All That Humanity in the Classroom

’08 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow and National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) James Liou submitted this blog article that focuses on the often-neglected third R in the educational triad of Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. In this piece, he reflects on the tender moments between lessons that teachers speak wistfully to one another about.

Liou picture with students

All too often they get lost in the bigger policy discussions about public education reform: the moments of levity in class, the conversations between teacher and student or student and student that take place in all the spaces during and between instruction. That’s what teachers understand, what the best of us really love most. When we teach—even when pressed or driven by initiatives and reform—we don’t forget that it’s all about being responsive, affectionate, and motivating to students as individuals, as people. What makes teaching so challenging, exasperating, and exhilarating is that we teach students, not content.

I observed a number of these memorable interactions as I sat in on a recent high school math class in Boston:

Sitting behind a few students in this particular statistics class, one boy took a moment after the teacher’s instructions to turn to the girl next to him to say with an extra dash of gravity, “This is your future.” Smiling with preternatural adult-like concern and a mock fatherly tone. Looking back and seeing me, she responded, wide-eyed, “Oh, we’re supposed to be copying this??” to the good-natured laughter of students around her.

A few moments later, the teacher paid a compliment to a student who had clearly summarized the relationship between a fit, a residual, and the fitted value in a least-square regression problem. “I couldn’t have said it any better myself,” the teacher offered. The recipient of that complement beamed, with her head cradled in her hands, framing a giant smile. There was enough wattage there to turn the head of another girl next to her, who rolled her eyes jokingly in response.

And another connecting interaction. One student was upset about what appeared to a blood stain on her paper, likely some kind of food stain or the result of that all too common teacher injury—the dreaded papercut. She complained in class, exciting the teacher who encouraged them to take the sample to their upcoming forensics class. “Look at that!” he continued, “Be-autiful. Math and science together, like cats and dogs!” There was a mix of student smiles and groans at the enthusiasm. Two boys who sat next to me took it elsewhere. The brown-skinned student next to me quipped to his white-skinned peer, “How about black and white?” A head shake indicating mock disapproval and a full out hug given in faux, over-the-top apology. They were clearly friends joking. “You going to lunch after?” one of them said.

I didn’t even have to wait to know the answer to that one.

James Liou, NBCT
Peer Assistant
Boston Public Schools

James Liou is an ’08 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Relationship Building: A Silver Bullet?

As Teaching Ambassador Fellows, we spend the year learning about the Department’s core beliefs and priorities, and are then asked to go into the field and bring the voices of teachers, students, and families back to the Department. Sometimes these conversations have a relative ease—teachers are in high functioning schools with excellent working conditions and inclusive leadership, and they are eager to engage in conversations around educational policy. Other times, educators work in schools where they struggle for basic materials, time to collaborate, and a voice in their building. Some schools are not well run, and teachers do not trust their leaders or peers to evaluate their work or give feedback to improve practice. When we go to schools where teachers are dealing with significant frustrations, conversations about teacher evaluation, turning around low performing schools, or other policy issues are somewhat of a luxury, amidst the urgency of survival. Unfortunately, it is also these educators, and the families they serve, that we need to be in dialogue with most consistently.

At Fremont High in Los Angeles, on Tuesday, March 22nd, we had the opportunity to participate in a conversation between community activists, school leaders and federal policymakers. We heard parents, students and teachers speak to recent changes in their school, as well as their desire for increased expectations around student achievement, teacher accountability and parental engagement. Community and staff advocacy around these issues has yielded a concrete impact on school structures, including the creation of theme-based small learning communities, a 9th grade transition center and time for teachers to collaborate in Professional Learning Communities. When Secretary Duncan took the microphone at the end of the event, he commended the school for their commitment to collective action and desire to promote transparency around teaching and learning, tenets that have been reflected repeatedly in his federal policy priorities.

Though the synchronicity seemed flawless, it was the result of a partnership, built over time, between the Department’s Community Outreach team and the school community. An ongoing commitment to honoring the work and assets of school communities, and diligence in talking with teachers, parents, students and community organizers consistently, over time, has set the tone for authentic relationship building. In response, the school community at Fremont was willing to form a partnership, because they saw opportunities at the intersection of their school’s needs and the Department’s agenda. At Fremont, there is momentum; a culture of reform has taken root. In our desire to increase the spaces, across various school cultures, where this type of shared opportunity can flourish, we believe it is responsibility of senior officials at the Department to invest in consistent, authentic relationship building with school communities across the country. This responsibility must be taken on at a federal level if we are going to maximize our collective capacity to create sustainable school-based reform in our highest need communities.

Edit Khachatryan and Leah Raphael, 2010-2011 Teaching Ambassador Fellows

National Financial Capability Challenge

Today is the first day of the 2011 National Financial Capability Challenge! Check out this video message from Secretary Duncan encouraging high school teachers to sign up their students to participate. See the press release. Read a blog post by a high school business teacher.

If we teach students about money while they’re young, they’ll be in better financial shape in the future. We’re hoping the Challenge will encourage state and local leaders to weave financial education into schools—starting even earlier than high school—so students are ready to make important financial decisions when they need to.

Phil Martin
Office of the Secretary

Click here for an accessible version of the video.

Miami Herald Op-ed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: Fixing Struggling Schools

March 4, 2011

An excerpt of the op-ed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is printed below. The op-ed, in its entirety, can be found online HERE.

“Every day educators across the country are challenging the status quo and showing that low-performing schools can be turned around. Today, the President and I will visit Miami Central Senior High School to talk to some of those educators. Central has received nearly $800,000 in federal funding to support and accelerate turnaround efforts already underway.

Working with the school district and teachers union, Central promoted a strong school leader to be principal and replaced more than half the staff. It extended learning time after-school and during the summer, and engaged the community by offering Parent Academy classes for parents on graduation requirements and financial literacy. More than 80 percent of students are on free or reduced price lunch. Yet academic performance is steadily improving—and students and teachers are showing that a committed school can beat the demographic odds.

The burdens of poverty are real, and overcoming those burdens takes hard work and resources. But poverty is not destiny. Hundreds of schools in high-poverty communities are closing achievement gaps. America can no longer afford a collective shrug when disadvantaged students are trapped in inferior schools and cheated of a quality education for years on end.

President Obama and I are determined to challenge low expectations at underperforming schools. For the first time, the federal government is providing billions of dollars to states—roughly $4 billion all told over the next five years—to help turn around the nation’s 5,000 lowest-performing schools.

These schools represent just five percent of America’s public schools. Yet unlike in the past, these schools will now be instituting one of four far-reaching reform models to boost student achievement. Our redesigned School Improvement Grants program (SIG) will provide up to $6 million for each school targeted for turnaround over a period of three years.

Why is the administration taking this unprecedented step? The easy, timid approach to turning around low-performing schools has been tried over and over again—and failed.”

NC Governor Keeps All Eyes on the Prize

North Carolina Governor, Bev Perdue

North Carolina Governor, Bev Perdue

I teach in North Carolina, and one of the things I love most about our state is our motto, “To be rather than to seem.” Still, I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised to see this value at work than I was on a recent visit to my state’s Department of Public Instruction.

At the request of State Board of Education (SBE) Chairman Bill Harrison, I visited with the SBE and spoke on a panel of three teachers on March 2. I was impressed to be among a group of professionals who are as committed to the education of our children as I have ever seen.

The following day, when I met their leader, Bev Perdue, I continued to be impressed.

Governor Perdue, who has a doctoral degree in educational administration and is a former Florida public school teacher, lost no time reminding the Board why they are in business. “Every child deserves a really great teacher and every school deserves a really great principal,” she stated firmly. “That is your job.”

Almost everyone I met at DPI lamented the tough times in store for NC education these days with the potential for draconian cuts to important programs. Yet Governor Perdue cautioned them not to use the current political environment as an excuse for not delivering a 21st Century education. “Our budget can’t give us cover for retreating from our most important objective—educating our students,” she said. And then she repeated, “That is your job.”

Shortly before addressing the Board, the Governor accepted a $24,000 check from AT&T to help fund her initiative to survey student learning conditions. Earlier, Dr. Glenn Kleiman, of the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University, had presented preliminary findings from the survey, which is in its second of multiple phases. Phase II included surveying and interviewing more than 14,000 7th, 9th, and 11th graders from 11 districts and 89 schools to find out how effective schools were meeting students’ needs for academic engagement, social engagement, 21st Century skills, a safe and caring environment, and effective use of technology.

Perdue described the findings of the survey as “remarkably important,”  and in the same league as a similar state-wide study of teacher learning conditions, which she credits with “changing the dialog” around teacher support. She urged educators to pay attention to what students are saying about their education. “Your work requires you to stand up and make courageous decisions for the children,” she reminded them. “The history of North Carolina is still being written, and this chapter is ours.”

Seems to me, Governor Perdue means it.

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County, North Carolina

Promise and Potential from the Top of a Hill

California Teacher of the Year Kelly Kovacic (in teal) is shown here with her students from The Preuss School UCSD.

California Teacher of the Year Kelly Kovacic (in teal) is shown here with her students from The Preuss School UCSD.

It’s a crisp, cool Friday morning, and the auditorium at the Edward A. Roybal Learning Center, a new public high school campus on a hill overlooking downtown Los Angeles, is filling up quickly with students, teachers, administrators, community members, and a few stars. Despite being early in the morning, with a three-day weekend ahead, there is an energy buzzing in the room.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, singer/songwriter John Legend, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Olympic boxer Oscar de la Hoya, and Southern California teachers David Arias and David Mena enter the room and take their seats. Each is here today to talk about the importance of education and the benefits of having a teacher force that more accurately reflects the diversity of our student population in the United States. While 20% of our public school students are Latino, only 7% of their teachers are Latino.

The education news in California the last few weeks has not been good. Just a few days earlier, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced it will be issuing 5,500 pink slips to teachers in an effort to address the pending budget crisis. Despite the challenging economic backdrop, the panelists remain upbeat as they share with the largely Latino audience their thoughts about why bright, dynamic students should pursue a career in teaching:

  • Education is our nation’s most important asset;
  • Teaching provides the singular opportunity to change a child’s life by building confidence, focusing on excellence, and providing the skills necessary to improve our local communities and succeed in our global community;
  • A teacher has the ability to inspire an entire generation that will be called upon, whether it likes it or not, to shape the future of our democracy;
  • Our classrooms need the skill, wisdom, breath of experience, and unique perspectives that a diverse faculty possesses; and
  • With a large number of teachers preparing to retire, there may be as many as 250,000 jobs to fill.

Following the panel discussion, the moderator takes questions from the audience. As a high school teacher, I am glad to see students demonstrate the power and importance of critical thinking and civil discourse. They thoughtfully and passionately share their concerns about inadequate funding for higher education, the uncertain future of the DREAM Act, and proper support for their teachers.

It’s clear that this generation has the energy and talent to lead. A world-class education system is critical to the future of our country. It is national security, health care, economic stimulus, and civil rights all rolled into one. And, recruiting and retaining passionate and accomplished teachers from diverse audiences like the one in this auditorium at a high school on a hill, is the key to it all.

Kelly Kovacic

Kelly Kovacic is a 2010 California State Teacher of the Year who teaches at The Preuss School UCSD, a 2010 Blue Ribbon School located in La Jolla, California.

Read Teaching Ambassador Fellow Jeff Camarillo’s blog about the event.

Barrera Speaks the Language of NABE Teachers

Three representatives from the Department, Patricia Crisp, Antero Garcia, and Olga Pirela, provided information to the nearly 1,700 bilingual educators in the exhibit hall.

Three representatives from the Department, Patricia Crisp, Antero Garcia, and Olga Pirela, provided information to the nearly 1,700 bilingual educators in the exhibit hall.

After addressing a crowd of approximately 400 attendees of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) Conference in New Orleans last week, Assistant Deputy Secretary Dr. Rosalinda B. Barrera sat down with a group of 25 teacher leaders for an intimate, two-hour dialogue.

The teacher leaders from across the country discussed a variety of critical issues for educators, including the importance of having great principals who can lead reform at their schools. Some of the teacher leaders pointed to a need for more attention given to English learners at the high school level so that the strong support structures often in place in elementary and middle schools are also present in grades 9-12.

A key theme that emerged from the dialogue was involving parents in schools and at home. Educators also expressed the importance of providing instruction in a student’s native language when possible, even if some parents request an English-only curriculum because they want them to learn English well. The native language is an important base to the learning of all children, including acquisition of a second language, especially in the early years, they said. It’s also important for children to be able to communicate with their families in their native language.

One concern raised by the teachers was the lack of appropriate assessments for English learners. Because most standardized state tests are offered only in English, schools don’t have assessments in other languages to accurately reflect what English learners know and can do. One teacher noted that while scores on tests in English may indicate that a child struggles academically, tests in the native language might reveal a much stronger academic performance. Others argued that if tests were offered in students’ native languages, fewer children would be misidentified as having a learning disability simply because they were still acquiring English. NABE participants agreed that tests should be given in native languages wherever possible.

Antero Garcia and Patricia Crisp

Antero Garcia is a 2011 Teaching Ambassador Fellow who teaches 9th grade English at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, CA. Patricia Crisp is the Senior Public Affairs Specialist in the Department’s Regional Office in Dallas, TX. She is also teaches courses at Dallas Baptist University and the University of Texas, Arlington.

Read Antero’s response to the President’s State of the Union speech.

Visit the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.

A Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow Reflects on Accomplishments of the Denver Labor Management Collaboration Conference

Steve Owens, a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow in Plainfield, Vermont.

Steve Owens, a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow in Plainfield, Vermont.

The Labor Management Collaboration Conference in Denver was the Department of Education at its best, connecting people, ideas and resources and setting a vision for change.

The 150 participating districts, each represented by a union president, superintendent, and a board leader, met Secretary Duncan’s challenge for school districts to find new ways to do business together in ways that honor the end goal of the educational enterprise: excellent student learning.

During the event, I was part of a team of 13 past and present Teaching Ambassador Fellows performing qualitative research on the presenting districts, all of which had achieved distinction for their pioneering efforts in labor/management collaboration. Our job was to find strategies that would enable these successful collaborations to be available to districts just beginning the journey.

The district I studied is in Plattsburgh, NY, a small rural city on the Vermont border, just 25 miles from Canada. During the Plattsburgh presentation, Superintendent Jake Short challenged participants to “find a reason to do business differently, and then do it.” In Plattsburgh, where union and management work together to solve each other’s problems, trust, integrity and shared responsibility are keys to a relationship in which the true purpose of education, student achievement, is always at the forefront.

As the president of a Vermont NEA local affiliate (and a veteran of multiple traditional adversarial negotiations), I found the Plattsburgh approach both refreshing and timely. Short, union president Rod Sherman, and board vice-chair Tracy Rotz, were unbelievably generous with their time as I probed to discover the dispositions, skills, knowledge, and language fueling their success in order to share it with others.

The conference was transformative, setting a bold vision and connecting people, ideas and resources, to make it possible. Tracy Rotz noted that at the event everyone came together for a common purpose: to benefit students.

Steve Owens
Steve Owens is a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow in Plainfield, Vermont.

Secretary Duncan and National Education Leaders Discuss the Future of Labor-Management Collaboration on Press Call

Yesterday in a call with reporters, Secretary Arne Duncan and leaders from national education organizations reflected on ideas discussed at the labor-management conference in Denver this week. Listen to the call Audio icon.

Participants in the call included:

  • Arne Duncan, Secretary, U.S. Department of Education
  • Anne L. Bryant, Executive Director, National School Boards Association
  • Michael Casserly, Executive Director, Council of the Great City Schools
  • George H. Cohen, Director, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
  • Daniel A. Domenech, Executive Director, American Association of School Administrators
  • Dennis Van Roekel, President, National Education Association
  • Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers
  • Darren Walker, Vice President, Ford Foundation

Helena Embraces Problem-Solving Approach to Attract the Best Teachers

Helena Embraces Problem-Solving Approach to Attract the Best Teachers

Bruce Messinger, Superintendent, Helena Public Schools; Tammy Pilcher, President, Helena Education Association; Michael O’Neil, Board Chair, Helena Public Schools; Larry Nielson, Field Consultant, MEA-MFT.

To meet the needs of their 8,145 rural students, Helena Public Schools and the Helena Education Association adopted a 2009-10 Master Agreement focused on a problem-solving approach called “consensus negotiations.” Included in the agreement is a plan that includes shared decision-making to foster trust and respect among stakeholders and to attract the best teachers.

Superintendent Bruce Messinger described their work as uniquely collaborative. “If we had to do one thing in our presentation,” said Messinger at the Labor Management Collaboration Conference, “we would talk about the consensus process.”

To attract and reward exceptional teaching, the district and Helena Education Association created an innovative compensation plan that was attainable, affordable, and accountable. Called the Professional Compensation Alternative Plan (PCAP), the agreement provides opportunities and rewards for professional growth and offers a career ladder with 25 steps. The top step’s salary is almost $10,000 higher than that of the traditional scale. Board of Education Trustee Don Jones, explained, “Having the best teachers that you can possibly get in your district is the number one consideration. It’s that person in front of our kids and you want (him or her) to be one of the best. It’s the best thing we can do for our students. Generally to get the best, you need to be willing to pay for the best.”

Moving up the PCAP scale requires completion of an approved career development plan and successful supervisory evaluations, rather than a specified number of years of service. The school board and district leaders also partner with teachers through establishment of a fund to pay for professional development, including sabbatical leaves, tuition and fee reimbursements, and other professional growth opportunities.

Helena also provides support for new teachers by placing them with experienced, master mentors and giving them time to observe each other or other master teachers. Tenured teachers can choose to be a part of the “Professional Growth Strand,” the purpose of which is to promote professional growth, to involve teachers and administrators in cooperative discussions and planning, and to encourage working together for the accomplishment of school goals. Time and resources are provided for peer collaboration, observation, and data collection. Supervisors serve as coaches and facilitators.

Helena schools also recognize that effective principals recruit and support the best teachers. As a result, the district is piloting the Vanderbilt Assessment for Leadership in Education VAL-ED), evaluating administrators based on the learning-centered leadership research literature that aligns to the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) standards.

How was Helena able to accomplish so much? In their breakout session, Superintendent Messinger explained the revelation that came to labor, management and the board after focusing on the best outcomes. “Once we took away the fear that everyone was trying to take advantage of each other—that the reality is when we all got in the circle together and said we all really want to accomplish the same thing—we quit spending so much time pushing back against each other and put our energy pushing forward together.”

Teamwork Underway at Denver Conference

Teamwork Underway at Denver ConferenceDenver—They arrived in groups of three—a superintendent, a school board chair and a teachers union leader—but by dinnertime on day one, the threesomes that had traveled together to ED’s first-ever conference on labor-management collaboration could be seen chatting in groups of six and nine. They had come to Denver to learn ways to raise student achievement by working better as a team, and here they connected with others facing similar challenges.

The conference—full name: Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration—began Tuesday with Secretary Duncan framing the event’s goals and articulating 10 key areas of challenge and opportunity in implementing student-centered principles.

“When this conference is over,” Arne told the attendees from 150 districts in 40 states, “I hope you will leave with at least two messages of hope. First and foremost, student success must be the heart of the labor-management relationship… The second message I hope you will take away from this conference is the importance of a new narrative in school reform.”

The “tale of ceaseless conflict between labor and management” needs to be re-written, Arne said. And the 12 districts that are presenting their success stories at this conference demonstrated in breakout sessions Tuesday afternoon that it is more than possible for adults to behave like grown-ups and focus on the interests of children.

Too often, conflict between a school district’s management and its union captures the headlines, but the real story is that “teamwork works,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which is co-sponsoring the conference along with the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the Council of the Great City Schools and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

The conference wraps up Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 16. You can watch Wednesday’s plenary sessions live on the Department of Education’s Ustream channel and explore materials provided to attendees on’s page dedicated to the conference.

Watch a summary of Tuesday’s proceedings in this short video (below). See photos from the first day of the conference.

Click here for an accessible version of the video.

College Education Within Reach—for Students at Wilson High School and Beyond

Cross-posted from the Treasury Notes.

By: Tim Geithner and Arne Duncan

​Today, we will spend some time with students and parents at Wilson High School to talk about the critical link between education and our nation’s economy. As President Obama has said, education isn’t just a moral obligation—it’s an economic imperative. The nations that best educate their children today will be the nations that lead the global economy in the 21st century.

In order to have the best-educated workforce, we must help put college education within reach for all students and their families. And that’s even more important today as millions of Americans struggle to find work and make ends meet.

Since President Obama took office two years ago, our Administration has taken important steps to make college more affordable. We’ve provided assistance to local community colleges so they help their students find jobs when they graduate. We’ve taken the middlemen out of the student loan business and eliminated tens of billions of dollars in wasteful subsidies for banks while providing financial aid to families. And since 2009, we’ve been offering middle-class families the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC)—a partially refundable credit of up to $2,500 a year for four years of college that helps cover the cost of college tuition and other education-related expenses.

An estimated 9.4 million students—our future scientists, entrepreneurs and teachers—will receive this benefit in 2011 to help make college more affordable. For parents and students struggling to pay rising tuition bills, or pay off mounting student debt, this partially-refundable tax credit will make a real difference. In fact, according to new Treasury Department analysis, the maximum available AOTC credit will cover about 80 percent of tuition and fees at the average two-year public institution and about one-third of tuition and fees at the average four-year public institution this year.

The credit was set to expire at the end of last year, but because the President fought to keep it alive, it was extended for another two years. That means in 2011 and 2012, college students will continue to be eligible for this important credit. This year alone, the Treasury Department estimates the AOTC will provide more than $18 billion in tax relief for the 9.4 million families with college students who are expected to claim it. And we’re pushing to make this tax credit permanent so that college students and their families can know with certainty that they can get up to $10,000 over four years of college.

Fifteen years ago, America’s young adults were more likely to earn a college degree than in any other country. Today, young adults in the U.S. are tied for ninth in the world in college attainment. On average, college graduates with a bachelor’s degree earn nearly twice as much over the course of their lifetime as workers with only a high school diploma. And the unemployment rate for college graduates with a bachelor’s degree today (around 5 percent) is currently about half that of all workers.

The United States has a long way to go before it lives up to the promise of education as the great equalizer. But to achieve that quintessential American promise, college must be within reach for hard-working families who want their children to pursue higher education to prepare for a globally competitive job market.

Tim Geithner is the Secretary of the Treasury and Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education.