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How to (Let Someone Else) Fix Our Schools

by Justin Baeder | @eduleadership

In an op-ed in the Washington Post today, a bevy of urban superintendents (including Klein, Rhee, and Huberman of NYC, DC, and Chicago, respectively) offer their manifesto on "How to Fix Our Schools."

Puzzlingly, rather than celebrate their accomplishments and boldly commit to the next steps in their ambitious agendas for change, they promote charter schools and technology-based learning as promising solutions to America's education woes. Not only does the editorial obfuscate the superintendents' actual plans for improving their districts; it tosses red herrings in front of a national audience hungry for tough talk about education reform.

They start off with what appears to be a strong statement of commitment to urgent work:

But the transformative changes needed to truly prepare our kids for the 21st-century global economy simply will not happen unless we first shed some of the entrenched practices that have held back our education system, practices that have long favored adults, not children. These practices are wrong, and they have to end now.

It's time for all of the adults -- the superintendents, educators, elected officials, labor unions and parents -- to start acting like we are responsible for the future of children. Because right now, across the country, kids are stuck in failing schools, just waiting for us to do something.

I can concur that yes, as educators and leaders, it is our responsibility to turn around schools that are failing. But do we then say "let's roll up our sleeves and get to work," or do we complain about the rules by which we've agreed to conduct our work?

Predictably, the signers argue against tenure and union seniority rules, all of which were collectively bargained by school districts and teachers' associations. However, the other piece of the equation - effective teacher evaluation - is dismissed out of hand, as if it were impossible:

The glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher -- and our discomfort as a society with criticizing anyone who chooses this noble and difficult profession -- has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.

In other words, we have failed to develop and implement effective support, improvement, probation, and dismissal processes for our most important front-line employees. We have allowed "our discomfort as a society" to prevent us from doing our jobs as leaders. And this is someone else's fault?

The editorial then discusses basing personnel decisions on teacher performance, as if measuring teacher performance is an easily accomplished feat that requires only a bit of standardized test data. Before I quote further from the editorial, please excuse a brief digression to address this issue.

Some of the nation's leading experts recently agreed that while it's tempting, it's unwise to use student test scores to draw conclusions about teacher performance. Linda Darling-Hammond writes:

Teacher evaluation was a fly-by operation when I was a high school English teacher 30 years ago, and it has improved little in most districts since. So I understand why there is such enthusiasm for evaluating teachers based on their students’ test score gains, now that such data are available.

Unfortunately, as useful as new value-added assessments are for large-scale research, studies repeatedly show that these measures are highly unstable for individual teachers. Among teachers who rank lowest in one year, fewer than a third remain at the bottom the next year, while just as many move to the top half. The top rankings are equally unstable. In fact, less than 20 percent of the variance in teachers’ effectiveness ratings is predicted by their ratings the year before. This is why the National Research Council has said that this evaluation system "should not be used to make operational decisions because such estimates are far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable."

Notably, Darling-Hammond does not insist that rigorous and meaningful teacher evaluations are impossible, simply that they were not the norm when she was a teacher, and haven't gotten much better.

The superintendents' WaPo editorial continues:

There isn't a business in America that would survive if it couldn't make personnel decisions based on performance. That is why everything we use in assessing teachers must be linked to their effectiveness in the classroom and focused on increasing student achievement.

And there isn't a business in America that could find people willing to work so hard and overcome so many obstacles for so little pay and professional respect. Nor is their a business in America that would argue the best way to fulfill their mission is to turn it over to someone else:

We also must make charter schools a truly viable option. If all of our neighborhood schools were great, we wouldn't be facing this crisis. But our children need great schools now -- whether district-run public schools or public charter schools serving all students -- and we shouldn't limit the numbers of one form at the expense of the other. Excellence must be our only criteria for evaluating our schools.

In other words, we have persistently failed to improve the performance of our own schools, so let someone else take a stab at it. I understand the arguments for charter schools, but for public school superintendents to actively advocate charters as a work-around to their own failures of leadership is truly bizarre.

The argument that personnel decisions should be based on performance is fairly intuitive, but a system that places great importance on performance ratings has an obligation to make such ratings with great diligence. But is this the reality? Chicago Public Schools was recently ordered by a judge to develop a plan to recall hundreds of teachers who were fired for their "performance," in violation of due process and seniority rules:

A federal judge Monday ordered that the cost-cutting dismissals of hundreds of tenured Chicago Public School teachers be rescinded and new rules be established for their possible rehiring. ... At issue was the dismissal of 749 tenured teachers who were "honorably discharged’’ without regard to seniority or tenure during a series of CPS economic layoffs this summer. ... Some of the most highly-credentialed teachers in the system were dumped with only a few days notice. ... [Judge] Coar noted that although CPS tried to suggest that its "entire layoff involved teachers with unsatisfactory evaluations,’’ the majority of those dumped had been rated "excellent,’’ "superior" or "satisfactory.’’ (Sun-Times)

In other words, the district used its own performance evaluation system to rate teachers as decent or better, then fired them for their performance.

Finally, while I'm a big fan of using technology to better assess and enhance learning, I'm stumped by this proposal:

Is it reasonable to expect a teacher to address all the needs of 25 or 30 students when some are reading on a fourth-grade level and others are ready for Tolstoy? We must equip educators with the best technology available to make instruction more effective and efficient. By better using technology to collect data on student learning and shape individualized instruction, we can help transform our classrooms and lessen the burden on teachers' time.

To make this transformation work, we must also eliminate arcane rules such as "seat time," which requires a student to spend a specific amount of time in a classroom with a teacher rather than taking advantage of online lessons and other programs.

I'm not sure what arcane rules are limiting our use of technology - are they talking about sending kids out of the classroom to sit at a computer all day if they're above or below grade level? Sending kids home to "take advantage of individualized online lessons"? No thanks - I'll take my chances with all those "satisfactory," "superior," and "excellent" teachers.

Now is a great time for the nation's leading superintendents to speak up about their plans for improving public schools. The nation is listening, thanks to the LA Times, Waiting for Superman, Race to the Top, the pending ESEA reauthorization, and more. If Klein, Rhee, Huberman, and their colleagues are ready to talk about how they are making teacher evaluations more meaningful and rigorous, and how they are building a shared commitment to excellence in their districts, terrific - the opportunity has never been greater.

But if this is yet another round of teacher-blaming that abdicates the responsibilities of leadership, count me out. I'm busy planning professional development and starting the annual goal-setting and evaluation process with my staff.

Justin Baeder (@eduleadership) is a public school principal in Seattle, Washington. He speaks and writes about principal performance and productivity, and is a doctoral student at the University of Washington in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies.

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