Duncan’s RESPECT for teachers: Will the policy match the rhetoric?

On Wednesday, February 15th, I listened live to Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, launch the RESPECT initative at a town hall in Washington, D.C.  If you missed it, check it out:

According to Secretary Duncan, RESPECT is an acronym that stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching. I liked what he had to say:

“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.”

I agree. I remember my first few years in the classroom. I was not prepared to deal with the murder of one of my students the day before children returned from winter break. I knew how to plan a lesson and a unit, but when my students asked, “Why do we have to learn this?” I was stumped. At the same time, I now see first-year teachers working, isolated in their rooms, after only receiving a five-week boot camp from Teach for America or the New Teacher Project. I see them struggle, trying to make up for too little training with far too many 12-hour work days.

Secretary Duncan went on to say:

“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.”

Again, I found myself agreeing. I’m reading Finnish Lessons right now. It’s the first major book in English to explore how and why Finland became the international darling of the PISA assessment. This fall, I’m going on a study tour of Finland with PDK International. I’m noticing that Finland, one of the “high-performing nations” the Secretary is talking about, sets a high bar for becoming a teacher. There, teaching is a well-respected and honored career, on the same level as medicine and law.

It is very difficult for students to earn a spot in one of the education departments in Finnish universities. Many young people choose teaching as their dream job, and often ten applicants vie for each open spot in the teacher-training program. Teachers are not better paid there than in the USA. Instead, teachers in Finland are trusted. There are no annual state-mandated exams looming over Finnish teachers’ shoulders like here in America. Instead, they trust their teachers to do their jobs. In return, Finnish teachers embrace their responsibility.

I hope the education policy that comes after Secretary Duncan’s speech follows it in tone as well as in time. In anticipation, let me offer Secretary Duncan these tips:

  • Raise the bar for becoming a teacher. If we control the quality of teachers, we won’t have to worry so much about the quality of teaching.
  • Train our teachers better. Teachers need two to three years of training, not five weeks. Teachers should go through a rigorous, research-based, and practical master’s program before they are allowed to work unsupervised with children.
  • Experienced teachers need avenues to pursue school, district, state, and national educational leadership without having to sacrifice working in the classroom. Education policy will make a lot more sense when more educators are helping to draft it.
  • It’s good to have a test to see how schools are doing, However, we don’t need to test every kid. Let me say that again. We don’t need to test every kid. We can have a much better exam (like the PISA) for a LOT less money, if we just embrace the idea of testing a statistical sample of our children. We don’t test every drop of water to see if the water is pure. We don’t eat all of the soup to see if the soup is ready. Let’s use a little common sense, and the scientific method, when we asses our schools and students.

Finally, let me say this.  I hope the folks who drafted Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers were watching this speech. I hope that the policy I soon see about the RESPECT initative actually matches the rhetoric I heard the other day.