Author: Steve Peha

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To Be or NCLB? Or What Backtracking on Accountability May Wrought

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As we wait not so patiently for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, we’re getting a little antsy. This is understandable; the law was due for an overhaul almost…

As we wait not so patiently for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, we’re getting a little antsy. This is understandable; the law was due for an overhaul almost four years ago and probably won’t get it for another year and a half at least. And even when it comes, it may arrive only in piecemeal form like the new legislation approved by the House Education and the Workforce Committee to encourage more development of high-quality charter schools.

Just as the notion of consequential accountability seems to be losing favor, several sharp arguments in support have recently appeared. Joel Klein published a beyond-no-nonsense appeal for accountability in The Atlantic. My colleague, RiShawn Biddle has written recently about the need to maintain and expand accountability. And Sandy Kress, the former Bush administration education point man who crafted No Child, has written a towering 50-page argument (along with Stephanie Zechmann, and J. Matthew Schmitten) in the Harvard Law Journal.

As accountability seems to be losing ground in the popular debate, articulate advocates are sharpening their swords. This argument could have been settled several years ago with a timely reauthorization but it wasn’t. During this awkward legislative hiatus, we’ve been wondering anxiously how things would fall out. Like Shakespeare’s distraught Prince of Denmark, we notice fraying at the edges of the raveled sleeve of care and ponder the question: To be or NCLB?

History in the (Un)Making

Pro or con, it’s hard to argue the historic importance of No Child. However imperfect the law may be, its passage marked the first time in our nation’s history that we committed to educating every child. Regardless of how the law is changed, we must not waiver in this commitment.

All children in America must be educated to reach their full potential. All children must have reasonable choices of desirable schools, engaging instruction by highly-qualified teachers, mastery of relevant and essential curriculum, and the support required to pursue meaningful life opportunities in school and out.

Every legislator in the House and Senate should find no trouble agreeing with this, nor should any of the rest of us. Piecemeal or wholesale, tear it down as many implore, or patch it up as some suggest, any changes to No Child must continue to satisfy five foundational principles of reform:

  • Good learning. Every child educated to meet the challenges of today’s world.
  • Good schools. A reasonable choice of desirable environments in which to learn
  • Good teachers. A highly-qualified instructor in every classroom.
  • Good curriculum. Mastery of relevant and essential knowledge and skills.
  • Good lives. The pursuit of meaningful life opportunities for all.

We can argue endlessly about federal requirements that are too loose or too tight, about the potential of local control, or more charter schools, or the use of Value Added Measurement to determine teacher employment, or the equity of competitive grant programs. In the end, however, we either stand for the principles of reform or we do not.

No Child isn’t perfect. But it has its principles, too—principles worth supporting even if the means by which we support them change.

Turning Our Homework in Late

We’ve all been there; we’ve all put off an important assignment and then hoped somehow we could turn it in late without consequence. But even when our teachers let us off the hook, we forgot about the hook we’d put ourselves on: all that worrying when we could just as easily have been working.

Something like this has happened with No Child as its reauthorization has been pushed farther and farther back into oblivion.

First, as the anxiety grows, people are focusing more intensely than ever on the parts of the law they don’t like. As a result, the legislation’s reputation is being distorted. To read the media today, one would think that No Child was akin to Plessy v. Fergusson in its disastrous denial of opportunity for kids and its detriment to our education system as a whole. True enough, No Child is far from perfect. But it isn’t all bad. Not even close.

Second, as NCLB moves on, it moves on untended (or simply waived). The federal government isn’t really working it anymore because they have little to work it with. Secretary Duncan’s recent “Plan B” threat to push Congress into action, or to force states to swallow a bitter pill of initiatives in exchange for blanket immunity from 2014 prosecution, seems more like a desperate stunt than a shrewd strategy.

Finally, into the void of legislative leadership, many issues and personalities have rushed in. States have taken measures into their own hands with changes to labor laws. Philanthropists and business leaders see extraordinary opportunities for influence during a period where federal influence is non-existent. Individuals, too, are making a big splash as they battle each other to be education’s next Superman.

None of this is inherently bad. But it is inherently chaotic. And it is probably this chaos, and the feelings of uncertainty we experience in chaotic situations, that is at least partially responsible for the sharply negative turn in the quality of discourse we have in our country right now with regard to education. Do we really hate each other so much? Or do we hate the fact that we have so little leadership from Washington at this time?

Death By Double Fault

The real trouble is that we may be dealing with two problems instead of just one: the problem of fixing No Child and the problem of fixing the argument over fixing NCLB.

To knee-jerk detractors of No Child, and local control ideologues, this odd turn of events couldn’t have turned out better. The longer we go without reauthorization, the less popular No Child becomes. The less popular it becomes, the less any administration will seek to retain the law’s most powerful elements.

At the same time, as recent writings by influential people indicate, the original argument for consequential accountability may be just as valid today as it was ten years ago.

No Child was not perfect in its original version (and I haven’t heard even the folks who wrote it suggest that it was.) Bundling a great number of factors into the single “index of quality” called AYP was probably not the best way to go. This is, however, easily fixed. Was the 2014 deadline unrealistic? Not in theory, but certainly in practice. Disgruntled states, laboring under what they felt were an unfunded mandate, engaged in sullen foot-dragging. Most were unrealistic in thinking they could get their schools moving without actually asking them to move or supporting them very much in sustaining momentum.

Here again, small changes to No Child could take care of this problem. Did the high-quality teacher provision make sense? Not as implemented because it focused on credentials instead of quality. But ten years later, we know that credentials aren’t as valuable as we once thought. We also know a lot more about how to identify quality teachers.

These insights add up logically to small, smart changes we could make to No Child in a thoughtful reauthorization. But it appears that we’re not going to get small, smart changes. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that even after years have passed since the law was due to be reauthorized, we still don’t know what we’re going to get.

To be or NCLB? That truly is the question. No Child is a well-defined path with much to recommend it if one removes ideological blinders and reflects a bit about what pre-accountability schooling was like and what working in schools is like today. But in the absence of strong federal leadership, ideologues are sucking all the air out of the room.

To be or NCLB? It seems the answer won’t be No Child. But we don’t know what it will be either. Much like Hamlet, we’re left in a quandary: to sleep perchance to dream; to knit up those raveled sleeves of care if we can. When it comes to No Child, our government has fallen asleep. And when it wakes up, it isn’t clear at all that our kids will wake up to something better.

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The Peter Principal: Building Up Leadership By Staying in Place

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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…

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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The Peter Principal — Or the Critical Need for School Leadership

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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,…

Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century-Fox and Gracie Productions

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?

Tomorrow: Peha discusses what steps must be taken to improve both school leadership and teaching.

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Why Bill Gates and the School Reform Movement Are Succeeding

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This Thursday and Friday, Dropout Nation takes a look at why defenders of traditional public education struggle against the intellectual, moral and political forces behind the nation’s school reform movement….

This Thursday and Friday, Dropout Nation takes a look at why defenders of traditional public education struggle against the intellectual, moral and political forces behind the nation’s school reform movement. Today, Contributing Editor Steve Peha — who straddles the fence between both sides — wonders why status quo defenders can’t offer their own compelling vision. Tomorrow, Editor and Publisher RiShawn Biddle will offer a few answers. Read, consider and offer your own thoughts.

People ask me a lot of questions about education. These days, people are asking, “What’s Bill Gates up to?” I think they want me to say, “No good!” But I don’t. Instead, I say something like this: “Bill Gates is doing the same thing he’s always done—trying to make the world a better place.” People hate this answer, but I believe it’s true.

Bill Gates is a smart man. Two things make him even smarter: he doesn’t worry about making mistakes and he doesn’t care what people think when he does. If it seems he’s playing a big part in the present evolution of American education, it’s probably because he doesn’t waste time fretting about the future or pouting about the past.

Perhaps it is precisely because of these qualities that so many people believe that he must have a hidden agenda—some intricate plot to realize a grand hegemonic dream of controlling American education from a Windows-based smartphone. But I think most of us mischaracterize him, his motivations, and his foundation. In the process, we miss an opportunity to be just as intelligent and influential.

What Would You Do?

What if you had big dollars, an agile mind, and a sincere desire to change your country’s education system? My hunch is that you’d study a lot, listen to experts you liked, speak and write about your ideas, and use your money and reputation to realize your vision of the way you think things should be. That’s certainly what I’d do; I think that’s what most people would do. And that’s exactly what Bill Gates is doing.

Furthermore, if you had created one of the largest and most successful businesses in the world, you’d probably apply many of the same business principles you’d been so successful with to education.

And because education is not a business, you might make some mistakes.

Your mistakes (along with your determination and efficient disregard of criticism) might make people nervous; they might think you were arrogant, narcissistic, or just uncaring. Such is the case with the way many people in education feel about Bill Gates. Many of us are nervous because he wields great power and influence, and because, in our opinion, he doesn’t always make good decisions.

No one in education, however, has a perfect batting average. So what it comes down to is how many times one gets up to the plate. Bill Gates gets up to the plate very often. His detractors, by contrast, are rarely even on the field, preferring instead to heckle from the stands.

Is it possible that one of the most successful entrepreneurs in American history might have a little more confidence in his own judgment than many of the rest of us do? Might that cause him to back a bad idea once in a while? Or to make inaccurate statements in important speeches? Or to fund dubious ideas simply because he can afford a trial and error approach? Like all entrepreneurs, Bill Gates often takes questionable but well-calculated risks. But this is hardly the stuff of Darth Vader.

Who Ya Gonna Trust?

Many people do not trust Bill Gates. They think he’s up to something. And they’re right—he’s up to changing American education. But to say he’s “up to” it is merely to say he’s got the courage to take strong positions and to back them up with strong actions.

Some of us may be losing sleep over this, but I can assure you that Bill Gates is not. Unlike many of us who wear ourselves out with worry, I imagine that Bill Gates bounds out of bed each morning bright-eyed and battle-ready.

Most of the time, most of us tend to trust the people we think are a lot like us. On many issues in education, I trust people like Anthony Cody and Richard Rothstein. Both of these men—Mr. Cody an educator; Mr. Rothstein a policy analyst—have published very successful disagreements with Bill Gates. They’re also not billionaires (as far as I know), so they’re a little easier for me to relate to.

But if they were billionaires would they be doing anything different than using their resources to promote their ideas about education to change it to fit the way they think it should be? And if one of them suddenly hit the PowerBall would it make sense for me to switch my allegiance to under-funded underdogs just because wealthy people sometimes make me nervous? [Addendum: During the editing process, a couple of paragraphs were inelegantly summed up in an earlier version of this piece for space considerations, stating that Mr. Cody was already advocating his ideas with other people’s money. This unfairly puts him in the same category as Rothstein, who, as an employee of a think tank, is doing so. Dropout Nation regrets that inelegant summation, which didn’t fully reflect Steve’s thoughts.]

Mr. Cody and Mr. Rothstein are people I admire greatly. I like to think that if most Americans understood what they had to say, and heard them say it regularly, their thought-leadership would drive the national dialog. In the game of ideas, both of these men—and many other sharp folks—easily beat Bill Gates in the game of edulogic.

While his detractors play their game from the grandstand, he plays the real game—up at bat taking his cuts at wicked sliders and fastballs so fast they make Stephen Strasburg look like a little leaguer. The best his critics can hope for is that he strikes out. But he’s smart enough to remember that even a .300 hitter can make the Hall of Fame. He also knows that heavy hitters who swing for the fences strike out a little more often than those who focus on singles and sacrifices.

The Secret Recipe

The secret recipe for serious change in America has always been more or less the same: well-articulated ideas backed by money brought to bear on important problems through constant exertions of power and influence. Bill Gates knows this recipe well. To many of the rest of us, it’s something of a mystery. Even if we do understand it, it still feels wrong somehow—like an injustice, or an affront to democracy, or sometimes merely distasteful. Much as I consider myself a passionate advocate for education reform, Bill Gates’ approach feels uncomfortable to me.

Fortunately, the secret recipe is not a secret. Anyone who has studied even a small amount of our nation’s history and politics knows it by heart. For good or ill, it’s simply the way we do things in America.

So why don’t the folks who are so concerned about Bill Gates use the same secret recipe he does? Why don’t they do the money, power, and influence thing? The Gates Foundation doesn’t really spend very much on education each year—only a few hundred million dollars. That’s nowhere near the largest part of their portfolio.

There are many people on, shall we say, the “progressive” side of life, who are just as smart and just as interested in education as Bill Gates. While perhaps not as individually wealthy, a group of these people could easily pony up the same kind of cash the Bill & Gates Foundation does for school reform. So why can’t we get George Soros involved? Or Arianna Huffington? Al Gore’s made a buck or two in the last decade or so, and I think his progressive bona fides are still intact.

And why does Bill Gates automatically get Bono on his side? Why didn’t we call him first? (Or at least get The Edge.) Did we forget to buy enough U2 albums? Or did we merely forget that one the world’s most enduringly popular rock stars is smart as a whip, socially aware, and probably committed to some of the same things we are? Sometimes I think that part of our problem is that our side doesn’t know how to use a Rolodex.

What about Spielberg? Beatty? Penn? Clooney? These guys have big hearts, big bank accounts, and progressive outlooks. Or how about John and Teresa Heinz-Kerry? Russell Simmons and Magic Johnson would surely have plenty to offer. There’s Jobs, Woz, Ellison, and the whole Silicon Valley crew. Sun Microsystems founder Scott McNealy could certainly be doing something more powerful than Curriki, and George Lucas could make a huge impact if he morphed Edutopia into something focused on defining high quality teaching.

Why can’t we pull folks like these together around our vision of a better education for every child?

For that matter, why is Michelle Rhee the only person beating the bushes for a billion dollars this year? She seems no more popular in many education circles than Bill Gates. Her record in education has certainly been less than perfect, and she’s said and written things far worse than any influential philanthropist. If she can find a million fans and raise a billion dollars, why can’t we?

Don’t think we’ve got the cash? Wrong. Teachers union dues, for example, amount to a far greater financial influence than that of Bill Gates; it’s just that unions don’t get very much for the money they spend because they tend to spend it on the wrong things. Instead of being angry with The Gates Foundation, why not create a foundation to counter its work in some constructive way that adds value to the national dialog?

There is no mystery about Bill Gates (or Michelle Rhee); there is nothing untoward that he is “up to”. He’s trying to do exactly the same thing we’re trying to do; he’s just mastered the game. The mystery is why we’re not stepping up to challenge him on the same playing field. Those of us who disagree with him may feel anxious and frustrated. We may impute sinister motives. But that doesn’t rock the vote as MTV likes to put it.

What we need is not more carping about Bill Gates, or Michelle Rhee, or TFA, or KIPP, or any of the other powerful and prominent entities with whom we may be uncomfortable. What we need are entities just as powerful making a different case for improving education in America—the case we believe in—by marshaling the same type of resources and influence.

In the end, the question isn’t, “What’s Bill Gates up to?” He’s just changing education in a way that matches his worldview using the strategies that work best in our culture. The real question is, “What are the rest of us up to? If what’s holding us back is some awkward sense that people just shouldn’t play this way, or that large scale education problems should be worked out differently than we work out every other kind of problem here in America, then we’ve got something much bigger to worry about than what Bill Gates is up to.

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Steps Towards Better Teacher Quality

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As Eric Hanushek has proven in a recent working paper, teachers make huge amounts of money. Maybe not for themselves, but certainly for their students and for their country. They…

As Eric Hanushek has proven in a recent working paper, teachers make huge amounts of money. Maybe not for themselves, but certainly for their students and for their country. They can help students in classes of 20 generate marginal gains of more than $400,000 in present value of future earnings, and even more if they teach in larger classrooms. And if we get rid of the worst-performing five-to-eight percent with just average teachers, we can move America near the top of the world’s math and science rankings, bringing in $100 trillion in present value of future gains.

The calculations behind these conclusions may be complicated but the message is simple: effective teachers are extremely valuable.

We all feel intuitively that good teachers provide more value to our children than poor ones, but now we have economics to match our emotions. We also have a major policy implication for school reform: a logical way to improve our education system would be to fire our worst teachers and replace them with average teachers.

But how would we pull this off?

It’s All in the Numbers

Identifying the worst five-to-eight percent of teachers is possible but it’s not possible to be completely accurate about it. To make sure we got the worst teachers out of the classroom, we’d have to identify them at a higher rate, maybe as high as 10 percent.

With a conservative estimate of three million active teachers, that would mean firing 300,000 of them and replacing them with 300,000 teachers who were significantly better. Where would we find an additional 300,000 teachers? And given that we want average teachers as replacements, we might need to find twice as many, or 600,000, in order to throw half of them out.

Obviously, we’re not going to do this all in one day.

Our worst teachers are often our youngest teachers. Mr. Hanushek and others acknowledge that it takes most teachers three years to hit their stride. But many of our long-serving teachers are also among the worst. This too must also be acknowledged. So we probably need to hold off on the pink slips for new arrivals. This means letting more experienced people go and then hoping new hires reach at least average performance levels three years later. It’s hard to predict the success of a teacher before he or she starts teaching. We might end up in a cycle of removing low-performing teachers, recruiting potential replacements, and then removing many of the replacements who didn’t reach average levels of performance.

But it gets even more complicated. It’s also important to consider how individual schools or districts might be affected. The lowest-performing 10 percent of teachers in a ritzy suburb might be a very different population than the lowest-performing 10 percent of teachers in a remote rural area.

Obviously, we’d need a standard for teacher quality and a uniform evaluation system that cut across schools and districts. Then, when we find out what we already know—that some schools have better teachers than others. Forced transfers may be needed to keep classrooms filled as schools filled with low-performing teachers are disproportionately affected.

Mr. Hanushek’s findings, and the obvious policy implications that arise from them make perfect sense. But they might not play out so sensibly in the field. We have over 15,000 school districts in our country and over 100,000 schools. That makes it hard to balance supply and demand.

We must also look at how it looks for kids. While Mr. Hanushek’s work is macroeconomic in nature, and his conclusion is stated in terms of teachers we’d need to fire and replace, it also has a microeconomic dimension that can be expressed in terms of the life potential of a single student. Having a string of better teachers, as opposed to a string of worse teachers, makes a huge difference to a child. (Dropout Nation has elaborated on this in its collection of reports and podcasts on teacher quality issues). There’s quite a risk, then, to our children in simply leaving weak teachers in the system.

Building Better Teacher Recruiting, Training and Evaluation

With a reliable way to evaluate teachers nationwide, and tens of thousands of reasonably talented people to replace our poorest performers, who wouldn’t rush to implement a policy of “ire and hire” onsistent with Mr. Hanushek’s work? But such conditions don’t exist at present. At the same time, Mr. Hanushek’s work makes clear that allowing children to languish in the classrooms of low-performing teachers isn’t fair. We know the cost to both kids and country. We can’t continue to turn a blind eye.

There are risks on both sides. We tend to focus primarily on the risk to children but adults are at risk of losing their jobs. And even if they haven’t performed those jobs well, they were certified, hired, and favorably evaluated, sometimes for many years. Most would have no idea they were some of the least successful educators in the system.

The challenge, then, lies in balancing the risk to children with the risk to adults—between taking on the immense challenge of replacing our nation’s worst teachers and allowing the many children whose lives they touch to be negatively affected.

So how do we do this? Here are three suggestions:

Residencies for Early-Career Teachers: Most teachers, and much research, tell us that years one through three are the crucial years in a teacher’s career. These are the years that often determine whether teachers stay or go and how effective they become later on. So we need to adapt the techniques we use to prepare doctors. After working hard in school, they work even harder in the field under the guidance of experienced professionals. They are, technically, doctors. But until they successfully complete their residency, they can’t move on in their careers.

The end of year three is the most appropriate place to determine whether or not a new teacher should remain in the system. A three-year residency, with ample support from master teachers, would be the best way to develop high quality teachers for long and successful careers.

New Evaluation Systems: We can argue all day about the quality and fairness of evaluation systems, but we can’t make much progress without them. The traditional approach, where virtually all teachers receive satisfactory ratings based cursory observations and little or no valuable feedback, is of no help to anyone.

Evaluation systems need to be more rigorous and more comprehensive. They need to include more inputs like multiple classroom observations by multiple observers, student achievement data, interviews, personal statements, and student work samples. We also need to consider the value a teacher brings to his or her colleagues. A school is a community and a teacher is more than just an isolated set of statistics.

A  Fatter Pipe of New Talent for Career Classroom Teaching: If we’re going to be moving some teachers out, we have to have new teachers to replace them, and those teachers have to be better. This requires two things: a larger pool of talent to begin with and individual members of that talent pool who are committed to career classroom teaching. It does little good to bring talented new people into the classroom if they only stay for two or three years. We can’t raise the quality of teaching overall on a national level with a revolving door approach. (My Dropout Nation colleague, RiShawn Biddle, slightly disagrees, arguing that this problem is easy to solve with robust recruiting and training, along with more-rewarding and socially-entrepreneurial career paths.)

These three recommendations have three things in common: they require more people, they require more money, and they suggest a national dimension to the teacher quality issue. Residency programs require master practitioners. Evaluation systems require larger numbers of well-trained evaluators. And a fatter pipeline of talent means getting more, and more talented, people into teaching—people who actually want to be career teachers.

What’s the national angle? Part of Mr. Hanushek’s thesis is about the economic value of raising average student performance throughout our country by raising the proportion of average teachers throughout our country. If only a few districts apply these ideas, little benefit accrues. Although I will acknowledge that many cities, including New York City and Indianapolis, already have residency and recruiting programs of their own, it’s hard to imagine every district building their own evaluation systems. The cost of operating all three on their own (or even with partners such as the New Teacher Project, which runs many of these efforts) would be too high. Economies of scale are needed.

National leadership and direct federal involvement in teacher recruitment, training, and retention is a reasonable response. Most of the countries whose education systems we admire have national systems of teacher preparation. This would provide a national benchmark for teacher quality and help balance supply with demand.

School has always been a state issue. It’s difficult to see ourselves doing anything meaningful in education related to teacher quality through coordinated federal leadership. But we are coming closer to realizing the necessity of national approaches, and Mr. Hanushek’s research is of many reasons why.

Ten years ago, the notion of national curriculum standards and national testing didn’t appeal to anyone. Now, more than 40 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative, and by 2015, two multi-state assessment consortia will give us a near-national testing system. So even when we run up against states’ rights and local control, we can live with national approaches in education that make sense to us. Knowing the incredible value of improving teacher quality, why couldn’t we live with a national approach in this case?

Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

As the saying goes, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Now we know just how expensive ignorance is—and how teacher quality factors into that equation. Mr. Hanushek’s findings may look like the perfect justification for mass firings. But they are also a stunning validation of good teaching. In addition to developing more rigorous teacher evaluation systems, investments in developing more good teachers are worthy of consideration. On a national scale, teaching quality is a vital component of economic success.

We can’t just focus on mass firings (although I must also acknowledge that most reformers aren’t calling for that). In fact, from where I sit, it’s a bad idea. We should choose to focus on mass improvements instead. We should certainly be more restrictive about letting extremely low-performing teachers enter and stay in the field. More important than that, we must support teachers in their first three years so we can increase the value of all teachers operating above minimum levels of effectiveness.

As overall teaching quality improves, it makes sense to raise pay for teachers, and to raise it more for exceptional teachers. If consistent and permanent performance-based pay grades replaced inconsistent and temporary merit pay schemes, teaching might become more economically viable for the next generation of teachers.

As a result of Mr. Hanushek’s work, the value of a teacher just went up—sharply. Economic value isn’t the only measure of a teacher’s a worth. But it’s a powerful metric in a free-market society such as ours.

Teachers are valuable and we know how much they are. We can now do more to bring better teachers into the field, support them so we can improve their effectiveness, and keep good-to-great teachers in our classrooms.

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On Performance Pay: Motivating for Successful Teaching

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One of the most unsettling things we are discovering about teaching in America is that it isn’t very good, and that unlike fine wine it doesn’t get better with age….

One of the most unsettling things we are discovering about teaching in America is that it isn’t very good, and that unlike fine wine it doesn’t get better with age. The best research we have suggests that first year teachers are horribly unprepared, that they improve a little in years two and three, and that they don’t get much better after that. Even getting a master’s degree doesn’t make a difference. Ultimately, value-added research has shown that it is virtually impossible to expect even 10 percent of our teachers to significantly improve their skills over the course of their careers.

But we must also work with what we have. Creating positive teacher change, especially for in-service teachers, is the Sphinx-like riddle of our age. But it has also been my job for over a decade. And I really hate to not get better at my job. I am motivated by money and by all those simple capitalist goodies that are so easy to keep track of. So I’ve worked hard to get better over the years at helping teachers get better.

What I discovered is that the solution to motivating teachers is much simpler than I thought. I’ve gotten good gains with larger groups in a year or less by offering one simple highly motivating incentive: Helping teachers improve their instruction so that their lives are easier and their kids learn more. The KIPP-like round-the-clock intensity that seems to work so well for our high-flying charter schools has its virtues. But this isn’t going to work with longtime instructors.  We have to show teachers how to work less, not more, while their kids get smarter at the same time.

Saving time, however, is not enough. The easiest way to save time is simply not to do your work. Give out textbook-based assignments and sit behind your desk all day. Become a packet queen. Show movies. It isn’t hard to do less at school. But teachers who do this turn into burnouts or just tend to fade out of their schools until there is nothing left. They also break a lot of rules which isn’t very affirming either.

Every teacher knows why they’re in the room: to help children learn. And even if you hate your job, or you’re terrible at it, or you’re having a bad time in your personal life, you have dozens of little reminders in the form of students looking to you every day for new learning. Truth is, many teachers may not be very responsible about making sure kids learn, but every teacher feels that responsibility, and I think it even carries a certain amount of ethical weight. So part of what motivates teachers is saving time. But the other part is seeing kids learn. And getting one without the other is simply not good enough.

If you’ve got 100 things that fulfill both of those goals—and my company does—teachers will gobble them right up and put them into practice. They’ll start to get happier, too. After all, they’ll have more time on their hands and, most importantly, they’ll see their kids learning more and more rapidly.

Our approach at our training is a simple trade: We’ll trade you one bad practice that has never worked for one equivalent practice that will work a lot better. And we’ll prove it by coming into your room and using it with your kids first. That way you know it works and we know it works.

We’ll also show you how to stop doing the myriad useless tasks you think they have to perform—even though you know they don’t help kids learn. Chief among these is grading papers. We show teachers how to give feedback to kids while they’re actually working and can really use the advice. When you just hand back grades, your students find it hard to integrate this poor form of feedback into their learning.

But beyond my work, we should use what we already know about motivation. We know this: External motivators such as performance pay can work. But internal motivation factors work better There are many choices. All are better than what we do now.

My personal favorite is Deci & Ryan’s “Self-Determination Theory”. Dan Pink does a splendid job of describing it in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” The Deci & Ryan model is based on three simple components which, when present to sufficient degrees, seem to help people learn to motivate themselves. This approach to internal motivation is much more effective in the long run. [My colleague, RiShawn Biddle, takes some issue with Pink’s studies on motivation, arguing as he did yesterday that Pink that doesn’t understand the role of compensation structure and economics in motivation.]

“Self-Determination Theory” says we do our best work when we these three key factors in place:

Autonomy: Never force teachers to use our stuff or even force them to use it the way we use it. As a teaching instructor, I do make recommendations and provide models and “Script the early moves” as the Heath brothers suggest in their new book on change. But teachers ultimately need the autonomy that Deci & Ryan define as choice over tools, technique, time, and task. This is opposed to the approach of many performance-based pay programs, which provide rules and adoptions and other constraints that make their work harder.

Competence: Who likes spending their whole day feeling like they’re screwing up? Because of poor training and the lack of meaningful on-the-job support, teachers rarely feel competent about what they do. To motivate them through our training, we attempt to create situations that guarantee they’ll feel competent with new practices by teaching those practices right along side of them. We call this co-teaching and it’s not only a lot of fun, it’s a real confidence builder. Most importantly, we don’t let people stay mired in failure. Anyone who has a bad lesson or a bad unit is encourage to write or call us right away for help—at no charge—so we can get them unstuck and feeling competent again.

Relatedness: Unless you’ve been a teacher, it’s hard to imagine how lonely the job is. You spend almost every minute of your day stuffed in a room full of kids. Sometimes it feels like you’re the only adult on the planet. We all have a need to feel like a part of something larger than ourselves. But schools are designed as sets of rectangular isolation wards. This is patently demotivating. In our approach, we try to open those rooms up with cross-class activities, co-teaching opportunities, modeled teaching sessions, teaching teams (not PLCs!), and just about any way we can get more than one teacher in a room at the same time.

The important thing in all of this is to focus on building internal motivation. This will last longer than any effects from external motivations provided by performance pay plan. Even when performance pay works, it isn’t sustaining for the long run. All of us, including teachers, need to feel motivated about our work over the course of a long and other challenging career.

Motivating teachers is a lot easier if you understand what motivates them. And it is reasonable to assume that they can be motivated to improve by helping them make their jobs easier and their practice more effective. In this sense, the motivational component is more direct. Being well paid and being judged meritorious have never been primary values for career classroom teachers. By contrast, time and learning have always been high on teachers’ list of priorities. And if we help them teach kids better, we have helped reform education for the better.

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