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. 

How I Teach

Live, from Music City, an elementary school teacher presents life lessons with a beat

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Christopher Blackmon leads second-grade students in a song he wrote and composed as a music teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Nashville.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Sixteen miles from Music Row, a bustling nexus of Nashville’s recording industry, second-grade students are hard at work perfecting a single at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School.

“Winners, winners don’t quit. They don’t quit!” they sing, reading lyrics and music on a screen. “If I can believe it, then I can achieve it! I must leave my doubts behind.”

Then come the dance moves. Students shake and wiggle with exuberance.

The songwriting credit goes to Christopher Blackmon, a music teacher at Edison Elementary and one of 31 educators nationwide named 2017 Music Teachers of Excellence by the Country Music Association. The CMA Foundation is honoring the group Wednesday at a Nashville event hosted by Little Big Town, the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year.

The acknowledgement draws attention to music education at a time when such programs are being slashed from public schools nationwide. But at Edison Elementary, the pace for teaching and learning music is picking up. In addition to providing instruction twice a week during school, Blackmon and a colleague lead after-school activities that include piano lessons and video production. More than 100 students, or about a sixth of the student body, participate in extra musical enrichment.

Here’s how Blackmon inspires students to love music, and to extend their enthusiasm to other academic subjects. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was most impacted by my high school music experience. We had a great program. I was in the band. I played tuba and baritone, but I also played jazz piano for a jazz combo. My band teacher was somebody you just look up to.

I’m always trying to push kids toward having a strong, principled life that means something and contributes something positive to the culture. With music education, I felt like I could teach both music and those positive character principles that I think kids need.

What does your classroom look like?

There’s a big open space in the middle and toward the front because it’s versatile. I do a lot of things with instruments and I set the instruments out and I have students rotating so they can see the screen, where I have the music up. I like to use less paper because students are just going to throw it away anyway.

They also dance a lot. In fact, they dance every day they come here. Probably, if I hadn’t been a music teacher, I would’ve been in P.E. Exercise helps brain development. The coordinated movement, especially symmetrical movements, where you cross the meridians of your body, is very important to cross-hemispheric development. Music as a whole is. That’s why I am such an advocate for music education, especially at the elementary level. I do a lot of stuff with audio production, (and) I could teach that in high school, but I think this is where people’s foundations are. I want to impact the beginning. I want to impact those foundations and help them establish their lives.

I have keyboards along the back of my room. I inherited 10 and then I have begged, borrowed and stole to get a class set so I can teach kids piano. I actually designed these. It allows four kids to sit at a table and hear only their keyboard through headphones. I can have some kids moving faster working together, some kids moving slower working together.

There’s so much research that shows that kids who get early piano instruction — piano or guitar — their brains develop more gray matter. The research shows over and over that they score higher on tests, that they do better with certain types of problem-solving skills, and so it’s better for everybody, whether or not they’re going to stick with it in real life.

What can’t you teach without?

(Click to listen to this track.)

Every time they walk into the classroom, they don’t get a chance to ask me questions and talk, because I told them I want to hear music first.

This little track is really effective because it reminds them what they’re going to do every single day, and then they know what to expect, but it gets harder and harder each time. It starts my class out the same way, but it doesn’t take a long time, and by five minutes into the class, they have already grown musically.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I try to catch the ones doing right and then comment on it because people will look at them and they’ll pull it together. I’ll say, “I love how so-and-so is being a STAR.” My little STAR thing is just: stand up straight, track the speaker, actively participate, respectfully celebrate. I say it all the time.

If a kid is just totally not getting it together, sometimes I’ll say, “Can you go write down and say how you would fix this?” That usually helps them.

How does parental communicate fit into your teaching approach?

When I see kids with musical talent, I write a personal note or call that parent and let them know that I really recommend that they get some kind of lesson or connect that child to music in some other kind of way. A lot of time, that will be a hook to get students through school when it’s hard.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It sounds like common sense, but the best advice I ever received was about classroom management from Sue Hall, who was the last music teacher here. She said, “Whatever you say you’re going to do, do it.” If you don’t have the respect of the students, you cannot teach them. It doesn’t matter how much they like you — I mean, they can love you — but if they don’t respect you, they don’t behave. And if they don’t behave, they cannot learn.

What does it mean to be teaching music in Music City?

What I do wouldn’t be accepted by a lot of music programs. Sometimes they just want you to do stale old canned musicals they found somewhere, or they want you to teach in a traditional way. I teach in a very non-traditional way, because I’m exposing kids to the real music machine. These kids could make a living in a lot of different ways in music. Traditionally, it’s very classical-based instruction. But if they know how to produce music and they have a good idea, you can make a living. You don’t have to be a big label anymore.

Here’s a music video created and produced by Blackmon and students in an afterschool program:

lingering debate

Drop TNReady scores from teacher evaluations, urge Shelby County leaders

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
From left: Commissioners Reginald Milton, Van Turner and David Reaves listen during a meeting in Memphis of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. The governing board this week urged state lawmakers to strip TNReady scores from teacher evaluations.

Just as students have begun taking Tennessee’s new standardized test, Shelby County officials are calling on state leaders to back off of using those scores to evaluate teachers.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding body for Memphis schools, voted unanimously on Monday to urge  the state to use TNReady results as only a “diagnostic” tool. Currently, the board says, state scores are being used as a punitive evaluation of both teachers and students.

The board’s call gets to the heart of a debate that has lingered since a 2010 state law tied standardized test results to teacher evaluations. That was several years before TNReady was introduced last year as a new measuring stick for determining how Tennessee students — and their teachers — are doing.

TNReady testing, which began this week and continues through May 5, has intensified that debate. The new test is aligned to more rigorous academic standards that Tennessee is counting on to improve the state’s national ranking.

But Shelby County’s board is questioning whether reforms initiated under Tennessee’s 2010 First to the Top plan are working.

“While giving off the appearance of a better education, this type of teaching to the test behavior actually limits the amount of quality content in deference to test taking strategies,” the board’s resolution reads.

The board also cites “unintended consequences” to the teaching profession as nearly half of Tennessee’s 65,000 teachers are expected to leave or retire in the next decade.

“Record numbers of quality teachers are leaving the teaching profession and school districts are struggling to recruit and retain quality teachers due to the TN standards imposed in regards to standardized testing,” the resolution reads.

It’s true that school districts statewide struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers in some subject areas. But there’s little evidence to support that incorporating test scores in evaluations is the primary reason teachers are leaving the profession.

It’s also unlikely that Tennessee will back off of its teacher evaluation model, even as some states have recently abandoned the practice. The model is baked into reforms that the state initiated through two gubernatorial administrations to improve both teacher and student performance.


Want education equity? Make sure your teachers feel valued, say lawmakers


PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Commissioner David Reaves

Shelby County’s resolution was introduced by Commissioner David Reaves, a former Memphis school board member who says he hears a “continual outcry” from teachers and parents over high-stakes testing.

“Allow the local (school district) to assess and classify teachers and use the test results as a tool, not as a stick,” Reaves told Chalkbeat.

In Tennessee, test scores in some form count for 35 to 50 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores. TNReady scores currently count 10 percent but, as the state settles into its new test, that will gradually increase to 25 percent by 2018-19.

Classroom observations and evaluations did play a factor in retention rates for effective teachers in a 2014 study by the Tennessee Department of Education before the transition to TNReady. Where teachers reported consistent and objective classroom observations, effective teachers were more likely to stay.

State and local teacher surveys also differ on the quality of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system known as TEAM, which mostly relies on classroom observations.

In Shelby County Schools, exit surveys show issues like levels and stability of teacher pay — not test scores in their evaluations — are cited most often by teachers leaving the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the school board last month that most Shelby County teachers find the state’s evaluation system unfair, but the same majority think their own score is fair.

Another survey by the Tennessee Department of Education suggests that satisfaction with the state’s evaluation system is on the rise as teacher feedback continues to be incorporated.

The Shelby County board, which oversees funding for Tennessee’s largest district, is sending its resolution to Gov. Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, and the Tennessee General Assembly. Below is the full text: