Author: RiShawn Biddle

The Dropout Nation Podcast: Globally Challenged for School Reform

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I consider a conversation with fellow vacationers about American public education’s global standing. While our traditional public schools are better than those in developing…

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I consider a conversation with fellow vacationers about American public education’s global standing. While our traditional public schools are better than those in developing countries such as South Africa, they are falling behind rival economic powers such as China, India and Singapore. It’s time to live up to the ideals among those around the world who perceive American education as opening doors to liberty and economic success for all of its children.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player, smartphone, Nook Color or Kindle.  Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also download to your phone with BlackBerry podcast software and Google Reader.

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Best of Dropout Nation: The Real Difference Between Bill Gates and Randi Weingarten (And It’s Not Money)

Yesterday, New York Times’ Sam Dillon decided to tread the same ground your editor covered two years ago (and others have done since). And as one would expect, Diane Ravitch…

Yesterday, New York Times’ Sam Dillon decided to tread the same ground your editor covered two years ago (and others have done since). And as one would expect, Diane Ravitch and other defenders of the very obsolete practices and low expectations thinking that have contributed to the nation’s education crisis, offered the report as an example of the nefariousness of the school reform movement. After all, according to their simple-minded, class envy-driven, anti-intellectual view, a wealthy entrepreneur can’t both have a healthy interest in improving the world in which he lives and an equally sensible self-interest in leaving his mark on it. You know, what all adults seek to do in life.

Yet Ravitch and her gang fail to consider the organizations that are subsidizing their own defense of the status quo (a point that Dillon manages to ignore in his piece). Start with the National Education Association, which devoted $248 million of union dues this past decade on political campaigns, making it the biggest player in American politics. The union has also spent millions on building and sustaining alliances that aid and abet its aims; this includes $1.9 million to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (which certifies ed schools) between the 2005-2006 and 2009-2010 fiscal years, and $1.6 million to the Economic Policy Institute (which always seems to produce reports that neatly dovetail with NEA positions) within the past six years. There are also organizations allied with status quo thinking such as the Ford Foundation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which command both dollars and vast memberships.

Then there’s the American Federation of Teachers, whose president, Randi Weingarten (the subject of my profile this month in The American Spectator) is one of the foremost advocates on behalf of the status quo. From here appearances on shows such as The Colbert Report to profiles in Newsweek, Weingarten is the nation’s best-known union leader and most-prominent education traditionalist, almost as high-profile as Gates himself. And thanks to that profile and her position as head of the nation’s second-largest teachers union (including a foundation that is devoting millions to funding their own initiatives), she is just as influential as Gates (if not more so).

Essentially, both sides of the debate are basking in resources, financial and otherwise. and using them accordingly. One can say that status quo defenders control even more dollars; after all, they are in control of school districts and university schools of education, the institutions through which most of the $500 billion in taxpayer funds devoted to education flow. The NEA and the AFT, in particular, have long-influenced those dollars thanks to state laws and collective bargaining agreements that structure how dollars (in the form of teachers and their compensation packages) are directed to classrooms. Through their defense of seniority- and degree-based pay scales, they have created a teacher compensation system in which teachers are paid for simply lasting years instead of for improving student achievement, under which high-quality teachers aren’t rewarded for doing good-to-great work, that provide near-lifetime employment to the worst teachers, and perpetuate seniority-based assignment rules that, along with the lack of rigorous evaluations based on objective student achievement data, all but ensures that poor and minority children are taught by laggard teachers. They have been unwilling to embrace any real reform of teacher recruiting, training and compensation, allowing for the profession to become mired in mediocrity and failure at the expense of both good-to-great teachers who manage to emerge from the muck, and children who don’t get to choose who teaches them.

The NEA, the AFT and its allies also perpetuate practices and ideologies — including the Poverty Myth in Education — that have essentially allowed far too many educators to write off poor and minority children as being unworthy of a good education. They have consistently opposed any form of real school choice that allows children, no matter their station in life or their condition of birth, to escape dropout factories and failure mills. They have defended a system in which a child’s zip code determines the quality of their education — and can wreck their futures (and even land parents unwilling to accept this in the criminal justice system). And their unwillingness to address issues such as the crisis of low educational achievement among young males of all races — a subject of this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast – shows exactly where they stand on school reform.

I’m not going to say that education traditionalists don’t care about children. They think they do and I believe them. But what they defend, all in all, is a failed, negative and enslaving vision of American public education under which 150 children an hour drop out into poverty and prison. Worse, they defend the system by tying up taxpayer dollars in a status quo that was built for a different age in which education didn’t equal better quality of life, not for a time in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands. One can understand supporting such a system back at the height of the industrial age. One can even understand their self-interest in protecting that which has given them comfortable livings and influence. But in 2011, at a time in which the economy demands a better-educated populace, continuing to support an outdated model of education is not only intellectually indefensible, but absolutely amoral and immoral, unjustifiable by any religion or worldview — and they do so in order to protect their privileges, their influence and their incomes. Weingarten and other status quo defenders cannot justify condemning the lives of millions of children.

And that is the difference between them and the school reformer that Gates is funding out of his own pocket. What school reformers have imperfectly, yet successfully, articulated is a vision of education that allows for every young man and woman to achieve their potential; that argues that schools and those who work within them are missionaries for social change that can help address and alleviate poverty; and offers a positive view of what can be done through providing a high-quality education to every child. It is a vision that offers solutions based on data and practice, and accepts that if a practice doesn’t work, it should be ditched for another.  And it uses the evidence that teacher quality and family engagement are greater determinants of academic success than socioeconomic background to advocate for remaking a profession into one that deserves the same respect as doctors, and giving parents the power they need to make great choices for the futures of their children.

This vision is winning the day not because of money; as with so many movements, school reformers were working the trenches, often with little money, before it attracted funding Gates and other big-named donors. The vision is winning because it is both a positive vision and one that has been better-advocated through strategic and tactical savvy. The NEA, the AFT and other defenders can develop new campaigns and protests, and raise ever more dollars, but none of that will hide the reality that what they offer is failure for children, failure for families, failure for communities and failure for a nation — all at a time in which falling down and dropping out is no longer a sustainable option.

Instead of conspiracy theories and class envy, education traditionalists need to take a look within.

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Best of Dropout Nation: Education’s Anti-Intellectualism Problem

Sure, the battle over the reform and the future of American public education is as much about who controls education decision-making and how players within education are held accountable for…

Sure, the battle over the reform and the future of American public education is as much about who controls education decision-making and how players within education are held accountable for student achievement, as it is about how to improve education for all children. At the same time, it is also a battle over the intellectual growth of a field that has eschewed anything resembling intellectual curiosity and creativity.

At first, this may seem strange given that K-12 education is charged with providing the knowledge children need for their own intellectual development — and that so much of compensation within education (especially for teachers) is dependent on accumulating graduate degrees and other credentials. Eighteen of the 26 states surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality in 2008 for Invisible Ink in Collective Bargaining Agreements required school districts to provide pay increases to teachers if they attain advanced degrees (even though there is no correlative or causative effects between degree attainment and student achievement). [Full disclosure: I co-wrote the NCTQ report.] Yet acquiring advanced degrees isn’t exactly a sign of strong intellectual activity within a sector. What makes a sector vibrant intellectually? An embrace of the use of data in analysis and decision-making; curiosity about how other sectors handle issues similar to those within one’s own field; creative problem-solving of critical issues within a sector; an acceptance of criticism from those within and outside the sector without arguing that those critics are “scapegoating” professionals within it.

Certainly one group within education — the school reform movement — has most (if not all) of these attributes. Many of the younger teachers coming into the profession also have this intellectual dynamic. But among the rest of education — especially those defenders of traditional public education considered the lions of the profession — this isn’t exactly the case. If anything, the reaction to anything resembling intellectual activity among the Diane Ravitches, Randi Weingartens, David Berliners and Dennis Van Roekels is akin to that of Catholic priests when confronted by the work of Galileo and Tycho Brahe on the solar system.

A recent example comes courtesy of Aaron Pallas of Columbia University’s Teachers College, who hasn’t taken well to the efforts by school districts such as D.C. Public Schools to student test score data to evaluate teacher performance (and the use of value-added assessment, the innovation that has made such evaluations possible). Pallas criticized such efforts — particularly D.C.’s IMPACT evaluation system, which was used in the dismissal of 214 laggard teachers — because it and other “complex value-added systems” use “sophisticated… complex statistical calculations” that lack transparency because they are, well, complex. Pallas didn’t consider how statistical analysis is used daily by companies such as Google to improve how people search for information or the solid record of value-added analysis. Not at all.

When Pallas’ lack of thorough research and overall lack of intellectual curiosity was nailed by American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess, Pallas hardly offered a substantive response. Instead, he compared IMPACT and the use of value-added assessment to the housing crisis of the past few years — failing to understand that much of the crisis resulted not from the use of quantitative analysis, but from a combination of overly lax financial regulation, loose credit, poorly-considered federal housing policies, the moral hazard posed by federally-protected entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and outright fraud.

This lack of intellectual dynamism (and abject hostility to reform-minded thinking) is evident throughout education, even in the use of such meaningless jargon as “authentic learning” and “authentic assessment” in response to discussions about using more-object measures of student achievement. Educators and researchers still argue about teacher retention while ignoring how organizations in other sector have stopped discussing retention altogether and focus on recruiting high-quality talents and giving them opportunities for career and intellectual growth. Education researchers and policymakers continue this argument as if other sectors haven’t successfully tackkled similar human capital problems.

There are other symptoms: Teacher education remains mired in “education as democracy” theories and pedagogies that lack empirical basis — even as the work of Teach For America and others have shown that it is subject-knowledge competency and caring for children that matters most. Then there is the reluctance among many ed schools to embrace medical college-style training — that would allow for aspiring teachers to learn teaching in real time. The overall unwillingness to embrace the use of objective data in any aspect of education symbolizes an unwillingness to tackle the underlying causes of system academic failure in any meaningful way.

The anti-intellectualism can be read in the rantings of Ravitch, who essentially declared this week that teacher evaluation isn’t worth doing because “no effective teacher evaluation model exists”. It is clear in the response of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (the trade association for ed schools) to Ed Crowe’s report on teacher training for the Center for American Progress — which offered clear examples of effective professional training coming out of such professions as medicine and nursing — and to the critical work of NCTQ (long a thorn in the side of ed schools everywhere). And it is especially clear in the silly, shrill, thoughtless responses of some veteran teachers, who proclaim that criticism of poor-performing teachers and their enablers (including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) are attacks on teaching itself.

This anti-intellectualism explains why the responses to school reform efforts from defenders of the status quo have been, at best, lackluster and at worst, verging on mere insults and conspiracy theories of a corporate takeover of American public education. How can one mount a proper opposition when the intellectual arsenal includes warmed-over Buddhist sayings and arguments that defend tenure and seniority rights amid overwhelming evidence that such concepts do little for improving student achievement and teacher quality.

The results of this anti-intellectualism can be seen each and every day as 150 teens drop out of our schools and into poverty and prison. It does these kids no good. It keeps education from meeting the challenges of improving education and stemming the dropout crisis. This lack of intellectual dynamism cannot continue.

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Best of Dropout Nation: Where Are the Gustave Eiffels of School Reform?

Unless you are a structural engineer or a historian, the Eiffel Tower seems little more than one of France’s most-iconic monuments — and a lovely spot to dine with your…

Unless you are a structural engineer or a historian, the Eiffel Tower seems little more than one of France’s most-iconic monuments — and a lovely spot to dine with your wife (if you can afford the eating at the Jules Verne). But for school reformers, how its builder brought it to being — and how it left its mark on engineering and culture — offers some lessons on the kind of dynamic minds and path-breaking thinking we need for the reform of American public education.

At the time Gustave Eiffel began conceptualizing the tower in 1884, constructing high-rise structures in which people could occupy for at least some time had only begun to move from ideas to reality. The first real high-standing structure was the Oriel Chambers in Liverpool, which was built in 1864, only stood five stories tall. The Home Insurance building in Chicago — completed a year after Eiffel began pushing the French government to support his plan — only stood 10 stories; the Statue of Liberty (fashioned by Eiffel’s fellow Frenchmen Pierre-Auguste Bartholdi) would come after. The tallest of them all, the Washington Monument, stood just 555 feet — and it took more than 36 years to move from conception to completion.

Few thought that anything taller than those edifices could ever be built. As Jill Jonnes points out in Eiffel’s Tower: The Thrilling Story Behind Paris’s Beloved Monument and the Extraordinary World’s Fair That Introduced It, engineers such as Richard Trevithick and bridge-building firm Clarke & Reeves tossed around and attempted similar efforts at building 1,000-ft high structures. None had made it.  Even fewer saw them as being either beautiful, valuable or useful. After all, in many cities, the high buildings would dwarf over existing structures of civic pride; a bunch of them would create shadows that (in theory) dim out the sunlight and get rid of public spaces. Particularly in a city like Paris — which had already gone though a wrenching round of city planning courtesy of Georges-Eugène, 1st Baron Haussmann — the idea would not be well-received by those who like to keep the status quo ante.

It took the plans by the French government to host the Exposition Universelle in 1889 to actually spur a challenge to that thinking — and it took Eiffel to take advantage of that opportunity. A native of Dijon who was landed in the bridge-building business after a job in one of his relative’s vinegar works fell through, Eiffel made his bones by successfully erecting a bridge in Bordeaux even as his colleagues quit working on the project. Eiffel had the combination of daring, tenacity, thoughtfulness, discipline and opportunistic drive most of his contemporaries lacked in spades. He was also brave, even once rescuing one of his riveters from drowning in a river. And by 1884, those qualities made Eiffel a titan among his peers. His firm built what was at the time the world’s highest railway bridge (in Garabit, France); erected bridges in Vietnam and what was then the developing world; built train stations in Hungary; and had placed his stamp on America’s Statue of Liberty itself by crafting the internal skeleton that held together the copper skin of the colossus.

Eiffel understood that the French government to make a bold statement on behalf of democratic republicanism in what would become the twilight of European and Asian monarchies. He knew that the nation needed to rebuild a reputation tarnished by its defeat 14 years earlier in the Franco-Prussian War. He realized that French wanted to prove that its great minds were as capable anyone from America. He also knew that the technology was already available to make a thousand foot tall tower possible: Thanks to the work of Elisha Gray Otis, elevators could carry hundreds up and down buildings safely and efficiently. The engineering work Eiffel did on the Statue of Liberty, along with the burgeoning architectural efforts of William LeBaron Jenny and Louis Sullivan, also paved the way for sky-high construction. And the work of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick in developing processes that made steel production cheap and efficient meant that a sturdy tower of great height could be built.

Eiffel got together a team of engineers and architects at his firm — Emile Nouguier, Maurice Koechlin, and Stephen Sauvestre — to begin sketching out the design and engineering for a thousand foot tall metal tower. Then Eiffel began publicly and privately lobbying for its construction and inclusion in the world’s fair. By 1886, Eiffel had the support to make the tower a reality. Then the real challenges began. The nation’s architects, never fans of engineers to start, were outraged that the shining jewel of the world’s fair was being put together by someone they considered a mere bridge builder. They lobbied for their own plans (including a thousand-foot column with a searchlight) and lambasted Eiffel’s own. Then the French government, which originally planned to pony up the full cost, agreed to only cover a third of its $1 million cost. Eiffel solved that problem by raising the rest of the funds on its own and bearing the engineering and designing costs of the project.

Then came more foes of the tower. Politicians, notably future French President Georges Clemenceau and Pierre Tirard, managed to delay the signing of the contract with Eiffel to build the tower after declaring that the spare, minimalist tower, more scaffolding that building, was “anti-artistic, contrary to French genius… a project more in character with America”. The came another problem: A French aristocrat, along with one of her neighbors, sued the French government to prevent construction of the tower; they argued that the tower could collapse on their properties and could serve as a giant lightning rod for decades after the fair was completed. Eiffel solved those problems by indemnifying the French government against the lawsuits and any possible structural collapse. As a result, French officials official signed the contract, allowing Eiffel to go ahead with construction.

But Eiffel’s greatest challenge laid with building elevators that could reach the heights and do so safely. The tower needed three sets of elevator banks — two of which needed to go up each of the curved legs of the tower from the ground to the second platform 377 feet above ground — and the French government, which controlled the contracts for the elevators, preferred that they were developed by native companies. But the best elevator maker was the elevator firm Elisha Gray Otis founded years ago, and even it hadn’t built elevators to go that far up. The French government did its best to rebuff Otis’ bid, but eventually relented when no one else would bid for the work. It still didn’t go smoothly, with Eiffel and Otis executives mutually frustrated at one another over their respective perfectionism (including Eiffel’s changes to the interior of the tower’s legs and Otis’ unwillingness to go along with building elevators according to French government demands). But Eiffel learned to go with Otis’ plans (and even accept cost overruns on that part of the project) because he knew it was more important to get the tower completed safely and on time than following his ego (or that of the French government).

Eiffel was a master of public relations. As France’s leading thinkers and artists — including Alexander Dumas fils and Paul Planat of the country’s leading architectural rag — attacked the tower, Eiffel held interviews with media players attacking his foes for remaining stuck behind the times and being unwilling to do anything that would advance France among the world beyond a status as “amusing people”. He also hired a photographer to document its construction, encouraged people to visit the site and watch the tower take shape, brought reporters and other dignitaries up to the unfinished structure to experience the dizzying heights, and eventually struck a deal with one of the country’s leading publications, Le Figaro, to place an office in the tower and publish a special edition for the world’s fair. Eiffel was also a master of the moment: When workers on the tower, demanding more money, threatened to stop work; he threatened to ditch them to the proverbial curb. They showed up for work and did their jobs.

What Eiffel wrought was a masterpiece of engineering and architecture. When it opened in 1889, it easily surpassed the Washington Monument as the world’s tallest structure — and would hold that title until the Chrysler Building overtook it four decades later. Besides dazzling the crowds at the Exposition Universelle (and annoying a generation of Parisians who would have rather seen it never be built), it began the race to build taller buildings that would maximize space and spur more people to move into cities. By 1891, Sullivan built the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, which would serve as the prototype of the modern office tower; the Flatiron Building and the Metropolitan Life tower would soon follow. The Eiffel Tower’s spare design would also help architects  break with the neoclassic past of the time and develop new styles, and spur generations of industrial designers. Without the tower, there would be no Art Deco of Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building, no streamline of the DeSoto Airflow and the 20th Century Limited, no stark power of the Guggenheim Museum or the San Francisco Bridge, and no sleek design of the iPhone or the BlackBerry. The tower even inspired the entertainment and amusement industries. Three years after the tower opened, George Washington Ferris would beat out Eiffel to build the very first Ferris Wheel for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; every child riding a Ferris wheel this spring and summer (and watching a blockbuster at night) can thank Eiffel for their entertainment.

But what makes the tower special is what Gustave Eiffel brought to the table. He understood the challenges that France needed to overcome, imagineered a solution, put energy and drive into making it a reality, and approaching the challenge with both missionary zeal and disciplined thinking. He also brought strong management skills to the table, bringing together talented men to the fore, using persuasion (gentle and otherwise), and orchestrating public relations campaigns that overcame the opposition of status quo defenders. And he broke free of the past, forcefully articulating that it was time for new approaches to architecture and engineering.

It is the same combination of skills that school reformers will need in transforming American public education today.

As Eiffel had to do in the 1880s, reformers must stare down teachers unions, ed schools and other defenders of the status quo who insist on clinging to a vision of public education that has outlasted Horace Mann and John Dewey. Traditional public education  probably didn’t work even in an age in which education wasn’t critical to economic survival; it is definitely a failure in a knowledge-based economy in which strong math and reading skills are even critical for auto repair work. With concepts such as lower class sizes proven to be ineffective — and fiscally unsustainable — the need for using the Internet to provide every child with a high-quality teacher is critical. And with America becoming a majority-minority nation, racial- and gender-based achievement gaps are both unacceptable morally and from the standpoint of maintaining the nation’s prosperity.

The challenges — which come at the cost of 150 kids dropping out every hour — are not insurmountable. But as the American Enterprise Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce succinctly laid out yesterday in their report on the importance of school reform in spurring the science and technology sectors, it mean a clean break with the past. Scale can no longer be a fetish. There will be a need for a thousand different solutions working together (including even DIY schools). Parents and caregivers must be the kings and lead consumers in education. And we must embrace the moral, civil right and practical need for giving every child a high-quality education.

It will also take all hands to make it happen. In particular, we need visionary men who also have strong management skills, the ability to pull together ideas and technology, and political savvy to beat back defenders of the status quo who still have their (increasingly slipping) influence on how traditional public schools mis-educate children. We already have had the Joel Kleins, the Wendy Kopps and (to a lesser extent) the Michelle Rhees. But, as we have seen last week with the ouster of Cathie Black as New York City schools chancellor, there aren’t enough of them. And with the challenges ahead, we will need more than one Teach For America to expand the pipeline of talent.

So the school reform movement must developing new alternative pipelines into education, reaching beyond ed schools and central offices for talented minds. It must also reach  into classrooms and elevating teachers who are ready and willing to cast the Randi Weingartens and Diane Ravitches into the ashbins of history. And it must grab talents who are already out there preaching in the wilderness — including Parent Power activists — and put them into places where they can further the goal of building cultures of genius for all children. At the same time, it is critical for reformers to also glean lessons from how Eiffel approached challenges — including those from traditionalists who oppose reform, have nothing better to offer, and simply want to stay comfortable in the past at the expense of children.

We need Gustave Eiffels for school reform. And their success will mean every child succeeds in school and in life.

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Best of Dropout Nation: The Peter Principal: Building Up Leadership By Staying in Place

In this second part of this Best of Dropout Nation from April, Contributing Editor Steve Peha offers his own solutions for improving the quality of school leadership. Read, consider and…

In this second part of this Best of Dropout Nation from April, Contributing Editor Steve Peha offers his own solutions for improving the quality of school leadership. Read, consider and offer your own thoughts.

A chasm of difference exists between classroom teaching and school leadership. Leading kids isn’t easy but it’s far, far, far from the challenge of leading teachers.

For one thing, kids come to school expecting to be changed. Learning changes them; they know that. And they’ve been through the routine of change so many times that change has become routine. Teachers don’t even have to tell kids they need to do things differently; kids know that almost every day they will do something differently than they did the day before.

By contrast, teachers often develop the expectation that they will never have to do things differently. And the way we treat them – boxing them into required curricula, required assessments, and a million other requirements – communicates every day that we expect them to do the same thing over and over, year after year. For teachers, change, when it comes, is almost always scary. And no one really wants to scare teachers, least of all a principal who used to be a teacher himself

Yet almost all principals were teachers. That’s why they entered education as a career. Even as principals, many still think of themselves as teachers first and leaders… never.

As Principal Smith thanks me for my time, and says we’ll meet again tomorrow after school (probably to repeat the same uncomfortable experience), I know that we’ll be stuck in this loop indefinitely. We’ll meet several more times. I will form a plan based on the data and commit to executing it for him. But he will not approve it. Instead, forced by time and the rules of reform, he’ll make the least aggressive commitments he can make in his official School Improvement Plan, goals he knows his school will not meet, plans he knows that he and his staff will be able to execute.

Is he being dishonest? Not at all. He’s paired the plan down to the smallest amounts of change acceptable. And he’s picked a few things to do that, at best, will get him those small amounts of change. But once the plan is approved, he’ll go back to doing what he feels most comfortable doing. And guiding his teachers through change, even modest change, is not what he feels most comfortable doing.

At the end of the year, I will leave, having worked hard but accomplished little, many of my ideas still mulling around in Principal Smith’s brilliant analytical mind—until they simply fade away as summer vacation begins.

Principal Smith and I both like and respect each other, but we know we’ll never work together again. He’ll likely recommend me to other principals in the district. But my work with them will reach a similar stalemate as most of Principal Smith’s colleagues are not that different from Principal Smith.

Most were good teachers; some were even great. But they were tapped for leadership positions and given roles to which they were not naturally suited and have had difficulty adjusting to. The changes wrought by a decade of school reform have made that adjustment even harder.

The Only Way Out is Up

The best way out for a Peter Principal is, of course, up. The most conscientious, those who probably could be effective building leaders, often find themselves promoted to the district office where, once again, many of their natural traits and tendencies render them less than fully effective.

Reform requires leadership. Districts tap their best leaders at lower positions to take on leadership roles at higher positions. But each rung of the ladder requires different competencies, and the better someone is at one level, the worse they may be at another, at least at the beginning, and in many cases forever. We have to solve that problem in order for any and all reforms to work.

The solution to the problem is to keep people where they are most effective. We might call this a “talent-in-place” approach. But in order to do this, we have to give talented people some place to grow that isn’t a different job. We also have to pay them more.

This is easier than it sounds. Look at the natural growth that occurs for most career teachers: student teacher, new teacher, teacher, mid-career teacher, master teacher, instructional coach (teacher of teachers), instructional specialist (mastery of subject or technique), and so on. There’s a career trajectory here. To make this trajectory real, we have to trade the traditional “step and lane” system for a competency-based rank system similar to what we see in other public sector professions. We can have meaningful career choices for great teachers that keep them growing within their greatness – and within their classrooms as well.

[My Dropout Nation colleague, RiShawn Biddle, argues that there needs to wider options than that, allowing teachers with entrepreneurial drive and leadership ability to move into school leadership jobs. He also argues that the solution for these problems starts with how we recruit and select aspiring teachers in the first place.]

We desperately need our best teachers to stay in the classroom. We also need our best principals to stay in their buildings. What we definitely do not need are any more top teachers becoming average principals, competent curriculum specialists, so-so assessment directors, and over-loaded compliance officers parceling out formulaic federal funding.

Neither do we need great building leaders leaving for cushier district office jobs. We need a competency-based career path approach for principals, too—something that’s just a little more sophisticated the traditional “principal or vice principal” paradigm.

Dig In or Peter Out

Almost all of the people I work with at the building and district levels started in education as teachers, and we’re pretty darned good at what they did. Had they stayed in the classroom all these years, they probably would have become master practitioners. But they got promoted, and many simply petered out in terms of their effectiveness and their commitment to work as hard for the people they managed as they did for the kids they taught.

Solving the “talent” problem in schools requires making the best use of the talent we already have. We don’t need ex-Fortune 500 CEOs and former members of The Joint Chiefs of Staff; we don’t need Superman or Wonder Woman to swoop in and save the day. What we need is career-track specialization.

At the very least we need to professionalize teaching and school leadership in order to grow and keep the next generation of ultra-talented educators applying their talents, over many years, to the same roles, but at different levels, within the system. Just as many doctors continue to doctor throughout their careers, lawyers lawyer, and accountants account, great teachers must continue to teach and great principals must continue to lead. The key is to create new paths for growth—paths that include increased autonomy, compensation, and respect—that will inspire growth-oriented people to get better and better at what they do best.

“Talent-in-Place” models are the only models that make sense during a time of reform. Taking our most talented people and moving them into roles where most will end up being competent at best, dilutes the talent pool in two places simultaneously: the place we took them from and the place we dragged them to. The net effect is a double loss we can’t afford.

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Best of Dropout Nation: The Peter Principal — Or the Critical Need for School Leadership

We need strong leaders to serve as principals in order to foster cultures of genius in which all kids can succeed. But more often than not, America’s corps of school…

We need strong leaders to serve as principals in order to foster cultures of genius in which all kids can succeed. But more often than not, America’s corps of school principals can be just as mediocre (if not abysmal) as the laggard teachers that end up in their classrooms. We have to do better. In this Best of Dropout Nation from April, part of a two-part series on school leadership, Contributing Editor Steve Peha discusses the problems. Tomorrow, we will re-run Peha’s second part that discusses how he thinks we can improve school leadership. Read, consider, and take action.

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. It is the age of evaluation, it is the age of indecision. It is the epoch of reform, it is the epoch of intransigence. And for middle school Principal Smith and me, at the end of this school day, it is a time to look at student achievement data and formulate a school improvement plan.

Thirty minutes into working with Principal Smith, I notice that our normally friendly session is getting a little tense. There are only two of us in the room, and I’m enjoying myself because school-wide strategy is my favorite kind of work. But Principal Smith, who is often wiped out by day’s end, is looking more and more wiped out by the numbers we’re sifting through. Even though I’m in the room at his request; even though I can already see clear patterns in the data and straightforward solutions to raise student achieve; even though I am fully committed to carrying any amount of Principal Smith’s load in this process; he seems unwilling to share the burden. The test score data, and the necessary change it implies, is weighing him down.

The more we analyze the data, the more excited I get, and the less excited he gets. I love change; he loves stability. I love to discover the patterns that inspire me to conceive bold solutions to big problems; he seems more comfortable with analysis, as if a murky indeterminacy relieves him—at least momentarily—from the pressure of strategic planning and serious decision making.

It is the best of times for me, it is the worst of times for him. I want to plan and do; he wants to sit and think.

Fifteen years ago, Principal Smith was one of his district’s best math teachers and I was a technology entrepreneur. I’m sure Principal Smith was a better classroom teacher than I was a tech CEO. He won a “Teacher of the Year Award” and was beloved by all. I never won a thing and barely kept my tiny ventures moving forward and my small teams paid until my last company was acquired and I left the business world to begin learning about school. But after starting and running three companies, I’m probably as comfortable leading adults through change via data-driven decision making as he is teaching the Pythagorean Theorem.

The problem, I realize in this moment, as Principal Smith shuts down the meeting half an hour early, is that we’re not in a high school math classroom, and that the work we have before us is more suited to my personality than to his. This isn’t about brains, talent, drive, or intent; he’s a more talented educator and we both have the same good intentions and reasonable smarts. Principal Smith is a good principal; he and I like each other and work well together. But there is a difference between being a talented teacher, an instructor of children, and being a talented leader of adults. When math teacher Smith became Principal Smith, he seemed perfect for the job, and the job seemed perfect for him. He loved it and felt good about his ability to manage a school.

But now, it’s time to lead a school.

Lead, Follow, or Stay Stuck Where We Are

Moving talented teachers into positions of school leadership was was a problem even before the standards-and-accountability began and the emergence of the use of data in education was brought to fore in 2001 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. But then, the issue of school leadership was never as important as it is now.

As my Dropout Nation colleague, RiShawn Biddle, notes, NCLB didn’t so much expand federal education policy, but formalized the role of states in shaping education policy and emphasized the importance of changing curriculum, instruction, and assessment as the primary means of improving student achievement. At the same time, NCLB also made the school the fundamental “unit of reform”, and in so doing made our nation’s 100,000 school principals the most important players in the game, and the “principalship” the prime point of leverage for reform in education. But the law didn’t offer much that might help principals become change agents. Nor did it provide increased capacity for new school leaders from within education or without.

For the last few years, Principal Smith has been tasked with raising test scores, improving teacher evaluations, making smarter hires and harder fires, implementing new and more aggressive programs, becoming an instructional leader in subjects he’s never even taught, and staying on top of AYP. He gave up being a leader of children in order to be a manager of adults. He has discovered that this is a very different thing. He’s competent but no longer excellent. A once-great teacher is now a merely good principal. His results as a principal have nothing to do with how hard he works, how smart he is, how much he cares, or who he brings in for help.

Even though Principal Smith has me, and I have solutions I can implement for him, he’s simply not comfortable leading his people through significant change. So the ideas are worthless because they will never be used. In fact, the better my ideas are, the less likely Principal Smith is to feel good about them because he knows that the quality of the change initiative itself will be a source of significant anxiety for his staff. Better a weak plan than a strong one. A weak plan is less threatening, and therefore more willingly adopted, because it’s more likely to fail and to be abandoned.

Principal Smith was a great classroom teacher, and he still is. He could lead even the least interested kids through algebra and geometry. But he has come to dread leading his staff through anything other than their perfunctory staff meetings—and he has even cut those down to one a month.

He has tried every angle to motivate himself and his teachers. Nothing has worked and everything has felt unnatural to him. Leadership—of adults—feels unnatural to him. In some ways, his own astounding success as a teacher gets in his way. He knew he never wanted his principals to lead him anywhere. “Academic freedom” was always sacred to him and he appreciated the latitude he was always given. It’s hard for him to make others do things he wouldn’t want to be made to do himself.

In the last few years, the pressure to create change has gotten stronger and Principal Smith has gotten weaker—at least where his desire for leadership is concerned. He remains a responsible manager of his school. But his stomach doesn’t feel right when he has to have serious talks with his staff about school performance. He’d probably head back to the classroom, but he also can’t stomach the thought of teaching in a test-driven reform climate. In any case, after several years with a principal’s salary, and the lovely house he was able to afford because of it, he can’t take the pay cut.

As the famed management thinker Lawrence Peter would say, Principal Smith reached the limits of his competence; he has become The Peter Principal. Relative to the challenge of leading a school through data-driven change, his low appetite for change, once buoyed by optimism, is beginning to peter out, too.

The opening coming up next year at the district office for an assessment director is looking better and better. He doesn’t mind at all looking at data and organizing data. He just doesn’t like having to do anything about data. The new job would be comfortable. The pay would be comparable. If he could get out of the pressure cooker he’s in now, maybe he could learn to like dealing with student achievement data and federal compliance guidelines. He’d probably get the job, too. He’s well liked. He’s good with numbers. And he’s learned how to make charts and graphs of data of going nowhere. But then, maybe he’s on a career path to nowhere.

He still loves the kids. He still loves math. And he’s finally willing to admit that working in the classroom was where he was always meant to be. Too bad he won’t be going back.

A Double Penalty

Principal Smith’s district lost a great math teacher, gained an average principal, and is well on its way to having a disinterested assessment director. Having tapped an obvious leader for a mid-management role, Principal Smith’s school district made the classic mistake so many organizations make. And as education is being transformed, it is a mistake whose consequences are dramatically amplified.

To get an idea of how crucial this is, consider this: At Principal Smith’s school, his lowest test scores are on the 10th grad math test. If he were teacher Algebra and Geometry, instead of just worrying about it as he does now, he would be affecting one third of the school’s test-taking population in math. If his scores were 20-30 points higher than the other two Grade 9/10 math teachers, (a reasonable difference between average teachers and a top teacher), he alone could directly raise the passing mark for his entire building dramatically. This is a feat he cannot even come close to achieving as principal even if he spends most of his time coaching his math teachers, something he also isn’t that good at because, again, he values teacher autonomy so highly as a result of the autonomy he was once granted.

Being great at something usually means a person is naturally well-suited to it in some way. People who are so well-suited to one thing, are often ill-suited to others, especially if those other things require a very different set of social and emotional competencies, or what we might generally refer to as personality traits. For Principal Smith, his naturally patient, thoughtful, and analytical approach to teaching was perfect for both his subject and his students. Just by being himself, he provided extraordinary stability and consistency for his students at a time in their lives when they really needed it.

But change cycles, characterized by rapid iteration, were never his style.

Mr. Smith was a patient and disciplined teacher, a master of mathematics, and an articulate presenter with a likeable low-key demeanor perfectly matched to helping teens ease their way into serious college-track calculating. His moves were always well-reasoned and predictable. He followed his curriculum, not in a slavish way, but in a way that both he and his kids always knew where they were and what was coming up next. Change proceeded incrementally and, after his first couple of years, he could predict when and how change happened in his classroom, and how to make it happen even for his least interested students.

Mr.Smith’s personality formed the foundation of his success as a teacher. But in an age in which principals must also be strong leaders, his strongest traits and most valued habits of mind have become his Achilles Heel. He is risk-averse and often gets mired in analysis paralysis. Because school data never seems to add up as easily as math data, he never really trusts his numbers. And if a mathematician can’t trust his numbers, how can he trust himself?

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