By the Company It Keeps: Tim Daly

Our first guest on By the Company It Keeps is Tim Daly, President of TNTP. I’m a huge fan of Tim and his organization. In addition to being a highly talented and endlessly affable guy, he’s helped lead TNTP into rarified air. It is as influential on policy and practice as any education-reform organization around.

Tim was a guiding force behind the seminal publication The Widget Effect and played a major role in the production of other top-flight TNTP reports like The Irreplaceables and Leap Year.

Earlier in his career he was a TFA corps member (having taught in Baltimore) and helped establish and expand the New York City Teaching Fellows program. With TNTP CEO Ariela Rozman (another total star), he received the 2012 Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education.

If future interviews turn out half as well as Tim’s, I’ll be thrilled. We learn a great deal, and the subject’s smarts, curiosity, and humility shine through. He even enlightens us about Garry Wills and Stan Musial.

As a matter of fact, the totality is so good that I’m willing to look past his grievous error about Sandy Koufax (he only had 165 career wins!).

Ladies and gentlemen, Tim Daly.

1.   How would you summarize the key findings of Leap Year, TNTP’s latest report?

It’s sort of a combination of a study and a tell-all. The basic finding is that the first year is not a warm up lap—it’s a very strong signal of how a teacher will perform in the future. If we use multiple tools to follow a teacher’s early progress, we have a good idea of whether that person should continue in the profession. Other studies have shown this by looking at large populations of teachers, but we demonstrated it in the real world by launching programmatic shifts in more than a dozen cities.

It’s also the story of our quest to do a better job of bringing excellent teachers to schools that desperately need them. We have a mission. If we aren’t doing the things that will achieve it, we need to change. But how? We thought we’d share our approach.

2.   One interesting lesson is that we should probably invest in more observers, not more observations. Can you say more about that?

This is a finding that echoes the Gates MET research. When you send the same person each time to see a teacher, you don’t maximize reliability because whatever tendencies the observer has are consistently projected onto the teacher. In some ways you are learning more and more about the observer, not the teacher. We also see in many cases that the same observer rates the teacher higher and higher with each visit, while you don’t see that with varied observers. The most useful observational portrait is a combination of multiple visits AND multiple visitors.

3.   In recent years, thanks to the MET Project, TNTP’s The Widget Effect, and other research, we’ve learned a great deal about educator effectiveness. Thanks to Leap Year, we’re wiser about the first year of teaching. Taking all of this into account, what does the ideal state teacher-certification system look like?

This is a policy issue where our instincts and the evidence can point in opposite directions. We all want to hold a high bar for entry into teaching. It’s a reasonable assumption that asking candidates to jump through all sorts of hoops before becoming teachers is going to improve quality. But the evidence just doesn’t support it. A lot of the candidates who jump through the hoops don’t become good teachers and some of the candidates who come through streamlined avenues do very well. It leads us to conclude that up-front certification should be lightweight and simple—designed to exclude only those who don’t even deserve a tryout in teaching. On the other hand, ongoing re-certification should be much more rigorous, as we should expect that many teachers will fail to meet our standards on the job and should not become career educators.

4.   Why do you think some of the nation’s “new-and-improved” teacher-evaluation systems continue to rate the vast majority of teachers as effective or better? Given all of the time, money, and energy spent on evaluation reform, should we be concerned that meaningful differentiation is still elusive?

Yes, we should be concerned, but not surprised. We argued in The Widget Effect that the problem wasn’t just the evaluation systems, it was a culture that refused to see the differences in instructional skill that were right before our eyes. The new systems provide a better support structure to assess and develop instruction, and they usually remove prohibitions against consideration of student learning. But they do not by themselves change culture. All of us, as educators, are responsible for that culture. We must take ownership of the systems and use them as they were intended to be used.

5.   What current TNTP projects are you most excited about? Are there any particular state or district engagements that seem especially promising?

As a follow up to The Irreplaceables, we’ve done a survey of elite teachers nationally – mostly folks who’ve won prestigious awards—to learn more about their experiences and perspectives on policy issues. We’ll publish the results later this year, but one thing that stands out clearly is that when we talk about what “teachers” think, we’re probably oversimplifying because they have such diverse views about so many issues. I’ve lost track of how many findings surprised me.

Also, we’re about to name the second group of Fishman Prize winners. This is one of my absolute favorite things we do at TNTP. It’s a $25,000 prize for teachers in Title I public schools that’s named for Shira Fishman, a high school math teacher in DC. The winners spend the summer working with us and writing about their classroom practice.

6.   My sources tell me that you are an inveterate number cruncher—that, all things being equal, you’d prefer to be analyzing data. Have those hours taught you any overarching lessons about research, advocacy, or policy? Any particularly memorable “a-ha!” from one of these long, solitary journeys through a spreadsheet?

I plead guilty. I like to review evidence myself because I can ask all the questions I want without bothering someone else…and I usually have an annoying number of questions. I would say the number one thing I’ve learned is not to believe things you hear—not without checking. People repeat things at conferences that they believe to be true, but often they misheard someone else say it or they are slightly (and often unintentionally) exaggerating it. Or they are presenting anecdotes as data. When you dig, you find that far fewer things are “true,” meaning they hold up to scrutiny, but they are more interesting and challenging than things tossed around as conventional wisdom.

A good example is the idea that new teachers struggle, but with time they get better. That seems entirely reasonable because it’s consistent with what we observe in our own experiences and with research, which says second year teachers are better than first year teachers. But when you look at the data in detail, it’s more complex than that. This was one of my “A-ha!” moments, as you call them.

I was looking at trend data on a group of new teachers and I realized that some of them stagnated very early in their careers or even declined temporarily. Because they didn’t master basic skills, they adopted bad habits to get by that caused them to fall so far behind their peers that they couldn’t catch up, even a year or two later. So yes, new teachers get better, but you can’t just assume it will happen, or that they will all get better. I still remember staring at my computer screen, trying to make sense of what I was seeing.

7.   More under-rated hitter: Jimmie Foxx or Stan Musial? Better left-handed pitcher: Warren Spahn or Sandy Koufax?

Stan Musial. I am fatally biased because I’m a Cardinals fan but Musial is one of the most accomplished, consistent, and balanced hitters in baseball history. Just for a start, he had over 3,600 hits—that’s a staggering number, Tony Gwynn didn’t even have 3,200—and he had the same number at home and on the road. But he also hit almost 500 home runs. Pete Rose may have had more hits but he had only 160 home runs.

For pitchers, I’m going to say Koufax but it’s apples and oranges. Spahn is so much more accomplished over his career but Koufax was as untouchable for a period of time as anyone has ever been. That stretch of domination is fascinating to me—especially since he was magical right to the day of his retirement.

8.   In my experience most number crunchers are simply very curious people. If you look back on your intellectual development, what big ideas, books, or thinkers (whether education reform–related or not) influenced you the most?

I took a couple of classes with Garry Wills, a historian, when I was an undergraduate and he had a huge influence on me. He has such a knack for laying out deep arguments simply and supporting them with evidence that is more far reaching and comprehensive than anyone else. He’s written authoritatively on everything from performances of Macbeth to the Gettysburg Address to the Catholic Church. His background was as a classicist. In his books he often goes back to original Greek or Latin sources and translates them for himself when he is writing about them. I’ve never forgotten that commitment to inspecting each fragment. And on top of that, he taught me to appreciate Martin Scorsese films.

9.   If I had TNTP’s senior staff and board in a room, I’d try to convince you that no matter how smart or effective your team, you’ll never be able to make the urban district succeed. I’d tell you to reallocate your resources to expanding great schools and helping create great new schools in the charter sector and developing policies and support organizations for this new system of schools. After you had me escorted from the building, what would you say to your colleagues?

This is a worthy debate to have. After decades of trying, how many large urban districts can say they systematically expand opportunities for the families they serve? The alternative is to focus on expanding the number of seats in good schools. Except I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. On our good days, we help districts see that they can think just as aggressively about creating conditions to grow excellent schools as the charter sector. They can empower leaders to assemble cohesive teams and establish college as a core expectation for students. There are districts out there trying to think boldly, and if they succeed, they can create conditions for a lot of good schools to thrive at once. My view is that just as charters are competing with and reacting to districts, districts can compete with and react to the charter sector. They have a role to play.

10.   Your brother is an assistant coach with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, meaning he gets to have football conversations with future Hall-of-Famers Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen. You, on the other hand, are forced to have conversations about spreadsheets with me. Ever feel like the universe is really, really unfair?

He’s my older brother and I look up to him in a million ways…but never more so than on a Sunday afternoon when he has a ground-level view of Adrian Peterson breaking away on a long run. However, each of us has a place in the universe, and apparently mine is among the spreadsheets.

-Andy Smarick

This interview first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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