If the Race to the Top were the Olympics…

… the most important variable on the road to successful competition would be the athletes, the people executing the plan on the field.  It is the athletes that the nation fixes its hopes on.  It is the athletes— much more than their coaches, personal trainers or other supporting cast members— that can actually bring home the gold.

In the “race” to dramatically change the lives of students trapped in failing schools across the country, it is teachers who are on the field; it is teachers who will ultimately determine whether we succeed with kids. Given the once-in-a-lifetime infusion of resources that the Race to the Top represents and given the unparalleled commitment across levels of the system to aggressively turnaround low-performing schools, can we field a team equal to the enormity of the task?

For the past two years, we have been working with a group of outstanding early career teachers in Boston, asking them to weigh in on this very question.  We call them Policy Fellows and through the fellowship we connect them to research, policy, and best practice ideas from around the country. They’ve met with both national and local education leaders, tested their ideas in various forums, and debated with one another.  Through this process, they’ve developed a compelling strategy for staffing low-performing schools.

Their report Ready for the Next Challenge is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the power and promise of the incoming generation of teachers and their passion for improving the lives of children of poverty.

First, and perhaps most important, they identify staffing low-performing schools as a problem that can be solved:

We believe that, given the right supports and conditions, there is no shortage of talented and experienced teachers willing to teach in low-performing schools. There are many teachers who are unsure if they will be able to build fulfilling and sustainable careers in their school building, but who are searching for reasons to stay. We count ourselves among them. We believe that teaching in high-need urban schools is uniquely challenging but also uniquely rewarding. We maintain that so-called “hard-to-staff” schools are not inevitable.

Second, they propose a comprehensive model for staffing low-performing schools with highly effective teachers.  They call the schools Excellence Collaborative Schools and they call the team of teachers staffing these schools the Excellence Corps. The model is based on 5 principles:

  1. A cohort model of staffing where at least 1/3 of the staff (in some cases perhaps the entire staff) is hired as a team.
  2. Rigorous selection criteria that begin with two basic qualifications: three years urban teaching experience and demonstrated effectiveness with urban students.
  3. Career growth with a focus on classroom teaching that values the interest great teachers have in continuing to work with students.
  4. Differentiated pay for individuals selected to the Excellence Corps and in the form of schoolwide bonuses for schools that meet their growth goals.
  5. Dramatic culture change facilitated by key supports such as a high quality principal, expanded time for collaboration and intensive training.

President Obama has articulated a vision of reform that is “done with teachers rather than to them”. We couldn’t agree more with his belief that from teachers can come viable ideas to address the most intractable problems facing urban education today.

Can we field an effective, experienced team of teachers to fiercely compete on behalf of kids and succeed in closing the achievement gap? Ask the very teachers you’d want on the team.  Their message is clear and compelling: It can be done.

-Guestblogger Celine Coggins, Founder of Teach Plus

11 Replies to “If the Race to the Top were the Olympics…”

  1. Ironically, I scrolled down to see old posts and found some supporting TFA. Doesn’t this contradict this post? We know TFA teachers leave the profession at hiogher rates. And a new analysis of effective and ineffective teachers in Houston ISD by HISD researchers found TFA teachers far more likely to be in the ineffective group than the effective group. In fact, almost none of the effective group was comprised of TFA teachers while almost 10% of the ineffective group was TFA teachers.

    TFA is certainly not the answer to creating a sustained corps of excellent teachers in urban schools.

  2. I started reading the post and thought, “Good, view students as the athletes and so teachers must be the coaches. The author understands that – ultimately – it’s the students who are learning and therefore are in control.”

    Then I see that the author is equating teachers with athletes. So where do the students fit in? I don’t get it.

  3. ” … given the right supports and conditions…” That’s a pretty darn big assumption! There is nothing “given” about any teacher supports/conditions in any school – high or low performing.

  4. I agree with both of Nancy EH’s comments.

    My pet peeve is the mantra “whatever it takes.” That’s a recipe for burning out young teachers.

    Regarding the athletic metaphor, if we approached the Olympics or any top level sports with the TFA model, we’d have a train wreck. Every few years a NFL coach tries to train his players, pushing them to their limits. Those coaches get good PR for the first few weeks, and then their team collapses in the playoffs. I watched my nephew go through four collegiate national wrestling championship runs. The danger was overtraining. Older coaches would keep the young wrestlers from over-stressing and over-fatiguing themselves. Individual wrestlers who didn’t come from established programs who didn’t have has many experienced mentors were at a huge disadvantage. (For instance, the starter’s practice partner was never supposed to take the starter down during the final push. You wanted a kid to peak at the championship without recent memories of defeat. The last thing, similarly we want of a young teacher is to always be doing coontinuos assessment and always fretting that their students aren’t on track in the scope and sequence.)

    We damage our young teachers, brainwashing them to believe that have to be heroes in a Hollywood movie. Instead, we should teach our teachers to roll with the punches and pace themselves for a long year and a sustainable career. There is a name in sports for the type of teacher that TFA (as I understand) tries to produce, “a one man team.”

    Schooling, like education reform should be, should be a team effort, with emphasis on sustainability.

    Not that anyone asked, but my nephew listened so intently to his coaches that when he won his two national championship he wasn’t able to walk off the map either time. He paced himself perfectly, giving it all so he peaked in the last seven minutes. Almost every year (but not last year) I ignored the date of the last class. Going into the last week of school, I don’t let myself think of summer. I pace myself so that I’m completely exhausted on the last few days, but not before then. Inner city teachers, at least, have to becme like doctors in ER Rooms knowing that they can’t blame themselves when things don’t work out.

  5. Strange that you didn’t mention the KIPP schools. These are schools serving urban populations with a sustained record of success. The world of education seems geared to continually try to create a new model or a new approach, rather than learn from and imitate success.

    On the other hand, you are spot on in your observation that teams of teachers working together have been successful. You might consider the Professional Learning Community work being done by Rick and Becky DuFour.

  6. Let’s consider a common scenario- a student in an urban school enters your classroom, and their skills are a couple of years below grade level. The primary question most of these topics come down to is…. what do you do about it?

    Answer: Doing the status quo is not going to get the job done. Unless there’s some work above and beyond the norm, the achievement gap for this student likely remains the same or widens.

    There tends to be responses coming from two camps at this point.

    Camp 1- “To get the job done, we need the urban schools to be full of amazing teachers!”

    Camp 2- “You’re wrong Camp 1! We need systemic change so the schools have the resources to work with students who need additional support!”

    Isn’t the answer that we need BOTH a continued stream of talented teachers who stay in the profession, as well as systems in place that effectively address students who need more than the instruction they get from 8AM-3PM?

    It is unrealistic for Camp 1 to envision that we can have a situation of 100% “Hero” teachers in every teaching position in every urban school in America. Steven F. Wilson’s “Success at Scale in Charter Schooling” is a great read on this very topic.

    Camp 2 has valid points. Schools need systems where there’s more than just the expectation that the individual classroom teacher should single-handedly save the day. More top teachers would stay in urban schools if they didn’t have to indefinitely take a Herculean, self-sacrificing approach to get the results they wanted year after year.

    At the same time, telling teachers in these situations to “dial it down a notch” is not a good plan either. There’s something special about the teacher who says, “The buck stops with me.” As NancyEH points out, having functional systems in place is not a good assumption for many schools. At this point, you could throw up your hands and say, “Well it’s not me that’s failing these kids, it is the system.” But that statement doesn’t help the students who are sitting in our classrooms who are behind right now.

    JT, I’m sure “whatever it takes” has been used in many ways across different circles, but if they stem from the book Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough, the expression actually refers to having an air-tight SYSTEM to make sure that our urban students don’t get into a situation where they’re behind, so that it doesn’t require the hero teacher approach by the time they enter the school system.

  7. Rob – Nice analysis. Also note, though, that what constitutes a “hero” teacher to one student is not the same for another. One teacher may be a whiz with technology and another loudly denounces all things computer. Another may be widely recognized as an expert in project-based learning, while a fourth is known for her rigid adherence to book-based curriculum. However, each may reach a different student and each may produce (or not) great results.

    Moreover, what one principal believes to be most important factor in good teaching may be quite different from another principal in the same school the next year. Evaluations bounce around because there is no good standard for good teaching.

    I have no interest in unnecessarily maintaining the status quo, either, but do believe that people generally need to be much more aware of the vagaries of teaching than they are. To expect that every student will learn happily and well from every teacher is simply unrealistic.

    Finally, equating school/learning/teaching with the Olympics ignores the primary truth of such a competition: there is always one winner and many losers. We can’t afford that.


  8. Rob,

    The question is how do you handle it in the real world before Camp 1 or 2 or 17 create a utopia. The second question is how much good is accomplished by working harder as opposed to working smarter, and working harder can only take you so far.. And I wish we would pay more attention to avoiding mistakes, and not how we can single-handedly save the day.The NYT Magazine just had an article about the increase in young pitchers having their arms damaged, we we adults should know better. I remember when Jimmy Peirsall had his breakdown at Yankee Stadium. And maybe that’s the problem. Generations forget the lessons that were previously learned the hard way.

    Yes, often the best thng is to dial it down but I’d use a diiferent metaphor. When lost in the woods, first “hug a tree.” In my experience, most horrendous mistakes come from educators who are completely exhausted and stressed out setting policies that people wouldn’t make in “their right mind.”

    Whatever it takes is just the latest of the cliches adopted by HR central offices, consultants, and their PR. Failure was once not an option, then came No Excuses, and then Expectations!

    Everyone has experienced the same fake, disingenuous exhortations, and most of us learn to let it in one ear and out the other.

    But what is the purpose of these exhortations? Protect the status quo, of course. Instead of building capacity administrators write e mails, urging heroic leadership, everyone exhorts the people below them and problem is solved.

    The toughest situation is setting the balance when dealing with students, as oppose to the big dogs. Even then, when we get disappointing feedback the jst do something and do a bunch of it mentality is too common.

    Faced with the same situation as then great young teacher next two me, he and I tend to take different approaches. I slow things dwon, pay double attention to avoiding mistakes, keep an eye out for something I’m missing, and again pay double attention. Young teachers are being taught to always be stepping up their game working harder.

    My classes work bell to bell. I can’t prejudge the time it takes for learning to soak in. Also, i worry about today’s tendency to just work harder on cognitive and academic. We need to listen to what the students are really saying, are they making a call for help regarding suicide, mental illness or other crises? If it is possible to create a “whatever it takes culture” regarding classroom instruction as opposed to a more holistic, intuitive business-like but comfortable culture – and I’m just talking now about my expereince – why is it that students facing crises, often involving life and death, come to certain teachers. Yes, working hard for the student is a way to say, “I love you.” but there are a lot of ways to say it.

  9. Ed: Try as I might, I cannot find the study you cite, can you please provide a link?

    Are you referring to Linda Darling-Hammond’s study in 2005, a known critic of TFA since the early 90s? The one that generated its fair share of criticisms and a reply from Mathematica reminding us that Mathematica had the better experimental design?

    (1) http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/education/teach4amercomment.asp
    (2) http://www.teach-now.org/newsdisp.cfm?newsid=77
    (3) http://www.givewell.net/TFA

    A 2001 Houston study had nothing but positive things to say about TFA:


  10. Another report on the HISD commended the district for utilizing TFA, and claimed TFA teachers go “above and beyond the call of duty”


    And this fall HISD is anticipating its largest new batch of TFA teachers ever, the HISD superintendent claiming that “Teach for America’s teachers have been a vital part of our city’s efforts to accelerate student achievement for nearly 20 years. I am pleased to welcome such a large group of our nation’s best and brightest young people into Houston’s classrooms next fall.”


    We also don’t “know” that TFA teachers leave at higher rates, as some studies suggest there is little difference in teacher retention.


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