Q&A

Rick Hess: ‘teacher leadership’ can and should be more than an empty phrase

Rick Hess

Rick Hess, the political scientist and education reform advocate/critic, is out with a new book, “The Cage-Busting Teacher.”

The book is meant to be a guide for teachers who want to create a better learning environment for themselves and their students. Hess was in Denver last week to promote his book at a special event hosted by the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Before his event, Hess, who is the director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, sat down with Chalkbeat Colorado to talk about his new book and what teachers in cities like Denver can do to advocate for themselves.

This interview has been edited and for length and clarity.

You write “I’m struck by how often even acclaimed teachers tell me that they feel muffled, stifled, ignored, undervalued, and marginalized … and aren’t sure what to do about it.” How do you think we got to this place where teachers feel trapped? 

One, it’s always been this way. Back in the 1970s, a wonderful University of Chicago scholar, Dan Lortie, wrote the book “Schoolteacher,” talking about how teachers were out of the loop for key decisions about their schools. I think it’s part of the way we’ve built the American education system. In the 19th Century, when we created the common the school, we feminized teaching and put men in charge. The men would call the shots and the women would just do what they were told. And we never revisited that model. So a lot of it is historical.

Second, when teachers fought for their rights — I mean, teachers used to be treated just horrifically. Women who got pregnant would be fired. Teachers in New York would be fired if they didn’t fit a certain height or weight requirement. As teachers fought for step and lane pay and tenure, I think those things were good advances a century ago. But as the teacher unions fought to build on things like seniority protection, things that were once reasonable adjustments created a very bureaucratic profession.

And I think third, frustration that schools that were designed hundreds of years ago and systems that were designed 50 to 100 years ago don’t seem very conducive to excellence today. You have a lot of reformers and policy makers trying to do something about it. And their language and ideas have sometimes been careless and crudely drawn. And teachers have not responded productively, which has made these reformers distrust them. I think we set the table and teachers have reacted in a way that makes the reformers distrust them. We’ve gotten into this cycle of hostility.

This book [attempts]…to help teachers think about how to break that cycle.

Can you give me an example of a workplace rule that you find nonconducive to today and conversely a half baked policy initiative?

Step and lane pay were introduced a century ago because women were being paid a third of what their male counterparts were making. And so the idea that teachers should be paid based on experience and some credentials was a far more equitable approach. That made a lot of sense at that point in time. Today, that’s not how any professional is compensated. Seniority is a part of how professionals are compensated and credentials matter, but places that employ college graduates don’t usually have these strict gridlock models.

What’s a place where reformers have misfired? On compensation: we should absolutely differentiate pay. Some people are better at their job, some aren’t. We’ve seen for example in Nashville: the school district was going to pay science teachers more if their kids’ test scores went up. Well, that’s really how we paid encyclopedia salesmen in the 1960s. That’s not anyone’s recipe for how you attract professionals or motivate them in the 21st Century.

You write, “Breaking free from this disheartening standstill begins with cage-busting teachers ready to step out of their classroom, able to deal with policymakers in good faith, and willing to make teacher leadership more than an empty phrase.”   When I read this, it makes it sound like it’s the teachers responsibility to end the hostility. Why do they have to step up? Why isn’t it the reformers responsibility to end the hostility?

Frankly, you only get out of the cycle if both sides do their part. Most of what I write is targeted toward the reformers. Many of my reformer friends are somewhat frustrated with me because I raise these kinds of points about how reformers tend to take good ideas and out of the best of intentions push them further than they can usefully push them and rush them in clumsy ways.

So, the backdrop is that reformers and policymakers need to do a lot better here. But this book is not for them — its for the teachers. And in reality, teachers also have to do their part on this. And they have to do at least their part because they’re in an asymmetric relationship with policymakers. Like it or not, its policymakers who are elected to write the laws and fund the schools.

…[W]hat’s happened is to a large extent…there are these teachers out there who are doing amazing things and speaking up, there are lot of teachers who are just doing their thing in the middle, and then you have teachers who are disgruntled and frustrated. These teachers in the backend, the 10 percent, they’re the teachers the reformers and policymakers envision when they think about the profession. They’re the ones who are rallying and screaming and writing nasty notes at the bottom of New York Times stories.

So what’s happened is they’ve become the face of the profession. And what I’m taking about, those other teachers, instead of retreating to their classrooms saying ‘I don’t want any part of this,’ need to take ownership of their profession…

In the preface and in some of your blogs, you take to task the idea of teacher leadership. You call it an empty buzzword. Well, it’s a really big buzzword in Denver. Are you familiar with the local model?

Not specifically.

The one thing about Denver’s model is that there is no one model. Every teacher-leader has their own sort of portfolio. While they might all do some coaching, one might be in charge of professional development, one might be in charge of leading data discussions. What do you think needs to happen in places in Denver — or any urban district — to make teacher-leaders a reality?

Teachers don’t work in isolation, they work in schools. If discipline is lax it affects how a teacher does her job. If a school is disorganized with their substitutes and a teacher has to be pulled out to do coverage, that affects how a teacher does her job. So the reality is a lousy schools make it difficult for a teacher to close her door and teach. And good schools make an OK teacher a better one because she can ride on the coattails of her colleagues.

Part of the trick is so many terrific teachers think of the job simply in the terms of pedagogy and instruction. So they’re writing a lot of micro-grants and they’re up until 2 a.m. and burning themselves out and they’re not really changing anything at the school. So the logic for me, what teacher leadership really needs to come down to is teachers who are opening that classroom door and creating schools and systems that are easier for them to do their best work. Where professional development is actually energizing rather than infuriating. Where principals are helping solve problems. Where weak colleagues are either getting better or moving on.

For me, teacher leadership should start with teachers using their specific insight on what’s going on in their schools and classrooms to help make schools work better for kids and teachers. So, when principals are coming on and making announcements and disrupting first and last period, teacher should call them on that. When meetings are wasting time and not yielding any useful outcomes, when schools are giving feedback or taking into account teacher morale, these are the kinds of things I want teachers to start with.

One of my concerns about leadership is that it’s led teachers to believe it means giving up your Saturday to go to the statehouse to rally or sit in some boring meeting or talk to legislators for 10 minutes.

Rather than thinking “leadership,” it’s solving problems at the school, generating trust to get more involved at the district, and then using that insight and expertise to then contribute at the policy level and in public discussion. That all falls under the umbrella of leadership, but I think it gets lost when people just throw that word around.

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Donnell-Kay Foundation.)

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Hess as a social scientist. He is a political scientist. 

the write way

What’s missing from the conversation about the state’s ditched literacy test for teachers?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The Board of Regents applauds James Tallon at his last meeting, moments after officially voting to eliminate a literacy test for prospective teachers.

In a major change to teacher certification, New York officials decided prospective teachers will no longer have to pass an “academic literacy” test in order to enter classrooms.

It didn’t take long for media outlets to jump on the news, raising concerns that teachers who struggle to read and write could now be able to enter New York’s classrooms.

State officials say that argument is misguided. Since aspiring teachers must earn a college degree, and pass three other certification exams, they argue, illiterate applicants will not make the cut in the first place. The exam also is inherently flawed, they say, and kept a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic teachers out of schools.

But experts say that narrow debate about literacy misses a broader conversation. They argue that the test was never meant to protect against a flood of teachers unable to read and write. It was, however, intended to help ensure high teacher quality, they say, and the question is whether the current certification process furthers that goal.

The Academic Literacy Skills Test, which the state implemented a few years ago, was part of a larger movement to elevate the quality of the teaching profession. Officials thought at the time that a more rigorous test of reading and writing should be part of that mix.

But literacy tests for teachers got their start in a different era, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading national education researcher who now runs an education policy think tank. They were originally implemented in the 1980s when there were fewer hurdles to entering the teaching profession, she said.

“That might have made sense at that time in those places,” Darling-Hammond said, but added there is little evidence today that literacy tests are a good way to screen for effective teachers. There’s also no widespread concern, she said, that illiterate teachers are entering the profession.

“I think at this point, there is not strong evidence about that,” she said.

Ken Lindblom, dean of the School of Professional Development at Stony Brook University, who has taught prospective teachers, agreed that the focus on literacy is misplaced.

“It’s simply not the case that we have all these teachers … and they’re illiterate and we need to stop,” Lindblom said. “This is a false conundrum that we have invented.”

Dylan Roth, who is studying to become a teacher in a graduate program at Queens College, said he felt “insulted” by news coverage suggesting an epidemic of teacher illiteracy. “They speak of the ALST as if it were the line in the sand keeping horridly illiterate and unqualified teachers out of the classroom,” he said. “Yet besides brief mentions of teachers unions [in the articles], there is no virtually no input from teachers themselves who have gone through the process of certification,” he said.

Roth pointed out that the test’s fee (more than $100) poses a burden for aspiring teachers already paying for seminars, textbooks, tuition and more. Meanwhile, he said, the test is unnecessary when similar questions could simply be added to one of the three other certification tests, a proposal the state has offered.

Still, some say this conversation is about more than just a test — it’s about how the state can build a superior teacher workforce. Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust-NY pointed to a 2007 study that found recruiting teachers with stronger certification status or SAT scores could improve student achievement.

“Research shows that having teachers with stronger academic skills makes a meaningful difference in student outcomes, and that is why we believed that maintaining the ALST … is important for equity,” Rosenblum said.

Daniel Weisberg, CEO at TNTP, an organization focused on creating more effective teachers, says the best way to attract high-quality teachers isn’t a tough literacy test. He thinks the emphasis should be on more teacher observation instead.

But he said, over the years, he has seen some prospective educators who want to become teachers even though they lack basic reading and writing skills. In order to avoid certifying those teachers, state officials could create a more narrow test of basic skills, he said.

“What you need is a surgical tool, not a chainsaw,” Weisberg said. “With a lot of these certification exams right now … they end up being a chainsaw, not a surgical tool.”

State Education Department officials plan to add a long reading and writing requirement to the Educating All Students Test, a change that is still being reviewed. They could not yet say whether a student who failed a new literacy portion of another exam could still become a teacher. According to a state education official, the test is expected to include the new literacy portions by January 2018.

The other certification tests already involve reading and writing. The edTPA, a performance-based assessment that asks students to videotape a lesson, requires them to write about their teaching practice. The exams require writing, but the edTPA handbook says the rubrics “do not address the quality of your writing,” and does not penalize test-takers for grammar and spelling errors, though it suggests the ability to effectively communicate is critical.

The other exams include content questions and some questions that require written responses. Supporters of eliminating the literacy test argue that even though prospective teachers are not given a writing score, literacy is embedded in the exams.

The edTPA “requires teacher candidates to organize their arguments, to logically sequence claims,” said Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics at United University Professions, which represents SUNY employees and who co-chaired the state’s edTPA task force. “That’s how you assess literacy. It’s the ability to write, but it’s more then that.”

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promote rigorous standards, isn’t convinced. Literacy is crucial to teaching and should be assessed separately, he said. And while the state may include more literacy questions in a different exam, it’s a mistake to eliminate the test without having a fully developed alternative, he said.

“I don’t know enough about the specifics of the test but I take the [State Education] Department and the Regents’ word for it that they think there was a flawed test,” Sigmund said. “So fine, if there are problems with the test, fix the test.”

Compromise

Teacher pay overhaul would establish merit pay, tackle salary inequities

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trinette Small, chief of human resources for Shelby County Schools, explains the district's proposal for a new teacher pay structure.

Since 2014, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has tried to establish a merit pay plan for teachers in Shelby County Schools but, for one reason or another, it’s eluded the district.

Now, his team is trying again — and they’ve come up with a proposal that they hope will help Tennessee’s largest district retain its most talented teachers, while also appealing to teachers that previously have balked at shifting to performance-based pay.

The proposal unveiled Tuesday would address inequities in the pay structure that have given higher salaries to newly hired teachers than to existing teachers with the same experience for up to 10 years.

Any subsequent raises would be based on teacher evaluation scores of 3 to 5 on the state’s 1-to-5 model, which is based on classroom observations and student test scores.

The plan also would resurrect additional compensation for job-related advanced degrees — but only in the form of bonuses if the teachers rate 4 or 5. The same goes for hard-to-staff teaching positions such as in special education, math and science, as well as veteran teachers who have reached the district’s maximum salary, which would go from $72,000 to $73,000.

The overhaul would take effect next school year using $10.7 million earmarked in Hopson’s proposed $945 million spending plan for 2017-18. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget in April.

Recruiting and retaining effective teachers is a high priority as Shelby County Schools seeks to boost test scores in low-performing schools with many poor students. And research shows teachers have the most influence on student achievement.

Trinette Small, chief of human resources, said the district has to keep its pay structure competitive to retain its most effective teachers, especially with six municipal school systems nearby.

“This is trying to get base pay stabilized,” Small told school board members during a budget review session. “This is an investment in teachers but this is something we can afford.”

In exit surveys, a fourth of high-performing teachers cited noncompetitive pay as their reason for leaving the district, she said. And most who left had the second-highest evaluation score.

The plan pleased school board members, and parts of it appeared to appeal to teachers unions, although its leaders still had some concerns.

Chairman Chris Caldwell said the new structure positions the district for a more stable learning environment.

“The big point about the change was to have (pay) merit-based and not just longevity-based because at a certain point, they plateau,” Caldwell said. “The main thing we got to worry about is student draining and teacher draining.”

School board member Mike Kernell said the plan should boost teacher morale by addressing inequities in the system. “I think by resetting this, we’re going to start seeing more experienced teachers at the right level starting to help the younger teachers without the resentment that you’re making $2,000 less,” he said

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, was mostly pleased with the proposal but took issue with tying pay for advanced degrees with evaluation scores. Teachers should be rewarded in their base pay for advanced degrees, not through bonuses, she said.

Rucker and Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, both said the initial leveling up should apply to all teachers on the former step schedule up to 17 years, instead of stopping at 10.

“If you’re going to abandon the schedule system, at least level everyone up,” Williams told Chalkbeat. “If it’s not going to benefit everybody, you might as well throw it in the trash.”

Small said the leveling up is meant to make teacher pay competitive with new hires. Since the district only incorporates up to 10 years of experience in pay for new teachers, the leveling up was limited to the same.

The New Teacher Project provided consultation on the district’s pay plan by gathering data, conducting focus groups and crafting the compensation model.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the district proposes to level up pay up to 10 years of experience.