Links to the rest of this series here
Here is a response from Michael Johnston (I told you that I know these people!), the first response I’ve gotten from my open letters. You can read my letter to him here.
Thanks for your thoughtful letter and invitation to respond. I also consider you a friend and an invaluable resource as I have used your instructional materials often both as a teacher and a principal. In addition to your leadership as an author, there is another way in which I have attempted to follow in your footsteps since TFA: you were one of the first people to successfully stake out the middle ground of being both practitioner and policy thinker. One of the great gaps that I saw in the profession when I first started teaching was that none of the practitioners spoke to the policymakers and vice versa. Each side was frustrated with the other, as practitioners saw policymakers as out of touch and impractical, and policymakers couldn’t understand why practitioners couldn’t implement good policy with fidelity. Since my experience in TFA my goal has been to bridge the worlds of policy and practice, believing that well-informed practice would make better policy, and day-to-day practice would be improved by a good understanding of state and national policy. In that too I think you may have surpassed me as you successfully found a way to remain in the classroom even as you expand your voice in the national debate. One of my major disappointments about becoming a state senator was that I could no longer stay on as a principal. Although education remains my day job (I work for America Achieves, a non profit Jon Schnur, Peter Kannam, Bethany Little and I and others founded together) I was unable to negotiate a balance where I could stay on the ground in schools and serve a full time policy role at the same time. But I think these truly “bimodal educators”, people who speak both policy and practice, are the critical piece to an informed education debate, and it is one of the reasons why I think yours is a particularly important voice in this national conversation.
I don’t believe that the education world is divided into two camps, or that there are good guys and bad guys: this is not an old western with white hats and black hats, it is much more like a Cormac McCarthy novel or a Quentin Tarantino film. In fact I find the notion of bad guys in education muck like the notion of bad guys in politics, I have yet to find someone in education who wants to build or propagate a bad system as I have yet to meet someone in politics who wants to disserve the American public. And the public opinion is very much the same: people hate congress but like their own congressman, they believe American education is broken but love their own teacher and principal. When they have a personal relationship with someone in that system they find them to be working hard and trying to do what’s right. I have never worked with a teacher or a principal in the education world who didn’t want good things for kids. Nonetheless, in education, as in Congress, it is possible to have good people working in a system not capable of delivering the results we expect and deserve.
I agree with you that teacher evaluations are not by themselves the silver bullet: Fixing teacher evaluations alone will not fix our education system. I do believe, as the research supports, that the single most important thing we can get right in education is the people: attracting great people, retaining great people, and developing great people. And I think that critical to any ability to developing great people requires having a meaningful evaluation system that helps teachers grow. Like you and many others, I never got good feedback or support as a teacher, and like all the teachers I know, I wanted to get better but didn’t always know how. Hanushek and others have demonstrated the impact on our system that can be achieved through helping low performing teachers improve to the middle of the curve or replacing them with teachers at the middle of the performance curve. The power of this lever makes spending a great deal of time on teacher quality and teacher performance worth it. It is not that teachers are the problem, it is that they are the solution.
I also don’t believe that this means America can or should fire its way to greatness. To achieve success at scale we will have to help the people in the profession improve. That means developing and implementing meaningful metrics for how we are doing in reaching our goals for kids, and for kids those goals often require demonstrating outcomes. We knew at MESA that when our kids left and entered college they would have to take a standardized test, the ACCUPLACER, to determine what college courses they would enter and if they had to take remediation courses. As you know Gary, those remediation courses are often not covered by financial aid, and so kids have to pay out of pocket to take remedial courses before they can start their normal coursework. Being unable to pass that standardized test has direct financial impact on our kids, not to mention academic and emotional impact. So we came to believe early on to that these measures mattered, both practically and philosophically. We then built systems where we tracked student data weekly and modified instruction based on our results. We shared that data and asked people who were achieving real student growth to help lead professional development for other educators to model what was working. It was hard for us at the beginning because it required real honesty and exposure, but in the end we found it built the much deeper bond that comes from taking on something difficult with honesty and passion, not making excuses or passing judgment but never being satisfied until every child was successful. The result is new systems that are meaningful to both the kids and the adults who teach them.
Equally important to us at MESA was that every young person also become a good citizen of the world. Not just working on their letters and numbers, but helping young people become the kind of person you want to live next to or work next to or be married to. This meant developing habits of work and social skills and measuring and monitoring those skills in the same way we did their core academic skills. It meant understanding what made teachers brilliant in the art of teaching as well as the science; respecting, celebrating and learning from the ways great teachers built personal relationships, established rapport, found ways to inspire kids to love coming to school and to dig deeper in themselves to find something more. Doing our job well meant being good at both of those things, and we built a feedback system for kids and adults built around that dual commitment to improve the skills of the student and the qualities of the person. Our framework for our teacher evaluation system in Colorado is built off of the same belief – 50% of evaluation based on student growth and 50% based on professional practices that help teachers build great young people. Half of the evaluation would be linked to the intangible characteristics not linked to student performance, but that half of our goal should be about making sure we’re helping kids develop the hard measurable skills we know they will need to be successful.
Some of the commenters to your initial post are absolutely right – there is no “one size fits all” approach that can effectively evaluate every teacher in every subject based on a checklist from the state. That’s why we have asked education professionals across Colorado to help work through the details to develop that system, and they have made the system dramatically better. It is also why, as you noted, we have put in place a measured timeline for implementation that will allow us to gather data on the system and improve it as we go. We had our first pilot year last year, are doing another pilot year this year and then next year. The first year of implementation teachers are not at risk of losing tenure, it is only in the 4th year of the pilot that teachers begin their first year of exposure to negative evaluations having long term impact on their job protections. Other important details: our system does not link directly to compensation and our bill never requires the firing of a single teacher or principal, it always leaves that final decision to local leaders, superintendents or principals. The only consequence the teacher faces after 2 years of ineffective performance is the removal of state sponsored job protections (tenure), but a teacher can always earn those protections back based on improved performance and a principal can still choose to keep that teacher on if she believes that she has a plan to help her improve.
THE ROLE OF UNIONS
As I said before, I don’t believe there are any bad guys in this work. I’ve never met someone in the education system who goes to work every day trying to make childrens’ lives worse.
But I do believe we are not getting the results we need for kids and to get those results we will have to change the system. Change is hard for any organization but harder for some than for others. But all of these organizations are radically heterogeneous which is why no one voice speaks accurately for all of them. Every education bill I’ve supported has had significant support from teachers, principals and superintendents, and each of them has been supported by one or both of our statewide teachers unions.
And there are similar examples of political courage where unions and reformers are working side by side to pass good policy. Our Great Teachers and Leaders Bill, SB 191, was just such an example. The Colorado AFT, led by Brenda Smith, very courageously endorsed our bill early, as did Randi Weingarten who frequently talks about our Colorado effort as one of the prime examples of places where the AFT is supporting bold reform. While the NEA opposed the bill, many of their members supported it. In fact when Dennis Van Roekel came to testify against the bill, three teachers who were local NEA building representatives testified in favor of it immediately after him. In addition, the NEA has been a critical and positive partner in the implementation of the bill, working tirelessly to implement the bill fairly and robustly. In fact the two CEA members who were key leaders on the Governor’s council to implement the bill, were just elected as the new statewide president and vice president of the CEA in part based on their leadership on the governors council.
All of the reform work we did in Mapleton we did thanks to strong and courageous support from the union. Holly Cook, our union president in Mapleton, was one of my teachers at MESA and of the single best partners I’ve ever had in any professional endeavor. I would follow her into any burning building anywhere. We built a strong and supportive school climate that I think was a safe and enriching place for kids to come to school and a rewarding and respectful place for adults to work. I believe there are schools and districts all over the country where the partnership between teachers and administration is similarly strong and these partnerships ought to light the path towards collaborative and courageous school reform.
Finally, I couldn’t agree with you more that this work is incredibly hard, and that its easy to forget how hard it is when you’re out of the classroom. Teaching was by far the hardest job I have ever had, being a principal was a close second. I would grade myself as a mediocre teacher and a mediocre school principal, but I had the privilege of working alongside brilliant and committed educators and being able to share their success was a personal and professional gift for which I am eternally grateful. So if in my rhetoric or my actions I give the impression that this work is easy, or that I have all the complexities of good practice figured out, I am probably wrong, and like any good partner teacher I would expect you to call me out on it, and you would be right.
“To earn the respect of honest critics” — that is my favorite line of Emerson’s famous paragraph on the definition of success. In public life we are often encouraged to ignore our most vocal critics, but I find that feedback from honest critics is the best way to get better. It is what we are asking our teachers to do, and it is what I will always expect myself to do.
In that spirit Gary I will continue to work hard to earn your respect.