Advice for the next president: Remember your ABCs

I was recently contacted by the good folks at Learning Matters, headed by John Merrow, to participate in their wonderful project to collect advice on improving education for the next U.S. President. Part of my comments can be heard on their website. Thought I’d share the full text of my remarks here.

Dear Mr. President:

I chose to live and teach in the Mississippi Delta. When my husband and I decided to relocate our family to this area where he grew up, we knew we were coming to a place of longstanding inequities. Fortunately, I also came to know the people in my community, my students, and my colleagues and learned that the Delta, like so many poor areas, is also a place of great potential.

By all currently existing measures, I have been a successful teacher of my students. Yet, I and many other successful teachers of high needs students have been made to feel worthless, treated as if we were incompetent. I know from my own experiences and from the research that a truly effective teacher makes all the difference for students, particularly those who have been labeled as “high-needs” or “at-risk.”

Effective teachers aren’t just energetic missionaries. We are accomplished, reflective, masterful professionals who (to borrow from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards) know our subjects, know our students, and know how to teach those subjects to our students. Effective teachers develop significant and lasting connections between our classrooms and the communities in which we teach. The parents in our communities know us and trust us with their children’s education. We’re not superpowered aliens who happened to land in a particular school, but hard-working professionals who have honed our craft the old-fashioned way. The good news is: There are more of us than anyone realizes, and we could be the rule, rather than the exception in public education.

High-needs schools are chronically understaffed. Schools such as the ones in which I have worked have a constant turnover of new, under-prepared teachers, most of whom leave the school in three years or less. Exit surveys of these teachers consistently reveal that their main reasons for leaving are lack of administrative support, followed by disciplinary problems, and low pay (in that order). Thus, the weakest students have the most unstable teaching force. Sending willing but unqualified or under-prepared teachers to such schools usually does more harm than good.

Meanwhile, those of us who have prove ourselves effective in these difficult settings are pressured to do more and more, including mentor these revolving-door space-fillers, all for the same pay and no additional time considerations. One way to attract and keep effective teachers in high needs schools is a well-designed performance pay plan that recognizes and rewards the kind of teaching we know works with our most challenging students in our most demanding schools. Imagine a pay system that is designed to encourage and proliferate quality teaching in every classroom, not one that simply rewards people for showing up.

How would it shake up the school financing formulas of most states if built into the system was a pay scale that provided salary gains to teachers for working together and using the best professional practices, rather than one that encourages isolation and rewards ineptitude? It would also help create a stable, critical mass of effective teachers within our neediest schools. Talk about a win-win situation.

Therefore, Mr. President, I encourage you to remember the ABCs:

Acknowledge those of us excellent, highly effective educators already working out here who have proved ourselves successful with all types of students including advanced, at-risk, the disabled.

Build educational policy upon and around the expertise of these highly effective educators. Start with what is working; figure out how to support and disseminate what they are doing for the benefit of the larger education community.

Change the compensation system (or encourage the states to do so). Reward, promote, and perpetuate excellence in the teaching profession.

One good step in the right direction would be to select a Secretary of Education who is or has been an accomplished teacher; someone who has had both feet in the classroom, and understands what it takes to do this job well.