I’m doing two “Interviews Of The Month” in November. As regular readers know, I focus this feature on people in education who I want to know more about. You can see previous interviews here.

David B. Cohen, one of the key people behind The Accomplished California Teachers and co-author of a recent Op Ed piece titled Test scores poor tool for teacher evaluation,  is my guest today.  Next month, I’ll be interviewing John Norton, director of The Teacher Leaders Network.

What is the Accomplished California Teachers (ACT) and why did you help start it?

ACT is a network that aims to bring teacher voice and teacher leadership to the forefront of education policy debates and reform efforts.  We are under the umbrella of the National Board Resource Center (NBRC) at Stanford University.  Our current projects are a pair of policy reports on teacher evaluation and professional pay.  These reports are researched and written by teachers, and crafted to represent a consensus built through extensive conversations among our core members.  We assembled a diverse group of accomplished teachers from around the state, representing the full range of K-12 education.  As we grow, we aim to help California’s teacher leaders to broadcast their expertise to policymakers, media, and communities, and to develop their leadership voices and skills.  We have some good models for this work in the Teacher Leaders Network (which I’m also part of), and the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP) in the state of Washington.

My involvement in ACT is a result of working with the National Board Resource Center.  I worked as a support provider for National Board Certification candidates for a couple of years, and after each of our support sessions, the support providers have lunch and discuss the work of the NBRC.  Gathered around the table were teachers from around the San Francisco Bay area, and we were collectively able to talk about our glimpses and insights into the schools of dozens of our colleagues in the region.  Time and again, we were seeing teachers whose decision-making ability about how to reach their own students had been superseded by schools and districts whose sole concern was raising test scores.  So, the need for ACT was apparent.  The credit for starting ACT should go to the Stuart Foundation for funding the work, to Sandy Dean of the NBRC for providing all of the administrative direction, and to Linda Darling-Hammond for guiding and supporting our work on every level.  Outside of Stanford, Anthony Cody and I are the two teachers helping plan and direct ACT at the moment.

Merit pay and not-basing lay-offs on seniority are just two of many challenges “reformers” are making to the present public school teaching structure.  What is your perspective on those two issues, and any other challenges that you’d care to comment on?

I think merit pay and layoff/tenure issues are both on the table because there’s a welcome focus on teacher quality.  The problem is that we don’t have a consensus about how to define and measure teacher quality.  Outsiders looking at the problem love to reduce the issue to test scores, and offer facile pronouncements that “we know who the good teachers are” based on narrow and suspect data.  The idea of paying teachers for raising test scores should raise all sorts of opposition from anyone who really cares about the quality of teaching.

ACT is trying to help policymakers see teacher quality in a more complex way.  We’ve found that teachers welcome evaluation if it’s done properly, in ways that help us improve teaching at every level, and in ways that encourage collaborative analysis and reflection.  Our report on evaluation will emphasize shifting away from what is sometimes called the “drive-by evaluation” – an annual or bi-annual visit by an administrator with a checklist.  We found that in discussions among teachers who are mostly National Board Certified Teachers, and even including recipients of various regional and national honors, everyone is committed to ongoing improvement of their work.  The National Board Certification process and Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching were among the models that we find promising.

Once evaluation has been improved, I think districts and states are better equipped to work with teachers to address compensation and job security issues.  Our report on compensation will suggest that we ditch the term “merit pay” or even “performance pay” – in favor of the term “professional pay.”  If there is an ongoing commitment to invest more in teachers who demonstrably elevate the quality of their own teaching and the quality of education in their schools, then we could embrace differentiated pay for teachers with higher professional skills.  The higher pay becomes a function of a different role and broader responsibilities for the teacher.  We don’t want to see such a flat landscape for career teachers.

As for layoffs and seniority, the first step should be to attack the underlying problems by stabilizing funding for education.  Layoffs should be rare in schools or districts with steady or growing enrollment.   But in the face of layoffs, any changes in the privileges of seniority present a complex issue that must be negotiated locally.  Districts vary so much in their resources, sizes, and student populations.  We have unified districts, elementary districts, high school districts, and each setting has its own challenges.  If changes occurred in the context of a comprehensive approach to all the related issues, I would be open to proposals that weigh other factors as much or more than seniority, as long as we don’t throw seniority out of the equation entirely.  Any policy with the unintended consequence of introducing competition among teachers will end up hurting students.  Still, when you hear about teachers who are put into teaching situations entirely outside their training, experience, skill and knowledge base, you can’t argue that there’s any educational rationale for that.

Teacher unions are often criticized for supposedly blocking changes that would benefit students.  What do you think is an appropriate response to those critics?

First, I would say that it’s a mistake to discuss teachers’ unions in monolithic terms.  The national, state, and local level unions are not all the same.  So, I don’t have much use for criticisms aimed at unions collectively, though I’m sure some of the criticisms have some merit when framed appropriately.  Some of the criticism comes from within – as you’d find in any large organization.  Much of the negativity aimed at unions also sensationalizes the most egregious teacher failures, especially those cases that have not been satisfactorily resolved.  But look – I have two sons and a number of other family members who are students in California public schools; as a parent and as a teacher, I have as much desire as anyone to see unfit teachers removed.  Better yet, I want to see teachers supported enough that few of us ever reach a point where we need to be removed.

Randy Ward, the current superintendent of San Diego County Schools, was in a roundtable discussion with John Merrow on PBS about a year-and-a-half ago, and given a chance to criticize unions, Ward made a wonderful comment that I’m paraphrasing here:  “I always tell school boards, ‘you signed the contract, too.’”  In other words, we shouldn’t expect unions not to stick to contracts, so if in the process of following a contract, the union is doing something the district doesn’t like, well, there’s an item for negotiation next time around.  If districts expect concessions in one area, I’d expect them to come to the table offering concessions in some other area.  And if unions were the root of our problems, you’d expect “right to work” states that lack collective bargaining to have significantly better results to offer, but they don’t.  They also struggle with teacher quality issues and various reform efforts.

I have a hunch that if you examined the places that have the most contentious labor relations, you’d find that there’s usually a scarcity of resources.  I work in a community that invests heavily in education, relying mainly on voter-approved local taxes rather than state funding, and our union relationship with the district is generally positive.  Our local association even has a no-strike agreement with the district.

You teach in a fairly affluent community — Palo Alto.  My first job as a community organizer over twenty-five years ago was in the adjacent very low-income city of East Palo Alto. How would you compare the two school districts today?  Is there any relationship between the two districts?  Does what you see in this particular situation speak in any greater way to issues facing schools in California and throughout the nation?

East Palo Alto and Palo Alto are divided by Highway 101, and are also in separate counties.  However, some East Palo Alto students attend schools in Palo Alto, as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan that dates back to 1986.  East Palo Alto students are served by three separate public school districts, and there are also some private and charter schools serving the community.

The disparity in resources among schools is indeed striking, but I observe that in dialogue with colleagues across the region, state, and country – not just across the freeway.  Not only do some districts raise their own taxes, but they also benefit from well-funded private foundations that provide supplemental resources.  These differences in funding mean more courses, smaller classes, more electives, more materials and equipment, and more teaching applicants to choose from and more stability within the staff.

I don’t hold out much hope that schools will ever really be equal across the board, but I do believe that we can summon a vision of quality schools that doesn’t rely on comparisons, and then ask some hard questions about how to rectify our failure to provide that quality to so many children.

Are there any particular books you’d recommend that teachers should read that might not be on their typical education booklist?  Why would you recommend them?

I love that question, and wish that I had some really cool, unexpected answer – like I’ve been reading Thucydides lately, or found some gem of Chinese philosophy.  In fact, my reading habits are education-saturated these days, with a sprinkling of fiction.  The last two books I’ve read that might come close to fitting your description have still been widely discussed in education circles.  Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers was a fascinating collection of analyses of exceptional people, events, trends.  Carol Dweck’s Mindset provides some valuable insights into success, with clear lessons that apply to teaching and parenting.  I have definitely made a conscious shift towards talking to my sons and my students more frequently and directly about how they grow from tackling difficult challenges, and pointing out how we acquire skills and knowledge rather than possess them innately.

But I would be curious to examine the wording of your question, the idea that teachers have a “typical education booklist.”  I worry that too many of us have only a typical “teaching” booklist – we prefer practical books and other readings that help us manage our day-to-day work in our classroom, but we pass up books that put our work in a broader context. I wish more teachers would read books on underlying issues we face, like Robert Marzano’s What Works in Grading and Assessment. It’s not a book on English teaching, but it has dramatically changed the way I teach English.  It took almost 15 years, but I’ve broken out of the grip of the points and percentages and averages.  I wish more people would read about tracking, and pick up Detracking for Excellence and Equity by Carol Corbett Burris and Delia T. Garrity.

I think it’s important for us to know more about the field of education, to understand how we reached the present moment, and what we’ve gained and lost over time.  Linda Darling-Hammond and Deb Meier are educators whose books have been helpful to me in that regard.  I also read a lot of articles and blogs, and have learned so much that way in recent years.

What do you hope to accomplish in your teaching career?

The beginning and ending point has to be about working with students.  The most professionally gratifying feelings I know are these: leaving work at the end of the day knowing you’ve made a positive impact on your students, or having a former student tell you months or years later how much you helped them academically and personally.  I don’t think I’ll ever get the same level of satisfaction from any of the work I do with the grown-ups instead of the kids.  I know I have a long way to go to be the best teacher I can be, though.  That’s an ongoing process that I expect will never end.

Still, I do have hopes that my teaching career will include some noteworthy contributions as a teacher leader, locally and beyond.  I have a long way to go in that regard too, but I’ve been taking on what I can, and doing my homework.  In the leadership realm, I think of myself as that baseball player on the bench, the kind of guy who’s made the team, but he’s not playing every inning and every game. But, he’s always hovering near the manager and talking to the All-Stars, watching, listening, learning constantly, making the most of his chances when they come, and expecting to crack the starting lineup soon enough.

For more information on Accomplished California Teachers, you can visit its Stanford site or its Ning. David can be contacted at Twitter.