Responding to Politico’s “Rating Teachers Not As Easy As 1, 2, 3″

This article originally appeared on the TeachBoost blog.

Politico’s recent piece “Rating Teachers Not As Easy As 1, 2, 3” does a solid job of reporting on the landscape of teacher evaluation right now. In sum, despite all the rancor—or because of it—very little is happening:

Teachers union pressure, error-riddled evaluations and a wave of more difficult tests for students have won many teachers a reprieve from the newfangled evaluations during the school year now getting underway.

Specifically, Arne Duncan allowed states another year to tinker with standardized tests so value-added measures are fair and reliable. But other changes have already been implemented:

Six years into the Obama administration, most states have made big changes. Evaluations are more frequent and far more complex. Principals must often conduct several highly detailed classroom observations of each teacher each year. Some districts also include factors such as a teacher’s absentee rate, feedback from parents and students and peer review by colleagues. Objective measures of student learning—often, test scores—frequently account for 25 percent to 50 percent of the teacher’s evaluation.

Certainly, some of these changes constitute progress. To wit, previously “evaluations were often infrequent and superficial. The principal might walk into a classroom, check a few things off a checklist and make sure the classroom was under control.”

In fact, our friends at Bellwether recently published a report explaining that while states are all over the map on value added measures, some progress has been made, albeit inconsistently, on other aspects of teacher evaluation. Unfortunately, Bellwether argues, much of this progress has stalled.

Upon finishing the Politico piece, a reader would be excused for thinking that the situation is much worse—that no progress has been made at all, that this is an irreparably damaged system. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

We at TeachBoost happen to know for a fact that very positive developments are happening nationwide. We work with schools and districts across the country in which instructional leaders are fostering innovation among their faculty, master educators are mentoring novice teachers, and teacher evaluation is genuinely believed to be an opportunity for growth, as opposed to a punitive compliance measure.

We don’t take a position on the particular issues discussed in the Politico piece, though we know them to be important. Our platform supports districts in implementing whatever evaluation system they have. Still, we do hold fast to one idea: high-quality feedback, collaboration among educators, and growth-focused dialogue are essential to improved teaching and learning.

We hope legislators, lobbyists, and voters keep our philosophy in mind as well. However the legislation shakes out, we need systems that:

  • promote growth rather than stifle it;
  • allow districts to develop master teachers and build collaborative cultures;
  • enable districts to go beyond mere compliance, pursuing better teaching and learning instead.

It’s possible. We’ve seen it.

The “Hype Cycle” as it Relates to 21st-Century School Transformation

Last week,  I led a webinar as part of TeachBoost‘s back-to-school series that introduced strategies for adopting a 21st-century approach to instruction and leadership, while working against 20th-century odds. Check it out!

What is an Excellent Teacher? Responding to Arne Duncan and the DOE

Reposted from the TeachBoost blog

Announcing the Excellent Educators for All initiative, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “Race and family income too often still predict students’ access to excellent educators. That is simply unacceptable. We must do better, and do better together.”

Watch the White House briefing here.

Reviving an unenforced mandate from No Child Left Behind, President Obama and Arne Duncan introduced three components to this initiative:

  • By April 2015, states must submit “comprehensive educator equity plans” that detail how they plan to put “effective educators” in front of poor and minority kids.
  • To help states write the plans, the Education Department will create a $4.2 million “Education Equity Support Network.”
  • This fall, the Education Department will publish “Educator Equity profiles” that highlight which states and districts fare well or poorly on teacher equity. (Huffington Post)

While the details of the plans and their assessment will emerge over time, we hope they are thoughtful, actionable, and well-supported. At TeachBoost, we will work tirelessly to help districts nationwide in meeting their proposed goals. As Duncan says at the end of his announcement, “All students deserve excellent educators.” Rich or poor, black or white, all students deserve the best education possible. The education community must work to put excellent teachers where they’re needed most.At the end of his announcement, Duncan shares what the DOE considers to be common themes identified among excellent teachers. He explains,

  • “Great teachers follow great principals.”
  • “Great teachers want to work on a team with other great teachers.”
  • “Great teachers need extra help and support, particularly early on in their careers.”
  • “Great teachers want to grow and take on additional leadership opportunities.”
  • “Great teachers absolutely deserve to be well paid.”
  • “Great teachers and principals are in it for the long haul.”

We’ve found dedicated professionals eager to grow, learn, collaborate, and lead in schools all across the country. One theme we’d add, though, is that these professionals are well-supported by a robust, efficient, collaborative, and targeted system of evaluation and professional growth.Even the best educators need support from their peers and administrators. An evaluation system that treats educators as the professionals they are is therefore vital to the success of the Excellent Educators for All program. We will certainly do our best to support the initiative on our end. We hope the DOE will as well.

A Response to Ariel Norling’s Story

Like many of my colleagues in edtech, I’ve been following the communal response to Ariel Norling’s surprisingly-unsurprising story. There have been some great responses, like Audrey Watters’s takedown of ISTE’s response.

There have been some disappointing responses as well. A lot of the negative response to Ariel’s post suggests that, if not to blame, she is at least partly responsible for what happened because of the poor decisions she made. Let’s think about that.

Remember your early 20s? Probably not. Probably because you were somewhere making bad decisions yourself. And if you are a man, those situations didn’t inevitably put you at risk of sexual assault. If you are a woman, perhaps you were more careful — but isn’t it crazy that you had to be careful?

Like Louie C.K. said, “there’s no greater threat to women than men.”  Whose fault is it if a young woman is at risk simply for drinking at a happy hour organized for a professional conference? Is it hers? Or the idiots around her?

Surely the latter. I’ve been to these same conferences. They’re boozy affairs that promote all kinds of mingling that blur the lines of professionalism. Yet, I’ve never once felt that I was in danger of being sexually assaulted. I’m sure I will never feel that way. Yet, for some reason, women do have to feel that way.

The two men in Ariel’s story made a choice. It was not inevitable. They decided to act in a way that did make her feel in danger. They didn’t just misread cues. They were older men, in a position of power, aware of the particular vulnerability of a young woman, drinking too much in an unfamiliar situation, who is likely to trust prominent figures like a well-known edtech CEO and principal. Who knows better how vulnerable young people are than an educator? I’d trust these guys if I were her. If I’m right about who they are, I’ve met them, and they did seem like nice guys.

How can you blame Ariel, at all?

It’s no secret that sexual harassment runs rampant in the tech industry. Edtech apparently is no different. Unlike the tech community, though, at least we can be a bit more thoughtful in how we address issues as they come up. Aren’t we supposed to be more caring, since we’ve dedicated ourselves to improving student achievement – a noble cause? We’re supposed to be better. So, before you criticize Ariel, ask yourself — is it really the victim’s fault for acting her age, or is it the men’s fault for taking advantage? Who is to bear the burden of protecting young members of the community, a 21 year old at one of her first conferences, or a CEO and principal, responsible for the well-being a hundreds or thousands of lives every day?

Seriously, folks. Thank you, Ariel, for posting your piece. Hopefully, we’ll listen.

Can You Just Tell Me What to Do?

Project-based learning (PBL) is pretty amazing when it works.

PBL units inspire kids to become a sort of paraprofessional, applying their learning in ways that actually make a difference. Well-executed PBL has students learning and doing. A lesson starts with a good question, which contextualizes all subsequent learning. Students identify what they need to learn to come up with their answer. Once they have an answer, they do something with it. For example, say the question is, “How can our town resolve its budget crisis?” Students will need to learn how a town’s budget works, what public resources go to, how citizens can become involved in city operations, the math involved in all of this, and a great deal more. Perhaps a group of students recognizes that there is a lot of money wasted in travel inefficiencies. Knowing when trains meet that leave from LA and NYC (or, local town A and local town B) at 10:25 going 25 mph and 32 mph becomes meaningful. So does their ability to give a presentation, since it’s not just their giggling, equally nervous classmates they need to impress; it’s the city’s council. The e-mails they will send to organize a visit from the local transportation authority require some pretty good grammar.

So why aren’t we all doing this?

Well, PBL has its flaws. Most obviously, it takes time. As adults, we know how long it takes to schedule a meeting, discuss an issue (no matter how uncontroversial it may be), and have someone with some authority make a decision on it. These processes don’t fit nicely into an already overbooked school day or curriculum.

It also requires there to be someone who wants to attend those meetings and hear from kids. If a 13 year old can do a better job than full time employees, then perhaps government bureaucracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (Oh, wait…)

The pressures to perform on state tests and meet standards ostensibly is an obstacle too, though PBL advocates will be the first to tell you that students often learn even more when they take active ownership over their learning. How much have you learned in training sessions versus on-the-job, trial by fire? Exactly.

Even with the right problems to solve, adequate time, a receptive audience, and open-mindedness on the part of administrators and evaluators, there is the remaining problem of the habits of teachers and students. Teachers need a great deal of training and practice (and willingness to fail miserably for the first time since their first year of teaching) to fully understand how to design a good PBL unit, support students through it, and ensure that important content and skills are taught by its end.

Fortunately, despite their reputation, teachers can and do change. Though schools may be built on an old model, teachers aren’t really doing the same thing as they were fifty years ago. The overall educational paradigm hasn’t shifted, but teachers’ approaches and resources have shifted within its confines. They could change again. Hop on an #edchat on Twitter. You’ll see just how many teachers are ready to take the plunge.

But there is another, real, oft-overlooked obstacle: the students themselves. Children like to play, we think, so they will take to a less rigid classroom like ducks to water. Wrong. We forget that children have learned to play school a certain way. And this game is actually easier than PBL.

When I helped to introduce a faculty, student body, and parent community to PBL, I learned just how resistant to change the student constituency could be. Through much of the year, PBL wasn’t the most popular instructional framework with students and their parents. The hardest working students chafed at having to work with their less driven peers. Students who had mastered the version of school that defines success as memorization of content and following explicit instructions struggled with the openness of this new format. I’d often hear, “Can’t you just tell me what to do?”

In PBL and other open-ended, student-centric instructional models with an emphasis on “real world” or “authentic” assessments, students chart much of their own path through the learning. Teachers and the community offer the materials, opportunities, and guidance they need to acquire knowledge, develop skills, and apply both toward some meaningful end. But the onus is on the students to do the labor, physical and intellectual. It’s hard.

Adopting these instructional models requires training of faculty, of course. But it also requires significant training of students. We need to scaffold the development of collaboration skills. Students need to learn how to act on a good idea, and how to discern good ideas from bad. Schools need to introduce social norms instinctual to adults but foreign to kids.

Traditionally, the dreaded “real world” taught college graduates these skills (though many adults never learn them, as I’m sure we can all attest). Now, if schools are to really evolve as advocates of PBL hope, we need to do more than send kids out into the real world to apply their learning. We need to bring the real world into school. Project management, collaboration, manners, professionalism, and more need to be taught as thoughtfully and deliberately as multiplication.

This recommendation does raise an important question: is this what schools should be doing? On the one hand, schools are supposed to prepare students to succeed in the very environments for which these new lessons will prepare them. On the other, schools offer students a sanctum from the “real world” in which they can stockpile knowledge and skills to be employed later on. Is there value in this separation, this distance between learning and doing? Is there a deeper reason for moving away from apprenticeship education than the transition to an industrial economy?

Perhaps. Having seen PBL at its best, I believe expertly designed units with serendipitous opportunities for authentic assessment to become meaningful can combine the best of the new and old. Still, it takes a great deal of time, resources, and energy to get students to a place where they seize these opportunities, instead of insisting that the teacher just tells them what to do. It’s work we need to do. Will we do it?

Most important article on edtech I’ve read in a while

EdSurge’s MaryJo Madda wrote a terrific piece on Hybrid High’s implementation of blended learning, which went from failing to flourishing with some important tweaks. Autonomy, high expectations, and accountability for students and teachers alike remedied the problems with the initial implementation. Hybrid High’s story offers helpful lessons to all of us in edtech. Definitely worth a read.

There are lots of great nuggets in the article, but I especially loved the following idea:

Teachers are using these “flex funds” to purchase the edtech that they feel best suits their needs. Enthusiasm for the tools they’re using may spread, influencing the choices made by other teachers. While the administration purchases large-scale edtech products (i.e. Hapara and Illuminate) with the school budget, teachers can purchase other curriculum materials as they see fit–from pencils to curriculum user accounts.

Whole thing here.


Please Consider Reading This Book!

My good friend Ibrahim Kamara published a short book detailing his experience as a child soldier and his journey to becoming a school founder. It’s a gut-wrenching, inspiring read. You can read more about my work with him here in my post “The Best Unit I’ve Ever Taught”.


Five lessons learned about productive startup-teacher relationships

Update: The Podcast from the talk that inspired this article is featured here. 


This article was originally featured on EdSurge

There’s a gulf between educators and entrepreneurs. It’s time we do something about it. In this spirit, I had the privilege of leading a workshop at SXSWedu this year in which we paired educators and edtech entrepreneurs to share their trials and tribulations and discuss how to bridge the gap between them more often. Here are five lessons we learned.

1. How you treat customers will reach a much broader audience than you expect.

Two great stories shared in our session illustrate this point. First, one teacher commented on a company that asked his school to be the primary beta tester. Teachers, administrators and tech integrators worked regularly with the company to give feedback that was incorporated into the 1.0 release. Once it hit the market and started growing, the company told this teacher and his school that the relationship was over. He received no discount, no thanks, and even when running into each other at a conference, no acknowledgement of the hard work. Hearing this story, the room was soured on the product.

In contrast, another teacher shared a story where one day in class, the product simply did not work. Ten minutes of troubleshooting in class revealed a clear software glitch. The teacher tweeted at the company, the company dedicated a developer to this problem that night, and next day the teacher redid the lesson with a working product. The kids thought their teacher was a wizard and the teacher was deeply appreciative. The attendees at our session were as impressed as the students.

Good or bad, word of customer service experiences travel far and wide. Teachers like to talk. You’re not dealing with only one school or teacher; you’re dealing with their whole network.

2. There can be tension between pleasing individual teachers and scaling. It can be resolved by having one nimble product and one staid product.

As companies improve their customer service, they have to deal with pleasing two very different sets of teachers. Some teachers are eager to use beta products and are prepared for tech failures. These are probably your early adopters and most vocal advocates. To innovate, you need these folks.

Other teachers just want a reliable product. These are the teachers who pay your bills. You need to keep both happy. To do so, go beyond just offering your innovators a beta version. Dedicate engineering resources to a wholly separate product that will evolve according to their needs. As it evolves, you can incorporate some of its features into your core product, but keep innovation alive at the same time. Think of it as beta+.

3. Startups need teachers to advocate for them and inform product development. Hire academic liaisons and have them focus their efforts on less techie teachers.

Teacher advocacy has to extend beyond tales of customer service wins and failures, though. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: teachers will be happy to offer their time and expertise to helping you if they believe in your product.

The teacher you hire as your academic liaison should advocate for your product at conferences, on Twitter, and in his or her professional learning community. Your academic liaison should also identify seasoned educators. Power brokers in faculty rooms are these revered, wizened teachers who have survived several administrative regimes and educational fads. If they begin using your product, your work is done in that school. A good academic liaison will know exactly how to talk to them; they’ve mastered “teacherese.”

(And to answer a question that came up a few times at the session: you should pay your academic liaison! Teachers don’t need internships! It doesn’t have to be much, but give them the respect they deserve.)

4. To paraphrase my co-speaker Martin Moran, too much of edtech is solutions looking for problems.

An academic liaison’s value is their intimate knowledge of how schools function, and they know better than edtech companies the problems teachers face. Every teacher can list a number of pain points: the logistics of scheduling and following up on parent-teacher conferences, the lack of reliable, vetted OER content, making assessment metrics meaningful, and so on.

Unfortunately, these problems aren’t communicated effectively. They float around faculty rooms, never to reach the ears of the very people who can solve them. If we could just get teachers to compile a giant list of their pain points, whiz kid developers and entrepreneurs could dream up solutions for many of them. We need more of this collaboration and communication. Educators can and should lead product development, but someone needs to step in to help.

5. Teachers are less skeptical of profit-motive than is their reputation.

I’ve heard many entrepreneurs bemoan the distaste for profit-motive among teachers. They fear that the moment they ask a teacher or school to pay, they’ll somehow be marked with a scarlet dollar sign. Teachers are less naive than you may think. Whenever I work with teachers to implement Ponder, they ask, “How can we pay you? What do I need to do?” When teachers believe in a product, they don’t care that it costs money. They just care that it helps their students. If they don’t want to pay you, it’s because they don’t believe in the product, not because they’re anti-capitalists.

These five lessons are a snapshot of the awesome ideas shared at our session. Beyond these points, though, is the most important one: Teachers and edtech companies want to team up, but just don’t have enough opportunity to do so. We can change that. Together, we can bridge this gulf.

How to Make Edtech Startups Investable

Edtech is a double bottom line industry. The noble ambition of improving education motivates any edtech company worth paying attention to. Profit comes second. Problematically, though, VCs tend to see edtech as a worthwhile investment only for the social capital it affords a firm, not the financial gains that motivate investment elsewhere. It is awfully difficult for many promising edtech companies to get funded for this reason. VCs can only do so much charity. It’s not their fault.

The reality of our economy is that if we want innovation to scale, that innovation also needs to be profitable. For it be profitable, schools have to be agile, efficient, predictable consumers to which lots of edtech companies can sell. For schools to optimize in this way, they need to see tremendous value in edtech. But most products haven’t proved their value to schools, so schools have done little to foster a competitive market, and companies continue to have trouble getting in the door. In turn, VCs avoid it like the plague.

Further complicating matters is the power wielded by the good ol’ boys in edtech – namely, the big publishers and LMSs.  They’re optimized to fit this market and, in so doing, ensure that there is no incentive for the market to change. Schools keep getting what they want, however inefficiently they behave. The big publishers’ and LMSs’ appetite for acquiring any intriguing startup solidifies their position for the foreseeable future.

Until more startups build tools that improve student achievement right away, schools will never focus their energies on cultivating a competitive edtech marketplace. Right now, optimizing to allow more edtech companies in the door is a waste of time and money that could be better spent on offering basic learning necessities to students and teachers.  But companies need time to iterate, pilot, and learn how technology can really impact education. Time costs money… money we have already established is extremely hard to get.

So what can we do?

My recommendation to startups facing these obstacles: stop treating edtech as a siloed industry. Develop products that transfer to other industries well. The benefits afforded to students by good educational technologies – encouraging individualized learning, increasing productivity, motivating deeper reading and clearer writing, increasing access to resources and information otherwise inaccessible, providing data that reveal interests and needs, to name a few – also transfer beyond education. Internet publications could use these same tools to increase engagement with their content, to learn more about their readers, and to build more efficient ad products. Social networks can leverage these technologies to introduce new ways of interacting with connections. Banks and financial outlets can use them to better educate users. Where edtech works, it’s often because it addresses human needs, not needs peculiar to students. And, best of all, edtech companies can make money with their technologies in all these other industries. They finally become investable.

Of course, this approach means that, in the short term, there will be less innovation in edtech because companies will have to learn other markets as well. The educational value will be developed over time. In the long term, companies will have the resources to refine their educational value will delivering a return to investors in the meantime. Since most products aren’t improving student achievement now anyway, this long incubation period would serve the industry well. In general, we don’t know how technology can help motivate better teaching and learning; we just all believe it can. Let’s find it out while also making some money. In other words, paradoxically, if edtech companies prioritize profit over educational value, they will be able to deliver real educational value more efficiently.


Three Lessons Ben Horowitz’s New Book Teaches About Edtech

In his new book The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, famed venture capitalist and rap enthusiast Ben Horowitz offers a wealth of practical, honest advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. You can read helpful reviews from the WSJ and PandoDaily. Daniel Freedman of the Journal writes, “The honesty is both refreshing and compelling, and readers will enjoy being taken through challenge after challenge alongside Mr. Horowitz” and Sarah Lacy adds that parts of the book read like a “scandalous true crime novel .”  I wholly agree with both reviewers. It’s a good book – as a book – and a helpful Idiot’s Guide to being a CEO. It also offers the edtech enthusiast a helpful lens through which to examine our industry.

1) Parts of edtech are in a bubble, but the “companies that make sense” will survive.

Horowitz weathered the dot-com crash, barely. The chapters that detail these months and years are certainly those to which Lacy was referring. In VC Matthew Greenfield’s piece linked above, he explains that digital textbook companies comprise the edtech bubble. He writes, “…there is a bubble in ideas that won’t work and a dearth of capital for ideas that can work.” Yep. There was a similar bubble in the whole tech industry about 15 years ago as well. To avoid the misery Horowitz and others endured, though, we should reflect honestly on edtech now, before it bursts. Let it change shape gradually instead.

2) Sexy doesn’t equal successful.

The best part of the book is definitely in the retelling of Horowitz’s hiring of Mark Cranney, a poor cultural fit and unglamorous head of sales. Horowitz describes his conversation with then Chair of his Board (and now the other half of Andreessen Horowitz) Marc Andreessen:

I let Marc open the conversation…by listing his issues with Cranney: doesn’t look or sound like a head of sales, went to a weak school, makes him uncomfortable. I listened very carefully and replied, “I agree with every single one of those issues. However, Mark Cranney is a sales savant. He has mastered sales to a level that far exceeds anybody that I have ever known. If he didn’t have the things wrong with him that you enumerated, he wouldn’t be willing to join a company that just traded at thirty-five cents per share; he’d be the CEO of IBM.” Marc’s reply came quickly: “Got it. Let’s hire him! (Horowitz 98).

Cranney was the best hire because he knew how to do the job. Though he didn’t look the part, he was the part. Horowitz was proved right in hiring him.

So many edtech companies introduce exciting technologies to education that are a complete mismatch with what actually happens inside classrooms. Most of these companies are founded by and funded by people who are looking to build products that reimagine education as they understand it from their memory of being a student. These 16-year-olds in 35 year-olds bodies do not understand education like an actual educator does. While it may not be a good cultural fit to hire a veteran educator to do some marketing or product development, a seasoned educator can be an extremely valuable member of an edtech startup team.

I can also assure all edtech entrepreneurs that there are more educators interested in filling these roles than they could imagine. The responses I’ve gotten from educators around the world to my EdSurge articles on this very topic make this clear. Like Cranney, you also have to appreciate that the very “deficiencies” that make them hard to find, make them a poor cultural fit in a small, lean startup, and keep them in the ed side of edtech are those qualities that make them valuable team members in the first place: they know and love education, not business. If they had entrepreneurial instincts and self-promotional ambitions, they probably would’ve crossed over and started a company themselves. But as teachers become sold on the potential of edtech, more and more are intrigued by their ability to support it. You will find educators interested in crossing over for the right company. You’ll just have to go to them; they won’t come to you.

3) All that said, teacherpreneurship isn’t an absolute good.

A lot of bloggers who echo these sentiments about the value of bringing the educators into edtech champion the relatively new phenomenon of teacherpreneurship. I’ve been as guilty of anyone of over-selling this point. But let me be clear: not all teachers make for good CEOs. They won’t all make good product managers or marketers or sales people. Many can’t even make coffee well enough to be a great intern. Great teachers have many  skills that transfer well to entrepreneurship – charisma, intelligence, organization, empathy – but nothing is guaranteed. As Horowitz writes, “The only thing that prepares you to run a company is running company” (201). Bringing educators into the fold is not a bulletproof solution to building a great edtech company by any means.

One problem that I’ve noticed of late is teacher-led companies that solve a very particular “teachery” need, but are in no way built to scale or monetize. These products should not be honored as the pinnacle of edtech. They’re great hobbies, and thousands of educators are thankful they exist. But edtech’s future depends as much on products’ marketability as their usefulness.

Let’s heed Horowitz’s advice, reflect honestly and critically on the industry, and ensure its growth by making the right – but not necessarily the popular – decisions.