Part 2: Independent Learners Require First Independent Teaching

Learning, Learning Innovations, PreK-12

Yesterday I tackled the debate of student performance as a measure of teacher effectiveness in Part 1. Here’s why performance-based pay for teachers as an approach to teacher effectiveness runs counter to every meaningful definition of personalized education:

  • This approach incentivizes teachers to game the system, seeking high scores over genuinely helping students and improving their professional skills
  • This approach incentivizes teachers to compete with each other for high scores rather than collaborating to support students
  • This approach assumes that student growth ought to be attributable to a single teacher working in isolation
  • This approach assumes that rewards and punishments can be used to improve teacher performance when:
    • Rewards and punishments have been shown to only work for rote tasks and, in fact, decrease performance on tasks that require judgment; and
    • Educators are motivated by helping students and are unlikely to be satisfied by working conditions that replace the satisfaction of continually improving their ability to do so with financial rewards and job security.
  • This approach penalizes educators whose districts can’t afford the tools and technology that makes personalizing test preparation more efficient, often the same districts that are likely to have classrooms where student academic achievement levels have a high variance.
  • This approach penalizes those educators who are trusted with the students who have the greatest challenges.
  • This approach assumes that educators can and should overcome the effects of poverty on their students.
  • This approach assumes that every school, district, state, and community should have the same goals for student outcomes.
  • This approach creates unnecessary polarization between administrators and educators as administrators are forced to recognize only a limited “slice” of educator performance, leading to oversimplification of the challenges and to union backlash.

There are better ways to recruit, retain, recognize, and develop effective teachers, but they require administrators, politicians, and parents to give up on the idea that simplistic measures can be used to control teachers in order to improve performance; to recognize that teaching is a professional endeavor that requires professional expertise and judgment; and that any approach that is based in teacher-proofing education is doomed to increasing mediocrity and eliminating excellence.

To create the personalized learning environments that we aspire to for our students, we must first create personalized teaching and work environments. To develop independent learners, we need educators who model independent work. To ignite the intrinsic motivators inside each child, we need intrinsically motivated teachers.

Fundamentally, a personalized teaching environment is one where rather than evaluating teachers based on inauthentic and flawed metrics, teachers are recognized for their contributions to individual and collective student growth as understood by students, parents, peers and school leadership. A teacher who sparks interest in a disenfranchised student is recognized for helping to shift that student’s disposition, and a teacher who provides an accelerated student with challenging resources is recognized for supporting that student’s academic progress. The professionals and leadership of a given building have the expertise and context to understand valuable contributions in diverse dimensions, and can continue to discover new ways of contributing as new situations arise locally. In any given building, the professionals who work together every day know which educators are making a significant difference for their students and which ones are not – high stakes tests don’t.

Trusting the professionalism of educators in recognizing and valuing contribution within a professional community of practice; allowing educators to modify and adapt their practice by trying new things, keeping what works, and discarding what doesn’t; recognizing educators for supporting, teaching, and learning from each other, collaborating, and leveraging each other’s work – these are all practices of a personalized teaching environment.

If there are objections, in a given school or community, to according teachers the trust and respect of professionals that are based on fear that students will be left at the mercy of bad or indifferent teaching, that poor students will suffer the worst teaching, that the only way to ensure quality learning is to increase controls on teachers, then the students in that community are already doomed. Increased controls and inauthentic measures of success are simplistic, blunt tools that not only fail to improve poor teaching, they also drive trustworthy, creative, capable teachers from that community and, often, from the profession. The only hope for that community is to find or create the leadership and culture that will support excellence, that will personalize teaching so that learning can be personalized for every student – not just those who live in districts that can afford to do more than just teach to a test.

Photo courtesy of BigStock.

Marie Bjerede

Marie Bjerede

Marie Bjerede is a writer, speaker, and champion for education transformation. With her wireless communication background, she's now challenging technical, economic, social, and systemic obstacles to brining personalized learning to every student. Follow Marie on Twitter at @mbjerede.

5 Comments

Tom Vander Ark /

Thanks Marie, several comments:
-Teaching in new environments is a team (more than individual) practice where experienced teachers guide new teachers, so you’re right that in many areas individual attribution won’t work.
-Like students, teachers should have individual learning plans and clear performance benchmarks. See my post on the Summit Prep system of teacher development: 7 dimensions of great teaching and 4 levels of contribution http://gettingsmart.com/cms/blog/2011/06/diane-travenner-on-the-summit-prep-teacher-development-system/
-We can and should accurately measure student growth using a variety of measures and with artifacts of student work
-Measures of student growth should be considered in individual and team evaluations (e.g., Summit considers a dashboard of evidence/observation)
-Teachers should be able to quickly gain responsibility and higher levels of compensation by demonstration contribution to student learning & team goals

Tom Vander Ark /

We are writing a white paper on new staffing and teacher development strategies in March–comments and suggestions welcome.

Marie Bjerede /

Tom –

Wonderful description by Diane on the Summit Prep system. Intriguing!

“While edReformers may not like it, dynamic staffing models will require the application of judgment in teacher evaluations and that’s hard to write into policy.” – Exactly!! When I was working in the tech industry, we had a saying that “you can’t legislate intelligence”, a reaction against the “$600 toilet seats” that resulted from the government standards and statements of work that tried so hard to specify everything to the last detail that costs increased dramatically and quality and innovation were squeezed out. Top-down, hyper-rational control tends to eliminate those things that cannot be measured and standardizes those that can to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, much of business still works this way, as does much of education, though some organizations are more resilient in the face of it than others.

As we build on the models that emphasize the judgment of educators over simplistic checklists, I hope we also pay attention to modern research in motivation. I note the Summit Prep model focuses on pay (or perhaps that is just the emphasis of the article) – which absolutely needs to be considered – but which can also undermine the development of a personalized teaching environment if not well understood.

The key is to build on excellent frameworks and models that rely on teacher judgment and accountability to each other as professionals, then for the educators themselves to evolve these models in the ways appropriate for their particular environment rather than adopting external measures of value uncritically. The evolution of their professional practice is the heart of professional work and must not be ceded to external, extrinsic motivators.

Marie Bjerede /

Tom – Yes, I would love to discuss more about personalizing teaching for your white paper. My work is based on what my experience in executive leadership shows about what works and what doesn’t in shifting from hierarchical least-common-denominator command-and-control structures to self-organizing structures that take advantage of tacit knowledge, collective knowledge, and serendipity. I suggest a different model of “teacher growth”.

Marie Bjerede /

FWIW, I talk a little bit more about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivators in this polemic regarding accountability and the role of wireless edtech: http://e-mergents.com/?p=363