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How to Create a Cultural Revolution in Schools

By Susan Graham — May 06, 2009 3 min read
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Schools Need Energy More than Experience. Wow, Jay Mathews presented me with a Class Struggle that I didn’t expect when he wrote

Schools in poor neighborhoods having the most success are those put in the hands of talented principals given the power to hire and fire their staffs to enhance achievement, and who use those powers to create a building-wide commitment to improving learning through teamwork. Such principals pick new teachers not so much on their experience, but on their energy and focus and imagination.

Says who? Exactly how was it determined that energetic inexperienced teachers were the critical factor in poor neighborhood school improvement? What would have happened if those same talented principals been given the power to hire and fire experienced teachers selected not so much for their years of experience, but on their energy and focus and imagination? Isn’t it likely that the freedom to hire and fire had more impact than the experience or inexperience of the teachers? Pretty much everyone from education gurus to soceer moms agree with Dr. Eric Hanushek

We know there are great teachers who are starting out and do not have master’s degrees or much experience, and we know there are great teachers who have lots of experience and masters degrees. We also know the opposite; there are very poor teachers in both of those situations.

Freedom to hire effective teachers and fire bad teachers gives a principal a powerful tool to reform schools. But there is risk in placing absolute power in the hands of a principal. This requires that the principal is a team player with deep and accurate information about his or her school and that he or she has the knowledge and skills to engage the instructional team for impact on student learning.

What data do we have to confirm the effectiveness of principal leadership? Not much. We have done a great deal of research about teacher quality, but a lot less about administrator quality. But we do know that when asked about working conditions principals and teachers have wildly different responses about how well their schools are doing as an educational team. Writing about the research on Teacher Working Conditions done by Eric Hirsch , my North Carolina colleague Bill Ferriter points out:

To say that principals have a different perception of the working conditions in their buildings might just qualify as the understatement of the year! On nearly every key question, principals are positive that everything is fine, while somewhere between 25 and 50% of surveyed teachers---totalling 25 to 50 THOUSAND practitioners---remain skeptical.

Can all those teachers be wrong about how their school team works together and all the principals be right? Is their problem that they all just have too darn much experience to know what they’re talking about? If a principal is really a talented leader, why can’t he or she use the motivational techniques that work in a classroom to solicit the cooperation and support of experienced, as well as novice teachers?

Does experience alone make a good teacher? No. But there’s not much question that experience does improve teaching. Does energy alone make a good teacher? No, but as Mathew’s Washington Post colleagues, Daniel de Vise and Michael Alison Chandler point out:

But studies show that inexperienced teachers tend to be less effective, especially in their first two years. That is when they learn to tame an unruly bunch into a class, prepare six hours of daily lessons and grade 25 homework assignments without working through dinner….The data show that after the one or two tough initial years in the classroom, when teacher effectiveness in general is not very good, experience is not a useful marker of which teachers are best for a school.

Anyone who has survived a day of teaching knows that it takes a lot of energy to make it through the day. And if you’re not very good at it, it takes even more energy. So, isn’t it likely that those teachers who lack the energy to keep up with a room full of kids for six hours a day, five days a week are among those who never make it to the magic year three? Does experience really cease to matter, or does three years in the classroom cull those who are not energetic, focused and imaginative enough to survive?

We have seen some great examples where bright, ambitious and idealistic young people make remarkable teachers, and some of them go on to become superb career educators. But they tend to be sprinters in the education race; and the vast majority have either burned out or moved on before they reach that magical third year when additional experience may not make as big a difference.

We need to draw upon our best teachers to ensure that these short-term educators are the best they can be and that they are really hitting on all cylinders while they are in the profession. We need to find new ways to identify these core, accomplished teachers and to give them new avenues to spread their expertise—through technology, for example. We need to create new career-advancement opportunities for them, give them greater decision-making authority and responsibility, and allow them to be successful in their work. So I think we’re going to see a greater diversification of roles for teachers.

These experienced teachers are the seasoned distance runners of education. They have stamina. They paced themselves. They are disciplined. They know when to take the lead and when to stick with the pack. They keep going regardless of conditions. They run over uneven terrain. They persist when the only reward is the satisfaction of doing the best they can. They are in it for the long haul. And they have energy, focus and imagination that has been tested for endurance.

Mathews proposes that “Schools improve when their cultures change, not when their ratios of experienced and unexperienced teachers are recalculated.”

I agree, but replacing experienced teachers with new ones or new ones with experienced ones doesn’t change the culture, it only manipulates the population. School culture changes when school leaders listen to the ideas, needs, concerns and dreams of their learning community. It’s a revolution just waiting to happen.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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