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Getting the Most [_____] Out of America's Classrooms

In preparation for a meeting I attended this week, I was asked to read Gary Gordon’s Building Engaged Schools: Getting the Most Out of America’s Classrooms.It seems an easy book to agree with when Gordon says things like

School leaders and communities must recognize that the abilities of teachers, principals, and other school personnel are paramount to the success of students. No longer can we give lip service to the importance of talented educators while behaving as if they are interchangeable parts in a machine. Teacher talent clearly affects students' outcomes more than any curricular change or prescribed instructional technique. School leaders should start with the realization that their schools will be no better than the people who work with students.

Oh yeah, I’m all about that! Teachers have known this for a long time. Gordon’s premise is that the critical factor in success is one that has proven true in the business world. Instead of focusing on identifying weaknesses and attempting to eliminate them, Gordon maintains that success comes when we identify talent and build on strengths. Does this sound “touchy-feely” to you? Would you be surprised to know that the publisher is Gallup Press and that Gordon is VP of The Gallup Organization’s Education Division? Or that Gallup offers a full line of consulting products and services in the education market?

Because it matters so, Gallup has joined others in attempting to measure what good teaching looks like so it can be replicated. I was intrigued by how a company that most people associate with public opinion polling and data analysis is using quantitative research to try to get at the intangibles of teacher quality for both informing teacher selection and shaping school improvement. It is certainly a valid quest. At the same time, what research could possibly have more variables? Imagine attempting to disaggregate specific aspects of teacher knowledge, skills and dispositions and measure their impact on rooms full of diverse children in diverse locations being taught a variety of disciplines?

Gallup's research indicates that teacher engagement is the critical factor. Knowing good teachers are the single most important factor in student learning, and that teachers are also single largest line item in the education budget, Gordon states:

Engagement represents fertile ground for development; Gallup estimates that low productivity among actively disengaged employees costs the U.S. economy about $300 billion a year. How much of that cost could be eliminated if companies were able to recruit more people who are prone to engagement because their education has given them a solid foundation of self understanding and a thirst for experiencing flow?

Now I’m a little concerned. Does fertile ground for development mean ripe opportunity for increased profitability? As a Career and Technical Educator, I have no problem with connecting education outcomes to workforce development, but does this imply that PreK-12 is going to be asked to take responsibility for all the disengaged workers in America? Have we all agreed that the workplace is the critical frame in which self understanding and a thirst for experiencing flow should be measured?

I know absolutely no one who would argue with the idea of Getting the Most Out of America’s Classrooms. Maximizing return on investment is the culmination of efficiency, efficacy, and economy. But before we commit wholehearted to a consulting firm's vision of getting the most, shouldn’t we spend a little more time defining exactly what we want to get the most of, what we're willing to invest to get it, and what we're going to do with it once we get it?

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