Teachers Get R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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Teachers Get R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Remarks of Secretary Arne Duncan at a Teacher Town Hall

February 15, 2012

Today, we are formally launching Project RESPECT.

RESPECT is an acronym that stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching. I've always believed that in education, we simply don't have enough acronyms yet—we needed one more!

All kidding aside, let me break down what RESPECT is all about:

  • Educational success means that we are focused on improving student outcomes.
  • Professional excellence means that we are focused on continuously improving practice and recognizing, rewarding, and learning from great teachers and principals.
  • And collaborative teaching means that we are focused on shared responsibility and creating schools where principals and teachers work together with their peers, support each other, hold each other accountable and lift each other to new levels of skill and competence.

The purpose of the RESPECT Project is to directly engage with teachers and principals all across America in a national conversation about teaching.

This conversation has actually been underway for several months. Our Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellows, like Shakera Walker, who you just heard from, are active classroom teachers spending a year working with us at the department.

They have already held more than 100 roundtable meetings with teachers across the country. They are here today—and I would like them all to stand up. They are a remarkably talented group, and we are lucky to have them on our team.

In the coming months they will lead many more conversations. And they will be joined by our 10 classroom fellows across the United States, who are also working part-time with us.

The conversation will be on blogs, in the media, and in town halls like this one. We will engage our union partners at every level—national, state and local—as well as teacher reform groups, like Teach Plus, Educators for Excellence, and the New Teacher Project.

We'll work with all of the subject matter groups in reading, math, science, history, and the arts—as well as the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, which has been such a strong partner and leader in supporting and promoting excellence in teaching.

Our goal is to work with educators in rebuilding the profession—and to elevate the teacher voice in shaping federal, state, and local education policy. Our larger goal is to make teaching not only America's most important profession but America's most respected profession. That is a lofty goal—and we are deadly serious about getting there.

We have spent years talking about the problems afflicting the teaching profession today. They include:

  • Many of our schools of education are mediocre at best. A staggering 62 percent of young teachers say they felt unprepared to enter the classroom.
  • Many teachers are poorly trained and isolated in their classrooms.
  • Teachers are given little time to succeed—and they are under increasing pressure to get results to meet accountability targets.
  • Not enough principals know how to attract, nurture, and let blossom the great teachers that they have in their buildings.
  • While high-performing nations almost universally have a high bar to entry—rejecting as many as nine in ten applicants who want to teach in their countries—here in the U.S. we basically allow anyone to teach, and often train and support them poorly.
  • Here in the U.S., evaluation is too often tied only to test scores, which makes no sense whatsoever.
  • Instead of a safety net beneath our children and teachers, test-based accountability has become a sword hanging overhead.
  • Too many schools resemble 19th century factories that treat all teachers and students alike, rather than establishing creative learning environments designed to address the individual needs of students and the personalized developmental needs of teachers.
  • Both the teacher work day and work year are too short to get the job done and allow for the kind of professional collaboration teachers want and the learning time that students, particularly disadvantaged students, desperately need.
  • Teacher tenure and compensation is largely unrelated to job performance, skills, and demonstrated leadership ability.
  • Compared to other important professions, teacher salaries are far too low to attract and retain top college students into the field and barely sufficient for existing teachers to raise a family, buy a home, and maintain a middle class lifestyle. Many teachers must work side jobs or rely on their spouses to make ends meet. Something is radically wrong with that picture.
  • Finally, good teachers often must leave the classroom—leave what they love most and what they do best—to acquire more responsibility, advance professionally, and increase earnings. Many simply leave the field.

I could go on and on—but you get the picture. This is not a time for timid tweaks around the edges of the profession. This is a time for transformational change.

Last summer, I called for dramatic increases in salary and professional opportunities for teachers—matched by equally dramatic changes in how the profession is organized. Three weeks ago, in the State of the Union, President Obama joined the conversation when he passionately reminded both Congress and the nation just how much teachers matter. He said:

"We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance... Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies—just to make a difference."

And then the president put a bargain on the table. He said: "Give [schools] the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn. That's a bargain worth making."

Those are powerful ideas, powerful words, that the President himself wrote into the State of the Union.

Just to be clear, the President is not arguing against testing or accountability. We need a system for tracking our progress so we know whether children are learning and whether teachers are teaching.

But the President is clearly arguing against teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum—and he is also arguing against an accountability system that relies far too heavily on test scores from a bubble test. At a student town hall last March, he said:

"Let's find a test that everybody agrees makes sense ... and let's make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well—because there are other criteria."

On January 24th, the White House issued a document that called for a new competitive program to challenge states and districts to work with their teachers and unions to comprehensively reform the teaching profession.

It starts by making our teacher colleges much more selective. High-performing countries like Finland and South Korea set a very high bar for teachers.

We should do the same. Last week I met with the Minister of Education from Singapore, one of those countries that today is out-educating us. They talked in detail about how ninety percent of folks who want to teach in their country, they don't allow into the profession. And then they train and nurture and prepare their teachers in a very different way. They value their teachers at a different level.

We must create new career ladders for teachers so they don't have to leave the classroom, and leave the work they love most, to assume leadership roles and responsibilities in their schools.

We need mentor teachers, master teachers, and teacher leaders supporting younger colleagues, and driving school decisions around curriculum, scheduling, and staffing.

Teacher earnings should be tied more closely to performance on a range of indicators—rather than simply to longevity or credentials. We should compensate teachers who are willing to work in tough learning environments with the students who most need their help.

We should make it possible for teachers to earn much more money than they earn today—from the start of their careers to the finish. Salaries should be more competitive with other professions.

We all know that teachers don't go into the field to make money. Teachers are some of the most altruistic, giving, and idealistic people you will find anywhere.

Teachers want to make a difference. They want to transform the lives of their students, and they stay in the field because they enjoy the work. But teaching isn't the Peace Corps. This is a profession—and teachers should be able to live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and not have to take a vow of poverty.

We should also dramatically improve professional development and provide more time for collaboration among teachers. We should provide teachers with greater autonomy in the classroom in exchange for greater accountability—and we need to build a shared understanding of what exactly that means.

We need evaluation systems for districts, schools, principals and teachers that are based on multiple measures, rather than just on test scores.

And I think you've seen in the waiver process that we've gone through with states, that states are becoming much more sophisticated about evaluation and walking away from the one-size-fits-all No Child Left Behind mentality that didn't work for anybody.

Evaluation should include classroom observation, peer review, parent, and student feedback. We need to figure out how to evaluate and support teachers in subjects like the arts, foreign languages, and physical education. In many places, teachers themselves are already leading and driving this complex, important work.

Just two weeks ago, I met with Dru Davison, a music teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. Arts teachers there were frustrated because they were being evaluated based only on school-wide performance in math and English. They didn't think that was fair. So Dru convened a group of arts educators to come up with a better evaluation system.

After Dru's committee surveyed arts teachers in Memphis, they decided to develop a blind, peer-review evaluation to assess portfolios of student learning. It has proved enormously popular—so much so that Tennessee is now looking at adopting the system statewide for arts instructors.

We need to reform tenure to raise the bar, protect good teachers, and promote accountability. Instead of a lifetime guarantee, tenure needs to be a recognized honor that signifies professional accomplishment and success.

And we need a workable system that guarantees due process to deal fairly with those who are not up to the challenge. No one wants to protect bad teachers—and clear, efficient, and impartial due process agreements benefit everyone.

This effort will require the entire educational sector—states, districts, unions, principals, schools of education, teachers themselves, our Department of Education right here—all of us, to change. And teachers have to lead the change. Our job is to support change with transparency, with the right incentives, and with President Obama's voice.

On Monday, President Obama's proposed budget called for $5 billion from the American Jobs Act to support this new competitive program. Now, we won't see this money until October at the earliest, and only if Congress agrees to fund it.

But this conversation is about much more than a $5 billion federal program. This is about how America invests $500 billion every year to pay teachers. It's about the tens of billions we spend to train teachers and the billions that we spend on professional development.

We will fight tirelessly to increase investments in public education. I believe this is the best investment our nation can make in itself—from expanded pre-K opportunities to K-12 reform to increased access to higher education.

These are investments—not expenses that must face the chopping block each year when budgets get tough.

But we must also have honest conversations about whether our current investments are working.

I always give the example of Title II money, professional development money. At the federal level, we spend $2.5 billion a year on professional development.

As I go out talk to great teachers around the country, when I ask them "how much is that money improving their job or development," they either laugh or they cry. They are not feeling it.

So as we fight for additional resources, we also have to be honest about that $2.5 billion investment, and the additional two or three billion dollars that states and districts are spending, to see what is necessary to really help teachers master their craft and hone their skills. I think the honest answer is that, in most places, we are not even close.

That conversation is about the way our schools are run and the leadership role that teachers are allowed—or, too often, not allowed—to play in their schools. It's about autonomy and accountability—about empowering teachers and creating the conditions for success in our nation's 100,000 schools.

We need to redefine what it means to teach in today's interconnected global economy because what you learn in school today is only the foundation for what you will need to know tomorrow to be successful. Teachers and students—we must all become life-long learners.

We need to radically change society's views of teaching from the factory model of yesterday to the professional model of tomorrow, where teachers are revered as the thinkers, leaders and nation-builders they truly are.

A million or more teachers are set to retire over the next decade. The teachers who replace them will shape public education for the next 30 years and drive America's intellectual growth and progress.

No other profession carries a greater burden for securing America's economic future. No other profession holds out more promise of opportunity to children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. And no other profession deserves more respect.

So today, we formally renew this national conversation around the future of teaching. I am absolutely convinced that the future of the teaching profession and the future of our nation are inextricably linked.

We look forward to hearing your ideas, following your leadership, and pursuing your vision.

As we fight to strengthen our nation economically, as we fight for greater social justice through strong and genuine educational opportunity, the voice of teachers has never been more important.

This new vision will not appear overnight. There will be areas of disagreement. It will proceed in different ways in each state and district. There will be no single formula for success.

But one way or another, change is coming to the field of education. And I know that if our teachers are at the table demanding that change and leading that change, the outcomes will be in the best interests of our children, our teachers, and our country.

...And now we are going to move to a discussion format. I would like to start by asking Maddie Fennel to stand up and be recognized.

Maddie is an extraordinary teacher and leader, who has devoted her life to serving children and a community that, all too often, does not have enough access to great talent like hers. Maddie, thank you for the example of commitment you set for all of us.

Maddie is not just a great teacher in the classroom. She has helped the NEA form a new vision for strengthening the profession across the country. I'd like to give the floor now to Maddie, and after that we can open up and have a conversation.