The Most Compelling Challenge

What struck me most was the first question he asked when the crowd and the press were gone and it was just he and I, standing in my 9th grade hallway that was now serving as a secret service holding room: “The question is how do we get this to scale? How do we get the teachers and principals to get this to scale?  We know we can find a scattering of dynamic principals and dynamic teachers in each city but how do we get a critical mass to change the entire country?”  What was astonishing was just how quickly and how completely Senator Obama grasped the most compelling challenge in American public education today.

It was May 30, 2008, and Senator Obama had come to our school, MESA (Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts) to visit the school and give the first education speech of the general election at a town hall in our auditorium. One of the reasons for his visit was because we are a public school conversion and an example of district wide public school reform. Mapleton Public Schools had closed a comprehensive high school and opened 6 small high schools in its place.

May also marked the graduation of MESA’s first senior class and we had fulfilled a historic promise to have 100 percent of our seniors admitted to a 4 year college. In a community with high poverty rates, low high school completion and even lower college admission this was a significant accomplishment. Senator Obama had come in part to celebrate that achievement, which meant he could have been focused on any number of other issues: what is your counseling program like? How do you get parents involved? How do you integrate art into the curriculum?

These are all important issues, but none get to the heart of what it takes to enact systemic and lasting reform like the fundamental question of human capital. We have been honored to have hundreds of visitors at MESA over the years: elected officials, policy makers, foundation heads, superintendents, teachers and principals, and most of them focus their questions on other details- how big is your budget?  What is your discipline plan? How do you make kids do homework? What is the dress code?  What curriculum or assessment system do you use?  These are all valid and important questions and I frequently ask the same questions when I am visiting other schools-but the essential question for people who are interested in getting reform to scale is figuring out how we find the right people and how we find enough of them. It is the most important question because it recognizes that the most important ingredient in any school’s success is not the discipline plan or the homework policy but the people.

This is the most urgent education challenge facing the country, and the most important question for candidates is how they plan to recruit, retain and reward the next generation of outstanding educators. Without a comprehensive plan to do that, any presidential education plan is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by Senator Obama’s insightful question, because this focus on systemic development of human capital is at the heart of his platform. The central importance of this issue is reflected in his comprehensive plan to recruit, reward and support teachers: recruiting teachers to the places that we need them most by providing incentives for teachers to take hard to fill positions or work in hard to staff schools; rewarding teachers by allowing them to take on increased responsiblity for increased pay (like mentoring younger teachers), and rewarding teachers that are getting transformative student achievement results; and finally supporting teachers by providing funding for more time for teachers to look at student data and modify their instructional practices as well as more common planning time. These platform planks are responsive to the real challenges teachers and school leaders face, and it was refreshing to visit with a candidate whose own personal principles match and inform his platform.

Guestblogger Mike Johnston

11 Replies to “The Most Compelling Challenge”

  1. The first questions were exactly right, “The question is how do we get this to scale? How do we get the teachers and principals to get this to scale? We know we can find a scattering of dynamic principals and dynamic teachers in each city but how do we get a critical mass to change the entire country?”

    Your answers are completely wrong. There is no way to recruit enough “change agents” to improve each and every school. That is not how systems are changed.

    Quality educational systems *enable* ordinary principals and teachers to do *extraordinary* feats.

    Merit pay and/or new teacher recruitment will do nothing to improve classroom instruction. And it is what students learn (or don’t learn) in a classroom from a teacher that matters most.

    Improving classroom instruction takes a good deal more: better curricula, assessments that are tied to classroom instruction and time/support/communication on how to teach well.

    Our school system has no way to improve. Our schools have no way of defining problems and setting goals, assembling the support network needed to improve instruction, or determining if those goals were met. Without a system designed to improve student learning, staus quo will continue.

    Good questions. Wrong answers.

  2. When NCLB was first passed, our district was committed to a bipartisan tax increase and reform effort based on collaboration. I frequently tested the waters, saying that there was nothing in NCLB that prohibited us from following our consciences as we invested the new money. As I recall, my suggestion was always met with laughter.

    I later suggested to a veteran administrator that it was the educators, not the business and political communities, that implemented destructive “top mandates.” He thoughtfully replied, “You are right if you look at the last five years. We saw the law in the context of the last thirty years, and we knew what would be coming. We have to take the long view and protect the very survival of the school system.”

    As is explained in The Turnaround Challenge, “instruction-driven” reforms that increase student performance in lower poverty and magnet schools are inherently incapable of turning around the highest poverty, neighborhood secondary schools. Curriculum-driven reforms only work after a foundation of trusting relationships is laid.

    Why did so many districts turn to “best practice” quick fixes, despite our best professional judgements? With NCLB every consultant and their dog descended on schools with Power Point presentations (citing false and misleading data from the Education Trust and others), and above all their proposals had a price tag that poor districts could afford.

    As the web site of your school implies, our goal should be a learning culture. Lacking the time and money required to build such a culture, it is not surprising that so many school systems followed Cover Your Ass approaches to data-driven accountability.

    The Education Sector web site is full of great analyses of policies similar to those that Obama has promised. Combine the Ed Sector’s wisdom on educational issues, with the wisdom of Diane Ravitch on Accountability, and we would have a great synthesis. Remove sanctions from NCLB-type testing and turn it into a Consumers Report, and we could then benefit from data-driven decision-making, and create the trusting relationships necessary for balanced systems of accountability.

  3. Ed Sector is a policy organization with zero knowledge of how to teach the best instructional practices to teachers. I would not turn to that organization to improve the quality of education in the nation’s classrooms.

  4. It’s all well and good to talk about allowing teachers to modify their instructional practices, but what about schools that dictate the type of instructional practices that must be used. Jeanne Century, one of the people Obama has selected to advise him on education matters is not too tolerant of practices that go against the current edu-fads that constitute science and math education.

    I have written an open letter to Sen. Obama on his selection of Jeanne Century, located at:

    The letter cites a report of which Jeanne Century was one of the authors and is directed at principals of schools. It offers advice on how to handle such “recalcitrant” teachers. One option is to “encourage” them to leave.

  5. Erin, when you say “that is not how systems are changed” — which is the analogous system you believe has changed, and serves as your model?

  6. I believe that standardized tests are of limited value and far from the be-all-and-end-all of judging the quality of a school.

    With that caveat, I think it is worth noting that the test scores from MESA aren’t very impressive. They are linked here: and here:

    2008, 10th grade reading, only 28% advanced and proficient. For Free/Reduced Lunch, only 21.8%.

    It is hard to tell without knowing the history of the school, but it looks like some significant drop out/push out issues too, with reductions in cohorts each year.

  7. GGW,

    When systems work well, we hardly think about why or how they got that way. We just appreciate it.

    Our public schools system is a system of schooling that is mostly regulated by state laws. Some federal laws apply as well. As much as we tout the “idea” of local control. Local school districts have very little influence over the educational aspects of our schools. The tests are set by the states. The curricula is developed by distant publishers. There are fed requirements on schooling. And really shouldn’t we be talking about reponsiblity rather than control? Who is responsible for ensuring that each and every child receives a quality education? No one.

    So in our chaotic, disfunctional school system, there really is no responsiblity whatsoever to ensure that each and every child receives a quality education. We rely completely upon inertia and the goodwill of teachers to transmit as much knowledge/ideas as they see fit. But this system is a system of status quo, not a system of improvement.

    But the status quo is not enough. The achievement gap is huge. Our best students are not being challenged and the average learning of our students is significantly lower than is seen in the best school systems around the world.

    There is much that we can learn from other systems that are designed to improve, but there is one caveat; education is an ideal, not a product. Education represents our hopes and aspirations for our children, not a TV or iPod. So the non-educational systems need to be carefully considered whether the specifics of those systems will work well with education or not. But nonetheless, there are lessons we could learn from changes in other systems.

    Case 1: The approval of new healthcare treatments in our country. We have a very rigorous system of approving a new pharmaceutical treatment. A company must prove to the FDA (a government agency) that any new treatment is both safe and efficacious before doctors are allowed to prescribe it.

    Prior to the FDA system, “snake oil” really did rule the day. Nobody knew or had any confidence that a prescribed treatment would work or not. With our current system, the public is confident that any FDA approved treatment is the best possible chance of improving health. The greatest benefit of this system is confidence. Even if people do not recover from an illness, the public is confident that the best possible strategies were tried.

    Case 2: Business systems have been all the rage in ed reform lately with a great deal of emphasis on “testing and accountability”. Certainly many businesses operate very successfully using this model. (Set goals and reward employees based upon sales or marketshare.) The downside to completely adopting this system for education is that in business “the marketplace” serves as the ultimate judge, but in education there is no “market”. If the product failed in the market then the business failed.

    Failure is not an option in education. Tests can not serve as an artificial marketplace. Tests have a good role in evaluating learning but to use them to drive education mistakes the tail (tests) for the dog (education). The goals of education *must* be first and the use of tests as only a feedback to determine if those goals were met. Education is more akin to the commons and not the freemarket.

    Case 3: Quality school systems around the world. While not an explict model for the US, there is much that can be learned from Singapore. Over the past 30+ years Singapore has dramatically changed their schooling system. In the 1980s their high school drop out rate was ~25%. It is now currently less than 2%. During that time, their students’ learning increased dramatically in math and science (TIMSS) and more recently in reading (PIRLS). How they did this is quite a story. For more info check out:

    But other school systems around the world are also designed to improve. Even though there are dramatic cultural differences, the common elements that separate successful school systems form ineffective systems (such as ours) is:

    1) Checks and Balances in the school system to ensure that each aspect (teaching, curricula, assessments) of school is continually improved and every child receives a quality education.

    2) The use of external evaluations (little/no teacher grading) in determining how much students have learned.

    3) School autonomy in deciding curricula and in-school budget allocations

    So it is possible to dramatically change our schools to enable our students to learn better. But we need to start with a school system that is set up to ensure that each and every child receives a great education. Our disfunctional, chaotic school system currently does not do that.

  8. There is no one answer to solving the problems that are systemic within the public school. But this was the first article I’d read where someone connects some of the dots to a lack of competent Principals. Principals are far too distracted by superficial issues such as what kind of shoes teachers wear and checking lesson plans to make sure they conform to the school division’s template. Far too many Principals are too concerned with power.
    All good decision makers need to identify the problem first, then introduce solutions and alternatives to those solutions.
    Dicussions about merit pay just serve to distract from the real discussions needed to improve our schools. This article and the comments are a great start.

  9. Erin is right that the right question is how do we get enough educators committed to the welfare of every child and that this is a systemic question. The systemic solutions, though, can not be based on perpetuating the centralized control of searching for what David Tyack decades ago labeled “The One Best System” but instead on freeing small schools to innovate, differentiate, and dedicate themselves to serving their kids with their unique professional community, providing some incentives (that exist in almost every successful system in any endeavor) for quality and commitment. If kids are forced to attend the one school in their geographical region, teachers are protected from sanctions (and in fact assured raises regardless of effort, performance, or time working), and funding is relatively unrelated to enrollment or attendance, there will always be rational educators who will reduce their commitment to spend energy where there are additional rewards (whether economic or psychic). This does NOT mean privatizing education, but a real public school system would have an array of publicly accessible, distinctive, excellent schools to best serve the diverse needs of different students and families.

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