Opinion Blog

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. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Coming Age of Teacher Choice?

By Guest Blogger — November 08, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This month, Rick is out working on a new project exploring the lessons of Bush-Obama school reform. In his stead, we’ve got a terrific lineup of guest bloggers. Taking over this week is Mike Goldstein. Mike is the founder and former CEO of Match Education in Boston, and former Chief Academic Officer of Bridge International Academies.

Six years ago, in the hallowed pages of EdWeek, I wrote a column with this same title, but without the question mark:

Charter schools get this deal: accountability in exchange for flexibility. Shouldn't teachers get the same basic deal? Teacher accountability is coming. I predict that the flexibility will begin to follow right behind.

Oops! Teacher accountability was coming...until it wasn’t—vanquished almost entirely. The Obama Administration retreated. The Gates Foundation has officially withdrawn. DC Public Schools—probably the best-known case study—might have won the battle, but lost the war in the sense that close to no other mayors have sought to replicate IMPACT (the district’s system for assessing and rewarding teacher performance).

Okay. What about teacher choice? Could we still get there, this time without accountability? Back in my 2011 column, I suggested a few different ideas. One was:

100% control of his/her share of the professional development budget. In some districts, we're talking about $4,000 per teacher per year. Why not let each teacher control it? He can hire a coach. He can attend a conference, take an online course, visit other schools. He can pay another teacher in the same school for help. He can pool his $4,000 with other teachers—15 teachers could combine to hire one $60,000 per year full-timer. He could "bank" the $4,000 for another year—i.e., spend nothing for two years, then $12,000 on a PD experience in the third year.

I think that case is even stronger now. In 2015, The New Teacher Project (TNTP) published The Mirage. The bottom line was this: There is no type of PD that consistently helps teachers improve. Various scholars have found similar stories.

My hypothesis? Back in 2008, I read something by Seth Godin that resonated:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Like it or not, I think teachers have convincingly established their power to ignore PD. So treating teachers as individuals is perhaps the only way forward. The everyone-gets-the-same-thing approach doesn’t work; even close friends who teach the same grade in the same school probably have sharply different views of what should happen in the classroom. There needs to be some type of teacher permission before PD can work.

From a utilitarian point of view, it’s giving teachers respect in the form of personal and relevant messages—not from a political desire to appease them, but from a genuine realization that they’ll simply tune out any broad-based message as insufficiently personal and relevant. As the Gates Foundation contemplates its teacher networks investment, perhaps they’ll consider that even a school that chooses to be part of network inherently has teachers who probably don’t want to go down any particular single road.

With the help of New Schools for New Orleans, my friend Erica Winston launched a small experiment in this arena. I helped. We originally called it “Permission-Based Teacher Coaching.” Per a recent paper by Matt Kraft at Brown University, it was a qualified success, with all sorts of interesting bumps along the way. Particularly promising was that “coached teachers scored 0.59 standard deviations higher on an index of effective teaching practices comprised of observation scores, principal evaluations, and student surveys.” One of the interesting bumps, however, was that while we tried to emphasize true teacher permission, school leaders kept wanting to assign teachers to the coaching.

Sure, with charter schools and private schools, teacher permission comes from teachers choosing to work at that particular type of school. Once that happens, whole-school PD may be effective—certainly this describes a number of high-flyers like BASIS, Success Academy, and Achievement First. It’s like someone choosing to work at Amazon or Waffle House or the Ritz—"what’s different” about each company is explained in the application stage.

But that permission typically isn’t there for the installed base of teachers in traditional districts. Once upon a time, they signed up for “fairly traditional teaching jobs.” So many just try to survive wave after wave of new PD.

I’d love to see experiments where we pile up large amounts of cash for teachers to spend on their own. Not just teachers controlling PD, but things like curriculum, computers and software, and supplies. In many districts (let’s throw in state departments of education as well), if they relinquished all classroom-level buying to individual teachers, they’d hand over $10,000+ per year for the teacher to control.

Arguably you’d lose some economies of scale. But you’d gain teacher-buy in. Plus, you’d gain all the entrepreneurial power of markets. Enterprises would spring up to serve decision-making teachers well (like Teachers Pay Teachers, Class Dojo, and others who already do this), instead of a few big companies trying to kiss up to superintendents and commissioners in order to win the giant orders.

Another idea I wrote about in that 2011 article was this:

Option to run one's own micro-school, getting rid of the b.s. and keeping the stuff teachers love. Those who want to cut loose administration entirely, and run their own "micro-charter"—which could be as small as two teachers and, say, 40 kids.

Six years later, I’m more skeptical about the charter version of these micro-schools being approved in large numbers. Even amazing founding teams that I know have struggled (but I’m hopeful some brave commissioners will step up here).

Private micro-schools, however, are growing. (See here for background, and here for a new one from the founders of WeWork.) The economics are definitely challenging, but the freedom is appealing. I’ve personally been drawn to this, and have even contemplated starting my own with a teacher friend. If I get something off the ground, I’ll circle back as a guest blogger in no more than six years, and let you know how it played out.

Mike Goldstein

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.