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Tightrope Walker

Photo courtesy of Natalie Curtiss via Flickr

There are number of testing bills being considered by the Colorado Legislature this year.  Some of these take significant steps to roll back the testing system in the state while others exist merely to create the appearance of doing so.

At the same time, another bill (SB 223) clarifies that parents have the right to refuse to have their students take the test, commonly referred to as “opting out.”

Anti-testing advocates and groups argue that testing in Colorado has gone far beyond reasonable levels and that parents need legislation to both roll back the tests and to protect families who refuse to take the exams.  This side is made up of a strange mix of parent advocates, teachers’ unions, and individuals on the far right who are opposed to government over-reach.

The other side of the chessboard lines up testing proponents and a slew of well-funded “ed reform” groups.  Supporters of the tests argue that evaluating teachers based on tests scores, and ranking schools using these results are “innovations.” They claim that without these measures, the accountability and choice reforms the state has worked to put in place over the past few years will come abruptly undone.

It’s amazing how quickly the rhetoric changes.  Just a few years ago, many of those on the anti-testing side of this debate were labelled “defenders of the status quo” by  education reformers.  Now, the shoe is on the other foot with the ed reform camp scrambling to protect the laws and tests they put in place since 2010.

Without making any judgments, the arguments advanced by both sides are essentially correct.  Colorado testing has gone off the deep end in terms of the number of tests students are required to take and there does need to be some kind of mechanism for legally handling the exponential growth in the “opt out” movement we are seeing in some schools this year.  On the other side, removing the assessments would mean a roll back and sort of repudiation of the teacher and school ranking systems many of our current ed reform laws were designed to create. Additionally, a fundamental theory of the school choice movement is creating a school “marketplace” where parents can make educational decisions informed by data – test data specifically – this reform loses some steam without test data to drive it.

In my professional opinion, the right policy (at least at this point) is to move back the testing levels as close to “federal minimum” requirements under No Child Left Behind.  This is really as far as the state can go without putting federal education dollars in jeopardy, or at least minimally forcing the state into a gigantic game of chicken with Secretary Duncan.  Changing those federal minimums is something we, as a country, need to take a critical look at as well – but that’s a whole other subject!

The “opt out” movement is merely a symptom of a larger root cause: over-testing.  Putting in place some kind of legalized opt-out mechanism just puts a Band-Aid on the larger problem and will not allow the state to move past this issue.  Unless the legislature reduces the number of tests in a meaningful way, the “opt out” movement is going to persist and ultimately undermine the usefulness of all state testing data.

If we put aside the table-pounding voices from the anti-testing side, as well as the “big” money-fueled-coordinated-slick public relations campaigns from testing proponents, the challenge remaining for the legislature is finding a tolerable equilibrium in testing implementation. Given the “all or nothing” rhetoric individuals and groups involved seem to be taking, this is no easy task.

Fundamentally, the legislature has got to reduce the number of tests to a point where “opt out” numbers fall to their historically low numbers.  But they can’t go too far in that direction, or they risk the education reform groups continuing to push for more testing and measurement.

At the end of the legislative session, I expect the legislature to find that equilibrium position that most people in the state will accept . . . but that neither the anti-testing nor education reform groups will find completely satisfying.  While that is likely to be the ultimate outcome, don’t hold your breath or turn away not expecting this to be a spectacle.  Whatever happens, this is going to be fun to watch.

*A version of this article appeared in the Vail Daily on April 15, 2015.


July is upon us and summer is in full swing for educators across our country.  While school is the farthest thing from the minds of many kids and families, the reality is the start of a new school year is only a few short weeks away and there is much to do between now and when students arrive back on campuses throughout the valley.

Many people believe a major perk of being an educator is getting summers off from work.  While it is certainly true that educators get some down time in summer (that they deserve!), for most teachers and administrators the summer is not a completely work or stress free time.

For most educators, they spend at least some time during the summer attending learning events like conferences or professional meetings.  Many other educators turn into students in the summer by taking graduate credit coursework.

For my wife Sarah (a teacher) and I, this has certainly been the case.  Just in the past few years, Sarah has taken classes at places like the New York Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, and the MOMA to become a better art teacher.  Summers for me the past few years were spent as a graduate student at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, where I completed my doctoral work.  Both of us are proud to bring the knowledge these experiences gave us back to Eagle County for our students and community.

Here in Eagle County Schools, we hold teaching to be a profession and thus we encourage this kind of professional growth.  We want all our students to be life-long learners and our staff embodies this character trait.  Our district does provide a small tuition credit ($1,500) to help incentivize these efforts, but by far most of the costs are picked up by the educators themselves.

At any given time, we have educators pursuing their Master’s degrees, Education Specialist degrees, and even Doctorates.  We also have educators taking coursework from colleges, universities, professional associations, and other educational organizations that is independent of a specific degree track.

But the ongoing learning and work of the educators during the summer only represents a part of what’s going on in our schools over the summer “break.”  With hard fought dollars from this past legislative session, we are able to replace flat-panel monitors or install “smart-board” systems in our classrooms.  We’ve also been able to get our teacher laptops and student computer lab machines all under warranty again.  And, we’ve been working hard to improve the “curb appeal” of our buildings through grounds-keeping, landscaping, paint, and sidewalk work.

We’re also working hard to get ready academically for the next school year.  While we still have a ways to go, I’m proud to say we were able to restore of the some staffing cuts in buildings that happened during the great recession.  This means our kids in Eagle County Schools will get more support and individual attention.

We also had a banner year recruiting – drawing more candidates from selective colleges and universities.  While I’m excited about this talented crop of hires for our schools, all new teachers need support.  To meet that need, we’ve been working hard this summer to put in place orientations and mentoring supports so that every educator starting out in Eagle County is supported with good information and seasoned expertise.

Finally, we’ve been working hard to align our curriculum systems in math and language to internationally benchmarked expectations.  Our kids can and should learn at the same pace and level as kids anywhere in the world.  To meet that goal, we’ve been working hard this summer to get these foundational elements of math and reading aligned to high expectations and to think about how we can support all kids toward world-class expectations.

So, on behalf of all the dedicated and proud employees at Eagle County Schools, let me say “enjoy summer!”  But know that in every public school in our community there is a buzz of activity and excitement about August.  Our schools and the people in them are on the move and we are excited about what the future holds for our students and our community.

A version of this article appeared in the Vail Daily on July 9, 2014.




Earlier this month, I had the tremendous experience of being part of the Summit for Innovative Education, hosted by McREL.  The event featured two dueling keynote speakers (Stanford’s Eric Hanushek and Oregon’s Yong Zhao), who offered dramatically different visions of what American education should be.  While the contrast in messages and suggested strategies from Hanushek and Zhao is worthy of significant discussion on its own, what struck me most was the tension between the concepts of reliability and innovation in building better school systems.

McREL’s own “Network for Innovative Education” seems to be the embodiment of this tension.  Much of the work of the group focuses on the thinking around  High Reliability Organizations, or systems that are designed to mitigate the possibility of failure to smaller and smaller probabilities through the use of clear procedures and intentional adaptations to changing circumstances.

At a surface review, the core concepts in the high reliability frame are somewhat antithetical to innovation.  The goal with a high reliability approach is to make sure that something works with high quality and low variability. When rigidly applied, there is little room in this high reliability frame for leaps of faith toward untested notions based on possible theories of action.

Innovation, on the other hand, requires such leaps of faith and a willing embrace of failure as an option.  For innovations to take off, organizations and the people in them take risks with no guarantee that things will work as anticipated or work at all.  Innovation calls on us to cast aside convention and the safety of reliability in exchange for the possibility of a breakthrough that can possibly change everything.

Frequently, we talk about “innovation” as the cure-all for our problems in education.  But what does that really mean and how would we go about it? Not all innovative ideas are good ideas and I would argue that it is educationally irresponsible to abandon evidence-based practices in favor of an untested “innovation” when the future of our children is the price of the wager.

As a comparison, do we really want “innovative” surgical procedures when we go under the knife?  How about stepping on an “innovative” aircraft piloted using “unconventional” techniques?  As the costs of failure grow, the choice of an innovative route must be made prudently and thoughtfully with a risk/reward mindset.

But, we also know innovation is so crucially important for continued system growth.   The spirit of innovation fuels our passion and curiosity.  Highly reliable or not, what a joyless existence it would be to spend a lifetime pulling the same handle on the assembly line.  Either in search of a better way or tapping into a very real human need for creativity, innovation is important.

So the answer must be in some kind of balance between these two important concepts of reliability and innovation.  Particularly when the stakes are high, we need established procedures and protocols so that we deliver high quality instruction with low variability and the probability of our system failing students is as low as we can possibly get it.  At the same time, we must intentionally foster  innovation.  We do this by supporting with resources, creating controlled environments where iteration and failure are tolerated so learning occurs, and by protecting the innovation from what can be the crushing and stifling weight of convention.  We also need processes where the new learning is incorporated into the standard operating procedures so that a cycle of learning and improvement takes shape within the context of a high reliability system.

Then there is also the special case of the disruptive innovation – the one that comes out of seemingly nowhere that people ignore, dismiss, or are just too busy running in the gerbil treadmill that they don’t even see it coming at all.  The disruptive innovation is going to take things over all on its own, creating a new paradigm and way of doing things.   On the other side of the disruptive innovation, high reliability concepts will again emerge to put in place standard procedures and protocols to make the new paradigm more stable and deliver with even higher quality and low variability.

So when it comes to the notions of reliability and innovation, it is so important that we not see these concepts as either/or but instead as a balanced set – where both are necessary in an ever progressing evolution toward a better education system.

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.

Nearly everyone involved in the work of improving or reforming education acknowledges the importance of the people working in our schools as perhaps the most critically important lever to improve learning. Even with technological advances, education remains primarily an endeavor driven by teachers, administrators and those in supporting roles in schools. As an extension, the success, mediocrity, or failure of our schools also rides on the qualities, capacities and talents of the people working with our students.

Hard-charging education reformers put a tremendous amount of faith in the ability of “human capital” systems to deliver educators with the abilities we need to dramatically improve our schools. Using strategies related to human resource processes like recruitment, selectivity, performance management (including evaluation), compensation, and dismissal – this “human capital” frame holds that if schools would use theses human resource processes more effectively the result would be a more capable educator workforce. This viewpoint primarily puts the individual educator as the central point where we should focus our attention and work for improvement.

Juxtaposed against the human capital frame is another viewpoint that great educators emerge from collaborative and collegial environments where educators are given the opportunity to learn from each other, plan together, build relationships among staff and students, be involved in key decisions, and work in an environment where they have the tools and resources to succeed. This “social capital” frame holds that it’s not the people that are the problem, it’s the system (or lack thereof) in which educators are working that is the problem.

It’s difficult (at least for me) to take a hard line against either of these views. It is disingenuous to argue that talent and ability doesn’t matter. Further, it is also disingenuous to say our human capital systems in education are anywhere near as effective as they could or should be. Differences do exist in educator quality that can be attributed to the capabilities and talents of individual educators. Failure to acknowledge or address human capital concerns (or the more common tactic of trying to advance some excuse or “red herring” to distract the argument) does little to advance us toward the common goal of a better education for all of our students.

It is equally insincere to argue that the systems and supports in which people work don’t matter. Anyone who has had the experience of working as part of a high quality, high functioning team or organization knows that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts and that collective capacity trumps individual heroism when it comes to delivering quality on a consistent basis. On the flip side, anyone who has had to work in a dysfunctional environment or under a tyrannical boss knows that bad culture kills productivity and creativity.

Somehow, the debate on improving education in this country has got to reconcile these two ideas of human and social capital. Too often we place them in contrast to one another when we should be considering how they can (and should) be used to compliment each other.

We aren’t going to achieve greatness through a pure reliance on draconian, Kafkaesque systems of individual accountability. We also can’t achieve greatness through the liberal use of some professional Kumbayah circle.

Talent, intelligence, and ability matter. So do connections, belonging, and love.

For the sake of the American education system (and more importantly our children), we’d better figure it out sooner than later.

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.

This past week I had the chance to visit Harvard and be part of the “Learning from the International Experience” conference. First, what an incredible honor for me to get to meet some real giants in the education policy realm, notably Harvard’s Paul Peterson and Stanford’s Eric Hanushek. The event centered on the release of a new report called “Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete” followed by two days of discussion on the condition of education in the United States and, more importantly, what we might learn from high performing countries to improve.

I’d first say that the results of the study aren’t fresh news by any stretch. The argument that the U.S. education system is floundering and puts the country’s economic health at risk goes back to the industrial revolution. The same argument was used again in the Sputnik era, in the 1980’s with the release of “A Nation at Risk”, and even more recently through the “achievement gap” lens of No Child Left Behind in a McKinsey report. One of the authors of the Harvard paper, education scholar Eric Hanushek, has been hammering at this issue for some time.

The U.S. continues to come up mediocre in these rankings but there are certainly some limitations to their utility, as these pure aggregate average score approaches aren’t taking into account poverty, equity, or social considerations. Also, this data is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the U.S. remains the most vibrant and adaptive economy in the world, most of the top universities in the world are in the U.S., it takes the rest of the world combined to equal the number of patents issued in the U.S. in a single year, and there are (by far) more Nobel Prize winners from the U.S. than any other (acknowledgement to Seton Hall’s Chris Tienken for this list of reminders).

These points should be used to counterbalance the discussion, but we would be foolish to ignore the message of the economists and political scientists that given the global nature of this economy compared to any time in our past we absolutely should be investigating the approaches used by the highest performing systems and pulling them into the playbook for American education.

I must admit I was disappointed by the conclusions of some of the economists at the conference that our reaction to this most recent illustration of U.S. educational mediocrity should be centered around “charter schools,” and “performance pay.” Keep in mind, I am an advocate for increased school choice and compensation reform, but I also realize they only take us so far.

While we should broaden these terms and discussions to consider the possibility of how “school choice” and “strategic compensation” could improve the American system, these do not (at least in my review) seem to be the major drivers in building great schools in looking at the highest performing systems. If the aim of this conference was really “Learning from the International Experience” then we would see lessons around clarity on student outcomes and a subsequent alignment of instruction and measurement. We would also see a hyperfocus on improving the quality of the educator workforce through a variety of approaches. Finally, we see systems that try things and make mistakes, but most importantly keep up the work and learning about getting better.

My takeaway was that we need to keep our eyes on the ball here. Improving schools is about teaching and learning coupled with a process of continuous improvement and innovation. To the degree that school choice and compensation figure into a framework on better teaching, learning, and innovation then they absolutely should be part of the discussion.

Any ideas we glean from other countries has to be considered against the culture of the American education system. In the U.S., our system has a heavy flavor of accountability in the form of standardized measures and (increasingly) individual measures of effectiveness. Our focus on accountability is creating what I’d consider an “over-reaction” from some in the education community who fantasize about an end to accountability and measures. I’d venture that this is pure fantasy and this over-reaction discounts that we do have much better performance data about our schools than we have had at any point in the past and this data, though admittedly imperfect, is also useful.

To take the lessons from the international experience and graft it into the American system, our question going forward should be “how do we get the right yin/yang mix of teaching-learning-innovation with accountability?”

Shane Vander Hart recently wrote a piece for his very entertaining and thought provoking blog, Caffeinated Thoughts responding to my remarks at the 2011 SAI Annual Conference.

After gently letting left-leaning Jennifer Hemmingsen have it over her coverage of education policy in Iowa, I would stand to lose my “I don’t give a damn about politics, let’s improve schools” credentials if I didn’t give right-leaning Shane Vander Hart the same treatment.

Let’s first set the record straight about the Iowa Core and the Common Core. I don’t expect Shane and I to ever see eye to eye on this and that’s ok – in this country we are free to disagree and are better from an open exchange of ideas. As I understand it, Shane’s position is that the Iowa Core/Common Core is some sort of Obama-driven-federal-takeover-plot aimed at indoctrinating your children to love Chairman Mao and slowly transform this country into North Korea. OK, I may have embellished that last statement … slightly (apologies Shane – just having some fun at your expense!).

Where does this conspiracy theory drivel come from? The fact is that the National Common Core was and remains a STATE led (not a federal government) initiative. The Common Core represents student expectations in reading and math that are on par with the highest performing systems in the world and also represent the kinds of skills our students are going to need to be competitive in a global context. The fact is that a common thread among the highest performing school systems in the world is the adoption of clear and rigorous standards for all students (see example after example in Michael Fullan’s latest work and in Marc Tucker’s analysis of high performing school systems).

Shane goes on to (falsely) state the the Iowa Department of Education and the State Board had no authority from the legislature to establish the Iowa Core or merge it with the Common Core. This is just silliness about the authority to enact the Iowa Core (which contains the Common Core as its Math and English/Language Arts elements). The fact is that the Iowa legislature gave the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa State Board the directive to establish the Core. To the point that this wan’t an open process, all of the State Board’s steps to include the Common Core in the Iowa Core were public proceedings, as is every action taken by the Board. Sorry Shane, this is within the lines.

Shane goes on to make the dreadfully predictable case that I am pushing for some sort of hyper-centralized school system. Actually, as I’ve stated many times before and stated in my remarks to the SAI Administrators, I’m calling for a reasonable balance of all the players in the education system. Each part has an important role to play, and Iowa’s schools will be best served if all the parts are working together and in symphony.

Governor Branstad was clear to me about my role in Iowa: Make these schools among the best in the world. That happens by building capacity at ALL levels and focusing the whole system on carefully selected strategies tailored to this context. It will not happen by closing your eyes and hoping all 350 districts in the state of Iowa spontaneously pull off becoming a world-class system on their own through some miraculous convergence.

Improvement to put Iowa on par with the highest performing systems in the world takes an intentional and focused effort. Raising useless and worn out rhetoric about government takeovers, “indoctrination,” and “educrats” just regurgitates political soundbites and does little to move Iowa forward to being a great school system.

We do need to build up and support local capacity – but we also need to focus our efforts in a way that makes this fractured patchwork of schools start to move as a system.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA

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