Teacher Appreciation Week Gets Underway

“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,” Secretary Duncan said in a Huffington Post article to kick off Teacher Appreciation Week.

Duncan noted how important it is that we ask teachers how the profession should be changed, and that the Department of Education wants to hear directly from teachers, particularly on a proposed $5 billion competitive program of the Obama administration to strengthen and elevate the teaching profession. The program is called the RESPECT Project, which stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching.

As part of Teacher Appreciation Week, a vision document for reforming the teaching profession has been posted for public comment on the Department’s website, and will be available for comment until June 19.

Secretary Duncan is also asking that you join him tomorrow, Teacher Appreciation Day, and donate your Facebook status to a teacher who has made a difference in your life, and thank a teacher on Twitter by using the hashtag #ThankaTeacher.

Throughout the week we’ll be highlighting videos of people from around the country thanking teachers for making a difference in their lives. Today we heard from Bill Nye the Science Guy, Mayim Bialik, a PhD and actor on “The Big Bang Theory, as well as Jamie Hyneman from TV’s MythBusters.

Watch our Thank a Teacher video playlist:

Join Us and Thank a Teacher

Darlene McCampbell, my high school English teacher, was an extraordinary teacher. She challenged us, encouraged us, and brought out the best in us. Mrs. McCampbell is still teaching and inspiring students today. Great teachers help mold the future every day, and are integral to our country’s economic and national security. Teachers have an impact that far outlasts any lesson plan they may give, and we never forget a teacher who inspired us to do great things.

Today marks the beginning of National Teacher Appreciation Week. This week is a great week to give teachers the praise they deserve every day, but it also provides an opportunity to hear from teachers on how we can make teaching not only one of America’s most important professions, but one of the country’s most valued professions as well.

The Department of Education has an array of events planned throughout the week to both celebrate teaching and listen to teachers. One of the events to celebrate teachers will take place tomorrow, Teacher Appreciation Day, as we kick off a national campaign to thank our teachers on Facebook and Twitter.

Please join me tomorrow by donating your Facebook status to a teacher who has made a difference in your life, and thank a teacher on Twitter by using the hashtag #ThankaTeacher.

It’s one small token of appreciation for those who are truly America’s nation-builders.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Watch a video of Secretary Duncan and Mrs. McCampbell:

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

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

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.

Viva la Revolution! State Teachers of the Year Advise ED about Teacher Policy

At the end of a week of activities in Washington to honor the accomplishments of the state Teachers of the Year, those teachers engaged in a conversation about how to improve the teaching profession.

It began as ten small-group discussions about the new RESPECT Project to elevate the teaching profession. But it grew into a passionate plea by the teacher leaders for total transformation, as representatives from each of the small groups addressed the room at large. “Our key concern is making sure this project is moving along at a faster pace,” the first teacher reported to officials at the U.S. Department of Education.  “As a nation we need to elevate the status of the profession and change the culture of teaching.”

Teachers of the Year at ED

Teachers of the Year at ED. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Johnson

As the two-hour session continued, teachers called on one another to lead the change of the profession.  “If we want to see radical change, we need radical reform,” said Alvin Davis, the State Teacher of the Year from Florida.

Alana Margeson (Maine) urged both the Department and teachers to put systems in place to implement changes, arguing that without practical solutions, the vision would go nowhere. “Any idea without legs will never walk you very far,” she urged.

When asked to describe how they lead their profession from the classroom, one by one, the teachers described their strategies and pressed one another to be agents of real transformation:

    • “I teach because I want to change the script.” Elena Garcia-Velasco (Oregon)
    • “Anything worthy of your passion is worthy of your preparation.” Tyronna Hooker (North Carolina)
    • “I believe we can always do things better.” Mark Ray (Washington)
    •  “The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution.” Chad Miller (Hawaii)

Because of their passion and courage, I left the meeting with these teachers with ideas about how to improve the RESPECT Project.  Mostly I felt encouraged about my profession and the future of teaching because of their inspiration.  Viva la revolution!

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is the Teacher Liaison at the U.S. Department of Education, an English teacher on loan temporarily from her school in Buncombe County, N.C

Celebrating the Teachers of the Year

Duncan speaks to the State Teachers of the Year

Secretary Duncan joined the State and National Teachers of the Year at the Council of State School Officers gala dinner. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

“A teacher is the key to a child reaching their potential,” President Obama said this week during a White House ceremony to recognize the State Teachers of the Year and to present the 2012 National Teacher of the Year Award to Rebecca Mieliwocki, a 7th grade teacher English teacher from Burbank, California.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for teachers like these who challenged me, and pushed me, and put up with me, and inspired me — and set me straight when they had to,” President Obama said.  Watch the video.

The White House ceremony is just one of many activities the National State Teachers of the Year will participate in while in Washington this week. Last night Secretary Duncan joined the teachers at the Council of State School Officers gala dinner for the State and National Teachers of the Year. “Our country needs great teachers like you,” he told the teachers.

Today, the teachers will visit the Department of Education to discuss ways to elevate the teaching profession and ED’s RESPECT project.

The RESPECT Project (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching), is a national conversation led by active classroom teachers working temporarily for the Department to help provide input on the administration’s 2013 budget proposal, and on the broader effort to reform teaching. Learn more here.

Everyone here at the Department of Education would like to congratulate Rebecca Mieliwocki, all of the State Teachers of the Year, and thank all teachers for their dedication to one of our country’s most important professions.

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

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.

Keeping REAL-Time at Glasgow Middle

Three years ago, Principal of Glasgow Middle School (Fairfax, Va.) Deirdre Lavery found herself face to face with the classic middle school dilemma: how to make all students in her diverse population feel a part of large school community while also setting rigorous academic standards.

Not an easy task for any middle school principal. But Lavery’s dilemma was intensified because hers is an International Baccalaureate (I.B.) school offering eight content subjects. The variety of academic courses gave students choices and let them dig deeper in subjects of interest, but it also made it tough to organize teachers into grade-level teams who work together with teams of students in the same grade level.

Picture of Students

Sixth grade students in Curg Lines’s technology class show off one of two towers they built using the design model. Glasgow employs six technology teachers, but the high number of course offerings has forced the school to be creative to engage everyone.

Still, Lavery was determined to offer a middle school experience where students feel that they belong, where they have a strong relationship with at least one adult, and where students are engaged in their own learning and 21st century skills (collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication) could be discreetly taught.

Where did Lavery turn for her answers to the challenge?  To her greatest resource:  her teachers.

Lavery commissioned a group of teacher leaders to conduct a survey of research strategies to engage students and develop a program for Glasgow.  Give me “a program and a structure,” Lavery told the team. “We’re going to do what’s right for the kids.”

According to Stephanie Barrus, a newcomer to the school who led the team, the group followed the classic design structure that they teach their students in class. “We defined the problem, investigated alternatives, created and implemented a pilot program, and then evaluated and adapted it to fit the school.”

Their result is called REAL-Time — an advisor/advisee program that fits Glasgow’s unique circumstances.

    • Every teacher has 15 students from three different grades. Mixing the grades helps the 6th graders to be mentored by the older students and cuts down on bullying.
    • Staying with the same teacher, counselor and administrator for three years helps helps students to bond with at least one adult who knows them well and advocates for them.
    • REAL-Time meets every day for 25 minutes during sixth period (so students aren’t tempted to sleep late and skip it).
    • Tuesdays-Thursdays, there is a planned curriculum for REAL-Time that includes organizing, team building, meeting about academics, and holding group discussions. On Mondays and Fridays there is flex time to help with homework, work on IB lessons, and sustained silent reading.

How is REAL-Time working?

The truth is in the numbers.  In the pilot conducted during the 2010-2011 school year, 80% of students reported that their REAL-Time teacher knows them and their academic goals; 63% said they are learning skills in REAL-Time that will help them be successful in school and life; 81% reported that REAL-Time has helped them improve organizational skills; and 70% reported that their REAL-Time teacher is helping them develop skills to increase their grades.

More than that, students are developing very specific skills cooperating with one another and helping each other to grow.  When I visited a REAL-Time class at Glasgow, students were discussing a short video about setting goals and practicing interacting in an academic environment.  Reviewing the norms for group work, one student reminded the others about the need for everyone to “speak with good purpose.”

At the time, I thought, that is a lesson that adults everywhere could stand to be reminded of from time to time.

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a Teacher Liaison at the Department of Education, on loan from her school in Buncombe County, N.C.

Increasing Student Voice in the Middle Grades

Class size reduction. Standardized testing. Arts and music education. Increasing student engagement. Do these sound like issues the U.S. Department of Education is grappling with? You betcha, but so are 8th grade students from Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown, Maryland.

Last week 14 middle school students presented their research findings to ED staff on issues that affect their own learning. Their innovative ideas impressed everyone in the room and provided suggestions for fixing some of our country’s deepest problems. Rachit Argawal and Diwakar Ganesan shared, “Our current education model is conceived from the economic and social standpoint of the Industrial Revolution. Centuries later we have the same system!” They proposed creating a system where students in grades 6-12 choose the classes they take with math and English being the only compulsory subjects. They found that student choice increases motivation and achievement, counters distractions, and leads to autonomy and creativity.

Students Present their Findings

Aries Tibbs, Luis Urzua, Noah Smith, and Kendall Pinales present the benefits of smaller class sizes to Department staff. Official Department of Education photo by Paul Wood.

Our 8th grade researchers were joined by national middle level experts that included Robert Balfanz and leaders from the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, the Association for Middle Level Education, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The national experts reminded us that young adolescents are complex, and in these crucial years, adolescents experience a great deal of physical, intellectual, emotional, and social change. Secretary Duncan described this period of youth as “a time of great contrasts—your students are immature but are becoming more mature every day. They are independent. Yet they still depend on adults.”

Educating middle level students requires a unique person who is demanding but caring. Rachit and Diwakar’s teacher Krista McKim is that kind of educator. She recognizes the unique abilities and experiences each student brings and facilitates learning that honors and includes student voice.

As an educator who has spent a decade teaching middle grades students I know that when young adolescents are seen as empty vessels waiting to be filled, they disengage. Conversely, when they are included in decision making and have opportunities to drive their learning, anything is possible. Motivation, interest, confidence, and creative thinking increase and true learning occurs. This was evident when the students presented their research. The group included a diversity of students: those with IEPs and 504 plans, some from the Gifted and Talented program, and a few students from the school magnet. We need all community members, including middle level students, tackling these complex issues.

Balfanz’s research shows that it is possible to identify about 75 percent of future dropouts in large, high-poverty urban schools before they enter high school. As early as 6th grade these students detach from school and reduce their effort and involvement in classes. Creating real opportunities for middle grades students to have a voice in their education is crucial.

Rachit and Diwakar concluded their presentation with a quote from Confucius: “If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for a hundred years, educate children.” What are you doing to ensure that our middle level students have a voice in their education?

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

Watch a video of students presenting their research findings at their school’s first Education Forum.