A Bold Idea for Reforming Education

I excelled at school in the sense that I was in all the advanced classes, did shockingly well on standardized tests and was generally thought of as a bright kid. I underachieved in school in that my grades were mediocre to poor.

We talked a lot about education reform this week during our Slack Chat, a topic I’ve thought a lot about but do not consider myself to be any kind of expert in. I’ve thought a lot about it because I am wired that way – I think about things that don’t make sense, and the way we educate young people never really made sense to me. I've also thought about this a lot because I grew up in a family where the issue was discussed constantly (my parents were elementary school teachers).

I excelled at school in the sense that I was in all the advanced classes, did shockingly well on standardized tests and was generally thought of as a bright kid. I underachieved in school in that my grades were mediocre to poor, which only a couple of my teachers ever really understood. Until recently, I didn’t really understand it either. Now that I’ve watched my oldest daughter navigate six years of education – it is scary how similar we are – I understand a lot better.

In a scoring system where 4 is Exceeds Expectations and 1 is Needs Additional Work, here were her grades in math-related subjects last term:

  • Basic Addition and Subtraction: 2
  • Basic Multiplication and Addition: 2
  • Fractions: 3
  • Concepts of Geometry: 4
  • Concepts of Algebra: 4

Thankfully, what was diagnosed as laziness and lack of effort three decades ago is seen as simply a different style of learning today. I found myself at the University of Minnesota using my fingers to do single-digit addition during my sixth quarter of calculus on my way to getting an engineering degree. I eventually overcame that shortcoming, but only when it became interesting for me to do so. Until then, despite the frustration – and I was truly frustrated by it – I made no room in my brain for something far less captivating than other things I was faced with. For my daughter, I’ve tried – along with some great teachers – to make it interesting and she’s done a lot better than I did (of course).

I’m of the mindset that there are nearly as many learning styles as there are students.

So I’m of the mindset that there are nearly as many learning styles as there are students. I had teachers that were the school favorites who I didn’t learn a thing from. I had teachers that other people avoided who were saviors for me. We all learn differently; we all relate to different people at different times and in different ways. The idea that the three R’s, 25 desks and a blackboard make up a teacher’s classroom is an absurdity to me. There is so much more.

Yet each student in my daughters' district – a really amazingly successful school district – has the same teacher all day, every day, for the first five years of their education. After that, it is expanded to a handful for a few years. Later on, that number grows a little, but by then our learning trajectory is well established. Those first few years are critical. Are we getting them right?

The Phases of Teaching

Most teachers I know are amazing people. They work miracles in really tough environments. There is a career trajectory I’ve observed, however, that is remarkably consistent and, I believe, a byproduct of the one teacher / one classroom approach that we have to education. Here are the phases of that trajectory:

Phase 1, Brand New: Lots of apprehension and excitement over the future career and the ability to positively-impact student’s lives. Memories of what being the student was like are very fresh. Highly motivated.

Phase 2, Early Years: Learning the ropes. Still a lot of excitement for the job. Still learning to be a teacher, what techniques work best, how to get the best results.

Phase 3, Early Disillusionment: Routine is established, including lesson plans that have now been repeated many times. Professional fulfillment comes from special moments and one-off interactions and less from the overall experience, which is more routine. Administration, other staff and parents start to annoy more and are often seen as obstacles to running a good classroom.

Phase 4, Disillusionment and Decision: The annoyances start to grow, especially in places where outsiders (administration / parents) start to try and dictate how teaching should be done. The teacher grows more sympathetic to the standard grievances of not enough pay, not enough community respect, not enough parental support, etc… that dog the profession.

A decision needs to be made: (1) Do I leave teaching and choose a different profession (and give up all the accrued benefits a senior teacher has), (2) Do I pursue administration or some type of vertical move to try to change the things I see as the problem, (3) Do I stay in my job and become discontented (while having tenure protection) or (4) Do I mentally try and move past the annoyances and, under the circumstances, do what I can with what I have to be the best teacher I can be?

Phase 5, Hunkering Down: For those that choose (3) or (4), the hunkering down phase is either one of discontent where the hours tick by slowly and the days until retirement are tracked on a notepad, or one where there is still joy and satisfaction in the job but perhaps less idealism in what is possible to accomplish. Success stories of kids who have gone on to make something great of themselves offset the ones who crashed and burned. Upon retirement there is a staff party, perhaps some former students express gratitude, the room is packed up and then turned over to someone else.

Photo by  Angela Litvin

Photo by Angela Litvin

Let me say here that these phases are not unique to teachers. This kind of thing can be seen in nearly every profession. What is different in teaching, and why it is so pronounced, is that a teacher’s job – if they stay put – is essentially the same from their first year to their last. If someone starts teaching third grade at age 22, they can finish teaching third grade 40 years later at age 62 and, while experiencing many different students and lots of different challenges along the way, essentially do a very similar thing in the same classroom for decades.

No other salaried profession has that feature. In every other profession there is a career path that starts at entry level, proceeds through mid-level and ends in some type of senior position, with very different roles and responsibilities at each step. Not so for teaching.

This also creates the rather – from the outsider’s perspective – bizarre situation where you can have a new, highly motivated teacher in Phase 1 or Phase 2 working for half the salary of someone in the classroom directly adjacent, someone potentially in the full burnout/disillusionment. And when budget cuts come along, because of how the system is structured, two highly motivated teachers will be let go instead of the one that perhaps is a little too ready for retirement.

For those inside the system, this arrangement often makes sense, even if begrudgingly so. For those outside, it is a source of bewilderment and frustration. For the actual students, it's hard to argue that it is in their best interests, especially in those early years.

So here’s the challenge as I see it: How do we have an approach to education that matches kids with different learning styles with a variety of approaches and paths to learning? How do we do this in a way that respects teachers, allows them to stay fresh and excited in their work and handsomely rewards the very best? And how do we do this without the baseline of standardized tests, outdated 1950’s classroom arrangements and other vestiges of antiquated or reactionary thinking?

A New Idea

Here’s my humble proposal: Let’s say we have a school with 20 teachers. Let’s say they all make between $35,000 at the entry level and $65,000 at the senior level for an average annual salary of $50,000. That means our annual budget for teachers is $1 million. This school has twenty classrooms with a teacher in each. The student to teacher ratio is 20:1 so we have 400 students. That all seems typical.

Here’s how I would re-deploy this same arrangement. First, I would create a hierarchy of teachers based not on seniority but on job function. In other words, I would create a career path.

  • One teaching director making $100,000.
  • Two assistant directors (one in curriculum the other in team support) making $80,000.
  • Six senior teachers making $60,000 per year.
  • Twelve teachers making an average of $36,000 per year.

Teachers would work in a range of $32,000 to $40,000 per year; it’s an entry level position. They would be the frontline teachers working with students very intensely each day. They are not going to be bogged down with administration, reports and all the things teachers get today. We are going to ask these people to work directly with students in large classrooms and small groups, as well as one-on-one where needed. These are our frontline troops.

The best of this group will, when there is an opening, interview for and move up to a senior position. These are still mostly classroom positions working with students but they have some coordination responsibilities as well as some administration type of duties. These are the cadre of experienced professionals that get things done. They know what works and they make it happen.

Photo from  Lead Beyond

Photo from Lead Beyond

The assistant directors then pull from the ranks of these senior level teachers. While I still see these people doing some classroom work, a lot of their time is devoted to management. I envision one working on curriculum – what are we teaching and how do we make it better? – and the other working with the staff to pair and match students, teachers and parents with the learning approach that works best for each student. These are very dynamic people.

The teaching director, then, is the manager of the entire system. He or she does the hiring and the promotions, oversees staff evaluations, monitors academic progress and achievement, and is ultimately responsible for the success of the teaching team. I think the director would also have some senior teaching responsibilities, although most of that person's day would not be in a classroom. The director would be the best of the best, picked for his or her skills and, in some sense, the acclimation of their peers. I’ve met some of these people; it’s a tragedy that, in our current approach, they are not called on to share their gifts more broadly.

I have some ideas about how I would run classrooms in this kind of an arrangement – multi-age, lots of self-directed and peer-led learning, heavy on experiences and light on memorization – but I’m aware that kids work in different ways. In an ideal scenario, teams like this would have different styles and different approaches, giving parents the ability to somewhat choose between teams, matching their son or daughter with the approach that best suited them. That’s the kind of competition that I think would be really healthy; academic team versus academic team, a true no-child-left-behind kind of environment, with the best professional performers being head-hunted by teams with better-paying, more prestigious openings.

Customized learning. Flexible environments. Incentives for innovation. Rewards for performance. Career advancement with good salaries.

There’s one other feature here that is critical and that is the dead end. While we’ve all heard that most people change jobs, and even professions, multiple times, that’s not often true for teachers. The reason is clear: once you get tenure and move up the seniority scale, there are huge incentives to stay, even if you are among the discontented. Even if you really should leave.

The system I envision has a dead end. If someone is not a very good teacher, that is going to be discovered at some point. They won’t need to be fired or disciplined, things we theoretically can do today but really don’t. They just won’t advance. They will get stuck. They will, as the popular saying goes, rise to the level of their incompetence. This will be discouraging, sure, but it will also nudge people who might be better off doing something else to actually make a move that is better for everyone. It’s a natural selection kind of way to improve, motivate and refine a great corps of teachers. A small element of antifragility.

I’ve shared this plan with some teachers. Although a small percentage really like it – or kindly patronize me – most of them, admittedly, don’t. It’s the dead end feature that seems to get them. Either that or they resist the team dynamic and like the security/independence of having their own classroom, free of most outside influences. That’s feedback I respect, but I go back to where I started this post: even great teachers can’t reach all kids. All children learn differently and I think having more options – more flexibility to mix and match skills and learning styles – is a tremendous benefit to students. Plus, it will naturally weed out subpar teachers in a way that is non-arbitrary and respectful. Well, that and also highly compensate the very best, which is long overdue.

This entire post is way off topic for me and for Strong Towns, but I’m sharing it because our friends on Slack encouraged me to. In the spirit in which I intend it, please feel free to criticize and point out why this is an insane idea. I’m not going to defend it to the death – just some thoughts in my head I wanted to share. And feel free to offer your own modifications or approach. Just as engineers don’t have anywhere near exclusive knowledge on street design, educators and school administrators don’t have exclusive knowledge on schools and education. We need ideas.

(Top photo by Gracen Johnson)

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