Not One-Size-Fits-All: Lessons Learned From Tulsa Schools

It is often said that school systems get the results they are designed to produce. Education leaders know that they need to enable key shifts in teaching and learning to make equity the reality for every student, but it can be challenging to know where to start.

Our partners at Tulsa Public Schools are boldly taking action around their commitments to equity by strengthening their supports for strong, culturally-responsive teaching. Danielle Neves, the Deputy Chief of Academics at Tulsa Public Schools (TPS), and Chong-Hao Fu, CEO at Leading Educators, joined Education Talk Radio to share how their organizations are creating new opportunities for students by working together in the hope of helping leaders navigate change in their contexts. Here are four key insights from the conversation:

1) The first step? Creating alignment as shoulder-to-shoulder partners.

“[We have to] come in with a spirit of vulnerability and partnership. [We have to] share our point of view and what we know, but also be really open that what we know needs to be revised and contextualized for Tulsa.”

To make the partnership successful, TPS and Leading Educators had to get on the same page about the current reality and opportunities to improve, taking into account the perspectives of diverse stakeholders. Conducting school walk-throughs, sitting in on lessons, and assessing school conditions gave the partners ample context to shape a teacher development and leadership program that could respond to teachers’ unique strengths and needs. 

Early alignment included having a plan to gradually train TPS teaching and learning staff to take over the responsibility of designing curriculum-aligned cycles of professional learning, leading development of content leaders, and supporting customization of supports in schools. It also helped establish a collaborative relationship between TPS, Leading Educators, and Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a support organization that helped to optimize schedules across the district to create time for teacher learning.

2) Creating the time for teacher collaboration meant getting creative.

“Every school is different. They work through a couple of different models until they find one that works for their school.”

As part of the alignment process, TPS determined that each school needed an uninterrupted 90-minute window of collaborative time for teachers once each week. To create that time, they had to get creative and find the right solution for each school. ERS helped TPS and LE to figure out the right model of schedule that met the needs and preferences of educators. 

TPS has utilized their district IT and finance teams to creatively utilize space, personnel, and grant funds to create different staffing structures that create the valuable release time. Across 19 schools, at least 90 minutes of release time has been created. 

3) Teacher leaders have a combination of unique traits.

“Teacher leaders have to exhibit a certain amount of vulnerability, an ability to say to their colleagues, ‘We don’t know it all. We come together, and we practice, and we push each other’s thinking.’ That’s very different than being the person who says, ‘I’m just going to tell you what to do.’”

Danielle shared that when searching for teacher leaders at TPS, they looked for a few specific characteristics. First, they worked to identify teachers who might be interested in taking on more of a leadership role. Next, they identified teachers with expertise in a specific content area. Finally, they identified teachers who were able to exhibit vulnerability. Teacher development and leadership work can feel uncomfortable, and having leaders who are able to say, “We don’t know everything yet, but we can figure it out together,” is invaluable.

4) After two years, promising changes are taking root.

“[Our literacy curriculum] is rigorous. Some people would believe our students aren’t ready for it. But what we’re finding in our teacher leaders’ classrooms is that as they take some risks and try new things, their students are rising to the occasion.”

As the partnership enters year three, Danielle highlighted a few areas of growth that have emerged already. Teacher leaders are making changes to their practice by effectively applying their learning in the classroom. Students are responding well by successfully grappling with rigorous curriculum and rising to the occasion.

Teacher leaders are also internalizing learning about bias, equity, and oppression, and using it to grow their practice and grow their teacher groups. The impact is beginning to spread beyond the teacher leaders and into the classrooms of the teachers they are working with, a very encouraging trend.

You can listen to the full discussion here or on Apple Podcasts.

How We’re Making Tulsa a Great Place to Learn

Bryan Gibson is principal of Mitchell Elementary School at Tulsa Public Schools. Bryan has wide experience in education, spending time as a mental health counselor and a special education teacher before entering school leadership with the encouragement of his peers. He’s a first year member of the Empower cohort. We talked to Bryan about how teacher leadership and development are improving teaching and learning in his school.

What does leadership and development have to do with teaching? 

Everyone is a leader in some capacity. My job is to find out, “What are they strong in?” We’ve given teachers an opportunity to use their strengths to make real changes in teaching and learning. Teacher-leaders that have expertise in a given subject bring together teachers to talk about what’s working in the classroom and what challenges they are facing to co-create better lessons. This kind of work is new to our school and we’re seeing big changes.

How do you think about creating development and leadership opportunities for teachers? 

We have to come to teachers with a pure heart so they know these opportunities to develop their practice and become leaders are for them. We aren’t bringing teams and committees together just because it’s a district initiative or because it makes us look good. We’re doing this for them. We have a policy - no fluff. We’re doing things that impact us personally and make us better for students. That’s helped us develop a strong sense of culture. We don’t want to ever feel like we’re wasting time just to check off boxes.

What changes have you seen in your school?

Teachers hold their colleagues more accountable to best practices in teaching than ever before. We are seeing things change around equity by ensuring we are teaching in a way that supports every student identity. It’s been a positive struggle. This work is not just a “going through the motions” type of exercise. If I see a teacher is teaching something exceptionally, we now have the opportunity to spread that excellence. Plus, it has impacted our teacher retention - we have less than ten percent teacher turnover, which is great. 

Kids are more engaged in the work. They’re having a good struggle, too, with the curriculum. Part of our new vision for how we use curriculum is to think of it as a tool that gives kids access to grade level opportunities. It’s an equity issue to ensure each student has access to the same learning opportunities.

What should families know?

We want all of our students to be proficient in everything they do. We talk a lot about growth with students and families. We’ve started to hit the marker where students are hitting growth goals for proficiency in different subjects. That’s a continuous conversation we have with families - how we’re working to ensure every student hits their goals. Giving teachers the time and space to develop their knowledge and skill together is part of the way we make that happen.

Teaching While Black and Male

Nicholas Cains is an Instructional Leadership Coach for the Empower program, Leading Educators’ partnership with Tulsa Public Schools, where he helps K-5 teacher leaders develop their strengths in instructional leadership and equity. Previously, Nick was an elementary teacher and a manager of teacher leadership development.  In light of recent reports about teacher diversity from the Education Trust and the Center for American Progress, Nick joined us for a conversation about the role of identity in his career as an educator. 

LE: Hi, Nick. Thanks for chatting with us. What’s your story?

NC: Well, it all started with a phone call! I grew up in Houston, Texas, and I went to college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas where I majored in theater, but I knew I didn’t want to be an actor. So, then I minored in journalism, but I knew I didn't want to be a journalist either. One day, I got a phone call from Teach for America, and they asked me, “Why do you like school so much?” 

I liked school because it gave me a lot.  In the fifth grade, my teacher saw something in me, and she told my mom I couldn't go to the school that was across the street for middle school. She wanted me to go to a better school even though it was 30 minutes away. My teacher did all the paperwork for my mom, and I transferred to that magnet school, and I've loved school ever since. This teacher, whose name I don’t even remember, picked me out of everybody, but it wasn’t fair. She changed my entire trajectory because she thought that I deserved a really good education, but I had 25 other classmates who also deserved one.

I started teaching second grade, and I also worked in the summer coaching other teachers. I became a manager of teacher leadership development for a couple years, and then I had the opportunity to become an instructional leadership coach at Leading Educators when we launched the Empower program in Tulsa. 

My job now is to be a human catalyst for educational development. I love helping people discover and build off their strengths. Getting to work in proximity with people who are touching the lives of children and having tough conversations about equity with people who may not have had those conversations before gets me out of bed every day. I get to bask in the glory of the people that I coach. I get to see how they shine. I'm very happy about what I get to do.

LE: Equity is important to you, and you often talk about your experiences through the lens of being a Black man.  Only 2% of teachers nationally are Black men, which is far from representative of student populations. What barriers have you experienced in your career as an educator?

NC: I think I have been luckier than most in some ways; I didn’t run into many barriers until I was already a teacher.  When I first moved to Oklahoma, there was such a big need for certified teachers that I got alternatively certified and I had the opportunity to teach in a field where I didn't have a specialized degree. 

I think a lot of people wanted me to be a teacher, especially in elementary school where there aren’t a lot of Black men. However, once I was in a school, I didn’t really have access to a mentor because of that.

A lot of people assume that just because you are a Black male teacher and you're teaching Black children that you totally understand your kids. I wish there were way more Black male teachers at my school so I could have had a more nuanced conversation about something that I already knew was true - everybody has to put in effort to learn who their kids are.

In the school where I taught where most of my kids were Black, I could not have been more different to them. I felt like I was one of very few people to them who identified as Black but who also dressed the way I dress and talked the way I talk. Especially knowing more of the history of the Black community in Tulsa now--both the accomplishments like Black Wall Street and the ways in which race was weaponized against Black excellence--I have always felt like celebrating the diversity within Blackness is just so essential.  

I wanted to be color-blind for a little bit and tell myself, “I'm just teaching my kids, it's not about race.” But it was always about race.  It would have been really nice to be able to talk to someone very early on about how they knew that, how they carry the weight of being someone's only Black male teacher in their life, and how they hold that. How do they break down stereotypes of what Black men are? I would have loved to have that kind of experience so I could give that back to my students. 

LE: Why is it important for students to have teachers in whom they can see themselves?

NC: Representation matters. Representation matters for people as we try to put together who we can be. I was in a session we facilitated this weekend in Tulsa where we talked about movies and representation, and I realized that the first time I experienced a movie where I thought that the superhero looked like me was Black Panther, and that was only a couple years ago.

When I was a kid, movies and TV shows with all Black people were usually about poverty. They were stuck on showing gangs or miseducation in schools. When I got down to that realization, which I'm still sifting through, I realized that more representations of Black people doing different jobs would have been awesome. I didn't have a Black male teacher until I was in junior high school: Mr. Boyce, who taught us government. He was awesome, but he was it. 

A majority of the nation’s public school students are students of color, but less than 20% of teachers are teachers of color — and only 2% are Black men.”
— Source: The Education Trust and Teach Plus

More representation means kids don't have to do mental gymnastics just to say, ‘I could see myself as a teacher,’ or ‘I could see myself as a superhero.’ 

When I first started teaching, I was told all the time that I would have a profound ‘additional’ impact on students because I am Black. I was also 23, and I was very afraid of that. I was like, ‘Okay, there's a lot of pressure on me being Black and perfect, and I actually don’t know if I can be a role model.’ 

After I left my first job where I had been teaching mostly Black students, one of the girls wrote me a letter that said, “Mr. Cains, you didn't know this, but I don't have a dad, and you're the closest thing I ever had to a father.”

This is one of my 6th grade girls that I only talked to every now and again at lunch time, and I never knew any of that. I realized that if you are a teacher, you automatically get power. You automatically get status in a student's life. I wish I would have accepted earlier on that it's not about saying, “I'm not ready to be a mentor.” It's more about saying, “I can't hide who I am from my students, so now that I have a responsibility, what will I do with it?”

LE: When you are working with teachers around equity, what generally gives them their biggest a-ha moment?

NC: I think that it's actually pretty consistent. I'm a big believer that to change the system, and before you even look at interpersonal relationships, there is self-awareness work that everyone has to do. I think that's the most powerful thing.

Speaking for myself, it was powerful for me to explore who I am and to be more aware of my identity. What is my race? What is my gender, what is my socioeconomic status, what is my language or country of origin, what is my immigration status, and what power do all of those give me? What unearned benefits do I get from each of my identity markers and where am I targeted?

These experiences have helped me recognize that being Black makes me feel like a target all the time, but in a room of women, being a man can give me a lot of power. That kind of nuanced conversation really pushes the envelope for a lot of teachers, because then we can act on it. I mainly coach teacher leaders who are white women and most of them teach across lines of difference as well.

When I've seen those teachers and school leaders say, “I'm really thinking about how I am racialized white, and that gives me privileges that I have to think about. I have power that I didn’t earn, but that I have to work with because it affects how I teach kids.” I think that understanding is essential, and if everyone was doing that kind of work, especially at the school level, I think it will only lead to better results for communities and for kids.

LE: What should district and school leaders be thinking about when working to bring in more teachers of color while supporting the teachers of color they already have to the best of their ability?

NC: I think first, figure out why we’re at a point where there aren’t enough teachers of color, and continue to create conditions where people of color can feel safe and seen. 

I was in a recent session where we talked about the Brown v. Board of Education decision and that while the desegregation decision was essential, hundreds of thousands of Black teachers were fired to make room for other teachers in predominantly Black schools. Historically speaking, this was set in motion a very long time ago, and not for just Black teachers.

Leaders of districts can take an honest, data-driven, historical approach to consider how we got to the point where we are. Look at exit interviews for why people have left. Was it for economic reasons? Was it conditions at schools? Was it because the way people were treated was out of line with their own values? Let's get honest about why we're here. I believe these are tough conversations that many districts are already having and are inviting their communities to have as well. 

Second, leaders could address the reality that white dominant culture is pervasive throughout the entire country. It’s the unquestioned norm. I can't speak for all people of color, but for myself, I feel safer in an environment where I'm not the only one who has to think about race, and I'm not the only one who has to attend professional development on how to bring equity into the classroom. I shouldn’t be the only one who has to reflect all the time. 

I think about race every single day of my life because I'm Black. I have had colleagues that couldn’t talk about race. They essentially said, “If you want to be okay around me, you cannot bring up race, you cannot attribute any problems to race, and if you ever try to call me in about something I've done that could have been hurtful racially, I will reject you.” That tells me there's a line in the sand between me and that person. That I would have to be open to being hurt and silenced if I chose to engage with them. That, to me, is terribly sad.

There should be systems in place to ensure everyone in the school continues to grow and really works on equity. We should all have to reflect on how we exist racially and what we should be doing in order to reduce inequity. Even in schools of primarily people of color, we can still have internalized oppression that we have not been able to talk about, aspects of white dominant culture that need to be put on the table. If we just hire a bunch of people of color into inequitable systems, we will struggle to retain them because the culture doesn’t make people feel safe enough to exist. 

I am dedicated to being involved in education for the rest of my life because I want those conditions to exist for everyone. I want every teacher to feel like they can bring their authentic self to their schools and classrooms. I want every teacher to have the resources they need to make each school a safe and exceptional place for every student to have an awesome education. I’m here now to see progress happen no matter how long that takes.

4 Ways to Enhance Your Equity Strategy

Leading Educators’ CEO Chong-Hao Fu joined Education Talk Radio to talk about ways districts can build on teachers’ strengths to accelerate equity in schools. We pulled out some of the can’t miss moments from the conversation. 

1) Strong curricula grants access to critical knowledge.

“This is about access to college preparatory rigorous work and access is inequitably distributed, particularly based on race.”

About 90% of teachers report using resources from Pinterest and Google, and they spend about four hours per week doing so. That’s because teachers don’t believe the curricula they have are meeting the needs of their students.

We owe it to teachers to equip them with the very best possible tools for their work, and that includes rich and educative curricula. With the rise of high-rated open-source curricula, schools have a huge opportunity to adopt great instructional materials that get students excited to learn to high levels. Teachers make materials meaningful with their creativity and careful planning, but we owe it to teachers to give them reliable resources.

2) Teachers can have an incredible influence on their peers.

“If I wanted to get better as a teacher, I had to apprentice myself to the master teachers where I was teaching.”

The best teacher for a teacher is often another teacher. When given the opportunity to collaborate with peers and to observe skilled teachers in action, teachers build an understanding of best practice. By creating structures that give teachers the time and space to learn and plan together, spreading strategies that are having impact in isolation, we can ensure that every student is getting the best lesson those teachers could plan together.

3) Creating the time for consistent collaboration is a key priority.

“What are the conditions that need to be in place at the school to set up teachers for success so they can be successful for students? Chief among them is collaborative time.”

School leaders and teachers are hungry for meaningful collaboration time, but it can feel impossible to find consistent time at all. 

In fact, many schools have implemented creative solutions to find the time. Sometimes it involves stacking smaller chunks of time together into an uninterrupted period, aligning district and school schedules to protect “sacred” time for adult learning, or rethinking staffing structures. There are sample schedules and concrete models for innovative leaders to start from. Our partners at Tulsa Public Schools and Education Resource strategies have used some promising approaches.

4) An equity strategy has to account for the personal and the institutional.

“There was only a brief period when schools were truly integrated[…] There are two systems that continue to exist with very different resources available to students[...] Equity is about ensuring all students are successful and get what they need.”

Chong-Hao noted three key ways leaders should think about promoting equity. First, every student needs access to strong content that is preparing them to succeed in college, career, and life beyond school. Access to strong content should be consistent from classroom to classroom, school to school.

Second, leaders must take time to talk about identity, bias, and antiracism. Systems have been inequitable for a long time, so it is essential that we examine how inequity shows up in leadership. 

Finally, we have to examine how inequity shows up at the system level. We need to have honest and important conversations about how resources are allocated and how we can open lines of dialogue across identity and background.

You can listen to the discussion here or on Apple Podcasts.

Curriculum (and much more) matters

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of adopting high-quality instructional materials so teachers have the resources to bring powerful learning to life.  But the latest research and our own experience shows that only adopting new materials is not enough to make a reliable difference in how much students learn.  So what’s the answer? A new report suggests leaders should look to Tulsa.  

Successful Implementation of High-Quality Instructional Materials, a new report from the Center for American Progress, highlights five different approaches to supporting teachers with curriculum-aligned professional learning. The report details our partnership with Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) to support a five-year districtwide rollout of Core Knowledge Language ArtsⓇ (CKLAⓇ).  By equipping teachers to engage deeply with quality materials, strengthen their practice, and create grade-appropriate learning experiences that reach every learner, TPS hopes to make big strides tied to equity. 

In the report, Devin Fletcher, the chief talent and learning officer of Tulsa Public Schools, says that the district’s leadership has had to ask themsevles, “How are we as a district creating strong experiences for leaders to continue to build content knowledge and ensure they understand standards?”

Two years into the work, some of the lessons learned include:

  • Connecting strong curricula to professional learning helps educators build their knowledge of standards.

  • Any effective professional development must build in opportunities for practice, reflection, and feedback.

  • Buy-in from teachers and school leadership on the vision and process for professional development is critical for success.

Learn more about our partnership with Tulsa Public Schools.

Leading Educators Joins Forces with Oakland Unified School District, EL Education to Boost Learning

Adan Garcia, Associate Director of Communications
(202) 510-0827,


Partnership will strengthen students’ opportunities for engaging learning in English language arts

September 5, 2019

OAKLAND, CA -  Starting this fall, Leading Educators will partner with Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and EL Education to support engaging English Language Arts experiences for middle school students.   

OUSD has launched a three-year effort to adopt high-quality curricula across all subjects so teachers can ensure every student experiences challenging, grade-appropriate learning that prepares them to succeed.  OUSD has also built a strong leadership infrastructure that provides site-based instructional support roles known as Teachers on Special Assignment (TSA) in middle school. Through this partnership, Leading Educators will work with OUSD to align school-based professional learning for teachers to new curricula so teachers have consistent opportunities to strengthen their skills and apply new knowledge to lessons alongside peers. By enabling structural changes across the district that focus on creating consistently strong learning experiences, teachers will have more support to teach and inspire diverse learners to high levels no matter their starting place.

During the first year, Leading Educators will work with district and school leaders to establish supportive conditions that are foundational to continuous improvement across 11 middle schools.  These include diverse and distributed instructional leadership, time for teachers to learn and practice with the EL Education curriculum, limited priorities, and aligned assessments. Leading Educators staff will also consult on professional learning design for TSAs by leading experientials, sharing materials, and offering feedback on OUSD plans. These materials will help TSAs to lead curriculum-specific learning cycles for ELA teachers at their schools, building capacity for frequent reflection on student progress, practice with grade-level standards and content, and co-planning.  When teachers have the opportunity to set and reach a high bar for instruction together, students can expect to be challenged and supported to succeed regardless of classroom. 

“Districts like Oakland are often faced with the question: how effective is our teacher collaboration time to actually grow teacher capacity  and student achievement? We know that the surest way to improvement is by increasing our collective efficacy, which means content PLCs are our most important lever for change. We know that the Professional Learning Partnership with EL Education on quality curriculum and with Leading Educators on our content cycles will be transformative for us as a District,” said Abbey Kerins, Secondary Literacy Coordinator at OUSD.

Leading Educators is a notable partner to many pioneering school systems who have adopted equity-centric instructional approaches that connect high-quality curriculum to aligned professional learning and supportive conditions.  Other current partners within the Leading Educators network include Atlanta Public Schools, Baltimore City Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools, Detroit Public Schools Community District, several systems in Greater Grand Rapids and New Orleans, and Tulsa Public Schools. 

Chong-Hao Fu, CEO at Leading Educators, shared, “This collaboration with Oakland Unified School District and EL Education is an exciting opportunity for growth in the opportunities students and teachers have to engage in incredible learning.  By ensuring teachers have the high-quality materials, leadership, and professional learning they deserve, we hope they will feel empowered to foster equity and inspire every student to reach new heights.” 

EL Education brings deep expertise in design and implementation of top-rated curricula to this partnership.  The organization’s approach, which has a track record of student impact, prioritizes mastery of knowledge and skills, character, and high-quality student work. 

This partnership is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Professional Learning Partnerships Initiative, an effort to advance professional learning (PL) services which will support the equitable implementation of high-quality instructional materials.  Collaborative design will begin in October with a planned roll-out of school-based support to pilot schools in June 2020.



Leading Educators supports education leaders to foster sustainable environments where teachers and students thrive, igniting the potential for exponential impact in schools and across districts.  We partner with states, districts, and public charter networks to design curriculum-based learning and support structures that create the conditions for continuous improvements in teaching across their schools--helping teachers create excellent and equitable student experiences every day.