Friday, July 3, 2015

The Superteacher Shuffle

The most unmet requirement of NCLB and the pseudo-laws of Waiver is the Superteacher Shuffle Law. Last year the Obama administration offered this provision a big, wet kiss in a policy declaration that Mike Petrilli kind of awesomely called a "nothing burger."

The law requires that every state have a plan for making sure that high-poverty low-achieving schools have their fair share of excellent teachers, a policy idea that solidly and definitively declares its misunderstanding of the problem, therefor coming up with a solution that is only slightly more solutiony than declaring that states must provide low-performing schools with flags woven from the hair of magical unicorns.

We'll get back to the unicorns in a bit. Let's pretend that the law is correct about the problem, and that we just need to get great teachers into lousy schools. If that's the problem, then there can only be one of two solutions:

Move great teachers around. Once we've identified Great Teachers, either by using VAM sauce or by consulting our Ouija board (both equally effective), we have to convince them to move. This will require anything from bribery to rendering. Bribery would be too expensive, and rendering would be both illegal and unlikely to get people interested in teaching.

Create more great teachers. Problematic because policymakers and politicians have managed to make teaching increasingly unattractive as a profession.

But mostly what the law requires is that every state has a plan, and here they are. Popular strategies include fact-finding ("We'll have a big Great Teacher party, or First Year Teacher Party, or Sad Administrator Party, and afterwards we'll know everything we need to know about this stuff") and lots of folks like the idea of some sort of mentorship and support for beginning teachers (an idea that I am NOT going to make fun of because, actually, lack of support for beginning teachers is one ofthe great yawning gaps in the profession).

Some states have been amazingly detailed. The plan for my own state of Pennsylvania is 200-plus pages long. Damn. I've read a lot of things so that you wouldn't have to, dear reader, but for the fifty specific state plans, you are on your own (Alyson Klein has done some of our homework for us, and God bless her).

The Pennsylvania plan is numbingly corporate, with a focus on how better to manage Human Capital, but it will take a whole separate blog post to deal with its foolishness.

But for right now, let's stay focused on the national law, and why it's a bad law.

This is the Hero Teacher Syndrome writ large, the idea that great teachers carry their greatness around with them like backpacks that travel with them wherever they go, and that the solution to getting better schools is to just stuff each school with Superteachers.

If you want to understand why this is not going to work, imagine a national initiative to improve the state of marriage in this country. "We've got to fix that divorce rate," declare policymakers. "We've got to make sure that each person has a Great Spouse." So each state is required to come up with a plan for shifting the Great Spouses around so that marriage improves.

So Mr. Smithingstein, who was a great wealthy husband when he was married to his well-to-do wife, is transferred to a low-income neighborhood where he must now be husband to a woman living below the poverty level. Mrs. Bogswallow is transferred to become the wife of an absolutely abusive jerk. Mr. Blienfetz was a great hetorosexual husband, but his new transfer spouse is a man.

Teaching, like marriage, is a relationship, and while there's no question that some people bring more skills and useful qualities to the table than others, it's also true that setting, context and fellow human beings in the place can make a huge difference.

Trying to transfer your way to school excellence is like trying to transfer your way to a dry staff in a roofless building; it doesn't matter how many new, dry teachers you put in there, they will still end up wet until you fix the roof. States that have the strongest links between test scores and teacher evaluation and test scores make the task doubly hard because high-poverty, low-achieving schools are just hard places to work-- they're schools that can potentially be career-killers. The best players in the draft are not hoping to be snapped up by the worst team in the league.

Michael Fullan writes about how social capital, the health of the whole interconnected organization, is far more powerful than the ruggedly individual power of a hero teacher. It's the connections and relationships with a teaching staff that can create a whole greater (or less) than the sum of the parts, and it's the support and resources provided by community, state and federal government that either foster or stifle growth of that web of relationships.

It's not that I don't believe that some folks have more of a gift for teaching than others-- I do. But we could put twelve awesome teachers who can't work together in a building that lacks resources and support, working for terrible administrators in a crumbling facility, and we could end up with a terrible school. On the other hand, twelve middlin' educators who mesh perfectly as a team with lots of resources and administrators who know how to get those teachers to do their best-- that will be a great school.

This all explains the other huge flaw in this approach-- we can only shuffle Superteachers around if we can find them, and currently we have no idea how to do that. It's more than just the uselessness of VAM. Great teaching looks different in different places, so one measure does not fit all. And student outcomes are not the "proof." I have absolutely no doubt that there are teachers in high-poverty urban schools who are working way harder and way better than I am, here in my relatively comfy only-sort-of-poor district-- but my numbers are better.

If Runner A beats Runner B in the 100 yard dash, but Runner B started 75 yards behind, I have not proven that Runner A is faster.

So, to recap. We don't know how to find great teachers, we don't know how to move them, and we have unrealistic ideas about what moving them would actually accomplish.

The one bright I see in these plans is the mentoring. I've heard this theory more than once: A small percentage of new teachers will be great no matter what. A small percentage will be terrible (and leave) no matter what. All the rest could go either way, depending on what kind of support they get. Some new teachers' entire career is shaped by something as simple as who they eat lunch with or who shares their clerical work period.

We should have a far stronger system for mentoring new teachers and helping them become the best teachers they can be, and that system needs to be built on more than random luck. We should be focusing resources on the New Folks and helping them find their way, their strengths, and in doing so, to build up the system and relationships within a school. That would be far more useful than one more round of the Superteacher Shuffle.


  1. Though I was a great teacher, I was less skilled at picking a husband. In 2004, in the midst of a horrible divorce, I left a wonderful school where I had taught for 12 years because I was afraid my husband's vitriol and violence would affect my students and colleagues. I made a terrible decision because I felt terrified.

    It took me years to make my way back to teaching. By 2012, settled in a great school, my now ex-husband suddenly and drastically changed our custody arrangement, so I left another excellent school to maintain contact with our son. Again, a terrible decision because I was afraid I would lose touch with my son. (My ex has way more money than I and a ruthless criminal--seriously--for a lawyer, so court is an exercise in futility.)

    Three years later, with certification in three subjects, I have not found another full time teaching job. I'm too expensive and, I suspect, at 56, considered too old. That I'm within shooting distance of my master's, and schools continue to claim they want experienced teachers, means little.

    I was a proud and effective third generation teacher. Today, I am spending the last of my financial reserves while I watch my stack of rejection notices grow in stunned disbelief.

  2. Eeek. Make that: "...while in stunned disbelief I watch my stack of rejection notices grow."

    Once an English teacher...

  3. I remember my mentor teacher during my first year teaching at an NYC school. She had one year of experience teaching which, granted, was one more year than I had. She told me in November I'd made a big mistake not to start calling parents about poor student behavior back in September. She left the following year to go to Medical School; two of my other colleagues that year left after 2 or 3 years and are now in Law School and Business School.
    There were very few teachers in the school with more than three years experience due to the high turnover (a lot of TFA and a lot of burnout), so I can see that the administration didn't have a lot of options. The solution was group professional development coaching on a weekly basis, following whatever teaching theory was current at the central office that year, or week.

  4. Once you shuffle the super teachers they seem to lose their capes. My school had several of these drop in wonders, they fared no better than their predecessors. Context is important, so is stability. I have been at the same school for 18 years. I have a rapport with the parents and the community. I am able to work with kids and parents because I know them well and the parents trust me. As the musicians say, "you gotta pay your dues" especially in poorer communities.