It Takes a Village: Why Building Great Teachers is a Team Sport
Just a few years ago, while teaching at a middle school in the Bronx, David Baiz was given an unsatisfactory rating and targeted for elimination.
So when New York City published its Teacher Data Reports last week, Baiz, who now teaches at a middle school in Harlem, had reason to be, at the very least, relieved. He was ranked in the 91st percentile, or above average.
But Baiz, 29, knows that neither rating was accurate or useful. The TDRs violate basic rules of statistics because they assume that students are assigned to class rooms on a random basis, which is not the case. They also are riddled with data errors: In the case of Baiz’s ratings—he has received two TDRs in his teaching career—while both pegged him as “above average”, they both included likely errors in the value-added portion of his rating, the wrong number of students in his classes and a high likelihood that some of the students included in his assessment may never have been in his class.
Baiz’s unsatisfactory evaluation, on the other hand, captured his inexperience as a first-year teacher, as well as the effects of a family crisis that impaired his performance; however, the rating did nothing to assess—or foster-- his considerable potential.
These days no one who knows Baiz, a math teacher at Global Technology Preparatory in Harlem, would dispute that when education reformers talk about wanting to put a high-quality teacher in every classroom, they are talking about teachers like him. In the three years since he “escaped” the Bronx and joined Global Tech, Baiz has emerged as something of a model teacher. Visitors from around the country have flocked to his classroom to see his innovative approach to mixing online tools and old-fashioned instruction. He has helped win the school thousands of dollars in grants. He won a prestigious Math for America fellowship that comes with a $15,000-per-year stipend. He also was selected as one of six New York City teachers to be part of the Digital Teacher Corps, a Ford Foundation-funded collaboration among educators, technologists, and designers to develop interactive digital learning tools aimed at improving student engagement and achievement. And his colleagues have voted him as their union representative.
“David is skilled; he’s always moving forward,” says Chrystina Russell, Global Tech’s principal. Virtually every day “he gives 125 percent.”
But Baiz would be the first to admit that his story isn’t about star power. Indeed, Baiz’s experience is a case study in the importance of collaboration and team work in achieving constant improvement both in teaching and in the overall results for kids. It is also an object lesson in how both TDRs and traditional teacher evaluations can serve to undermine those goals.
Indeed, a recent study by Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, Collaborating on School Reform, shows that contrary to popular practice and the dictates of many corporate education reformers, the secret to long-term improvement for teachers, schools and students is “substantive collaboration” at all levels—from the classroom to administration to unions. Developing quality teachers, says Saul Rubinstein, an associate professor at Rutgers and one of the authors of the study is about “mentoring, sharing instructional practice, collaborating.” The problem with traditional accountability measures, such as TDRs and punitive performance appraisals, is that they “de-professionalize teaching,” says Rubinstein. The best systems are those that “help teachers succeed.”
Or, as W. Edwards Deming, the quality guru once said, putting the blame for poor performance squarely at the feet of management: There are only two reasons for having deadwood—either you hired deadwood or you hired live wood and you killed it.
Baiz’s story begins at MS 004 in the Bronx—a school from which Global Tech recruited several teachers. Baiz, then-23, was assigned to teach both seventh- and eighth-grade math—an overwhelming assignment for a first-year teacher because it required getting to know two different cohorts of students and to develop two different lesson plans. Weeks into the start of his job, Baiz’s 16-year-old sister was in a catastrophic car accident. Baiz, feeling that “his family needed him,” began making trips back home to Ohio. He was deeply depressed both by what had happened to his sister--she continues to suffer from severe brain injury--and what he and colleagues have describe as a hostile atmosphere at MS 004.
Baiz admits that he was frequently absent that year for which he may have deserved to get a “U” rating.
What happened next is what made the difference not only to keeping Baiz in the teaching profession and helping him excel, but also in building a collaborative school that has fostered a culture of improvement for both teachers and kids. A handful of his more experienced colleagues who had observed Baiz, both in the class room and giving math presentations to the faculty, saw his potential and made a case for keeping him at the school; but Baiz was convinced that his days were numbered. For one thing, the assistant principal who remained determined to get rid of him, was promoted to principal. “He had a hostile administration looking to get rid of him,” says Jackie Pryce-Harvey, a veteran special-education teacher who also worked at MS 004 at the time. “He didn’t stand a chance.”
A Fresh Start
At about the same time, Pryce-Harvey was in the process of persuading her friend, Chrystina Russell, to start a new school, which would eventually become Global Tech. Pryce-Harvey, now Global Tech’s assistant-principal-in-training, recruited Baiz to start working on the planning process. Soon a team of teachers was gathering at Pryce-Harvey’s Harlem brownstone for regular Sunday brunches and, without pay or even the certainty that they would be hired, laying the groundwork for the new school. Russell and her kitchen cabinet poured over budgets and resumes; they developed curricula and a technology strategy for Global Tech, which is a one-to-one laptop school; and they fine-tuned criteria for recruiting teachers.
At Global Tech, which is about to graduate its first eighth-grade class, team-work and collaboration is at the crux of Russell’s efforts to create a holistic system intended to provide support, in ways large and small, for its students, the majority of whom are poor — Global Tech is a universal Title I school — and almost all of whom are black or Latino. Baiz teamed up with Valerie Miller, the language teacher who is experimenting with the best ways to use online foreign-language tools, and got a $10,000 grant to develop digital portfolios for the kids. To conserve funds at the school, Russell’s team decided not to hire a dedicated technologist; instead, for the first two years, Baiz agreed to serve as unofficial tech guru working with several teachers to hone their technology skills. Global Tech teachers mentor the teachers-in-training who work for Citizens Schools, the after-school program that Russell sponsors at Global Tech to make sure that kids are off the street until at least 6 p.m. and get homework help and some enrichment. Teachers also collaborate to support the 28 percent of Global Tech students certified as needing special education; Global Tech has moved almost all of them into so-called CTT (Collaborative Team Teaching) classes, where teams of teachers work on everything from students’ special educational needs to helping them with organization skills. The clear expectation is that by the time students graduate eighth grade, most would be able to function in a regular class.
And the teachers routinely work together on initiatives aimed at helping the kids beyond core academics. These include the Saturday test-prep classes the school holds in the weeks before standardized tests, as well as taking the eighth graders to high-school open houses on the weekends, because many of their parents are unable—due to language problems or other issues—to help their children with the high-school application process.
Making the Grade
The results have been impressive. In math, the school ranks in the 84th percentile among all city middle schools. Close to 60 percent of Global Tech students achieved a 3 or 4 in math, the two top levels. And Global Tech, received an A on its latest annual progress report and ranks in the 95 percentile of New York City middle schools. Moreover, virtually everyone loves the school; on its most recent Learning Environment Survey, Global Tech scored well over 90 percent on almost every measure of parent, teacher and student satisfaction. In addition, all Global Tech students who completed the high-school application process have been accepted to a high school, many to their first-choice school.