World-Class Teachers and School Leaders

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World-Class Teachers and School Leaders

Secretary Duncan's Opening Remarks at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession

March 14, 2012

Thank you and welcome back to New York! We are delighted to co-host the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession with our outstanding partners and fellow participants.

We are thrilled to have such an extraordinary and unprecedented array of education ministers, union leaders, great teachers, school leaders, top researchers, and multinational leaders here today. We are eager to learn from the experiences of high-performing and rapidly-improving countries and regions about both their successes and their shared educational challenges.

I want to especially thank the conveners of the summit, which include OECD and Education International, in addition to our U.S. Department of Education.

Here in the U.S., our sponsoring partners include our two teachers' union organizations, the NEA and the AFT, and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Our sponsors also include the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Asia Society, and our local public television station, WNET. Our sponsors have been great partners in reform.

Before we start, I want to say that our hearts are breaking today for our Belgium colleagues and friends after last night's tragic school bus crash in which so many children and teachers lost their lives and were injured. Know that you are very much in our thoughts today.

Turning to this year's Summit, I'm pleased to report that last year's Summit, and the lessons learned from the practices of high-performing systems, has already had a big impact on our thinking in the United States.

We come to this work with real humility, coupled with a tremendous sense of urgency. The truth is that the U.S. has a great deal to learn from countries that are out-educating us. Today I want to give a brief progress report on the evolution of U.S. policy since last year's summit.

For U.S. leaders, the message of last year's summit was plain. High-performing countries provide more professional autonomy and accountability, more collaboration, and more high-quality preparation and professional development for teachers than we do in the U.S.

They do a better job of recruiting talented teachers and school leaders. And they do a better job of preparing, supporting, and retaining them in the classroom. As my good friend Randi Weingarten has said, other nations not only out-educate us, they out-prepare and out-respect us as well.

Unlike the U.S., high-performing countries typically pay teacher salaries that are much more competitive with other professions requiring a college degree and advanced certifications.

And unlike the U.S., high-performing systems offer teachers career ladders and opportunities for professional growth that do not require them to leave or abandon the classroom—the work they love most and do best. Teachers themselves have a real role in informing policy to drive better student outcomes.

Last, but not least, high-performers pursue all these practices in a deliberate, systemic way over a period of years—not through piecemeal policy changes in separate silos.

We heard that message and understand its significance. And it has powerfully helped shape a new, five billion dollar program to strengthen and elevate the teaching profession in America. With teaching morale low, and with a real need to recruit about one million more teachers into the profession over the next four to six years, we must take a challenging situation and use it as an opportunity to drive transformational change.

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. This is not tinkering at the margins, or incremental change.

The new program is called RESPECT. That acronym stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching.

Educational Success is all about improving student outcomes.

Professional Excellence means that we will promote continuously improving practice—and recognize, reward, and, most importantly, learn from great teachers and school leaders.

And Collaborative Teaching means that we will concentrate on shared responsibility. Successful collaboration means creating schools where principals and teachers work and learn together in communities of practice, hold each other accountable, and lift each other to new levels of skill and competence.

The RESPECT program has six elements to it. I won't run through all of them here, but I'll mention a few key elements.

RESPECT will support state and local efforts to attract top-tier talent into education and prepare them for success.

It will support creating a professional career continuum with competitive compensation.

It will support evaluating and strengthening the development of teachers and leaders.

And it will support getting the best educators to the students and communities who need them the most.

To my knowledge, an ambitious program like this, with the goal of fundamentally elevating the teaching profession, has never been tried before in the United States.

Let me emphasize that teachers themselves have had—and will continue to have—a major voice in shaping RESPECT. Our development of RESPECT has benefitted enormously from the input of Randi Weingarten, from Dennis Van Roekel's leadership, and from the groundbreaking, courageous work of the NEA's Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.

Our amazing team of Teaching Ambassador Fellows—active classroom teachers who spend a year at the U.S. Department of Education—have already held more than 100 roundtable meetings with teachers across the country.

In coming months, the department aims to hold roundtables and town halls for at least 5,000 teachers. I have personally met with hundreds and hundreds of teachers across the nation, and continue to be inspired by their vision and enthusiasm for what we can accomplish together.

The principal elements of RESPECT are clear—and clearly consistent with the practices of high-performing systems. We are very much looking to engage teachers in a national conversation about how to reshape and revamp America's teaching profession for the 21st century.

The near-term aim of RESPECT is to elevate teachers' voices in shaping federal, state, and local policy. Our long-term goal is to make teaching not just one of America's most important professions but one of its most respected professions.

Teachers, and the teaching profession, have been beaten down, and that must stop. I could not be more proud of our teachers' hard work and commitment, often in very challenging circumstances. I view our teachers, as so many of you do, as nation-builders—and we must treat them as such.

With respect to this year's Summit, I am excited to see that we will be addressing how to improve teacher preparation and better develop school leaders.

To be honest, these are not strengths of the U.S. educational system. We have a tremendous amount to gain from studying effective teacher and principal preparation programs and effective professional development from high-performing countries and regions.

There are a number of exemplary preparation programs in the U.S., and the field is showing promising signs of reform and progress. But we desperately need high-quality preparation programs to be the norm in the U.S. today, not a hit-and-miss proposition.

I have yet to find a high-performing school that didn't have a strong principal at its helm and talented teachers in its classrooms.

We all know that talent matters tremendously in education. There are no critical classroom reforms that are teacher-proof or principal-proof. Yet in the U.S. we often act as though talent doesn't matter.

I have spoken out very publicly about the shortcomings of teacher preparation and principal preparation programs in the U.S. And I am not alone in offering that critique.

Virtually every analysis of our preparation programs, including studies by deans of our education schools, and by AFT and NEA, concludes that we do at best a mediocre job of preparing teachers and school leaders.

And when we listen, teachers and school leaders themselves say much the same thing. Sixty-two percent of young teachers in America report that their training did not prepare them adequately for working in the classroom. And 70 percent of U.S. principals report that traditional leadership programs are "out of touch with the realities of what it takes to run today's schools." This is the brutal reality we must face.

Unfortunately, our record for delivering high-quality professional development is equally spotty. At the federal level, we distribute $3.3 billion to states and districts each year to spend on professional development. When I talk to teachers, I always ask them: "How much is that money improving your job or providing for your development?" They usually either laugh or cry in response—because they are not feeling that $3.3 billion investment is helping them hone their skills.

Many high-performing countries do a much better job than the U.S. of articulating real career ladders, from novice to master teachers.

To cite one example, a number of high-performing systems refuse to let new teachers sink or swim in the classroom as we sometimes do in America. In Japan and Finland, novice teachers spent at least a full year teaching under the supervision of a master teacher.

In Shanghai, new teachers are supervised by master teachers during their first year in the classroom—and master teachers often observe every lesson taught by the new instructor and provide extensive coaching.

In a time of extraordinarily tight state budgets, as all of us fight for additional resources, we also have to be honest about investments that are not effective. We have to invest in professional development that really helps teachers master their craft. In most places in the U.S., we are not even close to reaching that goal.

In the 21st century, the role of school leaders has also changed dramatically. In decades past, principals were thought of as building managers and supervisors of operations. That is no longer the case in the U.S.

Today, the job of a principal is to be, first and foremost, an instructional leader, not just a supervisor. Top-flight school leaders are much more like lead teachers and even CEOs than building managers.

They are responsible for building a school culture focused on learning and high expectations. They are responsible for hiring good instructors, distributing leadership, providing quality professional development, and evaluating teachers.

Great school leaders nurture, retain, and empower great teachers—bad school leaders drive them off and are threatened by them.

As the OECD background paper prepared for the Summit makes clear, the status of the teaching profession is not a fixed attribute of culture. It can be elevated substantially—and not at a glacial pace—through sustained government policy in countries as diverse as Finland, China, and Singapore.

That is an enormously encouraging finding—and, for all our challenges, one that gives us real hope for what we can accomplish.

Eleven years ago, elementary school students in Hong Kong ranked 17th in the world in reading literacy assessments and primary school students in Singapore ranked 15th. Just five years later, they ranked 2nd and 4th, respectively.

Shanghai's students currently have the highest PISA scores in the world—and I think America has a lot to learn from Shanghai's educators. But that high performance is not simply due to a traditional Confucian reverence for education.

At one point, China closed down its universities for more than a quarter century. But in the years since 1980, when Chinese universities started again offering degrees, China has successfully rebuilt its education system. Policy matters.

One final encouraging lesson to emerge from last year's Summit is that many high-performing countries are evolving in similar directions—and pursuing similar policies to improve performance.

A shared theme at last year's Summit was that student outcomes and data matter. We cannot return to the days when educational policy was primarily propelled by inputs, instead of by outcomes. In the knowledge-based, global economy, student learning and student growth are the ultimate barometers of success. Children are our first and foremost responsibility.

To be on track on track today for college and careers, students need the 21st century skills that are so vital to success in the global economy. They need to show that they can analyze and solve complex problem, communicate clearly, synthesize information, apply knowledge, and generalize learning to other settings. High-performing nations may differ on how they assess learning and the acquisition of 21st century skills. Yet virtually every top performer is intensively using data in one form or another to enhance instruction at the classroom level, and to monitor and improve performance.

As the OECD Background report for this Summit states, two out of three OECD countries give students periodic standardized assessments to develop information on student performance.

Just under half of OECD countries even give very high-stake exams at critical educational gateways that can affect students' secondary and post-secondary educational opportunities, including their chance to go to college.

Assessment data is used not just at the national level but in individual schools and classrooms.

The survey results of school leaders in the background report for the Summit show that in three out of four OECD nations, school leaders report that they often "use student performance results to develop the school's educational goals" during the school year.

School leaders also use assessment results to shape curriculum. Principals in three out of five OECD countries say that they often "take exam results into accounts in decision regarding curriculum development." In high-performing regions like Hong Kong and Singapore, nearly 100 percent of principals regularly use exam results to help inform decisions about curriculum.

Now, while last year's Summit highlighted common cornerstones of world-class education systems, it also highlighted that there are a number of different roads and no single path to becoming a high-performing system.

The OECD survey of school leaders suggests, for example, that school leaders in Finland and South Korea play different roles in a number of key respects in their schools, even though both nations are top-performing systems.

I would only add that a number of high-performing systems are on a much smaller scale than the United States. That doesn't mean that their successful practices are not relevant to the U.S. experience—far from it.

The implication is rather that these practices have to be adapted to fit America's unique governance structure and traditions—just as would be the case in other nations. In some instances, successful models from Singapore, Ottawa, Hong Kong, or Finland can be adopted at equivalent scale—in the U.S., at the state or district level.

So, I am very much looking forward to the discussions here today and tomorrow. If we are honest with ourselves, I think we can acknowledge that many high-performing and rapidly-improving education systems continue to face a number of common challenges to which solutions have often proved elusive. No one has all the answers.

Many countries are facing serious challenges of recruiting and retaining top-notch talent in the teaching profession, particularly in shortage areas. During the 2009 PISA assessment, nearly 20 percent of 15-year olds were enrolled in schools where school leaders reported that a lack of qualified mathematics or science teachers was hindering instruction.

Many countries similarly struggle with how to prepare top-notch school leaders and top-notch teachers. Throughout the world, most teachers report that they lack incentives to innovate in the classroom. And most governments under-invest in educational research.

I am absolutely convinced that education leaders can best address these shared challenges, and can better boost student learning, by working together and sharing best practices, instead of by working alone, in isolation.

And I am convinced that these stubborn challenges can best be met through tough-minded collaboration rather than through tough-minded confrontation.

President Obama and I both believe that we must tackle these challenges with our teacher unions working as strong partners with us. That is the only way for real change to grow roots and take hold in our nation's classrooms.

Unlike some international meetings, this Summit is not designed as a forum for speechmaking. This is not the place to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

I hope the discussions today and tomorrow will be thoughtful and thought-provoking. But I also hope that they will generate frank conversation among counties. I hope the Summit will provide everyone with some smart takeaway ideas when you return to your countries and organizations of origin.

So, welcome back to New York. I look forward to learning and sharing with all of you during the next two days. You honor us with your presence. And your gift to us of your time and energy means more to us than you can know.