A landmark study of global education systems published by the renowned consulting firm McKinsey & Company boldly proclaimed what most education leaders consider obvious: “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”
Educator quality is a foundational element of all great education systems. In Eagle County Schools, personnel costs account for over 85 percent of all expenditures. Effectively, this means that education is a people-driven business. The talent, passion and capacity of our educators are central to our success.
Policy efforts aimed at increasing educator quality are not new. While it is the right work, the strategies currently being used in the nation, Colorado and Eagle County have a slim evidence-base to support them and are notably absent in the best school systems globally. What approaches should we be taking?
Respecting the Profession
The best school systems in the world consider teaching a high-status professional skill and compensate it competitively with other professional options. As a result, they are able to recruit the most talented people in their societies to choose teaching as a profession and are incredibly selective about whom they allow to teach.
In contrast, the United States seems to be going in the exact opposite direction. There have been repeated efforts to reduce qualifications for a teaching license to holding a bachelor’s degree and not being a felon. The approach seems to be: “Let’s let everyone in, and we will evaluate the bad ones out.”
Would the medical profession use such an approach? Of course not, the risk is too high. Yet when it comes to the quality of the people who work with our children, some seem quite willing to throw open the doors to the teaching profession.
High performing education systems never relax their standards for quality. That’s why, in Eagle County Schools, we focus our recruiting efforts on the best universities and treat our educators as professionals who are to be afforded the highest level of reverence for their important work.
We also are working incredibly hard to provide adequate levels of compensation, though this is an uphill push due to our community’s relatively high cost of living and our state’s low level of education funding.
Other policies are designed to motivate teachers to higher levels of performance through complex evaluation schemes that tie teacher ratings to test scores. At the heart of this approach is the notion that educators need to be pressured to higher levels of performance and that we need a large-scale, complicated performance management system to identify and fire low performers. But there are at least a couple of problems with this approach.
• No high-performing education system anywhere in the world has ever used this approach as a mechanism for systemic improvement.
• There is no credible evidence to support the claim that evaluation (especially using test scores) causes better teaching to occur.
• If you visit any school (be it public, private, charter or religious) in our valley, you will see dedicated, caring, compassionate and quality educators working very hard to engage students.
• Most educators are great people doing their level best to create a better world for kids.
• Demonizing this incredible force for good as an entire group that needs to be more heavily scrutinized and punished misses the obvious truth — that educators come naturally hard-wired and motivated to do amazing things for students.
Here in Eagle County, we have a longstanding performance-based compensation system to reward great performance, but our approach is to direct evaluations toward improvement through coaching and professional growth.
Empowering those closest to the work
From business, we know that the most successful organizations create consistent quality by granting autonomy and empowerment for those closest to the work. The power is in small, focused teams who have ownership over quality control and are empowered to make decisions.
Meanwhile, education has operated under a different principle where educators worked in isolation and were periodically herded into auditoriums to receive “professional development” from an “expert.” Too often, these types of meetings are poorly connected to the problems on the front line.
In Eagle County Schools, we are working to empower small teams of educators who are close to the work to identify problems they face and collectively work on solutions that make sense to them. The district supports that work with research for solutions. This flips the educational model of professional development upside down in better alignment with business models.
Educator quality must be an absolute priority for our schools if we are to become world-class, and we have to do what works, instead of blindly following politically driven approaches handed down from the state.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.