A few weeks ago, I heard from Alex Suarez, a medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He has a B.S. in Bioengineering from Rice University. Alex read my book “Reign of Error” and asked if he could propose an new approach to accountability. He put his ideas on paper, and I am glad to share them with you. What do you think of Alex’s ideas?
Anyone who has watched “Waiting for Superman” or listened to the endless educational debates will be quick to hear how our public school system is failing. Who’s the culprit in their opinion? The teachers. Contrast that with my own experience of seeing countless dreamers poised with incredible capabilities to inspire and teach, get put into incredibly challenging situations.
Teachers can start in a classroom of 22 students; they don’t fare too well. With the current system based on standardized testing, poor performance strips resources. There goes the budget.
What does that mean? That same teacher struggling with 22 students is now being asked to teach classes of 30. It doesn’t make sense. Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error sums it up best: Let’s say the national goal is to be 100% crime free. Depending on the severity of the failure, you lose resources. Imagine the inner city of Chicago versus the upper middle class suburbs. After one year, the inner city of Chicago fails miserably at the goal compared to suburbia so the government heavily restricts the resources allocated to their local police. How do you think the crime rate is going to be next year?
We operate on the assumption that any teacher can help any students reach the best score despite anything. No excuses, right?
Let’s take a quick look at the metric of how standardized testing affects motivation of teachers and students. Teachers come in with the idealistic dream of inspiring the next generation to love learning the way they have. Once they enter the school, there’s one goal: high standardized test scores. They get pushed to try to meet test standards that ruin the beauty of learning. You suck out their motivation to teach. It isn’t much better from the students’ perspective. Students enter a classroom and are told, “It’s important to learn.” They then quickly lay witness to why they “need” to learn: to get a high test score. Educators try to plead with their students that learning is more than this.
Educators are right, there should be more. Why is our current education system’s assessment so focused on these standardized tests?
I would like the opportunity set a few items straight. Many Americans have heard the statistic that public school is broken, that internationally we are fourteenth in reading, seventeenth in science, and twenty-fifth in mathematics. It’s time to sound the alarms and kick our butts into gear.
What if, however, I were to tell you that further analysis of these international test scores sheds a different light on the conclusions that can be drawn? If you took the scores of American kids who were in schools with less than 10% poverty, they would be identical to Shanghai, the number one scorer on the exam.
Further, Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein believed there to be a sampling error in the test where a higher proportion of American schools in poverty were evaluated. Adjusting for this, the United States public education system ranked fourth in reading and tenth in math.
Let’s take one-step back, why are these international tests all that important? Reformers say if our students are scoring poorly on international assessments, these future business leaders and our economy will not be able to compete. It makes sense. Right? The data does not seem to corroborate this. Keith Baker, an analyst at the Department of Education, looked at the relationship between how well countries did on international testing and its future GDP. He found that “ the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth.” We have put all our belief behind a relationship that does not exist.
Now, the one thing that American students have that no country can compete with is our level of creativity and innovation. As we push more and more resources to attaining higher scores on standardized testing, we are sacrificing what makes America great. Look at the many schools that are dropping critical components of a liberal arts curriculum to pour more time and energy towards standardized tested math and reading classes.
Legislators attempting to change education have this contrived notion that teachers are machines. Representatives argue that better teachers=better results. They treat teachers much like production lines of old. They argue that streamlining the production line for the purpose of increasing test scores is the way.
They say it’s the corporate way, the American way. They are right, kind of. That was the corporate America… of the mid to later twentieth century. They don’t acknowledge the industrial/organizational psychologists research that is driving the best global companies. Workers are not machines. Workers are human. Motivation is critical. Take these two for example: Google and Apple. Look at their campus. Look at their work schedules. Look at what their culture promotes. It promotes health, inspires creativity, and most importantly sparks motivation.
They understand that workers are humans and are driven by psychological needs.
Now what are these specific “psychological needs”?
In his TED Talk, Tony Robbins best highlighted what he feels to be the six universal needs.
The first four are of the body: certainty, uncertainty, significance, and love/connection. The final two are of the spirit: growth and living for something greater than yourself. I believe that if we are able to create an environment that better facilitates public K-12 educators meeting these six needs, we will revolutionize education. How do we go about this?
Change the metric, change the country.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg recalls Paul O’Neill’s reign as CEO of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). During his first meet and greet with share holders, where CEOs typically declare their vision for boosting profits by lowering costs, he shocked the audience. He set out his vision: making Alcoa the safest company in America. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing the habits across the entire institution. All the stockholders were caught aback. They thought the company was going to crumble. Within a year, Alcoa’s profits would hit a record high. Thirteen years later, the net income was five times its original size; its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion. What shareholders didn’t fully understand was that in order to have the safest environment, the company had to establish several procedures. These safety procedures demanded a streamlined corporate structure and a production line that avoided injuries that would slow production. The important thing here to realize is that people operate within a system defined by its metric.
Turning to education, we have seen administrators’ decisions to cut classes of the liberal arts education to solely focus on areas that would be tested by the standardized test. Our metrics are out of whack.
I move for a change in the strived-for metric from high stakes standardized testing to teacher satisfaction.
Teacher satisfaction will be obtained by asking each teacher the following questions. Each of these will be rated on a 1-10 score, with 10 being the highest.
How much pressure do you feel that you could lose your job?
How comfortable do you feel asking for help?
How much autonomy do you feel in the classroom?
Do you feel like you are making a significant impact on your students?
How supported do you feel by your fellow teachers?
How supported do you feel by your administrators?
Do you feel like you have the resources you need to do your best work?
How collaborative of an environment do you have?
Do you feel that you’re becoming a better teacher?
Do you feel that you’re becoming a better role model?
These scores will be tallied and will be the primary determinant of how schools will be evaluated. The school’s score will be made public. Schools that perform poorly will have leading educators come to the school and help the school get back on track.
We will no longer strip resources from the schools that are most in need. If the teacher’s answers to these questions are yes, they will feel fulfilled by their career and intrinsically motivated, the most powerful driving force. Teachers dream about intellectually stimulating the future generation. They want to develop meaningful relationships with children. They want their kids to escape poverty’s grasp. We must create an environment that helps,not hinders, teachers.
Evaluation of teachers will consist of a student questionnaire and student testing. The student questionnaire will read as follows (Note: language will be geared to that grade level; it will be completely anonymous, with the option of the student to right their name if he or she wishes)
Do you feel safe?
Do you feel comfortable with your teacher?
Can you be honest with your teacher?
Do you feel cared for by your teacher?
Do you feel understood by your teacher?
Do you look up to your teacher?
Do you enjoy school?
Do you feel like you’re learning?
How much do you think about things learned in school at your home?
Do you feel that your hard work is noticed and rewarded?
Do you feel like your hard work is paying off?
Do you feel if you have an error it is caught?
When it is corrected, do you understand why?
Do you understand how to fix it/ prevent it from happening again?
The questionnaire results will be shared with the school’s principal and the student’s teacher.
The second component will be student’s scores on the exams that are a part of the school’s curriculum. The student’s scores on these will be compared to their standardized testing at the end of the year (in a diagnostic fashion) to ensure the teacher’s curriculum is up to par with national standards. This check is intended to prevent a situation where curriculum exams become super easy and everyone gets As, but at the end of the year all the kids fail to be proficient. In that case, the local school curriculum and tests will need to be made more rigorous.
Low scores on any of these metrics will not be immediate grounds for firing. The teacher will collaborate with other teachers and the principal on ways to improve his or her score much in a similar way as the Peer Assistance and Review program in Montgomery County, Maryland. New teachers with no experience and teachers who receive low ratings on these are assigned a “consulting teacher” to help them improve. The consulting teachers help teachers plan their lessons and review student work; they model lessons and identify research-based instructional strategies. The obvious follow up question is what if this teacher doesn’t or can’t improve?
That question brings up the idea of tenure and how to remove a teacher. Now, I believe K-12 “tenure” plays an important role in meeting the teacher’s psychological need of certainty. Much in the same way that you wouldn’t be able to focus on reading this article if the ceiling above you could cave in at anytime, the teacher struggles to take innovative risks with the thought that he or she could get fired at the end of the year based on high-stakes standardized tests. However valuable I believe tenure to be, I do believe that some districts make it a near impossibility to remove a poor performing teacher. In those districts, it should change.
I support the PAR model for removing poorly performing teachers. A panel of teachers and administrators at that school reviews the performance of the new and experienced teachers who have received one year of PAR support. The panel decides whether to offer another year of PAR, to confirm their success, or to terminate their employment. This method of teacher evaluation has the support of teachers and principals in schools that have adopted this model. In Montgomery with PAR, they have fired over 200 teachers with this new model; in the prior decade to PAR’s implementation, only five teachers had been removed.
A few additional principles will get us back on track and help us achieve this new metric of teacher satisfaction.
• I call for classroom sizes to be 12 students. Low socioeconomic students need attention. In Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, he explores why some environments keep producing unbelievably successful talents. He breaks it down to three key characteristics that are needed: deep practice, ignition, and coaching. Deep practice is the process with which people focus intently on trying to achieve something and every time they fail, they acknowledge why they failed, how to correct it, and go about it another time. Classrooms need to be small to allow for the teacher to execute this oversight. The coaching relationship is key, and I think it’s pretty evident in the questions that are on the kid’s questionnaire above. Having a mentor who you trust and can provide a meaningful relationship is also something that I believe can only be fostered on this scale. I want to take a quick moment to expand on how important a role model can be.
According to Paul Vitz’s discussion on “The Importance of Fatherhood” in Eric Metaxas’s “Socrates in the City,” there are plenty of poor environments where the fathers are present and there is no criminality: “We think of criminal behavior as somehow related to ghettos or the inner city or something like that. When the social scientists take out whether the father is present and whole issue of the stability of the family, there are no ethnic, racial, linguistic, or cultural factors related to criminal behavior. There have been examples of people who have been step-in fathers that have achieved the goals a father should for their kid.”
I think the heart of education for lower socioeconomic children is providing meaningful and trusting relationships with teachers so that they can guide them out of their troubles. Additionally, the classroom of size of twelve students can be broken into pairs or groups of 3, 4, or 6 to compete in challenges and activities.
• As for Coyle’s ignition, students need to be surrounded by triggers that further their drive to learn. They need to be exposed to what can happen if they work hard in the classroom. As one example, I recommend after school programs where students have the ability to paint murals in their hallways of prominent historical figures. Even hanging up pictures of people nominated for Time’s People of the Year with a short descriptor below could do the trick. One of the telltale signs of a great school is its relationship with its community. I also wish to support bringing in prominent community members who can serve as role models for these kids and further ignition.
• Getting a higher percentage of teachers trained for a year or two before starting in the classroom.
• All schools should be staffed with a child psychologist, health care worker, social worker, and school counselors as recommended by the teaching staffs.
• Education should include physical education, health, literature, history, music, etc. (all the strong pillars of a liberal arts education).
• Teachers should be well paid. Payment should follow a curve similar to an enzymatic curve of saturation. Payment should be a function of three things: overall years of experience, how many years you have been at that one school, and performance. Let’s say a teacher has been at a school for 10 years, and wants to change schools. There should be some deterrent for having the teacher leave schools. Potentially, her pay will be lowered (to 8 years of experience [subtract 2]) with the aim to keep teachers at a particular school over the course of career. Low turnover is an important factor for students.
Now, there may be many contentions to what I have offered. One of the main ones against smaller classroom sizes is the cost. Administrators know teachers are the highest cost to education, yet they are the most valuable. People say we can’t spend this amount of money on education. This argument hits at one of the human rules of thumbs that tend to make us err as stated in the book Nudge. “According to economic theory, money is “fungible” meaning that it doesn’t come with labels. Twenty dollars in the rent jar can buy just as much food as the same amount in the food jar. But households adopt mental accounting schemes that violate fungibility for the same reasons that organizations do: to control spending.”
Now, as I respect any public official’s attempt to have a balanced budget, it’s important we realize the impact on our budget if we don’t do anything. We will continue to spend over $30,000 per inmate per year, yet $10,000 per student per year. Why do we continue to invest our money and efforts to far downstream of someone’s life?
To meet the class size, we will need more teachers. Economically speaking, we know one thing: a strong middle class yields a strong economy. Increasing the strong middle class jobs (number of teachers) with reliable income will only be good for the economy. They will purchase goods and spend their money, thereby keeping the money in the economy.
In general, it is my belief we need to spend more money on human capital that will be present in kid’s lives at the school. People and relationships make the differences in kids’ lives.
Overall, the recommendations presented will create a profession that will be respected and desired. This will promote high caliber individuals entering the field. Right now, 40% of teachers leave the profession sometime in the first five years. I am confident that changing our metric would decrease high teacher turnover and burnout, which are highly problematic for struggling schools and more importantly struggling students. It will drive highly motivated individuals towards teaching. The metric will finally allow instructors to inspire curiosity and the love of learning in all their students. Instead of castigating teachers, let’s help them. Crazy idea?