As families across the country get ready for the rhythms of a new school year - drop-offs and pick-ups, early morning alarms, homework - teachers in those communities are getting ready for something else: new evaluation systems with high stakes and different definitions of what constitutes a job well done.
In theory, this is a good thing. For too long, teacher evaluations have been little more than pro forma stamps of approval, doing little to help us get better. Additionally, the profession is in the midst of its biggest redefinition since the dawn of the Industrial era. Gone are the days when the assumption was that the student’s job was to adjust to the norms of the school. Now, the expectation is that the school - and, by extension, the classroom teacher - must customize everything it does to meet the individual needs of each student.
This is a great development for American public education. It also requires a very different skillset from teachers if it’s to be done well. Why, then, has almost every new framework for measuring teacher effectiveness been met with such fierce resistance?
After reading Atul Gawunde’s recent article about how good ideas spread, I think I understand why. And before the new school year starts in earnest, I think we should pay attention to what he’s telling us.
What Gawunde discovered was that new ideas, no matter how good or helpful they are, cannot by themselves lead to true behavior change. You can introduce or even mandate a new idea, he explains; we do so all the time. “But people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”
That social process is the connective tissue that leads people to adopt new norms of behavior. And “to create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way.”
This is not what we do. Instead, we sidestep the slow process of co-creating new norms in favor of the quick process of mandating new behaviors. Some of these ideas may even have merit; here in DC, for example, there’s a lot to like about the city’s new teacher evaluation system, IMPACT. But as school change expert Michael Fullan points out, the key to real systems change is building collective capacity, which he defines as “generating the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone can come close to matching.”
Smaller classrooms, in other words, mean nothing unless the move is coordinated with relevant professional learning for teachers that helps them employ new teaching strategies. Establishing national standards will mean nothing if the end result is merely more national exams and less high-quality locally driven assessments that use those standards as a common frame. And new teacher evaluation systems will mean nothing unless the teachers who will be evaluated in them feel a sense of ownership over the new processes that will determine their professional fates.
How we feel about a new idea shapes how (and if) we apply it. No shortcuts. No excuses.
Unfortunately, as Gawunde explains, “we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, ‘turnkey’ solutions to the major difficulties of the world. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.” So we pretend we can sidestep that variability altogether.
This is how the overwhelming majority of teachers I speak to say they feel. They see the media infatuation with Khan Academy, and wonder if they are slowly being outsourced. They see the L.A. Times’ decision to publish the standardized tests results of every teacher in the city, and wonder if the witch hunt has begun. And they see a spate of new teacher evaluation systems that try to quantify every aspect of their work, and wonder if the art of teaching has been completely subsumed by the science of measurement.
The point is not whether any of these new ideas have merit. The point is that you cannot change the behavior of America’s teachers by telling them to behave differently or exposing them to public scorn. As Gawunde writes, “neither penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching.”
What, then, should we do instead?
We could begin by looking at a few promising collaborative efforts that are already underway. If you’re a policymaker, take a close look at what they’re doing in Montgomery County, Maryland, where a program called Peer Assistance Review, or PAR, uses senior teachers to mentor both newcomers and struggling veterans. And if you’re a teacher, consider getting certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a teacher-run organization that uses a performance-based, multiple-measure, peer-reviewed process to identify and acknowledge the definitive standards of accomplished teaching and the process by which the profession can certify whether or not a teacher meets those standards.
Most of all, we need to remind ourselves that systems change requires what I describe in American Schools as “urgent patience.” That means acting with the fierce urgency of now, and realizing that new norms cannot be fast-tracked; they must be slowly co-created. “If we could change a society like we can change the position of the furniture in a house, it would be fantastic,” said the educator Paulo Freire in a 1987 address. “It would just be a question of muscular power. But history is not like this.” And Fullan adds: “There is no way of achieving whole-system reform if the vast majority of the people are not working on it together.”
It will always be true, in teaching and in the natural world, that not everything can be measured, just as it’s true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than basic-skills test scores. The point is not whether data are good or bad, but which data we use, and in what combination. And the only way we’ll answer that question is if we’re willing, amidst the “uncontrolled variability” of ourselves, our colleagues and our institutions, to talk it through - carefully, and with urgent patience.
No excuses. No shortcuts.
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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools 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.