Author: RiShawn Biddle

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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Best of the Dropout Nation Podcast: Take It and Shake It

On this rebroadcast of January’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I discuss how we should look at American public education as an Etch-A-Sketch and shake up the status quo. More than ever,…

On this rebroadcast of January’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I discuss how we should look at American public education as an Etch-A-Sketch and shake up the status quo. More than ever, we must take the opportunities to overhaul a system that fails at least 150 kids every hour (and millions more every year).

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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Education’s Sophistication Problem: Where “Moneyball” and Schools Meet

  When a film as compelling as the box-office hit Moneyball — and the Michael Lewis book on the work of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane upon which it…


When a film as compelling as the box-office hit Moneyball — and the Michael Lewis book on the work of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane upon which it is based — comes along, it can be too easy for education reporters and thinkers to scour for comparisons to the battle over the reform of American public education, and come up with a series of oversimplifications. Such is the case of This Week in Education‘s Alexander Russo, who proclaims that the aftermath of the book offers these lessons for reformers pushing for more and better use of data such as Value-Added: That while the use of the statistical concept called Sabermetrics — which tosses out old school measures of baseball success for a series of new data points (including a focus on on-base percentage) — have not helped teams yield the successes they wanted; that big-money clubs continue to dominate sports regardless of data; and, in essence, that school reformers should expect the same results.

Russo is correct that there are lessons reformers and traditionalists can glean from Moneyball. But not the ones he claims. For one, sports isn’t exactly like education. Certainly, Major League Baseball is a monopoly of sorts. But it is ultimately a part of the competitive entertainment and sports sector. Baseball teams such as the Athletics and the Yankees compete against one another for World Series titles, talent, and revenues — and, at the same time, must battle for market share and fan dollars against big-league football, basketball and hockey teams in their respective local and regional markets. Teams are use data in the same way companies such as Google and Microsoft do so in their competition in the search and cellphone operating system markets: To gain an advantage over one another in scouring for talent and gaining market (or league) supremacy. They hardly use it to make players better at their sport; the talent does that hard work for themselves.

School districts, on the other hand, don’t really compete against one another; even in cities such as Indianapolis and Houston that are home to numerous school districts, there are marginal differences in salary scales, benefits and work conditions. Forget the U.S. Department of Education’s report on teacher salaries, which doesn’t include data on the fringe benefits that actually account for the bulk of teacher compensation. The combination of seniority- and degree-based pay scales, near-lifetime employment rights, and seniority-based privileges (including the ability to transfer into any school within a district and bump a less-senior instructor) means that few teachers will move across districts; when teachers leave, they usually leave education for good. Only 7 percent of newly-hired public school teachers who were earning less than $40,000 in 2008–09 remained teachers a year later, according to the U.S. Department of Education, while only four percent of new hires teachers earning $40,000 or more in that same period left for greener pastures. The fact that there is so little information on the performance of individual teachers — thanks to desultory performance evaluations and the opposition from teachers’ unions to the use of Value-Added student achievement data in assessing teacher performance — also makes the talent market far less than robust.

The other thing is that money isn’t nearly the factor in the success of Major League franchises as Russo may think. Consider the success of the Florida Marlins, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Atlanta Braves, and the Tampa Bay Rays, all of whom whose revenues are at least $200 million less than that of the Yankee and $72 million less than that of the Red Sox. Small- and middle-market franchises have won eight of the last 20 World Series titles since 1991, and appeared in 15 of those title games in that period; of the ten largest franchises in the league according to annual valuation of sports clubs conducted by my former Forbes‘ colleague, Kurt Badenhausen, just six of them have won titles in 20 seasons — and only the Red Sox and the ever-loathsome Yankees have won more than one in that period.

But there are some things that school reformers can be gleaned from the use of data in major league baseball. Those lessons lie in the importance of leadership in embracing data in sophisticated ways, the critical need for strong leadership in order to achieve success in the first place, and the realization that there is no one solution for solving the nation’s education crisis.

The success of the Athletics, along with the emergence of a younger generation of baseball executives who embrace the use of data, led to other teams adapting sabermetrics to at least some of their operations. The first to do so was the Red Sox, which hired Beane acolyte Theo Epstein in 2002 to revive its then-floundering fortunes. The New York Yankees would follow suit for its own reloading effort, with General Manager Brian Cashman hiring his own crew of Sabermetricians, and the St. Louis Cardinals. As it turned out, it worked well for all three teams as they won several World Series titles during the last decade; Boston, in particular, thrived under sabermetrics with Epstein’s clubs winning two World Series titles with a crew that consisted of big-names (Manny Ramirez) and cast-offs. Thanks to Sabermetrics, the Yankees and the Red Sox could take their deep pockets and spend smartly on talent, acquiring the balance of stars, rising talent, and workaday players who are critical to the success of teams.

But not every team that used Sabermetrics fared well. Back in 2001, the Toronto Blue Jays brought in a Beane understudy, J.P. Ricciardi, to turn around a franchise that had been one of the most-successful during the 1980s and 1990s. Eight years later, Ricciardi left the club having succeeded little. The reluctance of the Blue Jays’ owner, Canadian cable giant Rogers Communications, to open up its coffers to acquire top talent, along with Ricciardi’s own poor decisions on those rare occasions he did get to purchase talent (including the ill-fated signing of slumping slugger Frank Thomas) overcame smart moves made by the club using Sabermetrics such as the development of Roy Halliday and Shawn Camp).

Paul DePodesta did succeed during his tenures developing players for the San Diego Padres; he did even better as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, where his trade of expensive flukes such as Paul LoDuca led to the team reaching the playoffs in 2004. But a year later, he was fired by temperamental owner Frank McCourt, who was unhappy with DePodesta’s search for a replacement for fired manager Paul Tracy; DePodesta couldn’t fix the dysfunction that had plagued ‘Dem Bums since the last days of Tommy Lasorda’s tenure as team manager, nor, as it turned out, could save the franchise from McCourt’s financial and managerial fecklessness.

As for Oakland? After seven straight seasons of playoff appearances, the franchise has missed the playoffs for five straight years. While some want to say that the Athletics’ problems are reflective of the problems faced by all small-market clubs, the fact  that other teams have adopted Sabermetrics means that Beane has lost the advantages he once had in scouring for talent. But Beane has also struggled to change his game up. While he is now scouting high school players in order to develop the Athletics’ pipeline of talent and has focused on data related to the defensive skills of potential talent, he hasn’t exploited other opportunities to field strong teams with top hitters and base runners. Some of the trades he has also pulled off as of late have also been flops. The results are clear: Although the Athletics led the league in 2010 in defensive efficiency — including fewest runs allowed — the team still remained a mess. And this year’s club, a cellar-dweller, is no better.

The lesson of Moneyball for school reformers and education traditionalists isn’t that data doesn’t matter. As seen in the success of the Red Sox (until late) and the Yankees, both of which are adherents of Sabermetrics, such an argument cannot be made with a straight face. Nor can anyone simply say that money doesn’t matter either. What is clear is this: When you use data in a sophisticated way to shape instruction, curricula and the ability of families to be lead decision-makers in education, this allows for money to be spent more-wisely. As seen in the case of Oakland, using data in sophisticated ways to identify talent and structure work can yield some success — and when used by a big-market franchise, can lead to even greater success. One can say with confidence that if education data was used more-effectively in evaluating teacher performance, few laggard teachers would remain on the job, and more schools would become cultures of genius in which the potential of all students are nurtured.

At the same time, it is important to have strong leaders who not only know how to use data effectively and in innovative ways, but also have the other talents needed to lead schools and districts. Certainly principals should use value-added data in order to better-structure instruction; as Dropout Nation noted earlier this year, one can imagine a principal creating collaborative teaching structures in which teachers strong in reading can handle such instruction for an entire fifth-grade group, while peers talented in math teaching can handle those activities. But it is also important for principals to have strong decision-making skill, political savvy, entrepreneurial drive, strategic thinking ability, and talent for motivating staffers to success found among successful managers and leaders in other fields. This goes double for superintendents at the district level, who must tackle dysfunctional cultures in order to turn around failing and mediocre districts.

Ultimately, it means that we must overhaul how we recruit and train principals to serve in schools; since teachers will still account for many of the folks coming into school leadership, it also means overhauling how we recruit and train aspiring teachers in the first place. And it also means giving principals the ability to make tough decisions in the first place. This means moving hiring and firing decisions from central offices to principal’s offices, developing rigorous teacher evaluation systems  that principals can use to keep and reward teachers successful in improving student achievement (and weed out those who cannot), and putting an end to tenure, which has helped to ensure that laggard instructors remain in place to foster systemic dysfunction. It is crazy to ask principals to be instructional and managerial leaders when the structure of school decision-making render such work to be a near-impossibility.

And ultimately, there is no silver bullet for the nation’s education crisis. It will take a myriad of solutions — including better and more sophisticated use of data — in order to improve the quality of instruction, curricula and leadership in order to help all of our children write their own stories. There is no need to denigrate one tool or particular focus, something that a few reformers themselves (including Rick Hess) must keep in mind. As the Rays remind us in its successful push into this year’s playoffs can attest, school reformers will need all kinds of solutions and players in order to build schools fit for our kids.

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The Conversation at Dropout Nation: NCTQ’s Arthur McKee on Reforming Ed Schools

On this special Conversation with Editor RiShawn Biddle, Arthur McKee of the National Council on Teacher Quality offers an opposing view on Dropout Nation‘s commentaries on the future of ed…

On this special Conversation with Editor RiShawn Biddle, Arthur McKee of the National Council on Teacher Quality offers an opposing view on Dropout Nation‘s commentaries on the future of ed schools. While he defends the need for their existence, McKee also argues that their efforts in teacher training and education research are sorely in need of reform.

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 Conversation podcast series and the overall Dropout Nation 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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School Reform is No Bloodless Exercise, Or Rick Hess Responds on “Achievement Gap Mania”

Apparently, Rick Hess doesn’t like being called a contrarian. That’s what one surmises from the American Enterprise Institute scholar’s response to last week’s Dropout Nation commentary about his pieces on…

Apparently, Rick Hess doesn’t like being called a contrarian. That’s what one surmises from the American Enterprise Institute scholar’s response to last week’s Dropout Nation commentary about his pieces on “achievement gap mania.” From where Hess sits, your editor somehow misinterpreted his position on what he considers the nation’s unhealthy effort to overhaul education for all children, even though I pulled quotes from his own pieces saying so. Hess can disagree with my ultimate summation of his thoughts all he wants, but it stands and that’s that. After all, he did write a piece dedicated to arguing that the idea that a focus on stemming the achievement gaps of poor and minority children (as well as young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds) is a bad public policy idea.

Funny thing is that Hess didn’t offer up much of a defense of his underlying argument: That the focus on stemming achievement gaps has sapped time, money and political resources from addressing other educational concerns (and causing the performance of even top-flight students to decline). Probably because that argument was based on a series of specious evidence that didn’t prove anything. After all, in the decade since the achievement gap became a national mania, policymakers have managed to focus their energies on anti-bullying legislation, childhood obesity (including federal rules requiring schools to start victory gardens as part of the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act), and the expansion of school choice. It hasn’t consumed “the whole of our attention” as Hess declares.  Same is true for philanthropies, which have also poured dollars into teacher quality reform initiatives, character education efforts, and family engagement and Parent Power activities. While the latter has garnered the fewest resources that has less to do with the available pots of money than with the reality that donors are more comfortable conversing with Hess and other think tankers over goat cheese hors d’oeuvres than dealing with the messiness of working the grassroots. And given that all American students, including those at the top of their game, have been struggling against their peers internationally for at least three decades, would be off-base in blaming the focus on stemming achievement gaps for these issues.

Contrary to what Hess (and others such as the otherwise estimable Jay P. Greene and the generally one-note Robert Pondiscio) may think, the focus on stemming achievement gaps has not been exacerbated the nation’s education crisis. If anything, as folks such as No Child Left Behind Act mastermind Sandy Kress have pointed out (and Mike Petrilli has admitted), the focus on achievement gaps has helped push the very systemic reforms — from subjecting teachers to private sector-style performance management, to the expansion of school choice — Hess and other reformers desire. It has also yielded some success especially in improving overall student achievement. Certainly, none of these reforms are silver bullets on their own. Nor does one set of instructional method for on. But these efforts, along with others such as blended learning, are creating opportunities for spurring the systemic reforms needed to help all children — from young men struggling with reading at every economic and racial category, to those with stronger learning backgrounds — succeed in school and life.

Hess attempts to blame the focus on stemming achievement gaps for the lack of strong development of instructional techniques that can work for both struggling and more-advanced students. It doesn’t work. What he calls a bitter fruit of “achievement gap mania” is really a problem emanating from the talent and sophistication problems endemic within American public education itself. As Hess himself noted when discussing the spates of cheating in Atlanta, and as Dropout Nation pointed out this month in its commentary on the use of school data, the low quality of teacher and principal training has resulted in the proliferation of school staffers who do plenty badly. And we end up with other players in education who misread the problems instead of realizing that you have teachers and principals on the ground not trained well enough to use any tool — from instructional methods to data — properly in helping students succeed. As Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli made that mistake with data, same is true for Hess when it comes to the focus on stemming achievement gaps.

Again, Hess has a thesis that isn’t worth defending. It deserves to be put into the trash with ability tracking and the Poverty Myth of Education Diane Ravitch and Ruby Payne peddle for profit and prominence. What is particularly amazing is that Hess then goes on to proclaim that the new voices articulating for reform are risking the success of the movement by transforming solutions into dogmatic and “stifling orthodoxies.” Again, he can’t offer any real strong examples from anyone of note (including yours truly; after all, I am as much willing to challenge reformers for faulty thinking as I do education traditionalists). Instead, he offers up a blanket statement about Steve Brill and his new book, Class Warfare, and Davis Guggenheim of Waiting for “Superman”.

One wonders if Hess is reading and seeing what he wants to believe in both the case of Class Warfare and Superman. As Andy Rotherham points out in his review of the book, it is far more nuanced about the problems in education — including how to improve teacher quality — than dogmatic. If anything, Brill’s book hardly offers dogma, but solid reporting that offers a complex picture of both reformers and education traditionalists. Same with Superman, which acknowledged that charter schools weren’t the sole answer, and that teachers’ unions aren’t the only obstacles to systemic reform. And, contrary, to what Hess argues, few of the new voices coming into school reform are all dogmatic. A woman like Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union, for example, is probably far more open to new solutions than many longtime reformers; the same is true for her counterparts.

Meanwhile Hess, like a number of Beltway reformers, is obtuse about the concept of filmmaking and writing for the public. For books that are meant to be read be the average person (you know, the folks who will never read the 100-page policy studies Hess writes for living, and I put together when I’m not writing for average people), a book has to offer this thing called a narrative, in which there is a struggle between opposing forces that disagree on critical matters; there also have to be these people called characters and protagonists, who are engaged in that struggle. Meanwhile filmmaking is a form of communication in which images are more-important than turns of phrase. This means scenes of unemployment lines in rural South Carolina, images of teachers working heroically in charter schools, and even a menacing sound bite from Randi Weingarten in front of a black background.

A cinematic version of AEI panel discussions, lovely as they are (and as much as I, a policy geek, enjoys them) will not grab any public attention. And, as I said last year about Hess’ wrongheaded criticism of Superman, school reformers have to realize that you will need more voices, more Brills and more Guggenheims (along with others in the creative fields) in order to rally strong support for reform from the public. Up to now, the movement has succeeded in spite of itself; save for folks such as Steve Barr of Green Dot and others working in communities, they have done a poor job of rallying both urban families (who have flocked to reform in spite of that deficit) as well as suburban communities whose schools are more mediocre than they realize. Instead of criticizing these voices for using their tools for advocacy as they are supposed to (because those forms demand it), reformers should embrace them, learn more about these formats, and use them for their own efforts.

Some may argue I have been too hard on Hess. And perhaps, I have. But he’s a grown up and he can take it the same way I do each day. While I certainly admire Hess’ work and his thoughts on reforming American public education, I also think that his views on both the achievement gap and new voices in education are off-target. More importantly, in criticizing Hess and other reformers, Dropout Nation is fulfilling its mission. This publication not only exists to push for a revolution in American public education that helps all children succeed in school and life, and to speak truth to educational traditionalists who hold influence and power. It is also to constantly remind reformers, especially Hess, that they must walk the talk, that they must stand straight and upright for the very children they want to help, and that they must be held as accountable for lapses in thinking as status quo defenders must be for, as school reform donor R. Boykin Curry, would say in his slight overstatement, getting proverbial blood on their hands.

This is not a bloodless exercise, and not a public policy game. Our kids get only one chance every day to get ready for the future – and we only get this time, right now, to help them make their ambitions real. This doesn’t mean being dogmatic, but being thoughtful radicals unashamedly, unapologetically pursuing systemic reform for both our kids who get the least and our youngsters blessed with abundance. This means challenging everyone, from Beltway reformers to grassroots activists, the same way voices of conscience from past movements — including the student groups that energized and questioned established groups in the civil rights and conservative movements — to live up to the best within themselves. And that means every reformer must spend time challenging each other as well as the other side.

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