Change is Hard
I asked to speak with you today because, after three-plus years in Washington, it’s a good time to take stock of where we are as a country – and where we are going.
I can stand up here and sell you on the importance of reform. I can get hyped up about how we’re falling behind other countries. I’ve said those things a thousand times. And I believe in them. Reform is vital--and in several key areas, America is slipping.
That’s why President Obama spent $60 billion to keep teachers in the classroom. That’s why he’s calling for another $25 billion right now to protect teaching jobs.
That’s why – year after year – he has protected education from budget cuts – and that’s why he has pushed a bold agenda for change.
He fundamentally believes in education as the pathway out of poverty and the pathway to a strong, secure future.
And we both believe that teachers are the heart and soul of our education system-- and that our success as a country is entirely dependent on your success as a teacher.
You are doing the hard, critically important work every day. And no matter what happens at the federal, state, or district level – it only matters if it works in your classrooms.
So first of all – I want to say thank you. Thank you for doing this work. Thank you for taking on the immense responsibility of educating our children. Nothing is more important to our future – to our economic security –even our national security.
Second, I want to share the truth as I see it. I won’t sugarcoat facts or paint a fantasy where every child’s social and emotional needs are always met in their home, and where the learning environment in every school is perfectly suited to support your work each day. That’s not our children’s reality. And I know that is not your reality.
We live in an imperfect world. Some children are challenged by poverty, neighborhood, or family issues that are almost unimaginable. Some schools are underfunded. Some principals are overwhelmed. And some teachers feel unsupported. They’re tired of feeling attacked.
And yet, even in those difficult circumstances, you are helping kids learn in remarkable ways. Every day, in classrooms all across America, students are overcoming huge barriers and succeeding because of caring, devoted teachers.
I’ve been to 47 states in the last three years – inner-cities, small towns, native-American reservations – remote communities in places like Alaska. We flew there in a small plane with duct tape on the wings. You can’t make this stuff up.
I remind you that my sport is basketball – not skydiving. I don’t even like jumping very high. I might be the only six-foot-four inch tall basketball player in the world who can’t dunk.
But I went to these states and saw people doing incredible things – and it always both gives me hope and affirms for me the generous and giving nature of people who choose to go into education.
Teachers want to make a difference in the lives of others. They get their greatest reward by helping their students discover themselves, find their voice, and develop into self-confident and well-directed people.
You simply can’t say that about every profession. Some people are motivated by money or power or ego or a large corner office. But teachers are uniquely driven by the desire to help others succeed.
Teaching is really hard work. It requires creativity, knowledge, skills, and empathy – the kind of emotional intelligence that can’t be readily acquired. It’s in your heart.
And that’s your strength – but it also makes you vulnerable when educational decisions beyond your control feel wrong. You give your life to this work, and you don’t want to see it go off-track. This is your craft. You know what is needed.
So today I want to have an open, honest conversation. I’ll share a few thoughts and then hear from you and take some questions. I hope that we can improve our common understanding of what we can all do, together, to get better and give all our children a chance to be successful.
In the last three years, there have been three really significant developments in K-12 education. The first is that all but a handful of states have raised academic standards, in an effort to prepare children for college and careers.
The internationally-benchmarked Common Core standards were developed by educators on behalf of the states. They have been reviewed extensively and they get generally strong marks – higher than most standards – and comparable to some of the best.
Now they’re going into the field – which means that teachers, principals, and administrators will have to figure out what this means in the classroom.
How will this affect curriculum? How will it change your daily lesson plans? Will you have more autonomy or less? And how can you best learn from, and share with, your colleagues across the country?
When children are assessed against new, higher standards, how will parents, teachers and schools react? If scores drop, will everyone feel deflated and beaten down? Or will we all be inspired to work harder?
And when the shelf life of so many education reforms is brief, how do we know that high standards that truly prepare young people for college and careers will take root and become the norm—not just for the privileged, but for all?
One never knows what the future holds, but this country is now committed to high standards. It’s one issue on which Democrats and Republicans, parents and teachers, and employers and higher education leaders can all agree.
The fact is that today 25 percent of our kids don’t even graduate from high school. About half of all students who go to community college need remedial education. And over 90 million adults in America have limited literacy skills.
Our families, our communities, and our country deserves better. And we won’t change those numbers without high standards and high expectations.
One of the many negative side effects of No Child Left Behind is that too many states lowered standards in order to meet the goal of getting every single child to proficiency by 2014.
It is a noble goal. And the fact that we are falling short of it does not mean the goal is wrong, and it doesn’t mean we have failed. It just means we have more work to do because we’re committed to all children--regardless of their talents, background, and challenges.
Nevertheless, the 2014 goal – along with the mandates and punitive sanctions in NCLB – put a lot of pressure on schools and teachers. In some cases we saw more focus on test prep and a narrowing of the curriculum.
Those are not good outcomes for children – and it’s not a good use of your time either. You didn’t go into education in order to teach kids how to pass a bubble test.
And you don’t want an accountability system that labels improving schools as failures or ignores the challenges children bring into the classroom. Teachers, principals—all of us, really--want a system that is fair, honest, and realistic.
And this has led to the second really big thing that has happened on our watch – which is NCLB waivers.
We tried hard to get Congress to fix the broken NCLB law. We sought to make it more fair and flexible, and better focused on the kids most at risk. But right now Congress is pretty broken as well.
As President Obama has said, repeatedly, “We Can’t Wait” for Congress to act, so we used our authority to offer flexibility to states willing to change.
Basically, we said to the states – raise standards, set performance targets that are ambitious and achievable -- and design local interventions that focus closely on the neediest children.
In exchange for protecting children and setting a high bar, you get much more flexibility with our funds and the chance to create your own state-designed accountability system.
We also asked states to come up with a better way to support teachers and principals. Look at annual student growth and progress rather than proficiency.And use other measures of effectiveness – like classroom observation, peer review, and parent and student feedback.
We further encouraged states to develop new ways to support and evaluate teachers in all subjects –the arts, foreign languages, science, history, and physical education.
We didn’t eliminate testing because we believe it is important to measure progress. We need to know who is ahead and who is behind – who is succeeding and who needs more support. In an ideal world, that data should also drive instruction and meaningful professional development.
We absolutely understand that standardized tests don’t begin to capture all of the subtle qualities of successful teaching. That’s why we always call for multiple measures in evaluating teachers, schools, districts, and states.
We’re also hopeful that new assessments under development will better reflect the impact of your work. But they are still a few years away.
In the meantime, dozens of states have seized this opportunity for flexibility with interventions and the chance to set new performance targets – including Maryland.
A few states are staying with current law – and that’s their choice. We’re for flexibility as long as we have the goal of giving every child a college and career-ready education.
Overall, however, more than 60 percent of schools in America have new accountability systems in place that are both realistic and ambitious – and that capture more kids at risk than NCLB ever did. We expect that number to go even higher.
Now, the third big thing to happen is that we are having a very robust national conversation around teaching and school leadership. This is a very important conversation that’s long overdue.
It’s not an easy conversation either. It requires principals and teachers to look hard at themselves and ask – what would it take for us all to get better?
The conversation started around teacher evaluation. But it has now expanded to cover a full range of pressing issues, like teacher preparation, professional development, career ladders, tenure, and compensation. Everyone is part of the conversation, including unions, administrators, and school boards.
At a groundbreaking conference we hosted in Cincinnati in May, leaders from NEA, the AFT, and the national associations representing school boards, superintendents, chief state school officers, and large urban districts – all publicly signed a document spelling out seven principles for reforming the teaching profession.
This document is truly historic. Created with a united front and a real sense of collaboration, it provides a strong foundation for comprehensive reform. It promotes the importance of shared responsibility and accountability, a healthy school culture, enhanced teacher leadership, strong community engagement, multiple career pathways, and all of the elements needed for success.
Most important, teachers themselves are driving this national conversation. With the help of our Teacher Ambassador Fellows – these are fantastic, active classroom teachers working for a year with us--we held over 200 roundtables last year with more than 3,500 teachers across the country to shape a new vision for the teaching profession.
We call it the RESPECT project and the results are on our website. It’s closely aligned to the vision document signed by all of us in Cincinnati – especially the focus on shared responsibility.
We invite all of you to join the discussion. In fact, our teaching fellows are here today, and they plan to stick around, hold some roundtables, and talk with some of you about the RESPECT project.
Please tell us your vision for the profession and think through with us how we can get there.
The hard questions are so important: How do we change teacher prep programs to better prepare all teachers for the classroom?
How do we change recruiting and mentoring and induction so new teachers feel supported, instead of isolated and overwhelmed? How do we ensure our nation’s teachers reflect the great diversity of our nation’s students?
And how do we build career pathways where great teachers can stay in the classroom and earn salaries that are competitive with other professions like medicine and law?
You know what success looks like. You know what it would take to transform the field. We are not looking for incremental change here—this effort is much more ambitious than that.
And you definitely know what you want in your school and your classroom– whether it is more time to plan and collaborate, more support from school leaders, or more autonomy to structure class time in ways that best serve your students.
And, as I’ve said repeatedly, you also deserve much better pay—especially if it’s tied to effectiveness. I know you didn’t go into education to get rich, but you shouldn’t have to sign a vow of poverty either. Teacher salaries should be on par with other valued professions.
We’ve asked Congress for $5 billion to get the ball rolling and we’re directing other funding streams to support this work. But ultimately this will play out at the state and local level, which funds the vast bulk of public education.
Your voice in rebuilding and renewing your profession is so important--and the opportunity has never been greater or more urgent. Almost half of our existing teachers are set to retire in the current decade. A million new people are coming into this field.
Today, however, half of those new teachers will leave the field within five years. That is unacceptable. And many other bright, young people don’t even consider teaching – either because salaries are too low, opportunities for advancement are limited, or working conditions are too difficult.
As a country, we’re beginning to change those dynamics. And teachers are leading the change –through their unions or with grassroots groups like Teach Plus and Educators 4 Excellence.
Meanwhile, everyone is working harder than ever before to figure out how to raise standards. Right here in Maryland, the state held a conference last summer with 6,000 teachers to discuss implementation of the Common Core.
Maryland held regional meetings, and sponsored conferences to familiarize teachers with Common Core content. They developed and posted online lessons.
This fall, Maryland will field test teacher and principal evaluations based on multiple measures and fine-tune it before implementing.
To shape this new system of evaluation, Maryland established an Educator Effectiveness Council with unions, teachers, superintendents, school board members, and academics.
Under its NCLB waiver, Maryland has set ambitious new goals to reduce achievement gaps by half within six years, asking districts to develop locally-designed plans for improvement.
Now, I’m convinced that Maryland is poised to lead the country. But no one believes this will be easy. There will absolutely be stumbles and maybe a few wrong turns. The transition to higher standards will be choppy for everyone, including teachers, administrators, parents, and students.
But we can’t give up. We have to keep trying – keep getting better – keep pushing ourselves and each other. And when we encounter obstacles, we have to go over them, around them, or through them.
Let me tell you about Tennessee – which, like Maryland, was another Race to the Top winner.
A year ago, the state put in place a new statewide evaluation system. There was a lot of resistance. But instead of digging in their heels or retreating, the Tennessee Department of Education did the unthinkable for a government agency: They asked for feedback.
They met with 7,500 teachers around the state and surveyed 16,000 teachers and 1,000 administrators. They adapted and changed the evaluation system based upon all that feedback, and the results are already promising.
Meanwhile, a wonderful music teacher in Memphis named Dru Davison was so frustrated by his proposed evaluation that he also did the unthinkable. Working with his fellow arts educators, he helped create a blind, peer-review evaluation system for assessing teacher practice in the arts.
It proved so popular and effective that the entire district adopted it -- and now the state itself is looking at doing the same.
This is the kind of initiative we want to support all across the nation: teachers rebuilding their own profession, holding themselves and each other accountable, and shaping their future in the classroom. And we need to proceed as quickly as possible.
Your fantastic new superintendent Dallas Dance talks about “deliberate excellence.” He knows kids only have one chance at a quality education.
Dr. Martin Luther King often talked about “the fierce urgency of now.” President Obama authorized waivers because we can’t wait for a divided Congress to act and fix a law that is so fundamentally broken.
Every day matters. Every day counts. That’s why, as a country, we’re asking more of ourselves, more of our principals and administrators, more of our students, more of their parents, and more of you.
We’re asking more from all of us because that is what it takes to get better. That is what it takes to fulfill the true promise of public education. This is what children desperately need.
Change is always hard, and top-down accountability too often feels punitive. At the end of the day, accountability comes from within – from teachers holding themselves to high standards because they take their profession seriously and want to see children succeed.
Let me tell you about a couple of extraordinary teachers I met.
Jamie Irish is a math teacher in New Orleans. He started teaching in the Bronx. But like many young teachers, he struggled to reach his low-income students. He felt overwhelmed. He switched to a private school -- but then felt like he lost his purpose.
He finally found it again in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He chose to work with the kids that many others had abandoned. He knew they were way behind. But he challenged them to outperform the selective enrollment school down the road.
He calls his students the Orange Crush. He wears an orange jumpsuit to inspire them. Most important, he’s reaching those kids. Children who no one believed in before are starting to believe in themselves.
His students are the fastest-gaining kids in the system and he’s been named teacher of the year in New Orleans. He’s been awarded the Fishman Prize for teaching by the New Teacher Project.
That prize is named for a current math teacher in D.C. named Shira Fishman. She is a former engineer who felt unfulfilled so she went into teaching nine years ago.
She has the highest ratings of any teacher in D.C. She’s the teacher of the year and she’s a Milken Award winner. She’s a mentor to younger teachers. And she coaches basketball.
She took a big pay cut to teach, and like some of you, she had to supplement her income waiting tables. How many doctors or lawyers have to wait tables on the side?
She acknowledges that teacher evaluation is stressful – but it’s necessary. In her own words, she says:
“Teachers who are struggling need to be helped. The ones that are continuously ineffective need to find a different career because it’s not good for the kids. Those that are good need to be acknowledged and used by the school to help everyone get better.”
Her philosophy of teaching is equally clear. It’s all about high expectations. She believes that if we keep raising the bar, our children will get over it– but only if we help them overcome their fear of failure.
Here in Baltimore County, and all across America, there are teachers like Shira Fishman. They are giving everything they have to their children, and asking for nothing in return, except for appreciation for their hard work and respect for their profession.
I have one last teacher story from right here in Maryland that illustrates the spirit, passion, and persistence of our classroom teachers.
Maddie Hanington teaches English in Gaithersburg. She was raised in the projects. Her parents are immigrants from Puerto Rico and she understands what it takes to help kids of color achieve.
She took a middle-school troublemaker on a path to failure and turned him into a science fair winner. More often than not, she dug into her own pocket for his lunch money.
Maddie is also a Milken Award winner. Her students are performing really well. She runs a book club for Latina girls – and she’s a mentor to her colleagues.
She’s everything we could ever want in a teacher. And she’s one of the three million reasons why this administration has the deepest respect and appreciation for you and your work. We believe in you and in the amazing power of education to transform lives.
We know the quality of a school system is only as good as the quality of its teachers and leaders. And we consider it our solemn duty to support you and honor your good work.
We also know that many of the changes underway are difficult and will take time. But we all have to meet this challenge together because the children who will be in front of you on Monday only get one chance at an education.
So as you begin the school year, please know that we are absolutely confident in you and in your ability to give all of our children the one thing they need to be successful in life: A world-class, well-rounded education.