This is a guest post from Gordon MacIntyre, who is the Junior School Director at my school which is located in Vancouver, British Columbia. This was posted originally in our monthly magazine to parents, the Imprint.
I make it a habit to avoid watching Oprah, but on this particular day in September I was intrigued; Winfrey had Bill Gates on as a guest, and the topic was education. Joining Gates was filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, who was promoting his much-anticipated film Waiting for “Superman,” in which he details the apparently sorry state of American education.
As the program progressed, however, I became troubled by the tenor of the discussion. The focus was on removing the most ineffective teachers from the system. This seemed to be the panacea to cure US educational ills and restore the system to good health. If only those teachers who did a poor job with kids, the lowest performing educators, could be cut, then the system would be immeasurably improved.
Removing bad teachers and replacing them with better ones would indeed improve the US educational system, just as removing the incompetent from any profession invariably improves it. But to promote this as the primary means of effecting positive change in such a complex system was naïve, simplistic, and perhaps even simpleminded.
Say, for instance, that the bottom 5-10 percent of the US teaching force was terminated, how would states and districts ensure they replaced them with superior teachers? Wouldn’t they need to at least raise the professional standards for certification so as to produce more highly-trained replacements? In some states, minimal post-secondary education and teacher training is required before one can legally teach in schools. This is partly why the international reputation of American teachers is poor, and why Canadian teachers, in contrast, are highly regarded. The competitive entrance standards and high quality of Canadian teacher education programs ensure that Canadian teachers are among the best in the world.
Even if US policy makers raised standards for professional certification across all states, how would they attract quality people to the profession? Again, in some states and districts, teachers are paid well below a professional standard. To be sure, teachers become teachers for reasons of purpose rather than wealth, but in the absence of decent baseline pay, some of the best potential teachers filter into other professions where they can still make a difference in the lives of others.
Assume, then, for a moment that the US could employ higher standards for teachers while offering competitive compensation: how would excellent teachers excel? How would they be given the autonomy to employ best practices when they have been constrained by federal policies, such as No Child Left Behind? In many districts across the US, teachers must adhere to daily pacing guides and prepare students for regularly administered state accountability tests. If the students show poorly, then the school’s funding could be cut and teachers could lose their jobs. Little wonder what happens to the quality and creativity of teaching and learning in this punitive, high-stakes environment – let alone teacher engagement and turnover.
This reliance on carrot-and-sticks in the US to produce a higher level of teacher performance has a huge downside. Just read chapter one of the best-selling book Freakonomics. Authors Steven Leavitt and Stephen Bubner document teacher cheating on the standardized tests of the Chicago Public School System. A significant number of teachers actually changed students’ answers to improve scores. They did this in order to achieve a positive performance review and ensure their job security.
Or Read Daniel Pink’s latest book Drive. Pink cites the extensive body of social science research that exposes the negative impacts and long-term damaging effects of using rewards and punishments to try to improve performance. The implications for how organizations and systems operate are fundamental. If you want to bring out the best in people, give them a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose, and stay away from ‘if-then’ rewards.
Or, even better yet, talk to American teachers about their day-to-day reality. Talk to them about the constant spectre of accountability measures. I still shudder when I recount the experience of one of our own teachers inspecting a candidate IB school in the eastern US. In one classroom, the host teacher pointed to three different walls. One wall was her ‘IB wall’, another was her ‘state standards wall’, and the third was her ‘character education wall’. Each wall represented a distinct top-down, externally imposed improvement mandate. The poor teacher almost needed an octagon for a classroom given the number of disparate school improvement initiatives for which she was accountable. And each was backed with ‘if-then’ consequences and rewards.
In Canada, and at Stratford Hall in particular, we are fortunate to be free of the conditions plaguing many schools and districts in the US. Our teachers are highly-trained and teaching is still a valued profession in our society. Our teachers can operate out of a sense of intrinsic purpose as opposed to economic survival. Moreover, they have a high degree of autonomy and the inquiry approach of the IB to stimulate creativity, thinking, and learning. They are free to be at their best and, in turn, bring out the best in our students.
Waiting for “Superman” is a satirical title; reformers aren’t really waiting for a superhero to rescue the American educational system. That’s good because even if he existed, he couldn’t fix things – at least not any time soon, not until the kryptonite composed of low policy, low practice, and low professionalism is removed. If parents, educators and policy makers in the US are truly serious about improving their educational system, it’s going to take change across all dimensions. The system is complex and the underlying faults numerous and systemic. It’s going to take much more than firing a few low-performing teachers.