Archive for the ‘Education’ category

Michelle Rhee

March 12, 2011

I was fortunate enough to attend a Q&A with Michelle Rhee today. Living near DC meant I was generally aware of her controversial approach and being interested in education meant I was interested to learn more about her ideas and positions.

After hearing her talk, I’ve decided I’m a fan. Before you make a snap judgment about my thoughts about teachers and so forth based on this statement, hear me out.

First – she began her entire talk with I think the most important point of all, which was that: 1) public schools are currently not working for all children (fact. duh. if you don’t agree with this then you’re delusional), 2) with so many elements involved in education, there is no single answer (also duh. there’s never a silver bullet), 3) therefore, we ALL (meaning, all educators and policymakers around the country) need to engage in a “discussion” where we get deep into the issues and details and figure out what is needed to get all kids a good education.

There is too much special-interest group and partisan back-and-forth going on in the “education conversation” where all of the issues aren’t fully laid out or explored. (She said she didn’t want to go on talk shows and debate Randi Weingarten because those formats would cater to conflict and not constructive discussion. I swooned a bit when she said that.) And, she has set up her own special interest lobby, called Students First, which is meant to add a student-oriented lobby to the current scene full of teachers unions, textbook manufacturers, charter school fans, testing companies, and so forth. Her aim is to get a bunch of money and a bunch of supporters to get behind efforts that start by asking, how do we get all students to learn? She doesn’t think the other lobbies are bad, just that the students need a voice too. Yes it sounds a little cheesy, but she can actually do it (in a sense) because she’s famous enough to get supporters and she isn’t elected like union reps or speaking on behalf of some business.

Those are the two biggest reasons I’m a fan – she’s serious about the depth of conversation and she’s in it for the students first. As she talked, she got into what that “depth” of conversation would look like for certain elements of education. She didn’t get into all of them, and some people at the talk think she glossed over key points (like, what are good teaching practices? How should teacher training programs be teaching their teachers?) though I’m not sure if that was because she always glosses over that (read: it’s a serious hole in her argument that people would attack) or because there wasn’t enough time to get into it. Even if she is weak on certain points, I’m ok with that because she laid the initial groundwork that said we as a country need to figure out all those important elements together. I don’t actually expect her to have all the answers.

Also – the very first question asked about her abrasive leadership style. She responded by mentioning an op-ed where someone said they liked everything she was doing, but implored her to do it “nicer.” I have had a similar thought, and she defended her style with her own particular reasons. However, after hearing her speak and reflecting upon how the culture of education has become rather stagnant and afraid of offending people, I think that her abrasive style was needed. Most superintendent’s can’t or shouldn’t use the same style. But her role in the saga of fixing education in this country is an important one. She’s the interruptor. She’s the one who goes to the extreme in order to catalyze the change. If there were hundreds of Rhee’s, I’d be worried. But she can play the vocal, controversial role, which I think is a necessary role.

The only thing that worries me is if her voice is the only one, or the loudest one. The fact that she said we all need to engage in this discussion encourages me because it means she doesn’t want to be the only voice. However, our information systems are not reliable means of having an intelligent public discussion with lots of good voices. So we’ll see how it goes. Waiting for Superman was a great way to put the conversation in a different information medium and get more people engaged in the topic. But we need a wider variety of mediums engaging in intelligent, informed engagement, and we need it in every district.

So those are some initial thoughts. I’ll keep this as a “reaction to Rhee” post, rather than a discussion of various education inputs and her views on them, for brevity’s sake. There will be more time to discuss them later.

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Performance Pay for Teachers

March 10, 2011

For the past nine weeks, three other public policy students and I have been working madly on a report for Mountain View Whisman School District in which we advise them on whether they should implement a pay-for-performance system. It was our senior year public policy capstone class that crammed three big learning experiences into one – learning all about a subject (performance pay), all about group dynamics, and all about what it means to collect all sorts of data and analyze them in a policy report. And then they tagged on presentation skills at the end, when we gave a powerpoint to the district and the pubpol program.

Blognote: this post debuts a new category – education – which I’ve actually thought a lot about and intend to write more on.

With our report, it felt like we were given a solution looking for a problem. Performance pay is a policy idea that’s thrown around and we had to figure out how it fit into the needs of a particular district. Since problem-solving is actually the goal, I think it’s wayyy better to identify the specific problems and the go looking for solutions. Performance pay then is one of many in a toolkit of policy options. We didn’t get to go about it that way, mainly because the role of an outside advisor/consultant/unpaid-undergraduate-laborer is to look at one specific policy option, while the district gets to consider many.

So my ideal approach would have been – how do you improve student achievement? Well, you want good teachers. So how do you make sure you have good teachers? Well, first you have to determine what makes a teacher good, which means you have to figure out how to measure them. There’s a lot of discussion around test scores and principal evaluations and such, but I think there’s definitely some way to grade teachers with some portfolio of measurements.

Then, you know who your good teachers are. So is there a way to make your other teachers better? Does that mean we need better teacher schools? Or have higher credential standards for teachers. Or offer professional development? How do we make sure our schools have a culture of continuous improvement, where all the teachers all the time are analyzing what they’re doing and trying to figure out how to do it better?

In this context, then you start getting into pay. Here is a really interesting and compelling talk on how to think of pay and how it links to motivation and work. Teachers work pretty hard already – giving them more money just to work harder is not really the point.

What’s a much better and more constructive approach is to find all sorts of ways to, like I said, build a culture of continuous improvement, self-criticism, and collaboration. Every day, every week, every month, every year, teachers should be thinking “how could I do this better?” No single teacher can dream up every solution – so they should be excited to seek out other techniques, either by asking other teachers, going to training events, reading about teaching strategies, etc.

In the same way a musician needs to push themselves to the next level by ratcheting up the metronome for those difficult licks, or an athlete keeps a log of mile times as they try to run a little bit faster, if teachers strive to be the best they can by being open to new techniques and trying them out all the time, then we’re most of the way there.

Pay can reward these kinds of improvement efforts and encourage more of them. Or it can enable them – if you need some funds to pursue certain types of training or certification, or don’t have enough planning time.

To conclude, I feel like the policy, as it is commonly talked about these days, comes at it in all the wrong ways. If you just think that you need to add a variable pay element to the salary, you’re assuming that teachers know how to teach well, that they aren’t teaching well, and that pay will make them teach better. Instead, you should look at how to both provide supports for them to figure out how to teach better and to cultivate a culture of improvement.

Our report didn’t exactly go about it this way because of constraints placed on us though I did make an effort to work in some of these principles. You can read the report here (pdf, ~1MB). It has an executive summary for those who don’t want to read 40 pages. It’s not a perfect or comprehensive analysis (we only had 9 weeks), but I think it does a decent job of looking at some of the research and performance pay designs.