Tag Archives: administrators

Schools Should Collaborate, Not Compete

In my time teaching, I’ve found that observing colleagues in their classrooms is one of the best ways to improve my own practice.  Teachers have different styles,  sure. But there are certain methods that simply work better than others. Implementing some of those best practices–how to best distribute materials and organize group work, for instance–has absolutely made me into a better teacher. To some extent, the subject, grade level, or curriculum is irrelevant. If it works, it’s worth trying out.

Yet for some reason we are reluctant to apply that logic to improving schools as a whole. Instead of trying to identify and replicate what makes schools great, we get bogged down in competition and useless, arbitrary labeling. Are charter schools better than traditional public schools? Are charter schools “public schools” or not? These questions are akin to me observing a number of great teachers and only taking away that, on average, classrooms that use Staples-brand pencils perform about the same as those that use OfficeMax. A classroom is a classroom, a school is a school. If it is effective, who cares what we call it?

Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report that supports that kind of sentiment. Entitled “Searching for Excellence,” the report examines the performance of charter schools in five U.S. cities—Albany, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, and Indianapolis. Though much of the report is devoted to comparing charters with regular district schools—an exercise that I consider to be useless—it also suggests a path to improving charters overall: closing or replacing low-performing schools and expanding or replicating high-performing ones. It’s an incredibly simple yet logical step, echoing the well-publicized NACSA “One Million Lives” campaign (which I have previously discussed).

But why can’t we push that idea even further? Traditional public schools, charters, and parochial schools undoubtedly have a lot to learn from each other. Especially in struggling districts, kids deserve a culture of collaboration, not competition, between all schools.  Our initial reaction to a successful school should be to celebrate it, not debunk it; educators should be excited to  pick up tips and strategies that have proven to be successful. If a real culture of collaboration existed, the recent finding that KIPP schools boost relative academic performance would have led to teachers and principals lining up out the door to see KIPP in action. Yet it seems to me that far more energy has been spent attempting to criticize KIPP’s practice and undermine the study’s findings. That competitive, negative attitude is nothing but a distraction.

Any teacher knows that there isn’t a single “right” way to teach; any principal knows that there isn’t a single “right” way to run a school. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from each other. With so many great educators in districts across the country, there is  a wealth of knowledge and experience that we could be sharing. It’s just a matter of swallowing our pride and doing it.


The Need for Innovation in Schools

P.S. 114 in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn made headlines this past week with a pair of instructional reforms that run against traditional elementary school orthodoxy. According to Principal Darwin Smith, one teacher will deliver a lesson to a class of 60 while another teacher assists struggling students. Furthermore, students from 3rd-5th grade will switch classes, allowing teachers to focus on 2 subjects instead of the traditional 4.

Unsurprisingly, the former reform in particular has caused an uproar among advocates of smaller class sizes. As Leonie Haimson, executive director of the NYC-based group Class Size Matters, is quoted in the article: “I think it’s a terrible idea. It’s an unsustainable model that has no evidence to support it. It’s a recipe for chaos.”

I’m not going to comment at length on the merits of the ideas themselves; that is for the another post. What is relevant is that there are strong arguments in their favor: two teachers in the same room could serve a dual purpose of helping struggling students and giving the co-teacher an opportunity to learn from a master; the 3rd-5th graders switching classes allows teachers to devote more time to making high-quality lessons. In other words, they could plausibly work. And that kind of innovation and experimentation should absolutely be encouraged in our schools.

It’s no secret that our education system is fraught with arbitrary traditions and anachronism. We continue to cling to summer vacation despite the consequences of the “summer slide.” Researchers say that school starts too early, yet kids nationwide spend first period wiping sleep from their eyes instead of learning. So who says that the traditional model of one teacher in front of a class of 20-25 through 5th grade is the best? Especially in a time of limited resources, schools should constantly be reflecting and making logical changes when warranted. It would be one thing if our current system effectively served all kids. But we know that’s not true. So why not ask our principals and administrators to think as we hope our students do–with reflection, logic, and creativity? Of course, there is a possibility that the reforms in P.S. 114 will not improve schools. But we can’t let fear of failure halt innovation in a system that sorely needs it. It is unfair to kids to do otherwise.

Tenure Cases Hurt the Teaching Profession

Yesterday’s WaPo reports that the Fairfax County, VA school system has dropped its attempt to revoke the tenure of veteran teacher Violet Nichols. As I discussed last month,  Nichols was recommended for termination for  incompetence and unprofessionalism, including leaving insufficient work for students when she was out of school, not taking feedback well, wasting class time, and leaving emails unanswered. She claimed that she was unfairly singled out, pointing to her lengthy record as a strong teacher and valued member of her school community. She suggested that she was targeted because of the color of her skin or her leadership role in the local teachers’ union.

I can’t really comment on whether Nichols or her principal “were right” in this case–I don’t know either of the parties or the circumstances involved. What I do know, however, is that this outcome, though on its face a victory for teachers, is deeply damaging to the reputation of the teaching profession.

In any industry, people get fired; it’s a reality of employment. Whether the reason is a tight budget, “restructuring,” incompetence, or a capricious boss, when you take a job you accept that you could lose it. But teachers don’t really face that risk. To fire a tenured teacher, a school district will inevitably have to win a lengthy, incredibly expensive legal battle with the local union. And given today’s budget constraints, districts rarely can afford to do that. As a result, tenured teachers have essentially gained a “right” to their jobs.

Sounds peachy, right? But teachers accept this at the expense of reputation and societal respect. When teachers hide behind tenure after making a mistake, they flaunt a luxury of the teaching profession not afforded to other professionals. Is it any wonder, then, that teachers are not afforded the same respect? We need to realize that respect and trust is earned through measurable success and accountability; it is not simply handed to us. Teachers won’t be treated like professionals until we start acting like them.

Overthinking Evaluation

In yesterday’s Kansas City Star, Joe Robertson outlines various concerns about teacher evaluation proposals that include student performance as a factor. The most widespread of these, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that these “value-added” models include too many variables outside of the teacher’s control to be fair. And this is a problem: in the words of KC teachers’ union president Andrea Flinders, this type of system “will do nothing to attract teachers and it will drive good people away.”

I’m not going to comment on the specifics of this proposal; I’m far from an expert on the underlying calculations. But this case exemplifies the absurd overthinking which mars discussions of teacher evaluations.

The reality is that no method of evaluating employees in any industry is perfectly fair or foolproof. Yet only in education is the concern about “driving away” potential employees so prevalent. A person is hired for a job. They are given  various tasks and assignments to complete and asked to meet various expectations  of comportment and professionalism in the office. If they meet those expectations, they will remain employed; if they don’t, they will get fired.

Of course, it is often not that simple. Evaluating work performance can be complicated, especially in fields like sales where there are plenty of variables outside of the employee’s control. There can be incompetent supervisors that play favorites or are otherwise arbitrary in their hiring and firing decisions. Yet the system goes on. There is an understanding that, for companies to be successful, they want the best people working there. Supervisors that don’t follow that principle rarely remain supervisors for very long.

Yet that doesn’t seem to be sufficient for teachers. The rhetoric on teacher evaluation rests on the assumption that teachers have rights to their jobs, and that right can only be taken away when they have been objectively proven to be ineffective. As I’ve written previously, if we demand different treatment than other professionals in the workforce, we shouldn’t be surprised by a negative reputation and lack of respect. Will a system of performance evaluation lead to some questionable firing decisions? Sure. But if the system is reasonably and logically designed, in the aggregate it should improve the quality of employees overall. And if that is good enough for other professionals, it should be good enough for us.

Problems with a Test vs. Problems with Testing

In the NYT this weekend, Michael Winerip details the fiasco in Florida stemming from bad scores on the state standardized writing test. This past summer, the state toughened standards but did not change the required passing score, resulting in plummeting proficiency levels statewide: only 27% of fourth graders scored proficient, compared to 81% just one year ago. Concerned about reactions nationally and from parents, the state scrambled to improve their results, ultimately lowering the score required to pass from a 4 to a 3. Suddenly, proficiency rates were right in line with past performance. All was right again (not). Excuse me for a moment while I bash my head against my desk.

Winerip is right to mock and malign the incompetence here. A couple points:

1) Radically changing the rigor of a test designed to measure longitudinal growth renders the results useless. It is fine to modify a test, and I appreciate the intent to raise academic expectations for students; making these changes at the expense of useful data, on the other hand, is misguided.

2) Fudging the numbers after the fact ultimately makes the problem worse. It is deceptive and unprofessional; I see it no differently from the state filling in bubbles for all of their students. The goal of testing is to highlight deficiencies to help guide instruction while holding schools accountable. Florida was apparently more concerned about its reputation, cheating the students and taxpayers while damaging the legitimacy of all state testing. If the state doesn’t have even have faith in their tests, why should we?

Though this case demonstrates the dark side of testing, we need to be careful about our conclusions. It is clear that there is something wrong with this test and test administration; Florida clearly needs reform in those areas. But it doesn’t mean is that holding schools accountable through testing is a bad idea. As I’ve said before, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Standardized testing as an institution is so young that we should not be surprised that the tests aren’t perfect; it will take time before they are where they need to be. Just as we give any other invention with great potential time to mature–computers, cars, planes–testing deserves the same patience. So while Florida fully deserves our ire and frustration, let’s remember what this incident is: a speed bump and valuable lesson on what not to do as we establish accountability as a tenet of our public education system.

Thinking about Tenure: The Nichols Case

In the Sunday WaPo, Emma Brown discusses the case of Fairfax, VA sixth grade teacher Violet Nichols, who was recently recommended for termination by Terry Czarniak, her principal. Czarniak provided several pieces of evidence of Nichols’ incompetence and unprofessionalism, including leaving insufficient work for students when she was out of school, not taking feedback well, wasting class time, and leaving emails unanswered.  Nichols, a 21-year teaching veteran, claims that she was unfairly singled out, pointing to her lengthy record as a strong teacher and valued member of her school community. She suggests that she was targeted because of the color of her skin or her leadership role in the local teachers’ union.

I’m not going to comment on the specifics of this case, simply because I have never met any of the parties involved, been to the school or school district, or seen any official documentation. Maybe Nichols’ practice and professional comportment have deteriorated; maybe Czarniak has a vendetta against unions. Ultimately, it obscures the more important point: tenure battles tarnish the reputation of the teaching profession.

The reality is that in any industry, hiring and firing is not entirely based on rubrics and foolproof data. When we interview for jobs, we are told of the importance of silly conventions that are irrelevant to our qualifications or future job perfomance.  Arrive early. Wear a well-pressed suit. Don’t forget a breath mint.  And while data can certainly be used to measure perfomance–particularly in fields like sales–anyone who works in an office knows that intangibles can be just as important in determining whether you remain employed. Are you a positive influence in the office? Are you ambitious and eager to improve? Even if they aren’t quantifiable, those factors matter.

So how does the system work? Ultimately, we assume that bosses have the best interests of the business in mind and so want the best team. They collect all of the information they can about an employee and make a decision about whether they are a good fit. Do bosses make mistakes and fire the wrong person sometimes? Sure. But it’s safe to assume that a boss who makes arbitrary decisions and gets rid of his strongest employees will not remain a boss for very long. The risk remains, but in general the right people end up in the right jobs.

Tenure changes the equation. Principals generally do not have the authority to make decisions about personnel, and if they decide to move to revoke tenure, they are usually in for a lengthy, expensive legal battle. While it is unfortunate that Ms. Nichols may lose her job, I think we need to ask ourselves a simple question: why should teachers be treated differently from other members of the workforce? Judging from Czarniak’s complaints, it seems that Nichols’ actions would have led to her termination in most other jobs. As I’ve previously discussed, if teachers demand unique privileges, we also have to accept a negative reputation and lack of respect. Regardless of the specifics of Nichols’ case, this battle only serves to hurt public views of our profession.

Hypocrisy and Teacher “Professionalism”

After making headlines earlier this week by taking on consumers of trough-sized sodas, on Tuesday New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg switched to a more formidable opponent: the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing teachers in NYC public schools. (I’d imagine the former group will calm down once their sugar rush subsides.) Under a newly proposed law, superintendents in the state would have the power to override decisions made by arbitrators in cases of teachers accused of sexual abuse. The right to a decision by a third-party arbitrator in those cases is unique to teachers among public employees in the city. According to Bloomberg, that is a problem:

“There is simply no reason that teachers accused of sexual misconduct should have greater job security than other city employees,” said Mr. Bloomberg, who was joined by several state superintendents’ groups at a news conference at Gracie Mansion. “The fact that they currently do is wrong; it is dangerous; it is indefensible.”

This type of law is anathema to teachers’ unions because teachers can be easy targets of spurious accusations from  students, administrators, and other teachers. A third-party arbitrator with the final say, they claim, ensures that innocent teachers are not penalized.

I completely understand the union concern about teachers being easy targets. Indeed, on  more than one occasion I have received an angry phone call from a parent claiming that I said something unprofessional to their child when I had not. I am fortunate to have a supportive, trusting administration to help me through those tough conversations, but a sense of helplessness lingers; ultimately, it could come down to my word against 25 others. For that reason, teachers ought to be treated as professionals and given the benefit of the doubt.

But superintendents deserve that same trust and respect. Shouldn’t we assume that they would not be capricious or arbitrary in a situation as serious as a sexual abuse case? Removing a teacher in the middle of the year is devastating for students, teachers, and the entire school community; any competent superintendent understands this. We should trust their professional judgment as much as we want principals to trust our own.

In short, the UFT’s opposition to Bloomberg’s law is hypocrisy. If we teachers want to be treated as professionals, we should give our superiors the same courtesy; discretion to make decisions in the district’s best interests is part of that. It is unreasonable to demand autonomy and trust of the administration in our classrooms while superintendents have very little of their own. We can either be micromanaged, interchangeable “widgets” with nearly guaranteed job security, or autonomous professionals that face the risk of termination with cause. Even my students understand that reasonable people have to take the good with the bad.