Yesterday, Bellwether Education Partners, “a national non-profit dedicated to helping educational organizations,” released a new report entitled “Genuine Progress, Greater Challenges: A Decade of Teacher Effectiveness Reforms” by Andrew J. Rotherham and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel. The report can be accessed here.
This report is national in scope, but popped up on my radar when Colorado’s Donnell Kay Foundation tweeted out a link to the report under the Colorado education policy hashtag “#edcolo,” which I review for state news on a regular basis.
After reviewing the report, I added some (admittedly cheeky) commentary on the report via Twitter. Specifically, I criticized it as pseudo research parading as empirical evidence. I also noted that no high performing education system has achieved greatness pursuing the strategies recommended in the report.
One of the authors of the report, Andy Rotherham (a known national education policy wonk), replied to my tweet, stating “When U actually read report & engage w/ what’s in it (rather than playing to crowd) we’ll be here @COJasonGlass @bellwethered.” Almost immediately, Donnell Kay (or whoever handles their account) favorited the tweet and Andy Smarick (another national policy wonk on education reform and a partner at Bellwether) retweeted it. *Profuse apologies for those unfamiliar with “twitter-speak!”*
Given that the report itself is a re-cycle and re-hashing of the same usual suspects and policy positions when it comes to educator quality and all these individuals/groups have an extreme propensity for citing one another’s writings and hyping each other up, I find the accusation that I’m the one “playing to the crowd” downright amusing!
But, I digress.
Andy did have the courtesy to send me a very respectfully worded email, asking if we could talk about the report and the issues therein and suggested that there was room for common ground. I sincerely appreciate the civility and spirit of that message and I do think Andy is a quality writer and good thinker. My critique of the report is in no way personal toward him or his co-author.
I do think that Andy deserves a more full explanation of my concerns with his report and I do apologize for the abruptness and lack of depth in my tweets on this matter – thus is the inherent drawback of using Twitter for complex conversation!
Rather than respond privately to Andy via email, I am choosing to critique his report via this public forum. The reason for this is that Andy and the Bellwether Foundation have put forth this document in the public realm, ostensibly with the goal of influencing public policy when it comes to educator quality. As such, a critique of the report also belongs in the public realm.
So, in the spirit of respectful public dialogue and a commitment to a free-market of ideas (which I am sure Andy equally supports), below is my critique of the Bellwether report.
One last thing before I begin – I apologize for the free flowing form of my thoughts in the writing below. I am a working Superintendent and father and my time is precious. Forgive me if this lacks the flow and organization of a more professional piece.
AREAS of SUBSTANTIAL AGREEMENT
Instructional quality is of great importance – the Bellwether report makes this statement early and prominently and I could not agree more.
Teachers matter a great deal to student outcomes – with the qualification of “within school factors,” I strongly agree with this statement. The Bellwether report does acknowledge this qualification. To be more clear, outside of school factors actually matter more when it comes to student outcomes. This is not noted as an “excuse” for why our system of education cannot and should not be better, it is noted to say that one cannot reasonably expect to systemically and at-scale improve student outcomes if one ignores the out of school factors.
The industrial union model has been, to a degree, a detriment to the teaching “profession” – While teachers’ unions adopted an industrial and confrontational approach to bargaining for good reason (low wages, discriminatory practices, inhuman working conditions) and have historically gained in these areas as a result, holding on to this model in today’s era is a detriment. Unions must evolve to be guardians of of quality and of the profession. In my professional opinion and to the credit of unions, this transformation is underway in the United States – but it has been and continues to be a process.
Educator quality has a long and interesting history – The report notes that efforts to improve educator quality through mechanisms such as licensure and efforts to define “highly qualified” have been underway for several years. I would also add educator preparation program accreditation and prospective teacher testing as other levers, which are touched on in the report – if only briefly.
Pension reform is necessary – To which I would add two qualifications. First, this is not true in all states. Some states have over-promised and mis-managed their pension systems and created massive unfunded liabilities. However, other states have been conservative and pragmatic with their systems and they are quite sustainable. Second, we must be cautious about the motives and plans of those wishing to reform pension systems. While there are some who genuinely wish to shift the funds to public employees in the form of defined contribution plans and increase direct compensation, there are others who wish to “reform” pensions as a back-door way of de-funding public education and intentionally harming public servants. Similarly, we must also be suspicious of the motives of Wall Street firms who wish to destroy and privatize pensions so as to create opportunities for profiteering.
Personalize professional development – While I take a bit of exception that this must be in some way hitched to evaluation, to the degree that we empower and provide autonomy to our front line educators to determine and customize professional learning to their context and needs, we are in agreement.
Focus on recruitment – The best performing education systems in the world are damned selective about whom they allow to enter the teaching profession. Generally, this is accomplished through a combination of raising the prestige of the profession, raising the initial compensation levels, and treating the profession with reverence and respect. If the United States approached the teaching profession in the same way many high performing global systems do (and the way the best performing systems in the U.S. historically have), the thinking that we need to rank and fire people would diminish tremendously.
AREAS of SUBSTANTIAL DISAGREEMENT
A one sided historical narrative – The report attempts to tell the story of educator quality in the United States. While this is indeed a worthwhile and interesting topic (at least in my judgment!), the report relies on a tired narrative of unions and comatose school administrators as the villians and education reform groups and their “get tough” leaders as heroes. How can anyone expect a historical review of educator quality to be taken seriously as a scholarly piece without even a mention of John Dewey?
Unions are the problem – As previously mentioned, this story needs a villain and teachers’ unions serve that role in this report. However, the highest performing education systems on Earth are (for the most part) highly unionized. In these systems, unions serve as professional guilds and important partners for educator quality. Using this report as yet another frontal attack on unions does not help us make the transition to that professional and collegial model. Using the lens of international benchmarking to best systems, dismantling and disenfranchising the union does not seem to be in the playbook.
Evaluation is a mechanism for improving educator quality – This report repeatedly leaps to the conclusion that improving evaluation systems will improve teaching and improve student outcomes. This causal link has no empirical basis and giants from the field of business management (notably Deming and Herzberg) have been telling us for decades the practice is an ineffective means of improvement. Yet, the education reform movement has swallowed whole this approach of evaluate/rank/punish as a mechanism for improvement and now we have national education policy build on this unproven and potentially detrimental assumption.
Achievement gaps exist; and teachers are the answer – As discussed previously, teachers are really, really important and on this point we agree. Yet, by this report’s citations teacher effects account for 7% or 8% of the variance when it comes to student outcomes. Much of this variance, we know, comes from societal issues relating to student poverty. Any systemic effort aimed at closing the achievement gap must include a commensurate systemic effort at mitigating the effects of poverty on learning.
“The last few years have produced real progress on teacher effectiveness and more generally in American schools…” – This statement comes directly out of the report and makes the classic logical fallacy of “post hoc, ergo proptor hoc.” More simply, Y followed X, so Y must have been caused by X. In spite of the constant attacks and shaming of the American education system in an effort to beat the drum of reform, American schools are better performing now than ever and achievement gaps are narrower than ever. To make any sort of claim that this improvement (which has been underway since the 1960’s) is the result of relatively recent “educator effectiveness” reforms is bogus. While often maligned as unresponsive and overly bureaucratic, the American education system has actually been very adaptive to the shifting demands our society has placed on public education. Rather than a system which has been resistant to change, the American education system has been very successful at meeting change. See Clayton Christensen’s Disrupting Class for a lengthy discussion on this point.
Removing ineffective educators is the key to large scale improvement – I am unaware of any organization or system, public or private, which achieved systemic and sustained greatness via the creation of large scale, complex and Rube Goldberg-ish attempts to rank and fire employees. Even in the so-called cut-throat world of American business, firing people is a relatively rare occurrence. Focusing on firing people is more likely to create alienation and fear in an organization than large scale improved performance. This is not to say that individual accountability isn’t important – some people need a lot of it! Rather, it is to say that we have other higher leverage strategies more likely to produce the outcome we want, such as more effective recruiting and empowerment of our professionals.
Performance-based compensation is a key element for improving educator quality – The report does acknowledge that the research is “mixed” on this point, but I’d more characterize the evidence to indicate that performance-based compensation has no impact on student outcomes. I’d urge Rotherham and Mitchel to more closely read the Vanderbilt POINT study, which they do reference. The “no effect” finding should come as no surprise. Researchers like Frederick Herzberg and Deci & Ryan have clearly told us that the most important aspects of a compensation system is that it is adequate and fair and that money is not a strong “motivator” for quality. The simple behavioristic approach of offering merit pay to educators so they will work harder for kids has no basis in evidence and is professionally insulting.
Transparency and choice will lead to improved teacher preparation – This statement comes right out of the report as the authors recommend creating more of a free market for teacher preparation, allowing more groups to prepare teachers, and removing barriers to entering the profession. Rather than a recipe for quality, this is a recipe for increased variability. Higher performing education systems actually restrict educator preparation institutions and demand higher quality to get a systemic impact. No high performing system has used a Teach for America or “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to educator preparation.
Traditional education “interest groups” have too much power and are the problem – While it is clear that the authors did put some considered thought into this report and their writing, this claim borders on laughable and is, at a minimum, self serving. The traditional interest groups (of which I would include those groups which represent teachers, school boards, and school administrators) are the only groups representing the large scale voices of practitioners in the field. It is groups like Bellwether (and Donnell Kay here in Colorado, for that matter) who have worked to shove out these traditional groups and the voices of practitioners and replace them with a parade of of ideologically-minded nonprofits who are all advocating for some vision of an American education system built on test and punishments, the deconstruction of public schools, and the destruction of community-based decision making. The traditional interest groups are not the problem; the hijacking of education policy by big money philanthropists and their nonprofit fronts are precisely the problem.
I’d like to again thank Andy Rotherham for calling me out on my Twitter criticisms of his report. It is a lengthy piece that deserved more attention than 140 characters could provide. I hope this blog posting makes my concerns with the report more clear and I look forward to engaging with Andy (or others) in the spirit of open and respectful discussion.