Q-and-A: Back to School with Arne Duncan

With back-to-school season in full swing, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently sat down to respond to some pressing education questions from SmartBlog on Education. Below is the full Q&A:

What is the biggest challenge that teachers face as they go back to school this fall? What guidance would you give them to help them meet the challenge?

Back to school stampThe large majority of states are now making the shift to the Common Core State Standards, a state-led effort to raise standards for which the U.S. Department of Education has provided some support. Educators across the country have embraced the enormous, urgent challenge that goes with this transition to more rigorous academic standards, new assessments, and updated teacher evaluation systems. Teachers are faced with a level of change and reform in schools and districts that is unprecedented.

Overwhelmingly, I’ve heard teachers say that it’s the professional challenge of a lifetime to raise standards so every American student can compete and succeed in the global economy. In discussions with more than 4,000 educators, my team at the U.S. Department of Education and I also have heard teachers say that it’s imperative that we, as a nation, get this right for our kids.

The  Common Core State Standards focus on college- and career readiness and have been adopted voluntarily by a majority of states. The new standards set the bar for student performance high. But they also give teachers the opportunity to go deep into content and innovate. In surveys, three out of four teachers say these standards will help them teach better.

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Ask Arne: Elevating the Teaching Profession

As a teacher, I have an axe to grind with how teachers are perceived by many folks outside the education system. Too often we are caricatured as either saviors or deadbeats, and both outsized images impoverish the discourse on how to improve education for all students.

As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education— a teacher on release from my school for a year to help bring educator voice to the policy world— I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Secretary Duncan to pick his brain on perceptions of teachers and how he thinks we can improve them.

His answers, seen in the video below, touch in part on the recently released RESPECT Blueprint, a framework for elevating the teaching profession, developed over the past two years through discussions with thousands of educators.


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Your comments and questions for future segments of #AskArne are most welcome. Feel free to add them in the comments section here, on Facebook, or on Twitter at #AskArne.

Dan Brown is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education for the 2012-13 school year. He is a National Board Certified Teacher at The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C

Back to School During Teacher Appreciation Week

ed goes back to school

Steven Hicks, a senior policy advisory for early learning visited DC Prep’s Benning Elementary Campus faculty and students, as part of “ED Goes Back to School Day.”

As part of our celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week (May 6-10), more than 65 ED officials from across the country went “Back to School,” shadowing teachers and experiencing firsthand the challenges and rewards of a day in the classroom. Our team had a unique opportunity to hear about ways the Department can provide greater support for teachers’ work and better understand the demands placed upon them.

Each ED official was assigned to shadow one teacher at various institutions in 13 states and the District of Columbia including; early childhood, K-12, special education, adult learning and English learning programs. Following the regular teaching day, officials and teachers met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other senior officials to discuss their experiences and share lessons learned. ED officials benefit greatly from this experience and it helps to inform their work throughout the Department.

Our team had high praise for the teachers they shadowed. Senior Advisor Jo Anderson, visiting second-grade teacher Nicole Lebedeff at Watkins Elementary School in Washington, D.C. compared her teaching style to that of a “symphony conductor” and called the way she managed her classroom a “work of art.” Special Assistant on Early Learning Steven Hicks was impressed with the social and emotional development of the young students at DC Prep, a charter school network with campuses in Northeast Washington D.C., and Teacher Liaison Laurie Calvert was surprised at the advanced level of the curriculum being taught in Riverside Elementary School classes in Alexandria, Va.

newtech

Veteran English teacher Linda Golston makes writing lessons engaging for sophomores by harnessing students’ individual passions and 21st century technology at the New Tech Innovative Institute of Gary Community Schools Corporation. Photo courtesy of Anthony KaDarrell Thigpen

Outside of the D.C. area, Diana Huffman from ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach (OCO) in Denver, visited preschool teacher Cindy Maul at Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie, Colo., and said, “I wish every child in America had the opportunity to be with this woman.  Her interaction with the kids was so in tune with them.”

Julie Ewart of ED’s communications office in Chicago, praised the way veteran English teacher Linda Golston harnesses students’ individual passions to make writing lessons engaging at the New Tech Innovative Institute of Gary public schools in northwest Indiana. “I was not a good student last year, but now I’m an honors student,” said sophomore Charles Jones, who credits his improvement to Golston’s classwork that “relates to the real world.”

At the end-of-day wrap up discussion, Secretary Duncan asked the teachers what they would like him to know about what is working and what’s not. The teachers offered honest feedback, including:

  • One teacher thanked him for the recently released blueprint for the RESPECT plan (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching) – the result of an unprecedented national dialogue for reforming and elevating the teaching profession.  She said that it accurately reflected the concerns and needs of teachers. The RESPECT blueprint calls for teacher salaries to be competitive with professions like architecture, medicine and law; more support for novice teachers; and more career opportunities for veteran teachers.
  • Several other teachers expressed support for President Obama’s commitment to investing in early learning because a lot of students are coming into kindergarten behind the mark. Building on the state investments in preschool programs, the President is proposing $75 billion over 10 years to create new partnerships with states to provide high-quality preschool for all 4-year olds.
  • Teachers from all grade levels also expressed concerns about the frequency and content of testing, state implementation of the new college and career ready standards, parental engagement and how to help parents become more involved in their children’s education.
  • One high school teacher said that we must help students and parents understand that education is the most important tool for social mobility and success in college and career in a global society.

As we wrap up Teacher Appreciation Week 2013, we should make a commitment to remember all year long that our teachers need and deserve our support in transforming America’s schools.

Read Secretary Duncan’s.“More Substantive and Lasting than a Bagel Breakfast,” on the need to support teachers year round.

 Elaine Quesinberry is a Public Affairs Specialist and Media Relations at the U.S. Department of Education.

A New Family Engagement Partnership with the National Center for Family Literacy

Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, announces the new partnership at the NCFL national conference

“Read to your child.”

“Help them with their homework.”

“Make sure they get a good night sleep.”

“And what else?…”

A parent is a child’s first and most important teacher, but our approaches to family engagement often fall short of recognizing the full potential of partnerships between schools and families. The challenges we face in education require that we go beyond these basic messages on family engagement – moving from communication to collaboration among schools and families.

This is why the U.S. Department of Education is working to develop better frameworks for family engagement, and why teacher-family collaboration is a component of RESPECT , our blueprint for elevating and transforming the teaching profession. We are also renewing our Together for Tomorrow initiative with an expanded emphasis on family partnerships to propel school improvement and produce better outcomes for students.

In support of these efforts, we are pleased to announce a new partnership with the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) to advance family engagement in education across the country.  NCFL brings to this work more than 20 years of experience providing tools and resources for educators and parents to create lifelong learning opportunities for the entire family.

Through the partnership, the Department and NCFL will jointly develop and implement strategies to raise the awareness and understanding of effective family and community engagement in education.  This will emphasize how teachers and families can better collaborate to improve student engagement and learning. We will work together to:

  • Convene community discussions on family engagement with educators, families and community leaders across the country.
  • Identify and compile promising practices and program examples for effective family engagement in education, so schools can employ leading practices that work.
  • Gather feedback on family engagement frameworks from educators, parents, advocates, and others in the education community.
  • Develop and disseminate resource materials to support family and community engagement in education. An example includes NCFL’s Wonderopolis, an online learning community that engages classrooms and families in the wonder of discovery.

We are eager to move this essential work forward, beginning with Together for Tomorrow community conversations in locations across the country.  These will spotlight promising practices and examples of school-family partnerships, and gather feedback to shape the Department’s family engagement efforts.

We also want to hear how your family-school partnerships are boosting student engagement and academic achievement.  Please email us your promising practices and program examples to edpartners@ed.gov

Michael Robbins is senior advisor for nonprofit partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education

With RESPECT, Educators Lead the Transformation of the Teaching Profession

America’s teachers earn our respect every day, doing some of this country’s toughest and most important work. Over the years, the demands on teachers have grown as standards rose and student needs multiplied. However, the teaching profession has not evolved to meet those growing demands.

RESPECT LogoTwo years ago, active classroom teachers working temporarily at the U.S. Department of Education launched a national dialogue with their classroom colleagues to talk openly and honestly about the challenges and aspirations of America’s teachers.

Nearly 6,000 teachers from across the country weighed in through more than 360 roundtable discussions, online feedback and even social media. They talked about training, mentoring, evaluation, support and how they use time both in and out of the classroom. They discussed technology, school leadership and culture, the role of testing and the importance of a well-rounded curriculum. And they talked about the critical need to provide teachers with autonomy and the trust to do their job.

Today, the Department of Education released the result of this unprecedented national dialogue in a bold and visionary blueprint for reforming the teaching profession. Among other things, it calls for salaries to be competitive with professions like architecture, medicine and law, more support for novice teachers and more career opportunities for veterans.

The blueprint is called RESPECT – an acronym that stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching, and in conjunction with the launch the Department has re-launched our educator homepage to include new information about the RESPECT initiative, including:


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

In a decentralized educational system like ours, transforming the teaching profession will only succeed if it is led by educators at the local level and fully embraced by parents, students and community leaders. The RESPECT vision challenges all Americans to honor and value the men and women at the front of the classroom doing the hard work every day to ensure that our future is secure.

Visit www.ed.gov/teaching for more information, and sign up to receive “Teaching Matters,” the official Department of Education newsletter for teachers, by teachers.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education

Finally a Touch of RESPECT

Teachers in this great country have long yearned for the opportunity to shape their own profession. Our forces have, as of late, been too often divided and unable to conquer. Now, for the first time in recent memory . . . a movement has emerged that offers precisely what is needed—teacher voice.

As a committed elementary PE teacher and concerned parent of school-aged children, a three-time National Board Certified Teacher, and a 2012 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education, my involvement with this movement has become a near obsession.

RESPECT LOGOThis week, the Obama Administration released the Blueprint for RESPECT, a plan for transforming teaching and leading. Specifically, it includes information about the process used to craft the vision, the research reviewed, and about a description of specific policies and programs that the Department intends to use to support educators. It also includes President Obama’s budget request for $5 billion to support RESPECT. Now that the RESPECT Blueprint is being released, there is much for teachers to be excited about.

For one, teachers love the possibility that they may be paid what they are worth. Despite public perceptions that teaching is a cushy job with summers off, I can personally assure you that the “many-teachers-work-two-jobs” rhetoric is grounded in reality. Another exciting improvement that RESPECT addresses is establishing career ladders that allow people to stay in the classroom without necessarily migrating to an administrative office. Perhaps now that ambitious teacher down the hall who’s been inspiring kids for years can be given the hybrid leadership role that allows her classroom gifts to remain on display while aspirations toward advancement are simultaneously satisfied. Some forward-thinking school districts are already doing this. Why doesn’t everyone?

As a physical education instructor, I can tell you that bringing teacher preparation programs into focus is equally as exciting. For too long the ranks of my coworkers have been populated with professional coaches looking for something to do in between games and practices. A serious effort toward cleaning up teacher prep programs, as discussed in the Blueprint for RESPECT, could mean more disciples of “The New PE” with roots in Naperville, Ill. And maybe more schools like Red Hawk Elementary, in Erie, Colo., would pop up, where movement has been seamlessly woven into the very fabric of this high-achieving school.

But perhaps more significant than all of these factors, the creation of the Blueprint for RESPECT has shown that teacher voice can and should be given a seat at the table.

As the document states–and to which I can personally attest–this entire project has come from engaging over 5,700 educators in 360 different discussions across the country. My own experiences vary as widely as a small roundtable in a humid Richmond high school library, to facilitating a conversation with a couple of hundred representatives from National Blue Ribbon Schools.

This document has taken on many forms prior to its most current status. It has been rewritten, revamped, retooled and refashioned, with each new iteration grounded heavily in teacher sentiment.

It is still unknown whether Congress will fund RESPECT, or even some part of it, but the fact that this movement, led by teachers, has made its way to the Oval Office, underscores the fact that much like doctors, lawyers, architects and other highly respected professionals, we teachers have been given a chance to help shape our own profession. Let’s seize it!

Visit www.ed.gov/teaching for more information on RESPECT.

Mike Humphreys is a 2012-2013 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow who teaches physical education in Arlington, Va.

Teacher Cabinets: Bringing Teacher Voice to the Education Reform Conversation

As a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow, one of the many roles I am lucky enough to engage in is that of a conduit between America’s teachers and the Department of Education (ED). I get to sit down with teachers all across the country–sometimes virtually, but often in person–and hear how things are going in their classrooms, in their schools, and in their districts. Then I present that feedback to policy and program folks at ED, giving them critical information to process and, in many cases, act upon.

This formula is singularly responsible for a recent initiative coming out of ED called the RESPECT Project. RESPECT aims to transform the teaching profession so that teachers are as well prepared, developed, compensated and respected as other professionals. One result of this movement is a short vision document written by teachers that outlines ways the teaching profession must change if it hopes to be on par with other respected professions in this country.

Highly visible in this document–and certainly pushed to the front in many of the teacher roundtables in which I have been involved–is the importance of teacher voice in the ongoing conversation about reform. For too long the educators on the ground have lacked an effective way to directly inform and influence education policy and programs at the federal, state and district level. Many of those serving in education offices may not have seen the inside of a classroom from a teacher’s eye view, and it is important they understand our view as they develop and implement policies that affect us in the classroom.

The good news is that recently more and more states have begun to realize the importance of listening to teachers and have made plans to bring the wisdom and experience of teachers into the education reform movement by creating teacher cabinets.

Most recently, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, proposed the the formation of a Virginia Teacher Cabinet, and other states have similar efforts under development. Virginia’s Teacher Cabinet will be comprised of teachers from each superintendent region of the Commonwealth, will be led by the Virginia Teacher of the Year, and will provide an annual report to the governor on the “State of Teaching in Virginia.”

As a Virginia public school teacher, I am excited about the opportunity for fellow educators to be able to lend their invaluable experiences and insights to state-wide reform efforts. I believe this will serve as the crucial catalyst to move reform-talks into reform-action. And as more states follow suit with their own versions of these teacher-led panels–which will undoubtedly take place–I firmly expect a wave of teacher reform to roll over our country, transforming this beloved profession into what it deserves to be.

Mike Humphreys

Mike Humphreys is a 2012-2013 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow who teaches physical education in Arlington, Va.

Teachers and Principals Get Engaged

Teachers at the Teacher Leader Convening

Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams

About 180 teachers, school principals and education advocates convened at the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters last Friday to make connections and engage in important conversations about how educators will lead the transformation of their profession.

With representatives from their leadership organizations, educators drilled down on a number of topics and made recommendations to the Department and the White House about ED’s next steps in the RESPECT Project. Justin Lamb, a New York City teacher with Educators 4 Excellence, suggested that the federal government help districts and unions to work together to carve out more roles for teacher leaders in schools. Glenn Morehouse Olson of the VIVA Project recommended that ED become more involved in raising the bar for what teachers coming into the field should know and be able to do, including adding more writing criteria and setting standards for alternative certification. Wendy Uptain of Hope Street Group described the power of convening accomplished teachers to “shine a spotlight” on areas of excellent practice and share successes, and she called for more such meetings.

Teachers discussing at the teacher leader convening

Teachers discussed how educators can lead the transformation of their profession. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

A recurring theme of the day was the power of educators to drive their own profession.  “Teachers as leaders needs to be a linchpin of our efforts,” said Ann Byrd of the Center for Teaching Quality, “not a bullet point.” Several groups even argued that teachers should be allowed to apply directly for federal grants to implement innovative practices in their schools. (Federal education funds typically flow through states and school districts before reaching individual schools and classrooms.) Arthur Linder of the National Association of Secondary School Principals advocated for more distributed leadership in schools with strong instructional leaders.

Another common thread in the conversations was the public’s poor perception of the value of teaching and school leadership. Aaron Bredenkamp, an Omaha, Neb., math teacher on loan to ED as a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, recommended that the Department work on “rebranding the profession” so that parents and taxpayers will support reform.  Washington Fellow Jen Bado-Aleman agreed and called for an advertising campaign that that would show the complex demands of great teaching and school leadership.

While commuting home at the end of the day, I got a text from a former ED teaching fellow who could not attend the event but who had just experienced a teachable moment that affirmed the importance of transforming teaching and the public perception of it. A high school junior had told him that she was having trouble deciding on a career. “The only two things I can see myself doing are nursing and teaching,” she told this teacher, “but I only have the grades to teach.”

I found myself very thankful that the educators in the room at ED were envisioning a future when students will say, “I need to get my grades up so that I can teach.”

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is the Teacher Liaison at the U.S. Department of Education, a 2010 Teaching Ambassador Fellow, and a 14-year English teacher from Asheville, N.C.  

State and District Education Leaders Collaborate to Transform the Teaching Profession

Leaders of the eight co-sponsoring organizations discuss their support for collaboratively transforming the teaching profession. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Leaders of the eight co-sponsoring organizations discuss their support for collaboratively transforming the teaching profession. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

Last week, state and district education leaders from across the country traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio to share their stories, strategies, and best practices around a topic in education that seldom sees the spotlight: labor-management collaboration. For a second time, the U.S. Department of Education partnered with national education organizations, including the American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, Council of the Great City Schools, Council of Chief State School Officers, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, National Education Association, and National School Boards Association, to host a major convening centered on changing the way that school administrators, board members, and union leaders work together to improve teaching and learning.

While news headlines tend to focus on the challenges of collaboration among these parties, for the State and school district teams journeying to Cincinnati, collaboration is an essential “part of the job”—and one that helps them meet the needs of both teachers and students. Particularly in today’s tough economic climate, these leaders maintain that increased collaboration, shared responsibility, and joint decision-making all produce thoughtful and creative solutions to meet a common agenda.

Like last year, the conference’s national co-sponsors are not only encouraging and supporting states’ and districts’ collaborative efforts—they are modeling the same student-centered, action-oriented relationships at the national level. At the opening of the event, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined leaders of the seven other co-sponsoring organizations in signing a shared vision for the future of the teaching profession that sets out common goals around increased student achievement, equity, and global competitiveness, and addresses seven core elements of a transformed teaching profession, including a culture of shared responsibility and leadership, continuous growth and improvement, professional career continuums with competitive compensation, and engaged communities.

ED's Storify

Click the image to read our Labor-Management Conference Storify

This year’s conference, Collaborating to Transform the Teaching Profession, drew teams of State and district leaders from 41 states and more than 100 school districts to highlight innovative approaches to better prepare students for college and careers by dramatically changing the teaching profession and growing the number of highly effective teachers in our nation’s schools.

“The quality of any school relies on the strength of its educators at the front of the classroom,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “Across the country, there are remarkable success stories shaping the next generation of teaching. The goal of this year’s conference is to help their colleagues learn from one another and take this work to the next level.”

The conference, which was funded by grants from the Ford Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and GE Foundation, was designed to facilitate learning and sharing at every level. In order to RSVP, State and district teams, composed of school chiefs, union leaders, and school board presidents,had to commit to attend the conference together, collaborate to improve student achievement in their State or district, and arrive at the convening prepared to present their plan for transforming the teaching profession.

State and district plans were shared during a three-hour “Transformers’ Dialogue,” where each team showcased their work in an expo-like fashion. In a large ballroom abuzz with conversation, team members took turns manning booths, surveying the plans displayed by others, and broadcasting the highlights using a designated conference Twitter feed: “Check out #LMConf12 booth 113. Portland Public Schools have littered their contract with the word ‘collaboration’” tweeted Greg Mullenholz, a Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education.

Goals, strategies, tactics, and measures of success were varied. Leadership from Oak Lawn-Hometown School District 123 (Illinois) used the analogy of building a kaleidoscope—something their board president has experience with—to describe their strategy for collaboratively reaching district goals using a “backward design model” that starts with a clear understanding of the desired end product and then works in reverse. A handcrafted kaleidoscope sat prominently displayed on their presentation table.


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Team members from Meriden Public Schools (Connecticut) outlined their collaborative work around a number of transformative programs, including a leadership academy for teachers, peer-to-peer coaching, and learning walks connected to the instructional core and anchored in student data.

Despite differences in plan specifics, a number of clear, overarching messages emerged: Collaboration must be student-centered, focused on improving student outcomes; collaboration must be about action, not words alone; to engender trust and endure difficulty, collaboration must occur on an ongoing basis and be expansive in scope; and finally, collaboration is most likely to be sustained where there is space and time explicitly set aside for it.

On day two of the conference, teams attended breakout sessions led by experts and practitioners and had an opportunity to “shop” for tools in a resource marketplace intended to assist leaders with some of the most challenging, yet foundational, elements of transforming the teaching profession, such as implementing effective professional learning and building meaningful career lattices. The event concluded with time for reflecting on and improving the plans that conference participants arrived with.

There was one final message that these bold leaders from across the U.S. brought with them to Cincinnati: Collaborating to transform the teaching profession and advance student achievement is urgent work. Students can’t wait for changes in local leadership, healthier budgets, or a more supportive climate; there simply isn’t time for dysfunction, blame, or inaction. Let’s hope that others hear this message and follow their lead.

For further information including conference video, resources, and presentations, visit:http://www.ed.gov/labor-management-collaboration.

Roberto Rodriguez is the Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy. Aurora Steinle is a Policy Advisor for the Domestic Policy Council.

Rethink Teacher Appreciation Week

Great teachers build nations. They inspire, awaken and raise our children’s expectations. They coax imaginations and lead students to discovery. Teachers shape the next generation of decision-makers.

While this work is deeply rewarding, teaching is also incredibly hard—as intellectually rigorous as it is emotionally draining. Over the next five to ten years, at least one million teachers will be eligible for retirement, roughly one third of the work force. Schools are finding it increasingly difficult to draw talented folks into a profession that, in many cases offers:

  • the 50-50 chance they won’t last through their first four years,
  •  the likelihood of underwhelming support and development,
  • a lifetime of low and moderate pay, and
  • the strong likelihood that they’ll reach a point where continuing to teach poses substantial financial hardship.

On this Teacher Appreciation Week, let’s think more meaningfully about what it means to appreciate teachers so that we build a profession that retains its best teachers and recruits the next generation of great talent.

For most teachers, Teacher Appreciation Week is a time when schools bestow small demonstration gifts to staff: mugs, reusable lunch bags with the school logo, chair massages during planning time, lunch catered by the PTA, and so on. While we value these tokens of support, it is far more important for us to reflect meaningfully on the teaching profession and consider what we can do to support great teacher leadership.

True appreciation means understanding what teachers bring to the table and creating meaningful opportunities for them to contribute to the policies and practices that affect their school communities. Let’s engage teachers in policy more directly at all levels. Boston, Massachusetts leads with a strong example. Teachers who serve as Teach Plus Fellows there produced a policy paper advocating for evaluation systems that train evaluators effectively, include peer evaluators and identify high performers. At the district level, districts could create Teacher Advisory Committees where they regularly solicit teachers’ feedback on policies and programs. At the school level, principals could create hybrid roles for teachers, which would allow master teachers to direct new teacher training, perform research on best teaching practices, or design curriculum materials without being completely removed from the classroom. Let’s create a space in which teachers can truly engage in how our schools are run. That is true teacher appreciation.

For the 16 Teaching Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department of Education, part of our work has focused on the RESPECT Project, a national conversation we have been having with teachers all over the country about transforming our profession. The RESPECT Project seeks to elevate the teaching profession by proposing a vision that embraces better training, richer opportunities for professional advancement, time for collaboration, higher pay, sustainable hours, and a culture of shared responsibility. We want to attract the best candidates, support our colleagues as they develop, and retain those teachers who are getting it done.

The RESPECT Project and the growing movement to elevate the teaching profession is, as one educator in Rhode Island noted, our generation’s “moon landing moment.” This is the moment when we can rally the entire country around a grand vision to comprehensively remake our education system for the 21st century.

For Teacher Appreciation week, we encourage everyone to honor our teachers by listening respectfully as teachers rethink and reshape the American education system. Let’s collaborate to find practical, community-based and student-centered ways to bring teachers to the table to weigh in on the crucial decisions that affect them and the students they serve.

Now that’s teacher appreciation.

The 2011-2012 Teaching Ambassador Fellows work with the US Department of Education to facilitate the involvement and understanding of teachers in developing and implementing policy efforts at the federal, state and local levels, to improve the likelihood of their success.

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Ask the Teachers

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

When I ask teachers why they teach, they almost always say that it is because they want to make a difference in the lives of children. They talk about the joys of teaching and the singular rewards of watching children learn. Often they mention former students who get in touch years after they graduate to thank them for their success.

Yet stories of lasting and life-changing teacher-student relationships contrast starkly with what teachers say when asked about their profession. In short order, they lament inadequate training, top-down reforms, teaching to the test, budget cuts and a lack of time to collaborate.

Teachers talk about the pernicious effects of poverty and family breakdown on their students and the long hours that teachers put in nights and weekends that go unrecognized and uncompensated. Most teachers still say they love teaching though they wouldn’t mind a little more respect for their challenging work and a little less blame for America’s educational shortcomings.

With half of new teachers quitting within five years, and with half of current teachers set to retire in the next ten, the need for dramatic change in the field of education is both urgent and timely. There’s much underway and much more to be done, but whatever we do to strengthen and elevate the teaching profession, we should bear in mind that reforms that fail to heed the voice of teachers are doomed.

That’s why, for the last six months, 16 active classroom teachers working temporarily for the U.S. Department of Education as Teacher Ambassador Fellows have been doing a lot of listening. They have held over 200 meetings with their colleagues across the country to help shape a proposed $5 billion competitive program of the Obama administration to strengthen and elevate the teaching profession. It is called the RESPECT Project, which stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching.

When we ask teachers how the profession should change, their ideas are grounded in everyday experience. Teachers say their schools of education did not adequately prepare them for the classroom. They would have welcomed more mentoring and feedback in their early years. They say that effective principals and engaged parents are essential to creating the right conditions for learning.

Teachers embrace accountability, but say the current generation of tests is stifling teacher creativity and student engagement. Most of the ones we have spoken with are not against testing per se, but, they hope that new tests, now in development, will better measure critical thinking and student learning.

Teachers support evaluations based on multiple measures: student growth, classroom observation, and feedback from peers and parents. They neither want evaluations that are overly reliant on basic fill-in-the bubble tests, nor do they want evaluations that ignore the impact of teachers on student learning.

Compensation is rarely the first thing teachers complain about but, with starting pay averaging around $39,000 and top pay averaging around $67,000, teachers are underpaid compared to other professions. Many top college students do not consider teaching because the pay is too low. Others leave because they can’t support a family.

On performance pay, many teachers reject outright the idea of competing with their colleagues for bonuses, yet many also believe that great teaching-especially in low-income schools–should be financially rewarded. In Chicago, where I served as school CEO, a group of star teachers designed a performance pay program that rewarded all adults in the school, not just the teachers, for student gains.

Many teachers we have spoken with are open to changing rules around tenure. They think the bar for tenure should be higher. Many say it shouldn’t be guaranteed for life. But they are equally adamant that without due process, teachers are at risk of being fired for reasons unrelated to performance.

Teachers are most excited by the idea of career pathways with differentiated roles that offer the opportunity to earn more money without having to leave the classroom and the job they love. For example, student teachers and recent graduates could apprentice with mentor teachers. As they prove their effectiveness, they could advance to new roles–professional teachers, master teachers, and teacher leaders with increasing responsibility for running their schools and shaping curriculum.

What teachers say they want more than anything is time–time to collaborate, plan lessons, improve their practice, and work one-on-one or in small groups with their students. Unfortunately, we shoehorn schooling into a too-short school day and year.

Nothing is more important than preparing our children to compete and succeed in the global economy. That means we need to make teaching not only one of America’s most important professions but also one of America’s most valued profession.

America’s teachers are hungry for comprehensive reform to their profession and they are ready to lead the change. Indeed, they are the only ones who can.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

RESPECT Vision Released for Comment

What would it take to make America’s most important profession also America’s most valued profession?

To answer this question, 16 Teacher Ambassador Fellows — active classroom teachers working temporarily for the U.S. Department of Education — have been listening to teachers all over the country. They have held over 200 roundtable discussions with thousands of their colleagues to talk about how they envision a transformed teaching profession.

The result is a teacher-written vision document, available on our website here [MS Word, 164KB].

Click here for more information on the RESPECT Project.