By Mike Rose
Imagine that you are about to move to a community where every service is provided by people who have four years or less of experience doing their work, and in many cases, the only training they received was on the job—so their training is included in that four years. Your physician has a bachelors degree in biology—let’s even say a masters—and has been seeing patients for three years, learning by doing, in a clinic staffed by equally-experienced peers. Your lawyer read the law for a summer and is in her second year of practice. Your hair stylist has one year on the job, has a strong aesthetic sense, but is still mastering color work. The firehouse two blocks away is filled with rookies—dedicated, hard charging—and the chief…well, there is no chief, for no one stays in the service long enough to rise through the ranks. In times of existential crisis, you visit your minister, priest, rabbi, or imam who is able to answer from the depths of 18 months of service your paralyzing questions of faith and doubt.
This is a community straight out of a dark comedy or dystopian allegory. None of us would want to live any place remotely like it, for we, all of us, value experience, skill gained over the years, the intuition and wisdom that comes from treating a lot of patients, seeing the many unpredictable things fire can do, reflecting on the human condition over the years of a long ministry.
So it was shocking—even after all the recent trashing of teachers and their training—to read Motoko Rich’s story titled “At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice” in the August 26th edition of The New York Times. It wasn’t the central fact of the story that was surprising: that charter school networks tend to hire young folks who stay in teaching for a limited amount of time. The KIPP average, for example, is four years. For the most part, these people work hard and very much want to do a good job. They are high-achievers and dedicated, and some show real talent, but they don’t see teaching as a career. They will move on.
Rather than viewing this cadre as a valuable though small segment of a 3 million-plus teaching force, however, charter networks, along with Teach For America, according to Rich, are aiming to “redefine the arc of a teaching career.” That is, the charter players and TFA leadership, in a remarkable act of self-justification, are pushing their model as an exemplar, as the bold new thing for the teaching profession: which is to not make it a profession at all. Here’s a sampling from the article:
“We have this highly motivated, highly driven work force who are now wondering, ‘O.K., I’ve got this, what’s the next thing?’” said Jennifer Hines, senior vice president of people and programs at YES Prep.
“My take is yes, we do need and want some number of teachers to be ‘lifers,’ for lack of a better word,” said Doug McCurry, a co-chief executive of Achievement First, a nonprofit charter operator with 25 schools in Connecticut, Brooklyn and Providence, R.I., where teachers spend an average of 2.3 years in the classroom. But, he said, he would be happy if “the majority of teachers that walked in the door gave us five or seven really good teaching years and then went on to do something else.”
“Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers,” said Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America. “The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”
I want to dwell for a moment on the illogic in these statements.
Ms. Hines seems to identify “motivation” and “drive” as the keys to success in teaching, though motivation and drive, as important as they are, are only one element of successful performance in any domain, as the highly motivated but ham-handed dropout of a surgery residency or the technically diligent but soulless singer will tell you. And the prospect of someone announcing after a few years that they’ve “got” teaching should be the occasion for a long talk about humility rather than a public affirmation. I’ve known a whole lot of extraordinary teachers, and not a single one of them would say that they had their chops after two or three years on the job.
Mr. McCurry at least admits that there might be a place for older teachers in his schools, though he diminishes them by calling them “lifers,” for there is in his lexicon no better word—like, maybe, experienced, master teachers, or professionals. Notice, too the rhetorical slight of hand at the end when he wishes for a majority of his teachers to give him “five or seven really good teaching years,” as though that were possible, when, in fact, the teachers he does have bail out in one-third of that time. Five or seven years would be a career by his organization’s norms.
One of the primary goals of Teach For America is to assist struggling schools through their recruits, so the “strong schools” that Wendy Kopp refers to are not the typical schools TFA recruits inhabit. Strong schools would be schools with solid leadership and a core of experienced teachers. These schools would also be connected to their communities and, though probably challenged financially, would have developed networks with local businesses, small family philanthropies, and social services to enhance what limited resources they have. All this requires stability, history, roots—none of which happens with a staff of short-term personnel. As for developing young teachers, they desperately need mentors, old souls, wisdom. Indeed, KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin paid tribute to veteran teacher Harriet Ball who saved their bacon when they were first-year TFAers in Houston. You don’t have “great schools” without a critical mass of experience.
I am dismayed and puzzled by the stance toward experience that is developing in the school reform movement, and is represented in Rich’s article. To be sure, we need a steady flow of fresh faces and new talent into teaching. But, as my opening scenario suggests, the devaluing of experience defies everything we know about skilled performance. So why are certain high profile reformers going down this road? Perhaps to justify their own organizational practices. Or to join the assault on unions, for it’s hard to have a union movement with people who spend a short time in a career. Or it could be that they see their models as “disruptive innovation,” shaking up the status quo. (For a smart analysis of the ubiquity of the word “disruptive” see Judith Shulevitz’s, “Don’t You Dare Say ‘Disruptive’” in the August 15, 2013 New Republic..
Finally, it could be that this downplaying of experience is in line with a powerful strand in school reform, an attempt to operationalize competence or effectiveness through student test scores. I’ve written about this issue in a new book I co-edited, “Public Education Under Siege.” and I think what I wrote is pertinent here, so with your indulgence, I’ll quote it.
For the standardized test score to be locked in as the reigning measure of teacher effectiveness, other indicators of competence need to be discounted. One is seniority—which reformers believe, not without reason, overly constrains an administrator’s hiring decisions. Another is post-baccalaureate degrees and certifications in education, a field many reformers hold in contempt. Fortunately for the reformers, there are studies that do report low correlations between experience (defined as years in the profession) and student test scores. There are also studies that report similarly low correlations between student scores and post-baccalaureate degrees and certifications. These studies lead to an absolute claim heard frequently these days that neither experience nor schooling beyond the bachelor’s degree make any difference in teacher effectiveness—and that the test score remains our only legitimate measure of competence.
On the face of it, this is a remarkable assertion. Can you think of any other profession—from hair styling to fire fighting to neurosurgery—where we wouldn’t value experience and training? If reformers had a more comprehensive understanding of teaching, they would at least consider the possibility that something is amiss with the studies. The problem is that the studies for the most part deal in simple aggregates and define experience or training in crude ways. Experience is defined as years on the job, and it’s no surprise that years alone don’t mean much. But if you define experience in one of the ways Webster’s New World College Dictionary suggests—“activity that includes training, observation of practice, and personal participation and knowledge gained from this”—then you would most likely find a connection between experience and competence. What people do with their time on the job is crucial and becomes the foundation of expertise. As for the question about post-baccalaureate work, the same principle applies: What kind of training? Where? What was the curriculum? The quality of supervision? I’ll be the first to admit that a number of education programs leave a lot to be desired, but to discount experience and training in blanket fashion is not only wrong-headed but also undercuts attempts to create better working conditions for teachers, more robust professional development, and opportunities for career advancement—all things the reformers say they want.
There are all kinds of issues that have emerged in the education reform debates—from “value-added measures of teacher effectiveness to Common Core Standards to the role of private philanthropies in public policy — but this one about experience and the shape of a teaching career really got to me, powerfully and viscerally. To argue that teaching should be done by an ever-changing corps of energetic new recruits converts teaching into a kind of entrepreneurial and experimental enterprise suited more for Silicon Valley capitalism than the development of children.
Another analogue is that teaching becomes volunteer or rescue work—intense but short-term. And yet another comparison is missionary work, a comparison that understandably drives charter and TFA folk nuts, but this kind of talk about a few years of dedicated service in a community that is not your own reinforces the comparison. And hand-in-glove to devalue the importance of experience on, it seems, both the individual and organizational level is to fly in the face of what we know to be true about competence and the nurturing of it. You can bet that those making the argument for a “new career trajectory” don’t themselves receive their services from inexperienced physicians or lawyers, carpenters or mechanics…or teachers for their kids.
Given that the focus of so much school reform is rightly on poor kids in underserved schools, and some charter organizations and Teach For America are particularly concerned about making a difference with such children, this advocacy of brief teaching careers gets perilously close to moral quicksand. Poor communities need jobs, decent housing, and health care, and they need stable institutions staffed with people who are invested in them, have made connections in their communities, are trusted by them, and operate with the best accumulated wisdom to serve their needs. Therefore, it seems irresponsible to argue that a substantial number of teachers in these communities can come in straight from college or another career and rotate through their classrooms, giving them two, three, four years and leave. The leaders of high-profile charter organizations and especially of Teach For America have a huge megaphone, lots of influence and media connections. People listen to them.
Perhaps this is not what these leaders really believe, perhaps they’re just trying to stir the pot, be “disruptive.” But sometimes being disruptive is not transformative. It is reckless, done without deep thought to long-term consequences. And reckless is the last thing poor communities need.
Correction: Adding dropped word, “not” in third from last paragraph