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74 Interview: The Rigorous, Not-Easily-Defined Education Reform Philosophy of Harvard’s Jal Mehta

By David Cantor | November 3, 2017

Harvard professor and author Jal Mehta.

Jal Mehta is a connoisseur of failed school reform. He’s not a savorer, but few better know the terroir. In 2013’s The Allure of Order, Mehta’s convincing description of “the troubled quest to remake American schooling,” the Harvard Graduate School of Education professor demonstrates that school improvement efforts over the past century repeatedly failed in a similar way — in part because reformers continued to build on the flawed premise that management solutions are the best lever for raising student performance.

That idea reflects the ideals of the turn-of-the-20th-century superintendents who, under the influence of labor efficiency theories, began reorganizing the nation’s sprawl of one-room schoolhouses into what became our modern system. It also casts education as largely economic in purpose and easily measurable — as opposed to the “softer” view that schooling should better lives broadly, with improvement in instruction and engagement as its driving wheel.

Mehta’s close readings of past reform movements have yielded a sneakily rigorous, not-easily-classified philosophy of improvement that focuses extensively on teaching. (See, along with The Allure of Order, his contributions to The Futures of School Reform, and a forthcoming study on the effectiveness, especially with poor students, of highly regarded high schools using different approaches: traditional, No Excuses, project-based, International Baccalaureate, 21st-century skills.)

As The Allure of Order details depressingly, teachers occupied the lowest rung in the organizational hierarchy established by the early visionaries. “Teachers sat at the bottom of implementation chains,” Mehta says. “Their primary responsibility was to implement the ideas created by others.” Unlike with law or medicine, “teaching was institutionalized as a ‘semiprofession’: it lacks lengthy training, a distinctive knowledge base, an ability to exclude unqualified practitioners, and standards of practice that govern its daily work.”

Teaching’s low status was somewhat ameliorated by unions, which helped with pay and lessened teachers’ vulnerability to external pressures. Mehta believes unionization has also reinforced a perception that teachers are less professional than doctors and lawyers, however.

Mehta’s views are particularly relevant at a moment when the Gates Foundation, having funded the largest study of instruction in history, is shifting its support to school networks; the test- and compensation-based teacher evaluation movement has failed to raise teacher quality significantly; and reform ambitions have receded, mostly confined now to improving and expanding charter schools.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Why does teaching have low social status in this country?

Mehta: Professions are generally characterized by a few attributes. They’ve developed some knowledge of how to do the core task of the profession. There’s a mechanism for certifying that only people who have mastered that knowledge in an initial way are licensed or preliminarily licensed to join the field. Generally there’s some sort of apprenticeship component like you see in teaching hospitals, where people are learning from more senior and skilled folks. There are mechanisms to exclude or disbar people if necessary. And with that comes some form of status, pay, respect.

Teaching has some of the trappings. You have go to school for a little bit, you have to pass a test, but the test is not that hard. The school [year] is relatively short, and as a result there isn’t this kind of imprinting that happens during the period of graduate training that happens in other professions. In the absence of all of those mechanisms we see what we see: There’s a lot of variation from teacher to teacher.

Apart from better teaching, what effect would that kind of training have on how a district functions?

If you had a system in which we believed that people were well trained and had a particular type of competence and skill, I think the level of bureaucratic regulation and all the things teachers don’t like about schools would diminish. Imagine it from the perspective of a district leader: If you have a group of people who you think are really skilled on the ground, then you’re going to try to support them however you can.

There is a complexity to this. Many of the higher-status professions have a large private component to their work, and with that comes pay. So there are strong disincentives to professionalize teaching because if we thought of teachers as more skilled people we would need to pay them more money. And we live in America and people don’t like to pay money for public services. So that’s part of it. And I think there’s also a gendered component. Because teaching is mostly done by women, because it involves children, people think that the work is much simpler than I think it actually is.

It’s a really complex job if done well; in some ways I think it’s actually more complex than, say, many branches of medicine, where there is a lot of initial training, and it’s true that you need to know a lot about the body, but once you develop a specialty, you’re working on a relatively small number of problems and there’s this relatively clear set of potential tasks that you do for the problems that you see. In non-routine cases, you’re really digging into the depths of your expertise, but in routine cases you’re not. The client is willing, they’ve shown up, they’re agreeing to do it, you’re only dealing with one at a time, you have time in between unless you’re an ER doctor or something, you have time to do some tests and go back to talk it over with your colleagues.

With teaching, you’ve got all of that complexity, but you’ve got multiple students, you have the way they interact, they may not want to be there, they may not want to study the subject that you’re teaching, and you have to do it all in the moment with little time to reflect, plan, etc. People who do that well are really amazing people, but there could be more such people if training and skill development were more consistently developed.

You’ve written about how an economic view of education took hold after A Nation at Risk (the 1983 federal report that warned of catastrophic consequences unless American education, particularly secondary schools, were improved). You think that had more downsides than upsides, right?

If you look at the Utah (1982) statement of goals pre–Nation at Risk, they were really amazing. They were like “we want to develop human beings who can think about life, death, the pursuit of happiness, reflect on the qualities of their fellow man.” The goals post–Nation at Risk (1984) were, to paraphrase, “we want to have economically efficient and utilitarian, maximizing citizens.”…

The other [problem] was it framed the problem as being on the schools.

As with everything else, there’s both good and bad. Could schools do more with the students they had? I certainly think so. But especially when we’re talking about schools that serve high-poverty children — kids spend roughly 10 percent of their hours between 0 and 18 actually in school, so 90 percent are spent outside. All that time has a critical impact, so a more balanced perspective would have acknowledged that, but that’s not the way they wrote the report.

Long-term trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that early gains aren’t persisting into high school. (Courtesy: Urban Institute)

What’s your take on the teacher evaluation movement coming out of No Child Left Behind?

It was the wrong strategy. Pretty definitively the wrong strategy. It took a social scientific fact, which is that there is variation in the amount of value-added scores from Teacher A to Teacher B, that’s true. Having a lot of high value-added teachers in a row could in theory propel a student much further ahead in reading or math than having a set of low value-added teachers. We agree. That’s sort of quantifying common sense. But then from there, the idea that we should develop these really labyrinthine, really complex teacher evaluation systems so we would measure all these teachers and we would in some way use that data to either fire teachers or improve teaching — there was no real reason to think it would work at the time.

I and a lot, a lot of other people, told lots of people, don’t make this your major lever. Everything we know about schools says that good schools are collaborative places where people trust each other, where teachers don’t like to be pitted against each other either for demerits or for bonuses; that, if we’re moving to the Common Core, we’re asking teachers to do a lot of complicated things that they didn’t know how to do before. If that’s the case, then you have to give them a period of time to try out new strategies without fear of retribution. The coupling of the strategy and the moment in the other landscape really didn’t make sense.

What do you think of the decision by New York’s charter authorizer to allow charters here to train their own teachers?

I’m not opposed to that. The research on the teacher preparation institutions suggests that, as with everything else, there’s more variation within types than across types. While in general six weeks of summer training is worse than a longer training period, there are on the traditional side some really terrible ed schools and undergraduate teacher preparation programs where no one’s been in a classroom in 20 years and it’s just basically accruing money for the university. And then there’s some, Bank Street is one, right where you are, which have been really thoughtful in thinking about what the training would look like.

You’ve said the top charter networks have significant strengths but they also have significant weaknesses. What do you see as the significant weaknesses?

I’m going to do the weakness in the context of the strengths. Basically, the typical American school is what researchers call a loosely coupled system. Essentially, each teacher teaches as well as he or she has figured out to teach up to that point in life. Some no-excuses charter schools have broken that. They have developed knowledge about what they think good teaching looks like; they have several rounds of feedback to try to get their teachers to teach that way. It’s much more coherent; it’s aligned; and while to some people that may sound too standardized, there’s also real benefits to that, because it means their students get similar experiences from class to class.

But then the downsides are the other side of that coin. Charters were created roughly between 1994 and — and they’re still being created — and 2005 or 2006. A lot of schools were created somewhere in that range. In that period, there was a lot of focus on basic skills in math and reading, and they developed all of their systems around helping students do basic things in math and reading. They split all their periods up into lots of different smaller periods and they tried to make sure that every minute of every day was being carefully micromanaged by teachers to make sure their students wouldn’t fail.

There’s a lot of benefits to that, but the costs are when students get to college and they’re put in much more open-ended settings where they have to be responsible for taking charge of their own course of study, they didn’t have any practice at that, the kind of schooling environment that they’d had up until then. A lot of the charter networks were initially judging things by what percentage of our graduates did they get into college — which was already a complicated measure because they lost a lot of students along the way … either they exited the students or the students exited voluntarily because they couldn’t deal with the behavioral regimens.

So their initial metric was “What percentage of our graduates are going to college?” But as the movement has matured and as more years have gone by, it’s become possible to track what percentage of those students have actually graduated from college. The charter networks realized that a lot of their students who went on to college were really struggling in college. At least in the charter network that we studied, the view that they had about that wasn’t really that they weren’t academically prepared, it was that they weren’t social-emotionally prepared to handle the things that they had to do in college. The initial response to that was to sort of double down, at least at the network we studied, to double down on what they had been good at. So they created a position of college counselors and the college counselors would send care packages to the students or they would follow up with the students in college and show them how to go to office hours, things like that.

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But the core idea was that they were going to continue to offer the kind of intensive support … But then they realized that that was also not sufficient and the harder part was that they needed to revisit some parts of what they had done in high school. In other words, use five minutes to fill out this graphic organizer and then you take two minutes and discuss it with somebody else and then you take two minutes and you do this and then you take two minutes and you do that. If you don’t, you get a demerit — that’s how the pedagogy works.

They realized, “Oh, if we want people to participate in open-ended seminars in college or we want them to be able to figure out how to help them schedule a day where they have to organize their own time, we’ll have to give them some practice at doing those things.” But to do that they’d have to undo some of the structures that had gotten them their scores, and their scores are what got them their external funding and acclaim. So they’re kind of caught between the forces that were important in getting them as far as they’ve got and what are probably a different set of forces that they would need to get students to the next level.

The [next] point is race. The world has changed significantly around race from when the networks were founded. At the time, the idea was, “If we equip students with skills and measure by state tests, that is itself a form of equity if most of our students are … black and Latino students.” I think a number of people in the charter networks, as the world has changed, both in the networks and outside of them, are increasingly uncomfortable with largely white staff telling largely black and Latino students to work in very disciplined ways under the watchful eye of the white teachers.

With respect to the kinds of changes you think American education needs, are you more or less optimistic about prospects for improvement in 2017 than you were when you wrote The Allure of Order in 2013? Or the same?

Probably, on the fundamentals, about the same. The things that have happened in the political sphere have valorized the absence of expertise, have elevated the distrust of science, reason, all the attributes that I think are important for the school. …

More specifically, the kinds of things that I’m imagining happening are probably things that would happen more at the state and sometimes the district level than at the federal level. States and districts together are the people who could support this residency idea or train more principals to be instructional leaders or develop systems where there are master teachers. All that is too complex to do as a one-size-fits-all. …

I do think we have a mechanism for scale, which is that states copy one another … If a state decided to be the number one state for teaching and learning … [and] they said 10 percent of their folks would be certified after five or 10 years as master teachers and with that they would pay them $130,000 a year, [and they said]: “Look, not every teacher is going to make this, but if you came to our state, you would have a chance someday if you were willing to take on extra responsibility.” Let’s say in that state people began to notice these people and [they] began to sit on boards and show up at gatherings with mayors and governors and community folks. People thought, “Oh, these are the people who should be making the decisions about the field and the profession because they’re really the most knowledgeable folks.”

I could imagine that positive cycle starting, but not at the federal level.

[Also,] there are a lot of positive trends [in] learning outside of school.

Like what?

If you want to learn something today and you have a little bit of money to devote toward that effort, there’s no shortage of ways you can learn almost anything you want to know about. That hasn’t always been the case. I have to think that over time the sort of frozenness of the grammar of schooling — like, kids are going to sit with 25 students, the state board is going to decide something about standards, and the city is going to decide something about curriculum, and the principal is going to make some decisions, and the teacher is going to make some decisions, and then the kids are going to sit there, biology at 10 o’clock on Thursday. [Is that going to continue when] all of biology is sitting on the kid’s phone?

I think at some point that those pressers will create some shifts. Probably because it’s not really a system, the way that those shifts will play out will be very uneven … but if you look over a long period of time, you will see shift.

If we went back a century, you’d have schools where people were hitting the kids. Now, outside of five states in the South, it’s illegal to do so. The schools reflect the society; if the society becomes more open, dynamic, open to more varied forms of expertise, eventually those same things will happen in schools.

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