“Hey Ben, this is Arne Duncan. How are you doing?”

Initially, Benjamin White, a special education teacher candidate from Eastern Michigan University, didn’t know how to react. He thought he was going to spend Thursday morning on the phone with staff from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services discussing his teacher preparation program. Instead, Ben received a call from the Secretary of Education, thanking Ben for choosing to become a teacher. They discussed teacher preparation, special education, and the need for diversity in the field. Ben told Arne that teachers need to spend more time with students, earlier in their preparation, “getting their feet wet.” Read More

As part of Teacher Appreciation Week, Duncan made surprise phone calls several days during the week to show his gratitude for their dedication to the profession and to hear their thoughts on how we can best support teachers in the field.

On Monday, Arne called Helen McLeod, a 39-year veteran at Durham School for the Arts in Durham, N.C., who teaches 8th grade Social Studies and Newspaper. Helen took the call in her classroom, and expecting a parent, was shocked to have a cabinet secretary on the other end. The two discussed the changes Helen had seen during her career, and she told him that the profession is the greatest in the world, “one that keeps you young.”

Tuesday morning, Arne spoke with Misla Barco, a Spanish for Native Speakers teacher at East Palo Alto Academy in Menlo Park, Calif. While Misla’s students are amongst the poorest in the state, with her support, nearly all of them pass the AP exam and over 94% go off to college each year. She spends her weekends shuttling them to college campuses for visits and interviews. Misla’s assistant principal, Jeff Camarillo, brought her into the office under the guise of a preplanned professional development conversation, only to be surprised that she was going to talk with the nation’s top education official. Near tears, Misla said, “Mr. Secretary, you make me a better teacher. I read about the things you are doing to make it better for my kids, and I am inspired.” Though touched by her kind words, Arne made clear to share that he knows its teachers like her who make things better for students.

Wednesday’s call was to Amy Piacitelli, a teacher for 17 years at Charlestown High School in Boston Public Schools.  Amy’s headmaster, Dr. Ranny Bledsoe, called her to the office while she was teaching, much to the amusement of her students. Astonished at the recognition, Amy told Arne that she was flattered, but that she was only successful because she had such strong administrators to work with. As Amy explained, “Good administrators make all of the difference.” How does a teacher return to class, and upon being questioned by a roomful of curious students explain that she just talked with the Secretary of Education? Read more.

Secretary Duncan’s calls were just one of a number of activities throughout the week to celebrate the teaching profession and to listen to teachers on how they think the teaching profession should change. The Department is seeking input from teachers across the country, and recently released a discussion document where teachers and principals can engage in conversations about future policies or program directives. View the document and share your thoughts here.

As we bring National Teacher Appreciation Week to a close, the conversation around reshaping the profession, around elevating it to the level of law and medicine, around showing our respect and gratitude for teachers must continue. Every day should be about appreciating teachers, and every day should be about listening to them as they lead the transformation of their profession.

Watch our collection of Thank a Teacher videos, see how people across the web thanked a teacher this week, and read about “ED Goes Back to School.” 

Greg Mullenholz is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Rockville, Md.

ED Shows Appreciation by Walking a Day in 50 Teachers’ Shoes

ED Employees went back to school

Steven Hicks, special assistant for early learning, spent the day shadowing a kindergarten teacher at Oyster-Adams bilingual school in DC as part of "ED Goes Back to School."

As I entered the U.S. Department of Education building on the morning of May 9, something felt different. Many offices usually filled with buzzing conversations were empty. Many of my colleagues weren’t in the building. They were in area schools shadowing a teacher.

As part of Teacher Appreciation Week, 50 ED staff in Washington D.C. and across the country participated in “ED Goes Back to School.” Senior officials and career staff, matched with a classroom teacher, spent a full or half day experiencing the life of a teacher. Some co-taught while others observed. Some participated with small groups while others worked with students one-on-one. Regardless of the role they played in the classroom, everyone agreed that the experience was transformational.

“Everything I have done in the last five years was affirmed today,” shared music teacher Mike Matlock.

In a meeting with the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that evening, teachers and ED staff shared stories from the day and implications for their work.

Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach Services, spoke of dissecting a pig at Ballou Senior High School. Mike Humphreys, a National Board Certified P.E. teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary School, shared that his shadow, David Hoff, proved to be a great sport throughout the day, even when getting hit in the leg with an errant T-ball bat. Lisa Jones, a 3rd grade teacher at Watkins Elementary School, spoke lovingly about how her shadow, Ann Whalen, Director of Policy and Program Implementation, didn’t hesitate to dance along with the “Fraction Shuffle.”

Through story after story, I sensed true appreciation for the rigorous work that teachers do every day. “Throughout the day I was amazed by teachers who understand the needs of all students,” reflected Alexa Posny, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, who shadowed Flora Lerenman and Caitlin Kevill’s 2nd grade class at Tyler Elementary School. “I loved that when you walk into their classroom, you have no idea who is the special education teacher and who isn’t.”

ED Goes Back to School PhotoThere were also implications for the work we do at ED.

After spending a day in a turnaround school with Mary Balla, a Spanish teacher at Anacostia High School, Suzanne Immerman indicated that the culture of high expectations is helping to transform the school, but she also acknowledged that we need to recognize that real change takes time.

Many spoke of the strong relationships they witnessed between teachers and students and thought aloud about how we might value students’ social and emotional needs more in the Department’s programs and policies.

Audra Polk, a theater teacher at Ballou Senior High drove this point home. “Teaching is nothing at Ballou if you don’t have a relationship with your students,” she said.

Everyone agreed that ED needs to create a new tradition of going back to school, and to do so more often.  Some staff called for this to be a quarterly event; Secretary Duncan and teachers agreed.

The day that began with an eerily quiet building in the morning had become filled with excitement, conversation, and laughter by evening. Relationships were built, lessons were learned, and teachers were truly appreciated.

Geneviève DeBose is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Bronx Charter School for the Arts. She wants to give a shout-out to her father, Dr. Herman DeBose, who shadowed her for two days during her 3rd year of teaching. That experience was the inspiration for “ED Goes Back to School.”

Teachers Thanking Teachers

Ms. King (front left) and her 9th grade English class at Washington-Lee High School.

Ms. King (front left) and her 9th grade English class at Washington-Lee High School.

During Teacher Appreciation Week, we’ve seen videos and read countless Tweets from students and former students thanking a teacher who made a difference for them. Over the last few days, I’ve been struck particularly by the number of excellent teachers who attribute their skill in the classroom to another teacher who reached out to them at an important time.

At a National Education Association ceremony this week that honored educators to be inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame, I was inspired by Glen Lid, who teaches chemistry in Illinois.

Though Lid described himself as a verbose and proud educator, his first instinct when receiving recognition was to pay tribute to the teachers who he said make his work possible. “I will own and accept my part of this honor,” he began. Quickly, however, he pivoted to lauding his school community, the cadre of incredible teachers whom he has worked with over the past 33 years. According to Lid, these educators deserve the credit for creating the conditions of collaboration and community that allowed him to thrive.

Teachers thanking teachers may have been the theme of the evening with Hall of Fame inductees. Jim Brooks, an English teacher from Millers Creek, N.C., described at least three teachers who made a difference in his life, beginning with an homage to his first-grade teacher, Mrs. Shepherd, who consoled him for the first two weeks of his school career, when he walked into class every day in tears. He ended with a beautiful poem by a university professor who later prepared him to teach well.

Both Brooks and Scott Charlesworth-Seiler, from Crystal, Minn., are National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT). The presence of so many celebrants from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards reminded me that I should thank the many teachers who helped me achieve NBCT status ten years ago. John Douglas, Kelly Crisp, and George Manning met with me weekly and—even after teaching and grading papers all day—volunteered hours to read and reread long entries, to scrutinize videos, to check my packing materials, and to offer honest feedback.

This year, another incredible teacher in Arlington, Va. willingly relinquished her time and her students to help me to renew my National Board Certification while I continued to work temporarily at the U.S. Department of Education. Caroline King, who teaches 9th and 12th grade English at Washington and Lee High School, gave up control of her classroom for many days this winter and proved what all teachers know, that when a teacher needs serious help, she always asks another teacher.

As I addressed Mother’s Day cards this week, it occurred to me that Teacher Appreciation Week is a lot like Mother’s Day. Everyone knows that we should always appreciate the mothers and teachers who have nurtured and loved us, who have made us strong and seen in us hidden talents waiting to be unleashed. Still, it’s nice to have a day to remind us to do what we ought to do every day—appreciate them, honor them, thank them. So, thank you, Ms. King!

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a Teacher Liaison on loan from Enka High School in Candler, N.C.

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.

Read More

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.

Ask Mrs. Borders about Teacher Appreciation

Teaching Ambassador Fellows answer teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, middle school science teacher Kareen Borders takes up Teacher Appreciation Week and discusses how to use the contacts made with parents during this time to build relationships between families and teachers.

Teacher Question (TQ):  Why do we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week?

Mrs. Borders (Mrs. B):  In 2009, Arne Duncan gave a speech to the NEA in which he recounted some of the qualities of America’s teachers. “All of us remember an educator or coach who changed our life. It stays with us forever. It sustains us, guides us, and inspires us. They’re the ones who commit those everyday acts of kindness and love and never ask for anything in return. They counsel troubled teens, take phone calls at night, and reach into their pockets for lunch money for children who are too ashamed to ask…These are the qualities of a great educator and we have millions of them all across America. ”

During teacher appreciation week, students, families, and our whole nation honor the committed and talented teachers who nurture and build our nation’s youth.

TQ:  How does celebrating great teachers support their work in the classroom?

Mrs. B:  During Teacher Appreciation Week, families and administrators make a special effort to show their appreciation for teachers. Although a great teacher has many talents, the teacher operates within a greater, interdependent system that includes students, families, the school itself, and the district. When families and schools support one another to provide a rigorous and engaging experience for the whole child, teachers’ efforts are multiplied.

TQ:  What can teachers do during Teacher Appreciation week to build relationships that make the most of their contact with families?

Teacher Appreciation Week is a perfect time to invite families to get involved at the school and in their children’s classrooms. When a parent sends a note or stops by to thank a teacher, teachers can take the opportunity to foster a deeper and collaborative relationship. This partnership can also build upon the parent’s strengths. Perhaps the parent partner has a skill set that would be ideal for a particular unit or for a particular group of students.

TQ:  Why is it important for teachers to reach out to parents beyond Open House and fundraisers?

Mrs. B: A great teacher recognizes the individuality of each student and makes an effort to understand each’s unique strengths and challenges. Parents can contribute much by sharing insights they have about their children. They can also help to reinforce good learning habits and practice skills at home. It is important for communication between home and school to be regular and two-way, so that parents and teachers can reinforce a student’s growth and alert one another when problems arise in either arena.

Teachers we have talked to also recommend a shift from the school talking TO families to one where they work WITH parents and guardians, so that conversations about meeting the needs of the whole child can be richer and deeper.  The most helpful attitude for a teacher to have with a parent is: “I know my subject and how to teach, but you are the expert on your child. Let’s put our heads together to think about the best ways to reach him/her.” When a teacher knows another perspective about a student, instructional planning can capitalize on this knowledge.

TQ:  What can principals do to support teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week (and all year)?

Mrs. B: Just as I would encourage a parent to engage in ongoing, two-way communication with a teacher, principals should also engage in two-way conversations with the teachers at their school. Teachers tell us that the best principals really know them and take time to step beyond the twice- a-year-evaluation, often engaging in real-time conversations with them.  They are true instructional leaders who support teachers and build their leadership capacity.

Principals could spend more time in classrooms and offer helpful and positive feedback.  Teachers tell us that they love a short, hand-written note from a principal who has observed something positive in a classroom and that every teacher has an envelope, file, or drawer full of these notes that they save to boost their confidence when times are tough. Principals might also offer to co-teach a lesson or to brainstorm with a teacher about a challenge he or she is facing with a class. Finally, because teachers are inundated with non-teaching tasks that take away from their work in the classroom, they value a principal’s efforts to lighten their load for the week by arranging for the week’s copying to be done, setting up a lab, making the bus arrangements for a field trip, or finding someone to take on hall or lunch duty.

E4E’s Advice to Schools: To Keep Great Teachers, RESPECT Their Careers

After earning her law degree while teaching full time, Lori Wheal thought she might leave the field of education. She had spent 10 years as a middle school teacher in the Bronx and was tired. Thanks to low pay, little respect, and limited opportunities for growth, she was at a crossroads. Should she leave a profession she truly loved for something more financially lucrative and well-respected?

Before Lori had to make that decision, she was encouraged to apply for a new position at her school as a master teacher. In this role she would teach fewer classes and spend the remainder of her time observing and mentoring her colleagues. She got the position and returned to M.S. 391 in the fall. “That position is what kept me in the classroom,” Wheal said. “If I hadn’t had this opportunity, I would have left the entire system.”

Teachers from E4E’s Pay Structure Policy Team present recommendations from their report on teacher compensation.

Teachers from E4E’s Pay Structure Policy Team present recommendations from their report on teacher compensation.

Providing career lattices that give excellent teachers opportunities to lead in their schools is just one of Educators 4 Excellence’s (E4E) recommendations in their new report on teacher compensation. “A New Way to Pay: Reimagining Teacher Compensation,” penned by 16 New York City teachers on E4E’s Pay Structure Policy team, suggests that a different compensation structure can elevate the teaching profession. Their recommendations include increasing starting pay to $60,000 and providing incentives for promising candidates to teach hard-to-staff subjects.

Many of the recommendations made in the report align with the U.S. Department of Education’s RESPECT Project, which stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching. The project seeks to engage teachers, school and district leaders, teachers’ associations and unions, and state and national education organizations in a much-needed transformation of our profession.

I had the opportunity to attend the release of E4E’s report and participate in a panel discussion about their recommendations. The room was filled with more than 100 teachers who chose to spend a schoolnight discussing education policy. They probably had papers to grade, families to call, and their own lives to lead, but they decided to join their colleagues in a conversation about elevating their profession.

I was truly inspired when I left the room. I was also reminded that we, as teachers, need to be involved in education policy at every level. Alongside unions and other associations of educators, more policy-focused organizations like E4E and programs like the Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellowship must exist at the school, local, and state levels. How do we ensure that teachers have a voice in creating policies that affect our students and our profession? How do we challenge states and districts to make these opportunities the norm? Our future depends on it. We can’t afford to lose more teachers like Lori. Neither can our students in the Bronx.

Geneviève DeBose is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Bronx Charter School for the Arts in New York City

Ask Ms. DeBose About Teaching the Middle Grades

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Geneviève DeBose answers teachers’ burning questions about middle grades education.

TEACHER QUESTION (TQ):  Why are educators using the term middle grades or middle level instead of middle school?  What’s the difference?

MS. DEBOSE:  When I was a kid, I went to John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles. Today that school is called John Burroughs Middle School. When I attended, it included grades 7, 8, and 9. Today John Burroughs serves students in grades 6 through 8. Why all the changes? Because students in the middle grades today attend many different types of schools, the term “middle school” doesn’t always fit. Some are in schools that serve grades 6-8, others are in K-8 schools, while additional students may be in a school setting that serves only grades 7 and 8 or K through 12.  While their school structures may be different our young adolescents experience similar changes and challenges.

Middle level youth are recognized as students age 10 to 15, often in grades 5 through 9. Regardless of the type of school setting they are in, as educators we have to ensure that we work to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students in the middle grades. Whether the school my 13-year old cousin attends is called a middle school is not nearly as important as what takes place inside the building. As the Association for Middle Level Education says, “We’re about kids ages 10 to 15, not the name on the school.”

TQ:  What makes someone a good fit for teaching in the middle grades?

MS. D:  Middle school teachers need to have a diversity of skill sets to be effective with this age group. First, teachers must truly enjoy working with young adolescents. If you like the quirkiness that comes with being 10-15, then this is the right fit. Middle school students say that they want a teacher who is both demanding and caring. They want to be challenged and held to high expectations, but they also want to know that their teacher loves them and is there for them. Teachers need to be flexible and easily adaptable because every day with middle level kids is like a “Forrest Gump” moment:  you never know what you’re gonna get. Lastly, we need to be creative and engaging. These years are critical in influencing the ultimate success of our students. So many students check out in grades 5-9 that we must work diligently to create opportunities for learning that include student voice and get our kids excited about coming to school.

TQ:  I’ve heard a lot about middle level students and brain development. What’s actually happening up there?

MS. D:  Researchers tell us the adolescent brain develops faster than any time other than birth to two years old.  Early adolescents are moving from concrete to abstract thinking and are developing their ability to think critically, solve complex problems, plan, and control impulses. (So for all of the 6th grade teachers who wonder why one student keeps yelling out the answer after constant reminders to raise their hand: don’t worry; it’ll get better.) Many of early adolescents’ skills are dependent on the frontal lobe of the human brain, which neuroscientist Jay Giedd says is the “part of the brain that most separates man from beast.” During adolescence the frontal lobe is not fully developed, often resulting in poor organizational skills and decision making. According to Giedd, “[It's] not that the teens are stupid or incapable of [things]. It’s sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built. …”

The good news is that the adolescent brain is developing so that the cells and connections it does make will survive. Increasing the opportunities students have to engage in music, athletics, debate, robotics, the arts, and other diverse, hands-on learning experiences will result in lasting patterns that will be “hard-wired” into the brain. 

To learn more about adolescent brain development, check out this interview with Jay Giedd.

TQ:  So, what do all of these changes mean for a middle level student?

MS. D:  Our middle level youth often demonstrate a heightened sense of self-consciousness and feel like everyone is as concerned with their behaviors and thoughts as they are. They also tend to believe that no one else has experienced similar emotions. This is shown through overly dramatic reactions like outbursts of, “No one understands what I’m going through!” Early adolescents may also make poor decisions and take unnecessary risks because they don’t think anything bad can happen to them.

For some this sounds overwhelming, but there are benefits to working with this age group. Because these students are developing abstract thinking, they have heightened interest in causes and justice, interests that teachers use to draw them into learning. Involving them in student-led school or community campaigns is an excellent way to channel this energy. Their interests will also develop and change a great deal during this time, which means they will be open to trying new things in an attempt to find what they are good at. Students who want to try new things and explore? A teacher’s dream!

TQ:  What do all of these changes mean for a middle level teacher?

MS. D:  Given that students encounter these changes at different times and develop at their own pace, our jobs as middle level teachers can be difficult. Peter Lorain, a retired middle school principal, from Beaverton, Ore., wrote an article that offers advice in this area. Lorain states, “The middle school classroom should be an active, stimulating place where people talk and share, movement is common and planned for, and the teacher uses a wide array of approaches to introduce, model, and reinforce learning.”

TQ: Sounds good Mr. Lorain, but how exactly, do teachers do this?

When planning lessons, middle school teachers must keep the goal clearly in mind and make sure that students can reach the goal in multiple ways. Teachers must check in with students along the way to keep them working toward the learning objective. As thinking and learning become more abstract, students need predictable and safe environments so that they can risk, explore, and grow. Teachers must structure and facilitate these experiences. Students need to learn how to problem solve, think critically, and develop processes for learning. Teachers need to structure and facilitate these, too. Teachers should:

  • Teach students how to study. There are many resources for teachers to structure these experiences.
  • Establish, teach, and practice consistent expectations and routines. Don’t expect to tell students once and have them remember and follow the “rules.”
  • Use process charts to detail steps on a long-term project and revisit these steps periodically.
  • Use graphic organizers to assist in visualizing problem solving.
  • Distribute assignment sheets that clearly articulate benchmarks and timelines.
  • Color code materials (e.g., assignments in blue, new information in red, long-term project information in violet) to help students put the material into a context and take away the thinking and categorizing work to orient the brain as to what should be done next.

These steps and others are tools teachers can use to facilitate learning through the new experiences and adventures in thinking that are part of the young adolescent’s life.

TQ:  What are effective practices used to help middle level students develop strong relationships and an awareness of the world around them?

MS. D:  There are a variety of ways middle level schools can meet these goals. I’ll share two ideas from my 10 years in the classroom as a middle level teacher.

1)     Advisory: There are many different ways to create and conduct an advisory, but the opportunity for students to meet in a safe, small group with the same students and adult on a regular basis is key. The space should provide students with an adult advocate at the school while promoting opportunities for positive social development, relationship-building and academic support. I have been in schools that didn’t have an existing advisory structure, so I worked to create these opportunities within my classes or at my grade level. 

2)     Service Learning: Because young adolescents want to be engaged in hands-on experiences, to try new things, and to create a more fair and just world, service learning is an excellent opportunity for them to do all three. My students and I participated in school-based service learning programs, becoming reading buddies to younger students or starting our school’s first recycling program. We also connected with community organizations like a local food pantry to pack bags of food for hungry families twice a month. These activities gave students the opportunity to see themselves as agents of positive change in the world and helped them recognize how their actions impact others. 

TQ:  What new and relevant research exists about middle level education?

MS. D:  There is a body of research that focuses on the middle grades. I have listed some of the articles below.

  • Robert Balfanz and the Association of Middle Level Education’s report Putting the Middle Grades Student on the Graduation Path
  • The Southern Regional Education Board’s Middle Grades Commission’s report A New Mission for the Middle Grades: Preparing Students for a Changing World
  • The Bush Presidential Institute’s Middle School Matters Initiative
  • EdSource’s study Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better

TQ:  What different middle level organizations can I get involved in?

MS. D:  The first that comes to mind is the Association for Middle Level Education (formerly the National Middle School Association). They are a national education association dedicated exclusively to the middle grades. They publish a number of publications that are helpful to middle level educators, and they hold excellent national and state-level conferences each year. There is also the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform which is an alliance of educators, researchers and national organizations committed to promoting the academic performance and healthy development of young adolescents. They seek to make every middle grades school academically excellent, responsive to the developmental needs and interests of young adolescents, and socially equitable. One way this is accomplished is through their Schools to Watch program.


Destined for Middle School: You Gotta Have Heart

Delia Davis-Dyke didn’t always want to be a middle school administrator.

Her first aspiration was to be an attorney, but she was moved by the words of one of early bosses: “Major in what you love and the money will come.” So Ms. Davis-Dyke studied Spanish until she realized she wanted to have the same valuable impact that a number of educators had on her life.

Educators were key in Delia’s development during her middle years. Her mom died when she was just 13 years old, and without the guidance of the teachers around her, who knows what might have happened?

Kramer Middle School

Kramer Middle School

“(Because of) the trauma that I went through having lost my parent,” Davis-Dyke explained, “it was important to have caring adults who could walk me through the process and tell me I’m OK. I can’t imagine myself anywhere else today besides middle school.”

Davis-Dykes understands the complexities of middle grades students. She knows that they are changing a great deal during the years she spends with them at Kramer Middle School in Washington, D.C. Though looking to establish themselves as individuals, they still need guidance from adults.

“Middle school students are not yet grown,” Davis-Dyke said.  “Don’t think that they don’t require support and guidance. They may speak more maturely. They (may) have a grown attitude and sassiness. They may be man-ish and woman-ish, but they are still children who need guidance, love, modeling, and support.”

One reason she is such an exemplary assistant principal is that Davis-Dyke understands a great deal about how an early adolescent’s brain develops. Researchers tell us that other than the period from birth to two years old, there is no other time in a human being’s life that the brain grows as much as during the early teen years. “Their brains are still developing, so even though they can look at you and tell you right from wrong, research shows there are parts of their brains that aren’t solidified until they’re twenty-one years old. When they have to make those rational, logical, and ethical decisions, their brain is not fully developed. (As a result), we have to constantly teach, re-teach, model, teach, re-teach, model, over and over again,” she said.

To help their students have the supports they need to succeed, Davis-Dyke and the team at Kramer work with a number of partners, including the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative and the Marzano Research Laboratory. Working with these partners, the Kramer staff puts structures in place to ensure the academic, emotional, and social success of their students.

When asked about how she handles helping middle school students to deal with all of the changes they are going through, Davis-Dyke reminded me of a great truth: “Middle school is not for the faint of heart.”

Her students are fortunate that Ms. Davis-Dyke is committed to having the same positive impact on her students that her middle school teachers had on her. She clearly has the heart for this work.

Geneviève DeBose is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Bronx Charter School for the Arts in New York City. She wants to give a special shout-out to all of the Kramer staff and Principal Kwame Simmons for opening up their school to a fellow middle school teacher.

Learning International Lessons in Principal and Teacher Preparation

International Summit on the Teaching Profession

International Summit on the Teaching Profession. Photo by Andy Kropa for the Department of Education.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined education leaders from twenty-three high-performing, rapidly-improving countries in New York City last week. Over the course of two days, each country shared ideas and successful, innovative practices for teacher preparation and school leader development during the second-ever International Summit on the Teaching Profession.

Just last year, the Department held the first Summit, bringing together not just national education ministers, but also union leaders in partnership with teachers, and education experts to help to shape the conversation. Through a public discourse, participants identified common challenges in education across different countries and cultures while also laying out the need for systematic reform.

The lessons learned from the practices of high-performing systems during last year’s Summit, had a big impact in the United States. It helped lay the groundwork for a new Obama Administration project called RESPECT, which stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching.

Last month, President Obama proposed this new competitive grant program to empower states and districts that commit to pursuing bold reforms at every stage of the teaching profession. Throughout the planning, teachers themselves had—and will continue to have—a major voice in shaping RESPECT. The Department’s team of Teaching Ambassador Fellows—active classroom teachers who spend a year working at the U.S. Department of Education—have already held more than 100 roundtable meetings with teachers across the country and will hold several more in the coming months. The development of RESPECT also benefitted enormously from the input of American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, and from National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis Van Roekel’s and his leadership in the NEA’s Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.

Translators at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession

Translators at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession. Photo by Andy Kropa for the Department of Education.

This year’s Summit reaffirmed the central role that school leaders and teachers play in successfully implementing reform to improve student learning and why the RESPECT project is so important to the United States. We heard, for example, from the head of Singapore’s National Institute of Education who talked about the knowledge, skills and values teachers need to be able to engage 21st century learners. Teachers in Singapore open their classrooms to colleagues to watch and listen so they can all work together to improve teaching and learning rather than closing their doors and working in isolation. This is truly a collaborative way to promote educational success and excellence and one the U.S. can work to emulate.

Certain practices and policies were repeated throughout the Summit like the need to attract talent to education through competitive pay scales and career-ladders; the benefits of providing support through school-to-school, principal-to-principal, and teacher-to-teacher networks; and the large-scale value of identifying high-level, common standards that are consistent from pre-K through high school in order to prepare students for college and careers.

With these great challenges come great opportunities. Engaging with international education leaders has contributed valuable insight and input that will help the U.S. continue our work to elevate our nation’s education system. Accomplishing this broad, imperative goal will depend on our ability to attract and retain great talent over the short term so the U.S. can effectively shape public education for generations to come.

We look forward to continuing the conversation at the next Summit, which will be convened by the Netherlands in Amsterdam in 2013.

Click here for more information on the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, and click here to read Secretary Duncan’s opening remarks.

Liz Utrup is the Assistant Press Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education

21st Century Skills: A Global Imperative

This is our reality.

In many urban areas our graduation rates hover around fifty percent. Nearly forty percent of our students need remediation in college after they graduate from high school. We have one million students dropping out of school each year. And recently, President Obama pointed out that there are U.S. businesses eager to hire, but they simply can’t find American workers with the right skills.

International Summit LogoSomething is amiss. America’s students are clearly not workforce ready.

And we’re not alone in the conversation.

This week, education ministers, national union heads, and teacher leaders from over 20 countries around the world will eagerly descend on New York City for the 2nd annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession co-hosted by the Department of Education, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Education International (EI) with the support of the National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, (NBPTS), Asia Society, and WNET.

The Summit will engage the international community in rigorous discussions around how we can better train and develop quality teachers to improve student achievement. Developing school leaders, matching the supply and demand of quality teachers, and delivering 21st century skills are the three key themes.

“It’s clear that no two countries are the same,” Secretary Duncan said, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t face common challenges.”

These countries are gathering because they recognize that the demands of a 21st century world call for thoughtful change in how we do education.

Summit hosts will ask nations to talk about the competencies teachers need to teach 21st century skills and how teacher preparation programs can prepare teachers for a 21st century classroom that not only incorporates, but demands, more focus on critical thinking, STEM, foreign language, collaborative problem-solving, and technology literacy.

The International Summit on the Teaching Profession represents an extraordinary achievement for the education dialogue. It’s the second time in history that ministers, union leaders and educators sit down together in one space at one time to discuss, share ideas, and problem-solve some of our biggest challenges in education as a unified front.

During the recent launch of Project RESPECT Secretary Duncan said, “No other profession carries a greater burden for securing our economic future.” Agreed.

As teachers, we want our students to succeed and be college and career-ready. But we want our definition of success to be meaningful. This Summit provides the opportunity for us to glean insights from other countries about what would be particularly helpful to teachers and teacher policy in the US to help all students to be more successful.

By bringing together high performing and rapidly improving countries from around the world, jointly represented by their teachers and educational leaders, I am hopeful the U.S. can discover real solutions for developing 21st century teacher and school leader workforces through effective practices that transcend differences among cultures and countries.

Claire Jellinek is a 9th-12th grade social studies teacher at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque, NM and a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

Ask Mr. Mullenholz about School Improvement Grants

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz answers teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, he takes up School Improvement Grants.

Teacher Question (TQ): What are School Improvement Grants, also known as SIG?

Mr. Mullenholz (Mr. M): The goal of these grants is to turn around persistently low-performing schools and substantially raise the achievement of the students who attend them. School Improvement Grants are formula grants that fall under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 that are awarded to states. States then take these monies and use them to create smaller subgrants that they can award to the districts that apply for them and show the greatest need for turnaround funds.

TQ: How are schools identified for SIG funding?

Mr. M: Well, schools are identified in a number of ways, but they must meet certain criteria to qualify for the funding, which is doled out competitively to the districts who apply. The lowest-performing 5% of schools according to student achievement and/or graduation rate are identified and then sorted into one of three categories. Tier I schools are the state’s lowest performing 5% of Title I elementary, middle, or high schools in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring. What is really important in the way that the high schools are identified is that they have a graduation rate of less than 60% Tier II schools are just like the Tier I schools, except that they may not be currently in any sort of corrective action. Tier III schools are those that are not Title I schools, but who have not made AYP in the last two years and are in the state’s lowest 20% of schools in terms of their performance on state reading and math assessments combined. Tier I and II schools are eligible to receive up to $2 million dollars per year for turnaround efforts; in exchange for these funds, they are required to implement one of SIG’s four intervention models, which we outline below. Tier III schools receive less funding, but are no less important in the scheme of turnaround.

TQ: How much funding is available for SIG, and why is the program the answer to the problem of persistently low-performing schools?

Mr. M: Turning around an underperforming school is hard work. You can’t just identify the school and then expect change to happen. It takes hard work, and some financial help. Recognizing the importance of turning around these schools, ED has awarded nearly $4 billion over the past three years to address the President’s commitment to help States and LEAs turn around their lowest-performing schools. This money gives states the financial support they will need to undertake this huge push to make education for students in these schools of a much higher caliber.

ED recognizes that it takes more time, stronger interventions, and a bigger commitment of funds to help the lowest-performing schools turn around. It is about the willingness of the teachers, school and district leaders, and parents to put in the time and effort to right the ship. With SIG funds, ED is targeting federal investments to schools and districts where the need is greatest. States and school districts have an opportunity to put unprecedented resources toward comprehensive and rigorous reforms that would increase graduation rates, reduce dropout rates and improve teacher quality for all students, particularly for children who most need good teaching in order to catch up.

TQ: Why is there such an emphasis/sense of urgency around turning around schools?

Mr. M: It’s simple mathematics. There are roughly 5,000 schools in the nation that have failed their students for years—sometimes decades . The Obama administration sees this as a civil rights travesty. How can we expect to grow our economy, strengthen our national infrastructure, and regain our position as the world-leader in college completion if we allow this to continue?

Among these low-performing schools are 1,700 “dropout factories”—high schools where fewer than 60% of the entering freshmen make it to their senior year. In fact, these dropout factories actually account for more than half of all of the students in the nation who drop out, as well as 73% and 66% of the African-American and Latino students who drop out, respectively. If they’re not in school, they can’t learn. With a growing achievement and opportunity gap, sentencing our minority students to these chronically underperforming secondary institutions condemns many of them to a life of poverty.

TQ: What does the SIG program emphasize?

Mr. M: The goal at the U.S. Department of Education is to increase the likelihood that all students, regardless of their zip code, race, or socioeconomic level, graduate from high school ready to succeed in the workforce and in college. It’s a focus on educational equity for our most impacted students, an attempt to stem the tide of academic inequity and educational malpractice. Given this, the emphasis of SIG funding is improved classroom teaching and learning. We know that the number one in-school factor that determines the success of a child is the person standing in front of the room. If our students are to escape poverty, they should be afforded the best possible education that will help them to break the cycle, with the highest-quality of teacher in front of them day in and day out.

TQ: What can/will I see in my school if it is identified as a turnaround school?

Mr. M: SIG strives for strong leadership at the school level, effective teachers in every classroom, a redesign of schedules to meet the educational and professional development needs of our students and teachers, a rigorous instructional program, the continuous use of data to inform instructional and improvement decisions, the safety and health of our students, and family and community engagement. That’s a lot for one sentence, but we need to recognize that it takes a lot to turn around a school. Just pumping in money won’t better the educational circumstances of our kids. SIG aims to help schools produce better outcomes for our students in schools where students typically haven’t been given the opportunities they deserve. Secretary Duncan himself said that, “Education is the civil rights issue of our generation… Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.” With that in mind, SIG does so much more than turn around schools. It turns around lives that may have been lost due to a poor education.

TQ: When I hear “school turnaround,” it sounds to me like all of the teachers are being fired. Is this the case?

Mr. M: No. When a school receives SIG funds, it can implement one of four different models for school improvement—and all of them have the ultimate goal of giving students access to high-quality teaching and learning. Districts are encouraged to work with the schools and the community to select a model that responds to the local needs of that school and its students.

In fact, the vast majority of SIG schools (about 3 out of 4) are using the “transformation” model, which does not require teachers to leave the school. Schools that use the transformation model:

  • develop a teacher and leader evaluation system that includes student growth,
  • adopt a data-based, achievement oriented, rigorous instructional program,
  • extend the school day to increase time for students and teachers,
  • work intensively with community partners and agencies,
  • and must replace the principal.

The adoption of this teacher and leader evaluation system makes sure that we are focusing efforts on outcomes for kids and that teachers in this setting are getting the support they need to be successful. It’s not about firing people; it’s about making sure we have the best teachers in front of these students.

If a school uses the “turnaround” model, the principal is replaced along with at least 50% of the staff. Turnaround schools also must implement a revised instructional plan that emphasizes intervention for students in need, purposefully recruit, retain, and develop staff that can meet the needs of the students at that school, increase learning and work time for both teachers and students, and provide wrap-around community services to meet the social-emotional and other needs of the students there.

Some schools use a “restart” model, wherein the school is closed and reopened under the guidance of a charter management organization (CMO) or an educational management organization (EMO). Within this model, any student who previously attended the low-performing school must be admitted to the newly reopened school.

The fourth and final model is one where the school is closed entirely, and all students are able to attend another high-performing school in the district. This model is known as the “closure” model.

TQ: What are some promising results that we are seeing in schools identified by their states as being in need of a turnaround?

Mr. M: When a school is identified as being in need of a turnaround, we often find that the school and the district engage in a critical analysis of the school’s data, its academic culture, and the resources that might be available to it from the community at large. Essentially, they see the school as a doctor would evaluate a patient and then make a diagnosis that would be best for that particular situation. SIG funding is only one part of the turnaround, and we know that you can’t simply buy a school turnaround. It has to be a collective effort with all stakeholders focused on the ultimate goal of providing a high-quality education for all of the students. Here are just a few examples of promising practices and results:

  • Weinland Park Elementary in Columbus, Ohio, in its first year under SIG and with the support of outside partners, gained 13 percentage points in reading and 19 in math by employing a data-based model of instruction that looked closely at specific student needs and tailored instruction to meet those needs.

  • Luke C. Moore High School in Washington, D.C. , which serves students between the ages of 17-21 who have dropped out or had difficulties in traditional school settings, has transformed its school culture to one of high academic expectations and student self-efficacy Under its new principal, the school made Adequate Yearly Progress by improving reading proficiency by 10 points and math proficiency by 20 points. This is due in part to a decrease of student referrals and offsite suspensions by 50%!

So, while SIG funding isn’t the silver bullet for turning around America’s lowest-performing schools, it certainly is a part of the strategy. If we can’t turn around our lowest-performing institutions, we shouldn’t be surprised if the cycle of poverty continues.