Why Jay's classroom focus is wrong
I often read "Dropout Nation," a blog covering education reform written and edited by a very experienced journalist and former editorial writer, RiShawn Biddle. Recently in discussing one of my pieces, he said I was wrong to put the emphasis on what happens in the classroom.
Readers of this blog know I have been punched out from every possible direction. This was a gentle blow, no more than a friendly critique. But I could not remember anyone ever saying that my preference for the micro (teachers, students, schools and parents) over the macro (school districts, state and federal education departments, teacher unions and national politicians) was a weakness.
Intrigued, I asked Biddle if we could exchange some emails on this question, and whatever other issues it led to, and publish it on my blog. He kindly agreed. Here is our conversation:
Mathews: I was intrigued by your argument that what happens in the classroom is NOT the most important part of improving schools. What do you think is more important, and why?
Biddle: Certainly you can't improve schools without improving what happens in classrooms. All that said, you can’t fix what happens in classrooms until you deal with the systemic problems plaguing American public education today: Low teacher quality; abysmal curricula; the failure to inform parents and let them be lead players in education decision-making; and a culture of low expectations set by teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders alike.
Take teacher quality: As both Arthur Levine and Martin Haberman have noted (and as Teach For America’s own work has shown), our ed schools fail to recruit aspiring teachers with strong subject competency, who are entrepreneurial, and who care for children. The fact that ed schools then fail to adequately train teachers on such basics as reading instruction is also a problem. State laws, teachers’ union contracts and bureaucratic incompetence within districts result in too many poor-performing teachers remaining in classrooms.
Mathews: Sure, but we have known for a long time that the ed schools have that problem. Have they even TRIED to fix it in any significant way? No. I don't think begging for reform at those institutions is going to work. I am far more encouraged by the efforts of school organizations, like the High Tech High group, to set up their own teacher training programs, in effect going around the ed schools. A similar program, Teacher U, has been set up at the education school at Hunter College in NYC. By whom? People who run successful charter schools. The promotion of the teaching methods book "Teach Like a Champion" is also helpful powerful, and again is being done on the school level. I think we have to forget about people above that level doing much. They will only get themselves together if they see the schools stealing their assignments.
Biddle: Happily, alternatives such as Teach For America and Teach Like a Champion are starting to gain traction. But these alternatives still produce a smidgen of the 200,000 new teachers sent into classrooms every year. Ed schools still produce more than 90 percent of all teachers and consume most of the $7 billion a year spent on recruiting and training. They can’t be ignored.
But, as I have said, it isn’t just a teacher training problem. It is also a matter of how we manage teacher performance and reward them for great work. The traditional system of teacher compensation, for example, does little to inspire high-performing teachers to continually improve their performance or even pursue new ways of improving student achievement. This, in turn, discourages the talented, entrepreneurial people our kids need.
The great thing about charter schools is that they encourage teachers to become entrepreneurial, to start their own schools. We need to create career routes that bring more talents into teaching.
Mathews: It seems like you are getting too far from the source of the solution again, but maybe not. You haven't quite said how to fix the performance and reward system. I think we should also leave this to individual schools, that is, individual principals who are picked VERY carefully. Let them decide how to compensate and motivate, so they can create the team spirit that works best for their group. If the Edmonton reform model became more popular in regular school districts, with principals being allowed to make most of the budget decisions, then nearly every school could be run like a charter. Am I wrong?
Biddle: Let me unpack this: The problem starts with the fact that American public education doesn't adequately evaluate teacher performance. State laws and union contracts banning the use of student performance data in performance evaluations leaves schools with almost no objective way to assess teacher performance. This, in turn, makes it difficult for schools to sort out high-performing teachers from laggards who shouldn't be in the classrooms.
The traditional system of teacher compensation -- near-lifetime employment in the form of tenure, degree- and seniority-based pay scales, reverse seniority rules governing layoffs, and defined-benefit pensions -- does little to either reward highly-effective teaching or foster what I call "a culture of genius in education" in which all children get a high-quality education. Because traditional teacher compensation fosters a career path in which teachers only stay in the classroom, it also discourages talented, entrepreneurial, caring people from the profession.
Consider this: Just because someone is stellar at teaching, cares for children and enjoys the profession doesn’t mean they want to be just a teacher for life. The kind of talented and gifted people who are best at teaching -- people like Jason Kamras, Steve Evangelista and Jaime Escalante -- are also the kind of people who are interested in other challenges. Some may want to start their own schools; others may want to start programs that address aspects of our nation's educational crisis; others may want to become school leaders.
As I mentioned earlier, we need to change how we compensate teachers in order to lure and keep high-quality talents into the profession. This goes beyond simply providing performance bonuses. Another is to provide great teachers grants to start their own social entrepreneur programs — including schools, teaching fellowship programs or even the next Black Star Project.
But reforming teacher compensation isn't one you can solve at the individual school level. This is because most teachers work for school districts, whose central offices control most human resources and human capital decisions. Now, if you move to a structural reform concept I've been developing called the Hollywood Model of Education, then the issues with compensation can be dealt with at local school levels because every school would essentially be a charter school.
Mathews: What evidence do you have that that change to compensation based on student progress will attract more good people to the profession?
Biddle: At this moment, there isn’t much evidence. This is largely because we haven’t had any large-scale efforts in this direction. The Denver pay-for-performance plan largely allowed veteran teachers to stick to traditional pay scales instead and only allowed them to voluntarily opt into pay-for-performance. Until an entire group of school districts move from traditional compensation scales, we won’t have an answer.
We can look at other sectors to see how performance based and opportunity-based pay can work. Take the tech sector, where companies such as Microsoft and Google have continually attracted high-quality talent because the workers know they will be rewarded for great both – both monetarily and in future opportunities.
The reality is that we cannot improve the quality of education for our kids until we get rid of compensation systems that treat teachers like old-school factory workers. We can measure teacher performance. Our compensation systems should reflect this reality.
So here's my question: Why do you suggest leaving compensation and reward issues to individual schools?
Mathews: I have been influenced by my reporting on some of the most effective public charter schools, like KIPP. Much of their success comes from the principals being picked and trained carefully, then given the freedom to run the school, and assemble their staffs, any way they like, as long as they achieve strong growth in student achievement. Turning each school into a team, each team having a different style and emphasis, is powerful. But it doesn't work if the principal does not have the freedom to compensate and reward teacher work in a way that makes the most sense for her and her circumstances.
Our discussion ended there, but we may pick it up again someday. I will have posts on the blog next week, despite the holidays. But this Friday "Trends" column will take its traditional end of the year day off, so it will not appear again until Jan. 7, The Mathews family and the washingtonpost.com family wish the best for you in the New Year.
Keep at me. I may get it right eventually.
| December 24, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Dropout Nation,, Jay Mathews. new ways of teacher compensation, RiShawn Biddle, power of ed schools
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