Bringing it all back home

As we’ve sustained punches to the teeth and belly by an increasing frequency of fiscal ups and downs, our lexicon of financial indicators has grown impressively. We now know all about weak exports, currency overvaluation, excessive debt, low job growth, and in the process we’ve become more sophisticated in our analysis of financial health. But somehow we’ve failed collectively to reach the same level of sophistication with regards to how we examine the health of the education sector. Rather than analyze the leading indicators of a public education system that should provide our children with the skills and attitudes needed to solve the intractable problems of society (such as saving us all from rising seas, drowning in plastic, political gridlock, demagoguery and wanton disregard of science) we’re hopelessly stuck in the rut of obsessing over academic outcomes.

Let’s take this financial analogy further. Let’s concede that the “bottom line” of each of our schools is our standardized test data and that everyone, from our school authorizers to our local real estate agents, are fixated on it, and that all manner of judgments will flow from that bottom line. And, in the data-driven universe of education reform, let’s concede that the expectation is that we lash ourselves to the bottom line so that every decision that we make about our schools is informed by how it will or will not affect those outcomes.

But, in the world of business and entrepreneurship, there’s a word to describe enterprises that become bottom-line obsessed. And that word is irrelevant. Great businesses obsess over creating great products and delivering great services. If they obsess over bottom lines they’ll drive their best employees away. Venture capitalists know that there is no innovation in a bottom-line driven world, which is why the new paradigms are all about teamwork and ideas and not about profitability. If you have good ideas and a good team, profitability will come.

Okay, if you find financial analogies boring, let’s try one from sports: I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been – Wayne Gretzky. That is hockey-speak for “pay attention to leading indicators.”

School leaders, especially at independent charter schools, are entrepreneurial by nature and are naturally attuned to the leading indicators of their school’s health, whether its cultivation of young talent, new board prospects or an energized parent organization.

But on a macro level we have every reason to be concerned about an indicator pointing to an educational crisis-in-the-making—the alarmingly low percentage of college students who are considering careers in education. Check out this study from UCLA. What I find particularly troubling about the report is that the plummeting interest in teaching is not, as one might think, part of a larger movement away from activism and altruism. On the contrary, the report finds a very high level of student engagement in social and political issues—something Bernie Sanders has spectacularly tapped into. We’ve got thousands and thousands of young people, anxious to make a difference in the world and yet shunning the teaching profession. So, if you were young and in their place would your decision be different?

Would you put yourself in a classroom where you might find a particularly bad moment immortalized forever in a YouTube video or a NYTimes exposé? Would you salivate at the carrots being extended for you to raise student test scores?* Would you spend years studying the art of pedagogy knowing the likelihood that your teaching will be scripted? Would you like a front row seat at the food fight between charter school haters and charter school zealots?

This just out: applications to Teach for America are down 35% in the last three years.

This is obviously a big deal and it’s going to take a major concerted effort to turn it around. And, without going further into gory details, I think we all know why things have gotten where they are: bit by bit, the profession has been devalued and the well has been poisoned. To quote from the article on shrinking TFA applications: “the public debate about education is polarized and toxic, driving away talented people from a profession that needs them.”

So, let’s just think for a minute about the idea of “concerted effort” and what that might mean for all players in public education. How are going to collectively re-position teaching as our nation’s most highly regarded profession?

One big question for those of us in the charter school world is: how much of this falls on us and how much responsibility are we going to assume to turn it around?


*Teachers get into this business to make a difference. Monetary incentives for raising test scores is an outgrowth of federal RTTT grants premised upon the idea that, despite findings of social scientists, teachers can be motivated in the same way as commissioned sales reps. Take a few minutes to see Daniel Pink’s brilliant video on motivation. To be clear, C3S is not against meritocratic compensation. We do not, however, deny science.

Steve Zimmerman, Co-director of C3S


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