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

Education Opinion

PD Stands for ‘Perverse Incentives’

By Guest Blogger — August 28, 2013 8 min read
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Note: Michael Bromley, founder and president of School4schools.com, is guest posting this week.

Every year that I taught high school social studies was my best year ever. Even after my first, which I wrapped up as, “it can’t possibly be any worse,” I pledged to do better the next. Things got better, but every year was both the best and the next to worst. One of the best teachers I ever met also had an annual ritual of self-emulation: “Next year I’m gonna suck less,” he’d say. It’s an odd profession, built of Charlie Brown optimism. It’s part dedication and part quest for self-improvement, but it’s mostly about a job that defies results. I will admit that it’s tough to have a good day as a teacher -- quite the opposite of the old joke that a coroner can’t have a bad day. While teachers must endlessly search for the good day, the good year, they should not excuse their difficulties by assigning to themselves a basket of virtue. And nor should administrators add to the burden.

Come every August, the teachers go back to work determined to get it right. In June they had filled out all the reflective pieces and self-assessments, they’ve planned and taken notes all summer, and maybe have even gone to that inspiring summer conference. And now they’re going to apply the results forward and have that killer year that’s just know is around the corner. Then it’s back to school, all excited, all ready, until...

Welcome back to more faculty meetings and PD (professional development). The school district or the state has new requirements, the administration has a new set of priorities, and then there’s always a new theory or program or two to try out, this one now better and more rigorously tested out on third graders than the one before. It ends up a big reshuffle, usually with multiple decks of cards, each one a new pedagogical priority or the latest conference or bulletin highlights. Off and running with the “reading of the memo” and all kinds of rules and procedures that have nothing to do with all those plans you made over the summer, much less the previous year.

A teacher friend is entering her last year in the classroom, and she lists for me all the things she is not going to miss, starting, of course, with faculty meetings. “I’m excited about starting school,” she says, “but they put us into those meetings and I never have time to really do what I need to do. I won’t miss that.” This is a veteran, an excellent and caring teacher. She improves every year, and she knows what she needs to do - if she only had the time. Oh, there’s plenty of time for it. It’s just taken up by everything else.

So what would the annual back to school PD look like if teachers could design it? My friend says it’d be all about collaboration. Mine is simple: keep working on what you did the last year and start nothing new. Renewal is hard enough over the course of the long school year, so starting all over again every year makes refocus on goals downright impossible. The next question, then, is renewal of what? If I could distill teaching down to four elements and forgetting the various strategies towards them, I’d propose the short list of planning, application, assessment and feedback. (PAAF? - gonna need a better acronym to sell it.)

Argue out other elements, but for now let’s admit to these essentials and, again, forget the strategies towards them. Planning means short and long term and requires individual teacher time and focus. Application is classroom teaching, of course, and its development should be informed, yes, but individualized as possible. Assessment needs solid planning and should be, again, individualized in accordance with planning and application. Feedback just needs to be and is among the most deficient of teacher outcomes (more on feedback in my next blog post). It ought to be clear that the approach to each of these will be distinct for every teacher and that they are interdependent.

Before breathing, before the first sip of coffee, and most certainly before hitting the send button, administrators must consider whether or not what they do supports what organization consultant Richard Hawkes calls “conditions for success.” Richard sees stages of team performance, starting with loose, individual contributors, journeying through directed, top-heavy leadership, to a “systems of roles” which are defined but compartmentalized, and with “the high-performing” team the product of common vision and implementation. Let’s put it this way: is that faculty meeting a waste of teacher time or not? Does that memo support teachers or administrators? Yes, every administrator believes that he or she is doing the right, the only, thing for success. Let’s face it, most are not. And most teachers aren’t, either. Richard views a fully collaborative team as one that is aligned and purposeful in vision. And I would add that aligned hardly means that all members are doing the same thing.

Education defies solutions because the metrics to capture actual classroom realities don’t exist. Education outcomes have a nasty tendency to come of combined causes and to defy inputs. So we get, instead, a stream of solutions. And faculty meetings. “There’s the one who always talks, the three that joke around, the two that argue, and the rest who just stare at their watches,” says another teacher of her public high school faculty meetings. “And there are good ideas, but the teachers are so jaded, they don’t even want to try.” When I note that faculty and administration are like hostile witnesses to each other, she replies, “It doesn’t have to be adversarial.” Certainly not. But without alignment that includes the needs of all members of the team success will be elusive.

I’m not going to blame one party or the other. Systematically, however, there’s plenty amiss, and, frankly, teachers can exist without administrators, but not the other way around. The teacher who will be retiring this year goes through the litany of programs and theories she has seen over the years. Her favorite new one is “Mass Customized Learning.” When I ask her if any of them worked, she pauses, thinks, and says, “Rubrics. Oh, and that one time we graded papers together to see how each of us graded.” Wow. Twenty plus years of teaching, and just think of all the great ideas she could have enthused over. Instead, it’s rubrics and collaboration that mattered. Now think of how those two are such practical solutions for teachers and so simple if defrocked of theory.

Think now of your own experiences. Imagine that last faculty meeting, especially the one that had a community building exercise. Or the other on kinetic learning. Did it support your planning, application, assessment, or feedback? Do you want two hours of your life back now? When I became a teacher I was blown away to learn that faculty meetings were matters of union negotiations. After having been subjected to just a few them it became clear why. Still, contractual walls are poor ways to align teachers and administrators. Whereas the private schools can be overly top-heavy, unionized systems can foment too much teacher sovereignty, thus the relentless push for back-end standards.

Walking in reverse from June through the maze of the previous year’s causality, and you will find that most policies are not just irrelevant to what actually went on over the year, they are downright antagonistic to what should have happened. Before falling into that annual second or third quarter collapse into survival mode, with lesson planning on the fly, Plan B on classroom management, assessments in a state of constant adjustment, and no time to make the needed phone calls home, could there have been another way? With more control over your time, could your quizzes have better measured desired outcomes? Seriously, at what point is PD more important than calls to parents or more time to grade? Then why did it take three months for one school to fix an incorrect teacher email address? Why are there inevitably meetings on half days? Schools, is your PD productive or perverse?

Let me offer a one word PD called “Efficiency.” Everything we do from now on will be built around the simple idea that it contain a common and individual purpose and that it does not complicate that purpose. If not, it’s out the window. Teacher support will now be about facilitating teacher goals, not designing them globally. It’s not just more individualized time, it’s more individualized prioritization and focus on the tools to deliver it. Think of it as “Mass Customized PD.” (I’m joking.)

Teachers are neither paid nor measured for efficiency. Given the number one teacher complaint, that pained, melodramatic lament that teachers work too much, I have never seen addressed by a single PD on how to manage teacher responsibilities more efficiently. Want better planning and feedback? Train teachers to use Outlook or to actually use Blackboard -- “actually” as opposed to “how,” and I’m not talking about one two-hour session here, but real, extensive and ongoing training that any serious organization that is concerned with efficiency offers its employees. Want better implementation and assessment? Actually go beyond installing the smart board and spend equal time and money helping the teacher over time to learn to use it.

Actually listen to teacher needs and you might learn a thing or two. In my last classroom, the projected image centered over the metal seam between whiteboard panels, rendering half of my smart board useless as it broke the electrostatic signal. Please, please say why fixing that was less important than my administrative paperwork? I spent far more time stumbling over that defect than doing that paperwork, anyway.

Whatever the particular, PD should be about process not outcomes, it should be individualized, consistent, predictable, and implemented over time. If it does not match both communal and individual goals, either drop it or fire the teacher or administrator. PD should deliver options and facilitate adoption. In other words, administrators, back off. Teachers are professionals. If you treat ‘em like professionals, maybe they’ll stop acting like kids in your meetings, and that includes paying them for doing their job and not for acting out yours. Vigorously support effective teachers and provide distinct, consistent incentives to the rest to emulate what works best for them rather than to fill in the blanks of your latest replacement to the last latest big plan.

--Michael Bromley

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.