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. 

Training teachers

More literacy coaches to bolster Tennessee’s drive to boost student reading

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

More than half of its school districts signed on last year when Tennessee created a network of literacy coaches to help classroom teachers improve their students’ reading.

Now entering the program’s second year, another 16 districts are joining up. That means two-thirds of Tennessee districts will have instructional supports in place aimed at addressing the state’s lackluster reading levels.

Tennessee has a reading problem. Less than half of its students in grades 3-8 were considered proficient in 2015, the last year for which test scores are available. In Memphis, the numbers are even more stunning. Less than a third of Shelby County Schools’ third-graders are reading on grade level.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the statewide launch of Read to be Ready in 2016.

The state wants to get 75 percent of third-graders proficient by 2025. (New scores coming out this fall will help track progress.)

The coaching network is a major component of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready drive, launched in 2016 by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. The focus is helping teachers improve literacy instruction for the state’s youngest students.

So far, some 200 coaches have worked directly with more than 3,000 teachers in 83 districts, including all four urban districts. This fall, 99 out of the state’s 146 school systems will participate.

About 92 percent of classroom teachers report that coaching is improving their teaching, even as many coaches say they are stretched too thin, according to a state report released Wednesday. Inadequate planning time for teachers is another barrier to success, the report notes.

To join the coaching network, districts must commit to funding a reading coach who will support about 15 teachers. New districts signing up this year are:

  • Scott County Schools
  • Smith County School System
  • Pickett County Schools
  • Jackson County Schools
  • Macon County Schools
  • Clay County Schools
  • Sumner County Schools
  • Dyer County Schools
  • Wayne County Schools
  • Bedford County Schools
  • Benton County Schools
  • Alamo City School
  • Polk County Schools
  • Kingsport City Schools
  • Oak Ridge Schools
  • Dayton City School

A complete list of participating districts can be found here.

Getting there

With new contract, first-year teachers in Detroit could soon make more than peers in Grosse Pointe and other suburbs

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
First-year teachers in Detroit could soon earn more than their peers in neighboring districts. The gray bar in this chart shows where starting salaries were in Detroit last year. The green one shows how the contract could change that.

For years, Detroit’s main school district has paid some of the lowest starting teacher salaries in the region but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says that’s about to change.

The teachers contract approved by the Detroit school board Tuesday night doesn’t include enough of a pay increase to bring city teachers back to where they were in 2011 when a state-appointed emergency manager ordered a 10 percent pay cut.

But data compiled by the Detroit district show that the new agreement, which will boost teacher wages by more than 7 percent, would pay enough that starting teachers could soon earn more than their peers in Dearborn, Grosse Pointe and other nearby districts.

“It doesn’t begin to address the injustice [of pay cuts and frozen wages] but this is a first step,” Vitti told the board as it met at Osborn High School Tuesday.

The new contract was approved last month by members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union. Now that the school board has signed off, the contract will go to a state financial review board for final approval.

Vitti, who hopes the higher salaries will make it easier for the district to fill more than 400 vacant teaching positions, showed the board a series of charts and graphs that illustrated some effects of the new contract.

Among the charts he flashed on a screen was one that compared starting teacher salaries in Detroit to other districts, before and after the new contract. Another slide showed how salaries would change for teachers at every level of the pay scale. A third warned that the city’s main district could be careening toward a “cliff” if it doesn’t recruit enough young teachers to replace the district’s predominantly senior educators as they begin to retire.

See the charts — and additional details about the contract — below. The last page spells out other steps Vitti says he plans to take to address the teacher shortage.