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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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On Doing Versus Arguing: The Power of Teacher Choice

By Guest Blogger — April 22, 2015 4 min read

Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he’s off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week’s guest posts will be written by Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon Schools and author of Teach Like a Champion 2.0. He can be found on Twitter at @Doug_Lemov.

People argue a lot about education. But you knew that. I challenge you to find a single idea about educating kids (or people) for which there isn’t an equal and opposite counter opinion. And while healthy debate is surely a good thing, much of our education debate is counter-productive—first because it’s so often packaged in invective, but more importantly because of the opportunity cost. There is, or could be, a far superior alternative to arguing: doing.

Here is one of the best-kept secrets of the school choice movement: it doesn’t just give parents choices for their kids, it gives educators choice in important ways. Imagine a debate between two educators (let’s assume they are principals): one believes that schools should teach universal thinking skills via project-based learning and minimize “teacher talk"; the other likes core knowledge and thinks direct instruction is a productive tool for instilling it. Who is right? Who should determine the approach taken in a given school?

But why should the two principals waste time arguing when they could just do? When each could lead a school that bears out their vision? If each could execute their ideas with fidelity, we might find out that one idea really worked better. Or that they both worked. Or that neither did. Or that one worked for some kids and one worked for others. But as it is, without much educator choice, almost no one (except a lucky few) are able to execute any idea with fidelity and see (and be accountable for) the results.

Imagine for a moment a principal who believes that the key to a rigorous academic program is writing. In every class every day, she wants students to process the most important idea in a few well-crafted sentences.

To execute this vision, she must be able to say to potential teachers, “This is how we do it here. We write in every lesson. We will expect that of you every day.” If a teacher says, “Well, I have been a math teacher for 20 years and I think writing during class is hogwash,” or “I’ve always thought it was just too stifling and difficult for children to have to spend so much time writing. I just prefer to do something else,” hiring him or her would undercut the school’s approach.

But, of course, most schools do hire those teachers. They are sometimes forced to—the teachers actually get to choose the schools in which they work and they choose because, say, the commute is better for them. They may be wonderful teachers, but it would still be a poor decision by the school to hire them. And it would be a poor decision by the teachers to seek to be hired. Teachers benefit from working in a school that shares their vision as well.

But unaligned schools and teachers often choose each other. The math teacher who thinks writing is hogwash joins the staff. He might not ever consider the idea of choosing a school that shares his ideas about education. Most schools are a muddy mix of ideas that are always changing, so honestly it is hard to distinguish one school from another on philosophical grounds. Why look closely at that? Instead, he looks for a school that’s an easy commute. But the result is that, wherever he goes in his career, his goal will essentially be to be left alone by the system. This is sad and dispiriting. And of course we never learn—and the teacher never learns—whether a clear vision would have worked. It’s back to arguing.

But teachers, just as much as school leaders, deserve to choose the vision the school they are a part of seeks and to know that others have chosen it intentionally as well. They deserve to know the school will make them better at doing the kind of teaching they seek to do. It is a lot more pleasant to spend time in the staff room talking about a shared purpose than it is arguing and rolling your eyes. In short, more choice would likely lead to higher teacher satisfaction—who wants to spend their career at odds with the organization they work for or trying to hide from the training it offers? Or watching the philosophy change every year and thinking, this too shall pass.

In fact this is the secret “innovation” that is behind the success of those schools of choice that really work: fidelity. They can execute on a vision because everyone is on board for the vision. They have learned—no matter where they are on the philosophical spectrum from project-based to core knowledge-based, from progressive to traditional—that you don’t just need quality teachers, you need teachers who share your vision, and that when you have that, it is much easier to let them shape the vision and become leaders. So teachers benefit from well-implemented school choice too, though we rarely talk about it.

--Doug Lemov

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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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