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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

Teachers Without Cages: Teachers and Their Talent for Problem-Solving

By Guest Blogger — April 20, 2015 5 min read
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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.

Schools are full of entrepreneurial talent, and by that I mean teachers themselves. For high powered problem solving insight, give me the linoleum-decked hothouse of a great teacher’s classroom over the shiniest dotcom office park. Rarely noted, this may be the greatest skill of the American teaching corps.

Faced daily with a dizzying array of challenges, teachers anticipate and adapt. They spin gold from straw. Not every day, surely, and not every teacher. After all, it’s one of the most demanding and difficult jobs in our economy, so there are good days and bad for everyone. Every single classroom isn’t converting difficulty into opportunity at the same rate. But find the best moments and the most adept problem-solvers among us and you unlock an immense pool of powerful solutions to the real challenges of the most important work in society.

Teach Like a Champion, my first book, was about my effort to study how especially successful teachers solved the challenges they faced in especially tricky classrooms. Great teachers soon made much of it obsolete. About a month after I’d written the first version of the book, I started to notice how they adapted and applied the ideas I described in new ways. I would think: How could I have not seen that the first time around? That part should have been predictable: give teachers a decent idea and they rest easy for about five minutes before they want to tweak, adapt, and improve it. Struggling to make an artful plan come out artfully in front of 31 potentially skeptical 13-year-olds will cause a person to be that way. So will the heady joy of once-sleepy eyes going wide over To Kill a Mockingbird or rate problems. Ever better, most teachers think: Not because they aren’t really good at what they do, but because the work itself is so important.

The title of my new book, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, may sound like a minor update, but it is in fact a complete rewrite—half sequel, half revision. After a few years of watching teachers make the original ideas better, I had to rewrite it.

I’m making the point about the power of teacher problem solving here on Rick’s blog because I think it’s the most important link between our recent books. Both are about unleashing and unlocking the immense power of teachers as entrepreneurs. Rick’s, The Cage-Busting Teacher, is about how to find the space to be more entrepreneurial within a school—to “bust the cage” is to seize the opportunity to be more autonomous and influential than you thought. Mine, I guess, is about what should happen after the cage is busted.

A lot of teachers have found the Teach Like a Champion books useful; I know many will find The Cage-Busting Teacher useful. Others scorn my books and I suppose they will probably scorn Rick’s. There’s no pleasing everybody, especially in education. But I challenge the skeptics to recognize the theme of both of our books: that the value of teachers as entrepreneurs and problem solvers is deeply and consistently undervalued in our country, and that one of the fastest ways to make the profession the best it can be is to unleash more of it and then study and honor the wisdom of those who do the work best.

Generally speaking, though, the results of teacher problem solving are ignored and squandered. The quitting rate in inner city public schools is, by some measures, nearly 50% over the first three years for new teachers. That’s a massive failure—not by individuals, but by a system that lets it happen. A person feels like they cannot succeed at their chosen work, while just down the hallway, perhaps, some anonymous master executes the solutions to that teacher’s struggle in unknown isolation. The fact is we’re just not very serious yet about seeing teachers as the people who know the most about solving the challenges of their own profession. Teachers get told, but they don’t get studied. So if you don’t like my conclusions in Teach Like a Champion 2.0, fine. Go find the very best teachers you can and start taking notes. Draw your own insights. But honor teachers and unlock the power of their ideas by studying them.

But let me also say that the right word for what happens in a great teacher’s classroom isn’t innovation. It’s problem solving, and the difference matters, especially because innovation is such a sexy and overused word and problem solving, well, it ain’t. What teachers do doesn’t really need the fancier name to make it valuable, though. And its goal isn’t to be new so much as to be effective: smart-watch-techy or slide-rule-old-school, it doesn’t really matter. But most of all, we should remember, most innovation fails. Natural selection provides the example. Most biological variation ends up being useless. Only when there is a clear pressure to select the best do powerful solutions thrive.

And that brings me to measurement. I am for teachers without cages, to use Rick’s term. People who do knowledge work deserve autonomy. Period. This is the only way excellence thrives. But with autonomy has to come measurement so we know who uses freedom best and which ideas to copy and adapt. I mention this because when we talk about assessment these days, most of the conversation is about the downside: what happens to those who are judged to be below the mean. Don’t get me wrong—those issues are important. And we’re more likely to focus on them when proposals for how to use data are oblivious to the lives of teachers (not to mention the way data works). But the greatest argument for measurement is rarely stated—its greatest power is to identify not failure, but success.

Imagine just for a moment a state, a city, a system that said, “For the next two years, while teachers are learning to operationalize the expectations of the new rigorous standards we need, the only scores of individuals that will matter are those of the top quintile in every school. We will still measure schools and expect them to improve their results. We’ll trust principals to figure out how to do that. But while we are transitioning, we are going to focus relentlessly on the hidden champions in every school who have already begun discovering the path forward. We’re going to obsess on what works; then we can figure out how to get everyone else to do it as well.”

History shows us that in the long view, improved ideas are preceded by improved measurement. They come about because of better measurement. Its capacity to help us see the positive is a powerful social good—one that, like the talent of the people in our classrooms, we almost completely ignore.

--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.