Q&A

Rick Hess: ‘teacher leadership’ can and should be more than an empty phrase

Rick Hess

Rick Hess, the political scientist and education reform advocate/critic, is out with a new book, “The Cage-Busting Teacher.”

The book is meant to be a guide for teachers who want to create a better learning environment for themselves and their students. Hess was in Denver last week to promote his book at a special event hosted by the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Before his event, Hess, who is the director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, sat down with Chalkbeat Colorado to talk about his new book and what teachers in cities like Denver can do to advocate for themselves.

This interview has been edited and for length and clarity.

You write “I’m struck by how often even acclaimed teachers tell me that they feel muffled, stifled, ignored, undervalued, and marginalized … and aren’t sure what to do about it.” How do you think we got to this place where teachers feel trapped? 

One, it’s always been this way. Back in the 1970s, a wonderful University of Chicago scholar, Dan Lortie, wrote the book “Schoolteacher,” talking about how teachers were out of the loop for key decisions about their schools. I think it’s part of the way we’ve built the American education system. In the 19th Century, when we created the common the school, we feminized teaching and put men in charge. The men would call the shots and the women would just do what they were told. And we never revisited that model. So a lot of it is historical.

Second, when teachers fought for their rights — I mean, teachers used to be treated just horrifically. Women who got pregnant would be fired. Teachers in New York would be fired if they didn’t fit a certain height or weight requirement. As teachers fought for step and lane pay and tenure, I think those things were good advances a century ago. But as the teacher unions fought to build on things like seniority protection, things that were once reasonable adjustments created a very bureaucratic profession.

And I think third, frustration that schools that were designed hundreds of years ago and systems that were designed 50 to 100 years ago don’t seem very conducive to excellence today. You have a lot of reformers and policy makers trying to do something about it. And their language and ideas have sometimes been careless and crudely drawn. And teachers have not responded productively, which has made these reformers distrust them. I think we set the table and teachers have reacted in a way that makes the reformers distrust them. We’ve gotten into this cycle of hostility.

This book [attempts]…to help teachers think about how to break that cycle.

Can you give me an example of a workplace rule that you find nonconducive to today and conversely a half baked policy initiative?

Step and lane pay were introduced a century ago because women were being paid a third of what their male counterparts were making. And so the idea that teachers should be paid based on experience and some credentials was a far more equitable approach. That made a lot of sense at that point in time. Today, that’s not how any professional is compensated. Seniority is a part of how professionals are compensated and credentials matter, but places that employ college graduates don’t usually have these strict gridlock models.

What’s a place where reformers have misfired? On compensation: we should absolutely differentiate pay. Some people are better at their job, some aren’t. We’ve seen for example in Nashville: the school district was going to pay science teachers more if their kids’ test scores went up. Well, that’s really how we paid encyclopedia salesmen in the 1960s. That’s not anyone’s recipe for how you attract professionals or motivate them in the 21st Century.

You write, “Breaking free from this disheartening standstill begins with cage-busting teachers ready to step out of their classroom, able to deal with policymakers in good faith, and willing to make teacher leadership more than an empty phrase.”   When I read this, it makes it sound like it’s the teachers responsibility to end the hostility. Why do they have to step up? Why isn’t it the reformers responsibility to end the hostility?

Frankly, you only get out of the cycle if both sides do their part. Most of what I write is targeted toward the reformers. Many of my reformer friends are somewhat frustrated with me because I raise these kinds of points about how reformers tend to take good ideas and out of the best of intentions push them further than they can usefully push them and rush them in clumsy ways.

So, the backdrop is that reformers and policymakers need to do a lot better here. But this book is not for them — its for the teachers. And in reality, teachers also have to do their part on this. And they have to do at least their part because they’re in an asymmetric relationship with policymakers. Like it or not, its policymakers who are elected to write the laws and fund the schools.

…[W]hat’s happened is to a large extent…there are these teachers out there who are doing amazing things and speaking up, there are lot of teachers who are just doing their thing in the middle, and then you have teachers who are disgruntled and frustrated. These teachers in the backend, the 10 percent, they’re the teachers the reformers and policymakers envision when they think about the profession. They’re the ones who are rallying and screaming and writing nasty notes at the bottom of New York Times stories.

So what’s happened is they’ve become the face of the profession. And what I’m taking about, those other teachers, instead of retreating to their classrooms saying ‘I don’t want any part of this,’ need to take ownership of their profession…

In the preface and in some of your blogs, you take to task the idea of teacher leadership. You call it an empty buzzword. Well, it’s a really big buzzword in Denver. Are you familiar with the local model?

Not specifically.

The one thing about Denver’s model is that there is no one model. Every teacher-leader has their own sort of portfolio. While they might all do some coaching, one might be in charge of professional development, one might be in charge of leading data discussions. What do you think needs to happen in places in Denver — or any urban district — to make teacher-leaders a reality?

Teachers don’t work in isolation, they work in schools. If discipline is lax it affects how a teacher does her job. If a school is disorganized with their substitutes and a teacher has to be pulled out to do coverage, that affects how a teacher does her job. So the reality is a lousy schools make it difficult for a teacher to close her door and teach. And good schools make an OK teacher a better one because she can ride on the coattails of her colleagues.

Part of the trick is so many terrific teachers think of the job simply in the terms of pedagogy and instruction. So they’re writing a lot of micro-grants and they’re up until 2 a.m. and burning themselves out and they’re not really changing anything at the school. So the logic for me, what teacher leadership really needs to come down to is teachers who are opening that classroom door and creating schools and systems that are easier for them to do their best work. Where professional development is actually energizing rather than infuriating. Where principals are helping solve problems. Where weak colleagues are either getting better or moving on.

For me, teacher leadership should start with teachers using their specific insight on what’s going on in their schools and classrooms to help make schools work better for kids and teachers. So, when principals are coming on and making announcements and disrupting first and last period, teacher should call them on that. When meetings are wasting time and not yielding any useful outcomes, when schools are giving feedback or taking into account teacher morale, these are the kinds of things I want teachers to start with.

One of my concerns about leadership is that it’s led teachers to believe it means giving up your Saturday to go to the statehouse to rally or sit in some boring meeting or talk to legislators for 10 minutes.

Rather than thinking “leadership,” it’s solving problems at the school, generating trust to get more involved at the district, and then using that insight and expertise to then contribute at the policy level and in public discussion. That all falls under the umbrella of leadership, but I think it gets lost when people just throw that word around.

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Donnell-Kay Foundation.)

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Hess as a social scientist. He is a political scientist. 

mind the gap

In female-dominated education field, women still lag behind in pay, according to two new studies

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Two University of North Carolina graduate students were curious: Were female school superintendents earning less than their male counterparts?

Considering longstanding gender pay gaps across the economy, they expected to find a disparity. And using data from Pennsylvania, they did. But they also turned up something else when they plugged in data about classroom teachers.

“We were like, ‘Oh, we’ll throw these numbers in,” said James Sadler, one of the researchers. “And that’s when our eyes opened wide.”

To their surprise, they found a small but notable gender pay gap for classroom teachers, who are usually paid based on set salary schedules that are designed in part to root out exactly those sorts of disparities.

Virtually no matter how the data is analyzed, female educators earn less than their male counterparts in Pennsylvania, and, according to a separate analysis released this year, Illinois.

In Pennsylvania, disparities are even larger for principals and district leaders. And the gaps actually grow when controlling for factors that might explain the differences, suggesting outright discrimination may be at play.

Together, the two new studies illustrate how even the education field — a female-dominated one where many salaries aren’t open to negotiation — isn’t immune to the gender pay gap, at a time when strikes and walkouts mean extra attention is being paid to teachers’ wages.

“I’m not surprised at all that there’s a pay differential between men and women within the field of education, because men do get promoted more quickly,” said Judith Kafka, an education historian at CUNY’s Baruch College.

What is surprising, Kafka agreed, is the gap researchers found among teachers, considering that salary schedules typically rely on education and experience levels.

Still, in most cases, the pay gap is small relative to educators’ overall salaries — no more than 7 percent and usually less — and the studies can’t definitively explain what’s behind the gap.

The most detailed look at the issue comes from the UNC researchers, who compared the salaries of all public school teachers, school leaders, and district superintendents in Pennsylvania in the 2016-17 year.

In each job category, the raw dollar gap between men and women’s salaries was over a thousand dollars.

Controls account for education, experience, district, and job type. For district leaders, controls only include education and experience. Source: “Documenting Educator Salary Differences by Gender in Pennsylvania.” Graphic: Sam Park

There are a few potential explanations for this. Women teachers had about one fewer year of experience, on average, perhaps because they are more likely to take time off in the middle of their careers. Men may be more likely to take on extra duties like sports coaching, which could show up in the numbers even though the data is only supposed to include base salaries. And male teachers more often worked in slightly higher-paying districts.

Accounting for a teacher’s education, years of experience, and district and school type makes the teacher pay gap shrink to about $600. That’s just 1 percent of the average teacher’s salary, though over the course of a career, that difference could mean thousands of dollars lost.

The researchers say they’re not quite sure why it exists.

“That’s really the main question that is still unanswered,” said Sadler. “It’s something that we’re still still trying to figure out.”

One potential explanation, he said, is that teachers who enter a new district mid-career may find room to negotiate where they start on the salary schedule. This may advantage men.

“The salary scale is not necessarily the panacea for dealing with disparities,” said Jay Carter, the other UNC researcher behind the study.

But to Wythe Keever, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, the finding suggests salary schedules are keeping disparities small.

The gender gap “still appears lower than pay gaps based on gender in many other occupations,” he said.

Researchers also found a gender pay gap in Pittsburgh, one of the only districts in the state to have a performance-based pay system for some teachers. But the gap was present for both teachers who were and weren’t part of the system.

While women made up 73 percent of classroom teachers in Pennsylvania, the study showed they accounted for just 44 percent of school principals and 35 percent of superintendents.

That probably explains a part of the pay gap for all educators, a group that includes both classroom teachers and higher-paid administrators. (Nationally, women make up 77 percent of the public school teaching force but 54 percent of principals; just one in five superintendents in the 100 largest school districts have been women over the last decade and a half.)

“As in with other professions, I think that the education field needs to think a lot about how they promote and how they identify people to be promoted,” Kafka said, pointing to a phenomenon known as the “glass escalator,” when men in female-dominated professions move up the ranks more quickly.

Women who lead schools and districts in Pennsylvania face substantially larger pay gaps than teachers do — and controlling for education and years of experience actually makes the disparities bigger, suggesting that women are more qualified than men but still end up making less.

For superintendents, the pay gap amounted to over $4,000 annually. Here, since salaries are usually not based on a set schedule, differences in negotiations and outright discrimination could explain the results, though factors not accounted for by the researchers, such as size of district, may also be at play.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education laid the blame at the feet of districts. “It is important to note that in Pennsylvania educators’ salaries are determined at the local level,” said Nicole Reigelman, who noted that the state had recently banned state agencies from asking for job applicants’ salary histories.

Some of the Pennsylvania findings are echoed by another study released in March looking at educators’ salaries in Illinois.

Max Marchitello of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting firm, found that women in the education field made about $7,000 less than men. This lumps together different professional jobs, including administrator, classroom teacher, as well as guidance counselor and librarian, among others. But even in similar jobs and at similar experience levels, woman earned less in most cases.

(The exception was elementary school, where men and women were paid comparably despite the fact that women were typically more experienced.) Unlike the UNC study, this analysis does not try to control for multiple factors at once that might explain the disparities.

Even though some of the gap disappears when you control for differences in role, experience, and other factors, the UNC researchers argue that that doesn’t necessarily make the raw disparities less meaningful. If the roles that women fill or their years in the workplace are influenced by society’s expectations of women, it’s worth noting how that translates into smaller salaries.

“We could probably find enough stuff to control for to get rid of a pay gap,” said Carter. “It’s kind of a philosophical question: How hard should you have to work to explain away why real dollars [differ] between what goes into male households and female households?”

Redefining STEM

‘It’s OK to fail:’ How Indiana teachers are rethinking STEM for the real world

PHOTO: David Marbaugh
Teachers Paula Manchess (left) and Heidi Wilkinson (right) work to detect counterfeit medicines by creating a process to identify the correct color, shape, branding and purity of their samples.

In Kraig Kitts’ biology classes, it’s OK to fail.

“That’s science. That’s the nature of it,” said Kitts, a science teacher at Center Grove High School. “Sometimes we don’t know. As teachers, we have a lot of pressures that everything works, every time, 100 percent.”

This is the message Kitts wants to send to his students. It’s also the message he wants to relay to other Indiana teachers.

Kitts is the mastermind behind the Lilly Experience for Teachers in STEM, a two-day workshop for teachers of STEM — or science, technology, engineering, and math — designed to redefine the field by connecting math and science curriculum to real-world applications.

He interned in Eli Lilly and Company’s structural biology department last summer through a special program for science teachers. As an educator, Kitts was shocked to see how his own classroom lessons reflected in the daily jobs of Lilly’s scientists and engineers.

He immediately wanted to share the real-world applications of STEM with other educators — and his students, too

“I think that’s a big one for me is teaching kids that aren’t honors or AP … that they’re just regular kids,” Kitts said.“Giving them the opportunities to apply real-world skills in places where they may not have an interest in STEM before, but they can be like, ‘OK that’s cool.’”

About 75 teachers and 50 Lilly employees from across the state joined Kitts on Tuesday and Wednesday for the inaugural event. They developed STEM lesson plans drawn from real-world examples and received a number of tools and resources to take back to their students.

Albert White, Lilly’s director of operations and chief of staff, said STEM is about more than being the next doctor or engineer — it’s about life skills.

“STEM is about cultivating curiosity for our children,” said White, who helped plan the event. “It’s also about developing critical thinking skills as well as problem-solving. When you look at the different roles throughout, there are opportunities for all children.”

To understand those opportunities, educators toured Lilly’s manufacturing facilities and discovery laboratories, interacting with individuals at all levels of the company.

White said that by sharing the expertise and exposing teachers to the real-world components, he hopes educators can help students escape the mindset that STEM is only about becoming a doctor or engineer.

That’s teacher Heidi Wilkinson’s plan. Wilkinson, who is preparing to transfer from Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington to Northrop High School in Fort Wayne, recently took a group of STEM students to Lilly’s Indianapolis headquarters where they could see their coursework come to life.

“This is what the subject matter looks like in a job,” she said. “All these things that they’re learning, they actually have an application. Sometimes the best stuff you teach them is the stuff that’s not the required curriculum, but it’s the stuff you let them just get curious about.”

Wilkinson’s team created a lesson plan that focuses on critical thinking and working efficiently. Students will be given a mixture of balls that all look the same but have different weights. They must create a process to efficiently separate the balls into different weight classes.

“We’ve seen so much here that when Lilly creates a chemical they want to extract for some medicine, they have to make sure they have the right chemical,” Wilkinson said. “They have to make sure they have the right chemical and be able to separate it and take all the impurities out.”

At the end of the experiment, students will digest how the experiment can be applied to real life.

Wilkinson said she plans to implement the lesson plan in her own classroom to help students  gain a vision and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Oftentimes, Wilkinson said students complain about a lesson and ask how it applies to their future. Because educators find themselves on a schedule to meet content standards, it’s difficult for teachers to provide an explicit vision.

“To be able to give them that, whether it be, ‘What does this look like as a career?’ or ‘Hey, this is how it’s applicable,’ or ‘Hey, you can actually ask questions about this’ — that pulls them in,” Wilkinson said.

Both Kitts and Wilkinson agree that STEM education is taking a turn in a new direction. While meeting standards still matters, they want to adjust their focus on the skill sets that come as a result of STEM.

Perseverance and a willingness to learn, for example, are traits employers at Lilly look for, Kitts said.

“Someone asked, ‘What do you look for when you hire somebody?’” Kitts said. “[The chief science officer] said a willingness to learn. That’s the guy that’s at the top of the company.”

And on the floor, Kitts asked an engineer whether he ever feels overwhelmed at his job. The engineer said it was his first job out of college, and while he didn’t know a lot about the job at first, he was able to learn along the way.

“To see that from the top to the guy that’s doing the work, that really is valued is a big one because we want our kids to just be active learners,” Kitts said.

“You don’t have to be the A-plus-plus student in AP Biology. You can be the C-plus student in biology, but as long as you try and you have that willingness to learn and you’re interested in science, you don’t have to go to the top, but you can come out here and work and have a good career.”