They describe a world so incredible that it's difficult to visualize, at least here in South Carolina. Educators governing education? People whose passions and preparations are rooted in a desire to educate children, allowed to create and implement the system of education in our state?
Dare to dream.
"Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them 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." —President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, Jan. 24, 2012.
President Obama said in his State of the Union address to Congress what many teachers in America have been yearning to hear from their president: Teachers matter, we change lives, and we do this hard work to make a difference in the lives of students.
He also acknowledged what every good teacher knows: that an accountability system that puts too much emphasis on test scores undermines a well-rounded education. But implicit in his speech was a challenge to America and to teachers to rebuild and strengthen the profession—a challenge that teachers are more than eager to accept.
As 2011-12 U.S. Department of Education teaching ambassador fellows, we have heard from many teachers that the field has lost its luster. In our role as teaching ambassadors, we have met with a wide cross-section of teachers in town halls and smaller discussion groups across the country. In these conversations, we have heard real despondency over the constraints of the No Child Left Behind Act that have caused schools to focus on testing and teacher evaluation in ways that are oppressive and rob our profession of much of the joy of teaching and learning.
We've listened to countless stories about a law that has raised standards without providing support for schools to meet them. And we have cringed when some of our most effective colleagues acknowledged that they can no longer afford to stay in a difficult profession that asks so much of them but barely affords a middle-class lifestyle. "We didn't get into teaching to be millionaires," they say, "but we have to be able to feed our families."
What we like about the president's speech is not that he acknowledges our grievances, though, admittedly, it feels good to be heard. What appeals to us is that President Obama understands that as a country we must do much more than simply tweak a structure that is not working. Educators want to lead the transformation and rebuilding of teaching so that our work improves students' lives and restores pride in our profession.
Teachers welcome this transformation. Neither students nor teachers are served by a structure that treats some teachers like interchangeable cogs in a machine. We long to lead our own profession because when we drive our craft, we will see huge shifts in responsibility, leadership, pay, and respect for us. As National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel describes in the NEA's "action agenda to strengthen teaching," issued in December, "I see this as the essence of a true profession: putting teachers in charge of the quality of their profession."
What would teachers do if they ran the schools? We would raise the bar for membership in our profession, recruiting the best candidates and insisting that teacher-preparation programs become more rigorous and relevant. About 62 percent of all new teachers—almost two-thirds—report they felt unprepared for the realities of their classrooms. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, "Imagine what our country would do if 62 percent of our doctors felt unprepared to practice medicine—you would have a revolution in our medical schools."
A transformed profession would give teachers much more responsibility and flexibility to make decisions that meet their students' educational needs—allowing access to and training with technology, shifting class sizes, and restructuring the school day so that they have time to collaborate with colleagues and engage in professional learning and problem-solving.
"Educators want to lead the transformation and rebuilding of teaching so that our work improves students' lives and restores pride in our profession."
We would offer teachers a professional salary and career pathways that acknowledge their skill and commitment in one of the most complex, demanding, and important jobs in the world. We would insist on great school leaders, with principals who have high expectations; develop all teachers as lifelong learners; and create positive school cultures where students and teachers succeed.
As President Obama acknowledged, teachers are creative and passionate. But like workers in many other professions, we expect to be held accountable for results. We yearn to help create fair and thorough teacher-evaluation systems and have access to data to make informed decisions about what is working and what isn't, to direct our professional learning, and to help decide who stays in our profession. The president was right when he said, "That is a bargain worth making."
Now more than ever, teachers long to lead their profession so that we finally resolve the important educational challenges in this country. A quarter of our children fail to finish high school on time, and barely four in 10 earn any type of postsecondary degree. For children of color, outcomes are even worse. When we see the statistics—that 7,000 students drop out of school every day—we feel pain for those teens and shame and guilt that we were not able to prevent this tragedy.
On top of that, school districts are getting ready to slam into an awful reality, that before the end of the decade, more than a million baby-boomer teachers—fully a third of America's teachers—will retire or leave the teaching profession. To recruit and retain the best teachers, we need to offer rewarding jobs and competitive salaries.
We were especially pleased to read, in the recently released "Blueprint for an America Built to Last," that the president plans to ask Congress for funding that will "challenge states and districts to work with their teachers and unions to reform the entire teaching profession—from training and licensing to compensation, career ladders, and tenure."
Educators want to take on this work. As highly skilled specialists, we are not afraid of owning our profession. We are not afraid of being held accountable for results when we are given the responsibility and flexibility to craft our profession. We are confident that the president understands what it will take to transform teaching to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and we are eager to join with our colleagues across the country in moving the profession forward.
The authors are 2011-12 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellows; participants in the program must be practicing teachers with a minimum of five years' experience and demonstrated leadership. Geneviève DeBose, a 5th and 6th grade teacher from the Bronx Charter School for the Arts, in New York City, works on middle school reform in the Office of the Secretary. Claire Jellinek, an 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher from South Valley Academy Charter High School in Albuquerque, N.M., works on issues related to educational technology and international education in the Office of the Secretary. Gregory Mullenholz, a staff-development teacher at Twinbrook Elementary in Rockville, Md., works on teacher-quality issues in the Office of the Secretary. Shakera Walker, a kindergarten teacher in the Young Achievers Science and Math School in Boston, works for the department's early-learning initiatives. Maryann Woods-Murphy, a Spanish teacher at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Bergen County, N.J., works on labor-management issues in the Office of the Secretary. This Commentary also appears on the ed.gov website.