Fairfax’s Jack Dale on Overhauling the Teaching Profession

Jack Dale has served as superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, since 2004. While leading perhaps the nation’s largest high-performing system, he’s pushed to get serious about teacher leadership and the oft-watery notion of teacher “collaboration.” Last week, Dale penned a piece that becomes a must-read contribution to the debates about teacher evaluation and compensation. In “Dangerous Mind Games: Are We Ready to Overhaul the Teaching Profession?” (published as an Education Outlook by my shop at AEI), Dale hits today’s teacher quality debates for romanticizing the hunt for great individual teachers while shortchanging the need to use evaluation and pay to promote the tools, rhythms, and routines that yield great teams.

Dale argues that teaching should be understood as a team effort. He argues, “Twenty-first-century teaching is about the collective work of effective teams of educators focused on the success of individual students.” If we take that seriously, and not merely as lip service, he writes, it should shape our approach to evaluation and pay. He cautions that incentivizing individual teachers via pay can easily miss the mark, if one accepts the team premise. Similarly, he observes, “while principals tend to be the instructional leaders in schools, a truly effective school has multiple instructional leaders working with the principal to orchestrate and facilitate exceptional teams of teachers.”

In place of the naive cash-for-scores merit pay plans that have been tried in places like Nashville and New York, Dale draws on his efforts in Fairfax to sketch a vision of differentiated pay which emphasizes the creation of “teacher-leaders,” who would take on new duties outside the confines of the traditional school day and year, and would receive a corresponding 10 to 15 percent increase in pay. Roles would include providing additional student learning time, collaborating within and across schools, and mentoring colleagues. Dale argues, “Teaching is no longer a ten-month job; teaching is a full-time, twelve-month job. We must recognize these expectations…[and] completely change our image and rethink the teaching profession.”

Dale highlights some of the early successes of this approach in Fairfax, where 24 public schools were chosen for a teacher-leader pilot program starting in the 2005-2006 school year for a four-year program. A third of the 24 schools were studied, showing substantial improvement in student achievement, AP participation, and school climate. If one finds this course appealing, Dale flags several of the key challenges that loom. One is ensuring that schools embrace a “purposeful” vision, in which clear expectations, duties, and functions yield concrete job descriptions, and not just vague notions that teacher-leaders will do more stuff. A second is how to create, support, and monitor teachers moving from traditional roles into new, twelve-month, teacher-leader functions. And a third is, especially in today’s fiscal environment, finding ways to realize savings as twelve-month contracts replace the stipends, per-diem pay, p.d., and assorted detritus of the conventional model.

My take? I don’t agree with everything Jack has to say. I think that there’s need for more differentiation of roles than he contemplates here, and I think there’s plenty of room for smart use of individual evaluation and pay within a team-oriented framework. But, I think he gets the big picture right, shares an invaluable take from the perspective of an accomplished district leader, and offers a terrifically sensible start for so many districts that are still seeking a way to take their first step beyond the widget-based teacher model. So, I think he has offered an enormously useful step forward, especially given that–unlike so many “reform” visions–it benefits from a practitioner’s imprimatur and sensibility.

-Frederick Hess

This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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