Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Entrepreneurism is the Key to Quality Teachers

Of all the problems facing public education in the inner city, no need is more pressing than placing quality teachers in the classrooms. I will narrow the focus to high schools, where I believe the opportunity to develop an innovative, passionate, intelligent, and risk taking faculty is most attainable and most pressing.

The centerpiece of my reform idea is the American entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have been the engine for economic growth and innovation since our nation’s founding, and I truly believe we can capture the spirit of entrepreneurs from Ben Franklin to Steven Jobs and apply those skills to the classroom.
I spent a considerable amount of time studying entrepreneurs, trying to find some common characteristics that define the successful entrepreneur, and I think I have done so. These characteristics can form the metrics to evaluate teachers and to “train” them to be exceptional teachers.
What I have found is that successful entrepreneurs demonstrate five characteristics: they are Passionate, they are well Organized, they are incredibly Knowledgeable about their product, they are Empowering with regard to the people they associate with in developing their work, and they are Resourceful in their ability to gather, organize, and utilize the materials essential to their craft.
Knowing this, we can then build the foundation for creating an exceptional faculty. First, these five metrics can be the basis for creating a system of remuneration that includes performance pay and/or performance ladders. Two things that have always bothered me about my former profession is the use of “years of service” and “degrees attained” as the basis for determining pay, and the lack of any true upward mobility to the profession. There is absolutely no correlation between having an advanced degree and being a better teacher, and treating all teachers with the same years of service the same is a slap in the face to every exceptional teacher; it in fact creates a disincentive for such teachers to continue putting in the time and effort associated with designing a quality “product.” It also “rewards” lazy and mediocre teachers by eliminating any financial pressure to elevate their work. It rewards those doing the minimum.
Using the “entrepreneurial metrics” I suggest, we can devise a system that not only holds teachers accountable for performance with their annual evaluations, something that is being instituted in New Jersey this year, but creates a foundations for rewarding excellent teachers by increasing their pay or promoting them up a “performance ladder” where such teachers will assume greater responsibilities and roles within the school commensurate with their superior abilities. Moving up such a ladder would also be supported with increased pay.
Implicit in the use of these metrics, and consistent with the spirit of entrepreneurism, would be the creation of a policy that gives teachers far greater academic freedom to design their own curriculum. Teachers would in essence start competing for students, so students would also have more freedom to choose course that reflect their own passions and interests. It would be up to the school, by learning more about the “consumer,” to try and align the passions and interests of the faculty with those of the student body.
This of course raises the issue of our state’s Core Curriculum Content Standards, something I consider one of the greatest tragedies in public education. I want to distinguish the CCCS with the currently popular national core standards. These national standards are by and large all skill based rather than content based, and I wholly agree that all high school classrooms should be integrating those core skills into their curriculum. I would argue that these core skills are far more important than any mandated content standards, which are unduly burdensome on teachers and should be greatly reduced. The academics creating these content standards have failed to distinguish between what students could learn, even should learn, and what they MUST learn.
Two more points are important. First, most adults forget almost all the content they learn in high school unless it is in some way connected to their college work, their personal interests, or their employment; it is much more likely they will remember the skills. The reasons for this are two- fold: the content is uninteresting or unconnected to their life, and the broad and onerous content requirements, the “cumulative progress indicators,” cannot be truly learned given the time constraints of the school year. There is a huge difference between being “taught” something and actually “learning” something. Learning is a time consuming process, and most curriculum is never taught in such a way that it can become part of a student’s long term memory. To truly assess learning would require the creation of any number of assessment tools, something that cannot be done today.
More to the point, these content standards are completely disconnected from what every high school student must know to be autonomous, independent, engaged, and knowledgeable citizens in our society. These standards, and the subsequent HSPA evaluation, are much too “college oriented” rather than societally oriented; making things worse is that the test only covers math and English, giving most teachers a “pass” from having to actually teach the CCCS. There is no accountability for the vast majority of teachers.
Scrapping the existing standards and HSPA, and replacing them with standards and tests that are far more relevant to “the real world,” will by consequence free up teachers to develop their own unique “products,” allowing them to express that aforementioned entrepreneurial spirit in the classroom. This would then be tied to a performance based system of evaluation and remuneration. Students will be the true beneficiaries of such a system, attending a school with a vibrant culture of learning steeped in the spirit of entrepreneurism.
In my next post I will turn my attention to new teachers, and how we should reach into our colleges and the workforce to find our future educators. This will be followed by a post explaining how to get our most important stakeholders, the parents, business community, and non-profits, into the fold to further enhance student learning. As the pieces fall in place, a solution to the tragedy that is urban education will come more in focus.


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