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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.

Teaching Opinion

A Pleasing Dearth of Dogma

By Rick Hess — January 24, 2011 2 min read
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Hello, edu-land. Well, I’m back. Hope you missed be a bit, but trust no one missed me too much, as it’s pleasingly clear that readers have found Dan, Roxanna, and Meira exactly as engaging and provocative as I do. As you’ve doubtless noted, all three of our guest bloggers are as likely to disagree with me as to reflect my own views. I hope that didn’t unduly confound anyone. For what it’s worth, I care infinitely more about whether someone is thoughtful and interesting than whether they agree with me.

This is because--and I trust this has become obvious to veteran RHSU readers--I believe it’s entirely possible for someone to be smart, informed, and concerned, and to still disagree with me on questions big and small. (I know such a stance can approach heresy, in education and elsewhere, nowadays, but there you go.)

Last week, I was reminded why I prefer seeking insight to agreeable dogma when my return to action included a visit with a bunch of early career teachers at a Teach Plus event up in Boston. The sixty-odd teachers in attendance were bracingly open to questioning conventional verities governing teacher evaluation, job descriptions, and pay. Whereas those of us frustrated with current practice sometimes imply that most classroom teachers are set on holding fast to today’s routines, that clearly wasn’t the case with this crew.

Teach Plus used instant polling technology to anonymously gauge attitudes as we went along, and I found the results cheerfully suggestive that a huge swath of today’s early career teachers are ready to rethink the shape of the profession. Nearly three-quarters of the attendees had taught three to ten years, and most of the rest were in their first two years. About a third, I think, were in charter schools--but a clear majority were in the Boston Public Schools.

Asked whether they’d be “willing to be held more accountable for student outcomes in exchange for access to differentiated roles and additional pay,” 63% of this group said yes and just 11% said no. Asked how they’d prefer to be evaluated, to my surprise, the room as a whole preferred evaluation based on “measures of student learning growth” as opposed to measures based on peer observation or participation in school-wide improvement. Indeed, when asked how useful their most recent evaluation was in improving their teaching, there was no defensiveness and no apologies. Forty-four percent said “not at all useful” and just 18% said “very useful.” Mostly, it was refreshing to see teachers comfortable sharing views that don’t comply with the stereotypical expectation.

These teachers and I talked about specialization, rethinking the teaching job, getting smart about using technology, reassessing the assumption that all teachers need to be full-timers, and the rest. I don’t expect anyone to just swallow my heterodox take on these questions, and these teachers sure didn’t. But most seemed eager to consider alternative arrangements, think them through, and share their own spirited and savvy insights.

I found the whole exercise terrifically energizing. If educators and policymakers can approach the big questions in this same fashion, with the fair-mindedness and savvy that Dan, Roxanna, and Meira have so recently modeled, I might just find myself in the throes of an unfamiliar optimism.

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.