We’ve all been there. Sitting in another meeting and being told about yet another initiative that promises to solve the same problem the last initiative was supposed to solve. We’ve sat stone-faced as failed teachers (also called trainers) explained to us exactly how to use the fancy new program our district overpaid for. We’ve kept silent as principals informed us of new policies that conflict with everything we believe about good teaching. And we’ve nodded along, feigning assent, as district leaders sold us on the latest education trend, which they have eagerly adopted on our behalf, that will at long last get the results we all want.
In spite of the furious rebuttals trying to punch their way past our lips, we’re able to hold our tongues (and our good standing among our supervisors) because we all know where the last line of defense resides. If you’ve taught for even a couple of years you’ve heard (and probably thought) the teacher’s saving grace, the one sentence that likely prevents teacher after teaching from doing their best Howard Beale, upending their neatly stacked letter trays, kicking their tote bags across the room, and storming out of the building in righteous, fed-up anger.
It’s always there, whispering its comforting assurance:
“Whatever,” the voice says. “I’ll just close my door and keep doing what I’m doing. Who’s going to know?”
This is the teacher’s veto, the last vestige of true autonomy in the classroom. It recognizes a reality that all teachers understand but few reformers or school leaders seem to acknowledge:
What happens in classrooms is ultimately up to the teacher.
You can tell teachers how to do their job. You can tell them what to teach. You can tell them what to write on their boards. You can demand fidelity to your new program. You can ban movies or independent reading or competitive games or candy in prize boxes.
But the only way you can enforce any of it is by actually going into classrooms, observing, and disciplining the mavericks. Most school leaders, for reasons both good and bad, won’t do that.
And teachers know it.
You can design brand new standards that you claim will raise student achievement, but you can’t make teachers teach them. You certainly can’t make them teach the standards the way you want them to.
You can purchase the best curriculum money can buy, but you can’t force teachers to use it with fidelity.
You can require learning goals be written on the board before every lesson. You can even require a particular format for them. But you can’t force teachers to use the goals with students or to actually teach the things that are written on the board. (Admission: I’ve often left the same goals on the board for weeks. No one’s ever noticed.)
You can make teachers define success criteria and write performance scales and you can send a document telling teachers which assessments they will use to mark report cards and how to use the scales, but once teachers sit down to mark report cards, they can use whatever criteria they want. And chances are pretty good that no parent will ever question it.
You can institute a no-movies policy, but unless an administrator is going to spend a lot of time peeking through classroom doors, you can’t do much to prevent teachers from showing whatever movie they want.
You can roll out a new state test and you can force teachers to give it to their students, but you can’t ensure that teachers stress the test’s importance, or that they establish a good testing environment, or that they don’t tell their students, “I don’t give two mushy turds how you do on this stupid test because you’re far more than a test score and besides, no one is ever going to care about your dumb fourth grade science test score results, so if you want, just go ahead and click stuff so we can finish this thing and get back to learning.”
Thank God for the teacher’s veto. It may be the only thing keeping some of our best teachers in the profession. The knowledge that you can usually ignore the dumbest ideas and continue to do what’s best for kids is what makes laughably bad policies and ill-conceived mandates bearable.
Smart teachers will figure out ways around stupid policies. They will follow the letter of your law while protecting students from its unintended consequences. They’ll limit the damage created by your ill-informed mandates.
So what’s a reformer or school leader with new ideas to improve education to do? If teachers are going to ignore anything they don’t like, what’s the point? Why not just throw in the towel and admit that change will never happen?
Because the solution is remarkably simple: Include teachers from the start. Ask them what they need instead of telling them what to do. No, you won’t get them all, but they will be a lot more likely to try something they’ve had a hand in creating than something they’ve been compelled to do.
If teachers are telling you that something is a bad idea, then they’re telling you it’s not going to work and you can be sure that teachers aren’t going to do something that doesn’t work for very long. They are the ones who’ll be blamed when it fails. They’re the ones who have to field the parent phone calls. They’re the ones who have to look students in the eye and explain why they’re doing what they’re doing. When they need to, they will exercise their veto.
I recently published an article in which I suggested that schools should not be doing their students’ laundry. My rationale was that schools already do too much and the more they do, the fewer things they will do well. This is hardly a groundbreaking observation.
Restaurants that focus make better food than those that try to make everything.
Companies that focus make higher quality products.
Individuals that focus are more successful.
Even teachers that focus are the only ones you’ve heard of. Jaime Escalante taught calculus. Lucy Calkins teaches writing. Rafe Esquith was best known for teaching kids Shakespeare.
To get really good at something, you have to aim your energies in one direction. Schools do the opposite. As a result, most of them rarely excel at anything.
Suggesting that schools not do students’ laundry led to predictable responses. A fair number of readers agreed with me. Those who didn’t argued that schools have to step up and be the communities kids need. Schools should fill the gaps left by neglectful parenting. Kids can’t learn unless their basic needs are met, and if those needs aren’t being met at home, then schools must do everything within their power to meet them. We shouldn’t punish kids for the sins of their parents.
All of those are appealing sentiments, which is likely why they’re hard to resist. But resist schools should. Because it is such thinking that exhausts educators and provides fuel for the failing schools narrative.
What Schools Offer Becomes Expected
Every disappointment results from unmet expectations, which means that schools should be very careful about what they offer. Provide lunch and you can bet that parents will complain about its nutritional content, the time allotted for kids to eat, the noise in the cafeteria, the demeanor of the adults staffing the noisy cafeteria, food waste, a lack of gluten-free options, and 15 other things that aren’t ideal. Offer free transportation to and from school and prepare to field complains about the safety of the buses, the lack of supervision leading to bullying, long bus rides, the professionalism of drivers, and many more.
When schools add offerings they shouldn’t expect gratitude; they should expect disappointment and criticism. Humans are kind of assholes, and one of our more unattractive traits is that we quickly feel entitled, take new things for granted, and find stuff to bitch about. It reminds me of this Louis C.K. bit where he talks about wi-fi on airplanes:
“I’m sitting on the plane and they go, ‘Open up your laptop, you can go on the Internet.’ It’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips. It’s amazing! I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down and they apologize. ‘The Internet’s not working.’ The guy next to me goes, ‘Pssh. This is bullshit!’ Like, how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago.”
Schools like to make people happy, so their leaders hardly ever tell anyone no. The irony is that taking on too much hasn’t led to a greater appreciation for schools; it’s led to scapegoating. Doing so many things means that schools do very few things well. And like wi-fi on airplanes, you’re better off not having it at all than having it perform poorly.
Responsibilities Adopted by Schools Become Responsibilities Forfeited By Parents
When schools continually take on more responsibilities, society starts expecting schools to take on larger and larger roles in the socialization of young people. That means we all start to expect families, churches, and communities to do less.
Once schools take on a role previously reserved for parents, a not insignificant number of parents will be happy to abdicate responsibility for that role. The thinking might go something like this:
If the school is teaching sexual education, there’s a series of uncomfortable conversations that I don’t have to have with my child.
If the school is providing an hour of exercise through recess and gym class, then I don’t need to play with or supervise my child outside. Alternatively, I don’t have to let them roam the neighborhood and risk my neighbors’ judgment over my free-range parenting methods. One less hassle for me.
Since the schools are providing counseling services, I don’t need to get my child the professional help he needs.
Where does it end? Schools have already taken responsibility for their students’ physical health (why have nutritional guidelines for the federal lunch program if they haven’t?). Those with washing machines have taken a step toward accepting responsibility for students’ cleanliness. But if schools are going to launder students’ clothing, shouldn’t they also provide a time and place for morning showers? Shouldn’t schools supply deodorant and toothpaste if parents aren’t providing them?
Why stop there? If schools are concerned with students’ physical health and hygiene, how can they neglect mental health? After all, students with mental health problems can’t properly learn. Shouldn’t schools provide counseling services? Shouldn’t the state provide funding so every school can afford to have a therapist in the building? Shouldn’t there be a nurse on every campus to administer mental health medications?
The More Schools Attempt To Do, The Less They Will Do Well
Every teacher knows this. Ask us to teach 100 things and we’ll do it; we just won’t do it particularly well. Tell me to cram 18 different things into my seven-hour teaching day, and I’ll cram them in; they just won’t be done effectively.
Many schools act as if tradeoffs don’t exist. Teachers are expected to teach exceptional reading lessons and exceptional math lessons (and don’t forget great science and social studies lessons, too!). We’re supposed to build a positive community of learners and instill moral character in our pupils, but those test scores better also be high!
You don’t get to have it all. Nobody does, and that includes schools. That’s just not how the world works, and schools, no matter how well-intentioned they are, don’t get to change the fundamental rules of time. They must either choose, which means saying no, or accept mediocrity (at best) in most of what they do.
The More Schools Attempt to Do, The More Resources They Will Need
One Facebook commenter said, “If we do want educators to do all of this, we must provide resources.” There are two problems with such an argument. First, there are large segments of the population that think we already spend too much on education. They are unlikely to support more money for things that aren’t directly related to academics. Second, asking for and receiving more funding opens schools up to even more criticism and makes them more vulnerable to the narrative that our schools are failing. Read any article critical of public schools in this country and you can be sure to hear about how much more money we spend than other countries and how even though we’re spending more on education than we did ten or twenty or fifty years ago, our results haven’t changed much. We’re not getting much bang for our buck, the argument goes, so maybe we should spend fewer bucks.
More spending means higher expectations, especially from those who think we already spend too much on schools. But those expectations are tied to academic performance because in most people’s minds academics is still the primary responsibility of schools. Nevermind that the money is being used for more administrators, counseling, discipline, and safer buses. The critics will pounce if increased funding doesn’t lead to higher test scores, regardless of whether those funds were intended to lead to higher test scores.
Schools are being judged on academics, even though academics make up a progressively smaller part of schools’ focus as they foolishly take on more and more non-academic responsibilities.
The Less Schools Do Well, the More They Will Be Criticized
By accepting responsibility for an ever-expanding role in the development of young people, schools have set themselves up for consistent, blistering attacks. Consequently, they have made it less likely that they will effectively develop young people. Their noble intentions have sabotaged their intended results.
Pulled in 50 directions, schools make it harder to do the one thing almost everyone expects of them — educate their students. In the process, they exhaust the people responsible for producing the desired outcomes. Every person working in a school has too much to do, and it’s no wonder.
When leaders fail to focus and instead attempt to solve every societal problem, it’s those doing the actual work who end up spread thin. Exhausted people aren’t effective. And when schools are blamed, the people working in them take it personally. They feel shit on, and shit on people don’t perform well. Some of them walk right out the door and never return.
Burned out people don’t need more to do. Those trying to solve every problem created by society don’t deserve to be scapegoated. Schools will never get the results they seek if they continue to stretch their employees like rubber bands and set them up to be criticized for failing to solve all of the problems they’ve been asked to solve.
When schools act as if they can do it all, then anything they fail to do well is ammunition for their critics. Enemies of public education can point to countless “failures” of public schools because schools have blindly accepted responsibility for so many things that they can’t help but fail at most of them.
If you take on reproductive health, then you’re going to be blamed when teenage pregnancy rates rise.
If you serve breakfast and lunch, you’ll be culpable for a nation of obese children.
If you’re going to have drug-prevention programs, then kids better use fewer drugs.
If you teach financial literacy, then guess who’s fault it is when millions of people grow up and take out zero-interest loans, creating a real estate bubble which eventually bursts and sends the entire economy into a tailspin?
If you’re going to take responsibility for instilling character in your students, then where will fingers be pointed by those who believe the country is in the midst of a moral crisis?
If you’re going to train teachers on suicide prevention, then who gets the blame when a student takes his or her own life?
Nearly every societal problem today can be blamed on schools. That’s because schools have made it easy for critics to blame them. When public schools attempt to solve every societal problem, they do nothing but undermine their own mission. They open the door for their enemies to point and say, “Look at how badly those public schools (fill in the blank).”
One commenter on my last article summarized: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave…”
I might finish the line… “when to others no responsibilities schools leave.”
Back in June, Rick Hess, who writes about education stuff and works for some think tank (I think), wrote an article called 5 Lessons from the Failure of The Gates Foundation’s $575 Effective Teacher Initiative. After summarizing the epic scope of the failure and the ludicrous price tag, Hess attempts to resuscitate teacher evaluation and compensation reform by defending the initiative’s goals and blaming, as education policy advocates are want to do, implementation problems for the overall failure.
“While it may be tempting to regard the RAND evaluation as closing the book on another oversold education reform, doing so would be a mistake. There’s much that can and should be learned from the exercise, especially given that the core idea makes good, intuitive sense—however problematically it was executed.”
Let me suggest an alternative conclusion:
The RAND evaluation makes clear that yet another oversold education reform failed to solve the problem it set out to and created a set of unintended consequences that harmed teachers and, by extension, education as a whole. There’s one thing that can be learned from the exercise and that is regardless of how intuitive a solution might be, the implementation of drastic changes inside complex systems will always be difficult and will always lead to outcomes we cannot predict, many of which will be bad and make things worse than they were.
Hess details five lessons we are to learn from the abject failure of tinkering with things best left alone, presumably so the next billionaire who wants to upend American education can fail less spectacularly.
First, Hess says that the reforms demanded too much time and paperwork. So I guess future reformers should design ways to expedite the process of getting rid of teachers they don’t like. Principals shouldn’t have to actually observe and document things. Due process is for suckers. I’m surprised Hess didn’t advocate for principals using their gut instinct and asking teachers to clear out their rooms by the end of the day.
Hess also points the finger at principals who wouldn’t rate teachers low enough. This is a favorite criticism of education reformers. It’s not that teachers are any good; it’s that principals are too weak to label them as bad as they really are. Instead of believing principals who work with their teachers every day, we’re supposed to believe people in think tanks looking at spreadsheets.
Hess admits that changes to teacher pay failed to attract new candidates to the profession or entice teachers to change where or how they work. Duh. That this couldn’t be predicted by those who advocated for the changes reveals a distressingly large blind spot. Let me spell it out: People who go into education don’t do it for the money. They are not motivated by the same things people who enter the corporate world are. Therefore, dangling incentive pay and saying you want to reward good teachers with more money is not going to attract the kind of people we actually want in classrooms. Investment bankers, it should go without saying, would not make good second-grade teachers. Similarly, offering combat pay to teachers to go to low-performing schools will never work as long as those teachers are going to be evaluated in the same way every other teacher is evaluated. It doesn’t matter how large an incentive you accept if you don’t get to keep your job.
Hess ends by telling us that none of the failures in the report means that teacher evaluation reforms don’t work, even though that’s exactly what the RAND evaluation concluded. Rather, he says, “it’s complicated” and hard to do. In a nutshell, Hess argues that we should still do this thing that failed, we should just figure out how to do it better, which can, of course, be said about every failure ever.
One wonders if Hess believes the same thing about Prohibition, which, like teacher evaluation reform, could also be considered a “core idea that makes good, intuitive sense.” The Bay of Pigs wasn’t a bad idea; it was just more complicated and harder to do than people thought. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try something similar in the future!
When initiatives fail because they’re hard to implement, we should wonder: If this idea is so hard to get right, then maybe the idea itself is a bad one.
The lesson that should be learned from Bill Gates’s ill-fated teacher evaluation reforms is that reforming teacher evaluations is really hard to do without making things worse than they are and that anyone looking to follow in his footsteps ought to be a lot more careful about where they walk. They might even decide to walk on a completely different path altogether.
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!”
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 Lossand 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.
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.