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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.
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.
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 know some things about teachers. You see, the people I love most in this world are teachers. My parents were both teachers and inspired me to enter this profession. My wife is a teacher. Some years ago, in the small Appalachian town of Hazard, Kentucky even I was a teacher. So when we talk about the teaching profession, keep in mind … this is personal to me.
In what’s unfortunately turning into a bona-fide “blog feud” between Jennifer Hemmingsen and I on educator compensation, Hemmingsen asks the important question of “what motivates teachers” and openly asks me for a response.
First, I have to say how disappointed I was in Hemmingsen for citing parts of an unpublished draft of my dissertation. I provided a draft version to the media with the caveat that it was still in the final proofing phase before being sent for binding and inclusion with the Seton Hall library. It is disappointing that Hemmingsen violated the trust I had when making the document available for media review. Sadly, I guess I’ve learned a lesson.
Even more disappointing is the fact that Hemmingsen cherry picks some of my findings to bolster her own predisposition while leaving the other half of my conclusions out of her discussion. However, in keeping with the “card game” metaphor we seem to be developing in our back and forth, it’s clear to me that academic scholarship trumps ‘gotcha’ editorials. You see, I have a responsibility in academic writing to provide a balanced and honest point of view and to critique the weaknesses of my own arguments. It would appear some editorial writers do not operate under the same ethos.
But let’s get past the personal level of this discussion and get to the policy question, which is ultimately the more important component.
The question of “what motivates teachers” was the subject of my dissertation. In a nutshell, I asked the question of whether teachers were motivated for money and economics or motivated to help kids and to be part of something greater than themselves. The answer … “yes.”
In studying the Eagle County School district (which arguably has one of the longest running and most interesting stories on performance based compensation) I found, overwhelmingly and not surprisingly, that teachers were primarily motivated to help kids. Teachers were also heavily motivated by the concept of being part of something greater than themselves, a concept noted in the literature as “public service motivation theory.”
However, I also found that although the altruistic motivators were clearly strongest, teachers also paid more attention to those things compensation was attached to (evaluation and assessment results in Eagle County’s case).
So, it’s not one or the other, but both. Teachers are motivated to help kids. Teachers are also rational people who pay attention to economic incentives.
I’ve used my findings as a possible explanation for why simple “cash for test scores” or “merit pay” schemes fail to raise student achievement. These approaches, by themselves, they don’t pull at the major levers in what motivates teachers and they usually don’t come with any real supports to help teachers improve their craft and learn from each other.
My conclusions were that we should avoid simplistic approaches advanced by many on the “performance pay” side of the argument, but we should also avoid a defense of the status quo “step and lane” system.
Deci and Ryan’s work was made popular by writer Daniel Pink, who said that compensation systems must be “adequate and fair.” I would argue the industrial “step and lane” pay system is neither and we have a great deal of evidence that educators are responding to its incentives in ways that lead us to perverse outcomes. For example, nearly 50% of educators nationally obtain advanced degrees that have an incredibly poor research track record of success in improving teaching. Compare this with the estimated 10% of Americans who have advanced degrees overall.
Think that has something to do with the ongoing compensation incentives provided with a “lane” change? I certainly do.
Frederick Herzberg also wrote about this nearly 40 years ago and told us that while compensation wasn’t necessarily a “motivator” for improvement, it did have the capacity to “demotivate” if it weren’t well attended to. I’d hold up the evidence around attrition for teachers early in their careers and labor market shortages for special education teachers as examples that we don’t have this “right” yet. Certainly working conditions and supports are part of this conversation, but so is compensation.
So, Hemmingsen is improving in her sophistication in being able to engage in this discussion – but she still doesn’t get it as she continues to try and paint me as some kind of merit-pay hawk.
To again clarify, I’m not talking about using compensation as a motivator for teachers, I’m talking about changing compensation structures to align with things that would actually be good for schools, educators, and kids. Things like creating and paying for teacher leader roles, creating time for teachers to work together collaboratively, incenting the pursuit advanced degrees or other PD options that are aligned with what their kids need, paying more to get and keep our best teachers in front of our neediest kids, front loading pay structures to get better candidates into teaching and keep them, extending the school day/year for kids that need it, and addressing teacher labor market shortage areas. And yes, performance based elements – so long as they are coupled with support systems to help teachers improve.
The possibilities are fascinating to consider – but part of the change is that we have to stop using the cash we have in such non-strategic ways and start using it smarter.
Hemmingsen also selectively takes her shots at the school organization I was proud to be part of in Eagle County, noting the high attrition rates at the inception of human capital system change in 2001 and the leadership turnover in 2007. But again, she only tells you part of the story. When I left Eagle County, the teacher attrition rate (for those not being non-renewed for performance related reasons) was in the single digits, we had solid leadership which remains in place today, and we had the highest paying salary system in the state. Further, the district has been closing the achievement gap at an amazing pace, has been recognized by the state legislature for its innovation, has had 4 Colorado Principals of the Year in as many years, and has value added results that are just startlingly good. This in a district with a 51% Hispanic student population, along with the language learner and poverty issues that accompany that demographic statistic.
The improvements with Eagle County’s results did not occur just because of a change in compensation system. Rather, leaving the step and lane system allowed the district to better move finite resources to solve problems and achieve strategic outcomes. I don’t think anyone there would say the pay was the driver. The change primarily happened because all the pieces in the organization were pulling in the same direction and toward the same goals and the district had the flexibility in its resources to address student needs.
So, what motivates teachers? Helping kids and being part of changing the world motivates teachers. But teachers are also rational people who respond to financial incentives. Our work shouldn’t be to blindly protect a near 100 year old industrial era compensation structure, but instead to think about how we build a compensation structure that takes into account teachers’ altruistic motivations and that incents them toward things that help kids and communities. Then, we would be moving toward a system that emphasizes the real underlying motivations for educators, and that uses money strategically.
“Democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.”
In education, we often place high value on those things which we can quantify, measure, and analyze using statistical methods. Certainly the most prevalent example of this is the use of the standardized assessments of student achievement that are a ubiquitous part of the American educational system.
While these quantitative measures are important and useful, there are also certainly many things in education (and in life for that matter) for which there are no standardized and quantifiable measures. These things which defy quantification are also things we frequently recognize are incredibly important. Things like the introspective and interpretive value of passionate art and music – like the Edvard Munch painting, or so many of the enduring songs by U2. Also above quantification is the value of the inspiring and uplifting visions of people working together toward a common and important goal – like so many of the images and stories we now hear of the democratic uprisings happening in the Middle East. Perhaps the greatest example is the power of human emotion, relationship, and connection – the apex of these being the complex emotion of love, in all its forms and nuances.
All of these things defy easy quantification, but are certainly of the greatest value.
In education, many of the things that are of the greatest value also defy easy quantification. Take for example the act of teaching. Teaching is perhaps more art than science, and happens in a complex and dynamic environment. While we can certainly identify those things research tells us are ‘best practices’ when it comes to teaching, and even design ‘rubrics’ and scales to evaluate those practices, deciding what is (or what is not) good teaching relies fundamentally on good and old fashioned … human judgement.
Human judgment is fundamentally subjective, contextual, and flawed. It is also incredibly important. Arguably, more important than any quantifiable measure. Rather than trying to mitigate the subjective effects of human judgment by chasing quantitative measures, in many cases we should be embracing the inherently unquantifiable power of human judgment.
A fundamental principle we can apply to using human judgment is balancing it with a democratic process. That is, whenever we need to rely on human judgment to make a decision, we should have more humans doing the judging. Validity and reliability remain critical concepts, but so does creating a democratic process by which we can harness the power of human judgment and mitigate some of the significant power and subjectivity issues.
Consider teacher evaluation. Rather than relying on one person (usually an administrator) to make a subjective human judgment on the quality of teaching, we should involve more people in the act of evaluating and judgment.
As we struggle with how to handle the difficult questions that arise when we really try to evaluate and determine educator effectiveness, capturing the value of human judgment – but balancing it with democracy – is an important principle for us to consider.
Des Moines, IA
I recently had the opportunity to visit with several high school classes on a visit to Iowa City High School. Let me first say I was extremely impressed with the school, the teacher who invited me (Jeanine Redlinger), and the students. The campus would put most private schools to shame, Redlinger is clearly a dedicated and talented professional, and the students were incredibly bright, prepared, and interested. This is the kind of high school you want kids to experience.
While our conversation bounced around significantly from topic to topic, one recurring theme was a debate on class size. Mostly, with the students arguing that class size matters and me pushing back against that notion. After reflecting for a few days, I have come to realize that (as with most things) the truth is somewhere in the middle.
There is certainly evidence that class size matters. The Tennessee STAR experiment showed that class size mattered when it comes to improving student achievement in early grades. The STAR experiment still stands, some 25 years later, as the best evidence that class size has an impact on student achievement. Any student or working teacher can tell you that kids get more individualized attention when class sizes are lower. A skilled educator can turn this increased attention and time into results.
In opposition to this we have evidence both from the U.S. and from the highest performing countries that class size doesn’t seem to matter. In the United States, we have increased spending to public education dramatically over the past few decades and at a rate nearly double that of inflation. We used these increased revenues to 1) lower class sizes and 2) pour funds into step and lane pay systems. Yet, achievement results in the United States remain relatively flat. The highest performing education countries in the world frequently have (generally) higher class sizes than the United States. Putting a greater emphasis on educator effectiveness, these higher performing countries are willing to trade class size for freeing up resources that can lead to improved educator effectiveness.
Is the relentless pursuit of lower class size the United States has been on for decades paying off for us? The evidence says “no.”
We should be concerned with some states who are considering cutting funding to public education that will lead to class sizes in the 40s or even higher. But we should also be concerned with the status quo argument that we need more and more money to relentlessly pursue lowering class size.
Given where class sizes currently are in most schools in the United States, I am willing to trade holding the line or even slightly increasing class size in exchange for improving educator effectiveness.
Secretary Duncan asks us to consider this simple choice: Would you rather have your child in a class with a mediocre teacher and 23 students, or an exceptional teacher and 27 students? The relationship certainly isn’t that linear in reality, but I can tell you where I’d want my kid…
Des Moines, IA
Last month I asked Iowans three simple questions about education.
1. What should we stop doing?
2. What should we keep doing?
3. What should we start doing?
I was overwhelmed with the response. On this site alone, I had 100 detailed, thoughtful, and honest responses. In addition, I had 42 emails sent to me answering the questions and met in person with several groups and individuals who gave me their perspectives on these questions.
I have taken the results and drawn my conclusions on what Iowans told me we should stop, keep, and start doing. I’ve put them together in a Prezi Presentation, which I will use in talking to some groups around the state for the next couple of weeks.
For those who won’t have the chance to hear me talk, I’m pasting the link to my Prezi here. While it won’t be quite as detailed without my narration and weird sense of humor, I hope you’ll get my drift.
Please review, and I welcome your comments and continued thoughts.
In closing, thanks so much to everyone who contributed. I can’t think of a better way to have started our conversation about Iowa’s future.
Des Moines, IA
“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time…But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lila Watson
Jennifer Hemmingsen recently wrote a piece on her impressions of my views for “education reform.” While I’d first say that I appreciate Hemmingsen’s putting a discussion on education in her publication, I’d like to use this space to reflect on Hemmingsen’s article and offer my own conclusions.
The title of Hemmingsen’s piece is “Reform doesn’t end with teachers.” To this I would say, “of course it doesn’t!” The fact that there are a number of other critically important people involved in our nation’s education system is certainly not lost on me. For the record, I have never said that education reform starts, or ends, with teachers. Editorialized headlines have said both of these things in association with my name, but I have never said either.
The truth is that it will take us all to truly transform public education toward the system we believe it can be. But let’s not underestimate the importance of the classroom teacher. I will stand with the evidence telling us that the classroom teacher is the single most important person in changing a student’s academic trajectory. On this blog, I’ve clearly stated that the entire system must be configured to improve and support the classroom teacher. They cannot do it alone and it will take all of us, working in concert, to lift and improve our system of public education to be what we believe it can be.
While as much as I appreciate Hemmingsen’s kind words toward me in the piece (I believe the term was “rock-star” – thanks for that!!!), I must respectfully disagree with some of her conclusions. She states that teachers are “exhausted” and “ground down” by reforms. In the course of my career I have interacted with thousands of educators. Never once have I heard one say that they are too exhausted or ground down to improve what they do for kids.
Are educators wary of the latest fads and are tired of being a political punching bag? Absolutely. Further, I would say that they have cause to be skeptical and to be defensive. But never, never have I sensed that educators don’t want to improve.
I did not come to Iowa to defend the status quo and to “manage” the current model. Nor did I come here to deconstruct and destroy educators and our system of public education. Simply, I know this system has to evolve and change. I would go on to argue that we all know this is true, we are just afraid or don’t know the way.
“Habits, values, and attitudes, even dysfunctional ones, are part of one’s identity. To change the way people see and do things is to challenge how they define themselves.” Heifetz and Linsky
I am part of a growing movement of “tempered radicals” who fundamentally believe in the importance and moral purpose of public education and who know it must transform in order survive and to best serve children. Our movement is fueled, at its core, by respect, honesty, and love: may we never become exhausted in service of these.
Des Moines, IA
An unfortunate aspect of the current debate on education in our country is the polarizing nature of the discussion. It would seem that everyone must be in the “Education Reform Camp” (teachers and unions are the problem, charter schools and firing people are the answer) or the “Status Quo Defender” camp (all our problems could be solved if we were just left alone, had a better curriculum, and were given more money). Of course, I over-generalize here, just for fun – but I hope you get my drift.
Education leaders on both sides of this debate are heavily influenced by the extremists in their respective camps. Pick a fight and raise hell and you’ll be ballyhoo’ed as a champion. Compromise and you’ll be vilified as a wimp and sell-out to the cause. Unfortunate, but true.
What we should agree on is that our education policies should be all about improvement.
A recent study noted that in the U.S. we recruit teachers from roughly the bottom quartile of college graduates. What are we doing to get higher caliber candidates into the teaching pipeline and are we preparing them for the tough job they have ahead? A recent study from Tennessee suggests, at least in that state – but I bet the results pan out across the country, there are significant differences. We can do better in preparing teachers.
We also do a pretty terrible job of recruiting and screening teacher candidates. Some research even suggests that being really bright, having a high GPA, and coming from a top school actually hurts your chances of getting hired. I did a recent webinar for AASPA on this issue. We can do better.
Teaching in many schools is a lonely experience. Most schools allow for little real and meaningful professional learning, collaboration, or interaction opportunities for educators. The traditional model of professional development is for someone on high to devise an “initiative,” get some funding for it, and then cram it down through various organizations to the classroom teacher. By the time it gets to them, it frequently has little meaning or relevance to what they face on a daily basis. We need to turn this whole system upside down and empower teachers in schools to tell the system what they need, and then configure the system to deliver. Again, we can do better.
We also don’t do a very good job evaluating teachers. Dan Weisberg’s “The Widget Effect” shone the light on this national issue. I would venture that just by paying attention to the fundamental elements of validity (does the evaluation measure good teaching) and reliability (is the evaluation administered consistently) we could dramatically improve the quality teacher evaluations, and actually make them something that can lead to improvement. We can do better!
Then there is the issue of teacher dismissal, which garners all the headlines … and may be all that many of you remember about reading this piece.
Let me be clear on this next point, because we have a really hard time talking about it and I want to be very clearly understood: By far, the vast majority of teachers are amazing, kind, and selfless people who would do anything they could to help kids and help their community. These are the teachers who have inspired us, who saved our lives in one way or another, and who deserve our gratitude for their service and for sharing their gifts with us and our children.
There is also a small minority of teachers who are failing our kids and our schools. Sometimes, a teacher is failing our kids because of the system they have been put into and they lack the necessary supports and leadership to be successful. However, there are also teachers who are failing our kids because they either don’t have what it takes (talent or knowledge) or they don’t have an interest in getting better.
Great teaching is really hard work and (contrary to popular opinion) not everyone can do this well. But the structures we have now treat all these kinds of teachers the same regardless of their quality. We ignore the real differences in teachers because it’s a difficult conversation and the determination of quality involves a degree of human judgment. Because of this, we have created systems and legal protections beyond those in any other field that make it nearly impossible to remove an ineffective teacher.
We have all been complicit in creating and perpetuating this system – teachers, unions, administrators, school boards, legislators, governors, and the voters. All of us are to blame for where we are now … and all of us must share in the responsibility of making it better.
It’s about improvement – we can do better.
New York, NY
I once had the opportunity and great honor to buy value added pioneer Bill Sanders a glass of his favorite Tennessee whiskey. In exchange, he gave me the “cocktail napkin” version of his life’s work.
The key statistics Dr. Sanders shared with me are these: First, some 65% of student growth can be attributed to the classroom teacher. Second, 3 years of an effective teacher can permanently shift a student’s trajectory for future achievement in a positive direction.
We can get into a methodological argument on value added if you want, but rather than attack the method or attack the statistics, listen to the message:
If we are really to have a transformative revolution in public education, the classroom teacher is going to make or break that effort. To be clear, I am not saying that curriculum, scheduling, the economic condition of students, budgets, and the local or state crisis “du jour” do not matter. I am saying that they are distant seconds to the powerful effect a quality teacher can have on student growth.
If we think about the support systems in schools and states that operate around the classroom teacher, there are really a lot of other people involved. At the district you have instructional support staff, transportation, food service, maintenance, custodians, IT technicians, accountants and HR professionals, school principals, district administrators, superintendents, and Board members … then there is are a whole bunch of people who work in inter-district collaboratives and in consulting roles … then a whole bunch more who work in teacher preparation and ongoing professional development roles … and then a whole bunch of other people who work at state departments of education, union roles, and as policy wonks. Tens of thousands I’d venture, if we counted them all – and I’m sure I’m leaving some out.
But think about it. The teachers? The truth is, they could do it without any of us. Those outside the classroom only justify our existence by the degree to which we are of service to the classroom teacher.
So tomorrow, ask yourself: “What am I doing to improve and support classroom teaching?” You could also ask “What am I doing to justify my educational existence.”
The answers are really the same.