School & District Management Opinion

Five Inconvenient Truths for Reformers

By Jal Mehta — July 16, 2014 8 min read
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In a piece that Steven Teles and I published last year, we argued that a group of “jurisdictional challengers” were seeking to replace many of the functions of traditional educational entities. So we have alternative teacher certification alongside traditional certification, charter schools alongside traditional public schools, new graduate schools of education, like Relay, Sposato, and High Tech High alongside more traditional ones affiliated with universities; and even new foundations like Gates, Walton, and Broad seeking to supplant older ones like Ford, Carnegie, and Spencer. Unlike critics like Diane Ravitch, I do not take the position that these groups are simply corporate reformers seeking to privatize education; nor do I take the bullish view held by Eli Broad, Joel Klein, and others that these reformers are the likely saviors of public education. Given the scale of the challenge of helping all students engage in deeper learning, we need an all hands on deck approach, and thus I’m increasingly convinced that neither the reformers nor the traditionalists have the answer on their own, and that drawing together the best of both camps is the way to move forward.

To this end, I wanted to offer two posts, this and the next, that spotlight some of the blind spots or inconvenient truths for each. Down the road, I’ll try to explain some places where I think the two groups might work together. Today it is the reformers turn. I’ll stay away from the obvious ones that get bandied about in the blogosphere (reformers are too wedded to value-added measures, can’t fire your way to better quality, etc.) and instead try to describe some that come out of our visits to dozens of schools, both charter and traditional public, over the past four years.

Inconvenient Truth 1: Good work doesn’t line up well with reform vs. traditional; there is good and bad work on both sides of the divide. Our particular study has been on ambitious instruction (instruction that challenges students to think), and we have found it in some classrooms in run-of-the-mill public schools, where teachers are leading students into ever more complex explorations of their subjects. Similarly, there are good traditional teacher prep institutions (Michigan, Stanford, Bank Street, Shady Hill), where people who are deeply knowledgeable about their craft are carefully training prospective teachers in complex instruction. Conversely, there is still considerable variation among reform actors--we’ve seen plenty of bad lessons (usually from very inexperienced teachers) in highly touted charter schools. None of this is to intended to minimize the good work that reform actors are doing, or excuse mediocre or lousy work that exists within the traditional sector; it’s just to say that there is good and bad, skilled and unskilled, work on both sides of the divide, and the challenge is to learn from the good work and grow it.

Inconvenient Truth 2: Younger teachers are not necessarily better teachers; the best teachers tend to be older teachers. This is related to the previous point. I don’t quite know where this idea started, but there is a perception in some reform circles that older tenured teachers are mostly deadwood, and that younger, alternatively-certified teachers are the ones that our students, particularly our disadvantaged students deserve. But research (and experience) is pretty clear that teaching expertise is something which accumulates over time, with teachers on average plateauing after 3-5 years (as measured by value-added scores). Most of the best teachers we’ve seen (as measured by having compelling lessons that push students to engage in complex thinking) have been very experienced teachers--in their mid to late 30s, 40s, or 50s--who have put in their 10,000 hours and who have been through a number of different rounds of growth over the years. None of this is to dispute what I see as reformers correct opposition to “last in, first out” firings; firings should be based on quality, and there can be great younger teachers and awful older ones. Nor is it about whether TFA teachers are more effective than traditionally certified ones. The point is more that an honest appraisal would acknowledge that much of the greatest expertise in the sector lies in a subset of very skilled veteran teachers, and these are the folks who need to be tapped for coaching and other improvement efforts.

Inconvenient Truth 3: Deregulatory models are only as good as the skill and knowledge of the people who populate them. There is a lot of support in reform circles for more deregulation - pushing decisions down to schools and principals rather than having them made by districts and states. I’m generally supportive of this instinct; it’s very difficult to create a coherent learning environment if the people who work there can’t make most of the consequential decisions, a point which is supported by several decades of research on effective schools, Catholics schools, and most recently successful charter schools. But sometimes reform actors talk as if removing external constraints will create better schools, and there is no real reason to think that is true. If you deregulate, you are heavily dependent on the knowledge and skill of those running the schools and doing the teaching, which, in every city in America today is highly variable. (This is also why charters as a whole are about as good as traditional publics.) The way to counter that is to build thick processes that help people learn, as well as strong materials to support instruction, and these are functions that need to be fulfilled by someone. So I’d fully a favor a deregulation + professionalization strategy, but think that a deregulation strategy on its own is likely to be insufficient. As I described it on Rick Hess’s blog last November, “thick” strategies are better than “thin” ones.

Inconvenient Truth 4: It’s really hard to get students to like blended learning -- There is a lot of enthusiasm in reform circles for blended models. I see why they are attractive--in a world with 3.5 million teachers of varying levels of skill, it is presumably easier to develop a few good courses and put lots of students through them than to make each and every one of those teachers an expert teacher. But what I can tell you from visits to blended classrooms and schools, in both traditional public and charter schools, is that students tend to find what exists thus far as fairly dull, lacking both the community and the accountability that comes with good face to face learning. A number of students told us at one highly celebrated blended school that they liked everything about the school except for the online learning! My good friend Ethan Gray, who is now well-known in reform and blended circles, himself went to school at Putney, a Vermont school on a working farm where students milk cows to learn Deweyian lessons about the relationship theory and practice. Can that be replicated in an online environment? (Ethan, thoughts?) Most of the best private schools continue to use online learning as, at most, a supplement - a way to offer APs they can’t offer onsite, for example - but their staples continue to be heavy rounds of Harkness tables and other modes of highly-intense face-to-face learning.

I don’t want to be a Luddite here. I think that the Internet offers extraordinary promise in one of the central tasks of education: connecting students to the broader world beyond their doors. We’ve seen wonderful uses of the Internet, where, for example, students skype with other students in countries around the world to see how they have made sense of 9/11, or, in which students have made videos or documentaries that have been much more widely viewed than would have been possible before the advent of the Internet. But these were projects that were overseen by real live teachers. Where we’ve seen schools have much more trouble is when they’ve tried to replace in-person courses with online courses; many students just don’t have the discipline to take courses without an adult they know overseeing it. And students also are young people whose passions need to be excited, and they seem to (thus far) find that much more commonly when their teachers are there in front of them. To put it succinctly, using technology to extend learning or to supplement face to face offerings has worked well; seeking to use it to replace in-person courses is much more challenging. There are a lot of blended schools I haven’t seen; so if people want to nominate some places to visit which have cracked this nut, I’d love to see them.

Inconvenient Truth 5: To get real scale, you have to work with traditional actors: The most well-known examples of reform are the charter networks (KIPP, Aspire, High Tech High, Expeditionary Learning), but these continue to serve a small number of kids compared to the sector as a whole. KIPP has 162 schools and High Tech High has 11 in a sector which has 100,000 schools. The number of graduate schools of education from the new entrants you could count on your fingers, compared to the more than 1,300 traditional teacher preparation institutions. Teach for America trains 5,800 teachers a year, when there are 150,000 new teachers joining the sector each year. A plurality of TFA alums work in traditional public schools. And so forth. The answer here for the foreseeable future has to be some kind of split screen strategy, where some subgroup of schools, teacher preparation institutions, and other actors develop new and better ways of doing things, and then what is learned there is put to work writ large across the sector. The sector over the past twenty years has seen more experimentation than exploitation - we have been really terrible at getting what a few people have learned into the hands of the many. Until we bridge this divide, it’s hard to see how the sector as a whole can get much better.

Tomorrow, I’ll offer some inconvenient truths for the traditionalists, and offer some preliminary thoughts about how the two groups might work together for progress.

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