A weekend interview with ...
... Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust. Haycock recently spoke to the State Board of Education about ways to eliminate the achievement gap in Florida schools. She fielded questions from the audience and then from reporter Ron Matus (his are the last four). Here's what she had to say:
Parents like to see their kids do well, but there's sort of this noise about getting to raise the standards, have the test, test the test, and get the results. And I was wondering if you had any sort of context around some of that. Are parents ultimately more supportive than teachers are initially?
When you raise standards, when you're really honest with the public in advance -- this is coming, right, these are now real standards, right, if your kids meet these it really matters, right -– then people are fine. Georgia recently raised its standards. Its proficiency rates went down substantially. But when you talk to the press and you talk to parents about that, you can weather that if they trust where you're headed, which most of them do, because most of them have seen the data comparing state proficiency rates and NAEP and they're going, "What are you guys doing?" But communication is really important.
No. 2, if I gave you the impression it takes eight or 10 years, it doesn't. I was just showing you these are schools that not only got better, they stayed better. But you basically start seeing results in terms of student achievement within two, three years, no longer. If you're not seeing results in that amount of time, something's wrong with the implementation strategy. You can begin to see real progress, not in all measures, but in what we call kind of a leading set of indicators, in just two or three years.
You mentioned that a number of low-income children come to school, in the beginning, behind from day one. Have you looked at our state and how we're addressing that?
My impression is at least early on –- I haven't looked at in the last year, actually -– is that you got a lot more kids in quickly, but made some compromises around quality of what goes on that you will probably want to go back and revisit. Getting kids in is hugely important, but the quality of what goes on, and the caliber of those who teach, turns out to be huge, huge, especially for low-income kids.
And I want to be clear about what I mean by that. When kids go home, to kind of print rich environments and museum trips and all that kind of stuff, the quality and the coherence of what happens in a pre-K program or another early ed program is not as important, because you get a lot of stuff filled in at home.
When you're not going back into that kind of environment, then what happened during those few hours –- what vocabulary you were exposed to, how you build your kind of understand … Really good pre-K, for example, will spend a couple of weeks on transportation. So everything the kids do –- the stories they read, the games they play –- are about trucks, trains, tractors, whatever. And by the end of that couple weeks … they've kind of mastered vocabulary in that and they can move on to the next one. The reason for that is, in order to continue to learn, you need to know somewhere around 80 percent of the words, right, that you're reading, right. Then you learn new words. This is why this is so important to be coherent about, and methodical about, and not just leave it to individual teachers to figure out. Because kids need to master that vocabulary in order to keep learning.
Here's a concern: If a child knows he doesn't read well in third grade, he's not being remediated, he gets to high school and he still doesn't read well … I would like to see a shift of that kind of remediation some way into career technical or into some course that makes a difference to the kid.
The problem you talked about is probably, unquestionably the biggest contributor to dropout numbers. The first thing we need to do is stop just moving kids along, if they're not learning how to read, and really get serious in our elementary and middle schools about, again, not just reading skills but the vocabulary that they need. A lot of these kids are stuck not because they can't decode but because they don't know most of the words they're scanning. And so, again, part of what we have to do is build on the fabulous work most states have done, including yours, around reading skills, but actually attach that to the vocabulary as well.
And then, you're absolutely right, putting kids in just a remedial reading or math course in high schools, it never works. They get worse, not better. What I think we're beginning to see is that, especially in reading, in a typical high school, what happens to the weak readers is we put them in courses that don't actually require them to read.
What the high schools that are really getting growth with those kids are doing, they're putting them in reading instruction but they're also putting them in reading intensive courses so they're mastering the vocabulary they need to succeed and they're adding those things on to regular courses, and they can be career courses or academic courses. Instead of stopping the kids, they're actually moving them into the tougher stuff but attaching the support facets on the side.
Could you speak to teacher collective bargaining agreements and their ability to recruit highly qualified teachers in high-needs schools?
How long do you have?
I'm always tempted to spend a lot of time on that, because what happens makes me very distraught. … It would be easy to blame the unions for everything. But the fact of the matter is, very, very few districts are actually pushing very hard at this issue. We are stuck in education with kind of insane ideas about the teaching profession. We are learning from these very interesting entrepreneurial organizations –- the New Teacher Project, TFA –- that lots more talented people want to teach than we ever knew. But the ways in which most of our districts have recruited don't appeal.
When we send out brochures with little smiley faces and apples, that has no appeal, right, to high-end applicants. High-end applicants want to teach. But they're attracted because they know it's a challenge. It's difficult, right, but it's meaningful work. And places that are emphasizing that –- look at New York City. When Al Shanker was head of the union there, he used to despair that they would ever find enough good people to teach in New York City. In fact, he said, where do we get most of our teachers? The people who fail the Postal Service exam walk across the street and take the teacher exam and become teachers. That's how we get them in New York City.
Today, you get 27,000 applicants for less than 2,000 openings. Why? Because they don't recruit with little smiley faces and apples anymore, and they don't limit themselves to people who wanted to teach and went through the ed school route. They created this very aggressive effort to get talented people who want to teach, they created the teaching fellows program, and today, the academic caliber of those who teach in the poorest schools in New York City is actually stronger than those who teach in the least poor schools …
My impression is, to break through the kind of nastiness between unions and management is to recognize that if we make this a front-end problem, and work very hard at getting talented teachers into the schools, new teachers, into the schools where the kids need them the most, and then look at what do we need to do to keep them there …
Let me be clear there: Those old things you heard mattered –- master's degrees, right, certification in field, all that –- those things don't matter at all. In fact, if you're paying as a state for master's degrees, you're getting hosed. All the research says the average teacher with a master's degree is slightly less effective than the average teacher without one. So we have built a compensation structure that has nothing to do with how good they are and how much learning they produce, entirely on these stupid proxies … We're saying we really want teachers to produce higher results, but the way we evaluate them, the way by and large we compensate them, has nothing to do with that.
I'm wondering if you have any suggestions as to what kind of model works best (for performance pay)? Some people think that it's best to do it based on individual performance. Some think school performance.
I'm not sure, in all honesty, if anybody can tell you the answer of what works best yet because very few places are experimenting with this. And the ones that are, are not really far enough along. I think most of the people who are sort of watching the work internationally as well as here in the U.S. believe we will eventually land on compensation systems that place value both on individual impact on students, but also on group. That group might be school. It might be department. It might be grade level. But the worry is that the individual systems don't incentivize teachers to work together and share. So I think most people are moving toward finding a way to recognize both.
Why don't we talk about teacher quality and teacher equity more? And by we I mean parents, and district officials and the media?
It's not because people don't get that teachers matter. I don't think I've ever been in an audience of parents, community folks, no matter how poorly educated themselves, when you say teachers matter, everybody goes, like duh.
I think the problem, as you have found, is two fold: The measures of teacher quality we have available in most places aren't very good. And the kind of best you can do is say when all the measures -– experience, education, all that –- run in the same direction, chances are, you have a problem. But the lack of good, good data is part of the problem.
The other problem, I think, is that people perceive this as a zero sum game. … Put more kids in difficult classes, raise the standards , do all that, that is not a zero sum game, right? It feels like it's good for everybody. If you talk about strong teachers are not evenly distributed, right, then for your children to get more, then mine have to get less. And so that makes people lots more nervous of this.
The truth is, it doesn't have to be a zero sum game if we work really hard on the front end stuff.
But some folks might be afraid that you might be pulling high quality teachers out of the ‘burbs and sending them to the inner cities, something to that effect?
Exactly. And that happens even in the cities. The better educated parents, with high achieving kids, will say afterward to me, privately, "Yeah, but my kid in AP physics really needs that teacher." … I can show them data that shows you know, a well-educated family, your child can make do occasionally with a not-so-great teacher. If you're talking about low-income kids, it has to work every year. We can't afford to do what we're doing.
Is there something about the narrative -– if a kid gets low test scores, it's the fault of the kid and the parents and the neighborhoods -- that's unbreakable?
We got to kill the narrative. The narrative is a gigantic lie. But it is in the interest of almost everybody who works in the system to repeat it over and over again.
What do you mean by that?
Change is hard. Admitting you've been unfair is hard. If you blame it on the kids, it's just a lot easier. You can avoid all that.
It's been a national narrative but it is propped up. For every organization like us that is trying to pound people out of their attachment to that narrative, there are hundreds of other people who give speeches and make lots of money. I see them at conferences all the time.
You know, I did a presentation to the Missouri School Boards Association not so long ago, and I showed them some of the international data, and they were clearly very alarmed. A superintendent friend of mine said you wouldn't believe what happened at dinner that night. They brought in an inspirational speaker, who they had paid $10,000, to come in and say, "You know, people show the international data, those are a lie, right, they're comparing all of our kids to just the best kids in the other countries." And so they leapt to their feet in standing ovation. I'm going, oh, my God, that's just such a lie.
But there's a huge number of people out there who get paid big money to repeat that. And it makes educators feel good, right? It makes school boards feel good. "We're not as bad as those bad people say we are."