Category Archives: Human Capital

Formation: Why We’re Far Away from Peak Teacher Performance

I just read Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.

One of the book’s main arguments is this:

  1. Performance is improvement is driven by: maintaining intense focus, staying on the edge of one’s comfort zone, getting immediate feedback, identifying weak points and developing practice techniques designed specifically to address these weaknesses.
  2. This cycle is best done in fields where there is a long history of teaching that clearly articulates specific phases of mastery (musical instruments, chess, etc. all have fairly linear performance paths).
  3. Because deliberate practice is hard work, those individuals who are successful over the long run have generally found ways to keep themselves motivated and have crafted supportive environments for themselves.


Jal Mehta’s book The Allure of Order  thoughtfully narrated how teaching failed to develop a professional body of knowledge.

Rather than refining practice by building a long-history of evolutionary cataloguing of what works or conducting rigorous research on teaching techniques, the teaching profession formed through continuous bruising battles around contract rights.

In many cases, these battles led to real improvements in teaching workforce conditions; however, they also came at the expense of a professionalization of the practice.


So, for most of the 20th century, teaching suffered from a lack of a body of knowledge around performance progression *and* a lack of a culture of feedback.

The lessons put forth in Peak have in most ways been ignored.

Children have likely suffered.


Enter Harriet Ball.

Enter Doug Lemov.

Enter Dave Levin.

Enter Mike Goldstein.

And so forth.

Basically, you have a group of educators saying: what the f**k?

Why, in one of the world’s oldest professions, do we not have a cannon of performance progression?


I am highly skeptical of most human capital education reform efforts.

I think state mandated teacher evaluations will yield little over time.

I think most education schools care more about spreading ideology than building a knowledge base around effective teaching.

I think most districts are hopeless when it comes to giving timely and precise feedback to teachers.


My guess is that the way forward is supporting the Lemov / Relay effort to capture the practices of best teachers, and then to compliment this evolutionary approach with RCTs when feasible.

And move from district operation of schools to non-profit operation of schools (so as to better implement cycles of feedback + creating intensive and insular cultures of performance perfection, as with music academies).

But given our starting point, we’re probably decades away from hitting peak teacher performance at scale.

Getting Back to Anxiety, Paranoia, and Self Doubt

I’m going to try and take a break from New Orleans ten year education battles.

I think the aggressive push back led by John White, Pete Cook, Chris Stewart and others was necessary – and I tried to play my part.

But it’s not that fun.

It sacrifices a lot of nuance. It requires pretty aggressive attacks against well meaning people. And it surely is not about learning or getting better.

I felt myself getting dumber by the day.

So it’s time to get back to things that I think are fun, that lead to learning, and that involve our tribe getting better.

It’s time to tap back into the wonderful virtues of anxiety, paranoia, and self doubt.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the chance to pepper some great educators and policy wonks (a few of them quite skeptical of relinquishment type reforms). Here are the two most commonly names critiques / threats / etc.

1. Human capital limits for dominant CMO models: The best charters run off type A people in their twenties working 60-70 hour weeks. This will not scale. Moreover, it’s not just a matter of the top charters being more systematized, as their current systems are predicated on working people long hours – and these systems will crack under a different human capital model. Big picture: existing high-performing CMO models will never be able to scale.

2. Not serving the middle class: No national reform effort will ever get to scale unless it benefits the middle class. The politics will prove impossible. And scale can’t be achieved by only focusing on low-income families in cities. Currently, there are very few highly effective charters serving the middle class, and the political fights in the suburbs are a war that can’t really be won. Moderately well performing monopolies with generally satisfied parents will persist in perpetuity.

Both of these issues have been discussed on this blog before.

But I don’t think we have enough good solutions to consider these issues even moderately solved.

Our tribe needs to work hard on these issues. Myself included!

Will Uber-fication of the Job Market Increase or Decrease Human Capital Formation?


Tyler Cowen has an interesting post on the sharing economy and job training:

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This could be true. But I could tell another (somewhat overlapping) story:

1. Currently there is a multi-party relationship between individuals, universities, and employers. Individuals attend universities where they partake in some human capital formation and some filtering and signalling activities. Employers then hire individuals and provide additional training.

2. With on-demand hiring, these relationships will change. As Tyler points out, employers may provide less training to employees.

3. This could lead to less training overall. Or it could shift the onus of training mostly to the individual, as Tyler suggests.

4. However, it could also put pressure on universities to pick up a greater burden of the training load. One could imagine that this leads universities to place greater emphasis on vocational (trade specific) training, as well as more general skill formation (non-trade specific, such as data analysis, project management, people management, etc.). Additional, an individual’s relationship to a university might move from one four year stint to a longer ten to fifteen year on again / off again relationship.

5. Alternatively, if universities don’t adapt (especially mid to lower tier schools), it could create room in the market for new types of training institutions that are more skill based (such as coding academies). These institutions might be tightly aligned with certain on-demand platforms, so that people who want to compete in these on-demand markets can get the necessary skills. Similarly, individuals might form longer term relationships with these institutions.

6. If either universities or new institutions end up picking up more of the burden, there is a world where we move towards more efficient labor relationships, as we will have put real pressure on the weakest part of the training link: universities.

Will the sharing economy decrease human capital formation?

I’m not sure.

I can see a world where it makes our training institutions much better.

But I can also poke holes in my story (employer training is mandatory and thus very different; universities won’t respond; moving from employer to university training is moving from high to low efficiency, etc.), so I’m definitely not arguing that it is right. Just that some version of it might be right.

The Forest and the Trees: Performance Management Addition


Over at Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post Blog, William Doyle penned a piece arguing that “corporate reform” is an insult to corporations.

William’s intention, I believe, is to demonstrate that public schools would be better off without the reforms which he opposes, including: common core standards and assessments, multiple choice assessments, and test score based teacher evaluations.


As a counterpoint to these reform efforts, Williams details how Microsoft has stopped force ranking its employees.

His point is that corporations such as Microsoft are moving away from the type of human capital reforms that are being implemented in public education.

This argument seems to be missing the forest for the trees.

The “trees” here are how one corporation is overhauling its human capital system.

The “forest” is that the company is doing this because it exists in a competitive landscape. William quotes from an article:

The internal change mirrors the shift CEO Satya Nadella is working to effect externally, charming and collaborating with startups and venture-capital firms so that Microsoft doesn’t get left behind.

The point is this: there is no perfect evaluation system; whatever is the best system today will likely not be the best system in perpetuity; by having organizations compete against each for talent, the best systems will emerge.


Charter school districts, such as exists in New Orleans, require schools to compete for talent. How are they responding? You can read about that in this Slate piece. The piece also details the efforts of YES Prep:

The network announced earlier this month a series of initiatives to improve retention, including across-the-board pay raises. In addition, more seasoned teachers will have a personal budget to spend on professional development, and more input on how their job evaluations will work. The network has also cut back on school hours and mandatory after-school activities.

Doug Lemov also recently wrote about the connection between school choice and teacher wellbeing:

In short, more choice would likely lead to higher teacher satisfaction—who wants to spend their career at odds with the organization they work for or trying to hide from the training it offers?


William’s bio indicates that we was just selected as 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar to study global education best practices, and that he previously he managed budgets totaling over $200 million for public U.S. media companies, including HBO.

I hope that William’s Fulbright experience will allow him to study education systems, such as New Orleans, that harness competitive principals for social aims.

The point is not that schools in these systems necessarily have the best human capital systems.

The idea is that, over time, they are more likely too than schools in traditional systems.

In a city where only one organization operates public schools, there is only way to evaluate talent, and there’s only one place for educators to work.

This is not a recipe for success.

Musings on the Potential Counter-Cyclical Nature of Education

I’ve written recently about how incoming teacher SAT scores are on the rise, perhaps because of recession is pushing more people into teaching.

Here’s an interesting (to me) but probably not true theory: what if there’s an on-going causal relationship between the economy and the teacher labor force?

It might look something like this:

1. The economy drags.

2. Higher-quality candidates enter the classroom due to reduced opportunities in other sectors.

3. Children learn more because of these higher-quality teachers.

4. Better educated children eventually lead to a more productive workforce.

5. The economy hums.

6. Higher-quality human capital enters more lucrative professions instead of entering the teaching force.

7. Children learn less.

8. Under-educated children eventually lead to a less productive workforce.

9. The economy drags.

10. The cycle begins again.

I can think of numerous reasons (timing, size of effects etc.) why this might not be true.

And I’m sure some economist has put forth this cycle and a hundred others have proven it wrong.

But the cycle crossed my mind so I thought I’d share it. Such is the power of being a blogger.

Don’t worry, I’ll send out some sentences to ponder later today so you can get your fill of some more rigorous thinking.

Charter School Market Share and Teacher Pipelines


When high-performing charter schools are a niche player in a city, they can source most of their teachers from teacher pipelines such as Teach For America, TNTP, or residency programs.

When high-performing charter schools achieve significant market share, these pipelines often cannot meet the full human capital needs of these schools – both because of cost (they are expensive) and supply (they draw from a narrow talent pool).

Consider a small urban district of 50,000 students.

A 18:1 teacher ratio equals 2,778 teachers in the system.

A 20% turnover rate means 555 teachers need to be recruited into the system each year.

And this is a low end projection: 15:1 ratio with 25% turnover is probably more likely.

But let’s call it 550.

In a market this size, TFA + TNTP might bring in 250 teachers a year.

That leaves a 300 teacher a year gap.

Where will these teachers come from? Some thoughts:

1. The boutique pipelines expand. TFA and TNTP double in size. This is plausible, especially if there is a lot of local philanthropy in the system.

2. Charter schools pull teacher training in house. They directly partner with local colleges and build up internal training capacity. This is also plausible, especially in markets where CMOs have achieved some level of scale.

3. Training programs partner with local universities. Under this model, 3rd party non-profits partner with undergrad institutions to develop teachers, sometimes even bypassing colleges of education located on the same campus. I know of a couple of pilots that are launching based on this model.

4. Colleges of education become more effective and supply an increased number of high-quality teachers.

In a small urban district, I think options (1) and (3) are most likely to succeed. (2) is a little more difficult because there may not be as many large CMOs that can achieve the economies of scale needed to run an internal program.

In a large urban district, I think options (2) and (3) are most likely to succeed. (1) is little more difficult because TFA and TNTP do not scale as well.

I am skeptical (4) will work at any scale anytime soon.

One last note, it always bothers me when people argue that charter school advocates ignore teacher quality. These critics often point to the fact that countries such as Finland improved their educational systems via better teacher recruiting and development, not via charters and choice.

This may well be true.

But, as far as I can see, in this country the best advancements in teacher recruitment and development are closely aligned with the charter movement.

Of course, I’d love it if traditional education schools were reforming themselves.

But they are not.

For now, at least, the solutions lie elsewhere.