Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Schools For America

A few days ago a popular education reform news summary included a rather stunning email from Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp. (Teach For America is an education reform organization that places exceptional recent college graduates as teachers in inner-city schools.)

“... [O]ur teachers are not... having the magnitude of impact necessary to make a meaningful difference in their students' educational trajectories... On the other hand… we've seen a growing proliferation of very high-performing schools... that are making a meaningful impact in their students' lives.... These schools are showing us that meaningful change for kids is possible, without relying on the efforts of all too rare super-heroic teachers... Thinking about all this, I conclude that we should embrace a strategy that looks at schools, rather than classrooms, as the unit of change.”

Let’s call this “school-centric reform”. It seems to me like a promising way to refocus the energies of the education reform movement. Too much of the debate has focused on “teacher-centric reform” -- How can we recruit, train, and retain more effective teachers? How can we improve the performance of ineffective teachers? If we can’t improve their performance, how do we get them out of the classroom?

Of course, these questions are critically important. But great schools are more than a collection of talented and motivated teachers. They have effective leadership and a strong culture. In fact, I’d argue that great schools start with leadership and culture. TFA has learned that placing talented, motivated individuals into dysfunctional schools will not usually lead to extraordinary results.

Public policy should focus on creating an environment that allows for the creation and expansion of well-managed schools -- schools that are given the flexibility to customize and innovate their educational approaches. This flexibility should extend to human resource approaches. It’s possible that different human resource approaches will work best for different student populations. Perhaps the best approaches will evolve over time as technology and other inputs change. Perhaps approaches will evolve as educational needs evolve in an ever-changing world. The slow, bureaucratic, special-interest-dominated and excessively-centralized world of government is not the proper tool for this job. Leaving school management to school leaders, government should focus on oversight in an effort to minimize fraud and incompetence.

What does this mean for current teacher evaluation debates? Ideally, the government would focus on giving well-managed schools discretion in evaluating teachers (including the ability to act on those evaluations). Unfortunately, such an agreement seems politically impossible for traditional public schools, so we are left with a typically-convoluted compromise -- one that might be a significant improvement over the status quo but still a hugely suboptimal solution. The new system will use a complex set of rules negotiated by politicians, unions, and other interest groups in place of decentralized human judgment. It is a system that our best charter schools, which are not covered by the new agreement, would never voluntarily accept and, hopefully, will never have to.

Instead, most charter schools are given virtually complete human resource discretion. We will see some failures along the way -- flexibility does not guarantee success. Over time, though, we will see the emergence of more great schools, schools in which meaningful change for kids is possible.

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