Friday, October 8, 2010

What REAL Accountability looks like. Part 1

"Off with their heads!"

That's what the Queen of Heart's in Alice in Wonderland shouts, even at the smallest slight or misstep of one of her subjects.

"Off with their heads!"

Even readers who can't get their arms around Lewis Carroll's odd and complex writing style almost certainly know these proclamations by the Queen are meant to be a comedic device; a hyperbole aimed at pinning the Queen's fickle nature and her inability to deliver any sort of real governance over her subjects.

You already see where I'm going with this, don't you?

The rantings of a deranged fictional character, created by a quirky mathematician, sound awfully like the brand of accountability going on these days in the field of K-12 education. Popular films like "Waiting for Superman" parrot this decapitating mantra, seeming to lay the blame for the ills in the education system at the feet of classroom teachers. The film's creator, Davis Guggenheim, and many of the film's protagonists, seem to believe that the best way to reform our nation's lowest performing schools is to take up the Queen of Heart's commands.

"Off with their heads!" Teachers' jobs, that is.

Sheltered by unions & tenure laws, bad teachers in classrooms are destroying the lives of students and dooming them to failure. Hard working administrators, try as they might, have no power to hold sway against the awesome, calculating might of teacher unions & the vice-like grip they hold on state legislation. Save the children, off with their heads!

If only that were true. If only it was that simple.

But, I don't blame Guggenheim for his oversimplified, overgeneralized slanted film. His lack of experience and knowledge of the complexity & depth of the problems in education can only be fully understood by someone who has had years of interaction with the many levels & layers of public education. After all, how long did he take making the film? A year, 18 months perhaps? Could I be an expert in reforming the film industry in 12-18 months. Doubtful.

I don't even blame education leaders like Geoffrey Canada & Michelle Rhee, the main proponents of the impetus to fire bad teachers in the film. As administrators, their job is to solve problems. So, in their daily operation, that's what they aim to do. Find problems & fix them. All they probably ever run into is problems. So, it is reasonable to assume that their interaction with teachers is likely to be those who are bad and ineffective. The bad & ineffective teacher requires lot of attention, because their actions prompt a response from administrators to correct or discipline that action. Good, high quality teachers don't get the attention from administrators because they don't need it.

Consider this.

As an administrator, you have a staff of 50 teachers. 45 of those teachers are excellent, high quality teachers. The stuff of legend. Jaime Escalante meets Erin Gruwell. The other 5 are the worst teachers this side of East Side High. They come late, leave classrooms unattended, sip coffee while kids play in the classroom, hand out dittos from 1982, check e-mail, surf gossip columns, write-up 10 kids up an hour, ignore the curriculum, ignore student needs, ignore best teaching practices, and even insult & demean the children. The thought of them in front of 30 kids frightens you. You want to fire them. The other 45 teachers want you to fire them.

Let's assume for the moment that you have nothing else to do other than focus your attention on those bad teachers. No central office meetings, no parent meetings, no student meetings. No reports to complete, no master schedules to create, no student schedules to fill. No teacher sub coverages to fill, no lesson plans to review, no budgets to oversee. No students fights, no lunch room fights, no student discipline referrals.

None of that. (School administrators are laughing hysterically right now)

You have all the time in the world to focus your daily hours on those 5 bad teachers, a mere 10% of your teaching staff. Such an administrator might think that the sole cure for fixing education is firing bad teachers.

Now enter the real world in which administrators have 1 million things to do & 24 hours in which to do it. Most of the teachers in their schools are likely to be satisfactory, maybe even good, but far from legendary. In order to deliver the best instruction to students, they will need high quality professional development, support, resources, and most importantly, leadership. Sadly, this is a tall order that many building administrators in chronically failing schools cannot seem to deliver. So, their perception of bad teachers in this light is surely magnified tenfold because they have so little time to dedicate to firing/fixing bad teachers & make a reluctant reservation to the fact that they have little time or power to do anything about them. They are the ones that for years "got away." There are just too many other problems to solve.

It is a fact that there are bad teachers. In this current sweep of education "accountability" journalists, politicians, and bureaucrats have come to the conclusion that accountability means firing people. Reform means firing people. Saving poor, minority children from failing schools means firing people. Its a seductive philosophy to have. And if you spend 6-12 months to a year becoming an "expert" in education reform or spend your days chasing around bad teachers, you're probably easily susceptible to this deeply flawed, thinly developed line of thinking.

Real accountability is deep in scope, wide in range, and really, really, hard to ensure.

But, of course Blogger's like me have all the answers, right?

Here's what real accountability looks like.

#1. Reform Teacher preparation.

I read a report from a teacher college that most universities had no idea how to create a curriculum that produces high quality, effective teachers. It is widely known that teacher colleges are cash cows for most universities; they receive & expend little funding in respect to their programs, yet charge students full tuition and pocket the difference. Very few teacher colleges are conducting studies in the field of education or classroom instruction. Hire a couple of adjunct professors, get a few graduate assistants, ensure students survive student teaching & BAM! You've got yourself a teacher college!

Accountability means starting with cleaning up such teacher colleges.

Research shows that teachers who were top students in college often make the best teachers. So, teacher colleges should be highly selective in admitting prospective students. At the University of Michigan, even high school students on college visitations know that it is extremely hard to get into Michigan's Business School. There are plenty of students who can share stories of friends they knew who were very passionate about business, but did not get into the Ross School of Business as an undergraduate. Getting into the School of Education should be just as hard.

Also, the examinations to determine eligibility of teacher certification need shaking up too. In Michigan, all college students must pass the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification (MTTC); one in basic skills & another in a subject area. Other states use the Praxis, a modestly more robust evaluation tool.

The MTTC is not a hard test. In fact, I remember being more than 1 hour late to my Basic Skills testing session (set the alarm clock wrong) & on the verge of tears as I frantically zoomed the streets of Ann Arbor & Ypsilanti, searching for the testing center. By the time I arrived, I had to sign a waiver stating that I could not protest the results of my test because I had not show up on time. It might as well had been a "You Big Dummy Proclamation." I was so ashamed of myself.

But, that shame passed quickly as I sat in test room, finished the test early, and drew a curious look from fellow test takers, wondering how I could come arrive and have the nerve to finish before most of them as I exited the room. Weeks later I learned that I completely aced the test. I aced the subject area tests too later on that afternoon, though I made sure to arrive on time for those. I wasn't a total college slacker, you know.

Those tests were fairly easy. I honestly felt as though they were not difficult to pass at all. In fact, I remember being much more nervous and pressed to find correct answers when I took AP tests in high school. I remember having the thought, "A fairly intelligent high school student could pass the MTTC."

So, in order to find the smartest students to become the best teachers, teacher preparation colleges must know who the smartest students are and make them the caliber of students in their programs. Programs like Teach for America attempt to deal with this problem, by recruiting top college grads to teach in the most troubled schools, but this program ultimately fails because the nature of the program is flawed. Teaching is a lifelong profession, not a pit-stop on the way to another better paying profession. The experience to become a Master Teacher takes many years, but Teach for America recruits typically only spend a few years in the classroom. Only 34% of TFA students remained in their host schools by the 3rd year. And despite what Geoffrey Canada proclaims, it takes much longer than 5 years to become a Master Teacher.

Teacher preparation colleges must also expend a greater share of university funds on research. Research is the fundamental core of the purpose of universities, yet it is shocking (not surprising) how little research is conducted on pedagogy & school functions. There may be research fellows at the graduate & doctoral levels, but they are small in scope and number. There are virtually none at the undergraduate level.

The root of this problem lies in the lack of funding of educational research. There's no money in it. This is quite the opposite in science, health, engineering, & technology. Universities regularly make money hand over fist from the private sector in those fields. The private sector in turn uses the university research to develop products to bring to market. So, as you can imagine there's very little profit motive for corporations to fund education research. What struggling school (often a poor school) has heaps of money to give away on research?

This is where government agencies come in. In order to make education research an integral part of our nation's top teacher preparation colleges, government agencies must dramatically increase funding to research programs.

It is high time that taxpayers & policy makers hold the university industry accountable for producing effective classroom teachers, ready to take on the challenges at our nation's struggling schools. Teacher preparation colleges must demonstrate that they have the programs in place to provide schools with the talented workforce they need. And, they must be able to document results of that effort.

#2 Redefine the role of School Administration from organizational management to instructional leadership.

It's 3PM. Do you know what your child's school principal is doing?

Probably monitoring the student parking lot.

When they get back to the office, they probably have some sort report to work on. Or, they might have a parent meeting to discuss a student problem, most likely behavioral, not academic. They might have an e-mail inbox full of various problems that demand immediate attention right now or else. They will go home at 8,9 maybe even 10pm after attending a game, play, or school board meeting. And when they wake up at 5am in the morning, they will do it all over again.

They will face a myriad of tasks to complete, almost none of which have to do with the quality of classroom instruction. It's not for lack of trying either. Most became administrators because they were recognized as good teachers and someone thought they'd be good administrators. They become administrators because they want to influence the educational outcomes of more than just the children on their attendance sheets. But most of the time, the nature of their work, either by design or their own practice, does not allow them to transfer their successful teaching skills into the building. Indeed most parents & teachers wouldn't even know what their administrators used to teach unless they knew them prior to moving to the Main Office.

Indeed, popular ideas of what a good principal should be are rooted in nostalgia & emotion. People want a tough, no nonsense principal who's not afraid to give a hug or kick some ass. The perfect manifestation of this is Joe Clark in the film, " Lean on Me." With brass balls, a walkie talkie, and a loudspeaker, he "singlehandedly" cleaned up East Side high. His character is similar to James Belushi's character in "The Principal." That character, Rick Latimer, even sucker punched kid in a knife fight. How's that for tough?

Today's school leaders on the other hand, must be engaged in a different kind of mission. They must be responsible in helping more students to learn. In order to achieve that goal, they must help teachers be better teachers. They must equip them with the tools and conditions to provide the very best classroom instruction. Joe Clark & Rick Latimer could not do that because they were managers. Good managers, but managers nonetheless.

What today's schools need are educational leaders; talented leaders who can bring stakeholders together to enhance the classroom experience for students. That's a far more complex and cerebral task than getting rid of school bullies.

For example, a school manager might break up a lunch room fight, suspend the involved students, provide some stern admonishment over the PA, & beef up supervision during lunch. A school leader might do the same, but they'd also look for ways to improve the building culture to promote better student relationships. They might get teachers to implement PBIS, or teach lessons on respect & conflict resolution. They might increase the number garbage cans to reduce food waste in the cafeteria. They don't wait for the problem to occur & respond to it. They find the solutions before the problems arise. That's leadership.

But, for too long in many of our nation's most troubled schools, administrators have not been held to any measure of accountability of performance. To their credit, many join the cry of their teachers in that they too have not been given the tools from central office to do what is asked of them. I have no doubt that this is shamefully true.

Still, building administrators have a job to do. They have a unique role in the building and they have authority to see many changes enacted that can have a positive impact on students. Study after study concludes that leadership matters, and often the efforts of one principal can have a ripple effect into every aspect of a child's educational experience in that school. Michelle Rhee might not know that, because she's never been a school principal. Oops!

To be fair, Rhee did not spare the rod on any employee in the DC public schools. She was on tape in "Superman" firing the principal of her own child's school. This makes her appear to be tough. But, she also hired a principal in one school who was essentially fired for poor performance from another school. This makes her appear quite foolish. Rhee, for no apparent reason, also replaced the principal of a successful middle school and, against the wishes of parents and students, put in a new principal who would split her time between supervising two schools. This makes Rhee appear fickle.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

"Off with their heads!"

And as it turned out, in the 2010 city elections, the voters of DC decided that the 1st head to go was Mayor Fenty, soon to be followed by Chancellor Rhee. There are many reasons why Fenty & Rhee were given the boot by the voters, but I think it is prudent to note that, in keeping with the tenor of this blog post, citizens realize that firing people is a poor substitute for meaningful reform or real accountability. After all, implicit in an employee's termination, is the notion that the leadership structure failed to make a good hire, failed to properly supervise, and failed to support & train its employee.

And if that is true, what does that say about the voters of DC who "hired" Fenty & Rhee in the 1st place?

I've decided to make this is part 1 in a 2 part series because the part after the "Hmm.." will take a lot of 'splainin' to do. Part 2 will deal with Voters, Teacher Tenure, State Legislatures, and Parents.

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