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08.28.15Could Strategic Choice Help Overcome the Mirage?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week I wrote a bit about TNTP’s Mirage report and the takeaways for those who care a great deal about whether (and why) teacher development really works.

You can read more here and here, but the gist was that teacher development is most effective when it’s embedded in a school culture where teachers and leaders speak a common technical language, are passionate (and humble) about getting better, have a growth mindset, and feel a bit of urgency.  In that environment, a great workshop, feedback from a colleague, or a bit of lesson study all have a good chance of driving improvement. Without it, our efforts tend to founder.  In other words, the culture in which teacher development occurs is the biggest driver of improvement.

Mission alignment is one of the most important (and least obvious) elements of such a culture. In schools that have it, everyone in the building agrees about what “we” are trying to do and often some aspects of how. It’s critical, but far less common than you might think.

Consider this: If you gathered a cross-section group of fifty educators and asked them where they stood on the following pairs of ideas, which range from the philosophical to the technical to the mundane, you would almost assuredly fail to find consensus. Same story with a hundred other questions:

Point

Counter Point

  • “If we are good, we will see measurable results on assessments”
  • “Assessments don’t really tell us anything that’s important”
  • “Our students’ ability to express rigorous ideas in writing is the highest goal we seek.”
  • “Our students’ ability to collaborate in groups is the highest goal we seek.”
  • “We should build an intentional knowledge based curriculum”
  •  “We should stress creativity and thinking skills.”
  • Students should generally sit in rows facing the instructor.
  • Students should generally sit in pods facing each other.

 

The interesting thing is that it’s not just educators, generally, who would not agree on these topics.  It’s educators within most schools as well, and that’s a problem—not just for schools, but for teachers as well.

If many (most?) schools consist of a cross-section of educators who disagree about the answers to a hundred fundamental questions, you can imagine how hard developing teachers there must be. One of the few factors the Mirage study found correlated to teacher growth was alignment between the perceptions of quality between giver and the receiver of feedback. Kind of logical: You use, believe, and commit to advice from people you trust, and who share your purpose and see things the way you do. You find their insights compelling and worthwhile. When people don’t really agree on whether, say, that was a good lesson one of them just taught, or how it could improve, it’s hard to make much headway with the nuts and bolts of getting better.

This brings me back to TNTP’s Mirage study, where there were three districts and a CMO. It happened to be the CMO that had the positive results, but as I argued, that wasn’t the point.  If you disaggregated the data by school you would likely find single schools within every district with leaders who were able to create the sort of vibrant learning culture that led to reliable growth among the adults.  But I also speculated that this was ‘easier to do’ in a charter.

Why?

Because in many schools outside the charter sector (and some within as well), hiring is mission agnostic—often for logistical reasons—teachers, say, can choose the school they want at some districts, regardless of the school leader’s vision—sometimes for cultural ones: because that’s just the way it is, say, or because there’s so much leadership turnover it’s hard to sustain.  The end result is a school with a muddy blend of approaches and ideas about what constitutes high quality teaching and learning. Even if everybody’s got good ideas, if they are rowing in different directions, the boat goes nowhere.

There are thousands of school leaders in districts across the country who build strong cultures that help teachers be the best they can be. I’ve met many; they are inspiring.  Many of them hire relentlessly for mission alignment. But I want to return to the idea that it might be easier to hire for clear and concrete mission in the charter sector because it turns out to be very important: if it’s hard to hire for mission fit, or if schools don’t hire for mission fit, it’s nearly impossible to sustain a clear and actionable mission.

I’m going to give this idea a name,  strategic choice, and by it I mean the process of both teachers and school choosing each other explicitly based in part on shared mission and a set of core beliefs—is our work measurable? Does knowledge matter? How important is writing? How much orderliness is required? Do we care how classrooms are arranged? Do we care what books teachers choose to read? Do we care how they read them? When schools are explicit about these things, and seek likeminded teachers who want to be “good” by the same definition, the prime beneficiaries are often the teachers themselves.

I wrote about this recently for Rick Hess’ blog over at EdWeek and am going to adapt some of what I wrote here:

Imagine a debate between two principals: one believes that schools should teach universal thinking skills via project-based learning and minimize ‘teacher talk’; the other likes core knowledge and thinks direct instruction is a productive tool for instilling it. Who is right? Who should determine the approach taken in a given school?

But why debate at all? Why should the two principals waste time arguing when they could just do? When each could lead a school that bears out their vision? If they executed their ideas with fidelity we might find out that one idea really worked better. Or that they both worked. Or that neither did. Or that one worked for some kids and one worked for others and that people liked having the option. But as it is, only as lucky few school leaders are truly able to execute any idea with fidelity and test the results.  And the reason for this is the limitations on teacher choice.

Imagine for a moment a principal who believes that the key to a rigorous academic program is writing. In every class every day, she wants students to process the most important idea in a few well-crafted sentences.

To execute this vision, she must be able to say to potential teachers: “This is how we do it here. We write in every lesson. We will expect that of you every day.” If the teacher says: “Well, I have been a math teacher for 20 years, and I think writing during class is hogwash,” or “I’ve always thought it was just too stifling and difficult for children to have to spend so much time writing. I just prefer to do something else,” hiring them would undercut the school’s approach.

The people she interviews may be wonderful teachers but it would still be a poor decision by the school to hire them. And just as importantly, it would be a poor decision by the teachers to take the job. Teachers benefit from alignment in purpose with their school as well.

Schools are often a muddy mix of ideas that are always changing so honestly it is hard to distinguish one school from another on philosophical grounds. Why look closely at that? Look instead for a school that’s a decent commute. But the result is that, wherever they go in their career, too many teachers will have the unstated goal of essentially being left alone by the school and its systems, including its teacher development systems. The goal in training or during an observation is to just get through it. This is sad and dispiriting. Teachers are less likely to grow and improve and we, more broadly, are less likely to learn which ideas work because we can’t really test them. So it’s back to arguing.

Teachers just as much as school leaders, deserve to choose the vision the school they are a part of seeks to achieve, and to know that others have chosen it intentionally as well.  They deserve to know the school will make them better at doing the kind of teaching they seek to do. It is a lot more pleasant to spend time in the staff room talking about a shared purpose than arguing entrenched philosophies and rolling your eyes.

Strategic choice, I am arguing, is likely to yield better teacher development and happier teachers.  No one wants to spend their career at odds with the organization they work for, trying to hide from the training it offers, or watching the philosophy change every year while thinking, this too shall pass.

I don’t really know how much the absence of strategic choice is a barrier of mindset and how much is a barrier of logistics and rules in the schools that lack it.  I’m not even sure how aware they are that they lack it.  But I know that the ability to establish, nurture and pursue a shared vision with fidelity is a key driver of success in schools that work and it appears it is a key to schools that develop teachers. It’s certainly part of the mindset of much of the charter sector, but they certainly don’t have sole provenance over the idea.

What would it take to make it easier for school leaders in all schools to define and pursue clearer and more operationalized and specific missions? I suppose that might mean some hard conversations, but if mission alignment was a clearer part of the choice process, I think everyone would win.

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