01/16/2013 12:58 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

The Sabanization of Public Schools: How to Fix Teachers' Job Descriptions

When I saw that Alabama's Crimson Tide had rolled over Notre Dame's Fighting Irish in last week's BCS National Championship Game -- winning their third title in four years -- I remembered a feature by Andy Staples that I had read in Sports Illustrated last summer entitled "The Sabanization of College Football." In the piece, Staples wrote that one of the foundations of Alabama's current dynasty has been head coach Nick Saban's commitment to providing everyone in his organization with a clear inventory of essential duties:

While a defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns from 1991 to '94, Saban worked for another critical mentor, Bill Belichick, who...taught [him] how to get the most out of his staff and players. Saban took note of the sign Belichick hung in the Browns' complex. It said do your job. Saban loved it because Belichick clearly defined the expectations for every employee in the organization. "Everybody says, 'Be accountable,' but sometimes nobody ever tells you exactly what the expectation is," Saban says, [so every year he] provides everyone who touches the program with a list of responsibilities and expectations...

If only our education system adopted that philosophy. As the accountability movement expands and data-driven evaluation becomes the norm, it is stunning how little thought has been given to what a teacher's job description is or should be. Has anything really changed since the days of the one room schoolhouse? Have we ever given teachers a finite list of expectations and responsibilities?

This line of questioning reminds me of an exercise that I engaged in a few years ago at a professional development session with a group of fellow Teach For America social studies teachers. The facilitator asked us to generate a list of terms that described our duties in our current roles. The result: a beautiful cloud of about fifty words that engulfed an entire chalkboard. The sight evoked awe and pride from my colleagues, as we quickly fished for cameras to capture this image, this chaotic but grand illustration of our occupation.

Yet as I reflect upon that assignment today, I now recognize the naïveté of our initial reaction: if our job description was up in the clouds, how on earth were we supposed to stay grounded and focused? Wouldn't we get lost in the mist? Or sacked by linebacker?

Successful, high functioning organizations like Nick Saban's Crimson Tide don't allow their people to operate under this sort of haze of dangerous ambiguity. Unconscious football players often wind up unconscious. Unconscious teachers... might.

In addition, without well-defined responsibilities and expectations, fair enforcement of accountability is impossible. A white paper on best practices in writing job descriptions put out by Kenexa, a human resources consultancy owned by IBM, explains that performance management is one of the most critical functions of an effective job description: "Job descriptions provide the baseline for what is expected from an employee in their role. 'Meets expectations' can be defined as expected performance on the duties and responsibilities in the job description."

But a key concern for teachers is that the accuracy of their job descriptions has yet to catch up to the complexity of the instruments being used to evaluate them. Take for example the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). The asymmetry between a full-time teacher's job description and IMPACT, the district's teacher evaluation system, is astounding. While the job description's list of "essential duties and responsibilities" comprises eleven brief bullet points, IMPACT requires eleven different guidebooks to explain its intricacies, several of which are over 70 pages long.

You know, because reading a treatise on individual value-added student achievement data is really the best way to attain Level 4 on "TEACH 8: Maximize Instructional Time." And the teachers of DCPS aren't alone: during my second year of teaching in Prince George's County, I attended no fewer than five professional development sessions solely dedicated to walking us through the district's new evaluation program.

This brings us to another issue with the status quo: time. There isn't enough of it. The Kenexa white paper explains that the duties and responsibilities section of a job description should contain items that "account for more than five percent of the incumbent's time or are critical to the successful performance of the job." Thus a good job description should give applicants an idea of how they're going to be spending their days, not just a definition of what their job is, but also what it isn't. In other words, a defensive tackle knows that he's not a quarterback, so he doesn't need to focus on learning to throw a tight spiral.

But teachers don't have that luxury: if part of your job is to "invest parents and families in their children's academic success through regular communication," how many nightly phone calls are you supposed to make or emails to parents are you supposed to send? How do you truthfully measure the effectiveness of those strategies? Most importantly, when does your day end?

So in order to address these problems, I would like to propose the Sabanization of public schools. I would start by giving every school leader the flexibility to draft explicit job descriptions for every teacher on his or her staff. Just like a football coach has different expectations for an offensive lineman and a cornerback, so too should a school leader be able design a collection of roles that most effectively fill out his or her team. Furthermore, school leaders should be held accountable for finding individuals to fill those specific positions and for evaluating their employees against the jobs that they were hired to do. Finally, just like a football team has a well-defined, hierarchical reporting structure, so too should a school have a clear chain of command in which every staff member is equally aware of both the range and of the limits of their responsibilities.

I'm not a fan of Nick Saban's. But I respect his results. And I believe that if we incorporate his philosophy on personnel into our education system, that our schools will return to number one and that they will stay there for many years to come.

Just don't ask me to say "Roll Tide."