Sunday, February 19, 2012

Coming to a computer near you: A National Conversation on Teaching

Secretary Arne Duncan announced a new initiative Wednesday--and a new acronym: R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (Kinda makes you want to sing, doesn't it?)

RESPECT stands for Recognizing Education Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching.

He wants to "spark a dialogue that results in strong policy and a sustainable transformation to the teaching profession."

If we can get some, (respect, that is) I'm all for it.  It has been a brutal two years to be a classroom teacher.  And "joy comes well in such a needy time."

Duncan and Obama have entered a $5 billion grant program in the current budget proposal to "support states and districts that commit to bold reforms at every stage of the teaching profession."  In his remarks, Duncan commented on the need to include teacher voices in policymaking, the need to compensate, train, and support teachers as professionals, the need to fix a dysfunctional system.

As a member of the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, I was invited to be in the room when the announcement was made.  Duncan said all the right things about the need to elevate teaching as a profession, as far as I was concerned, because--as he himself stated--"we did just copy your report" Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning.

So why has it taken me four days to compose a blog?

Duncan made his remarks Wednesday.  On Thursday he appeared on The Daily Show and slipped back into the same rhetoric of his Race to the Top program and barely a peep was made about transforming teaching into the profession it needs to be in order to reform every classroom in America.  His RttT program has worked amazingly well.  Schools and districts all over the nation are currently revamping programs to evaluate teaching in order to qualify for the grants under this program.  But the emphasis has been on measuring tools tied to testing.

In terms of getting people to make sweeping changes RttT has worked.  But is it good for kids?

Not if teacher evaluation rests on a program where students are repeatedly tested in order to determine how well a teacher is doing.  This is precisely the wrong direction.  And it is a direction he did not back off of in his remarks to Jon Stewart.

It was a big low after the high of Wednesday's meeting.

And what about the $5 billion in potential grants?

In the past, when grant dollars are offered they can inspire much change (just look at RttT). But as soon as the next guy rolls into office, programs fall apart and teachers are left holding the shreds of the "change dujour," a familiar landscape for veteran teachers--one unsustainable initiative follows another.

This is why the entire system needs to be revamped.  Change needs to be sustainable and ongoing and at the classroom level. And it will be, when continual learning and peer evaluation is embedded in the job of the classroom teacher.

Still, I find much to celebrate in this announcement.  

Ten years ago no one was advocating for a teaching profession.  A state union representative once told me that "there's a lot of problems" with that model.

That isn't happening now.  All concerned education groups are arriving at the same conclusion: teaching needs to be elevated.  And now we have a national leader taking up the language.  What form that action takes remains to be seen.

So, what to do?

I have chosen to embrace, and then follow closely, this new language.  As has been seen with RttT, the grant money does put a fire under some.  If it enjoins teacher leaders in reshaping the profession, then the vision will have been moved to another level.

But it is easy to give lip-service to a new, bold idea--especially on the cusp of an important election.

It is quite another to follow lip-service with policy.  But loud groups can make this happen (Yes, We Can.)

Teachers--you have a job to do.  If ever there were a need for the Sleeping Giant to awaken it is now.
We need to simultaneously work toward a teacher-led, teacher-controlled profession while we continue to point out the narrow constraints of defining our work through more and more student assessments.

The window is opening just a crack.  Climb through and bring your friends.  Sit on committees where teacher evaluation is being discussed and help create documents that engage teachers in the work of improvement--and away from student testing.  Talk with your representatives.  Explain your position to parents. Share the realities of your job and the impact of policy on student learning with the public.  Engage your peers.

And when the call comes for the National Conversation, pick up the phone and speak your mind.

ADDENDUM:  Here is a document where you can send your view of the teacher RESPECT program.  Within the document is a link to the ED's RESPECT Narrative.