Pittsburgh Tries a Collaborative Approach to School Reform

When I first began reading Sean D. Hamill’s account of the partnership between the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the local union, I was immediately skeptical; I sensed the heavy hand of corporate reformers. After all, the story features a $40 million Gates Foundation grant aimed at getting “effective teachers in every classroom”; a public school superintendent who had no education experience, but had graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy; and a new performance-pay plan for teachers. (Only later did I notice that the piece was published in The American Educator, the house organ of the American Federation of Teachers.)

In brief, one of the big problems with corporate reformers is that they place most of the blame for the failures of the U.S. education system on teachers and teachers’ unions. If only you could get rid of the many bad apples, American education would be instantly transformed! The mantra is very similar to the rhetoric of a bankrupt auto industry, which blamed autoworkers and the UAW for its failure to compete against foreign producers. We now know that the U.S. industry’s long malaise was due to deep-rooted systemic problems and management failures; only when the car companies began focusing on long-term improvement—usually in collaboration with the unions—did they begin to recover.

Indeed, Hamill’s piece, “Pittsburgh’s Winning Partnership” describes what seems to be one of the rare examples of a  continuous improvement effort led by both administrators and teachers. What he describes sounds a lot like the early days of the remarkable teacher-led turnaround at Brockton High, Massachusetts’s once-failing, largest high school. Indeed, the Pittsburgh schools seem to have learned many of the same lessons as Brockton:

1)      Pittsburgh began with a common mistake—relying on outside consultants. But, after teachers rebelled against the curriculum that was being developed by Kaplan K12, then-superintendent Mark Roosevelt enlisted the help of an experienced team of teachers to both write the curriculum and to train the teachers in how to implement it. Training, of course, is a key to most continuous improvement efforts, including those in education, such such as Brockton’s. Also, enlisting the teachers in the process energized them and gave them a stake in the success of the reform effort.

“For Linda Lane, who was then the district’s deputy superintendent and is now Roosevelt’s successor, it was obvious that the district needed to go in a different direction. The district decided to let the teachers write the curriculum, but train them first, and develop a better feedback structure to evaluate what they produced. Engaging teachers in such a big way was the idea of Jerri Lippert, the district’s chief academic officer, who realized, ‘it’s kind of foolish not to listen to [teachers].’

“For the nearly 200 teachers directly involved in the training, writing, and feedback over two years, the process was transformational. ‘Before this, I was ready to quit. I was burned out and thinking of leaving teaching,’ said Adam Deutsch, who teaches math at Allderdice High School and was a lead writer for the district’s Algebra I curriculum. ‘But this really reenergized me.’ Many teachers appreciated the chance to contribute as professionals and became ‘advocates in our schools and outspoken about reform efforts,” when that wasn’t necessarily the case before,’ said Deutsch.”

2)      Using a collaborative approach, Pittsburgh developed a new teacher evaluation system. But instead of imposing a punitive plan aimed at weeding out “bad” teachers, as many corporate reformers advocate, the evaluation system became a professional development tool for improving long-term performance.

“’What I loved was that all the power players on this were in the room together—the union, the school district, teachers, principals—hammering out the details for the framework for RISE,’ said Cindy Haigh, a middle school health and physical education teacher for 13 years in the district who was part of the process.

“What they developed was a system where the teacher actively engages in his or her evaluation with an administrator. Both of them collect evidence across the school year of four teaching domains: planning and preparation, classroom environment, professional responsibilities, and teaching and learning. Class-room visits by an administrator are preceded and followed by discussions about the lessons being taught. The teacher provides a self-evaluation before the lesson using a rubric that breaks the four teaching domains into 24 components of practice, and the discussions between them focus on areas where they disagree. After each observation, the administrator and teacher meet again to review what was observed and agree on plans for improvement, which are revisited throughout the year and in a final evaluation.”

3)      Performance-pay in Pittsburgh is a misnomer. The union hated the idea, because, as the article, notes: “There simply was no proof anyone could find that performance-pay systems work well.” The fact that merit pay doesn’t work was well documented in a study by Vanderbilt Univ. John Tarka, head of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, noted one school where the performance-pay system was regarded as “winning the lottery,” a common complaint in companies that use performance pay too!

Instead, Pittsburgh developed a career-ladder approach that would create a new career path, with higher pay, for the most experienced teachers. They also reserved some funds for schools and districts that achieved improvement. Indeed, group rewards not only foster teamwork and do not suffer from the stigma of arbitrariness that plagues individualized pay incentives.

“In contrast, ‘if you provide, as we did, a number of career ladder positions, for which people apply and have to show their eligibility, that’s a key way to get performance pay in place that might work,’ Tarka said. ‘We’ve also done work so that school-wide performance can be recognized, district-wide performance can be recognized. A couple of the plans do recognize student achievement, but rather than do some of the negative things that some traditional performance-pay plans have done in terms of divide and alienate, it’s more based on a school working together and a district working together to try to raise student achievement overall.’”

What’s most noteworthy about the Pittsburgh plan is that it relied on close collaboration between the school district and the union.

I came away from reading Hamill’s article wondering whether Pittsburgh seemingly non-punitive professional-development approach to teacher evaluations, as well as its career-ladder, might influence the thinking of the Gates Foundation. Reading the first sentence of the grant it isn’t clear whether the Gates Foundation understands what seems to be unique about the Pittsburgh (and Brockton) experiments; i.e. the point is less to change (or exchange) the teachers as to create collaborative approaches to systemic improvement. (The first sentence of the grant reads: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will invest $40 million to support Pittsburgh Public Schools in the implementation of groundbreaking approaches to ensure that all students have access to effective teachers in every classroom.”)

What the Pittsburgh experiment seems to show—and what the Gates Foundation and other corporate reformers still don’t seem to get—is that the problems in schools aren’t primarily due to “bad” teachers, but to bad systems and leadership.

The best evidence for this is at Brockton, where the very same teachers who worked at the school when it was failing, have, over the course of more than a decade, transformed the institution under the leadership of the school’s principal, Sue Szachowicz. A former history teacher, Szachowicz has worked with her faculty to hone a laser-like focus on improving literacy at the school, with remarkable results. See “How a Decade-Long Literacy Obsession Transformed Brockton High.”

Brockton High has gained national attention and praise from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; hundreds of educators have been to visit the school and to hear Szachowicz speak at conferences. Yet, Brockton has not caught the attention of key education reformers. Arne Duncan has never been to see the school. Neither have representatives from the Gates, Broad or Walton Foundations. “We don’t fit their idea of school reform,” says Szachowicz.

Now that Pittsburgh seems to have embraced many of the same homegrown, collaborative, teacher-driven improvement efforts that have worked at Brockton, maybe the Gates Foundation—and other corporate-minded education reformers–will reconsider what it takes to transform a school or a school district.

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