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How to Balance the Art & Science of Teaching

Recently, I gave a TED talk outlining why I think we’re in the midst of the most exciting and difficult time to be a teacher in American history. These sorts of talks are always imperfect (and timed) efforts to inject new ideas into the stratosphere, but I received lots of nice comments and feedback, including some observations that only a mom – my mom, actually – would share (“Your posture was very relaxed, and you never even said ‘um’!”).

It was another thing my mother said that struck me, though. “Do you feel sure that your audience knows what to do with all you’ve said?” she wrote.

Great point, and I’m not sure. So here, as simply as I can say it, are three specific things – some big, some small – we need to do to help teachers get better at helping children learn and grow.

1. Follow the Med School Model – As any M.D. knows, different medical schools have different strengths and weaknesses. But one thing every medical school shares is the belief that a strong medical training is built on a dual foundation of two courses: anatomy and physiology.

In education, no similar consensus exists. Worse still, most programs – whether they’re traditional schools of education or alternative certification programs – give short shrift to one of the most important things a teacher needs to know: child and adolescent development.

Think about that for a second. Our country’s teacher training programs, by and large, pay little attention to how well prospective teachers understand the emotional and developmental needs of the children they propose to teach.

So let’s start there by urging all teacher-training programs to adapt the Med School model and establish a similar two-course foundation for all prospective educators: Learning Sciences and Developmental Sciences.

I realize that won’t happen anytime soon (if at all). But the good news is we don’t need to wait; we can just start establishing online and/or in-person courses anywhere and everywhere, for anyone that’s interested in acquiring a deeper understanding of this new knowledge base. These courses would provide recommended reading, a forum for people to communicate with some guided facilitation, and a space for learners to self-organize with each other based on their areas of interest. And while it would be great if some accrediting body offered participants credit toward a degree or certification, we don’t need to wait for that to happen, either. What matters is identifying what we need to learn to be more effective at what we do, and then learning it. Period.

2. Study the Brain – In the same way educators need a solid foundation in how people develop, we should be equally aware of how people learn. That’s why schools and districts should incentivize any efforts on the part of their teachers to better understand the brain – regardless of whether it’s a book club or an accredited course. And once again, we can start right away in any community, alone or in groups. There are scores of recently written books that translate the latest insights in neuroscience for a lay audience. So we don’t need to wait for the schools of education to catch up. But we do need to do our homework and make sure we’re creating classroom environments that are highly tuned to our students’ strengths and weaknesses and how they see the world.

3. Craft Evaluation Programs That Honor Art & Science – One thing all sides seem to agree on is that teacher evaluation systems are in need of an extreme makeover; for too long, they’ve been little more than pro forma stamps of approval, and they’ve done little to nothing to help teachers get better.

In too many places, however, efforts are already underway to craft systems that disregard the art of teaching in favor of the (misunderstood) science of measurement. These sorts of systems are more about pushing people out than lifting them up. That’s why we should blow them all up and start over.

A prerequisite of any new evaluation system should be its effort to help teachers improve the quality of their practice via shared inquiry into what is and isn’t working in their classrooms. These new systems shouldn’t be afraid of quantitative measures, just as they shouldn’t devalue qualitative measures. And we should be sure to pay attention to the illustrative efforts already underway. If you’re a policymaker, for example, take a close look at what they’re doing in Montgomery County. And if you’re a teacher, consider getting certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

It will always be true, in teaching and in the natural world, that not everything can be measured, just as it’s true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than test scores. The challenge is to find the balance between the elusive but evergreen art of teaching, and the emerging but illustrative science of the brain.

We can do both. And we can start today.


What DC Can Teach Us About New Teacher Policies

This weekend, an article in my local paper crystallized three things we need to stop doing if we want to transform American public education for the long haul – and three things we should start doing instead.

1. STOP having a national debate about labor law; START having a national conversation about how people learn.

The article I’m referring to was written in response to the July 15, 2011 announcement that 206 teachers in the D.C. public school system had been fired for poor performance, “a rarity in a big city school system and an extension of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s aggressive drive to upgrade classroom instruction in the nation’s capital.”

Indeed. For the past four years, ever since Ms. Rhee first took the helm of the D.C. public school system (DCPS), the tenor of our national conversation (and my local one) has been squarely fixed on teachers, on teacher evaluations, and on the role teachers unions have played in our ongoing efforts to guarantee each child an equal opportunity to a high-quality public education.

On one level, this makes sense: teachers are clearly the most significant in-school factor to a healthy learning environment for kids; teacher evaluations are clearly in need of an extreme makeover; and teacher unions have clearly been occasional obstacles to some of the larger efforts to remake our public schools. In that regard, any and all efforts to “upgrade classroom instruction” are exactly what the doctor ordered.

And yet, the reality is that the past four years have been more of a national debate about labor law – and less of a national investigation about how people learn. And the problem is not that labor law doesn’t need fixing; it does. But when things like “last in, first out” (LIFO) firing policies, collective bargaining rights, and teacher pensions crowd out our capacity to identify what highly effective teaching and learning really looks like – and requires – what we get are cover stories about personnel dismissals and litmus tests on national personalities, not evaluation tools that are designed to help the vast majority of teachers get better. Which leads to the second thing . . .

2. STOP spending so much time talking about the best and worst teachers; START focusing on everyone else.

Although mass firings of the sort DCPS reported last week are rare, the number of personnel affected was still quite small – just 5% of the total workforce. In fact, very few teachers were rated as either great or horrible; the vast majority – nearly 70% — were simply rated “effective.”

This underscores a rather obvious point: the only way to transform the teaching profession is by crafting policies that help the vast majority of educators improve the quality of their practice over time – not by lionizing the master teachers or demonizing the ones that should find a new line of work.

Is that what’s happening in DC? I believe our new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, when she says that IMPACT, the city’s new teacher evaluation system, is designed to build capacity, not just weed out the unwanted. Perhaps over time IMPACT will even become a useful national model for a different sort of evaluation tool that can provide feedback, reinforce high standards, and help ensure a high-quality teacher in every classroom. However, based on a recent in-depth review of IMPACT, we’re not there yet – and we’re still way too focused in our public rhetoric on the best and the worst teachers. It would be nice to see the rhetoric and the reality get more in line with each other. And it would be nice to imagine that some worthy educators won’t recklessly lose their jobs along the way.

3. STOP viewing poverty and education as an either/or; START viewing them as a both/and.

Anyone who lives and works in education knows that an ongoing argument has been occurring between some who feel you can’t fix education until you fix poverty, and others who feel you can’t fix poverty until you fix education.

The reality is that both sides – and neither side – are right. Poverty and education are inextricably linked, and the ecosystem each child inhabits – from his home and community to his health and his school – has a massive, complicated impact on that child’s capacity to learn and grow. Therefore, any new policies that fail to account for that complexity aren’t just poorly designed; they’re patently unfair.

This point was reinforced in the article about the DC firings and the IMPACT evaluation system. As Washington Post reporter Bill Turque wrote, “a breakdown by ward confirms, as it did last year, that the overwhelming majority of highly effective teachers work in schools with lower rates of poverty and other social problems.”

This news shouldn’t surprise anyone – how could it be otherwise? – and yet too many of us are still suggesting the path forward must be lit by signs saying either “It’s The Poverty, Stupid,” or “No Excuses Means No Excuses.”

We can do better. We have the capacity for greater nuance in our understanding of something as complex as teaching and learning. And as we spend the summer months preparing for a new school year, we would be wise to be more mindful of what we must stop, start and keep doing in the months and years ahead.


What Joel Klein Doesn’t Understand About Teaching — and What We Should Do Instead

In case you missed it, former NYC Schools Chief Joel Klein had an Op-Ed in this weekend’s Washington Post in which he, rightly, urges us to do what it takes to establish a true long-term teaching profession. His recipe for doing so, however, reveals the extent to which he has misdiagnosed both the problem and its potential solutions.

Klein begins by noting the ways teachers have become “unfairly vilified” in the current conversations about education reform, and then, after celebrating the heroic few in the profession who are “America’s heroes,” dedicates equal space to calling out the teachers who “work by the clock.” According to Klein, “the problem is that our discussion too often fails to distinguish between these very different types of teachers, treating them all the same.”

I would counter that the bigger problem is when we speak of any profession in such binary terms — are you a hero or a laggard? — and expect that such rhetoric will do anything other than alienate the core constituency we are trying to support and celebrate.

Let me be clear: there are teachers who work by the clock, and who need to be in a different line of work. I have seen them with my own eyes, and worked with them, frustratingly, over the years. They are a minority of the profession — as are the “heroes” who are already working at the highest levels of mastery. Any strategy for creating a true profession, therefore, needs to be concerned less with these stereotypes and more with the overwhelming majority of people teaching our kids every day — the people who could, with the right supports and measures, become master educators, or, without such supports, struggle to stay afloat and then, like so many before them, abandon the field, burned out and discouraged.

Unfortunately, Klein misses the mark on that point as well. Indeed, not once in his entire piece does he mention the core focus of school — learning. Instead, Klein (rightly) bemoans current aspects of labor law, and (wrongly) suggests that all we need is a system that “looks at how much student progress each teacher gets.” I understand the motivation here, and it’s certainly appealing to imagine a neat linear process by which we measure what adults have been able to put into their students. It’s just not possible.

On this point, let me also be clear: rethinking how we evaluate and provide feedback to teachers is an essential part of any long-term reform, and it makes sense that part of those evaluations come via student assessments — be they quantitative or qualitative. To do that well, however, requires a much deeper understanding of the deeply nonlinear, highly individual continuum on which teaching and learning unfolds. As Mr. Klein has shown repeatedly, that is a world with which he has had little direct interaction, and about which he seems to have little interest.

Simply put, student achievement, as we have come to define it, may or may not mean actual learning. That’s wiggity wack. And teacher excellence, as Klein intends to define it, will do little more than guarantee a heightened emphasis on that current, myopic method of evaluation. We can, and must, do better than that.

In that spirit, and since there’s nothing worse than criticizing someone’s plan and offering nothing in its place, check out this set of proposed teacher policies, thanks to my former colleagues at the Forum for Education & Democracy, and share your reactions — good, bad and/or ugly — in the comments section below:

Standards for Teaching

An equitable and adequate system will need to address the supply of well-prepared educators – the most fundamental of all resources – by building an infrastructure that ensures high-quality and continuously improving preparation for all educators and ensures that well-trained educators are available to all students in all communities.  If students are to be expected to achieve higher standards, it stands to reason that educators must meet higher standards as well.  They must know how to teach in ways that enable students to master challenging content and that address the specific needs of different learners, including new English language learners as well as students with special education needs. As Ted Sizer noted back in 1984: “While our system of schools contains many consequential characteristics—for example, the subjects of the curriculum, the forms of governance, the uses of technologies and teaching aids, the organization of programs for special groups—none is more important than who the teachers are and how they work.  Without good teachers, sensibly deployed, schooling is barely worth the effort.”

Investing in skilled educators is also critical to local school innovation. If schools are to be trusted to make good decisions about educational matters, teachers and school leaders must be deeply knowledgeable about teaching, learning, curriculum, and school improvement. When the public lacks confidence in the professional judgment of educators, legislators increase bureaucratic straitjackets, even when these reduce, rather than increase, school effectiveness. Our failure to build a strong profession and to ensure that all educators have the preparation and supports they need has gradually reduced teachers’ voices in how our children are educated. From the details of teaching children to read to rules for grade promotion, we have turned over more and more decisions to centralized authorities.

The problem with bureaucratic solutions is that children are not standardized; hence, effective practice cannot be reduced to routines. By its very nature, standardized practice is incapable of providing appropriate education for students who do not fit the mold upon which all of the prescriptions for practice are based. To be effective, teachers must be able to adapt instruction to students’ individual needs. Ironically, prescriptive policies created in the name of public accountability can ultimately reduce a school’s responsiveness to the needs of its students and the desires of its parents. Students and families become the scapegoats for school failure, since no one person in the system takes responsibility for the collective impact the system has on the learning opportunities for all children.

Unlike high-achieving nations, the U.S. leaves the supply of good teachers to chance, with no systematic approach to recruitment, preparation, evaluation, development, or retention in most states. Consequently, with few governmental supports for preparation or mentoring, teachers in the U.S. enter:

  • With dramatically different levels of training — with those least prepared teaching the most educationally vulnerable children;
  • At sharply disparate salaries — with those teaching the neediest students earning the least;
  • Working under radically different teaching conditions — with those in the most affluent communities benefiting from small classes and supportive working conditions, while those in the poorest communities often teach large classes without the necessary books, materials, supplies, and supports;
  • With little mentoring or on-the-job coaching to help teachers improve their skills.

In many states, schools serving the highest-need students experience continual turnover of teachers, which undermines both student learning and school progress, contributing to the long-term failure of both.

Meanwhile, higher-achieving countries that rarely experience teacher shortages have made substantial investments in teacher training and equitable teacher distribution in the last two decades. These countries routinely prepare their teachers more extensively, pay them well in relation to competing occupations, and provide them with time for professional learning. They also distribute well-trained teachers to all students — rather than allowing some to be taught by untrained novices — by offering equitable salaries, and sometimes offering incentives for harder-to-staff locations. They provide:

  • High-quality teacher education to all candidates, completely at government expense, including at least a year of practice teaching in a clinical school connected to the university;
  • Mentoring from expert teachers for all beginners in their first years of teaching, coupled with other supports like a reduced teaching load and shared planning;
  • Equitable salaries (often with additional stipends for hard-to-staff locations) which are competitive with other professions, such as engineering;
  • Ongoing professional learning embedded in 15 to 25 hours a week of planning and professional development time.

While we worry about the supply of doctors, engineers, and technicians, we seem to ignore the supply of teachers who will educate the highly skilled workers and thoughtful citizens of the future. We lack a national policy to increase the supply of good teachers, to support teachers while on the job, or to distribute good teachers to all our children. When we do not tend to those who will nurture our young in the skills and abilities that make engaged citizenship possible, we put our future as a democracy at risk.

We can do better.

To start investing in a long-term teaching profession – and stop tolerating a short-term teaching force – our current ad hoc approaches to teacher and principal recruitment, preparation, licensing, hiring, and ongoing professional development must be reshaped so that all students will have access to teachers and school leaders who can be professionally accountable.  This will require a serious overhaul of preparation and licensing standards so that they reflect the critical knowledge and skills for teaching, evaluated through high-quality performance assessments demonstrating that prospective teachers can actually teach effectively. Indeed, the knowledge teachers need to reach all students in today’s schools has increased considerably. Teachers not only need deep and flexible knowledge of the content areas they teach, they also need to know:

  • how children learn at different stages so they can create a productive curriculum that will build on students’ prior knowledge and experiences;
  • how to adapt instruction for the needs of students with special needs;
  • how to identify and shape practices that build upon the linguistic and cultural assets of emerging bilingual learners;
  • how to assess learning continuously so they can identify students’ needs and respond with effective teaching strategies; and
  • how to work collectively with parents and colleagues to build strong school programs.

While the risk we face today is self-imposed, the lesson we learned nearly half a century ago still applies — we can make a national commitment to a high-quality teacher corps. Federal leadership in developing an adequate supply of well-qualified teachers is as essential as it has been in providing an adequate supply of physicians, developing teaching hospitals, and improving medical education for more than 40 years.

Specifically, the federal government should:

1. Create incentives for recruiting teachers to high-need fields and locations.

Most high-achieving nations completely subsidize several years of teacher preparation for all candidates, so that the most talented will enter and all will be well-prepared. The U.S. should, at minimum, provide service scholarships that underwrite the full preparation of teachers who agree to teach in shortage areas and low-income schools for at least four years, the point at which most will continue in the profession. Those who prepare to teach mathematics, science, special education or bilingual education, and those who prepare to teach in inner city schools should be prepared completely at government expense in high-quality programs. Virtually all of the positions currently filled by unqualified teachers could be filled in this way for only $800 million a year.

In addition, incentives should be put in place to attract to these schools expert teachers who can serve as mentors and curriculum leaders. These incentives should address the key factors found to affect recruitment and retention: principals who are strong instructional leaders; colleagues who are like-minded and similarly committed; supportive teaching conditions — including reasonable class sizes, plentiful materials and equipment, time for collaboration, and input into decisions; and adequate compensation. Experience shows that changing these conditions in hard-to-staff schools transforms their ability to recruit and retain teachers. Additional pay that rewards the commitment of teachers willing to take on these challenges should be part of the mix, and it must be paired with these other elements, as teachers are most strongly motivated by working in settings where they are enabled to succeed with students — the reason they entered the profession in the first place.

An annual allocation of $500 million, matched by states and localities, could award $10,000 to each of 100,000 accomplished teachers annually, recruiting them to high-need schools to serve as mentors and coaches. An additional $300 million, also matched, could be used to improve working conditions so that these schools become attractive places to teach and learn.

2. Strengthen teacher preparation.

Studies show that teachers who are fully prepared when they enter the classroom stay in the profession longer and are more effective in promoting student learning.Yet the quality of both traditional schools of education and alternative route programs is highly variable. While there are some extraordinarily effective preparation programs, there has been no mechanism to spread effective practices to others and to upgrade the quality of the enterprise as a whole. This important mission should be launched through incentive grants to schools of education to strengthen teachers’ abilities to teach a wide range of diverse learners successfully, including students with exceptional needs and English language learners.

Investments should focus on the establishment of professional development schools which, like teaching hospitals in medicine, partner with universities to offer top-quality learning settings for children, prospective teachers, and veteran teachers alike. These school-university partnerships create the opportunity for those entering the profession to learn best practices and to develop their skills under the wing of experts while taking coursework on teaching and learning that is tightly integrated with clinical practice. Evidence shows that well-implemented professional development schools improve both teachers’ skills and student learning and are part of a necessary strategy for ensuring that teacher education is grounded in good practice. A total allocation of $300 million, with incentives tied to accountability for performance, would enable major improvements in the quality of preparation.

These kinds of programs are most needed in communities where they are often least available and where schools have often been difficult to staff. Rather than bringing in teachers with the least training to teach the students with the greatest needs, the federal government should invest in high-quality teaching residency programs for candidates who will prepare in and commit to these districts. As piloted in cities like Chicago, Boston, and Denver, teaching residencies place prospective teachers in the classrooms of expert teachers — often in schools designed to exemplify high-quality practice for high-need students — for a full year, with a salary or stipend, while they complete tightly linked course work for certification and a master’s degree from partner universities. Candidates learn sophisticated practices from the best urban teachers, and they pay back this investment by pledging to teach for four or five years in the district. Research shows that more than 90 percent of the graduates of these programs continue to teach in the districts where they were trained.

Such programs can prepare prospective teachers to integrate seamlessly into the environments where they will likely hold their first jobs — and not only to survive but also to thrive and become leaders in the districts where their expertise is so needed. Further, schools of education can collaborate with local school systems to ensure that the professional learning from these residency programs and other professional development schools is made available to educators in others schools. Finally, these partnerships help train veteran teachers to provide mentorship to novices, to collaborate effectively with their peers, and to develop the skills necessary to participate in the continuous reflection and improvement efforts that improve student learning. The costs of such an initiative would be modest. To create 100 such programs located in the nation’s largest cities, for example, by allocating $1 million to each program for each of five years, the annual  cost would be only about $100 million — a small fraction of the cost of poor education and high attrition these cities normally experience.

3. Make teacher education performance-based.

Federal investments should also include support for developing and implementing teacher performance assessments that evaluate whether prospective teachers can actually teach successfully in classrooms. Current tests used for licensing and program accountability usually measure basic skills and subject matter knowledge in ways that demonstrate little about teachers’ abilities to teach effectively.  Several states, including Connecticut and California, have incorporated performance assessments in the licensing process. These measures of performance – which can provide data to inform the accreditation process – have been found to be strong levers for improving preparation and mentoring, as well as determining teachers’ competence. Federal support for the development of a nationally available performance assessment for licensing would not only provide a useful tool for accountability and improvement, but also facilitate teacher mobility across states by creating a portable license.

Rather than debating traditional vs. alternative routes, states should seek to expand effective programs for preparing teachers, based on evidence of candidates’ effectiveness when they become teachers of record, regardless of their path to certification. States should evaluate all of their programs and ensure that they include the features of programs found to increase teacher effectiveness, as well as producing teachers who are able to demonstrate, in a meaningful, valid, and reliable performance assessment, that they are prepared to teach competently from their first day in the classroom.  Programs should also be evaluated and approved based on how well their candidates succeed in the classroom after they are hired.

4. Support mentoring for all beginning teachers.

With one-third of new teachers leaving within five years and with higher rates for those who are under-prepared, current recruitment efforts are like pouring water into a leaky bucket. Yet research has shown that mentoring for beginning teachers sharply stems attrition and increases competence. For $500 million annually, a federal program that matches state and local investments in mentoring programs for novices could ensure coaching support for every new teacher in the nation, as is provided in every high-achieving nation as a matter of course.

Such a program would more than pay for itself, as the costs of teacher attrition are enormous. Current estimates suggest that most school districts spend close to $20,000 in replacement costs for every teacher who leaves, putting the national bill for teacher turnover at well over $7 billion per year — money that could more productively be spent on a range of pressing educational needs.

5. Create sustained, practice-based collegial learning opportunities for teachers.

As part of its school improvement investments under ESEA, the federal government should invest in the systems needed to provide teachers with high-quality, sustained professional development, ensuring that teachers continue to learn. The critical need for investment in teacher learning has been made clear over and over again in efforts at educational change. Those who have worked to improve schools have found that every aspect of effective school reform depends on highly-skilled teachers.

Recent research has made clear both the qualities and impact of successful professional development, which differs substantially from the “hit-and-run” workshops typically held for teachers after school. Teacher learning that enhances student learning is:

  • Focused on teaching specific students and specific curricular content,
  • Anchored by attention to students’ thinking and learning progress in relation to curricular goals, teaching strategies, and formative assessments, and
  • Embedded in long-term collaborative teacher planning, along with observation and analysis of classroom practice.

A recent study of high-performing, high-poverty schools confirmed these features, noting that such “turnaround” schools emphasize teacher collaboration and joint problem-solving that occurs when teachers work together to diagnose student learning needs through formative assessments, adapt instruction to meet these needs, and support each other in improving their practices. A review of well-designed studies found that teachers who received substantial professional development — an average of 49 hours on specific areas of practice across the studies reviewed — boosted their students’ achievement by more than 20 percentile points on average, a significant increase in performance. This kind of improvement in practice can occur through guided learning at the school site, through content-based institutes and coaching, and through vehicles like National Board Certification that focus on close analysis of practice.

If we want to improve the quality of learning in our schools, we need to direct incentives toward this kind of professional learning both by outlining the features of programs that will receive support in existing federal programs and by creating incentives for the rethinking of school schedules and organizational designs so they can routinely provide time for such collaboration to occur. Such incentives can be stimulated through grants — like the federal Small Learning Communities grants — that promote the redesign of the factory model schools we have inherited, as well as through incentives in professional development grants — which are part of most federal programs — prioritizing the design of school structures that can enable intensive study and improvement of teaching. Much of this work could be done by better focusing the funds for professional learning in existing federal programs. An additional $600 million could be used to triple the investments in Small Learning Communities grants and to provide $2,000 per teacher for job-embedded professional learning for every teacher in the neediest 25 percent of schools.

6. Develop teaching careers that reward, develop, and share expertise.

The current structure of the teaching career places teachers in egg-crate classrooms, doing the same thing on the first day they enter the profession as they do 30 years later, with little opportunity to share what they know with others. These systems create career pathways that place classroom teaching at the bottom, provide teachers with little influence in making key education decisions, and require teachers to leave the classroom if they want greater responsibility or substantially higher pay. The message is clear: those who work with children have the lowest status.

We can do better.

We need a different career continuum, one that places teaching at the top and creates a career progression that supports teachers as they become increasingly expert. Rewarding teachers for knowledge of subjects, additional knowledge for meeting special kinds of student and school needs, and ensuring excellence in the classroom — as well as a willingness to take on mentoring, curricular development, and other leadership responsibilities — would enhance the expertise available within schools. Creating stronger pathways for continuous teacher learning and  sharing of expertise — through vehicles like National Board Certification as well as high quality on-the-job evaluation and other professional development focused directly on practice — has been shown to improve overall school performance as well as classroom teaching. Federal incentives could support innovative districts where teachers take leadership in designing such career pathways that create productive and useful evaluation systems, enhance teacher compensation, help keep veteran expert teachers in the field, reward teachers for taking on tough assignments, provide supports for teacher learning, and enhance the opportunities for accomplished teachers to share what they know so that practice improves.

An initiative that encourages districts to develop career ladders should incorporate beginning teacher mentoring by expert teachers chosen for their effectiveness in the classroom, and enable other roles for expert teachers as well.  It should be accompanied by a performance-based teacher evaluation system that provides information about teacher effectiveness by conducting standards-based evaluations of teaching practices conducted through classroom observations by expert peers or supervisors, as well as a systematic collection of evidence about the teacher’s planning, instruction, and assessment practices, work with parents and students, and contributions to the school.  This collection of evidence could also include evidence of student learning and progress drawn from student work samples; classroom, district or state assessments, as appropriate; and teacher documentation.

A productive career development system should be organized around high-quality professional learning opportunities, including time for teachers to work and learn together during the school day.  It could include additional incentives for teachers to take on mentor and master teacher roles in high-need schools, and even, as part of a group of teachers, to take on redesigning and reconstituting failing schools so that they become more effective.

7. Mount a major initiative to prepare and support expert school leaders.

Studies find that the quality of the school principal — especially the extent to which he or she engages in instructional leadership practices — is the second most important determinant of a healthy learning environment, right after teacher quality. Furthermore, the single most important determinant of whether teachers stay in a particular school is the quality of the administrative support they receive from their school leader. In short, principals create the conditions that foster or undermine teaching quality — and either build or destroy the school culture that allows teachers and students to succeed.

Growing shortages of principals are a function both of the growing complexity of the job and the shortage of high-quality recruitment and preparation programs that enable principals to be well-prepared for the enormous challenges they face. While we have growing knowledge of the traits and skills that make principals effective — including their strong background as expert teachers of both children and adults — in most communities, we lack explicit strategies for identifying talented teachers with these traits and reaching out to them to cultivate their leadership abilities. One important role of the career ladders described above would be to consciously strengthen the principal preparation pipeline for those instructionally skilled teachers who also want to contribute to the management of the overall organization.

A major federal initiative would underwrite talented candidates who are recruited to attend leadership programs that offer strong training in how to support instructional improvement, organize productive schools, and lead change — and that provide a full-time internship under the wing of expert principals who have developed successful schools. An average of 100 top-flight principals per state could be trained in state-of-the-art programs each year for $300 million, providing a pipeline of well-trained human capital to lead the reforms that are essential to our success. Federal investments through a new ESEA should provide another $300 million in funds for districts to develop strong professional development for principals, through learning networks and continuing engagement in instructional leadership training. And the federal government should set aside $100 million to create a top-flight School Leadership Academy — a “West Point” for developing  sophisticated expertise among the most able school leaders — so that they can take on the challenge of turning around failing schools in high-need communities with the all the knowledge and tools available to the profession.

These investments in educator quality will both develop greater excellence in our schools and address the federal role of ensuring equal access to high-quality education for all of America’s children. While the federal government cannot obliterate the long-standing educational debt overnight, it can enact policies that will provide qualified teachers for every child.


NYC Learners — Go On a School Innovation Tour!

Those of you living in the NYC area have a cool opportunity worth taking advantage of this coming April.

IDEA, aka the Institute for Democratic Education in America, is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure that all young people can engaged meaningfully with their education and gain the tools to build a just, democratic, and sustainable world.

IDEA helps transform education by showcasing what works in education and equipping others to learn from it. And this April 3rd-5th, IDEA will shepherd a group of people through an “innovation tour,” during which participants will explore four exemplary NYC schools, with opportunities to see and experience classroom and school culture, discuss instruction, and meet with school leaders.

IDEA’s Innovation Tours offer an in-depth opportunity to really see and engage with the most innovative schools in the U.S.  The NYC tour will take participants through the NYC iSchool, Urban Academy, Calhoun School, and The Green School.

Tours are designed to offer participants a chance to see dynamic schools in action, to learn from school leaders about the challenges and evolution of their culture and instructional program, and finally, to discuss ideas and applications with other teachers, students, parents, school board members, business leaders, and policy-makers involved in the tour.

Tour participants will also attend Columbia University’s Seminar on Innovation featuring IDEA leaders Kirsten Olson, Scott Nine, and Dana Bennis on Monday evening, April 4th. Tour costs average $300 per person or $150 without housing.
Registration details, itinerary and further information can be found at www.democraticeducation.org/tours/newyork.

Check it out. And if you do, report back on what you discover!


Robots in Classrooms?

You know you’re a little obsessed with an issue when a news story about artificial intelligence in the prisons of today gets you thinking about robots in the classrooms of tomorrow.

But there it was — a weekend piece in the New York Times about a training exercise at a penitentiary in West Virginia, at which artificial intelligence (AI) software was being used to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. “When two groups of inmates moved toward each other,” we learn, “the experimental computer system sent an alert — a text message — to a corrections officer that warned of a potential incident and gave the location.” Then I read the lines that concerned me: “The computers cannot do anything more than officers who constantly watch surveillance monitors under ideal conditions. But in practice, officers are often distracted. When shifts change, an observation that is worth passing along may be forgotten. But machines do not blink or forget. They are tireless assistants. . . At work or school, the technology opens the door to a computerized supervisor that is always watching. Are you paying attention, goofing off or daydreaming?”

On one level, what’s not to like, right? Why not improve our efficiency if we can, and make sure we are even more safe and secure in our prisons? And why not extend this technology wherever it can be useful? Bring on the Society of Tomorrow!

On the other hand, I just finished Harvard professor Steven Pinker’s great 2009 book How the Mind Works, and his observations about the limits of AI — and how people learn — make me wonder if we’re making the same mistake in AI that we’re doing in education reform: getting carried away by an illusory short cut and ignoring one-half of the equation we need to solve.

More specifically, Pinker talks about why we don’t yet have those cool robot butlers from Sleeper — the human brain is (spoiler alert!) really, really complicated, and programming it to account for all we encounter on a daily basis is next to impossible. In short, we may not sweat the small stuff, but our efforts to make fancy robots derail because they can’t get past the small stuff.

For example, Pinker writes, “for a robot brain – or a human brain – to recognize objects and not bump into them, it must crunch these numbers and guess what kinds of objects in the world reflected the light that gave rise to them. The problem is humblingly difficult. . . But there’s nothing common about common sense. And an intelligent system cannot be stuffed with trillions of facts. It must be equipped with a smaller list of core truths and a set of rules to deduce their implications.”

Later, Pinker talks about how we do this by clarifying the distinction between intelligence (“the ability to attain goals in the faces of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational, truth-obeying, rules”) and consciousness (“the capacity for self-knowledge and sentience”). We can’t make Hollywood-worthy robots, he explains, because what makes us unique is that we possess both intelligence and consciousness. We can read people’s faces and interpret sounds and smells and colors and emotions and apply past experiences and decide what’s relevant information at that moment and connect it to our belief system and do it all seamlessly and instantaneously. Robots can do the intelligent number-crunching, but since we still don’t even understand sentience ourselves — except to say that it exists — how the hell could we hope to instill it in a machine?

This is not an insignificant point, and it doesn’t render AI worthless, but it does underscore the need for AI to serve in a complementary fashion, and to recognize that there are still some aspects of the human brain (and mind, which is, of course, what the brain does) that can’t be replaced. Use cameras to augment the work of your prison guards; don’t replace the guards altogether.

The problem, one can clearly see, is if the combination of budget cuts and a misunderstanding of what AI can and can’t do vis a vis human employees leads to 21st-century prisons being guarded by video cameras. I see a similar issue emerging in education, where our well-founded emphasis on improving the quality of teaching and learning is leading us to overvalue one side of the equation (intelligence, or, more specifically in a school context, technique) and ignore the other (consciousness, or, more specifically, the identity and integrity of the individual who is doing the teaching).

It is a technocratic illusion that all we need to improve American education is a set of useful techniques that can unlock the magic of the teaching craft. Technique is important, and many recent breakthroughs have made immeasurable contributions to the field. But when we embrace technique as the answer for our troubles, we deny the deeply relational aspect of teaching and learning. We also set ourselves up for believing, one day, that all we need are systems with the right set of pre-programmed techniques and, Voila! No achievement gap!

The scary thing is that that is not as ridiculous a statement as it should be. And yet if we say nothing in our public discourse or policy debates to suggest a recognition — let alone a valuing — of the teacher as person and relational conduit for learning, why not just get rid of them and run it on auto-pilot?

To really transform our schools, of course, we must do the opposite. As the great Parker Palmer says in his classic book The Courage to Teach, “We must enter, not evade, the tangle of teaching so we can understand them better and negotiate them with more grace, not only to guard our own spirits but to serve our students well. . . Good teaching requires self-knowledge: it is a secret hidden in plain sight.” In explaining how the mind works, Pinker makes a similar claim: “Our mental life is a noisy parliament of competing factions. In dealing with others, we assume they are as complicated as we are, and we guess what they are guessing we are guessing they are guessing.”

Parker’s and Pinker’s insights may lead to a messier equation, but it’s how the mind works, and it’s what good teaching requires. So why not make 2011 a year when we start to acknowledge both sides of this coin? When it comes to understanding the human brain, we must study both intelligence and consciousness. And when it comes to producing a world-class profession of teachers, we must help individuals acquire both top-flight technique and a deep understanding of the self that teaches.

Absent both, we are left with nothing more than science fiction.


It’s the Development, Stupid

(This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.)

Two years ago, my wife and I signed up to receive monthly emails charting our son’s development. When he was still in utero, the emails began with visual markers of his growth – he was the size of a grape at one stage, the size of a kumquat at another. Now, as he toddles his way through the world, the information is more focused on his behavior, reassuring us, for example, that a recent rise in meltdowns actually means that his development is “right on track.”

Across that same period, I’ve been part of a founding group that will, in August 2011, open a new public school here in DC (a school my son will one day attend). And what I’ve learned is that, for reasons I can’t fully understand, most of our country’s pre-schools maintain this evaluative focus on child development – and most middle and high schools abandon it altogether.

Why is this? If we know that up to two-year spans in development are normal in any area of a child’s overall growth, why do we recognize the value of flexible, developmentally-based evaluations when children are smaller, and then shift almost exclusively to inflexible, time-based evaluations when they are bigger? How might our schools be different if we valued all children’s social and emotional development as much as we revered their academic growth?

Luckily, this is not purely an abstract question. Since 1968, renowned Yale University child psychiatrist James Comer has administered the School Development Program (SDP), a research-based, comprehensive K-12 initiative grounded in principles of child, adolescent, and adult development. As Comer explains, “SDP is not an add-on program. It’s an operating system for the school, based on the recognition that development and learning are inextricably linked. Both are needed to adequately prepare young people to be successful in school and in modern life. And schools are the only organizations strategically located to help all children grow and compensate for the difficult conditions that interfere with the growth of many.”

Despite the clear logic – and sound research – supporting the Comer model, most people outside the innermost education circles have probably never heard of it. Dr. Comer is rarely mentioned amid the media’s infatuation with the newer generation of education reformers. Yet ask any group of parents what they want their children to know, feel, and be able to do as adults, and you will hear talk of not just academic goals (and test scores), but also physical, psychological, verbal, social, and ethical development – the very things the Comer model is designed to help educators tend to, monitor, and support.

I don’t know why the current national conversation about education reform is so mute on the developmental needs of children – regardless of whether they’re 5 or 15. I do know our school will listen to what the experts are telling us. And the good news is I see signs elsewhere that people are creating more flexible structures in which all children and adolescents can learn and grow. This year in Kansas City, for example, school officials will begin switching 17,000 students to a new system where, instead of simply moving kids from one grade to the next as they get older, schools will begin grouping students by ability. And despite its lack of media attention, the SDP continues to work effectively with schools across the country and throughout the world.

Of course, before shifting from a narrow focus on academic content to a broader focus on developmental processes, we must require a different, more finely attuned skill set in our teachers. This is something the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which just released a new report on the importance of development in teacher preparation, clearly understands. As NCATE puts it, “The essential task of any educator is to combine a depth of knowledge about subjects with a thorough understanding of the subject under study and to bridge the two with appropriate instructional plans and pedagogical tools. Indispensable to that process is the knowledge that human development displays complex patterns and variation, and effective teachers are able to draw upon that knowledge in service of the growth and learning of their students.”

We can create this sort of system – our teachers and students require this sort of system – but we won’t get there unless we’re willing to invest in the necessary structures and supports that can create a long-term teaching profession in this country, not just a short-term teaching force. Learning and development is not a simple, linear march into the future; it is a complex, nonlinear circling of ourselves and our places in the world. Understood that way, perhaps more Americans will start to pay more attention to how children and adolescents develop – and start to think differently about exactly who can, and who can’t, teach.


The Fake Revolution

If you spent any time in front of the TV last week, you may believe a revolution is underway in America’s classrooms. NBC dedicated a week of its programming to seed in-depth conversations about how to improve our schools. A new documentary about public education opened across the country to sold-out audiences. And a young billionaire – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – pledged $100 million of his own money (on Oprah no less!) to help the city of Newark transform its public schools.

I wish I could participate fully in the optimism, yet I keep thinking of the old adage that says there are three types of reform efforts:  traditional, transitional, or transformational. And despite the high-powered pomp and circumstance of last week, two moments in particular convinced me that our current path is likely, at best, to yield cosmetic changes to a system in dire need of an extreme makeover.

Continue reading . . .


Education Nation & Finland

I’m playing catch up with all the programming NBC is producing this week as part of its Education Nation series, but I want to highly recommend one of those videos, an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Finland’s Minister of Education, Pasi Sahlberg.

See for yourself on the video below, but here are a few highlights worth underscoring:

  • Finland’s focus has always been on “building a system which is attractive to young people, and morally purposeful.”
  • In Finland, teachers “enjoy a certain prestige.”
  • In Finland, “poor performance is not punished,” and teachers are entrusted with the authority — and provided with the training and support — to administer all assessments locally.

In short, Finland recognized a generation ago that if it wanted to create a world-class education system, it needed to invest deeply in the long-term creation of a highly competitive and well-trained teaching profession, not the short-term acceptance of a highly-volatile and rapidly-trained teaching force. As Linda Darling-Hammond writes in her newest book, The Flat World & Education, “Finland shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards. The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.”

Couldn’t have said it any better myself . . .

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Questions for the Next Schools Chancellor

Today, presumptive-next-mayor Vincent Gray will meet with presumptive-ex- chancellor Michelle Rhee to discuss the future of DC public schools.

In a way, this is a lose-lose meeting for both. As Rhee has made clear in her typically tin-eared style, she is skeptical Gray shares her commitment to a particular set of reforms. Meanwhile, Gray’s ultimate decision about Rhee is guaranteed to disappoint a significant percentage of his electorate – either those who voted for him to register their disapproval of Fenty’s and Rhee’s style of leadership, or those who voted against him to see her reign continue.

This puts Mr. Gray in a bit of a pickle, but he might as well use the opportunity to think about the essential questions he would want to ask any potential candidate to be the next Schools Chancellor. Here are five he might want to consider:

  1. Thank you for meeting with me this afternoon. Clearly, this most recent election was in part a referendum on leadership in general, and on the different approaches people take to decision-making, community engagement, and working with the forces of change. With that in mind, tell me about your personal philosophy of leadership, about what you believe are the central characteristics a leader must possess, and about how you intend to leverage those characteristics in your work with the many stakeholders of our public school system?
  2. IMPACT, the new teacher evaluation system in DC has received national attention – and both praise and scrutiny – for its increased emphasis on a diverse set of data points to determine teacher effectiveness, a more frequent use of third-party observations, and a commitment to link student test scores to individual teacher evaluations. Tell me, when you imagine your ideal system for evaluating teacher effectiveness, which aspects of IMPACT would you stop using, which would you keep using, and which new features would you want to start using, and why?
  3. In any system, a leader has to identify in which areas of the system s/he wants to seek traditional changes, transitional changes, and transformational changes. Based on what we know about systems change, it’s often wise to pursue all three types of change at the same time, and in different parts of the system, so that the pace of change is neither too slow nor too fast, and so people will experience both the up-close significance of short-term wins and the galvanizing power of a long-term vision. Knowing that, in which aspects of the system would you pursue the most traditional changes, and why? Where do you think the opportunities exist for a transitional set of reforms in DCPS, and why? And how do you feel those changes will help prepare our city for a more transformational set of changes that will help our current 19th and 20th century modes of schooling start preparing children for the unique set of challenges and opportunities posed by the 21st century world they will enter when they graduate?
  4. The past four years have seen DCPS focus relentlessly on improving student results on 3rd and 8th grade standardized exams in reading and math. Banners have been hung in front of schools trumpeting these scores, and for the average parent or community member, schools are still deemed successful or unsuccessful based on these scores alone. When it comes to evaluating the extent to which children are learning, what is your ideal balanced scorecard of indicators, and how would you revise the city’s assessment and accountability system to ensure that future performance data reveal not just who isn’t learning and what isn’t being learned, but also why students are struggling and how DCPS teachers can address their needs?
  5. My final question to you has less to do with any specific changes you hope to make, and more to do with how well you understand the equally important role of communicating those changes to the residents of this city. Let’s imagine it’s four years from now, and we’re looking back to see which central words, ideas and messages the average citizen associates with your tenure as Schools Chancellor. What do you want them to say, why do you want them to say it, and how will you go about executing an outreach strategy that helps ensure the residents of our city feel an alignment between the actions and the aspirations of your administration?

The Science of School Renewal

(NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.)

There’s a revolution underway in the scientific community, and it’s changing the way we understand both the structure and the inner workings of the universe. These insights have far-reaching implications for all of us – and none of them are being heeded by the leading voices of our current efforts of transform America’s antediluvian public education system.

This is a serious problem.  Here are three examples of what I mean:

1. The Relativity of Learning – Almost everyone is familiar with Albert Einstein’s game-changing theory of relativity – an insight that, overnight, overturned an idea that had governed human thought for more than 200 years. Fewer among us can explain the theory in any depth, but we know this much: Einstein demonstrated that time itself is not, as had been assumed by Isaac Newton and others, a fixed construct that is experienced uniformly, but rather a malleable construct that is experienced relative to something and/or someone else. This seismic development in human thought moved us away from the Newtonian notion of absolutes, and toward a deeper understanding of just how fully we experience the world in particular ways.

The lesson to be learned from this seems clear enough: we should be wary of absolutist thinking in our own lives (and, certainly, in our organizations). Yet contrast this insight with the K-12 education landscape, which is still working in absolutes, and still basing its biggest decisions on a single, standardized measure of success: basic-skills reading and math scores. This doesn’t mean our interest in these subjects is unimportant – literacy and numeracy matter greatly – but it does mean we’ve failed to learn something essential about the nature of things. Otherwise, we’d be asking a different question when it comes to school accountability: If learning, like time, is relative, how can we develop less standardized (and more customized) assessments that will help us know if we’re being successful at helping children learn to use their minds well?

2. The Quantum Mechanics of Motivation – As you may know, although our general rules for understanding the workings of the universe on a macro scale – a.k.a. classical physics – work quite predictably and neatly, those same rules mean absolutely nothing at the messier micro level – a.k.a. quantum mechanics. What quantum mechanics reveal is that relationships are the key determiner of everything. Subatomic particles cannot exist without the presence of another, and the more we try to observe and codify their nonlinear behavior into a series of linear “if/then” statements, the less relevant our insights become. It’s just too complicated – even for quantum scientists.

Similarly, we humans are nonlinear beings, and the relationships we form (or don’t form) are the key determinants of everything in our personal and professional lives. Yet contrast this insight with the K-12 education landscape, in which both elected officials and philanthropic leaders are pursuing if/then incentive programs based on the belief that pay for performance will be the missing tonic our educators need. It’s the difference between a Newtonian view of the world – which views things in straightforward terms of cause and effect – and a Quantum Mechanics view of the world – which recognizes the inherent unpredictability of the entities it is observing.

The good news is we don’t need to be so abstract. Check out these insights from three different studies of human behavior and the human responses to programs, like performance pay, that are based on extrinsic rewards:

  • “When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose interest for the activity.” (Deci 1971)
  • “Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.” (Amabile 1996)
  • “People use rewards expecting to gain the benefit of increasing another person’s motivation and behavior, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional hidden cost of undermining that person’s intrinsic motivation towards the activity.” (Reeve 2004)

Why aren’t we paying attention to this? Or, more to the point, why aren’t we asking a different question when it comes to issues of motivation in the workplace: How can we move from a culture of extrinsic compliance to a culture of intrinsic commitment?

3. The Ecology of Organizational Culture – Finally, there’s the changing way scientists describe the principles of ecology, a word that literally means “the study of the house.” What’s becoming apparent is that order and balance in our house (whether it’s Earth or a country or an elementary school) are not achieved by complex, overly prescribed controls, but by a few clearly delineated simple structures, and with a healthy dose of freedom for individual entities to pursue what they feel is significant. As physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra puts it: “In recent years, biologists and ecologists have begun to shift their metaphors from hierarchies to networks, and have come to realize that partnership – the tendency to associate, establish links, cooperate, and maintain symbiotic relationships – is one of the hallmarks of life.”

Apply these insights once again to the K-12 education landscape and you see what to do immediately: move away from the Newtonian change model of “critical mass,” and toward a more modern model of “critical connections.” Educational scholar John Goodlad urged as much following his massive comprehensive study of schooling in America in the 1970s and 1980s: “Schools will improve slowly, if at all,” he wrote, “if reforms are thrust upon them. Rather, the approach having most promise is one that will seek to cultivate the capacity of schools to deal with their own problems, to become largely self-renewing.”

These insights have profound implications for how we structure the science of school renewal – as opposed to the business of school reform – in the years and decades ahead. Instead of a push toward greater standardization and absolute constructs, we should sharpen our assessment tools to become more finely attuned to the relativistic learning needs of children. We should create organizational conditions that nurture intrinsic motivation in adults and children.  And we should be more mindful of the networks and people we will need in order to do the difficult work of systems change, and begin asking ourselves the only question that really matters: Of all the things we can do together, what must we do?

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