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I recently was asked to present some ideas to a group of aspiring educators on what the teaching profession held in store as they embarked on their professional lives. Since that talk, the topic has continued to germinate new thinking for me. What would the teaching profession look like over the next 30 years and what changes should we expect? Presented below are some juxtapositions and generalizations on that question – drawn in part from thinking about the Center for Teaching Quality’s (CTQ) excellent work, Teaching 2030. Many of these are, of course, already underway to a degree. However, in looking ahead I imagine these “new school” trends will be the norm, and not the exception. I look forward to your responses and reactions.
Teaching is telling versus learning is doing. There is indeed a revolution underway in how teaching and learning intersect. Past and present it was acceptable to “stand and deliver” and covering content meant that the teacher said it. On the other side of the looking glass, it won’t be considered “taught” unless the learner experiences, understands, and can apply the knowledge.
Teaching is the new law. When we compare teaching to professions like medicine and law, stark differences emerge in terms of selectivity, expectations for preparation, degrees of professional autonomy, and levels of compensation. Over the next 30 years, I expect all of these factors to change course. It will be more difficult to get into and out of teacher education programs and competitiveness for initial teaching jobs will increase. Starting pay levels will rise as we work to attract top talent into the field and professional autonomy will grow as we leave a form of education where fact/recall preparation sufficed.
“Teacherpreneurs.” A term coined by the folks at CTQ, this idea posits that teachers of the future will have a great diversity of career options, or pathways, available to them. Teachers, using their individual talents infused with the spirit of entrepreneurship, will reject the limited career options currently available and will instead develop individualized and specialized roles including mentoring, student supports, leadership, curriculum design, and policy.
Personalization will rule. Like practically everything else about our world, students and parents will demand an education specifically tailored to individual needs, interests, and talents. Students will exercise greater autonomy over curriculum pace and content as well greater autonomy in the manner by which knowledge is gained. In exchange for this autonomy, evidence of competence or mastery will be expected of students and the educators will coordinate and facilitate this personalized learning experience.
The new labor/management paradigm. We already see this shift occurring in the world’s highest performing school systems. Unions evolve to function more as professional guilds, meaning they are standard-bearers in insuring quality of the profession and take on an advocacy role less related to worker rights and pay and more related to the institution of public education. Management approaches will also be different and on a large scale. Top-down and autocratic management approaches will be viewed the same way workplace smoking and harassment once were. Instead, the norm will be inclusive and distributed leadership and the role of the people with formal leadership titles will be focused on getting the conditions right where their education professionals can do their best work.
Accountability and diminishing returns. We will see that ever increasing attempts to raise performance through accountability-based mechanisms result in small to no improvements in results. Instead, the focus on accountability will be replaced with a focus on collaborative inquiry. Genius and high performance takes root in the team setting and our thinking and innovations will increasingly center on ways to structure and enhance team-based sharing and learning and translating that into actions.
Many pathways into the profession – all of high quality. The current landscape of traditional versus alternative preparation pathways are both soon-to-be dinosaurs. Blended models and shared ideas will emerge between universities, non-profits, and education employers to create a variety of on-ramps into education. Each of these on-ramps will be very selective, emphasize strength in content, pedagogy (especially the ability to personalize learning), and clinical (or field-based) experience.
Sharing expertise is the solution. Identifying high quality educators and replicating those skills will become the norm. Isolated professional work in education will be considered heresy and models of co-teaching, continuous mentoring throughout one’s career, and meaningful involvement with professional learning communities will all be professional expectations. Learning environments will be transparent, where multiple educators will move through and within them for the purposes of sharing, critiquing, supporting, and learning.
*Thanks to the Iowa State University Education Association for the beginning ideas in this post and for reacting to my original presentation.
Last year, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen published the fantastic book Great by Choice, which looked at companies that not only persevered, but actually thrived in eras of uncertainty, chaos, and competition.
There are certainly lots of great lessons in the book (as there always are in a Collins work) but one component Collins and Hansen found among the organizations they studied was the development of what they called a “SMaC” list. ”SMaC” is an acronym that stands for “Specific, Methodical, and Consistent” and its purpose is to help guide decisions back toward a core set of operational principles.
Collins and Hansen go to lengths to explain that a “SMaC” list isn’t a value or mission statement, nor some amorphous set of ideals – rather, its intent is to be very action oriented and to help guide those in an organization to make good decisions … and also to avoid bad ones.
Over the last three months we’ve been heavy into the work of redesigning and refocusing the Iowa Department of Education and I’m so proud of the effort and tremendous progress of my colleagues at the DE. The ideas that have been driving us come from a variety of sources including Richard Elmore’s Instructional Core, Marc Tucker and McKinsey & Company’s work on international educational benchmarking, McREL’s work on “High Reliability Organizations,” … and of course Great by Choice.
Part of this effort was the development of a “SMaC” list for the DE. My time at the helm of the DE is coming up on two years very soon. When I reflect on where we’ve been successful and where things haven’t gone as we’d hoped, I can usually point back to one of these “SMaC” principles and there is a lesson we learned … sometimes the hard way.
Presented below is the “SMaC” list for the Iowa Department of Education. I share it with you in hopes it may be of some value for similar efforts aimed at improvement within your own organizations.
SMaC Principles for the Iowa Department of Education
The following SMaC principles were designed for the Iowa Department of Education based on our ongoing Open Leadership forums.
- Keep it simple.
- Use state statute as a guidepost.
- Be able and willing to follow through or don’t start.
- Make small, manageable changes focused on the goal – then multiply with time.
- Develop and stick to a do-able project plan.
- Anticipate how it will impact the field.
- Use an informed team to make tough and complicated decisions.
- Always treat people with respect and dignity – whether they deserve it or not.
- Attend to proofing, branding, and style.
- Think politically – know which coalitions will stand with (and against) you.
Iowa is currently engaged in a contentious, but healthy, debate about how to improve its education system. One central part of this debate is the appropriate balance of state control versus local control in decision making when it comes to our schools. Some argue that the doctrine of local control, or having educational authority vested primarily or completely in the hands of local officials, is the best path forward for improving Iowa’s education system.
One hyper-active version of this philosophy even argues for the abolishment of the Iowa Department of Education so that a state presence is eliminated entirely. This ideological trip-fantasia is being built on a constructed narrative that the relative decline of Iowa’s school system was actually caused by the creation of the Iowa Department of Education. However, the facts simply do not support this assertion. The Department was created in 1913 and was present during much of the expansion and years of success of Iowa’s education system.
Some might argue that my sticking up for the Department of Education is a self interested position. Not so – if there was any evidence supporting the elimination of a state agency (or ministry of education in the case of an international system) was effective at improving student performance, I’d be advocating for that approach. But there simply are no examples of high performing education systems that have used this approach and risen to greatness. In every single case there is the presence of a strong state-wide vision and direction.
It’s not about me either because, put directly, I can find another job. This should be about what policies we should pursue that will result in a better education for our students.
Our collective goal is for Iowa to have a school system on par with the highest performing education systems in the world. Strong local control advocates would have us believe that we should take a sort of “laissez-faire” approach to educational decisions, where we should count on every one of our 348 school districts in the state to make the decisions and have the capacity to miraculously arrive at greatness.
Perhaps, at a surface level, this philosophy has some merit. The local control approach relies on the notion that local school decision makers will make the best decisions on behalf of students and that the local district will internally have all the capacity necessary to deliver a world-class education. Sometimes and on some issues, good decision making happens and sufficient organizational capacity does exist at the local level. But, the evidence does not support a pure local control approach in practice. An over-reliance on local control also leaves a lot of important aspects to chance at the local level. Anyone who has actually been in some of those 348 school districts in Iowa can tell you the capacity for good decision making and for delivering uniformly high quality educational services is all across the board in terms of consistency.
Over-relying on a local control doctrine yields exactly what Iowa doesn’t need more of – variation and uneven results in terms of quality and student results. Let me be more direct. If Iowa designs its education policy featuring an over-emphasis on local control then the state has no chance of becoming a world-class school system and will instead have of pockets of both academic excellence and anemia … with a heavy dose of continued mediocrity.
To reinforce the point, there simply are no examples of high performing or fast accelerating education systems that rely on a pure local control approach in their ascent.
In fairness to this philosophy of local control, it would be equally foolish to put in place a system of tightly centralized and bureaucratically-driven state control. This approach would squelch local innovation, overly standardize decisions that need to be customized to local contexts, and create responsiveness issues in addressing local problems.
Instead of setting up this false dichotomy of local control versus state control, what we should be trying to find is the right balance.
The state has an important role to play in setting high expectations for all students and making sure these standards are being met. The state also serves an important role in making sure that all students are being provided equitable access to a quality education. Finally, the state has a role to play in making sure this important goal of educating its citizens is appropriately resourced and that our schools are fair and honest stewards of tax dollars. With that said, we should have a great deal of deference to the local level in making customized implementation decisions and operational decisions.
Our work must be to find the right mix and balance of state and local control in our schools that sets universally high expectations and universally bold strategies, but also allows for intelligent and flexible customization and problem solving to local contexts. The 2010 McKinsey and Company study How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better got it right when talking about this balance. Those authors said the responsibility of the state was to “prescribe adequacy, and unleash greatness.”
State and local leadership is necessary for our schools to improve at the pace and scale necessary for Iowa’s education system to reach its goal of being one of the best systems globally. We need big changes and investments in education on the scale of the problems we face and that require a strategic, intentional, and purposeful direction for every school in Iowa.
The future of Iowa’s children is simply too important to be left to chance.
The critical question, at least for me, is clear: How do we raise an entire state to be one of the highest performing school systems in the world? This question takes up nearly every moment of my being, to the point of near fixation. I consume volumes of books, journal articles, news stories, reports, editorials, opinions, conversations, charts, tables, and diagrams. I visit schools and talk to educators, looking and listening for parts of the answer to the question. I spend hours and days in airports and airplanes to attend meetings where educational strategies and tactics are espoused and debated, all in pursuit of bettering our schools.
I believe we can take it as granted that everyone (or at least most everyone) wants our schools to be better, much better, than they are now. Where we come unraveled is in getting agreement on the specific actions we will undertake, as a system, to improve. In looking to the lessons of the world’s highest performing education systems, getting to some level of agreement on the tactics we will collectively take clearly matters. It matters in that whatever approach we undertake we will need to sustain it through the swings of the political pendulum and we will need to adequately resource the effort to give it the chance to succeed. A fractured approach does not lead us to that end and is also unlikely to lead us toward having one of the world’s best education systems.
So what tactics and strategies should we undertake? Where should we place our efforts? In my studies on how one might raise an entire education system (not a few schools or districts, but the entire system), I am increasingly convinced that both a continuation of past reform efforts (lower class size, incremental annual spending increases, and accountability) or the relatively new breed of American reform strategies (elimination of job protections, individual level evaluations linked to test scores, and school choice) are unlikely to work if our goal really is building an American school system that stands alongside the world’s highest performers.
So we face some choices. One is to continue the (often) politically motivated infighting and factionalism that dominates the current debate and see who ultimately bludgeons the other side into (temporary) submission. Another is to do nothing; paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. Perhaps the right path is to reject these two options and converge on a set of strategies that is most likely to deliver us at that goal of a world-class education system.
I’d like to propose four lenses to frame that debate. If the strategy or approach passes through all four lenses, then it fits in the discussion. If it doesn’t, then it’s out. Note that being “in” shouldn’t mean it’s in forever – just that the approach makes sense in the current context. Similarly, being “out” doesn’t mean it’s out forever – it just means that either the timing isn’t right or we need more testing and empirical validation of the approach before we take it to scale across the entire education system. So, “what are these four lenses that SHOULD frame our education reform agenda,” you ask?
1. Is it related to the instructional core? Harvard professor Richard Elmore rightly points out that if you aren’t doing things that have an impact on the relationship between the teacher and the student in the presence of content, you aren’t doing anything that’s going to positively change performance. Using this first question as a lens is incredibly constructive in helping us sort the wheat from the chaff in where we should place our efforts. The danger in using this lens in isolation is that there are lots of things that affect this relationship between teachers and students in the presence of content; especially if you allow yourself to birdwalk out on a few limbs. We can’t just rely on this lens alone.
2. Is it strongly supported by the evidence? This lens can be a bit tricky as one can find some evidence to support just about anything. But we stand a much better chance of being “right” with whatever approach we take if are aligned with evidence that reaches the caliber of being peer-reviewed, journal quality work. Further, we should pursue approaches that have a preponderance of evidence that supports it. This helps prevent us from chasing the latest thing or being led astray by a singular research finding that contradicts the larger body of evidence on any particular strategy. The danger of using this lens in isolation is being paralyzed by analysis, wanting more and more empirical validation before actually doing anything. Good implementation begins with using evidence to calibrate your shot, but ultimately taking action.
3. Is it scale-able? If our goal is really to get a whole education system to improve, we must reject efforts that do not scale as the primary drivers for improvement. Efforts that do not scale show up dressed in one of two outfits. One is in the form of small-scale pilots and projects, where we have a few schools or districts undertake some effort. Pilots and projects are incredibly important for experimentation and empirical validation but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking these are going to do anything that will make the whole system move; especially if, at the end of the pilot or program, we never do anything to grow the validated approach. The second form of efforts that do not scale comes in the guise of attempts at small scale excellence. Suspects here include many school choice efforts and alternative educator licensure pathways. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of charter schools as a mechanism for innovation and a fan of approaches like Teach for America in their efforts to bring top talent into education. But we are badly fooling ourselves if we think either of these efforts has the capacity to raise the quality of our entire education system. Don’t believe me? Refer to question #2 above. The danger of using this lens in isolation is that there are lots of things we could take to scale. But if it’s not related to the instructional core or if it isn’t supported by evidence we run the risk of creating big, expensive, and ineffective distractions that don’t result in a world-class education system.
4. Is it supported by international benchmarking? A great place to start for information on how we might grow our education system into one of the world’s best is by asking questions of what the world’s best education systems actually do. A comparative analysis of these systems, looking for common approaches and strategies in their rise to greatness, is perhaps our best evidence of what’s going to work to raise our education system to top performing status. As a contrast, the discussions about pure local control, or the even more rabid version of this which advocates the complete elimination of state authority and state departments of education, is completely absent as a strategy of improvement in studies on the rise of the world’s best education systems. More directly, there are no examples of world-class education systems that have used this approach and achieved greatness. The key here is balance, a topic I’ve explored before. So, using the lens of international benchmarking, seeing what approaches the best performing school systems actually use, can be an incredibly constructive lens in helping us decide which approaches to take. The danger in using this lens in isolation is that you can fail to take into account that each school system has history, culture, and context – and all of these must strongly be taken into account in choosing a strategy that makes sense.
It’s never too late for us to change tracks and choose approaches and efforts that are much more likely to actually work in pursuit of a better education reform agenda. In fact, I’d argue it’s too late not to make this change. No one of these four lenses gets us there completely, but I’m arguing that using all four together gives us a powerful framework from which to make decisions about where we should put our efforts and which approaches to avoid.
The always engaging and dynamic Dr. Troyce Fisher with the School Administrators of Iowa asked me to be a provocateur for a state group working on leadership in education. Troyce specifically asked “What do Iowa education leaders need to do to restore Iowa’s schools to best in the nation?” With hopes of raising the discussion on the meaning of leadership across our state, I am presenting my words here. The listing below contains what I consider the essential qualities real education leaders must have.
1. Get the goals right.
The question posed of “what must Iowa leaders to to restore the state’s education system to best in the nation” isn’t the right goal.
It’s not St. Paul; it’s Shanghai. It’s not South Dakota; its South Korea. Our expectations have to be higher. Best in the world – that is the only goal. We can accept no substitutes.
The October blueprint we released contained a huge number of strategies and ideas. Some of them made sense for the state, some didn’t. Some made it to the Governor’s plan, some didn’t. While we continue to argue about those strategies today, they weren’t what was most important. The first page of the document, which contained the title and the vision, was the most important.
We called the blueprint “World Class Schools for Iowa – One Unshakable Vision.” People had a lot of fun with that. It was a good punchline for those who wanted to disparage the effort of dramatically improving our schools in Iowa. Despite the detractors, we set the vision and the tone. It is about getting our schools to be among the best in the world. There can be no other goal.
If Iowa loses this focus, this “unshakable vision,” then we are finished before we even really begin.
2. Be adaptive.
The pace of change is just going to keep accelerating. Get used to it.
The world is faster now. It demands that we change, and then change again, and then change again. And this world is relentless and merciless when it comes to whether or not we adapt and improve.
Workers in other nations are now entering the global economy with the same, or superior skills, to Americans. In this era of intellectual commerce and instantaneous data transactions – location and natural resource advantages mean less and less.
We should ask ourselves: “Why will employers continue to pay American workers higher pay for the same quality they could get in other places at less cost?” We already know the answer … they won’t, and they increasingly aren’t. We have to adapt as leaders and push our education system to adapt to the furious pace this global economy demands.
3. Reject “change without change.”
We must never accept the appearance of improvement while actually perpetuating the status quo as any substitute for meaningful change.
Iowa is very guilty of this. While incremental change is laudable, it is also expected. We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves for a “job well done” because we made incremental improvements. If you aren’t getting better, you are getting worse. So, incremental change only allows you to keep the pace. Don’t confuse incremental change (which only allows you to survive) with real improvement.
It’s not enough to inch things along, call it a victory and pat ourselves on the back. For Iowa to build a world class school system, we’ve got to reject “change without change” as a viable long term strategy.
4. Find the courage to risk.
It’s always easier to say “no.” It takes guts, leadership, and determination to find our way to “yes.”
We shroud ourselves in “no” because it creates the illusion of safety and security. We might console ourselves by saying at least we know what to expect, or things will at least be predictable and this somehow justifies a position of blocking or saying no.
But that ignores the slower and more insidious danger of failing to risk. Failing to risk makes us, and our schools, more outdated and ineffective by the moment.
Again, it’s easy to say “no.” It takes guts, leadership, and determination to find our way to “yes.”
5. Fail - but (and more importantly) get up and go at it again.
Everyone gets tired of sports analogies, so I apologize in advance.
Arguably and perhaps the greatest and most successful athlete of our time is Michael Jordan.
Jordan said “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
We can’t be afraid of failure. Meaningful change involves things going wrong. Let me emphasize again … if you are enacting a meaningful change SOMETHING is GOING to go wrong.
Our future leaders will need to fail, learn, and go back at it again, and again – as many times as it takes.
6. Go big.
What we don’t need – more pilots, programs & small scale projects. We need ideas that take people’s breath away. We are already behind and we need rapid advancement in dramatic ways. Arguments for tinkering when major change is needed are just cowardice in disguise.
We need changes, improvements, and investments on the scale of the problems we face and this lesson goes beyond just education.
7. Take the heat.
You are the leader – it’s your job to take the shots, handle the pressure, be abused, be unpopular … and still keep pressing for improvement.
If you aren’t making people uncomfortable, you aren’t doing your job. Let me clarify, if you aren’t making “the right” people uncomfortable, you aren’t doing your job.
If you aren’t confronting the meaningful problems – you aren’t doing your job. We have lots of in-name-only “leaders” confronting problems that don’t really matter.
If you aren’t causing a commotion, causing a debate, causing a stir … you aren’t doing your job.
We need leaders who are willing and able to (gracefully, intentionally, respectfully) apply the pressure … and take the heat.
Acknowledgement to Phil Wise for some wisdom related to this post.
Acknowledgement to Battelle for Kids Executive Director Jim Mahoney for the inspiration and structure of this speech.
Good afternoon and thank you so much for the honor of being here to close down what has been a very successful conference. I’d like to express my appreciation to all the education leaders here, especially school board members. Your love, dedication, and service to your communities inspires us all. Thank you for everything you do to help move Iowa’s schools from good to great to world-class.
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a book a couple of years ago titled “Eat, Pray, Love” that chronicled her personal journey from a tough period in her life to a better place. My wife has both read the book and seen the movie. I’ve been resistant to both, for obvious reasons! I believe Brad Pitt is a lead character in the movie, who incidentally bears a striking resemblance to Governor Branstad. Words of wisdom – take every available opportunity to butter up the boss!
In her personal journey, Gilbert related her story to “Eat,” meaning have fun and enjoy life’s blessings, “Pray” in attending to the importance of her spiritual journey, and “Love” in her work to build meaningful relationships with people in her life.
I’d like to share with you my three concepts relating to the work all of us have to do as education leaders. I think these three concepts are important to any leader doing the important work of improving schools, but I hope you will consider and ask what your three concepts might be as well.
First, Courage – Let’s start with an assumption about better schools. “All the easy stuff has already been done. The low hanging fruits have already been picked. The slow, fat rabbits have already been cooked.”
Because of this, leading meaningful change for everyone in this room means confronting difficult issues, entrenched positions, and wicked/complex/vexing problems.
Confronting the important issues comes with conflict, contention, and pressures that will have an effect on even the strongest among us. There is an undeniable cost associated with leadership … this is a sacrifice that everyone in this room has signed up for out of love for your kids and your communities.
Leadership involves having the courage to take on the meaningful issues irrespective of that cost. It takes courage to pressure your organizations into a place of disequilibrium, uncomfortableness, and uncertainty and also be willing to serve as beacons of strength, persistence, and commitment in the uneven and imperfect process of change.
It takes courage to press for meaningful change. For the sake of our children – we must have that courage.
Next, Curiosity – futurist and author Seth Godin wrote that we are all born with innate curiosity and incredible imagination. At age 2 we are all musicians, experimenting with sounds on pots and pans and our own voices. At age 4 we are all artists, experimenting with shape, color, line – engaged in the work of creation. At around age 7 some amazing teacher has taught us to read and we are all poets, combining words and sounds in unusual, fun ways. Perhaps at age 10 we all become scientists, collecting and experimenting with the world around us – raising all sorts of interesting questions and looking for evidence of truth.
A sad fact for all of us is that as we become adults, many of us lose this natural curiosity.
And in many cases we lose curiosity out of the very adult need to be “right.”
Sometimes we become too preoccupied with winning the moment or the debate – we lose track of the fact that our lives are a process of learning and learning requires curiosity. If you aren’t learning and growing, you aren’t living and so long as we retain that capacity to learn and grow – we thrive. It’s not about always being “right,” it should be about always learning.
The more we make our lives about winning the arguments instead of learning the lessons – the more we lose one of the great joys of our human existence.
Everyone in this room is an education leader. If you haven’t already felt it, enormous pressure will be put on all of us to have all the answers, to come up with the easy solutions, and to make mistake free decisions and live mistake free lives – as if that were even possible.
While we must do our best to make good decisions that are often technical in nature, we must also work to protect our fundamental curiosity – that spark of question and imagination that makes learning possible and keeps all of us growing.
Protecting our curiosity keeps us all learners.
Finally, Commitment – everyone in this room shares a deep commitment born out of love for our children, our schools, our neighbors, and our communities.
We all want a better education system, but the process of getting them involves a meaningful, personal, and even spiritual commitment to the moral importance and purpose of this work.
All of us have to make this commitment to better schools a driving part of all our lives.
Real improvement is difficult, challenging, messy, iterative work – but our schools so desperately need a genuine – an honest – a meaningful commitment from every education leader that we will put ourselves on the line, as many times as that takes, to bring about the meaningful changes and improvements our schools require.
I believe these three concepts of “Courage, Curiosity, and Commitment” are valuable and important to any leader. I hope my thinking has been in some way of service to you in your work toward better schools for your community. I am honored to be with you today and please know you have my best wishes in the days to come.
One of the more common and vexing problems of human behavior is that we tend to point the finger of blame toward an individual person or group when something goes wrong, an outcome isn’t achieved, or behavior isn’t exactly what we’d like it to be.
It’s their “fault,” or “someone didn’t do their job,” or “someone has to be held accountable.” More often than not, the issue isn’t with an individual person or group of people. More frequently, the real issue is with the systems or conditions in which people are working or living.
Social psychologists call this effect “fundamental attribution error,” or more simply the tendency we have to blame people for systems issues.
Teachers get this all the time, and both the “blame teachers” movement and the counter-reaction against it are real life examples of fundamental attribution error gone off the deep end. Sure, there are ineffective educators – everyone knows this and probably has even had a few. But more often than not, it’s not the teacher that is failing, it’s the system the teacher is in.
We do the same thing with administrators. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard “if principals would just do their jobs.” This comes up a lot in matters related to evaluation. The logic is that if principals would just do their jobs related to evaluation, we wouldn’t have an ineffective educator problem and would be able to remove those that aren’t effective.
But the principals, more often than not, don’t do their jobs when it comes to evaluation. Frequently when they do, it’s a drive-by assessment with little meaningful feedback or improvement. But is it really the principal, or is it the system we’ve put this person in?
And we do have ineffective educators – many of whom have the potential to get better and maybe even become great teachers. But they work in substandard conditions and have no real support systems about what “better” even looks like or how they might get there.
Our answer lies less in individual accountability, though that is important, and more in better systems.
The next time you hear someone make the fundamental attribution error, call it out. Our thinking has to change.
Des Moines, IA
I caught some of the Discovery Channel’s excellent documentary Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero this past week. I would highly recommend watching some or all of it if you have the chance. The program certainly stirs up lots of emotions and memories of that terrible day, now nearly 10 years ago. It gracefully touches on the sorrow and loss our country experienced in those awful hours, but also appeals to our “better angels” and asks us to raise our eyes and look ahead.
About a month after the tragedy, several musicians performed at Madison Square Garden for an event called “The Concert for New York.” One performance that still sticks with me was Five for Fighting’s “Superman”, which had an exceptionally poignant message about heroes and our definition of them. The term “hero” certainly took on a different definition for me at the thought of the firefighters and police officers who charged up those stairs with the singular and noble purpose of helping others, with little regard for themselves or their own safety.
That day changed my view of heroism. Now, I know that real heroes are people who put others ahead of themselves and are willing to sacrifice for the betterment of others. As an educator, I get to work with these kinds of people every day. What an incredible blessing…
If we stopped to notice, real “supermen” (and women) are everywhere. Unsung, infrequently noticed, taken for granted … but still there. That’s unfortunate but of no real import as true heroes aren’t concerned with the recognition or the acclaim anyway. What matters to them is the often quiet and patient work of helping others. Saving lives (more often than not) happens with persistence, genuine love for others, and just being there – not in “leaps and bounds.”
I think the challenge for all of us isn’t to try and recognize and thank more heroes, although that’s important. The real challenge is to try and live our lives with a spirit of service that puts the needs of others ahead of our own.
We all have the choice…
What an amazing time to get to work in education in Iowa. My wife Sarah and I continue to be provided so many blessings from Iowa. Sarah is very excited about starting the new school year as a teacher with Des Moines Public Schools and I have been so impressed with the leadership of Nancy Sebring for that district.
We come off a recent education summit here in Des Moines last week that I think set the stage for meaningful and lasting improvements for our state.
We can sometimes get caught up in arguments about the current condition of Iowa’s schools and how they might stack up in comparison to the schools here in the past, or how Iowa’s schools stack up against other states, or how our schools stack up against other nations. I will advance that while this comparative exercise is important and constructive, it is fundamentally the pushing on the wrong questions.
The right question we should be asking is “can our schools be better than they are today?” Of course, we know they can.
And if we believe that our schools can be better than they are today the next question is “how good should they be?” Of course, the only answer that this proud tradition of education in Iowa will tolerate is that these schools must be “among the best in the world.”
When you look into the eyes of the kids and the families you serve, all of you know in your hearts there is really no other morally acceptable answer.
So, I would advance that we can probably agree that our schools can be better than they are now, and we can also probably get some general agreement that we want Iowa’s schools to be among the best in the world. Agreement on these two points moves our discussion from one of a defensive posture, focused on what is or what was – to a forward focused posture, focused on what could be.
Our collective ability to undergo this paradigm shift to coming together on a plan to improve Iowa’s schools, right now and as a community, is going to make or break this effort. If we fail in this, what a tremendous opportunity we have collectively lost.
The recent education summit raised a number of interesting policy approaches for Iowa to consider in the years ahead. Note that I said “years” because while we can and must undertake some dramatic changes that can immediately improve our schools, we learn from the highest performing systems in the world that meaningful and lasting improvement takes a focused direction and a deep and lasting commitment.
While the Governor and I are dedicated to opening a real discussion and allowing the free market of ideas to surface the best strategies for Iowa, we certainly have our priorities and we are working with and listening to people all over the state to shape and hone a blueprint for this major remodel of Iowa’s education system and I’d like to share some of the major tenets of our thinking with you today.
Let me preface any “plan” that we might design with the notion that Iowa must move from being a fractured system of schools to being a school system. For too long we have left too much to chance that each individual school district would provide a world class education to each and every student. There is a balance of state and local control that we must find and frankly, capacity needs to grow on both sides of the equation.
I will accept that the Iowa Department of Education hasn’t always been a model partner and too often we have been an impediment to meaningful improvement and change. But we are committed to getting better and I see positive changes across the organization almost daily. The truth is, for Iowa to truly be one of the finest school systems in the world, it’s going to take us all and I am committed to tending to and growing the department of education into a state agency all of you can be proud of.
The blueprint for building a world class school system for Iowa involves three main parts and I will cover them briefly with you, though we expect to issue our formal plan in mid September.
First, Iowa needs a better system of high student expectations and fair measures of those expectations. The work of the Iowa Core and its merger with the Common Core were positive steps in the right direction but we need to finish the job and get to full implementation of the Iowa Core. Every teacher in Iowa should know what their students are expected to learn and how to design curriculum and lessons to those standards. Assessments in Iowa should be aligned to those standards and provide meaningful information that captures both achievement and growth and provide information that is useful and timely for instruction.
And accountability in Iowa should be a broader concept than just results on these assessments and reflect more than just if you live in an affluent or poor zip code. Secretary Duncan has asked states to design meaningful accountability systems that meet the spirit of No Child Left Behind but define accountability and consequences in more realistic and meaningful ways. Iowa should step up to this challenge and engage in the work of designing a new accountability system as part of our efforts around ensuring we have high standards and fair measures.
Second, Iowa must invest heavily in educator quality – making sure we have great teachers and leaders in every school for every kid. We must take on a hyperfocus in this areas that involves considering who we recruit into education, how we prepare them, licensing, initial and ongoing support communities, teacher leadership roles, providing capable and visionary building and district leadership, and we must collectively, openly, and systemically be able to remove the rare rare case of the ineffective educator who does not want to improve.
Finally, Iowa must make innovation an institution and an expectation of our field of education. This may seem counter intuitive, but what I mean by creating an institution of innovation is that new ideas should be welcomed, supported, nurtured, tried, learned from, and taken to scale if they are effective. It’s difficult to think about creating a “system” to support innovation but this is exactly what we must do. As Michael Fullan puts it, the learning must become the work the whole system engages in.
Now, I know I’ve shocked most of you by going this long without talking about compensation. But I simply can’t hold out any longer!
I do not expect anyone else in this room, perhaps in the world, to get as excited about educator compensation as I do and that’s ok! In fact, I know that many would prefer that we just not discuss it at all because of the contention the topic usually raises. But I do need to keep pushing us back to this topic for one simple reason: Its where the money is. I want to be clear that I am in no way talking about paying educators less – we should be paying them more. But we should also be paying them smarter.
We have a terrible history of coming up with great ideas in education and then funding these great ideas with one time money in “pilots.” When the one time funding dries up the great idea dies with it. We also have a history of hanging funding for great ideas on the side of our regular funding. Time and time again we see that when times get tight, funding gets cut, and the great idea goes away.
How many times do we have to go through this exercise before we finally learn?
I will advocate for changing compensation systems to sustainably fund several key reforms most people in this room can probably agree on. Raising base teacher pay, raising new teacher pay, creating teacher leadership roles, creating collaborative time for educators to work together, creating extended day and year programs for students who need it, addressing labor market issues such as shortages of math, science, and special education teachers, and for acknowledging exceptional educators.
On this last point, I have no illusions that performance-pay models will be any sort of panacea to cure education’s problems and I am very aware of the uneven to poor track record of success for “merit pay” models. But take note that I am not talking about some simple “merit pay” approach. I am talking about a revolution in teacher compensation that allows for broader and more systemic changes to be enacted and more importantly … sustained.
The Des Moines public school district was the birthplace of the step and lane pay system that has persisted nearly a century. Iowa should also be the place with the innovative spirit to transform educator compensation – to put in place a strategic compensation approach.
We can’t just keep asking for more and more money to do the same things, just more expensively. While I think we can ask for increased funding if we can really put together a transformative education reform package, we also have to be willing to use the billions of dollars we already have in our system more efficiently and strategically.
In the debates on improving education in this country, international comparisons and the threat of America losing it’s place as the premier nation on this earth have become so commonplace they nearly lose their meaning. I am a student of history and know these threats are not new.
But a detailed study of the history of education in America does not tell a story of a stagnant system that refuses to budge but of a system that has risen up to meet the challenges this country faced. From the birth of this democracy, to the industrial era, through recessions, depressions, and wars and through waves of international competition across decades this nation’s system has risen up to the challenges it faced time and time again.
During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln said “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
These words were meant for a different time and a different context, but they ring true today – at least for me – because today we are challenged with making another wave of major improvements and another wave of competition. It is the responsibility of the educators in this room to have our schools meet this challenge. This is our time to shine, our time to make history.
We shouldn’t fear rise of nations around the world – increasing education, health, and freedom across this planet is not a zero sum game and we can celebrate everyone getting better – but we should fear our own inability to act and counter it with the courage necessary to make bold improvements.
I’d like to close with a sincere thank you for all that you do for your schools, your communities, and your students. I am honored to be among you.
Most school organizations are set up in traditional hierarchy power models of superintendent, central office staff, principals, and then teachers and other instructional staff.
In general, power is conveyed by school boards to superintendents, who delegate it to central office and principal levels … but only in rare cases to the teacher level.
The result is that important curricular, staffing, and resource allocation decisions happen after discussions of those at the top and the decisions are also made by those at the top. It’s a closed circuit system.
Sometimes, teacher unions are involved in parts of these decisions – but the involvement is frequently restricted to traditionally bargained topic areas and the decisions are nearly always imbued with self-interest. Note that I’m not being critical of unions in this arrangement, an important role for them is to pressure for better wages, benefits, and working conditions for their members – but there are a host of other critical decisions that relate to building good schools teachers are left out of completely.
While some argue for flatter schools to put budget targets on those higher in the fiscal food chain, there is a more compelling reason to flatten school organizations that is unrelated to budgetary issues.
Flattening traditional power arrangements and bringing teaching staff into discussions about the strategic direction of schools makes sense when you consider that those with the best information about students should be centrally involved in the decision making processes that affect them.
Issues of trust and accountability frequently stand in the way of flatter school organizations. Many just don’t believe that rank and file teachers have “what it takes” to stand in leadership roles, or don’t believe that classroom teachers are strong enough to stand behind tough decisions that often have to be made in schools. Another important impediment is capacity – or the ability of teachers to actually engage in leadership roles. A union leader said to me recently that “even when teachers are given formal power roles through statute, they rarely are able to use those to drive meaningful improvements.”
To me, this is a capacity issue among teachers. They have rarely been challenged or trusted to assume leadership roles so it should be of no surprise to us when they struggle when presented with opportunities to lead.
Going forward, it will be critical that we simultaneously flatten organizational power structures so that we get those on the front line more involved in decision making. At the same time, we need to provide support and coaching to help teachers engage in these new leadership roles.
We need teachers to assert primary ownership over this profession, and the larger endeavor of education for that matter. This is a central challenge we must put before our teachers in the United States if we really want to emulate the practices of the highest performing systems in the world.
Make no mistake, assuming the role of leadership involves responsibility. No longer will it be a luxury to sit back, be reactive, and criticize decisions as they come down the pike. Flattening organizations and putting teachers into formal leadership roles for curricular, personnel, and resource decisions demands a higher level of involvement and a willingness to step up and take responsibility for the decisions reached.
For our schools to make the kinds of dramatic improvements we need, flatter school power configurations that put faith in, as well as demand leadership from, teachers will be a necessary component.
Des Moines, Iowa