The Best Way to Kill a Good Idea

When I was in middle school I set out to read Stephen King’s complete body of work. I was inspired by my uncle, Pat, who was only five years older than me and owned many of King’s books. I read them throughout high school. Although I hadn’t finished by the time I went off to college, I abruptly stopped reading much of anything a week after setting foot on campus. The reason? I had too much required reading to do.

I rarely read any of it, and of what I did read, I remember almost nothing. Feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing the work my father was paying a fair amount for the opportunity to do, I read nothing at all. How could I read novels for enjoyment when I had neglected hundreds of pages of required text for class?

Reading is good. Requiring it is far less good.

This is the major problem with most education initiatives. Many of them are wonderful ideas that have the potential to positively impact students. But their effectiveness is neutered when legislatures, school boards, and school leaders force teachers to implement them. There’s a very simple reason:

People hate being told to do things.

Time for teachers to collaborate is good.
Requiring teachers to collaborate is not.

Professional development for teachers is good.
Requiring all teachers to attend the same professional development is not.

Having student learning goals is good.
Requiring every teacher to write learning goals on the board every day is not.

Lesson plans are good.
Requiring teachers to submit lesson plans is not.

Reading professional articles about teaching is good.
Requiring teachers to read specific articles is not.

Calling parents with good news is good.
Requiring teachers to call parents with good news is not.

Using humor in the classroom is good.
Putting humor on a checklist that principals use to evaluate teachers is not (and let’s hope such a thing never happens).

Reading books about teaching is good. Book studies are not.

Having a classroom management system is good. Forcing all teachers to use the same system is not.

 

The best way to kill a good idea is to force people to do it.

But that’s just what too many educational leaders do. There’s a tendency in education to take anything with evidence to support its effectiveness and try to force all teachers to do that thing.

Which of course has the effect of teachers not wanting to do that thing and results in it being done less than optimally. Force me to do something and sure, I might do it (unless I think I can get away with not doing it), but I won’t put much effort into it.

Enter the work of Robert Marzano (among others). Like many teachers, I’ve read Marzano’s book, The Highly-Engaged Classroom (and, notably, I read it on my own, not because my school did a book study and required its reading). I read it because it’s really good information for a teacher that I knew could make me better at my job.

However, it’s potentially really bad information for administrators. Leaders, pressured to improve student test scores, look at Marzano’s book as a comprehensive checklist of things great teachers do. But that’s not what it is or was ever meant to me. The book offers guidance. It provides the research to aid in decision making. You’re not supposed to read it and think, “Well, if one of these strategies is good, doing all of them would be even better!”

An analogy:

I have, at different times in my life, been overweight (like, for instance, at this particular time in my life). There are many ways to lose weight. Here are some:

Get more sleep
Stop drinking soda
Join a fitness class
Walk
Run on a treadmill
Lift weights
Weight Watchers
Pole dancing
Atkins Diet
South Beach Diet
Keto-something, or whatever the current dieting trend is
Read my book, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss and then do what it says!

Those strategies will all work. If you do even one or two of them with any regularity, you’ll likely have success. But try to do them all and you’ll burn out pretty quickly. You’ll become exhausted. You’ll give up altogether. And if someone else, say, your personal trainer, tried to force you to do all of those things, you’d think she was crazy. But that’s what we do in education.

Instead of forcing teachers to eat their vegetables, let’s treat them like professionals. Inform teachers of the research and allow them to do what works with their students. If you must, require evidence that what they’re doing is working, but stop treating teachers like machines who, if they just did everything you told them to do, would produce better test scores.

That’s not how it works, and trying to force the matter is making it less likely that teachers will do the things you think will work anyway.

Stop jamming even the best ideas down teachers’ throats. They’ll die of suffocation, and the teachers will either reluctantly choke them down or, more likely, barf them out when you’re not looking.

Education Reformers’ Alternate Reality

I sometimes wonder how long it’s been since education reformers have been in an actual high-needs school.  Perhaps they visit occasionally, but it’s hard to imagine them sticking around long enough to see how their theories actually play out in the real world. Reformers’ ideas, based on a number of incorrect assumptions, have been so damaging to high-poverty schools that it’s almost as if their proponents are blind to the realities. It’s like reformers live in an alternate universe.

This alternate reality is one in which a bunch of ineffective teachers managed to infiltrate our neediest communities and hoodwinked district officials into hiring them to teach the kids there. That they are awful teachers is obvious. One need only to look at test scores for proof. The kids don’t know diddly and it’s the schools’ job to teach the kids diddly and the individuals whose job it is to teach the various forms of diddly are the teachers. Ergo, if the test scores suck, it’s because the teachers do too.

The reformers want this fixed. And who could argue with that? They want poor kids to receive just as good of an education as middle-class kids and rich kids.

How best to do it?

Well, in their alternate reality (which seems suspiciously like the business world, even though business and education don’t share the same goals or incentives) the solution is to force districts to evaluate these cruddy teachers and remove barriers like tenure, unions, and due process so the districts can more easily fire these uncaring heels and replace them with better teachers. Oh, and if the schools have low test scores for too many years in a row, then reformers would like someone else to take the schools over, tear up whatever contract teachers have, take a cleaver to the budget, starting issuing educational decrees like Professor Umbridge, and close some buildings.

Because that ought to attract better teachers.

In the real world, where real students actually attend real schools and are taught by real teachers in real communities, reformers’ ideas have zero chance of improving teacher quality and therefore have no chance of raising student achievement.  In fact, their ideas have and will continue to do the exact opposite.

Here’s how things work in the real world:

A community is made of individuals and some of those individuals have kids. In some communities, many of those kids are growing up in poverty. They’re missing a bunch of stuff that other kids growing up in different circumstances have that make it easier for those kids to behave, pay attention, and ultimately learn. Nevertheless, we send them to underfunded schools and pretend they’re playing on an even field.

Teachers, who have college degrees and have passed certification tests and who are some of the few people in society who are actually willing to spend large chunks of time with children, apply to schools in these poor communities, even though they know full well that the job is going to be damn hard. Some apply despite the fact that they could work in other districts where the challenges will not be so great because other schools are located in other communities where parents aren’t so poor and are able to provide more of those things that help students behave and learn.

They do this for lots of reasons, none of which is money, fame, political aspirations, perks, or any other self-serving motive.

It’s hard to figure out why these people do what they do. It’s almost as if they’re acting altruistically, volunteering to work in the most difficult educational environments out of a sense of idealism. These are people who choose to work with the kids who are hardest to work with.  They’re like those doctors who go to war-torn nations to administer care to those with the greatest need. They’re like the lawyers who do pro bono work in the most downtrodden communities.

In the real world, we are extremely lucky people like this exist.

But instead of being grateful and thanking them every day for taking on such a monumental task, reformers force these teachers’ employers to evaluate them using their students’ test scores.

And now these teachers, who have already sacrificed and who are working in a district that can’t even fill all their open positions, and whose friends have gone off to teach in well-funded suburban schools where they don’t really have to worry about their kids passing the state test or being laid off due to budget cuts, get to teach kids who have a harder time learning while worrying about whether they’ll be able to keep their jobs.

Jobs that most people won’t even apply for.

And if they do in fact come up short on whatever silly tests the district decides to use for their evaluations, or if their principals, who call themselves leaders even though the truth is many of them couldn’t hack it in the classroom, decide they don’t like a teacher’s classroom management, or the phrasing of the learning goals on the board, or the occasional deviation from the junky canned reading program that the district purchased with money it should be spending elsewhere, or any number of other things that probably won’t make a difference one way or the other, then that teacher gets rated poorly and has the pleasure of fearing for her job.

A job most teachers don’t want in the first place. 

And if the district, blindly marching to the beat of the reformers’ drum instead of recognizing the damage such reforms have already caused and figuring out ways around them, decides to fire that teacher, they will soon be searching for another young idealist they ought to be grateful to find, but to whom they will subject the same shoddy and illogical treatment the following year.

If they can find anyone to take the job, that is.

And one has to marvel at the fact that they just might.

 

 

Firing Teachers Won’t Make Kids Smarter

If there’s one belief among education reformers that’s as stubbornly persistent as a two-year-old’s questions, it’s that if only schools would fire more teachers, kids would start getting better at reading and math. This enduring illusion seems so impervious to the contradictory evidence that one is forced to conclude that its adherents, for all their reasoned arguments, have more in common with religious zealots than sober academics.

In the course of  20 minutes of web surfing today, I ran across two articles that lazily suggest that the solution to our nation’s education problems is simply to fire more teachers.

Zachary Wright, in an article on Education Post called When Students Aren’t Proficient in Reading or Math, It Isn’t a Shame, It’s Violence, calls teachers a bunch of whiners:

“Teachers, I am one of you, and I say this with all the love, honor, and respect I can muster: Stop moaning about accountability standards…Stop griping about the unfairness of performance metrics. When a teacher speaks out against accountability, the truth is, at their core, whether they admit it or not, they care more about themselves than their students. Full stop.”

This is, and I say this with all the love, honor, and respect I can muster, idiotic thinking. Let’s be clear about what accountability standards are at least supposed to mean. They mean judging and then either punishing or rewarding (but usually punishing) teachers. In the wettest of reformers’ dreams, they mean firing a few hundred thousand teachers every year (I don’t have a source for that number but a few hundred thousand would represent about 10% of teachers, a number that the most passionate reformers would likely still find too low.)

Arguing that teachers shouldn’t complain when those accountability systems rely on unfair metrics is like arguing doctors should just shut up when the government decides to set up a system of rewards and punishments based on how healthy their patients are. It’s like telling dentists to zip their lips when people who know zilch about dentistry decide that some of them need to be fired because too many of their patients don’t brush their teeth. It’s like asking prison wardens to pipe down when the state decides to evaluate them based on recidivism rates. Submissively accepting such illogical systems means being okay with people who are good at their jobs potentially losing them. That’s dumb.

As far as teachers who speak out against such unjust systems being only concerned about themselves, wrong again. Everyone with a child in today’s education system should be concerned about accountability systems that are based on unfair metrics for the simple reason that they will result in good teachers being fired or driven from the profession. Teachers, more than anyone else, are aware of this, which is why they have an obligation to fight back against such systems. We are supposed to be there for our students, and our students deserve teachers who are evaluated fairly so that the public can have some assurance that the right people are doing the job.

People who argue for greater teacher accountability always seem to do so from a belief that not having a strong evaluation system means that schools will be saddled with bad teachers, but they rarely seem as concerned that unfair systems will misidentify good teachers as weak ones and force them out of the profession. With many good teachers leaving on their own, that’s not something we can afford. It may, in fact, represent a larger threat to student learning, given that teacher shortages make it challenging for schools to replace “bad” teachers with better ones.

A second article, also on Education Post but written by Brandon Dutcher and titled, “It’s Not Real School Accountability If No One Is Held Accountable” positively drips with reformer frustration. It’s actually kind of fun to read. Dutcher writes:

“Despite years of ‘high stakes’ student testing, very few of the nation’s 3.14 million public-school teachers have ever lost a job, had their pay reduced, or otherwise faced meaningful consequences because of these test results.”

You see, we’ve been trying this for a while now. Accountability systems aren’t new. They just failed. Even Bill Gates admits it. Still, the reason for that failure can be interpreted one of two ways: Either teacher accountability failed because it’s a stupid idea with very little chance of succeeding or it never really had a prayer in the first place because despite reformers spending billions of dollars to treat educators like guinea pigs and to buy off legislators so they would adopt tougher evaluation systems and dismantle pesky tenure protections, the damn school districts didn’t take advantage of their new authority. They just kept rating teachers highly anyway!

Now I’d argue that either way, the idea is a proven dud. If you can’t get the people with the authority to implement your fancy evaluation system the way you want it implemented, then that’s just a different form of failure. But it’s worth it to ask, what if it did succeed?

Dutcher writes:

“Here in Oklahoma, the majority of students lack proficiency in math, science, and English language arts. So how many schools have been closed? How many grown-ups have lost their jobs or had their pay reduced? Who’s being held accountable for the damage?”

One can almost hear him stomping his feet. Dutcher, and many like him, envision a world where schools, almost all of them in low-income communities, would be closed if students had crappy test scores. He wants the adults in those schools kicked to the curb. He wants those effers held accountable.

Okay. Then what?

Those kids are going to need new schools and those schools are going to need more teachers to teach those kids. Where does Dutcher think the schools will find them? Is Oklahoma, with its embarrassing teacher salaries and lack of job protections, holding scads of would-be-fabulous teachers in some type of strategic teacher reserve? Does Dutcher think such an accountability system would lure all those Oklahoma teachers who left for Texas back to the Sooner State?

No, but he does have a solution (prepare to be shocked, he wrote sarcastically):

“True accountability is accountability not to bureaucrats but rather to parents. Happily, we’re now seeing examples of this voting-with-their-feet accountability. The Oklahoman reported this year that “41 percent of students who attend a virtual charter school in Oklahoma left their previous school because they were victims of bullying.”

Virtual charter schools! The same virtual charter schools that, according to this Detroit News article, have been a “spectacular failure.”

“A study by the RAND Corp. and New York University released earlier this year showed that online-only schools tend to attract and harm our most vulnerable students. The study found that Ohio students with low test scores who attend cyber charter schools fell even further behind. High achieving students perform better, but still achieve lower results than they would have if they had enrolled in traditional schools.

In the “National Study of Online Charter Schools,” Stanford University found that cyber charter students received the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of instruction in reading than their peers in traditional schools.”

I wonder if Dutcher wants to hold the computers accountable.

The central problem with calling for a more punitive accountability system for teachers is that the job is already pretty damn unattractive in all of the places where that accountability system would bare its sharpest teeth. Click To TweetWhy would anyone teach in a district where it would be more likely they would be fired because of the test scores of their students, a metric over which they have only some influence?

Look, I wish it were as easy as reformers like to pretend it is, but teacher evaluation reform is this century’s Prohibition. It’s the cure that’s worse than the disease.

At the very least, a medicine ought to remedy the malady for which it was created, even if there are some nasty side-effects. But with teacher evaluation reform, America got a double-whammy. According to the Rand report, not only did students at schools within the Gates program’s purview not do any better than their peers at other schools in the same areas, but teacher accountability systems have wreaked havoc on the profession. Since accountability gained traction in 2009, teacher stress has increased, with 73% of teachers reporting that they are often under stress and 46% saying they experience high stress every day (the numbers are even higher for elementary teachers). In 2013, 55% of teachers reported low or very low morale and 69% said their morale had declined. (Source) Roughly 6 in 10 teachers in a 2017 survey said their mental health was “not good” for at least seven of the previous 30 days. (Source) Not surprisingly, we have teacher shortages in many of the very geographic areas where reformers would most like to see more teachers fired.

Those numbers can’t just be ignored. In schools where at least 75% of students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, teacher turnover averages more than 22 percent annually. Recent data from the District of Columbia Public Schools reveal average teacher turnover rates of around 25 percent, but in those schools with free-and-reduced lunch rates higher than 80 percent, turnover was closer to 40 percent each year. In New York City middle schools, 66 percent of educators exit within their first five years. The typical Chicago public school loses over half of its teachers in their first five years. 

For those reformers who want more teachers working in these schools gone, you’re already getting your wish. They’re leaving on their own, in some cases because of the policy changes you wanted. To suggest that these teachers, the ones who knowingly (and largely altruistically) go into the most difficult schools and attempt to teach the hardest to reach kids, need to do so with the sword of Damocles resting precariously above their heads isn’t just stupid. It’s cruel.

And would-be teachers know it, as evidenced by teacher shortages not seen since the 1990s. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs declined by 35% from 2009, the year when the Gates accountability experiment started, to 2014. (Source)

Reformers’ plan to improve education only works if you can replace bad teachers with better ones. But the very system they would like to institute to make that happen is driving good teachers from the system and preventing young people from even signing up. If you’re going to propose a solution, that solution should have at least some chance at succeeding. But with a quarter-million teachers already leaving every year and not all of them being replaced, just where do reformers think they’re going to find people to teach our neediest kids?

Oh, that’s right. They’ll use computers.

 

 

There Will Be No Beanstalk

What will it be next year? Which book or program will capture the imagination of America’s school administrators? Which teacher turned thought leader will have her fortunes changed over night? Which consultant, too opportunistic and cowardly to remain in the arena and teach actual students, will be charging thousands of dollars to tell teachers how to do their jobs? Which business concept will weasel its way into America’s schools? What new elixir will I be forced to choke down, as impotent to resist as a baby whose mother airplanes a spoonful of unappetizing gruel toward his pinched mouth?

I do not know, but experience suggests it will be something. Likely, it will be something I’ve sampled before, under new management and packaged in a more attractive box. Something tasted by teachers who, after masticating for a while and maybe even swallowing, eventually spit it back up, only to chase it with something equally specious and unfulfilling.

We teachers are willing converts, regardless of how many times we’ve enthusiastically purchased the snake oil in the past. Sent off to a conference on the latest educational wonder drug, our initial skepticism is quickly replaced with reluctant acceptance by some and acolytic zeal by others. Our principals stand in front us with a tenuous grasp of the panacea they offer and virtually no understanding of the underlying science, but they assure us that it’s “research-based.” They point to a district where it supposedly worked, neglecting to mention that said district bears no resemblance to our own.

Still, we nod our heads. We sit in staff meetings where we are told that this, yes this, is our salvation! The magic bullet that will finally, finally raise those test scores, send more kids off to college, and make our schools the place everyone wants to be. Stick a Ph.D. on the end of a name and watch us assent under the assumption that someone smarter than us has the answer.

The remaining skeptics among us won’t dare say anything for fear of being labeled negative, or difficult, or not a team player, or not in it for the kids. No reason to place a target on our backs, not when we’ve been here before and know that this too shall pass.

And maybe in the back of our minds we think — having been told in so many ways over so many years that we’ve never measured up, never given these kids what they deserve — that, why not? Why not try this new thing? After all, what we’ve been doing hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire.

Teachers, I think, often feel like Jack’s mother in the fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk. At our wit’s end, on the verge of giving up, and as a last-ditch effort, we decide to trade in the family cow. We’ve barely been getting by as it is. Nothing is working and it never will. Desperate, we hope for deliverance. After all, anything is better than a useless cow.

And wouldn’t you know it? There’s a peddler offering just the thing. Magic beans! The answer to all our troubles! Consultants, books, new programs, repackaged ideas, all sold by slick traffickers who, unlike us, were savvy enough to make a living in education outside of the classroom.

But teaching isn’t a fairy tale and there will be no beanstalk that teachers will climb to heretofore unattained heights. There is no magic. No riches. No geese who lay golden eggs. No magic harp. Not even an enraged giant or his concerned wife. They may be different sizes and colors than the beans we’ve planted before, but they’re still just beans.

Still, there will be hope. The newly acquired beans planted, we’ll look out the window, expecting that any day now we’ll wake up and see a beanstalk. We’re sure of it.

This is the curse of being a teacher. We will forever be hoping the beans will sprout. No matter how many times they fail to germinate, we will always trade away the cow in the hope of something transformational. And instead of scolding us for our foolishness, as the mother does Jack in the story, our leaders will present to us new beans with promises that this time we will surely be able to climb to the clouds.

Undeterred by broken promises, we will believe again. We’ll return to the window and stare at the soil, positive that this time there will be growth.

The eagerness to drink the Kool-Aid is our curse.  It is also our blessing.

For what is teaching if not blind hope? Why keep showing up if you don’t carry within you an implausible faith in miracles? If teachers believe that they, through nothing more than their dedication and efforts, can turn a kid around who has everything going against him, then is it at all surprising that when a man offers to trade magic beans for our tired cow we jump at the opportunity?

We believe in miracles because we believe in the biggest miracle of all: That we, set against apathy and neglect, hunger and abuse, poverty and hopelessness, can make a difference. Against all odds, we believe in the future of every single student. It’s an absurd belief, one that no rational person would hold, one that the data have never supported, yet we believe it with every fiber of our being, just as we believe that this time, there will be a beanstalk.

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Performance-Based Layoffs Are a Bad Idea

The board of the San Antonio Independent School District voted Monday to lay off 132 teachers in a cost-cutting measure designed to save $11 million. Due to declining enrollment (mostly thanks to charter schools), the district faces a $31 million shortfall for the coming year. So it’s perfectly understandable that the board wanted to cut personnel.

Of course, that didn’t stop the uproar. The laid-off teachers showed up at the board meeting, and, unshackled without a job to worry about, let district officials have it. That, too, was unexpected. People who are fired aren’t usually very happy about it.

What is different these days is the source of that anger. Not so very long ago, decisions like these were made by seniority. It was cut and dry. If you needed to lay off 30 teachers, you pulled the seniority list out and counted 30 from the bottom. The lists could be found in teachers’ lounges, and every May you’d take a peek at where you were, listened for rumors about the number of positions your employer was looking to cut, and hoped you’d be spared. It might not have been perfect, but it was at least easily understood.

Plenty of people hated this policy, and they had good reason. Why should a shitty veteran teacher keep her job over a passionate and effective new one? That didn’t make sense, so reformers fought hard to replace “last-in, first out” policies with those based on performance. Not too many people complained.

They should have. Just as democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others, seniority-based layoffs are the worst way to cut teaching jobs, except for all the others.

San Antonio demonstrates why.

If you’re going to lay people off based on performance, then you better have an evaluation system that teachers believe is fair and consistent. And it sure sounds like San Antonio didn’t have that (and given how subjective and unreliable principal observations and student assessments are, I’m not sure it’s even possible to create one).

From an article in the San Antonio Express News:

“The union circulated a letter to the board written by Lisa Marie Gonzalez, who resigned two weeks ago from her position as associate principal of Lanier High School, in which she alleged that Lanier’s principal, Laura B. Cooper, in the fall gave administrators a list of teachers to “get rid of” and directed them to give those teachers negative evaluations. Potter, the union president, said the union heard similar stories Monday from assistant principals of two other high schools.”

It almost doesn’t matter whether those accusations are true. Because the trust between the district and its teachers is gone, and there is no reason to believe that district leaders made layoff decisions based on teacher quality instead of personal vendettas or money. The law makes it way too easy to do just that. Until that law is reversed, teachers across the country will continue to express the sentiment voiced by the SAISD teachers’ union president:

“Stop saying that the cuts are based on performance,” she told the board.

The Benefits of Certainty

Critics of protesting teachers often make the argument that teachers knew the pay when they took the job. They have a point. But here’s something teachers also used to know when they took a job: They were the first ones on the chopping block in the event of layoffs. There’s something to be said for that kind of certainty.

If seniority still mattered in San Antonio, district officials’ jobs would have been much easier. It is unlikely that teachers would be nearly as upset, and the motives of district leaders wouldn’t be called into question. Those teachers who didn’t get cut wouldn’t spend all of next year looking over their shoulders, afraid to commit the most minor of offenses out of fear of landing on some petty administrator’s hit list.

The district also wouldn’t have needed to ask teachers to resign instead of being laid off, because under the old system being laid off meant you were young and cuts had to be made. It wasn’t a blemish on your resume. Everyone understood how the game was played and a young, laid-off teacher could easily move to another district and continue their career.

Not so anymore. Now, with “performance”-based evaluations, the assumption that hiring districts must make is that teachers who were laid off from their previous districts must have sucked. Which, given how unreliable these evaluation systems are and how little proof there is that they actually identify low performers, is not only unfair to those teachers but bad for a system in desperate need of them.

It’s a classic case of be careful what you wish for. Districts now have the power they want to fire teachers who aren’t performing. The problem is that they also have the power they want to fire teachers they don’t like, or who cost them more money than they feel like paying.

And even if these districts behave nobly and do the very best they can to identify and retain their best teachers (and there’s really no reason to assume they do), their motives when they lay off teachers will always be questioned.

And that is a bad thing for everybody involved.