According to a recent report, teachers don't feel their voices are heard at the state or national level. The news didn't escape U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who sees having teachers at the table as imperative.
Duncan closed out the Friday sessions of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' Teaching & Learning Conference, delivering a speech to the same ballroom Microsoft founder Bill Gates had packed hours earlier. The house was no less full as the nation's top education chief discussed his vision for American education before sitting down to field questions from four educators in a panel moderated by Maddie Fennell, a classroom teacher ambassador fellow at the education department and fourth grade teacher in Nebraska's Omaha Public Schools system.
The discussion was lively, and even occasionally lighthearted, as Duncan addressed some of the chief concerns educators face in a rapidly evolving education system struggling to compete with the rest of the industrialized world. A system where teachers want more control over their classrooms and better standards for the kids they teach as they face evaluations in some states largely tied to high-stakes standardized testing. (Duncan, for the record, claims the much-maligned bubble test is on the way out.)
Given the opportunity, what did the educators sharing the stage with Duncan want to know? And what did the education secretary have to say? Read on to find out.
1. How can schools create a culture that elevates everybody?
First up during the conversation round was 2010 National Teacher of the Year and Teaching Channel Teacher Laureate Sarah Brown Wessling, who praised Duncan's efforts to bring teachers to the table and make their voices heard. However, she wanted to know what could be done by schools to create a culture where there isn't a divide between those elevated to a teacher-leader position and those who have yet to reach that point. As she said, innovation can sometimes come at the price of that isolation.
Duncan says that binary system is something he's struggled with. "For me, there's never a right or wrong path — it's about creating a set of options, at scale, that don't exist today," he said. "For every challenge in education — dropout rates, graduations rates, whatever it might be — they're being solved somewhere in the country today in remarkable, remarkable ways. What we have not done is scale fast enough."
The education department, he said, is asking teachers to not just stand at the front of the classroom and lecture to rows of students, but to give up power by letting students work together and teach one another, as well. In the same way, principals and administrators have been asked to operate schools in a less top-down, not-so-bureaucratic way that brings teachers to the table. "It is not easy, and not everyone is going to grasp it, but I promise you the results for students, the results for teachers, the results for schools and for districts will be very, very powerful."
Wessling then asked how schools and teachers could balance the release of power with competition among teachers themselves.
"Where there's competition between teachers, that's a huge problem. There's no upside there," Duncan said. "What we need to do is to build high-performing teams. There is no high-performing school that has one amazing teacher and no one else."
"High-performing schools have high-performing teachers. They have high-performing principals. They have high-performing custodians. They have high-performing lunchroom attendants. They have high-performing parents. Everyone's working together."
Ultimately, it's all about building a culture where everyone is accountable and the tough issues are brought to the table in order to reach a better place.
2. Can teachers be expected to lead if the conditions necessary for success aren't present?
James Liou, a Boston Public Schools administrator who spent nine years teaching high school social studies before working for four years with a peer assistance and review program, was up next. His concerns centered on teachers being shouldered with much of the blame in schools despite real circumstances challenging those schools or the issues their students face outside of the classroom. With the focus on evaluation in mind, he asked Duncan how a situation where teachers are given even more responsibilities and expectations without the necessary conditions to succeed.
Duncan started by saying that teacher boards are necessary to fully understand and appreciate those conditions, calling it "a chicken or egg conundrum."
He touted a few programs the administration is currently working on based on teacher feedback. The Promise Zones Initiative, for example, is working "to bring concentrated resources across the administration to our most [economically] devastated communities." This, he said, includes great work in schools, great after-school programs, jobs, HUD, housing, agriculture, food, and more. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has also allocated millions of dollars for the creation of school-based healthcare clinics. Additionally, he touted President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, aimed at creating and improving opportunities for young men of color, who Duncan said are currently way too underserved.
"We are trying to do what we can — obviously, there's so much more to do — to really understand all of those complexities and to address them not just as school systems, but as nonprofits, social services agencies, the business community, the faith-based community. Everybody coming together," he said. "Teachers have to be at the table to do that."
3. What can individual teachers do to encourage distributed leadership models?
Liou also wanted to know if principals, and districts on a broad scale, are ready for distributed leadership models, and what teachers can do to encourage their adoption. Before Duncan could answer, Fennell asked the educators in attendance to give a round of applause if they felt their administrators believed in distributed leadership. Duncan quipped they were lucky she didn't ask for applause on the other side, to which a seemingly equal number of those present applauded as the education secretary momentarily looked a bit taken aback.
"For me the question is not, 'Can we force people to do this?' Probably not. Can we beat them into doing it, with sticks? Probably not," he began in his response to Liou's question. "Can we create some significant incentives? I think we can do that."
Improvement for Duncan lies in comprehensive accountability systems that look at metrics like teacher turnover rates, how many veteran teachers stick around, whether there's a sense of trust — all based on surveys of teachers and students.
"This is not about trying to do 100,000 schools tomorrow. This is about a coalition of the willing. There are many, many principals out there who live and breathe this, who were those fantastic teachers not too long ago and maybe wish they had those opportunities or maybe had them."
Duncan said the key is to go step-by-step, learn from mistakes, and try to learn rapidly, saying moving student achievement is the ultimate goal for any action taken. "What I saw at Wooster High School was that extraordinary teacher leadership had a profound impact on student learning and student engagement."
4. Should teacher's evaluation scores be published in newspapers?
Fennell asked Duncan about evaluation systems, particularly whether student test scores should be 50% of a teacher's evaluation and if publishing those evaluation scores in newspapers moves anyone forward.
Duncan responded saying that anyone who claims he said student test scores should be worth 50% of an evaluation score "is either lying or misinformed." To thunderous applause, he then stated that he sees no value at all in publishing teacher's scores in newspapers, which he noted Los Angeles and Florida have done.
"There's just not a lot of upside there," he said.
He added, however, that he does believe having a real way to evaluate how much students are learning from teachers each year is important, because he wants to know who the teachers are who are having the biggest impact on students. One big upside to this point: These teachers' best practices can then be shared nationwide.
"We have to reward excellence," he said.
5. How can teachers have the opportunity to innovate without the fear of failure?
Kim Ursetta, a bilingual Kindergarten teacher at Denver's teacher-led Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy wanted to know what could be done to create a culture of attempting to innovate without the fear of failure due to high-stakes testing. She cited an incident where Denver Public Schools received a leadership TIF grant, to which her school submitted a proposal that the district called great and innovative, but then said, "now you have to do it our way."
Duncan started by citing an example from his trip to Massachusetts where students were learning two-digit multiplication through salsa dancing. "They clearly felt the permission to try some radical things, and it was amazing to see kids figure this out using their feet," he said.
He said that focusing on a test score as a measure of accountability makes no sense whatsoever, and that fixing No Child Left Behind was at the top of his list — though he noted that Congress is broken, as well, making that more difficult. All present agreed that more teachers were needed in Congress, regardless of their political stances.
Duncan said more important metrics seen from states include high school dropout and graduation rates, college attendance and perseverance rates, and the number of college students taking remedial courses. Massachusetts, which he calls arguably the highest-performing state in the nation, still has 40% of students in remedial college classes.
"The leadership here isn't coming from me or anyone in Washington," he said. "This is coming at the state level."
About that TIF grant? "Either the Denver Public Schools will change and be more supportive of you and create more space for teachers like you to do this, or at a certain point, you guys will get too frustrated and close up your tent and go do something else."
"We don't just need one teacher-led school. We need five. We need 10. We need 15." He then joked that he'd snatch back the grant if the system didn't get its act together.
6. What needs to be done to create the amount of control teachers need in the classroom?
The final panel member to question Duncan, first-year English teacher Omari James at Maryland's Quince Orchard High School, wanted to know what needs to be done to give teachers that sense of control over their classrooms that they might not feel they have. While he says there's nothing else in the world he'd rather do than teach, he states that he's watched veteran teachers who he aspires to be leave the profession because they don't have the amount of control they'd like or the feeling of accomplishment they remember.
"It's easy to point fingers and lay the blame. I always try to be very self-critical and look in the mirror and say, 'What can we do to be part of the solution?'" Duncan began. The department has brought in teacher investment fellows, who he says have "profoundly influenced" some of its hardest decisions. Staff are sent out to shadow teachers for better insight, as well.
"We don't do it all perfectly. There are probably a million things we should be doing," he said. "You have to keep trying to get better."
The problems, however, can't be solved overnight and depend on a culture of trust, collaboration, and mutual respect.
This story is part of our newly expanding K12 coverage. If you would like to subscribe to the Education Dive: K12 newsletter, click here. You may also want to read Education Dive's look at 5 Common Core facts Bill Gates says must be made clear.