If I had to name a silver bullet, this would be it

1

June 27, 2013 by juicefong

There’s no silver bullet in fixing our education crisis. Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp (and board chair of my employer) regularly touts this line. “It’s going to take a hundred one-percent solutions,” goes the mantra. (The philosophy major in me says, how did you magically land at 100? Why not 200 half-percent solutions? Or even the more rare but still magical 172 fifty-eight-hundredths-of-a-percent solutions? I know, it’s rhetoric. I digress.)

Education reformers push on a number of mostly policy-minded methods to change the status quo: teacher evaluation, Common Core, standardized testing, school choice, charter schools, technology, improving teacher preparation, turnaround, merit pay, ending LIFO, higher salaries, hot Cheetos, human capital pipeline development, Doug Lemov’s taxonomy of teaching, five irons, “no excuses” school culture, diversity, relinquishment, school closings, coconut water…the list goes on. These and many other solutions make up some of the hundred one-percent solutions.

I don’t disagree that any number of these can be helpful in changing education—I see many of these at play when I visit schools that make me hopeful for our future. But there is one overlooked solution that barely ever gets much attention: it’s silver, it’s shiny, it’s loaded with some kind of powder and can really do a bang-up job. It’s the role of teacher coaches, instructional leaders, directors of curriculum and instruction, undersecretaries of good teaching practice, whatever you want to call them.

No matter how you structure the governance, no how you evaluate your teachers, no matter what color the school uniforms—you need good classroom teaching and you need a culture where teachers with great potential are constantly pushed to be better and better. And right now, particularly in schools that serve poor families, there is an incredible dearth of great instructional leadership, the main driver for continued improvement in teaching practice at a school.

In schools I visit that are desperately trying to close the racial opportunity gap, you mostly see one of three things: 1) you have instructional leaders who just can’t cut it, they just don’t have the chops to do that job well; 2) you have a principal or other administrator who’s supposed to play that role but they don’t spend any time on it; 3) or you get someone who is excellent in that role and before you know it, they’re “promoted” out of that position—people are always gunning to pick fresh talent.

In the first case, it’s a matter of practice and experience. It takes a lot to understand how to walk into a classroom, quickly assess what’s going on, strategize how to move this teacher along, then effectively coach that teacher in a way that will actually help. Some people entering these roles simply do not have enough experience under their belts. Or they may know only one school, or one type of pedagogy, or one set of literature on teaching. To do this job well, you need exposure to a broad range of students, classrooms, teachers, schools. And you just need practice in the whole assessment/strategy/coaching cycle (I just made that cycle up, btw). Most people I’ve seen take on these roles are brand new to the gig, but they often don’t last long…and who’s coaching them, by the way?

In some schools I know, there is actually no one who’s doing the instructional job. The principal is sometimes supposed to take that on, but often she has been installed because she is good at creating a great school culture, or runs a smooth operation, has a great vision, or has great respect of her peers and the community…but often not because she has great skill in growing instructional practice of the teacher force. Principals or other administrators are prone to spending most of their time on what they’re good at.

When teacher coaching is excellent, teachers effectively and efficiently move from being a “C” to a “B” and eventually from a “B” to an “A.” (I’m talking abstract here, but you get me.) And that’s basically the job of a great instructional leader. He or she must create a culture of continual improvement among the whole school community, akin to how we hear Japanese lesson study being described. And by the way, this is what encourages teachers to stay—being challenged, growing, being afforded the time to work with peers to stretch their abilities and perfect their craft.

Thinking big picture again, for the moment: Think of all the reforms being touted right now (see my views on various ed topics). Charter schools, Common Core, merit pay, teacher evaluation, blended learning…No matter how you line up the policies, you’ll still need great people in the building who can help your teachers’ practice soar. In fact, do any number of those other reforms and fail to have a great instructional leader in place, and it won’t matter how brilliant your policies are. It still comes down to great teaching. Who’s taking care of that?

Great teaching is the hallmark of any great school, and the main continual driver of that is great instructional leadership. It’s what ensures we have better and better classroom teaching every day.

I know many people who mistakenly think, “If only we had favorable charter legislation. Then we could start getting some great schools around here!” Most of the best schools I know are charter schools, but that misses the point: it’s entirely possible to have great schools without any charter legislation. A main ingredient will be instructional leadership, and that’s possible and necessary in any environment.

Wait, we’re not doing anything about this? New Leaders for New Schools, bro! I respect that organization and know a lot of people who have done the program, but my impression of their graduates is that they’re more focused on bigger picture principal leadership that’s not necessarily focusing on instruction, per some of my comments above. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. Someone take me down.

Grad schools of education should in theory be doing this, too. I’m just not seeing the product if they are indeed doing it well. Someone introduce me to some great people.

One piece of the solution looks something like this: Establish an academy that’s going to produce an army of amazing undersecretaries of good teaching practice. We need people who are going to commit 5-10 years of staying in a purely instructional leadership role. If we want to use economic incentives to ensure they stay, fine. Just write me the check, Mr. IKEA guy. This academy will raise the next crop by giving them hands on experience, before they are thrust into a full-blown instructional leadership role. Then provide that support network and have formal opportunities to refine their own coaching craft. Heck, do it MOOC style. Probably a good way to get talent from all over. We’ll call it the Academy for Awesome Undersecretaries of Good Teaching Practice and Mining. AAUGTP&M. The mascot would be the Coniferous Cauliflowers, naturally.

All this to say: the biggest lever at a school is a someone coaching your teachers to greatness. You need other stuff, too, but this one is often ignored. Damn these posts are getting long, huh?

Justin Fong (@jgfong) heads the small but mighty internal communications team at Teach For America. He wrote this while flying from New York to Helsinki, a weird experience that involved a total of about 30 minutes of complete darkness before hitting the northerly sunrise again. Is that a word? Northerly?

One thought on “If I had to name a silver bullet, this would be it

  1. Ursa says:

    You familiar with Achievement Network up in MA? They focus a lot on what you are describing. Also, I really like the idea of 200 50% solutions, etc. I think there is something more than rhetoric in there… 1) it feels more inclusive – there’s space for more people with more ideas, and 2) it shifts from the silver bullet paradigm – we can stop getting hung up on “is this thing the very most perfect thing” and start thinking about all being parts of a much greater whole.

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