Bill Gates, in his 2009 Annual Letter from the Gates Foundation (here), is candid about some failures in his education initiatives, specifically in regard to smaller high schools which didn’t improve student achievement “in any significant way.” The reasonable assumption was that smaller was better, that smaller groups of students would lead to a higher degree of curricular differentiation and achievement. What got in the way? According to Nicholas Kristof’s summary of the letter in yesterday’s New York Times,
Small schools succeeded when the principal was able to change teachers, curriculum and culture, but smaller size by itself proved disappointing. “In most cases,” he says, “we fell short.”
“Change teachers, curriculum, and culture”: that’s in a nutshell. We’re well on our way in New Jersey with changes in curriculum through the DOE’s High School Redesign project, though there have certainly are legitimate complaints about the “one size fits all” philosophy that informs this sort of rigid standardization. It’s the “change teachers and culture” piece that will stymie us. After all, tenure awards lifetime employment – an anachronistic perk – after three years of work. And, while excellent administrators set an appropriate tone and affect school culture, it’s the squadrons of teachers who own the “culture” of the school.
It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one. Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.
Any astute parent knows this to be true. So, how do we foster an environment that attracts great teachers? We can start by moving away from an industrial model that treats our best educators like cogs in an assembly line, awarding innovation, hard work, and increased student achievement, recognizing our best professionals in substantive ways in line with any effective management model. The flip side of this is giving our newly modern management the tools to cull out ineffective teachers, even if they’ve been employed more than three years.