Metric Man

New state education boss James Guthrie wants to measure teachers’ effectiveness down to the decimal point. Not everyone is happy about that.

Several years ago James Guthrie, who became Nevada’s new superintendent of public instruction in May, sat next to a Walmart store manager on a plane. Rather than ride in silence, Guthrie spent the time drilling his seatmate on the business practices of the world’s largest retailer.

“I said, ‘Can you tell me what your sales are? Can you tell me what products are hot? Can you tell me what isn’t selling? Can you tell me the profit per square foot in your store?’ I went on and on, about 20 different things. Then I said, ‘Can you tell me what those figures are on a weekly basis?’ He said, ‘No. I can tell them to you on an hourly basis.’ Most principals are lucky if they know who is at their school that day.”

There are two things to take away from this anecdote: 1) If you value silence, you do not want him sitting next to you on a plane and, 2) Guthrie is an educator with an almost religious belief in the power of data to transform Nevada’s schools.

Nevada’s new school boss is at once gracious and direct, boastful and humble. He’ll thank you for asking a question, then get increasingly histrionic as he answers it. He’s surprisingly frank for a man with a 23-page résumé that includes a Ph.D. from Stanford and consulting work on education policy for 26 states, 10 countries and the U.S. Senate. You’d expect someone who’s spent more than 50 years in academia and think tanks, who has authored or co-authored 17 books on education policy, to speak in the fuzzy jargon of his trade. It’s easier not to get pinned down that way.

But Guthrie doesn’t obfuscate. At 75, when others his age are winding up careers and heading for the golf course, he’s taken on the biggest challenge of his professional life. He could have stayed at his last post as a senior fellow and director of education-policy studies at the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University in Texas, writing policy papers and making speeches about what ails America’s schools. Instead he’s in charge of education in a state that scrapes the bottom in nearly every measure of educational success. A student drops out of Clark County schools every 11 minutes of every school day, he notes. There’s an urgency to this new job.

“I have never had the opportunity to try and reshape an entire state system,” he says. “There are only 50 chief state school officers in the U.S. at any one time, and only one of them is at the bottom.”

• • •

Neither side will admit it just yet, but it’s clear there’s a battle brewing between Guthrie and Nevada teachers. All that data that he wants to gather, crunch and study? Guthrie wants to use it to overhaul the way teachers are recruited, evaluated and paid.

Just like the Walmart store manager who knows what sells on aisle 11 at 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, Guthrie wants to know, at a granular level, what Nevada students are doing in school, and beyond. Which classes did they take? Which teachers did they have? Have they made progress as measured on standardized tests? Are they college-eligible? If so, did they go?

“I need metrics, metrics, metrics, metrics,” he says. “I’ve got to know, from cradle to career, what a youngster is doing and what he does when he grows up. … I’ve got to know how the system works in order to make midcourse corrections.”

Even his terminology is redolent of business. “The chief obstacle to greater productivity in the education sector is a stubborn adherence to antiquated operational procedures that were designed for a past era,” Guthrie wrote in the National Review Online on May 12, 2011. “Attempts at genuine innovation are blunted by the absence of a profit motive, the existence of a virtual market monopoly and inadequate accountability mechanisms.”

Evaluating students, of course, also means evaluating teachers. Just like in business, he wants to know if the district is getting its money’s worth from employees. Again from his piece at the National Review Online: “Academic achievement should be measured annually against a baseline of conventional expectations. In other words, we should attempt to calculate how much value a given teacher and school have added. This idea causes plenty of handwringing in professional education circles. Yet value-added testing would give us a better sense of the contribution made by individual instructors and institutions.”

Sift the data, add input from peers, students and parents, and out pops an ostensibly objective determination of which teachers are good, and which aren’t. It’s not that simple, of course, and there are a lot of variables that trained leaders must take into account, but that’s the idea. “We are coming very close to be being able to measure the effectiveness of a teacher scientifically,” he says. “The old methods no longer apply.”

By “old methods” Guthrie means the system now in place in Nevada under which teachers are protected from layoffs by seniority and get pay increases based on longevity and additional training. The system rewards teachers for sticking around rather than actually being good at what they do, he says, and also for getting graduate degrees that often have no demonstrable effect on their ability to teach.

“There is no self-respecting economist in the U.S. who has found any positive relationship between these added education courses teachers take, and for which they are annually rewarded, and student achievement. It is not there,” he says.

Though Nevada was recently ranked No. 45 in terms of spending per pupil by the U.S. Census Bureau—$8,422 annually, well below the 2008-09 national average of $10,499—Guthrie believes there’s no point in spending more if we aren’t going to overhaul the way we spend. Even class size is a red herring, he says. Effective teachers can teach a lot of kids at once; ineffective teachers use large classes as an excuse. “Parents think class size matters,” he says. “This is an unholy alliance of parent preferences and teacher preferences. It is easier for a teacher to teach 12 or 15 students than it is 30, no question about it. But what’s more important is whether your child has a good teacher. … We have to sever the perception that class size is of consequence. It is of minor consequence.

“I don’t know if we spend enough money,” he adds, “since we are wasting so much of it right now.”

As you’d guess, Guthrie’s ideas make him something of a darling among conservative groups. The Nevada Policy Research Institute has already hosted him as a luncheon guest speaker, and is practically swooning over his appointment.

“It’s encouraging to have a noted scholar who is willing to speak truth and go against the grain,” NPRI spokesman Victor Joecks says. “And [who] clearly says that an effective teacher is essential but ineffective teachers do an enormous amount of damage.”

NPRI’s June campaign to “inform” members of the Clark County Educators Association, the teachers’ union, that they have the right to opt out of the union has been covered in painstaking detail by local media. Joecks himself wrote an article urging teachers to drop out of the union, save themselves money and not contribute to the “staggeringly high” salaries of CCEA executives. As you’d also guess, Guthrie’s ideas aren’t mainstream thinking at the CCEA. Money is a problem right now, says president Ruben Murillo.

“There are classrooms in Clark County where children have to sit on the floor because there aren’t enough desks,” Murillo says. “There are classrooms without enough books to go around. It is a shame when we have to beg parents and teachers to supply pencils.”

Evaluating teachers on merit via standardized testing sounds appealing, he says, but it doesn’t adequately address factors beyond a teacher’s control. Did the student have enough to eat in the morning? Do his parents have jobs? Does he speak English? Merit promotion could backfire, he believes, causing effective teachers to seek postings at schools where the kids are easier to teach. “You would have a flight of good teachers from schools in lower socioeconomic areas trying to get out to the suburbs,” he says. “It is so much more than just a test score.”

But Murillo levels his most pointed criticism at the notion that paying teachers for advanced degrees is money wasted. “That’s almost like saying to a dentist or a doctor, ‘Any additional professional development you take doesn’t count.’ It’s demeaning to teachers. It tells them anyone can be a teacher and they are not valued.”

• • •

As of this writing, Guthrie had not met with representatives from the CCEA, or the Nevada Educators Association, though he’s ready and willing to do so. You don’t get to his level without some mastery of statesmanship.

For the moment, though, Guthrie is still in the honeymoon phase of his job, that sweet spot between convincing Gov. Brian Sandoval that he’s the person with the ideas that will pull Nevada up from the bottom, and the reality of having to make substantive changes in people’s lives in order to do it. Teacher’s unions are a powerful force in Nevada. There will be resistance. Things will get nasty. He may yet regret his decision to leave Texas.

“Could I have done this at 30?,” Guthrie wonders. “No, I didn’t know enough, but I would have had more physical stamina. Do I know enough at 75? Let’s see.”