• Cal Wysocki

Searching for an Oasis in “The Mirage”

TNTP released a new report earlier this month titled The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development. (If you haven’t done so yet, read the full report!)

Like The Widget Effect and The Irreplaceables before it, The Mirage is bound to start a new conversation – and I, for one, couldn’t be happier about the change of topic.

The Mirage paints a pretty bleak picture of the state of teacher development in our country. (I think it’s safe to extrapolate its findings from the three large school districts and one mid-sized charter management organization it studied to the entire country, especially given the this-is-what-we’ve-been-saying-for-years response coming from most teachers, including Randi Weingarten speaking on behalf of the 1.6 million teachers she represents through the American Federation of Teachers.)

  • Districts are making huge financial investments in teacher professional development efforts - $18,000/teacher on average.

  • But just 3 in 10 teachers measurably improve in a given year. (2 even get worse.)

  • And teachers are plateauing somewhere between their fifth and tenth years in the classroom, statistically unlikely to improve any more for the rest of their career, but before they have reached proficiency in such practices as building critical thinking, engaging students in learning, and checking for understanding. (Watch out fifth year teachers – this is as good as it gets!)

  • Bleaker still, there is no discernable trend in types or amounts of professional development activities or mindsets related to professional development that characterizes improvers from non-improvers.

The notion that we know what works to improve teachers is nothing more than a mirage.

You might think that a new organization entering the teacher development world right about now would be a bit apprehensive about the prospects given all of these dismal facts. But as I read the report (which I got to do early because, full disclosure, I work part-time for TNTP on a teacher training project), my head nods got more exaggerated, annotated exclamation marks multiplied in the margins, and the smile on my face got ever wider.

The headlines of the report suggest impending doom, but many of the subtler details of the findings amount to an oasis of promise amidst the mirage.

Improvers were present in 95% of all schools.

It is not impossible for a teacher to develop and improve. In fact, some teachers, in nearly all contexts, are improving. Just not nearly enough of them.

The fact that an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, district-mandated (“Clock Hours,” if you will) approach to professional development only works for some teachers shouldn’t be surprising. It ignores individualized needs in favor of uniformity and “fairness.” But “fair” does not always mean “equal”; it means everyone getting what they need. (Right, special education teachers?)

The Mirage emphasizes this point repeatedly when referencing the fact that improving teachers are found everywhere, in all contexts, but not all teachers in the exact same context are improving:

“Meaningful improvement, it seems, defies routine; it is a highly individualized process that seems to vary from teacher to teacher. What works for one teacher may not work for another.” (pg. 18)

This has massive implications for Fulcrum’s work with schools and how we rethink teacher professional development at the school, district, state, and national levels.

  • Customized and personalized professional development is important. We cannot apply a cookie cutter to our teachers to expect them all to improve. We must take a more individualized approach, otherwise we continue to send the message that we view teachers as interchangeable widgets as opposed to talented professionals.

  • Teachers and instructional leaders (at all levels) need to deepen the trust that exists between them – and trust can’t be mandated through policy, only created through personal actions and interactions. If teachers are to have more flexibility in their PD choices, instructional leaders need to trust that they will maximize the new autonomy and relinquish some control. Similarly, teachers must trust that instructional leaders are guiding them to make the best decisions for their development in exchange for clearer accountability for improvement.

Growth happens a lot, and quickly, in the first 2-3 years of teaching.

We’re good at bringing new teachers up to speed, relatively quickly. (Yes, I know… New teachers need to be immediately effective right away otherwise we’re failing kids… Or so the rhetoric of the teacher training reformers goes. I don’t disagree that the incoming skill level of new teachers could and should be higher, but we cannot continue to send the message to teachers that they are just expected to enter the profession and immediately teach like a champion…or that they even can. What message does that send about growth and improvement over time? What sort of person wants to enter a career where they’ve reached the pinnacle a year or two in? I digress…)

The fact that essentially all of the improvement teachers make happen in the first 2-3 year raises a big question for me that The Mirage fails to address though: How does the quality and content of the professional development contribute to the early plateau?

One of my biggest complaints about The Mirage is that it generally lumps all professional development activities together inside of categorical buckets; the good, the bad, and the ugly are all there without any analysis of the quality inside of these buckets. It’s not that coaching is a bad professional development activity; bad coaching is a bad professional development activity. Outstanding one-time professional development sessions tailored to new teachers are really bad professional development opportunities for veteran teachers.

This is the Clock Hours paradigm rearing its ugly head once again where all professional development is treated as equal without regard for its quality.

Think about the beginning-of-year PD experience from a 10-year veteran’s perspective:

  • I sit through the same special education overview session where I learn the definition, yet again, of RTI, see the same pyramid describing the Multi-Tiered System of Support, and classify the same scenarios as either accommodations or modifications. (Number three is still a modification…and yes, it’s legal…as long as it’s written in the IEP…which the scenario clearly spells out that it is.)

  • I submit my long-term plan or curriculum map to the assistant principal who reviews it with the same feedback form as last year (all the parts are there) and asks one or two “thought-provoking” questions (yes, I’ve built in reteach time following each interim assessment, have even spiraled high-priority concepts and standards).

  • I attend a day-long PD on the new socio-emotional learning initiative that seems a lot like the old initiative just with different cutesy names for things, which we’re implementing because we almost got into some huge legal trouble last year with a kid’s parents. Oh, and they treated us like school children the whole time – making us fill out a graphic organizer, doing cheers whenever someone gave a good answer, and generally talking to us like we were fifteen, so I was annoyed and hate the initiative just on principle.

Look at the same experience from a brand new teacher’s perspective:

  • That special education session was so confusing. I really want to differentiate for my students – that needs to be my biggest priority this year – but I can’t keep everything straight. It’s like alphabet soup with all of the acronyms and I still don’t understand what I actually need to do.

  • I got such great feedback on my long-term plan! My assistant principal asks such smart questions! I can’t wait to go home and revise this!

  • The day-long session was so much fun and so informative! I really realized that we need to see our students as whole people and support them in ways beyond just academics. I’m so glad they modeled so many great teaching practices too. I’m stealing some of those cheers to use with my kids!

Quality and content of professional development clearly matter, not just types and amounts. This again reinforces the individualized nature of teacher development. Different teachers need different things, but all teachers need high-quality professional development, not just clock hours.

It also speaks to the relatively low bar we have set for our teachers – and to be honest, perhaps out of necessity (at least given the heavily mandated, one-size-fits-all approach). High turnover and an influx of new teachers every year leaves administrators pandering to the lowest common denominator, struggling to get everyone up to at least a basic level at the expense of further developing teachers who are “good enough.”

What does this all mean for Fulcrum and how we rethink teacher professional development?

  • Quality, quality, quality, quality. We need to actively reject the notion of Clock Hours as the measure of successful professional development and drill down into each of those categorical buckets and figure out how to separate the good from the bad and the ugly. Maybe it’s not time or activity, but quality and content that matters most.

  • Envision a better teacher and build systems of teacher development around that vision. No one should manage their teachers towards basic expectations. We need to set a vision that even our best, 30-year veterans still must work to attain and that lights a career-long fire in our first year teachers.

  • Teacher development is for all teachers, not just for early career teachers. Once we start thinking past basic expectations, we inevitably need to provide more advanced development opportunities tailored to more advanced needs. (And for God’s sake, please don’t make veterans sit through that same special education session again…)

Self-awareness plays a role.

While it did only show a small, but statistically significant relationship, self-awareness (and trust, for that matter) may be an important mindset ingredient. Teachers who displayed the following mindsets were slightly more likely to found in the improvers group:

  • Alignment between their perception of their effectiveness and their formal evaluations

  • Openness to feedback

  • Positive perception of school’s efforts to help them improve (and their evaluator’s efficacy)

There is a trust factor and willingness to engage in development efforts that is important, but self-awareness is where it must begin.

Some of the data in The Mirage around these mindsets was flat-out shocking: 83% of teachers rated their own instruction in the top two proficiency categories (with 30% self-rating in the very top category); more than half (53%) didn’t even agree with the notion that they have weaknesses in their instruction.

If you already think you’re as good as it gets, you cannot improve further.

We cannot entirely blame teachers for lacking humility in their instructional prowess though; teachers are the products of a system that has made them believe this.

Self-awareness is a two-way street and the school must create a culture where vision and transparency meet reflection and support. Administrators and teachers must be partners in this effort and it cannot remain a blame game or looking back over your shoulder suspecting an oncoming “gotcha” moment where administrators are just waiting for teachers to fail to hold up their end of the bargain. (See Clock Hours paradigm again…)

This two-way street can begin when coaching (or any other form of support) and evaluation are not separate entities but work collectively in service of a larger vision for teacher development and excellent instruction.

What does this mean for Fulcrum and how we rethink teacher development?

  • We need to raise the bar on what we’re managing teachers towards – a true vision for excellent instruction. If threats of firing teachers who don’t meet basic expectations continues to dominate the conversation, we’ll continue to manage teachers towards those bare minimums and overinflate the self-perceptions of those who have met the bar in the process. We cannot continue to have a critical mass of teachers believing they’re as good as it gets when this is not the reality.

  • Clear, consistent, high-quality feedback and dialogue is paramount. Until teachers know the vision and where they are relative to the vision, they’ll continue telling themselves their own story written inside their own four walls. (It’s an awfully isolating place where reality easily gets distorted…)

  • Trust, trust, trust, trust. Again, trust can’t be mandated through policy, only created through personal actions and interactions. Are we holding instructional leaders to certain standards in establishing and maintaining trust, transparency, and honesty the same way we want to hold teachers to elevated expectations for continual improvement?

A prevailing school culture that prioritizes teacher development separated the charter management organization studied.

The portion of The Mirage dedicated to explaining the analysis of the charter management organization (CMO) was the most obvious glimmer of hope in the middle of what was largely a Debbie-Downer of a report. “In fact, about seven out of 10 teachers in the CMO showed substantial growth in their practice, as opposed to about three out of 10 in the districts we studied.” (pg. 30)

I hope that these findings do not get misconstrued as “charter-only” solutions or aggressively “pro-charter” in nature, but I fear that they might because of how they were presented as separate from the three traditional school districts. (The arguments about sample size and higher turnover in the CMO, resulting in a younger teaching population that is already more prone to grow, are valid methodological concerns, which also call into question the sustainability of such efforts.)

Regardless, there is much to be learned from the CMO that is not uniquely charter (even though it didn’t surface the sought-after silver bullet):

“In terms of their development experiences and their mindsets, CMO teachers who grow look a lot like CMO teachers who don’t grow. […] Nonetheless, we did find some differences on an institutional level in comparison to the districts we studied; specifically, a more disciplined and coherent system for organizing themselves around teacher development, and a network-wide culture of high expectations and continuous growth.” (pg. 30)

Their differences are systemic and cultural; they operate within a different paradigm about teacher development and that leads them to take the same actions, viewed through a different lens, to produce different results.

Their paradigm places teacher development front and center and influences perceptions and priorities. Teacher development is more localized and personalized, delineating clear roles for “who does what (and why) when it comes to teacher development.” (pg. 31) Compare this to the smorgasbord of support that characterizes the traditional school districts. This cultural focus also shifted the role of the principal towards organizational management and allowed more specialized players to carry out the responsibility of instructional development.

Culture influences actions and structures. In this CMO, it also is influencing mindsets and results. 81% of the CMO teachers agree they have weaknesses, and only 4% self-rated in the highest proficiency category. If self-awareness plays a role, this CMO’s culture reinforce that.

What is unknown about this CMO is the role that quality and content play here too. Since the report stopped its questioning at types, amounts, and mindsets around professional development, we are left wondering about the CMO’s commitment to ensuring quality and not just compliance (but I have a sneaking suspicion about what we’d find). But as the report says:

“Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that there is promise in the CMO’s strategy of creating a culture and an organizational structure centered on teacher development and its impact on student learning…and providing teachers with targeted, regular feedback from trusted leaders.” (pg. 33)

There are many implications for Fulcrum’s work and how we rethink teacher development to be found here, many echoing what was implied earlier:

  • A culture focused on teacher development is necessary to develop teachers. Culture is pervasive and lives in actions more than in words. We need to build clear, coherent systems of teacher development that promote the culture of improvement we want to see and then execute with intention.

  • Consistent, dedicated, and high-quality staff members who specialize in improving teachers are needed. This builds trust in the system, coherence in development efforts across years, personalization for each teacher, and a host of other residual benefits. Principals must recognize this, delegate the responsibility, and insulate these staff members from being pulled towards other priorities (which would send the message that teacher development is not actually a priority).

Reaching the Oasis

The Mirage cast some much needed light on what has was all too apparent for most teachers operating in the system – our schools aren’t set up for their development. But the report also hinted at many of the pain points that need to be addressed and glimmers of hope that provide a small glimpse of what the oasis in the middle of the desert may look like.

It’s going to take the concerted effort of teachers and administrators alike to discuss how this changes at scale.

Until then, principals should be asking themselves – How can I set up my school so that teacher development isn’t just a mirage?

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