfully. We have worked on the principal pipeline, developing a leadership academy with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The fellows spend four days a week in schools with successful mentor principals, and one day a week in classrooms learning theory. It has helped us develop and strengthen our pipeline. We’re in the process of appointing some of our prior fellows to principalships.

We have also tried to focus on professional development for our school leaders, creating professional learning communities among our principals, and putting aside some time to spend together on professional development – not just administrative stuff or structures and procedures.

Authentic Community Engagement

Q: What has the district done to engage the community more effectively? 

One of most important things we did was develop our strategic plan. We listened to our community about what they hoped to achieve for their children. Then we laid out how we are going to accomplish that, and how we’re going to measure success. We have tried to continue that dialogue through community forums, teacher town halls, communicating in a variety of different ways to our stakeholders. We are trying not to just have one-way communication, but to listen and hear back from folks.

The other thing we’ve done this year is that we’ve tried to focus specifically on parent and family engagement. We put together a district advisory council from each of our schools to come together on a regular basis to talk about how best to communicate, engage, provide information, and support parents. We want them to play a meaningful role.

Civic and Institutional SupportImage removed.

Q: How involved have the institutional actors in Knoxville been?

We’ve been pleased with the community's level of interest in public education. The University of Tennessee has been an incredible partner, working with us on a variety of projects, like our community schools project. The Chamber of Commerce has been a good relationship. They’ve helped us develop and write our strategic plan. They paid for a technology consultant to help us develop our warehouse. More recently, in the process of asking for additional investment of public dollars to support the part of the strategic plan that isn’t resourced yet, [the Chamber of Commerce] voted unanimously to support that budget proposal. A lot of that collaboration is around our willingness to be a partner, open ourselves up to that collaboration, and be transparent about strengths, challenges, and what we are doing to address them in the future.

Q: Has the district been able to raise additional funds?

We have a local education fund, and have raised several million dollars over the last several years. It’s an organization that both supports and challenges us. It’s housed in this building, works very closely with us, and raises money for innovative pilot projects. If they work, we integrate them into Knox County Schools.

When you put together a compelling vision and a plan to get there, there are a lot of folks who want to help. Our community has been wonderfully supportive and on board, as have been a lot of outside funders. We have the Race to the Top grant here. We received a $25 million TIF grant, and a couple million from the state’s innovation acceleration fund. We had some additional resources come to bear in a tough economy to help us do some of the important work we knew we needed to do to move the needle on student achievement.

Q: One issue the CORRE team raised was the problem of “program sprawl.”

We do have to be very careful about program sprawl. You have to have a clear vision of what you’re trying to accomplish, and that all the strategies are aligned with that vision and strategic plan. We have been pretty disciplined about doing that, not chasing money when it’s not aligned with our objectives. Which is hard to do! You have to have that discipline and clear vision. But part of our philosophy is that there may be multiple pathways for students, therefore there may be multiple strategies for schools to put in place, as long as those strategies are aligned with the vision. For example, we have put a school in a storefront in a local shopping mall. We have a STEM Academy high school. We have instituted an International Baccalaureate program. There can be multiple pathways for students to achieve that success.

Data-Informed Decision Making

Q: KCS now has a data warehouse. How does the district use data to inform instruction?

Using data to inform instruction is one of the key provisions of Race to the Top. It is a clear focus for our state, and certainly for our school system as well.

First, we use data at the school and classroom levels to improve instruction. Teachers have liked to use data – they like to know where students are. In the past, it’s taken lots of time to compile and format [the data]. The data warehouse has allowed them to have data in a useful format basically in real time. Then teachers can spend their time on the high-value work of analyzing and thinking about how the data can inform instruction. It’s part of the culture of our school system, at this point. It’s a big push for our professional learning communities.

Second, we are using data at the more macro level, the district level, to help us make good decisions. We look at data to see where we are having success and making good educational decisions. We’re looking at data this year to see where we weren’t making as much progress as we want to. We have used the data to define what resources we should ask for to help accelerate our outcomes for children.

Looking Forward

Q: The focus of the CORRE was, of course, around the central office. How have you approached making central office more effective?

That’s an ongoing conversation; in fact, we were talking yesterday about how best to solicit feedback systematically from folks in our schools. We have tried really hard to be more efficient in our human resource function, to do more electronically and online. We are trying to be less transaction-based and more strategic. Recognizing that, we are reminding ourselves that our central office really exists to support and enable the work in our classrooms. We need to lead, direct, and guide our schools and personnel, but also support personnel in schools and classrooms.

Q: What results have you seen from your reform efforts in human capital management?

We are in year two of Tennessee’s new TEAM teacher evaluation system and just paid our first financial incentives from our APEX strategic compensation system. We recently got the final results from the 2011-2012 academic year, and by virtually every quantifiable measure of student learning and success, we saw positive gains and solid academic progress – achievement, value-added, ACT scores, high school graduation rate – all moving in a positive direction!

Q: What’s next for Knoxville?

We submitted a Race to the Top – District grant regarding personalized learning. We are not a finalist, but we are committed to doing the work outlined in our application anyway – it all revolves around customized success planning for each student, technology tools, and professional development for our teachers to ensure that we are meeting the learning needs of each student in our district. We believe this will be the basis of our next five-year strategic plan, which would probably subtly shift the name from “Excellence for All Children” to “Excellence for Every Child.”

Note: Photos courtesy of Knox County Schools

Suggested Citation:

(2013). Developing Great Teachers and Leaders in Knox County Schools: Interview with Superintendent Jim McIntyre. Annenberg Institute