Giving up control of education

By Felix Salmon
June 30, 2012

For me, one of the more interesting tracks of the Aspen Ideas Festival is the series of conversations about education. Aspen is the natural habitat of America’s overconfident plutonomy: the kind of people who are convinced that since they have been successful themselves, they are therefore qualified — more qualified than education professionals, in fact — to diagnose problems and prescribe solutions. The ultimate example of this in recent weeks was the firing of Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia, by rich trustees who had no substantive beef with her at all. Instead, they just didn’t like her reluctance to sign on to various inchoate strategies, which sound great in a mass-market leadership book but which are unlikely to be particularly helpful in the context of a venerable educational institution.

These people have all read their Steve Brill, and have watched (or even funded) Waiting for Superman. They’re generally convinced that bad teachers are The Problem, and seem to think that that reforming the nation’s education system is a task somehow akin to akin to remaking General Electric. Measure everything, work out who’s good and who’s bad, and fire the underperformers: half of the problem is solved right there. Then, look at the great teachers, the inspirational ones, and the ed-tech innovators. If America’s remaining teachers just take a leaf out of their books, and start doing the things that work really well, that’s the other half of the problem addressed.

This year, however, the tone of the discussion was different — not least because the American Federation of Teachers appeared on the list of corporate underwriters, alongside the likes of Ernst & Young, Mercedes Benz, and Pepsico. (And Thomson Reuters, too.) The AFT is all too often considered to be some kind of reactionary force of darkness, interested only in ensuring that all teachers, no matter how bad, have jobs for life. But with the AFT literally setting the agenda at Aspen, that changed in constructive ways.

Education is horribly complex, but I think it’s still possible to put together a stylized model of the main forces at play. The dramatis personae would look something like this:

  • The kids. Everybody claims to be working for the sake of the children, and accuses everybody else of ignoring their needs. This is possible because, until now, the kids haven’t really had a voice of their own. But that might be changing. Even if they don’t have some kind of formal seat at the table in Aspen, the ed-tech revolution might well see them engaging with apps and websites and other students in their class and around the world, essentially voting with their attention spans and with the data they collectively generate. And while much of that activity will be imposed on them by parents and teachers, much of it will come from the kids themselves. The study of how children choose to interact and learn is going to become much more empirical and quantifiable, and the consequences for education can only be positive.
  • The parents. Can be stereotyped into two broad categories: call them active and passive. Active parents would be the educated middle classes, who helicopter their kids, second-guess their kids’ teachers, and take a very active role in their kids’ educations, often choosing where they live on the basis of how good the local schools are perceived to be. Passive parents would be much more prone to simply outsourcing the job of teaching their children to the school system, leaving it to do its job, either because they don’t feel that they know better, or because they’re simply too busy or overwhelmed to be able to engage with their children’s education in such an expensive and time-consuming manner.
  • The teachers. Everybody agrees that teachers have an enormous influence on educational outcomes, although just how enormous is very hard to quantify. They like job security (don’t we all), and generally work extremely hard putting together lesson plans together using resources provided not only by their own school or school district, but also ideas and tools they find online. It seems reasonable to assume that the more they believe in what and how they’re teaching, the more enthusiastic and successful they’ll be.
  • The teachers’ teachers. Education schools have one main role: to turn students into effective teachers. They also have a secondary role, of researching what works and what doesn’t in education. By all accounts, they’re not doing a particularly good job at either of these. The latter might (or might not) be improved with more funding for primary research; the former is harder still to improve. AFT chief Randi Weingarten’s latest big idea is to implement a kind of bar exam which all teachers would have to pass, whether they went to a formal teacher’s college or not — essentially moving the idea of test-based teaching up a notch from the classroom to the teacher academies.
  • The management. Everybody from the principal, to the school board, to the mayor, to the state education department, to the federal education department, to the president of the USA. Collectively, they control the very large amount of money All of these people have ideas about what works, things that they want to change, and political and managerial constraints on what they can realistically achieve. They also tend to want to consolidate power wherever on the chain they happen to sit.
  • The unions. Have a long history and a path-dependent future. No one would choose to have four-inch-thick contracts and the kind of adversarial relations with local politicians that we see in all too many American cities, including New York and Washington. But it’s entirely reasonable that teachers should have a union to represent their interests in the face of various managerial meddlers, most of whom in one way or another want to exert power downwards onto teachers. In many cities with Democratic party machines, the teachers’ unions can have substantial power.
  • The ed-tech crowd. The educational possibilities inherent in a networked world of students and teachers with tablets and broadband are enormous, and we’re only just beginning to glimpse what might be achievable. Ed-tech people come in both for-profit and non-profit flavors; both of them tend to be very excited and bullish about America’s educational future, certainly once schools get properly wired.
  • The reformers. Tend to be rich, well-intentioned, well-educated, and self-confident; they’re a bit like super-concentrated active parents, who are interested in the wellbeing of all kids, rather than just their own. They often love their own kids’ teachers, but are convinced that many other kids suffer greatly under bad teachers, and want to rectify that. They’re not shy about exerting their own substantial political influence, and in principle they’re happy to find common cause with the ed-tech crowd.

It seems to me that although there are always tensions between the management and the unions, the real fight here is between the teachers and the reformers. Both sides try to capture the management, with various degrees of success, and the result is all too often unhelpful fights and squabbles rather than constructive engagement and grown-up attempts to make sustainable and incremental progress.

One big axis of tension is between the long-term view of the teachers and the unions, on the one hand, and the shorter-term view of pretty much everybody else, on the other. Is it possible to radically transform an entire educational system during the tenure of a single elected official, or before your tween enters high school? Realistically, no, it isn’t. Good teachers and good principals stay in the same place for decades and tend to take a long view of things; politicians and parents and children and venture capitalists, on the other hand, don’t have that kind of luxury. As a result, they tend to want to do big, drastic things which could have immediate results, whether it’s nationwide testing, or vouchers, or charter schools, or a multi-billion-dollar wiring of classrooms, or a mass culling of underperforming teachers, or a large-scale move onto some trendy new online educational platform.

Such moves are always politically difficult, and that’s probably a good thing. There have been educational revolutionaries for as long as there has been education, and no system can work in a state of constant turmoil, with a succession of bright ideas replacing each other in a chaotic and endless process. Most of these ideas have been tested on a relatively small scale; almost none of them have shown lasting results at a large scale. Which, admittedly, is partly due to the fact that measuring results is incredibly difficult.

Which brings me to what I think is the greatest promise of the ed-tech crowd: the ability to collect large amounts of empirical data. This isn’t happening yet. But as technology inexorably enters America’s classrooms, a fabulously rich source of data should emerge, and will be a wonderful means by which to judge the competing claims of various different schools of educational thought. “Try everything,” said Eric Schmidt in his Aspen session, “and measure it”. Which seems like a great idea to me. It’s not easy: it will require, for one thing, the ed-tech crowd to come up with generally-agreed standards for anonymized educational data, and a universal agreement that all data should be made public — on an anonymized basis — rather than being kept secret on the grounds that it’s valuable proprietary information.

But there’s a really big problem here, and that’s the strong move on the part of reformers to fire underperforming teachers. The first thing you need to know if you want to fire the underperformers, of course, is who those underperformers are. And the best way to find that out is to use all that lovely new ed-tech data. As a result, teachers tend to be very suspicious of any attempt to collect data about them and their students: they fear that such moves are a means of collecting dubiously-reliable empirical evidence which will ultimately end up getting many of them fired.

In theory, teachers should be fine with sharing anonymized data; the only problems arise when that data is used in things like performance reviews. But in practice, once data starts being collected on an anonymized basis, it’s likely to be only a matter of time before principals or school boards or some other part of the management decides that the data is the obvious place to go when they want to start firing bad teachers. Even if the data wasn’t collected with that use in mind.

As a result, my feeling is that the ed-tech world should converge quite aggressively on a set of anonymized-data standards, and spend quite a lot of effort explaining to various management types that the data is great for comparing teaching methods, on an aggregated basis, or working out which technologies are getting the most enthusiastic uptake — but that it should not be used for comparing teachers, on an individual basis.

In which case, how should bad teachers be fired? I do have sympathy for reformers and parents who put that action at the top of their to-do lists, and I’m even willing to believe the assertion, which I heard a few times at Aspen, that a handful of bad teachers can end up significantly bringing down the performance of an entire school. At the same time, however, if you look at say Finland, or some similar educational system with very high outcomes, you’ll also find almost no teachers being fired. Or, to put it another way: if bad teachers can bring down the performance of a school, then good schools can bring up the performance of all their teachers. Look at the various super-principals who get occasional gushing media coverage: they can turn around schools, given time, and generally don’t need to fire many or even any teachers in order to do so.

Super-principals don’t scale, of course. But unless and until there is robust empirical evidence that the firing-bad-teachers approach significantly improves educational outcomes, my feeling is that it probably belongs in the “quick fix” bucket. And I’m suspicious, on principle, of all quick fixes: some of them work, but many don’t. And all too often the teachers who end up getting fired aren’t actually the worst teachers after all.

Zooming out a bit, I suspect that whether and how we fire teachers is not going to be the main determinant of future outcomes. And indeed I think that all of the efforts of the managers and the unions and the reformers are going to be much less important than any of them think. Instead, I’m most excited about the idea that all of them can get disintermediated, and that students and teachers and parents, from the bottom up, will start adopting new educational technologies which could end up having a profound effect on how America’s children learn.

A lot of ed-tech companies, quite naturally, are focused on selling their products to school boards, and on capturing some part of today’s substantial textbook budgets. I’m sure that some of them will find success that way. But I’m more interested in the technologies which bubble up from the students and the teachers and the parents, and which might then ultimately get ratified by the management, long after they have been broadly adopted in practice.

Places like Aspen tend to attract educational revolutionaries, many of whom give good speech. Some of them will end up inspiring teachers and students; others won’t. But I don’t think we should be trying to pick winners here. The only large-scale, top-down thing I’d be inclined to embrace would be wiring classrooms; everything else should be pushed down. School boards will empower principals, principals will empower teachers, and teachers will empower students. Instead of one-size-fits-all, we’ll have a vibrant, heterogeneous system customized not only to states and cities but even down to the level of the individual student. It will involve much of the current management giving up their power and control, but it’s probably inevitable, sooner or later. Let’s embrace it, and trust that the less we try to control the way we educate America’s kids, the better educated they’re going to end up being.

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