It's not about the coaches, it’s about the players.

This is the title of a recent blog by Philip Waring. He, through the Amelia Peabody Foundation where he's a trustee, is a funder of charter schools. Including ours. He then cheerfully challenges much of the thinking of charter school advocates. He and I sometimes email back and forth about this stuff. Philip's blog title reminds me of a basketball question. Is Doc Rivers a good coach? Or is he just the guy who happens to preside over motivated, high-achieving players?

After all, Doc was close to getting fired. Then Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen showed up. Celtics win title.

Is Doc the equivalent of a teacher who was toiling with academic strugglers in the city who then took a job teaching I.B. classes in the suburbs?

Anyway.

Philip writes this as part of a thoughtful review of Steve Brill's new book, Class Warfare. Yesterday I mentioned Rick Hess's review. I also found Dana Goldstein's (no relation I know of) review interesting, too (here and here).

Philip writes:

Charter Schools, Brill does say, in the long struggle to improve American schools, will lead us to the right place only if we can figure out at the same time a realistic way to motivate and enable the tens, hundreds of thousands of less-than-extraordinary rank and file teachers who are out there.

Now does anyone think that that’s about to happen? I don’t think so. That will never happen no matter what we do. Even doubling teacher salaries will not make the “less-than-extraordinary” extraordinary. This is not the way we change things for the better, nor is it the way people are.

Pause. Is he right?

First, does the basic idea of ed reform depend on somehow making many of the nation's 3 million teachers "extraordinary" or, say, 20% better than they are, on average, now?

If it's the former, I tend to agree with Philip.

If it's the latter, I think it's very tough but plausible and a worthwhile enterprise.

Philip continues:

Important changes for the better, if not in our schools, in the education of our children (these are not the same thing) will only come about if students, not just teachers, become motivated, interested, accountable, all of which adjectives do not at present describe hundreds of thousands of the several million students attending our public schools.

Instead of talking about good and bad teachers, we ought to be talking about the motivated, too few, and unmotivated, too many, students themselves.

KIPP’s Dave Levin and the “Saturday Essay’s” Steven Brill both recognize that the heavy teacher load in the charter schools is not sustainable in the long run, and that the many excellent teachers will in large numbers leave after only a few years, this being also true for those doing Teach for America, wanting understandably to have a life of their own.

But the principal mistaken assumption that both Brill and Levin make is that teachers do have the power to change the schools, to grow the achievement of their kids, that through long days, long evenings, often weekends and vacations on the job, that they can make a significant difference in what and how kids learn.

A difference, perhaps, but not significant, and nothing at all compared with what the kids can/could do for themselves. In fact, our major change or reform efforts ought to be directed at the kids, at raising their interest and motivation levels to the point where they start to learn not for us but for themselves.

Philip and I have had this exchange before, after a short thing I wrote for the NYTimes. My reaction was and is:

I do think much can be solved at the teacher level. It’s quite plausible for teachers to generate student effort.

The thing that blocks us from solving things “at the teacher level,” however, is precisely this disagreement on the true job description of “teacher” — and whether it includes coaxing or coercing effort from kids.

There are at least 3 other viewpoints:

a. No teacher can coax or coerce that much effort from reluctant kids: basically kids will only pursue what they wish to pursue, so you’d better adjust curricular choices accordingly. I’m going to call that the “Philip Waring” in honor of one of my funders and readers.

b. Perhaps a teacher can coax or coerce student effort, but that’s not the appropriate job of a teacher, it’s the job of a parent or the kid himself. Will Fitzhugh argued this recently on Robert Pondiscio's blog.

c. Perhaps a teacher can coax or coerce student effort, but the system is not set up well for that, nor are they adequately compensated for that.

The sort of time needed to do that work — parent phone calls, before and after-school kid connections, rapid rewards/consequences for homework and assigned readings — is high. This competes against other tasks expected of teachers they’re not teaching.

So let's review.

1. People may disagree on the value of No Excuses charter schools. Do they help none, "medium", a lot.

Philip - medium.

Brill - a lot.

Diane Ravitch - a lot (!)

What I want to say to KIPP, because I really really admire what you are doing. You have an excellect reputation, you get great results. Thousands of new charters will be created in the wake of your success. But your results are not typical. Warn President Obama and Secretary Duncan.... that the wonderful results you get are unusual they are not typical of the charter sector.

I agree with her.

2. If you think "a lot," then next question is, can these schools attract the type of teachers they currently have to "scale?"

a. Can these 300 schools grow to, say, 600?

Probably.

a2. Can this happen while improving -- bolstering the ultimate college graduation rate to 75%, per KIPP's aspiration?

Possibly.

b. Can these schools grow to 30,000+ and remain staffed by the same folks? I.e., are there 600,000 top college grads willing to work for 4 years for 70++ hours per week?

No.

b2. Is the efficiency experimentation (on teacher moves) happening to allow proven teachers to hold achievement constant and yet work fewer hours?

Not really. See Rebecca's comment in my blog yesterday, about principals.

c. Can we imagine a scenario where 3 million existing teachers become, on average, extraordinary?

Probably not.

c1. Scenario where they improve by 20%? We can imagine it, but even that -- while it sounds straightforward -- is scary if you think about the data on improvement.

But I think the way to tackle this is:

Give full control of all professional development $$$ to current teachers (politically possible, almost no downside, large upside)

While radically changing teacher selection and prep for the 200,000 new teachers/year.

d. Can we shift the reform focus to student motivation...without using the No Excuses teacher approach (i.e., not teachers calling parents and kids at 7.30pm at night to get kids to try hard)?

Sure, but most experiments in this arena have not worked well.

d1. The schools based on curriculum that the kids themselves enjoy haven't been too promising.

d2. Incentive payments to kids have only had modest success.

We should absolutely invest much, much more in this student motivation experimentation and research. Generating more effort "directly" out of 50 million kids would diminish the demands on 3 million teachers.

Bottom line. I think it's about the coaches and the players. There is room for ambitious effort on both fronts.