Thanks, Ron [Thorpe] for that warm introduction and for all of your leadership. Congratulations on what has become one of the most dynamic discussions of teaching anywhere. You’ll be very relieved to know that unlike some of your other speakers, I will not be singing a capella, sharing my views on Abraham Lincoln, or putting a new operating system on your computer.
I have really been looking forward both to talking with this group, and to the conversation organized by my good friend Maddie Fennell — who is a leader for the Teachers of the Year, for the NEA, and for our Department, as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow — and a National Board candidate.
For me, this is one of the most important conversations of the year.
The truth is, I’ve been looking forward to this discussion, even though I know some teachers — including some here today -- are frustrated with some of my administration’s policies. I know there are some differences of opinion about the changes now under way in schools, and in fact, that’s part of what I want to talk about today.
I am convinced that the profound changes schools are undergoing now will bring enormous benefits for students, and allow teachers to do more of what they love. But in all humility, to get to that place, I need to ask all of you for your help, and I’m determined to do my part to support you. Not through rhetoric and aspiration, but through some concrete steps that I’ll lay out today.
Where we stand
Let’s start with where we stand.
A series of changes — in raising standards, in assessment of student learning, in systems for support and evaluation of educators — is changing classrooms pretty much everywhere.
It’s great that a large majority of educators have voiced their support, over the past couple of years, for state-led efforts to raise learning standards. Almost no one wants to return to dumbing things down and lying to children. But other parts have been harder.
A lot of teachers, and principals, have said that they feel off-balance getting up to speed with these new systems — and haven’t had the support they need and deserve. We know that no-stakes dry run of the new assessments, which will begin over the next few weeks, will be hard and choppy — and that's exactly the point of a dry run — to get the kinks out.
Now, where folks have been immersed in this change for a while, and where teachers have received good preparation and support, and where they helped lead the change — there is enthusiasm for the direction we’re headed in. Take Andrew Vega, a teacher I visited earlier this week at an amazing turnaround school in Boston, Orchard Gardens. He had a transition that was really rough at first, but has become a huge opportunity for both him and his students. In an article he wrote about his experience, he said he is now — and I quote — “a better — and happier — teacher than I've ever been.”
Visiting four Boston-area schools earlier this week, that was a sentiment that I heard fairly frequently from teachers — significant early worry, evolving over time to a sense that their students, their schools, and their practice are in a much better place.
But it’s absolutely clear that a lot of teachers want more time, more resources and more information. Teachers, and parents, have also expressed dismay about testing taking up too much classroom time. Finally, a lot of teachers are frustrated — and maybe that’s a gentle word — about plans that will hold them accountable for tests attached to new, career- and college-ready standards before they feel they have mastered them.
In the midst of those very real challenges, all of you — America’s teachers and school leaders — have accomplished some remarkable, remarkable things. The nation’s high school graduation rate today stands at 80 percent -- the highest in our history. That progress has been led by African-American and Hispanic students, often living in communities that — for too long in our nation's history — were denied real educational opportunity. Closing those insidious opportunity gaps is what fuels the passion of so many of us — and we are making progress. Dropout rates are at historic lows — with minority and low-income students accounting for much of the improvement. College-going rates are up sharply for our students of color.
That’s huge, and the credit for that progress goes to you, your students and their families.
We all know that, for all these improvements, we still have a lot further to go. I always try to make sure people know both sides of the story — the enormous progress and the very serious and urgent work ahead, to close achievement gaps and keep up with our international competitors, and give our children a real chance in life.
But I'm not sure people pay enough attention to the progress that you have worked hard to achieve.
And one of the things that troubles me most is that in the midst of these huge changes, you — the people who are carrying out that change — haven’t felt like you’ve had a voice. Or — just as concerning — that the only way to have a say in the direction of education, was to stop teaching children — stop doing what you love most and move out of the classroom and into administration.
According to a new poll, 69 percent of teachers feel their voices are heard in their school, but only a third feel heard in their district, 5 percent in their state, and 2 percent at the national level.
That's unacceptable — and it's time to change that.
There’s only one way the big, important, difficult changes now under way in schools are going to truly pay off for kids — and that’s with your leadership.
I know that may be a strange message for some to hear — especially if there are parts of this change you disagree with.
But it’s true. So many teachers have told me they want to build classrooms that serve students better, through more inquiry, greater creativity, and deep and inspiring relationships. Ultimately, the changes now under way will give teachers more room and support to do that. In the places where this transition is well along, you can literally see it happening. I saw it this week in Boston and Worcester.
But the only way that higher standards, and new systems of support and evaluation, will work, is if teachers lead this change in partnership and collaboration with principals, parents and communities. That's what I saw in Reading, Massachusetts — teacher leadership in action, middle and high school teachers all working together, owning this transition.
Federal, state, and local leaders can’t make this change easy. But we can support your leadership, whether that means having a stronger voice in policy, or a stronger role in guiding your profession and your newer colleagues.
I’ve heard from so many teachers who are tired of the heartbreaking choice between serving their students and serving their profession. I’d like to quote from one teacher, who was asked in a job interview where she wanted to be in five years. She answered that her dream was to remain in the classroom, but then wondered whether that answer actually hurt her, because it is, and I quote, “assumed that experience, innovation, and talent [mean] moving OUT of the classroom. I want a school where talent, experience, and innovation mean … opportunities to lead from the classroom.”
I’ll borrow a phrase from Orchard Gardens’ Andrew Vega: teacher leadership must be a force for changing education — not a result of it.
The Teach to Lead initiative
That’s why I’ve asked my good friend Ron Thorpe and the National Board to join me in convening an effort that will raise the visibility of teacher leadership throughout our nation.
Teachers have spoken eloquently about how important it is to have a voice in what happens in their schools and their profession -- without leaving the classroom.
That’s what Erin Dukeshire is doing. She’s a science teacher, also at Orchard Gardens, which until recently was one of the lowest-performing schools , not just in Boston, but in the entire state of Massachusetts. An arts-focused turnaround there has brought huge gains over the past couple of years — seeing students learn two-digit multiplication by doing the salsa was amazing. Erin helped pilot a national initiative called Turnaround Teacher Team, or T3 — a teacher-developed effort to improve low-performing schools. And she only decided to take her passion and talents to this historically struggling school because of that leadership opportunity. We need to make that experience the norm, not the exception. We need to attract and retain the best teacher talent in the communities that need it most -- and authentic leadership opportunities help us do just that.
Two more examples:
Matthew Courtney is an NEA Teach Plus fellow and union leader. Seeing a need for high-quality professional development in Kentucky, he divides his time between teaching and running the Bluegrass Center for Teacher Quality.
Finally, Katie Herring is a first-grade teacher on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, which I visited in 2011. She co-led an effort to establish parent universities and to organize parent-student teams that made recommendations for improvement at their school. Reflecting on that experience, she said, “Now that I see how powerful our collective voice can be from inside the classroom, I can’t leave it.”
These teachers — and thousands more like them — are proving that their leadership matters — not just because it’s good for the profession, but also because it helps the children they care about so much. Tennessee, as it raised standards, had the foresight and vision to ask its teachers to lead the effort, rather than high-priced outside consultants. And 700 teachers stepped up to train 30,000 of their colleagues on new, higher standards. The result? Research showed a real payoff, as measured by both observations and student achievement. This is about both strengthening the profession and serving kids better. Tennessee, not coincidentally, is not just getting better — it is the fastest improving state in the nation.
That’s why Ron and I are working together on an initiative called Teach to Lead. Our aim is to encourage schools and districts, and hopefully even states, all over the country to provide more opportunities for genuine, authentic teacher leadership that don't require giving up a daily role in the classroom. And because this only works if superintendents and principals see it as part of the solution, they’ll be involved from the start.
We will convene a group of teachers, principals, state Chiefs, teachers’ groups and district leaders, among others. This group will take the steps necessary not to create white papers to decorate shelves — but to foster real-world commitments on teacher leadership. This group will announce significant commitments from districts, teachers’ groups, and others who want to be part of the solution to make teacher leadership real at scale — using the ample existing body of work on this as a springboard for action. And I want you to hold us accountable at this event, a year from now, for what we've been able to accomplish.
The timeline will be short, but fortunately, our effort builds on years of great work. Thanks to leadership from my friend Dennis van Roekel and NEA’s Teacher Leadership Initiative, thanks to Randi Weingarten and AFT’s Raise the Bar, thanks to the thousands of teachers and principals who helped build our RESPECT effort, and thanks to great work in this area that the National Board has led, we are starting from a position of strength. There are great examples of places where teacher leadership opportunities are already real — from here in D.C. to Iowa to Denver to Charlotte, North Carolina. There are just far too few of them.
Teacher leadership means having a voice in the policies and decisions that affect your students, your daily work, and the shape of your profession. It means guiding the growth of your colleagues. It means that teaching can't be a one-size-fits-all job — that there must be different paths based on different interests, and you don’t have to end up with the same job description that you started with. It means sharing in decisions that used to be only made by administrators -- and the best administrators know they’ll make better decisions when they listen to teachers.
Surveys show that nearly a quarter of teachers are very interested in hybrid roles that involve work both inside and outside the classroom. They also show that a lot of teachers are moving out of classroom roles because they need to, not because they want to. This is a stunning statistic: in a survey in one district, 59 percent of administrators said they would have stayed in the classroom if they could have received the same compensation.
Ultimately, it’ll be up to all the folks involved to define what powerful, ambitious commitments look like — this effort must be shaped by teachers. Hopefully, many of you will join us. So you’ll be hearing more about this as it develops. But I can tell you what teacher leadership doesn't mean: clerical or administrative work with a pretty title, counting books or setting schedules. It’s not about managing projects and initiatives in which you had no say. It’s not about a rubber stamp to ideas that have already been decided. It's about your voice, your vision, in the life of your school, the work of your school system, and the shape of your profession.
The hallmarks of a profession — think of law, medicine, architecture — go beyond the standards it holds for itself, the rigor of training and the competitiveness of joining the profession. In a strong profession, members are recognized as experts and leaders in matters of policy. That needs to happen much more in teaching.
Supporting teacher leadership has costs, and I want to make sure that our Department is continuing to be part of the solution. I am asking our team to make supporting teacher leadership a focus in all relevant funds, and to make sure we can build authentic teacher leadership into everything we do. We will also get information to states and districts how those funds can be used to support teacher leaders.
There are steps districts can take, as well, to offset costs. For example, districts could follow Tennessee's example and hire their own great teachers, rather than outsiders, to lead professional development — today, that’s costing schools thousands of dollars per teacher per year. Sarah Brown Wessling — who’s on our panel — teaches three high school English classes and supports PD for her district. That’s a model to think about.
This new partnership with the National Board builds on another great connection: the TEACH campaign, a national effort to raise the profile and perception of the profession, particularly among young people, and to recruit the next generation of top talent into our nation's classrooms. We’re thrilled to have as partners the Ad Council, the NEA, AFT, Teach For America, UNCF, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and others.
In conversations over the next few weeks with the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Council of the Great City Schools, and others, I'm going to urge state and local leaders to join our new effort on teacher leadership.
Other actions to support teachers
At our Department, practitioners spend a year working as Teacher Ambassador Fellows — and now also Principal Ambassador Fellows. They are extraordinary educators, and we are fortunate that they advise us, and talk with others about our initiatives -- and they are heard on important policy decisions. I’m going to ask other policy makers to consider similar approaches, so teachers and principals sit at the policy table.
And I want to act on other concerns that I have heard many teachers express.
On over-testing: I know that there are places where testing has gotten out of hand. We absolutely need to know how students are doing; teachers and schools need to assess student progress thoughtfully; nobody seriously disagrees with that. But too many school systems have allowed unnecessary and redundant tests to be layered on. I should also be really clear that my administration has added exactly zero new tests to what was required when we came into office.
I also recognize that a lot of teacher frustration surrounds the current standardized tests — and we’re going to see real changes there. As assessments become woven into the learning process, I believe the day is not far off when bubble tests will seem as old-school and outdated as vinyl records and payphones.
We’re already seeing first steps in that direction. This year, some students in most states will take the field test attached to new, higher standards — a no-stakes dry run. There will be bumps for sure — technical problems and bad test items — but that’s the point — that's why there’s a dry run. It’s the beginning of the end for the bubble test.
I also take really seriously the questions about timing of accountability attached to the new standards. Several months ago — after multiple discussions with many teachers, including our own Teacher Ambassador Fellows — we moved to provide an additional year to states that demonstrated a real need for that extra time, and to avoid double-testing students. I know that this will remain an area of disagreement for some, and I appreciate the hard work of the National Board on measures of student progress.
There’s a lot more that our administration is doing, under the President’s leadership, that will have a major impact on teachers and on the lives of students. Our agenda stretches from cradle to career. We’re traveling the country and working as hard as we can to make high-quality preschool accessible to every family, and to provide intensive support to children and families in places with high poverty and big achievement gaps. Allowing every child to have access to high-quality early learning opportunities may be the best gift we can give to children, families and our country — not just over the next three years, but over the next three decades.
We have a plan to make high-speed broadband available to nearly every school — to better empower teachers and enable students in their own leadership. We’ve doubled the federal investment in Pell Grants, supporting an additional three million students, and are working to make college more affordable. We have been able to increase the number of Pell grant recipients from about 6 million to 9 million — many first-generation college goers, whose life chances you helped to transform. We also directly support great teaching in several ways, including $2 billion annually that states can use to recruit, prepare, develop and retain great teachers. Quite frankly, I'm not convinced that many states use those resources wisely or effectively to help teachers improve their craft — I'd love you to help shape those strategies back home.
The teaching profession
But I want to stay on teacher leadership.
I’m glad to know that -- for all the challenges and difficulties of the current moment — the inherent rewards of teaching are enormous. Four out of five teachers report being “satisfied” or “very satisfied” in their profession, and a Gallup poll last year found that teachers rank second only to doctors in well-being.
But the changes now happening represent an opportunity to strengthen teaching profoundly, in ways that not only benefit students, but enable teachers to do more of what they love.
Teaching will change, too, as the nation's understanding deepens about the critically important factors that may be just as important to student success as reading and math skills — factors like grit, perseverance, resilience, and confidence.
The role of teachers in leading through this change isn't a nicety — it's a necessity. Teachers must shape what teaching will become.
The great news is, the classroom this generation’s kids need is the one that so many of you have said you want to create. That means — as many of you have said -- classrooms that inspire and support children to become not just masters of knowledge, but powerful thinkers.
It’s about empowering students to thrive in an innovation-focused world where the best jobs, as Tom Friedman has said, might be those they invent.
I’m a public school parent, of 10- and 12-year-old kids, and the classrooms my wife and I want for our kids are the same kinds of classrooms you envision. Classrooms that aren't about lecturing and listening, but about inquiry and invention, acting out a constitutional convention or piloting a flight simulator — teaching that pushes kids to be active thinkers and participants in their learning.
Why I’m optimistic
I’m immensely optimistic that the changes happening today will enable teachers to make that kind of experience a reality for more children. I believe -- because I’ve heard it from teachers — that the next stage is about unprecedented opportunities to innovate, to be creative, to focus on critical thinking and problem solving — the exact things that teachers tell me brought them into this profession.
It’s a sea-change that many teachers have long hungered for. As one teacher put it, it’s about interactions between teacher and student that "challenge students and foster a sense of joy," or, as another teacher said, build a "learning lab fueled by curiosity and passion."
It’s about lifting up great teaching so that every child has the kind of opportunity that will give her a good chance in life. It’s what President Obama meant when he said, in the last State of the Union:
"Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise."
The moment for teacher leadership is now.
The change happening today won’t ever be easy. You may not agree with every part of it. But for the sake of your kids, and for your profession, this change needs your leadership.
So, I humbly ask: lead this change, now, for the good of your profession, and for the good of America’s children. I promise my support.
Thank you, and let’s turn now to the conversation.
For more information about the Teach to Lead effort, visit the Teach to Lead website.