Ep. 101: The Private School Teacher Skills Gap with Mike McShane

February 19, 2019

More than 480,000 private school educators in the U.S. teach more than 4.9 million K–12 students, and with private school choice programs on the rise, we expect those numbers to continue growing.

The questions our latest report—The Private School Teacher Skills Gap—answers: What skills do private school educators need to be successful, and are they getting everything they need in their formal training programs?

Drew Catt: Hi, I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects. I’m back today for another EdChoice Chat, speaking with Dr. Mike McShane. Mike is EdChoice’s director of national research, and author of our newest report, The Private School Teacher Skills Gap: What K-12 Private School Educators Know and What They Need to Know.

Thanks for joining us today, Mike.

Mike McShane: Thanks for having me.

Drew Catt: Let’s jump right in. Mike, would you start off by telling us about this report and what inspired it?

Mike McShane: Yeah. As listeners of the EdChoice podcast probably know, I host a podcast series called “Cool Schools,” where I interview the leaders of cool and innovative schools across the country. A lot of those schools are private schools, and even my own history, I used to be a Catholic school teachers. When I interview those people or when I talk with people in the network of private school teachers and leaders that I know, you always hear about the human capital needs of private schools. If you want to have a great school, you’ve got to have great teachers. You’ve got to have great administrators. In some ways, not being able to access great teachers and great leaders can really stall the growth. If you’ve got an awesome network of schools or you have a great school that wants to scale up to serve more people, they need teachers and leaders.

Mike McShane: I had this inkling and maybe some anecdata that preparations programs were not necessarily teaching teachers and leaders the things that they needed to be successful in private schools. Private schools function differently than public schools do, and the general model, I think, is geared more towards preparing public school teachers. So, I wanted to formalize that and not just rely on anecdote, but try and actually do some kind of systematic way of answering these questions.

Drew Catt: What was the systematic way that you went about this?

Mike McShane: I worked with some partners at Hanover Research, which is a great public policy research, polling firm, to do a big survey. We tried to reach out to as many private school administrators and teachers across three state. So, we looked at South Carolina, Iowa, and Arizona, a nice cross-section of states from across the country. We sent them a really detailed survey, and we were lucky that we had almost 450 responses to that detailed survey.

Drew Catt: That’s a great number of respondents. What categories of skills did you ask about in your survey?

Mike McShane: We asked them some general questions about their preparation. We asked questions about professional development, getting up to speed, but the big things that I was interested in knowing was, first, what are the skills and knowledge that they think is important to be successful when teaching or leading in a private school. Then I was trying to get at the question, did they learn these things in their pre-service preparation? We asked it in kind of a roundabout way, so rather than saying, “What were you not taught that you needed to be,” we asked, “What skills did you need to learn on the job?” There’s a series of questions around that, which yielded, I think, some interesting responses.

Then we had this kind of lucky break. I’m a big fan of Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting, and he always says there’s no such things as mistakes, only happy accidents. We had kind of a happy accident where 56 percent of our sample had actually taught in public schools as well. I knew that some portion of the sample would, so we had a battery of questions for them. I didn’t realize how big it was going to be. And actually on average, that 56 percent of our sample had actually taught for, I think on average, more than nine years in public schools.

So, we actually had people with really serious, substantial public school experience, and we were able to ask them some questions where you compare your experience. So, we take the list of skills, dispositions, knowledge, and ask them questions like, “Was this more important in public school, more important in private school or about the same?”

We were able to actually … Like I said, it was a long survey. I’m so thankful for all of the busy educators who took the time to fill it out. But we were able to ask a really broad spectrum of questions across a lot of different domains.

Drew Catt: Speaking of skills teachers had to learn on the job, I was fascinated when you presented this research at the International School Choice and Reform conference, that between one-third and one-fourth of teachers said the top skill they had to learn on the job was how to learn on the job.

Mike McShane: Yeah, a bit of a tautology there, yes. That’s an important way of, even the way that we’re framing this, talking about this in terms of the skills gap. For those who are maybe unfamiliar, if you’re a big Mike Rowe Dirty Jobs fan, there’s this idea out there, particularly in the business community, talking about the skills gap. The skills gap is this idea that there’s a bunch of jobs out there that people don’t have the skills to be able to take advantage of, and if we could get unemployed people or underemployed people those skills, they could fill these, in many cases, high-paying, stable, secure jobs.

It was actually one of the partners we were working with at Hanover, when I pitched this project to them and we were brainstorming the potential questions. He said, “You know, this is actually a lot like skills gap research, and this is what other people in business and other places look at to try and tackle that problem.” Which, I mean, it really does dovetail pretty nicely with what we were trying to do here. We worked, actually, with some kind of pre-baked batteries of questions from a broader—I don’t know if you’d want to necessarily call it literature—but broader research work that’s been done on the skills gap. That’s one of those skills, though, that we hear a lot about in the business world, but we decided what the heck, let’s throw it in and see what teachers have to say about it.

But yeah, this idea of learning on the job or being a lifetime learner, it turns out that’s a really popular response in the business world, and it’s actually a really popular response among teachers as well.

Drew Catt: Yeah, the lifelong learner thing definitely resonates with me, because I think my undergraduate preparation in organizational development, that was the one thing that they tried to hammer into our heads was the importance of being a lifelong learner in the business community or, really, any sector.

Mike McShane: For sure.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Another thing that stuck out to me was that even though educators identified holes in their preparation, they were still generally satisfied with it.

Mike McShane: Yeah.

Drew Catt: Mike, do you have any guess as to what’s happening there?

Mike McShane: Yeah, I think that’s actually a really important takeaway from this report. A few years ago there was a whole series of reports that came out that were basically these big kind of jeremiads against teacher preparation, and there were calls in some corners of the reform community. It’s like, “We need to blow up ed schools. We need to blow up ed schools. They’re completely …” I don’t want to go so far as putting words in people’s mouth saying that they were useless, but there was a lot of very strident language. We’ll put it that way. There was a lot of very strident language about education schools.

One of the things that we found in conducting this survey was even for private school educators who do identify holes in their preparation, overwhelmingly they were satisfied with the preparation that they received. I think that this is an important finding because if we want to solve some of the problems that they identified, we can see the sort of fundamental institutions that they had, they were glad that they went to them. They learned something there.

The question is not, perhaps, how do we circumvent these institutions or how do we replace these institutions, but rather how do we tweak them to better serve this particular constituency? I mean, in a lot of ways it makes the “what do we do with this information” question a little bit easier, because rather than saying we need to build a bunch of places whole cloth or completely redo this stuff, it’s like, no. These institutions work for people. They like them. They just need them to change a little bit to better fit what they’re doing in their professional life.

Drew Catt: It seems like the most important figure in this paper is the giant Venn diagram comparing the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in public schools with those needed in private schools with the overlap. Can you walk us through that?

Mike McShane: Yeah, for sure. I mean, that’s another interesting finding here, is the idea that private school educators and public school educators are completely different from one another is not true. This was that set of questions that we asked for the people who taught in both and said, “Are these particular …” We gave them a whole list of skills that they had identified earlier that were part of the battery of questions that they could choose from earlier, and asked them, say, “Is this more important in public schools? More important in private schools? Or about the same?” And overwhelmingly, what we found was that most of the things that we associate with being a good teacher or good administrator was true in both cases. So, being good at planning lessons or assessments or managing classrooms, that’s just as important in a public school environment as it is in a private school environment. There’s a big meaty center of the Venn diagram that has lots of stuff in it that is just as important in public schools as it is in private schools.

But there are some things outside of that overlapping bit. Particularly on the private school side, both teachers and administrators identified things like being entrepreneurial, budgeting, public relations skills, accounting and finance, teaching multiple subjects, modeling faith in action, and religious instruction. Which shouldn’t really surprise us, right? Private schools tend to operate much more independently and autonomously than public schools do. That means if you are a principal of a private school, you’re not just an instructional leader, but you’re also a business leader. You’re running a non-profit organization, so you need to know how to budget. You need to know accounting and finance to be able to handle this, where in many cases public schools would have a school district that does a lot of that back office support. Public schools also tend to have larger administrative staff, so more of these jobs fall onto private school leaders.

The same is true that private schools are much more likely to be religious in nature, so it shouldn’t surprise us that private school educators said it’s more likely to have to do religious instruction or model faith in action or be a faith leader in their school.

So, it is a distinct set of skills. I almost want to borrow, what was that? Liam Neeson from Taken, “a particular set of skills.”

Drew Catt: Yeah.

Mike McShane: They identified this particular set of skills that private school educators need that are unique from the much broader set of skills that are shared by both sectors.

Drew Catt: Right, so the more hats you wear, the more skills you need. That makes sense. But where are the teacher, administrator, pastor, principal, instructional leaders of the world expected to pick up all of the skills they need to be successful in their jobs?

Mike McShane: Right? That’s the challenge. I mean, ideally they would pick this up during their pre-service preparation. Those who are interested in serving in private schools would have the opportunity during their preparation to get these skills. If they’re not able to do that, one would hope that the kind of continuing education that takes place, either via professional development or as teachers and leaders go back and get master’s degrees or certificates or spend more time in higher education, that they might be able to have programs that are catered to their particular needs around these issues where these gaps exist.

Drew Catt: That makes complete sense to me. Are there any considerations for policy makers to be aware of?

Mike McShane: Yes, I mean, I think this type of research that we’re doing here, while I think the main audience that I think this would be helpful for are kind of entrepreneurial teacher and leader preparation program folks who say, “Wait a second. Look, we can actually with a few tweaks, and maybe just by doing stuff like cross-listing courses …” So, saying we have courses in non-profit management that educational administrator master’s students or whatever those programs are, that they could get credit. They could cross-list for those. Or courses in the business school. Or for those schools or for those educators who potentially want to teach in religious schools, you might have the religious studies department or the theology department or any of those where students could cross-list.

I think the main audience of this is entrepreneurial educator prep people who there’s a real opportunity there for them to serve an unmet market. But it is also important for policymakers to understand that in order for things like school choice programs to grow and thrive, there’s more than just, “Oh, hey, we, like, pass a voucher bill and then move on with our lives.” School voucher bills, tuition tax credits, education savings accounts, all of this suite of educational choice policies, and this is also … I mean, this research didn’t look directly at charter schools, but I would imagine a lot of this overlaps with them. You have to think more broadly about the creation of markets and how markets work and how part of the lifeblood of markets is human capital. If you’re not thinking about all of these concerns, you shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed when schools don’t thrive. If schools can’t get teachers and leaders, doesn’t matter anything else that’s going on. They’re not going to be good schools. They’re not going to be able to grow. They’re not going to be able to improve the lives of kids.

Part of this kind of secondary audience that I hope … Policy makers, other people in the educational choice movement who need to look more broadly at how to improve the quality of schools that participate in those programs and help them grow in positive ways.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and positive growth is, I think, a great concept that we can all latch onto. Mike, do you have anything else do add?

Mike McShane: No. I mean, I hope that folks are able to read this. Maybe folks who had not necessarily looked at EdChoice’s stuff before. This is probably a little bit nontraditional audience for folks. I hope that everybody can give it a read with an open mind, and even if you maybe don’t agree with EdChoice about anything that we believe, just looking at the cold, hard data of this one, I hope that it will convince people that there is this need out there for educators to get these particular skills, and I hope that folks will rise up to the challenge.

Drew Catt: Yes, because as you said, a particular set of skills.

Mike McShane: Exactly.

Drew Catt: All right. Well, that wraps up this edition of EdChoice Chats. Be sure to check out the description of this podcast for a link to Mike’s report, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher so you never miss another episode. If you have any questions or comments about this report, feel free to reach out to us on social media. You can find us @edchoice. Until next time, take care.