Supporting Minnesota Educators | Lessons from the Pathway Schools Initiative
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What have we learned from the Pathway Schools Initiative about the key challenges and opportunities facing Minnesota’s teachers and leaders, and how can those lessons be applied in Minnesota and nationally?

Supporting Minnesota Educators is inspired by the pre-K to third grade work of the Pathway Schools Initiative in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. The Initiative generated many findings, but this site focuses on three key lessons that can broadly inform other schools in Minnesota and across the country:

  1. Foster stability among educators and leaders to allow for instructional and school culture changes to take hold
  2. Build leadership teams in schools focused on improving teaching and learning
  3. Improve training for educators so they have the knowledge and skills to provide excellent instruction for all students

The Initiative was created by the McKnight Foundation in 2011 with the goal of improving third-grade literacy through pre-K to third grade strategies. Over the course of the Initiative, McKnight and its partners developed an in-depth understanding of some of the challenges and opportunities facing Minnesota schools. An independent evaluation of the Initiative conducted by SRI International describes these challenges, opportunities, and results in detail. On this website, Bellwether Education Partners, with support from the McKnight Foundation, focuses on the lessons above and connects them with local context and national research.

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5 District Schools 2 Charter Schools

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This website focuses on three key lessons from the Pathway Schools Initiative, a project created by the McKnight Foundation. Key partners in the Initiative included participating schools and districts, the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute (UEI) as professional development providers, and SRI International as evaluators. An advisory committee comprising experts in pre-K through third grade alignment, early literacy, and educating dual language learner (DLL) students also provided crucial guidance and expertise.

Seven elementary schools in the Twin Cities joined the Initiative, including two schools each from the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts, one elementary school in an inner-ring suburban district, and two public charter schools. These schools’ populations included high concentrations of students who were low income (89%), students of color (91%), and/or dual language learners (50%), and all schools performed below the state average in third-grade reading tests. The Initiative emphasized a pre-K to third grade approach, with strategies including formative assessments, educator professional development, and strengthening instructional leadership. Ultimately, the Initiative struggled to make consistent progress toward its goal of improving third-grade reading, and the McKnight Foundation decided to sunset the Initiative starting in the 2017-18 school year.

We will add new resources to the site throughout the 2017-18 school year. We hope school leaders, district leaders, state policymakers, and the broader Minnesota education community will find inspiration and ideas here. Supporting Minnesota Educators is a project of Bellwether Education Partners.

Educator Stability

Most urban schools experience high turnover in teachers and leaders, and Twin Cities schools are no exception. High turnover posed challenges for improvement efforts across the Pathway Schools. In an Initiative focused on professional development, each instance of turnover meant lost institutional knowledge and created challenges in getting new people up to speed.

Most urban schools experience high turnover in teachers and leaders, and Twin Cities schools are no exception. High turnover posed challenges for improvement efforts across the Pathway Schools. In an Initiative focused on professional development, each instance of turnover meant lost institutional knowledge and created challenges in getting new people up to speed.

Eleven percent of teachers in Minnesota and 16 percent of teachers nationally leave their schools each year to teach elsewhere, to retire, or to pursue a new career. Teachers in high-poverty schools, urban schools, and low-performing schools leave at higher rates. National studies indicate that school and district leaders turn over even more quickly than teachers: 22 percent of public school principals and 27 percent of principals in high-poverty public schools leave annually. The average urban superintendent lasts barely three years.

Pre-K to third grade teacher turnover in the Pathway Schools Initiative was higher than the state average, but varied considerably from school to school and year to year (as shown below). A variety of factors — including teacher contracts, district policies, school culture, and school leadership — contributed to these variations.


Data collected by SRI International. Data for School 4 during the 2013-13 to 2014-15 period is not available.

The effect of teacher turnover on students depends on each school’s unique context. Based on national research, high turnover can reduce student achievement and destabilize school culture. When a teacher or a leader is not performing well, however, changes in staff can improve student achievement. In the Pathway Schools, evaluators did not find a clear relationship between teachers’ time in the Initiative and their students’ test scores. Nevertheless, high turnover in teachers, leaders, and coaches in several schools may have slowed schools’ overall improvement and professional development efforts.

Turnover in leadership can influence teacher turnover and student outcomes. Most Pathway Schools had relatively stable principal leadership during the Initiative, but two schools experienced multiple principal changes in just a few years. Turnover at the highest levels of leadership was more widespread. All three traditional school districts in the Initiative experienced superintendent turnover and reorganizations of district leadership during that time. This meant Initiative partners had to rebuild relationships with key leaders.

There are steps school, district, and state leaders can take to reduce turnover and mitigate its effects. Experience in the Pathway Schools suggests that increasing educator stability from teachers to the central office will require both school-level and system-level solutions.

Next Steps:

Schools, districts, and states should track and understand the causes of educator turnover in their unique contexts, and choose strategies to address them. For example:

  • Implement onboarding, mentoring, and support systems for new teachers
  • Strategically hire and support principals in schools that most need stable leadership
  • Consider incentives like differentiated pay to attract and keep effective teachers in the highest-need schools and subjects

The Minnesota resources below give more context on the Initiative and Minnesota’s educator workforce, as well as information about groups working on this issue in Minnesota today. The national research and resources below further detail potential strategies for schools and districts to minimize turnover and keep great educators.

Minnesota Resources

National Resources

Leadership Teams

School principals have one of the most difficult jobs in education. Many responsibilities compete for principals’ time and attention, which can undermine school leaders’ ability to focus deeply on improving teaching and learning.

Recognizing this challenge, the Initiative focused in its later years on developing effective teams of leaders in schools. The makeup of each school’s leadership team varied, but teams involved principals, assistant principals, coaches, teacher-leaders, and instructional specialists. Schools and districts used the 5Essentials survey and data from student assessments to guide leadership decisions and improvement plans. Principals in the Initiative also received coaching and worked as a group with fellow principals. Principals reported that this approach helped them pursue goals focused on their individual strengths and created opportunities for teachers and other staff to grow and lead.

Despite these supports and the team approach, some leaders struggled to focus on early grade instruction or follow through on coaches’ suggestions. This could be in part because district priorities or strategies sometimes superseded school-level plans and pulled leadership teams in competing directions. Throughout the duration of the Initiative, most teachers rated their principals poorly for leadership skills, even with coaching and extra supports, and no school saw consistent improvements in these ratings.

Next Steps:

Minnesota district and state officials should explore strategies to better support school leaders and encourage school-level leadership teams to focus on teaching and learning. The composition of teams should include specialists with knowledge of special education and English language learners, and leaders with capacity to coach and support teachers as a primary part of their responsibilities. Districts should build support systems for school leaders starting from recruitment and continuing through to long-term professional development, which could include strategies such as coaching and leadership cohorts.

The Minnesota resources below give more context on the Pathway Schools and other work happening in the state to build principals’ leadership capacity. The national resources provide more details from national research and programs aiming to build leadership capacity in schools.

Minnesota Resources

National Resources

Educator Training

Teachers in the Pathway Schools Initiative received coaching and training focused on language and literacy instruction. The Initiative asked teachers to take a new approach to lesson planning, standards, reading instruction, and using data. Teachers reported learning useful things in these trainings, but they sometimes struggled to put that knowledge consistently into practice.

Teachers in the Pathway Schools Initiative received coaching and training focused on language and literacy instruction. The Initiative asked teachers to take a new approach to lesson planning, standards, reading instruction, and using data. Teachers reported learning useful things in these trainings, but they sometimes struggled to put that knowledge consistently into practice. Classroom observations also showed little improvement in the quality of instruction over the course of the Initiative. There were many potential reasons for this, such as misalignment between curricula and assessments and concerns about the relevance of some forms of professional development. Another underlying factor, not covered in SRI International’s evaluation of the Initiative, could be teachers’ pre-service preparation.

Nationally, research suggests that too many teacher preparation institutions fail to adequately prepare teachers to support young children’s language and literacy development, or to meet the needs of dual language learners (DLLs). Bellwether’s interviews with the Initiative’s professional development providers pointed to a need for stronger, more consistent preparation for teachers in some key areas. Professional development and coaching needed to cover the basics of data-driven instruction and literacy in early grades, including such fundamental early literacy strategies as small-group guided reading time. Professional development partners hypothesized that if teachers had had a stronger base of knowledge on these topics when entering the classroom, training and coaching might have been able to progress more quickly to more sophisticated skills.

As Minnesota schools become more diverse, teachers may need additional skills to serve students from varying backgrounds. More than half of students in Pathway Schools were DLLs. Only 14 percent of these students met their grade-level K-3 reading goals, compared to 27 percent of non-DLL students. DLLs respond well to many teaching strategies from which all young children could benefit, such as vocabulary-building activities, a high-quality and well-rounded curriculum, and differentiated and data-driven instruction. Even if teachers do not speak a child’s home language, they should understand these strategies and be able to support learning in culturally and linguistically responsive ways.

Click here to read a profile of the dual language learner co-teaching model at Community of Peace Academy, which was developed during the school’s participation in the Pathway Schools Initiative.


As measured by the STEP assessment. Data and analysis by SRI International, 2016 Pathway Schools Initiative annual report.


Next Steps:

Teacher preparation programs, district leaders, and policymakers must ensure that new teachers are prepared to meet the needs of young learners, especially dual language learners.

Minnesota law provides a strong architecture for supporting English learners in the LEAPs Act, but fully implementing its promise will require additional changes in teacher preparation. All Minnesota teachers should be prepared to work with English learners in their classrooms, and the state needs more teachers with a dedicated focus on English learner instruction.

Preparation programs and policymakers must also work to recruit and prepare a more diverse teacher workforce: More than 30 percent of Minnesota students are from communities of color, versus less than 4 percent of Minnesota teachers.

Percent students and teachers of color in Minnesota, 2015-16







Districts should communicate with teacher preparation programs on what is needed and how their graduates are performing — districts such as Minneapolis Public Schools have already begun to do this. Improving the experience teachers have in classrooms during training can also be beneficial. Student teaching and teacher residency programs should ensure teachers-in-training are exposed to strong teaching in diverse classrooms.

State policymakers must ensure that standards for teacher preparation programs align with the needs of Minnesota students, and encourage innovation and excellence in teacher preparation. Implementation of 2017’s overhaul of the state teacher licensing system offers an opportunity to put some of these lessons into action. For example, new regulations could create more pathways to the classroom for diverse educators and encourage innovation in practice-based teacher preparation.

The Minnesota resources below give more information from the Pathway Schools Initiative, along with other research on teacher preparation and recruitment. National resources point to insights and lessons from other states on effective teacher preparation for diverse classrooms and early grades.

Minnesota Resources

National Resources


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