Tag Archives: professionalism

Interests Matter: Why Teachers Shouldn’t Be the Primary Shapers of Education Policy

The recent transformation of education into a prominent nationally policy issue has prompted an  increasingly important question: who should be crafting our country’s education policies? Though teachers and school administrators have largely controlled education policy for decades, in recent years outsiders–including think tanks, charter management organizations, and other advocacy groups–have had impressive success in implementing reform policies. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a backlash from the traditional educational establishment, who insist that teachers are the only people qualified to decide what our education system needs.

I don’t think anyone could seriously say that teachers shouldn’t be involved in shaping education policy. Besides their obvious expertise and importance in student success, as the primary actors in implementing any reform it would be both illogical and impractical to ignore their input. But that doesn’t mean that they should take the lead. Teachers shouldn’t be the primary shapers of education policy because they have material interests in the system independent of its effectiveness. Education policy should be guided by actors that are solely interested in what is best for students.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that interests of teachers and interests of students or opposed–in other words, that teachers do not want their students to be successful. But it’s indisputable that teacher and student interests are not identical. Last-in first-out layoff policies? Nearly unbreakable tenure guarantees? Blocking of meaningful teacher evaluation systems? While certainly in the interests of teachers, those sorts of policies are at best marginally helpful to students. And that’s a problem. We should be able to point to every facet of our educational system and explain how it is the most efficient and effective way to help kids learn. Teachers primarily shaping policy won’t get us to that point.

Don’t get me wrong. Teachers can and ought to continue to pursue their interests within our education system. But let’s stop the illogical charade that they can simultaneously support what is best for our kids.

Teach for America’s Critique of Traditional Certification

Ever since its formation, Teach for America has been embroiled in controversy. It has brought thousands of young, talented non-teachers into some of the toughest classrooms in the country, many of whom have chosen to remain in education in some capacity. But if its detractors are to be believed, the organization steals jobs from deserving teachers, cheapens the teaching profession, and serves as merely a career stepping stone for many purely self-interested college graduates. Yet it continues to expand, with 9000 corps members across the country teaching around 600,000 students.

I’m not going to insert myself into the omnipresent debate concerning the problems with TFA corps members leaving teaching, or how effective they are compared to “traditional” teachers. All I can say is that, as a corps member myself, I have been consistently awed by the drive of my colleagues to improve and become exceptional teachers. The students of the city are fortunate to have many great teachers in the classroom that wouldn’t have been there without TFA.

But TFA’s most important impact, in my view, is beyond these individual classrooms. It has questioned the unnecessarily lengthy, expensive, and bureaucratic traditional path to certification.

Before starting teaching, I was forced to go through the arduous process of becoming “highly qualified,” which I somehow managed before I actually started teaching. (To be honest, despite my credential, the only areas in which I could have definitely called myself “highly qualified” in the realm of education were sending checks to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, signing forms, completing checklists, and not having a criminal record.) The extent of the bureaucracy was comical.

Yet I was lucky: without TFA to help guide me down the rabbit-hole, I would have never been able to secure that certification, and so wouldn’t have had the opportunity to teach in a high-needs school. I have some incredibly smart, talented, and compassionate friends that wanted to start teaching after graduation but were unable to because they weren’t accepted into TFA or similar programs. In this country, if you want to teach, you basically need to major in education in college or be lucky enough to grab a slot in a fast-track cert program. This is a huge disservice to our students.

Now, I’m not saying that TFA’s teacher training system–centered on a 5 week summer crash course called “institute”–is perfect. I did learn an incredible amount about teaching in that amount of time, but my first few months were arduous, to say the least. (I consider it a blessing for my long-term mental health that my brain decided to erase September through November of that year from my memory.) But there is no amount of training that would have totally prepared me for that first year. Indeed, in teaching you learn primarily from experience. I made (and continue to make) many mistakes when I teach, and I continue to learn from them. The intangibles possessed by great teachers–presence in the classroom, effective communication with students–are built with experience.

Yet the traditional system of teacher education and certification doesn’t recognize that fact.     Undergraduate education programs, besides being widely regarded as one of the easiest college majors, require way too much sitting in classrooms and not enough standing in front of them. Their length and cost only serve to restrict and insulate the teaching profession, and for no good reason: Teach for America corps members are at least as effective as teachers coming from traditional certification programs.

Considering the educational crisis in this country, we should be trying to encourage as many people into the teaching profession as possible–a task made impossible by a certification system that is heavy on bureaucracy and light on helping kids. Teach for America has forced us to question the wisdom of that vestigial limb of the educational status quo.

Merit Pay is Professional

Today’s NYT features an editorial endorsing merit pay for teachers. Entitled “Carrots and Sticks for School Systems,” the piece references the recent report “Irreplaceables” by TNTP as evidence that schools should do more to retain top teachers and weed out ineffective ones. (My take on the report.) The logic is simple: top teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and so schools should offer higher earning potential to teachers based on effectiveness, not seniority and credentials.

That argument, despite its simple logic, is anathema to supporters of the status quo in education. As Diane Ravitch–engaging in typical demagoguery–puts it, “carrots and sticks are for donkeys, not professionals.” Though I’m sure the line got plenty of laughs and cheers at the AFT convention, that doesn’t make it true. Rewarding and punishing employees based on job performance is absolutely professional, and avoiding such a system only isolates teachers at the expense of our reputation.

What always gets me is how “merit pay” is treated as a novel idea, even though it is just a fancy name for a pillar of free market labor economics: You do your job well, you receive a reward; your performance is unsatisfactory, you receive a consequence. The evidence that it “works” is centuries of economic growth, entrepreneurship, and improving quality of life in this country. Why would teaching be different? If these “carrots and sticks” weren’t effective, we’d see other “professional” industries switching to a strict experience-based pay scale. But, of course, we don’t.

The defensive reaction of teachers to merit pay proposals does further damage to our reputation. Instead of treating merit pay as an attack on teachers that aren’t working hard, we should consider it a simple way to recognize and reward excellence. We teachers know how difficult teaching is; why would we want to deny rewards to those who do it exceptionally well? If we want to be treated like other professionals, we should trade our petty stubbornness for logic and acknowledge that what works in other industries is worth a try for us.

Improving Schools by Empowering Principals

Any teacher will tell you that having a good principal matters. Principals help build a positive school culture, support teachers, and bring the school community together. I am fortunate to teach under a great principal, and his efforts are largely responsible for why my school is a great place to teach and learn.

Yet our education system doesn’t give principals the trust and respect they deserve. In other industries, managers are generally given power over hiring and firing of employees, and then (rightly) held responsible for organizational success. But, due to teacher tenure laws, principals are held responsible for school success without the power. Empowering principals with real managerial authority could encourage innovation, attract more talent into the school system, and ultimately improve student achievement.

Principals have thankless jobs. They juggle complaints and concerns from parents and teachers, receive orders from higher district administrators, and then have to observe their teachers and ensure that the school is meeting instructional standards. Plus seven teachers just called in sick and need coverages. And whoops, then the copy machine breaks. All of this while developing a positive, high-achieving school culture and learning environment.

Yet despite that responsibility, principals lack perhaps the most important power of a manager: hiring and firing their employees. It is unreasonable and unfair to hold principals accountable for the performance of employees that they did not select. That expectation no doubt deters talented people–as well as talented teachers–from entering administration. Furthermore, this lack of power blocks the innovation and dynamic leadership that our schools so desperately need. How can we expect a Steve Jobs-type principal to flourish without an ability to make changes and take risks?

It’s no secret that management matters. That’s why corporate boards spend millions to to find a new CEO, why “search committees” are used for important vacancies instead of Craigslist postings. Yet by limiting principal power, we are blocking the potential for transformative management in our schools. As currently designed, our system forces principals to act as little more than custodians to the bureaucratic slog already in place. Given the crisis in our system, that is simply not enough. Let’s give our principals a fair chance to help our schools be more

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.

Philly Ain’t Helsinki: Debunking the U.S.-Finland Education Comparison

In the current ed reform debate, it is increasingly common to hear calls for the U.S. to emulate Finland’s high-achieving public education system. Finland has no regular standardized testing and  no core curriculum, yet they consistently have impressive results on international assessments; it follows, then, that we should avoid those reforms in the U.S. Though convenient, the comparison is flawed.

Don’t get me wrong–Finland is a lovely country. When I visited last summer I was extremely impressed by the pleasant citizenry, wonderful scenery, well-organized cities, and good food. (Though the language is not very friendly to English speakers. And the beer left something to be desired.) But it is a very different country than the U.S., and so we should be wary of simply importing their educational system as readily as some of their other exports. Their model is appropriate for their country, not for ours. A few key differences:

1) Well-being of children from birth is central to their welfare state. All kids have healthcare and access to full-day daycare and preschool, ensuring that all kids come in prepared for the first day of primary school.

2) School funding. All schools in Finland are funded at the same per-pupil rate. There is no such thing as a “rich” or “poor” school district. The budget crises that we are witnessing in places like Philadelphia simply do not happen.

3) Education as a human right. Education is free for Finnish citizens through college, and college students even receive a stipend. As a result, a quality, long-term education for everyone is part of the Finnish culture.

4) Respect and prestige of the teaching profession. Teachers are highly respected, and accordingly becoming a teacher is a difficult, rigorous, and competitive process: only 1 in 10 are accepted to primary school teaching programs. This stands in stark contrast to the U.S., where education is routinely ranked as one of the easiest, least selective college majors. It follows that teachers are more consistently smart, talented, and competent, making the best of their impressive autonomy.

I’m not saying that Finland’s model is not one to which we should aspire. I, for one, would love to see the U.S. replicate Finland in the ways mentioned above. But, given present differences in demographics, funding, value on education, and perception of teachers–all of which are important factors  in educational success–it is not reasonable to simply suggest that we bring the Finnish system here. All teachers know that different kids from different circumstances have different needs. Why wouldn’t the same be true for countries?

A “Bar Exam” for Teachers Misses the Point

In an interview with Walter Isaacson at the Aspen Ideas Festival, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten suggested that we establish a “bar exam” for public school teachers in America. This exam–which would be rigorous and would emphasize the teaching of critical thinking skills–would help to assuage growing concerns about the quality of teachers in America.

I respect and appreciate Weingarten’s intentions here. Ensuring that every classroom has a great teacher should be perhaps the primary goal of any education reform proposal. But I fear that another test will just be another hoop for potential teachers to jump through, further insulating the profession.

What we need to acknowledge is that, despite the emphasis on credentials in education, you learn how to teach by teaching; on-the-job training, experimenting, and adjusting is what makes great teachers great. I passed three PRAXIS exams before I started teaching, and I will be the first to admit that my high scores in no way correlated with immediate success in the classroom. (To be honest, closer to the opposite is true.) I’m not denying that learning key ideas and strategies before teaching can be beneficial for teachers. But creating a national exam for teachers and pointing to it as evidence of teacher quality falsely implies that teaching is akin to following an instruction manual–that we follow a set of clearly prescribed steps. It cheapens the art of effective teaching.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I fully support constant evaluation of teachers in order to ensure their instructional effectiveness. But evaluating teachers more before they step into a classroom only serves to further entangle the certification process in needless bureaucracy.