Stamping Out Great Teachers

I’m listening to Seth Godin’s Linchpin1 and early in the book he makes these observations about our education system and teachers.

Why is society working so hard to kill our natural born artists? When we try to drill and practice someone into subservient obedience, we’re stamping out the artist that lives within.

Let me be really clear. Great teachers are wonderful, they change lives. We need them.

The problem is that most schools don’t like great teachers. They’re organized to stamp them out, bore them, bureaucratize them, and make them average.

Godin’s usual focus is business and marketing but he’s also written some very insightful pieces on American education. For more, download his manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams, “a series of provocations” that he hopes will lead to people taking action, and watch his TEDx talk of the same title.

  1. I know it’s three years old. I’m always behind on my reading

What Does Your “Research” Really Say?

An essay by an English teacher posted in the wonderful Post blog The Answer Sheet 1 offers Seven things teachers are sick of hearing from school reformers.

It’s all good, worth your time to read and pass along, and she probably could have added eight or ten more. But this is one that really stands out.

4. Don’t tell us “The research says…” unless you’re willing to talk about what it really says.

It’s not that we don’t care about research, but that most often when research is mentioned in a school context, it is used to end legitimate conversation rather than to begin it, as a cudgel to silence us rather than an opening to engage us constructively. Very often when confronted with a “research says” claim that I find dubious or irrelevant, I ask for a citation and get a blank or vaguely menacing stare, or some invented claim about the demands of the Common Core, or a single name, “Marzano,” as though he completed all instructional research.

Research on children and learning is difficult to do right and the best you can say about almost studies in this area is that they are incomplete. However, at the very least those education “experts” pontificating on research should be required to read past the executive summary.

Oh, and I’m one more teacher who’s tired of “Marzano” being cited as the solution to everything.

  1. And there isn’t much wonderful in the Washington Post these days, on paper or the web.

Vision Doesn’t Come Cheap

For as long as I can remember, we’ve heard the statistics about the high turnover rate among new teachers.  The numbers vary depending on the study but reports say that anywhere from 30 to 50% of teachers leave the profession in their first five years.

A churn rate like that in the professional ranks of most corporations would be cause for concern, with a battery of VPs and consultants looking for ways to fix a situation that wastes a lot of money for things like recruitment and training. In education, it’s just one more problem to ignore.

As with most issues in education, the reasons for this high turnover are complicated. But for anyone interested in a solution, this might be a good place to start.

The perceived low status of teaching is also a serious obstacle to keeping teachers in classrooms. So, of course, are compensation issues and questions of how teachers’ effectiveness is evaluated, the subject of frequent and corrosive headlines that often reduce teaching to test scores.

Not surprisingly, many new teachers reported a phase where they felt disillusioned, defeated, and a deep sense of having failed. Teachers who have been academic high-achievers often cannot deal with this sense of failure; they have been hard-working, motivated, and successful in virtually everything they have done. They blame themselves for not better overcoming the shortcomings of the system and soon begin to believe they are not good teachers.

It doesn’t help when politicians and pundits also blame teachers for everything wrong with schools (as well as the economy), while at the same time cutting support wherever possible.

The writer of this piece concludes that we need to renew a “broad vision” for the teaching profession based on the ideas of former Harvard president Derek Bok: “Education institutions [must] assume the responsibility to cultivate interests and supply the knowledge that will help young people make more enlightened choices about how to live their lives.”.

That’s very inspirational. But is our society prepared to pay for that vision?

Proud of Being Ignorant

Seth Godin ended his post yesterday with this idea

I confess that I’m amazed when I meet hard-working, smart people who are completely clueless about how their industry works, how their tools work…

It never made sense to be proud of being ignorant, but we’re in a new era now. Look it up.

I’m also amazed at the number of smart, hard-working teachers and administrators I meet who are largely clueless about technology. Both the tools available to improve their professional practice as well as the devices being carried by many of their students that could be leveraged in the service of learning.

What’s worse is that many of them are still proud of their ignorance. Or at least of their unwillingness to expand their ideas of what learning could be.

If It’s Crappy Enough for Bill…

Vanity Fair this month has a long look at how Microsoft has managed to screw up a lot of things about it’s business over the past decade or more. Having been deeply involved with personal computing since the time the company began1, I found the whole thing fascinating. Your mileage may vary.

However, there is one section of the article that I think should interest anyone involved with public education.

In it the author discusses what she sees as a major cause of Microsoft’s lack of innovation and subsequent decline, a personnel evaluation system used within the company called “stack ranking”.

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system—also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews, and one was going to get a terrible review,” said a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

Now the CEO who signed off on using this “destructive process” (that would be Bill Gates) is considered a “visionary” leader in the education reform movement. And he and his billion dollar foundation are advocating for several other similarly adversarial assessment programs for teachers such as merit pay and “value added” rankings.

Assessment programs which continue to envision classrooms as discreet spaces sealed off from the rest of the world, and teachers as independent contractors whose work is the only influence on student achievement (aka test scores).

I’m certainly not the first person to make the connection between Microsoft’s stack ranking and Gates pushing the idea that teacher assessment should be a more competitive process. But that point needs to be repeated as often as possible.

The bottom line that Gates and others miss entirely in their efforts to “reform” education is that schools are not businesses and those corporate practices cannot, and should not, be applied to the process of teaching and learning.

Especially an evaluation system that has been a major contributing factor to screwing up what was at one time the most valuable company in the US.

1 Although, in all those many years, I’ve never actually bought a Microsoft product or anything containing one. I do have Windows and Office on my MacBook Pro but those licenses belong to my school system.

Stuck in Isolation

There’s a lot wrong with the traditional structure of most US schools, little changed in the past sixty years. But a recent article in The Atlantic hits on the piece that’s number one on the list of problems: teacher isolation.

A recent study by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation found that teachers spend only about 3 percent of their teaching day collaborating with colleagues. The majority of American teachers plan, teach, and examine their practice alone.

The problem is not that American teachers resist collaboration. Scholastic and the Gates Foundation found that nearly 90 percent of U.S. teachers believe that providing time to collaborate with colleagues is crucial to retaining good teachers.

Interesting that many of our national education “leaders” (like Gates), the ones who believe kids don’t take enough standardized tests, are also pushing more teacher competition in the form of merit pay. Unlike in those high achieving countries like Finland that they like to use for comparison where “collaboration among teachers is an essential aspect of instructional improvement”.

Anyway, identifying teacher isolation as the problem is a good start. However, from there the writer goes on to suggest that a national curriculum, such as the Common Core, “could be a major step towards productive teacher collaboration”. Which completely ignores the fact that time is a bigger impediment to teachers planning together, especially at the elementary level.

Long before we standardize (and homogenize) the curriculum any more than it already is, we need to rethink the whole structure of what we call “school”, an institution that hasn’t changed much in a century.

School need to organize the relatively scarce time available around the idea of teachers – and students – working in teams to achieve everyone’s learning goals. Not entirely different from the way people work in Mr. Gates former company, and other parts of the real world.

Tenured Stupidity

Some of the teacher-bashing crap from Wisconsin and other places has arrived here in Virginia.

The Virginia House of Delegates voted 55-43 Monday to eliminate seniority-based job protections [aka “tenure”] for public school teachers, a measure pushed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) as part of his education reform package.

Under H.B. 576 and S.B. 438, probation would be extended to five years and continuing contracts would be replaced with three-year contracts.

At the end of every three years, a teacher could be let go for poor performance or any reason at all. [emphasis mine]

There are a couple of things in all of this that just don’t make sense.

First is the fact that many of these politicians just don’t understand the concept of tenure as applied to our jobs. It certainly doesn’t mean lifetime employment.

Academic tenure was created to prevent an educator from being dismissed for reasons other than performance – political or social views that differ from the administration, for example. Tenure is all about that “any reason at all” for being fired. Like blogging about clueless members of your state legislature.

In other states, the vilification of teachers has been driven by a political dislike of teacher’s unions. They say nice things about the concept of “teachers”, but really hate us when we get into groups to defend the profession.

Here in Virginia, that’s really not much of an issue since this is a “right to work” state that doesn’t allow collective bargaining for government workers. The local versions of the NEA and AFT have almost no actual power and thus are not much of a threat to the governor and his friends.

However, the worst part of all this is the pure unadulterated hypocrisy of the people pushing these measures. The ones who make statements like: “Here in Virginia, we are fortunate [to] have a world-class educational system with world-class teachers.”

And the former teacher serving in the House who supports the bill who wants to get rid of the few bad teachers who use “the same tired lesson plans year after year and couldn’t get control of their classrooms” by eliminating protections for the many “world-class” teachers.

It’s hard to understand all the teacher bashing going on in far off exotic places like Madison. It’s even more difficult when it pops up close to home, driven by “leaders” who smile and say nice things about our educational system, while doing what they can to handicap the teachers responsible for making it “world-class”.

Flawed Logic

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Obama addressed education reform, including this statement about teachers.

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.

In the Post’s Answer Sheet blog, a veteran educator points out a huge logical flaw in what the President had to say.

The second problem is a glaring contradiction, a logical flaw that is huge even though it has been overlooked by almost every journalist apparently too polite to challenge the administration on it. If you do not wish teachers to teach to the test, if you want them to be passionate and creative, then how can you insist that their performance be measured by the use of test scores?

You cannot have it both ways. You cannot tell teachers to be creative, you cannot pretend you are “flexible,” when you mandate the use of test scores for teacher and principal evaluations, and continue to use them as the basis by which schools are condemned as failures. [emphasis mine]

I suspect the President, and many other education reform “leaders”, will continue to miss the disconnect between what they say and what they do.

They will produce even more lofty speech about the importance of teachers, while still demonizing the profession and implementing policies that marginalize the practice of teaching.

Fear The Social

According to Jim Docherty, assistant secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, teachers in that country should follow his advice.

First thing is don’t bother telling anybody else about your social life. Nobody is interested about your social life and it doesn’t help.

Oh, but he has more…

Secondly, never make any comment about your work, about your employer, about teaching issues in general.

We have many teachers, administrators, and politicians in the US who’ve adopted the same philosophy. Maybe that’s why nothing in education ever seems to change.

What About The What?

A guest writer for the Post’s Answer Sheet blog says that the biggest problem with education these days is not teachers, the lack of school competition, or a need for new tech-based delivery systems. It’s what students are expected to learn.

For students, the problem is not that teachers are ineffective, that schools aren’t accountable or that the textbook is an inefficient technology for delivering content. Their problem is the content itself. Students are disengaged because they’re bored, and they’re bored because the material is often irrelevant and meaningless. For them, the issue is not the who, the where or the how. It’s the what.

The who. The where. The how. We have to address these pieces of the puzzle. But we have to address content, too. For we can hire a generation of enthusiastic teachers, build cathedrals of education and give every student an iPad. And then what?

That “what” is most apparent in the way we teach mathematics.  In most schools, the K12 curriculum is still focused on having students learn a confusing array of algorithms and processes with little or no apparent connection to anything.

With the ultimate goal for almost every kid being Calculus, a level of mathematical knowledge few will ever need.

Duncan Appreciates Teachers (Who Keep Their Mouths Shut)

This being Teacher Appreciation Week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan felt obligated to say something nice about teachers and did so in a commentary piece for Education Week, a publication few teachers read (or even know exists).

More than a few educators responded online to his disingenuous mash of cliches and excuses with open letters of their own.

But the really low point of the week has to be when Duncan didn’t even bother to show up for the ceremony honoring the 2011 Teachers of the Year.

Probably because the educators attending, selected as the best in their states, had nothing good to say about the education reform agenda being championed by Duncan.

I love the part where one of the undersecretaries suggested the Department should rescind the award from one of the teachers who spoke. She was joking. Maybe.

Anyway, the bottom line here is that our Secretary of Education appreciates teachers in the abstract, but really doesn’t want to hear what even the best of them have to say on the subject.

Not Much Incentive in This Plan

Speaking of merit pay, our governor is inviting 57 districts in the state (including ours) that “may have difficulty attracting, retaining and rewarding experienced, fully licensed teachers” to participate in something called the Virginia Performance-Pay Incentives initiative.

The invitation comes with a $3 million pot of money, which, if my calculator is working correctly, would work out to about $17,750 for each of the 169 schools listed in the announcement. For one year, with no assurances of any continuing funding.

Strings? Why, of course, the money comes with strings.

Whether such programs succeed hinges largely on the criteria used to evaluate teachers. McDonnell plans to require that districts accepting the merit-pay funding also adopt a newly overhauled teacher evaluation system, driven largely by student performance on the state’s standards of learning tests, often called SOLs.

Fortunately, our superintendent is quoted in the article as essentially telling the governor to keep his small change, recalling the far more expensive experiment in merit pay we tried twenty years ago.  He and some of his compatriots in the area also wonder how the schools were chosen since more than a few in our system have no trouble attracting good candidates for teaching positions. (Me too. It’s an odd collection.)

I wonder if McDonnell or anyone advising him has read any of the recent research showing that pay for performance plans don’t improve learning, even when measured by artificial standards like our SOL tests, and can be detrimental to schools.

Probably not. When it comes to education, Bob is far too busy to do more than repeat the talking points from his morning memo.

Still Not Finding Merit in These Pay Plans

Last fall, the results of the “first scientifically rigorous review of merit pay in the United States” were released and the researchers found the financial incentives “produced no discernible difference in academic performance” (aka test scores).

Now a new, larger study, conducted by a Harvard economist who is responsible for designing some of these schemes, “examines the effects of pay-for-performance in the New York City public schools”.

And what did he find*?

Providing incentives to teachers based on school’s performance on metrics involving student achievement, improvement, and the learning environment did not increase student achievement in any statistically meaningful way. If anything, student achievement declined. [my emphasis]

The impact of teacher incentives on student attendance, behavioral incidences, and alternative achievement outcomes such as predictive state assessments, course grades, Regents exam scores, and high school graduation rates are all negligible. Furthermore, we find no evidence that teacher incentives affect teacher behavior, measured by retention in district or in school, number of personal absences, and teacher responses to the learning environment survey, which partly determined whether a school received the performance bonus.

When it comes to research, especially dealing with human behavior, the results of any one study should not be taken as definitive proof one way or another on the issue being studied.

Two showing the exact same results, however, should at least cause thoughtful people to question their beliefs and assumptions.

Now we just need to find some thoughtful people in leadership positions at the DOE and in Congress. States like Florida could use a few as well.

*Link to pdf of the study results.