Private school, public issues: A conversation with Walter Landberg

Walter Landberg has centered both his career and life around the education of children. From a Teach For America assignment in Oakland, California to a stint as a third grade teacher in Los Angeles, to an advanced degree from Harvard's University Graduate School of Education in Administration, Planning and Social Policy, Landberg has been on the frontlines and behind the lines when it comes to teaching. He was promoted from middle school teacher to Executive Director/Head of School at Innovation Academy in Massachusetts in 2000, where he served for 12 years. He then took a position as the head of New Roads School in Santa Monica and Los Angeles.

This summer Landberg will be moving with his family to our community to assume the Head of School position at Summers-Knoll, a private, non-profit school in Ann Arbor.

Given the challenges, innovations and policy issues that confront our public school system, it may seem counter-intuitive to dedicate editorial space to a private school's hiring practices and approach to education. However, given state and local concerns and conversations about such issues as Common Core, economic disparity, educational access and inequality, and the future of learning, it seemed like a ripe opportunity to expand the discussion to include a member of the independent school community. This interview with Mr. Landberg has been lightly edited for content and length.

Let's start with a question that's been hot in education circles. What is your general view of Common Core standards and the educational value it offers?

The idea of national and even state standards makes sense in a public education system. It's an attempt to make sure that kids from every background have equal access to learning and that they're [the schools] held to the same standards. The idea is that kids who are, say, living in inner city Detroit should get the same standards of learning as the kids who are going to Ann Arbor schools. And that teachers and schools are told what we're driving toward as a state or, in terms of Common Core, as a country. That's compelling, to have a system that gives all kids an equal opportunity to be successful.

We need to look at how we teach kids in a world where information is so readily available. Teachers now are struggling with the fact that students can get information outside of textbooks. The old model is obsolete. The ability to find out about anything can be had at our fingertips in seconds.

Up to age three, we have a pretty good handle on what kids need with regard to development. But after age three they start interacting with technology, and the difference between what a 3 and 13 year-old is exposed to isn't all that different. That's a departure from the way things were 20 years ago. And this brings in the idea of Common Core, because how do you establish standards for a world where kids are able to acquire information at their own pace and interest?

I'm still trying to figure out how things are going to look in the future, but I think a school like Summers-Knoll, where the classes are small and the teacher's role is to be a facilitator of learning, can not only present challenging problems for kids to work on but also ask, "okay what is a question you want to explore?" If you throw things out to the kids and let them form the questions and then help them explore it in groups or on their own, they often come back with more information than you could ever imagine.

I think we're going to see the concept of the teacher as the director of the classroom and knowledge center evolve to teacher as facilitator. But as you can imagine, moving toward something like this will become a challenge with regard to convincing parents, who have gone through a more traditional school system and then onto college and then a career that. But I think this model will actually be the way to better prepare our kids for the future.

There is a dramatic and growing economic disparity in our country. Last year, the Ann Arbor region was ranked the 8th most economically segregated region in the country and a local study showed that the city is particularly unaffordable for lower middle class residents. So, as the head of a private school how do you make a case for its value to the wider community and what, if any, responsibility do you feel a school like Summers-Knoll has to address the situation?

I think some private schools create a bubble for kids. All or most of the kids are from the same socio-economic class, and while they give some financial aid it's usually not a lot. Summers-Knoll has a commitment to diversity in all regards, including socio-economic diversity, to the point that the school commits 20 percent of all revenues to financial aid. So, I would say it's serving the community in two ways: (1) It's saying you don't have to spend a fortune to send your child here but then also (2) it teaches its kids by being more inclusive, by creating an educational environment that's more like the real world, for kids whose parents probably could send them to any number of private schools. That's a bigger point than some people realize, because to operate in the real world you have to interact with everybody. Most people cannot pick and choose who they work for, who they're on a team with, etc.

So, you have this system –the private or independent school system-- that people of means see as a better educational option for their children. Do you see an opportunity, or even the desire, for those private schools to have a dialog among themselves about what educational practices work best? And then do you see a path for those schools to take that dialog to the public school system and perhaps share those best practices?

I think the biggest challenge is making the time for professional development, to give teachers the time to observe the educational practices of another school. So, yes, I think there's a lot of untapped opportunity there. I know some independent school's run summer institutes where there is a week-long offering of presentations for teachers. It becomes a professional development opportunity for both private and public educators by sharing their good work.

But in the independent school world there's a lot more flexibility to make that time. Often times public schools are tethered to schedules and calendars and other requirements that maybe dictated by community or even union rules. I think there are a lot of things that impede public schools from opening themselves up. But I think those things get worked through on a district-by-district level.

One of the big challenges in the teaching profession is that, traditionally, the teacher is on their own in the classroom, the door is shut and that's it, they're by themselves. One of things that appealed to me about Summer Knoll was that teachers are working together in teams, that they're in and out of each other's classrooms. I'd love to see us share our best practices with others.

At the charter school I was at in Massachusetts it was a requirement from the state that you had to disseminates your practices, to share what we were doing that was different with the public system. So we would put on these summer programs, where we'd reach out to the district, make sure the teachers got professional development credit while allowing our teachers to share what they were doing that was different.

Could something like that work here? Would Summers-Knoll be opened to something like that?

I know they have some unique programs -especially their summer programs - and I wonder if our teachers could present some of the projects their working on for other teachers. Or maybe there's an opportunity to provide the venue for something like that and ask teachers from other independent schools to join in as well. Obviously, I have to go slow at this point since I'm not actually in Ann Arbor yet. But I do see opportunities.

According to the National Education Association, over the last decade, in constant dollars, the average salary for public school teachers has decreased nationally by about 3.5%. In 34 states there were real declines, and in Michigan the decline was almost 9 percent. What role do you see independent schools playing this trend, and how can they make the case for more livable salaries for teachers?

Those are depressing statistics. I don't have the data in front of me but my sense of the independent school community is that they are more attuned and tend to be more flexible in adjusting to the market. They're not tied to a salary schedule, so they can negotiate independently. I think, on the whole, independent schools have the ability to offer more competitive salaries, which doesn't help the system as a whole, unless it puts pressure on a district to strengthen their compensation. I will say, however, that while salaries may have issues, the benefits in public systems tend to be very good. That may balance some things.

If I had to guess I would guess that salaries in independent schools have actually increased over the years. When I began my career in education it was the opposite, teachers in public schools tended to make more than teachers in independent schools. I think that has shifted.

When teachers come to a school like Summers-Knoll, which has a particular view of what teaching and learning entails, it can mean teachers are coming for more than just the salary, however. Now, that doesn't mean the schools shouldn't offer competitive market salaries, but there have been cases where people have chosen the job for the job and even taken a small cut in salary because they wanted to work in an independent environment - where team work is valued, where you're not on your own, where you might have a smaller class size, where you have more autonomy. 

Okay, stepping back to the macro level, what change to the American educational system do you think needs to happen that we've been reluctant to embrace.

I think we need to do a better job of training and educating teachers. Teachers need to have the opportunity, before they're in a classroom, to work alongside a master teacher for a whole year. And be paid for it. Going back to your salary question, I think there's a real problem when the requirements of teachers are increasing, at least from a schooling perspective, and that doesn't necessarily make you a better teacher. What makes you a better anything is doing more of it, and actually practicing it. You can't just watch someone play guitar to learn how to play it. You have to actually play the guitar. And you have to play as much as you can. If you want to be a great teacher you have to teach. Sitting in a class and earning a masters degree isn't going to ensure that. Or, even worse, a masters degree online. So I think teachers need to have paid apprenticeships. And the paid part is important because if we're going to ask them to commit another year to their training they can't do it for nothing, especially when the outcome is a job that doesn't pay a lot by society's standards.

We had a program on a smaller level at Innovation Academy where we were in a partnership with three other schools. It was called the New Teacher's Collaborative, and teachers who got into the program were paid $20K plus benefits, which is not a lot of money, but it's enough to get by for the year. They taught alongside a master teacher for a full year. So, at first they would observe, then they'd co-teach and about three-quarters of the way into the year they took over the class with the master teacher in the room. To impact education you need to address the capacity of our teachers. Which is not a slight on our current teachers, they're just doing the very best they can in the system we've created. But, if we want the very best, then let's give them the chance to develop. This what doctors do, in residency, where they're paid, they are actually practicing alongside seasoned veterans.

As a country we have a tendency to want to create standards and tests because it's easier and it's cheaper. It will cost us more money to support teachers like this right out of the gate, but I think it's an investment worth making.
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