Their Levers Are Destined to Fail

How do you get educators to do things differently? That is the question anybody with an idea about how to improve any aspect of education must consider.  

Such a question derives from dubious assumptions. First, you have to believe that things need changing, an assumption that probably says more about you than about what’s happening in schools. Second, you have to believe your idea will actually work on a large scale, an assumption that reveals your hubris and something teachers who have been doing the hard work for at least a few years find unlikely.

Their suspicion means that teachers won’t try your idea on their own, so you must force them to. In order to force someone to do something they’d rather not do, you must offer rewards or threaten sanctions  Rewards usually cost money, and you didn’t get to be rich enough to force your ideas on others by giving that away. Punishments must be severe enough to compel action.

It’s no secret that the success of any rollout or implementation is more dependent on teacher buy-in than almost any other factor. When initiatives fail, it’s the reluctance or incompetence of the teachers asked to implement it that’s blamed, not the idea itself. And it doesn’t matter what the reform is. You could be trying to get your teachers to use the textbook you purchased, to stress learning goals to their students, or to develop and use performance scales. You might even be trying to help them. I’m in conversation with someone at the Department of Education who wants to focus on educator empowerment. We’re brainstorming ways to educate teachers on how they can protect their wellbeing and fight for better work cultures. But we face an uphill battle because no matter the initiative, recent history proves it’s hard to get teachers to change and even harder to get true buy-in. 

First, there is the issue of time. When are teachers going to get the training? When will they be given an opportunity to look over the materials? The U.S. requires its teachers spend more time in front of their students than any other developed nation. That leaves very little time for everything else. Because they have too much to do and not enough time to do it, any new idea will meet immediate resistance. 

Second, and more importantly, there’s the issue of motivation. Why should teachers do this new thing? To be as cynical as possible (since any new initiative will have to deal with cynical teachers who have been through this a time or two before), what’s in it for me? I’m offered the opportunity to take an online class, or receive some coaching, or use my PD hours the way I want to and the first thing I’m going to ask (if I’m being cynical) is why should I?

Because it’s not as if this new thing comes without costs. There will be a time commitment and a learning curve. It will take effort. If I’m working with others or receiving some coaching, there’s some risk. There’s usually additional work involved and I’ve already got plenty, thank you. And there’s no evidence that it will work. In fact, based on my considerable experience, the evidence suggests that it will fail and be replaced by something new within a couple of years.

So why do any of it? 

Enter the levers.

Reformers (and I don’t use the term pejoratively here, but just to describe people who are trying to change the way teachers do things) love levers.

Which says something about how they view teachers. As Peter Greene writes,

A lever is a tool that one uses to force movement. There’s nothing collaborative about a lever. And you don’t apply a lever from inside the area you want to affect– you stand outside the box and bear down. If something breaks and snaps loose, it will go flying away from you.

As a metaphor, levers leave a little something to be desired.

But questionable metaphors are not the only problem with levers. The real problem for reformers is that their levers are destined to fail. 

Their Favorite Levers

 

Teacher evaluation

The thinking, I suppose, went something like this: Our test scores suck, which means our teachers must suck. To improve both, we’ll get rid of the duds. In order to identify the dead weight and make this appear at least a little bit objective, we’ll have to rate them. You know, with checklists and numbers and other sorts of data-y things. We’ll make it complicated so it’s harder to question. Anyway, the ones with the lowest ratings will be shoved out the door. The others, seeing those teachers summarily dismissed, will fall into line. Bill Gates, the champion of stack ranking at Microsoft, led this effort to the tune of a half-billion (with a b) dollars. Gates assumed that a practice that worked (except it didn’t) in the sphere where he had the most familiarity would work elsewhere. His efforts failed. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why.  

Most teachers quickly figured out that they only needed a good enough evaluation to return next year and that the odds of that happening were very high. With a teacher shortage, they could take their chances and not sign up for extra work just to earn extra points on their evaluations. History has proven that’s almost always a safe bet. If there’s one enduring lesson from the Gates experiment, it’s that billionaires and state governments may bark, but principals who have to do the actual firing won’t bite. Even at the height of the teacher evaluation craze, very few teachers received the lowest possible rating and even fewer were fired. 

Reformers hoped that the fear of losing our jobs would make us easier to control. They hoped to provide administrators with the leverage they needed to force compliance so that if they wanted to implement any of the fine initiatives being fed to them by reformers, they’d be able to raise an eyebrow, point at their tablets, and get teachers to bend the knee. When that didn’t work, merit pay was trotted out. The thinking: If we can’t threaten them into compliance, let’s try bribery!  That didn’t work, either. Most of the bribes weren’t large enough, and they were attempting to bribe people who knowingly sacrificed the opportunity to make more money when they chose education in the first place. If we cared about 500 bucks that much, we wouldn’t be teachers.

Badges (or mini-credentials)

So if teacher evaluations and merit pay won’t work, what will? How can reformers and the administrators who’ve signed on to their reforms get teachers to attend training or choose their own professional development or attend a three-day workshop that they don’t really want to attend? The latest solution seems to be digital badges. 

Digital badges are mini-credentials that teachers can earn when they display competencies with new skills or acquire new knowledge. Proponents point to their personalized nature and gamification as reasons teachers find badges better than traditional professional development. When used this way, teachers may indeed find digital badges more motivating. Used as levers to move teachers to action, however, they suffer from the same problem as other methods.

Digital badges are essentially résumé builders. As such, they only appeal to ambitious social climbers who are always looking for the next rung on the ladder.  As levers to get teachers to change, they’ll work on very few and those who do chase them will soon be out of the classroom, on to bigger and brighter things. Teachers who are content to finish their careers in the classroom have no use for them. These types of Scooby Snacks only motivate the already motivated, who would show up for whatever you’re offering anyway if they think it will help them move closer to their next job.  

Extra pay

Just kidding. This isn’t a favorite lever. Normally, if you want somebody to do disagreeable work, you pay them. Some teachers would likely trade autonomy for money. But as the response to nationwide teacher shortages demonstrates, education reformers, most of whom are right of center and proud supporters of our capitalist system, suddenly forget how the free market works when it comes to education. Few of them suggest paying teachers more as a way to attract them to the field. Instead, they look for alternatives, be they Teach For America temps,  long-term subs, or computer programs. Although many want to model America’s schools after America’s businesses, they don’t want to use the lever nearly all businesses use.

Appeals to Professionalism (Guilt)

When all else fails, reformers and the administrators who do their bidding can call on an old friend, guilt. Of all the levers, this one is most effective, at least in the short-term. “Do what’s best for kids,” teachers are told, and what’s best for kids is almost always what people who don’t teach kids think is best for kids. You’ll be reminded that you’re a professional, with the unspoken implication that professionals would never shirk their responsibilities, one of which is constant improvement. You’ve heard all the lines. They’ve probably even worked on you. And no matter how many times we’ve been burned, some of us keep coming back.

It’s manipulation, pure and simple, and it’s a lever that ultimately fails because it never achieves genuine buy-in. Guilted into doing something, some teachers will do it, but they’ll be resentful and unenthusiastic, hardly the mindset those with the idea had in mind when they imagined their brainchild in an actual classroom. Other teachers will exercise their teacher’s veto: they’ll pledge to do the thing and then go back to their classrooms and do what they know works. Compliance, however achieved, is a poor substitute for buy-in.

 

Those Damn Cynics

The only lever left might be to get rid of the cynics so the levers face less resistance. But this is a fundamental attribution error. Cynics don’t become teachers; cynical teachers are created by the situations they find themselves in. And being poked and prodded with levers is one of the causes of the cynicism reformers continually butt up against.

Cynics don't become teachers; cynical teachers are created by the situations they find themselves in. And being poked and prodded with levers is one of the causes of the cynicism reformers continually butt up against. Click To Tweet

It’s a vicious cycle. Reformers hope for docile acquiescence but are instead faced with skepticism and obstinance. To move the doubters, they pull out their crowbars, none of which work. Teachers, convinced that the reformers’ ideas are bad since they needed to be jabbed by levers in order to even try them and because every previous initiative met the same resistance and inevitably failed, have their cynicism confirmed. They become even less likely to change. It does no good to get rid of the cynics because there aren’t enough idealists to replace them, and if you keep sticking levers into them, those idealists will be cynics soon enough.

The Lever That’s Not a Lever

The only lever that will work is the one no reformer wants to use. If you want me to try your new idea, then offer me more freedom and create something useful. Say to me, “We’d like you to try this. We think it’s pretty nifty, and we want to see if it works. We’re so high on this idea that we’re sure if you try it you’ll never go back to teaching how you did. But we’ll trust you to make that decision because we know you want what’s best for your students. We also know that if you try this new thing and it works, you’ll tell other teachers and they’ll start using it. Everybody will win.”

This is how Flipgrid, Pear Deck, Google Classroom, Prodigy, and countless other products ended up being used in thousands of classrooms. Teachers didn’t need to be coerced into using any of them. None of them needed levers. They spread because they worked. 

Of course, allowing teachers to choose is not really a lever at all. That’s trust and treating teachers like professionals. And if reformers did that, well, teachers might decide the ideas they’re being pitched suck. They might not try them at all. And there’s no possible way that teachers, the people who do this teaching thing for a living, can possibly know more about what works than the people who hold the levers.

 

Peter Greene wrote about the unfortunate use of levers as a metaphor for education policy here and like everything he writes, it’s on the nose and fun to read.

Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano

If you don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter, you may have missed something revealing. Dr. Robert Marzano tweeted the above and caught hell for it from a lot of teachers. You can read the reactions here, and you should. Not unlike the teacher walkouts of this past school year, they represent a new willingness (maybe even eagerness) of teachers to speak up and push back.

For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it.

Robert Marzano has been an outsized part of my professional life for longer than he deserves, but for most of that time, no teacher would dare question him. I’ve sat in countless meetings where teachers were told to do things because Marzano said so. I’ve had to read a number of his books. I’ve sat through his training. My principal uses his system to evaluate me (which, given the above tweet, is more than a little concerning). During all of it, nary a peep of protest was heard. No teacher would raise her hand to say, “But surely you can be a good teacher without writing a learning goal on the board every day, can’t you?”

Blasphemy! The kind of which might just cause your administrator to question how serious you were about improving. So we shut up and nodded our heads, and thanks to our polite acquiescence, Marzano’s influence grew.

Today, for most teachers, Robert Marzano’s name is mud. It didn’t have to be this way. When Marzano’s first books came out, teachers recognized the value of his work. They even appreciated it. Here was a guy who cared enough about educators’ improvement that he had gone out and looked at thousands of education studies, performed some sort of mathematical wizardry hardly any teacher can understand, and then was able to tell us what things worked and what things didn’t. At that point, his heart was in the right place. He was Hattie before Hattie. 

But Marzano got greedy. He wrote more books. He offered professional development. His work was crammed down teachers’ throats by excited administrators, and once that starts happening, it’s no longer enough to provide good information. You better be one of us, lest we question your true motives.

Robert Marzano was not one of us.

There are many reasons Marzano’s tweet touched a lot of raw nerves.

First, those of us who have been in the arena for a while are predisposed to dislike whatever he has to say. Here’s a guy who barely taught, an academic who’d rather read studies written by other academics than remain in the classroom and teach actual kids, who writes books that are only possible because of the labor of other researchers (who at least visit classrooms), and who then has the audacity to tell teachers everything they’re doing wrong and what they should be doing instead. I’m not giving him the benefit of the doubt and neither are a lot of other teachers.

Second, the tweet reveals what most of us suspect: that he’s out of touch. It’s no surprise that a lot of the comments call Marzano out for not being a teacher. That’s a fair criticism. Don’t tell me how to do my job until you’ve demonstrated that you can do it.

Third, we’re sick and tired of being told that students’ failures are our failures. Not only is that frequently wrong, it’s not even desirable. Who wants to live in a world where individuals have no personal responsibility for the course of their lives, where their success or failure is dependent upon others?

Fourth, we’re really sick and tired of being told we’re failures by people who don’t have to courage to do what we do. Pernille Ripp expands on this idea in this article, which hits the nail on the head. Her conclusion sums up teachers’ thoughts nicely:

 

What Ripp focuses on is the guilt so many teachers feel and how when “experts” make statements like the one Marzano made, it leads teachers to feel like failures. It’s demoralizing, exhausting, and unfair. The fact that such sentiments are more often served up by people outside of the classroom than inside of one makes it particularly galling.  It’s the boxing announcer explaining to his HBO audience that all Tommy Noknuckles needs to do is start pounding his opponent’s body with jabs. It’s Alabama head coach Nick Saban having to put up with second-guessing from a fifty-five-year-old journalist who’s never thrown a football. It’s Lebron James dealing with social media criticism from people who can’t dribble.

It’s the voice of the critic and it reminds me of this:

 

That’s what teachers, a lot of them anyway, are saying to Robert Marzano and those like him. If you’re so smart, if you know so much, then put down the calculator and get in a classroom. Teach kids. And you know where someone like you –someone who understands exactly how to keep kids engaged — is really needed? In Detroit. In Philly. In D.C. and Baltimore. In a “failing” public school, since, let’s face it, it’s those teachers who have been most harmed by your work.

There may have been a reason to feel sorry for Robert Marzano years ago, when his research was hijacked by state governments and used for a purpose he didn’t originally intend. But Marzano was not some innocent victim. He could have said no. He could have looked into his crystal ball and considered some of the consequences of having teachers evaluated with checklists of 60 items. He could have easily foreseen how that would be received. Maybe he did and just didn’t care.

Regardless, he took the money and therefore deserves to be pilloried when he tweets stupid and insulting things that reveal a complete disconnect from the realities of the professional lives of those who actually have what it takes to teach students instead of sitting in an air-conditioned office in Colorado, reading education studies, and raking in taxpayer money by the bushel. Marzano deserves our anger. But at this point, what he really deserves is to be ignored.

 

 

 

The Real Reason Teachers Are Evaluated

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Once upon a time, not so long ago, a group of self-important people decided that schools weren’t getting the job done. Naturally, they blamed this failure on the people working inside the schools. Since only one group of people worked directly with the students who were doing such an abysmal job compared to their international peers, they decided that teachers were the root of the problem.

The solution was simple: Get better ones.

But attracting people who might be better teachers than the ones currently doing the job would be difficult and costly. Teaching is hard. You can’t get rich doing it, no matter how driven you are. And taxpayers don’t love paying for things.

Providing better training to those who were already willing to become teachers might help, but that seemed hard too. How rigorous of a training program are you going to put candidates through if the reward at the end is an endlessly stressful job that (eventually) pays a middle-class income and subjects the graduate to scapegoating for all of the nation’s ills? Would better training even make a difference? If B and C students were becoming teachers and it was too hard to entice A students to the field, then was it really prudent to reform teacher training programs? How good should we expect B and C students to be?

So they landed on the one thing they could control and that wouldn’t cost much money: Get rid of the bad teachers. If you got rid of the duds, then only the good ones would remain. And then students would do better.

In order to get rid of those bad teachers, they had to make it easier for districts to fire them. So they attacked tenure and removed other teacher protections so districts could more expeditiously dump their losers.

This idea had the benefit of being nearly universally supported. For who could oppose getting rid of awful teachers? Most people had no trouble thinking of at least one teacher who deserved the ax.

I’ve worked with two truly bad teachers in my eighteen-year career. One was a gym teacher who only had her students play cat and mouse. All year long. Never went outside. Another was a grump who hung on for the paycheck. She mostly showed videos. Not educational ones, either. She’d just stick a full-length Disney movie in and let it play all afternoon while she sat at her desk and grumbled at students who dared talk during the film. The rest had varying levels of dedication and competence, but they all did the job. They taught. They cared about how their students did. None of them mailed it in. But fire those two? You bet!

If it had stopped there, with getting rid of the worst of the worst, most teachers would have supported the reforms. Nearly everyone in a school knows who should no longer be teaching. An evaluation system needn’t be any more complicated than asking everyone in a building to write down the names of teachers who should be let go. If the same name shows up five or more times, then get rid of that person.

But no. That’s cruel. That’s unfair. It’s not very scientific. The potential for abuse is obvious. Why, school personnel might conspire to get rid of an unpopular but effective teacher!

So we made it more complex to give the appearance of fairness.

We now have convoluted evaluation systems that require a lot more money and work so we can churn out lots more numbers and labels. Instead of just getting rid of the worst among us, administrators have to observe every teacher, fill out onerous checklists, input countless data points, and complete several year-end evaluations, all so teachers can be ranked and sorted and given a meaningless number and silly label.

Tests have to be created, not to assess students, as tests are supposed to, but to assess teachers because there have to be multiple data points. Districts spend thousands on preapproved evaluation systems like Danielson and Marzano and thousands more on data warehouses. Administrators have to be trained to use the evaluation tools so we can pretend they’re being used consistently.

We do all of this because we want the decision to fire a teacher to appear scientific and therefore fair.

But in reality, the observations are subjective, which means they’re unscientific and therefore unfair. The tests often measure proficiency instead of growth, which makes them not very useful for judging teachers. The potential for abuse is obvious. Why, administrators might conspire to get rid of an unpopular but effective teacher!

In other words, we’re wasting scarce resources to not solve any problems. We have traded a simple way of removing bad teachers for a complicated way that squanders an incredible amount of time and money, is not actually any more scientific or fair than a simple vote would be, and can easily be used to target teachers that administrators don’t like.

We’ve done it because it allows us to comfort ourselves with the lie that this way — because it’s complicated and there are numbers involved –is a more fair way to do things.

But it isn’t. It’s just more dishonest, wasteful, and cowardly.

Does Your District Really Care About Student Achievement?

If you asked any employee of nearly any school district whether their focus was on student achievement, I’m confident most would say that it was. That is, after all, kind of the point. Why else would we spend countless hours planning lessons and checking papers? Why form committees to investigate curricular options and then spend thousands on new programs if we didn’t think they would improve student performance? Why would district leaders spend limited funds on professional development and other teacher training? Why stress over standardized tests scores to the point that we all but bribe students to try their best, and why spend hours analyzing the results of those tests if we didn’t care about what those tests said about how we were serving the educational needs of kids?

It certainly seems like everyone involved in a school system is trying his or her best to improve student achievement. And yet I remain unconvinced. Consider this:

Does your district do anything to identify and attract the best teachers from your area to come work for it?

I ask because we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the largest in-school influence on student performance is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. I’ve been told this so many times during my teaching career that I’ve lost count. It’s not the principal, or class sizes, or the condition of the building, or the curriculum, or student access to technology.

It’s the teacher.

Which means that schools that are serious about improving student achievement ought to do everything within their ability to find, hire, and retain the best teachers they can afford.

Most don’t.

Here’s how most districts go about hiring a new teacher:

First, they wait until they have an opening. In poor districts, this often happens because fed up teachers head for greener pastures. In more affluent districts, openings usually occur after a retirement.

Once there’s an opening, the school district posts the job. They then sit back and wait to see who sends them résumés. They go through the résumés and try to guess who might be a good teacher. They interview some applicants, pick the one they want, and usually offer to start them somewhere near the bottom of the district salary schedule. Then they sit back and hope they chose wisely.

But if school districts really cared about student achievement, their hiring process would look nothing like what is described above. Districts that really cared about student achievement would:

Be constantly scouting teachers in surrounding school districts in an attempt to identify the best ones at each level. They would know, just like NFL or Major League Baseball general managers know, who the top five kindergarten teachers were. They would know the best chemistry teachers. They’d make phone calls to people in their professional networks. They’d interview students who transferred into their districts about the educational experiences those students had with different teachers in their previous districts. They might even get their hands on teachers’ year-end ratings, which are a matter of public record. They’d keep files on teachers they would love to put in front of their students, and they’d check in with them periodically, perhaps inquiring about how happy they are at their current place of employment and whether they might be persuaded to leave it.

When these achievement-driven districts had an opening, administrators wouldn’t sit around and wait for applicants. They would immediately reach out to the top teachers on their scouting reports. They’d find out what it would take to get those teachers to leave their positions to come work for them. They’d offer to pay them more than they were currently making, instead of insulting them by offering to start them at the bottom of the pay scale.

Once they hired these all-stars, they’d do what they could to keep them around. Great teachers might be more expensive, but districts would get more bang for their buck than they would spending that money on textbooks, PD, or fancy new tablets and SmartBoards. The research on that is crystal clear.

So why don’t districts operate this way? Because there’s a greater incentive for district leaders to save money than there is to improve educational outcomes. (And maybe because there’s an unspoken agreement among superintendents to not poach each other’s best teachers.)

Regardless of the reasons, it’s clear that if your school district doesn’t know who the best teachers are in the area, then they have no intention of hiring those teachers. And if they aren’t willing to pay effective teachers what they’re worth, then they’re not really serious about improving student performance, no matter how much they may protest to the contrary.

 

 

 

A Letter to Principals Regarding Walkthroughs

Dear Principal,

A couple of days ago you did a round of walkthroughs. You popped into five different teachers’ rooms for about five minutes each. I know this because at lunch later that day, we teachers talked about it. We have a request.

Please ask us why.

We would prefer these walkthroughs not happen at all than continue as they have. Even though I’m sure you tell yourself that you’re doing them to stay informed and to be in a position to help should you notice any problems, they’re nonetheless evaluative. How could they not be? Most of us remember our undergrad experience where we visited actual teachers’ classrooms. While the purported purpose of such visits was to learn from a professional, we spent most of the discussion afterward picking apart the teacher’s decisions.  We judged. It’s what people do.

It’s not the judging we have a problem with. We expect to be evaluated. The real problem with walkthroughs is that they don’t happen often enough.

It’s human nature to focus on the negative. We get that. We also get that you’re going to find something to criticize. When I conference with my best writer I’m going to highlight some area where she can improve, even though she’s heads and shoulders above her classmates. That’s my job, after all, to help all students get better. Same as yours with respect to your teachers.  Constructive criticism isn’t the problem. We can live with that.

What’s harder to stomach are the assumptions you make. You have an impossible job, often made more impossible by your bosses. You’re pulled in a hundred directions and you just can’t get into classrooms as often as you’d like. We get that, too. But it matters.

Because the infrequency with which you visit our rooms leads to a lack of context. And that lack of context causes you to make assumptions, which are often wrong, but which may be reflected in our evaluations anyway.

During your five minutes, you noticed that Sarah had her head down while I was teaching and that I did nothing about it. You saw Patel go to the bathroom without asking, just as I got to the critical part of my lecture. Joseph sits by himself at the front of the room and that didn’t sit right with you.

So ask me why. Ask me why because you don’t know. 

You don’t know what happened five minutes, or five hours, or five days, or five weeks, or five months before you walked in my room.

You don’t know that Sarah complained all morning about not feeling well and that she only got three hours of sleep because of her new baby sister. You don’t know that the reason she’s not engaged is because her body won’t allow her to be and that the reason she has her head down is that five minutes before you walked in I told her to put her head down.

You don’t know that Patel’s mom emailed me at the start of the week to tell me that Dad’s about to come home from prison after three years and that Patel’s anxiety over the change has manifested as a nervous bladder. You don’t know that Patel and I have a deal to prevent a mortifying accident for which he’ll be remembered the rest of his life: don’t ask, just go.

You don’t know that I’ve tried everything with Joseph for the past five months, but the kid just can’t sit near anyone with bothering them all day. You also don’t know that his seating location is a sign of tremendous progress. Because Joseph finally acknowledged his problem and asked to sit by himself so he could focus better. He’s not separated from his classmates because I gave up on him or I’m trying to shame him. He sits there because he wants to sit there.

You don’t know these things because you lack context for what you’re observing. That’s not your fault. But it is your fault if you don’t ask me why.

Why didn’t you tell Sarah to sit up?

Why did Patel leave the room without asking?

Why does Joseph sit by himself?

It’s a simple word that invites teachers to provide you with the context you lack.

Because if you don’t ask why, many of your teachers won’t tell you. They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to come off as whiners. They don’t want to be the difficult one because the difficult ones get let go when districts cinch their belts and principals vote teachers off the island.

By not asking your teachers why, you put them in a difficult position. They can keep their mouths shut and risk having your ill-informed observations affect their evaluations and your opinion of them moving forward, or they can try to explain. But whenever people initiate explanations for their choices they come across as defensive, which others perceive as tacit admissions of error.

So, principals, do your walkthroughs if you must. Do them more frequently if you can. Don’t tell us they’re not evaluative because they are. And please stop assuming you understand the choices we’re making in the five minutes you’re judging us.

Ask us to tell you why.