ERC's 5th Anniversary Interview

The Education Resources Consortium was founded in 2009 to support schools and communities in taking on more serious redesign efforts, and to develop the leadership and technical capacity to do so. As ERC celebrates its fifth anniversary, distinguished Rhode Island educator Craig Levis sits down with co-founders Wayne Ogden and Larry Myatt to hear about the road traveled and ahead.

CL-Let me begin by asking what have you learned, or what has struck you, over the five years since ERC has been up and running?

WO- What strikes me, as it has since I first taught high school social studies in the 1970’s, is that if you ask the kids in any setting, teachers’ passion for their students and their love of teaching matter more than anything else!It’s the intersection of the science and the art of teaching and that’s not likely to change. But as someone who has made a career of supporting good teaching, I’m frustrated with the obsession with teacher accountability and evaluation, in all the various forms these take, which the data suggest has had no substantial impact on student learning.

I am also troubled by the ever-growing list of reporting and administrative demands, complicated teacher evaluation data-entry systems and our over-reliance on all things related to student testing. These tasks are overwhelming our school principals and distract them from the far more important tasks of instructional leadership and culture building. It’s no surprise that fewer and fewer strong candidates are opting for school leadership in every region where we work.

LM- I agree with Wayne on those points. I come in contact with a lot of principals whose approach to their work is completing the daily task list on their legal pad. Where, when and how to use their powers of influence, the aspects that really make a difference in leadership, are not on their radar screen.

Also, I’m astounded that the wide-spread frustration with testing, and the poor results that approach has shown for a decade hasn’t forced policy changes. I surmise that since no one has identified a new “big idea” or silver bullet fix, schools will be continue to have their complicatedand dynamic work viewed through the narrow lens of reading and math scores. It’s clear that our policy leaders remain subject to what Jal Mehta calls “the allure of order”, the manic search for just the right set of technical fixes that will transcend the human elements of schools and learning.

But without doubt my biggest frustration is our collective unwillingness to tackle the inadequacy of the core model, the architecture, so to speak, of our schools, a model developed in the late 1800’s. As Ted Sizer rightly identified in the 1990’s, the core educational task is to evolve the institutions and practices that assist the learning process That should have been the central task of our times- but we have failed to address that calling.

Ted Kolderie has recently re-explained the fundamental policy divide as one that separates those who argue for working within the existing system-arrangements from those who argue the need to change the system-arrangements. The former group has had the baton for the past 30 years. Proposing to demolish key aspects of the old system and build anewis daunting for most people. So, wanting to be perceived as effective, those designing the strategies accept the system givens and do not challenge traditional arrangements. It helps to explain why the huge national expense in “turn-around” schools has been such a failure and the proliferation of “service providers” hawking their models to stressed districts. It also explains why charter schools have contributed almost no innovation to the conversation. In order to be chartered, the school needs to look the same as all others, while the ”no-excuses” charters think it’s a matter of belief in hard work.

WO- I also think we’re overdue for a conversation about how educators get paid. The existing structures continue to reward teachers and principals who elect to work in our most affluent, and arguably, least complicated school districts. Alternatively, the same structures offer lower pay to teachers and principals who elect to work in our nation’s most complicated schools and districts as determined by poverty, diversity and language differences. This approach to paying teachers and principals leaves the challenged districts in rural and urban America to choose its educators from a pool of candidates after more affluent, higher-paying districts have taken their picks. This problem seems to have gotten worse as future teachers and principals leave graduate school with more and more student debt.

LM- It does seem clearer to me that there won’t be a “big bang”, a sudden end to the old system and a dramatic and universal new beginning, but that antiquated practices and systems are withering and dying off and will be replaced by lots of smaller initiatives. These will be unique, local efforts grounded in what we know works – strong professional communities with great autonomy, good relationships among students and staff, social/emotional support at a much higher level than we generally see, and what Fred Newmann calls authentic achievement, intellectually challenging work pursued in a variety of ways we can recognize from our work places and community life. And of coursenow the thoughtful integration of technology and social media has to be part of that menu now.

CL- What encouraging things do you see out in the field?

WO- I am encouraged to see a shift away from a total reliance on graduate school programs to make our teachers and principals “school ready.”The critical role of school-based leaders is being recognized once again by school boards and superintendents, something that’s generally been the case in the independent school world. Increasingly, thoughtful school districts are hiring dedicated coaches and mentors to work as thought partners and“critical friends”with their principals throughout their early years of employment. And we’re doing more support work with new teachers groups in schools where they recognize the critical needs of teachers in their first 2-3 years of service. Both of these are welcome and are enlightened investments.

LM- There is really exciting work in some places where schools can fly under the radar and escape the repeated layering of mandated practices, or where schools are pressing for the autonomies they need to let go of unproductive practices. The Leadership Schools Network in New Mexico, part of a network associated with the McCune Foundation have a really vibrant conversation going, and are thinking differently about school design, youth development and metrics. And the burgeoning PEAR Network, working with Dr. Gil Noam, is re-positioning social/emotional health as core to achievement, an idea that has been largely lost for the past fifteen years. Full-service schools, using good tools, are replacing a patch-work approach to helping students be ready to learn.

CL: are there practices that you've used that have been particularly helpful?

WO- During this era of teacher accountability an idea that is paying off is to have teachers and their evaluators trained together in the practices and expectations of their evaluation procedures. Older models and practices of teacher supervision and evaluation and have segregated teachers and evaluators from one another, as though some cross pollination of ideas might be harmful, or betray some secrets of the approach. However, these emerging practices,focused on instructional improvement rather than on simple “accountability”, have shown far greater success, with teachers and evaluators sharing common understandings and language about what is expected and what best supports student learning.

LM- I’ve seen an upsurge in project-based learning of all kinds. I don’t believe there is only one approach to PBL that fits all schools or classrooms, however, as long as the projects are well-designed, challenging and leave room for student passion. I think the resurgence of PBL is inevitable since there is such abundant evidence, across all demographics, of students’ lack of enthusiasm for today’s classroom instruction. As Tony Monfiletto has said, we’ve got to put the thrill back into learning, and if we succeed there, we can define the assessment and standards after the fact.

CL- As we wrap up, what advice would you offer to schools or to policy makers that you feel is critical?

WO- To school districts and policy makers alike I would say, please provide the time and resources necessary for the adequate professional development of your teachers and principals. Time of course is essential - we can’t get the job done with two one-hour meetings a month, or having teachers show up the day before school starts. Our educational challenges are substantial and trying to get by with miserly amounts of money allocated to provide high quality training for the people who work with our kids is just plain foolish.

Old thinking that promotes inexpensive, large-group professional development activities are largely a waste of time. Having all teachers do the same kinds of “trainings”, and then jumping to a new topic the following year has proven ineffective but essentially remains the way schools do things. And, while school districts that require teachers and principals to earn advanced degrees should contribute to the cost, individual choice of which courses teachers and principals should take is not always the best way to increase effectiveness and promote student learning. Schools and districts have a high interest in determining which professional development different educators should pursue in order to know and be able to bring to bear in their practice.

LM- I want schools to do three things- one is to explore and define “rigor” as Newmann has, and to use that definition as a tool for lesson design, collaborative planning and problem-solving, and as a “measure” of standards and performances. Second (and schools would need the higher-up’s to back off their mania for codifying teacher practice) is to assess teacher quality by focusing on what the students, the learners, are doing in the classroom, not obsessed with the teacher-as-actor. And third, with an agreement to keep only the things that truly work, to re-imagine what a supportive, high-functioning learning community could look like, reading and studying together, designing pilots and prototypes and bringing their school into
the 21st century.

To policy makers I’d say, provide the conditions and incentives for school re-design and get out of the way.

CL- what are your fondest hopes for the next five years in public education?

WO- What was that 1970’s era poster about school funding? I think it went something like, “won’t it be a wonderful circumstance when schools have every resource they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to raise the funds for new weapons?” Well, while I’m not so naïve to believe that we’d be best served by underfunded defense systems, I would love to remove “inadequate funding” as an argument as to why we can’t do a better job with our students.My fondest hope is that one day soon every kid will have a marvelous and supported teacher to share the school day with them.