Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Trip to India Part 2 - Scale

As I mentioned in my first post, it doesn't take long to realize that India has a scale problem that dwarfs the United States in its quest to have a world-class education system.  Let's do some simple math to start.  There are about 400 million kids in India.  There are currently about 10 million teachers.  If you talk to major urban superintendents in the United States, they will tell you that about 10% of their teachers make a year or more of progress with students each year.  I know that is a low bar, kind of like "do no harm" more than success, but if you could create a school system with this 10% of teachers, you should be able to deliver a very high number of students to college readiness by the time they leave the 12th grade.  In the U.S., this means that we probably have about 400,000 of our 4 million teachers who are able to get the results we need.  We have about 60 million students, so the ratio of students to proficient teachers is 150:1.  In India by contrast, if we assume (probably generously) that 10% of their teachers are proficient, then they should have about 1 million teachers for their 400 million students, so about 400:1.

In the past, we've always looked at a one teacher per classroom model.  In that frame, these ratios don't make any sense.  You are left with the idea that our only path to success is to increase the number of proficient teachers by 10x so that we can get the ratio into the range of a class, say 30:1 or 35:1.  The challenge with this thinking is that massively increasing the number of proficient teachers is incredibly difficult.  There are two fundamental problems.  First, teaching is a low-pay and low-respect profession.  Believe me, I don't like that at all, Rocketship is changing that within our own system, but it is unfortunately true in the U.S. and almost every country in the world right now.  That means that your incoming pool of teachers tends to be filtered to people for whom the salary and respect are a good fit with their skills.  As we have seen, most teachers come from the bottom quartile of academic achievement on admissions tests and college.  Teach for America is the outlier here.  Through an amazing brand and recruiting, it has successfully reached the top quartile of American students to become teachers.  This is just a difficult thing to scale up to 4 million teachers.

The second challenge with creating more proficient teachers, is that improving teaching skill is very difficult.  We have been successful at Rocketship in increasing teacher proficiency by .1 years of average student gain each year they are with us, but at 10 times the effort and expense that government schools spend on it.  We have dedicated academic deans focused on improving teacher performance, our teacher pay aligns with student performance, teachers only come to Rocketship if they want to improve their teaching, we set 3 improvement goals between teacher and dean every 8 weeks, we videotape teachers instructing and compare their work to a master teacher doing the same thing, we use real time coaching with earbuds and live suggestions from our deans.    So the idea that government school systems are going to align incentives and put this amount of work into helping teachers improve is not realistic.  By the way, all of this work is funded by the fact that Rocketship runs blended schools which require fewer teachers than traditional schools.  We reinvest the dollars we save to do this level of talent development, pay teachers more, spend 3 years developing our school leaders, etc.  So without a major change in the way government schools are organized, I'm not sure they could afford to do this level of talent development even if all of the other incentives were aligned.

Given all of this, I think it is safer to assume that we have a fixed pool of proficient teaching talent both in the U.S. and India.  This makes those ratios at the beginning a lot more relevant.  If you have a fixed teacher pool and a given student population, you have to figure out how to leverage that talent over the larger number of students.  At Rocketship, we are moving to a model where our lead teachers are in charge of an entire grade level of 100-120 students.  Of course, they are not the only one in the room with the students, they have assistant teachers, coaches, technology, etc.  In fact, it's much easier to think of the model in terms of the way doctors work in a hospital.  Almost all of the time you are receiving care, nurses, technicians or others are working with you.  The doctor will come in for 2-3 minutes to poke you and ask you questions, then tell the team what tests to do.  After the tests are done, they come back for 2-3 minutes to read the results and make a decision.  So in the several hours you are there, you get about 5 minutes of the doctor's time and at least in my experience, most of the time you get the right outcome.  That is the way I think our schools will work within the next couple of decades. A very highly paid teacher's time will be leveraged in the same way that a doctor's time is now.

For India, that means that instead of that 150:1 ratio we need in the U.S., their proficient teachers need the support structure to work with 400 students.  I am sure they will find many organizational schemes to make that happen, but I think a few things have to be true to get this kind of leverage.  First, the teacher needs to be very well paid, because you really can't ever afford for them to leave their job, they are the linchpin to the entire system.  At Rocketship, we currently pay our top performing teachers about $90,000 per year (about 1.5 times surrounding districts) and will move that to $120,000 per year over the next few years (about double surrounding districts).  Talent is simply too valuable and too scarce in leveraged models to allow churn.  Second, teachers will not be valued for the raw amount of work they can do, but for their decision making abilities.  Figuring out that a student needs to work on a given skill (like a doctor figuring out that you need a certain medicine) will be highly valued.  I am very hopeful that top teachers will continue to show the kind of emotional intelligence that we see today, although I have to say that I think they show a lot more than the average doctor, since doctors bedside manner is less valuable in a high stakes situation than whether they make you well.  Third, there will clearly be other people working in schools with kids than just teachers.  I think that's one place we will see much more selection for emotional intelligence, caring, and a desire to help.  Much like nurses in hospitals, there is nothing like having someone on your side when you are going through a difficult situation.  I think the same will be true at schools.  The good news is that in these highly leveraged models, these folks should be paid about the same as teachers do today.  Finally, a lot of a student's time is going to have to be online, learning skills without the need for any adult intervention.  This is a lot like when you go home and take the medicine the doctor has prescribed.  There is really no need for someone to call you every five minutes to see how you are doing.  If it's not working, you will let them know!  I will be fascinated to see if India can reframe the challenge from the traditional "we just need more great teachers" to one of "how do we leverage our fixed pool of great teachers to serve more children?"

In my next piece, I'll talk more about what India's accountability issues mean for their development, and a perspective that gives on the U.S. system.

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