What, Actually, Does it Take?

Teaching is full of slogans. Even the new law governing education has a title, Every Child Succeeds, that is every bit as much of a slogan as the title of the law it replaces, No Child Left Behind. I agree, of course, with the idea behind both the old law and the new one that every child should leave school “college and career ready.” Except, wait a minute, that’s another slogan.

Still, I don’t agree with all the slogans. While it’s hard to oppose, say, not leaving children behind, I’ll be bold enough to admit that some education world slogans rub me the wrong way. For instance, as a teacher an idea one often hears at meetings and conferences is that we should do “whatever it takes.” But what does that really mean? What if it took dressing up like a fox and belting out the silly pop song “What Does the Fox Say” with an ensemble of other teachers at the school talent show? I can say I would definitely do that – in fact I’ve done it already and loved it. How about if it took becoming a professional wrestler, like formerly lame high school teacher Kevin James does in the 2012 movie Here Comes the Boom? Well, maybe. Even though I’m sure I’d get my glutes kicked I could adopt a cool, math teacher stage name. It’s the Undertaker vs. Quadratic Man! Then again, maybe not.

But my real problem with the “whatever it takes” slogan, aside from feeling threatened by the suggestion that I ought to give up everything for the cause, is the policy question the slogan is set up to evade. What, actually, does it take? As just one education policy issue, we know that disproportionate numbers of the most senior, best paid, probably most effective teachers choose to work in comfortable schools, or comfortable honors classrooms, where they are not teaching large numbers of children in poverty. I’ve always found this an especially interesting policy issue because, unlike in so many other areas where teachers get blamed and shamed for problems largely outside of our control, this is an issue where the roots of the problem lay squarely within the culture of teaching as a profession.

Recently a federal program called the Talent Transfer Initiative took some tangible steps to address the issue of where the top teachers actually teach. The program paid high performing third through eighth-grade teachers in ten large districts $10,000 per year over two years if they were willing to either move to or stay in schools with lots of poor kids. Especially strong teachers were identified on a “value added” scale, based in part on whether students in their classrooms saw consistent test score improvements over time. Transfers were voluntary, as were hiring decisions by principals, although only principals in a “program group” of low-performing schools were allowed to hire from the newly created lists of superstar teachers.  Principals in the “control group” hired through the normal process.

In the end, only a small percentage of higher value added teachers were willing to transfer. Just think, would $10,000 be enough to get you, dear reader, to abandon a challenging but satisfying and mostly manageable job for a potentially really, really unmanageable one? Still, enough teachers took the bait to fill almost nine in ten of the jobs open at the schools in the program group. Furthermore, while there seemed to be no measurable effects from the initiative at the middle school level, research through Matematica showed that elementary school test scores ended up ten to twenty-five percent of a standard deviation higher in the program group than in the control group schools.

Not amazing results, one might say, but then again, despite the slogans about all children succeeding, education is an area of public policy where it is notoriously difficult to generate measurable improvements at levels beyond the individual classroom or school. Even lionized Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg failed to do much beyond stir up a hornets nest of local resentment with his recent $100 million attempt to turn around a whole district, in Newark, NJ.  (See, for example, this excellent article by Class Size Matters co-founder Leonie Haimson republished in the Washington Post dealing with the generally unsuccessful, perhaps cynical, attempts by Zuckerberg and others in the tech industry to transform public schools.) By contrast, the Talent Transfer Initiative managed to successfully generate measurable improvements across several districts, without generating major opposition from unions or parents.

What, beyond a $10,000 pay bump, would it really take to generate more of these kinds of results? The success of the Every Child Succeeds law itself depends on whether leaders can focus in a consistent way across states on just this kind of question, and stay away from the sloganeering that seems to drive so much of education policy.