Monday, September 29, 2008

Education Problem Solving 101: Define the actual problem

I am often amazed out the lack of problem solving in America’s schools. We jump to a solution without ever truly analyzing the problem. Two examples:

Problem 1: not enough kids take the SAT in Philadelphia schools. The solution: pay for SAT prep courses for all high school juniors and pay for them to take the SAT. The result: since the students were so woefully behind in their learning, they could not take advantage of the preparation. It was very sad to see these students finish all they could do on the SAT in about 10 minutes and sit there the rest of the time. Real problem: they were not prepared for high school and need remediation so that they have a chance on the SAT then they you can pay for them to take it.

Problem 2: not enough kids take algebra in middle school. The Solution: force kids to take algebra. The result: since the students were so far behind in math, the “algebra class” became remedial math class and scores stay flat. If you can’t multiply and divide (because you were busy feeling good about math and not actually learning your math tables), you will not succeed.

Now there is a study from Brookings that proves how misguided this approach is. His conclusion – we need to improve math instruction, accountability and testing at the elementary level if students are going to succeed in middle and high school math.

Take it a step further - - you have to improve the math knowledge of our elementary teachers if we are going to improve math instruction – or move to a specialist model. If you teacher is uncomfortable with math, then their students are going to be uncomfortable with math. In our field studies of ABCTE exams, we become acutely aware of the lack of math skills in elementary teachers.

In real problem solving the first step is to define the problem. Until we fix our elementary schools, it will not matter what solutions you implement in middle and high school.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Importing Teachers

Let’s review what is going on right now in America –

We have an economic crisis because no one seems to understand complex finance and Wall Street got greedy. Last night on CNBC, one of the Wall Streeters actually said to the camera – “we wouldn’t be in this mess if you didn’t take out a mortgage you could never pay back”. Wow – he actually said that part of our economic mess is that Americans are too stupid. Sadly he is on target. We cannot be a financial super power if people earning $50,000 a year take out a mortgages on a $500,000 home. It is no wonder we can only place 24th on the international math exams.

A big part of the problem is that we do not have enough math teachers.

The solution for many states – during tough economic times when an additional 32,000 people hit the unemployment lines this week alone – is to import math teachers from other countries. We brought in over 15,000 teachers from other countries last year because we don’t have enough people to fill our classrooms.

So we are weak in math and science AND we don’t have enough math and science teachers but rather than improve certification rules to let experts in our own country to inspire the next Bill Gates, we bring them in from overseas.


We are going through the H1B visas for teachers and ABCTE is going to hit hard on every state that is importing teachers. It is just sad that we have people who want to teach but these states think it is somehow easier or better to import a teacher for a few years.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Millions of Career Changers waiting to Teach

It is hard to tell if you are on the right track in education some times. But a recent survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation seems to show we are in the right place at the right time to have a positive impact on students.

Their survey shows the following (which is very similar to a survey we conducted in Florida a few years ago). Bottom line is that there are plenty of professionals out there who want to teach. They just need some extra dollars and need help figuring out how to get there.

From the survey:
  • 36 million people age 35-56 in the US have a Bachelor’s degree
  • 42% of adults said they have/would consider teaching as a career
  • 35% of these people would consider making the switch in the next 3-5 years
  • And only 27% of that group know the steps to get certified and becoming a teacher

Not surprising based on our numbers. ABCTE continues to attract thousands of people each year into our program. The number one recruitment strategy that has been successful for us is making the process to get into teaching efficient and easily understood. You would be surprised at how hard it is to figure out how to get into teaching by a state department of education website.

Message to states and districts: stop going overseas to recruit and look right here at home for the teachers you need. They are right in your own back yard.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A good bottle of whine left unopened

I went to the State Policy Network program in Arizona this week and, as a new guest, had picked out a delightful and amusing bottle of “whine” to bring with me. I get pretty frustrated with education reformers at these conferences who say we are going to talk education reform – and the spend two days talking vouchers and tax credits.

But I did not get to use the bottle of whine that I brought. Because the conference opened up with various leaders talking about tackling true education reform and not being “one trick ponies”!! And now a debate on Gadfly echoing this sentiment.

Reform means reform. And the data continues to demonstrate that implementing just one reform will not improve schools. It will take serious fundamental changes in our education system to bring our performance back to the levels that our world economy demands.

So, for now, I can put the bottle of whine back in storage and let it age a little more - - I may still need it some day and a good whine always gets better with age.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Fixing Teacher Quality

Teaching quality continues to move forward in the news. Mike Petrilli has an excellent write up in the Gadfly from last week and now a new article in the Washington Post about what the newly canonized Michelle Rhee plans to do. But they are all trying to run before we learn to walk.
Management texts will tell you that you need to focus on improving staff. In teaching, the staggering numbers always tell the tale.

There are 3.2 million teachers. Jack Welch, the brilliant CEO of GE, made his managers rank all staff so that they knew the top 20%, middle 70% and the bottom 10%. The top 20% were fast tracked into leadership positions and the bottom 10% got fired.

We would have to fire 320,000 teachers per year. That would double the number of teachers we need to hire each year and since we can’t find enough to fill our positions now, we will never have enough if we start to really push an aggressive approach towards eliminating mediocre teaching.

The other problem with rating teachers is that our principals have not demonstrated that they are really all that great at rating teachers. Here I am siding with the teacher’s unions again - but we would really need some serious evaluation training for principals before we can start this type of approach.

To solve teacher quality we need to do the following:

  1. Fix recruitment – have enough candidates for each position so that the principal can hire the right teacher for his/her students – we need more routes to the classroom to increase the numbers
  2. Be Selective - less than 40% of our ABCTE candidates make it through the program and we are starting to see great results from our teachers
  3. Train principals in hiring – ensure they know how to match the teacher to the students
    Develop great performance evaluations for teachers – outcomes and observations based and ensure the evaluation is more than once a year
  4. Train principals on evaluations – ensure they know how to develop teachers
  5. Develop truly great professional development for teachers – develop efficacy measure for the professional development to ensure it meets minimum standards
  6. Train principals on how to assign prescriptive professional development from performance evaluations

Once that is in place, then you can start to move teachers who do not succeed with students out of the classroom. But we have a lot of work to do learning to walk before we can start running.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Jay is a little off

Jay Matthews has an article about schools in miserable condition and makes the bold statement that it is the teachers and not the schools that need to be fixed first. He argues that once we have great talent generating great results, then we should fix up the schools.

He uses the KIPP schools, Thomas Jefferson Math/Science school in VA and other great schools in lousy buildings as proof of the argument that you don’t need a great building to have incredible learning gains.

The problem with that logic is that we don’t have tons of great teachers and we cannot attract teachers without better facilities. It is one of the many pet peeves I have with the unions – why is there not more outrage for working conditions in this country. In my eyes a union is supposed to get better pay and working conditions and the teacher’s union has not been all that great at the latter.

The teachers that have made a difference in the small number of great schools in crappy buildings would do well in any setting. They are passionate about their craft and continue to work hard ignoring the structural problems that surround them.

But can we seriously expect to find 3.5 million people like that? I doubt we can. We need to be more selective in picking our teachers and in order to do that we have to attract many more of them into the profession and in order to do that – we cannot ask them to work in buildings that are falling down.

I think Jay is a little off on this one.