I have always looked out of my school system to influence education. Recently, when I became a #TeachStrong Ambassador, I realized I could look closer to home as well. Below is the long-version of an Op-Ed I wrote for Style Weekly concerning my local school system and poverty in our community. Particularly important is the necessity to unshackle teacher leaders as suggested by Barnett Berry in the paper Teacher leadership & deeper learning for all students in which he explains how accountability, innovative organizational design, and virtual learning communities can create the type of opportunities I describe.
Dear Dr. Bedden and Mayor Jones,
We have an opportunity. Lets figure out where we can agree.
In Richmond Public Schools we have pockets of excellence scattered across our school system. A couple great teachers here and there, a great school buoyed by overextended principals and teachers. We even get national recognition. We are doing great things. But, we are always slipping on half-measures. Initiatives half implemented, a forward thinking superintendent hobbled by half hearted funding, principals that implement professional development in name instead of deed. At the same time our students are facing the realities of poverty on a daily basis. In 2013 Mayor Jones launched an unprecedented strategic plan to eliminate poverty in Richmond. After bringing on Thad Williamson from the University of Richmond to lead the Office of Community Wealth Building there have been systemic changes although measurable advances are hard to find. In 2013 Voices for Virginia’s Children reported that 38% (14,649) of children in Richmond live in poverty. I personally know of one teacher with more than 4 homeless students in their class. This affects students’ ability to attend school, their ability to focus at school, and their likelihood of graduating on time. All of this combines to create a school system and community that is reaching for greatness while it scrambles not to sink in mediocrity or worse.
I think perhaps we could learn something from what is taking place on the national stage in education in this election year. I was recently invited by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to be a #TeachStrong ambassador. Somehow, the Center for American Progress has brought together over 40 organizations to figure out and boldly state what they agree on. We are talking some real diversity here including organizations like Teach for America to the United Federation of Teachers. While I am still not sure how such diverse and counter-intuitive partnerships will play out in the long term I am sure that momentum is on the side America’s children. What I have learned from the #TeachStrong effort so far is that contrary is not always opposing, which brings me to Richmond.
I want to suggest that we try a new idea here in Richmond. The new idea is to coordinate our efforts in a way that builds on our collective strengths as a community, directly and proactively address poverty, and create deeper learning for all students through taking the limits off of teacher leaders.
Mayor Dwight Jones’ Anti-Poverty Commission and Superintendent Dana Bedden’s cadre of teacher leaders lobbying for necessary school funding have an opportunity to form a coalition. I have seen how organizations like the University of Richmond, Communities in Schools, and Hope in the Cities are all working to end poverty in our city. Many Richmond Public Schools teacher leaders are on a similar mission. Perhaps we could agree on a set of principles to guide our work similar to those of TeachStrong (see infographic). In Richmond we could act on many of these principles right now as work to modernize and elevate the teaching profession. #TeachStrong recommendations are in bold font.
1 Identify and recruit more diverse teacher candidates with great potential to succeed, with a deliberate emphasis on diversifying the teacher workforce.
In Richmond Public Schools our teacher diversity does not reflect our student diversity. If RPS elected to support a Career and Technical Education certificate in education and human development we could recruit the next generation of teachers from students in our schools now. This work could be supported by the organization Educators Rising, which provides and empowering framework for teacher leaders to work towards creating a more diverse educational workforce and grow on our next generation of leaders.
2 Reimagine teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice and a professional knowledge base, with universal high standards for all candidates.
The work of the Center for Teacher Leadership and the Urban Teacher Residency program has established a network of accomplished urban teachers in our school system who are waiting for VCU students to arrive in their classrooms. However, there is not enough of them and the UTR program only supports placement of high needs areas. What if RPS office of professional development fully supported this effort by proactively recruiting from among its accomplished teachers and compensating them for their expertise.
3 Raise the bar for licensure so it is a meaningful measure of readiness to teach.
One step in this direction would be to make teacher candidates who have demonstrated success in urban teaching preferred candidates in our school system. This would require a more aggressive approach to recruitment on the part of RPS human resources. Sadly, as far as I have seen in Richmond over the past 20 years, HR is our weakest link, with bureaucracy and indecision leading to RPS getting left over candidates instead of those with with the strongest possibility for success.
4 Increase compensation in order to attract and reward teachers as professionals.
Adopting the proposed RPS budget that would adjust RPS salary levels to more accurately reflect the step system in place over the next two years would go a long way towards meeting this goal.
5 Provide support for new teachers through induction or residency programs.
As mentioned before, the structure is in place but there is not enough support from the school division. Opening our doors to the best teachers we can find is not a priority in RPS, it is another half-measure victim.
6 Ensure tenure is a meaningful signal of professional accomplishment.
This could be accomplished through establishing a formal peer review process that would provide recommendations to administration and the RPS school board regarding teacher ability. Many don’t realize that a peer review is already a step that can be taken on evaluation. A key to the reliability of this process would be video analysis of teaching, coaching, and peer review.
7 Provide significantly more time, tools, and support for teachers to succeed, through planning, collaboration, and development.
Last year Dr. Bedden increased the length of the school day. No one noticed or said anything. Not sure why this happened but, I know that the school day was not lengthened universally. Schools that serve more students in poverty have bus routes that are prioritized later than more affluent schools. This happened several years ago when I was at Carver. At the time our principal advocated for students to be on buses by 3:40. This still happens at Carver where most students are dismissed by 3:45. At other schools students often don’t leave until 4:15 or later. In extending the school day and requiring principals to conduct mandatory professional development (PD) I have a seen a decrease in the quality of learning on the job. Often principals are not necessarily the most knowledgeable educator in the building on particular subjects or teaching. Opportunities for teacher initiated professional development are limited and frowned upon. One recent effort by the VA-National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT) Network was not publicized in RPS because it was apparently not important enough for NBCTs to collaborate to strengthen teaching in VA. When our school had the opportunity for teacher leaders to take ownership of their PD there was professional growth as well as fellowship among our teachers. Teachers led productive meetings where everyone learned. However, this teacher powered approach is not universally supported in our school system.
8 Design professional learning to better address student and teacher needs, and to foster feedback and improvement.
Open up our PD to include teacher contribution to their schools and the community. This is where community growth and proactively addressing poverty could really happen. There are many educators in RPS concerned with addressing poverty. These educators could work collaboratively with the Mayor’s commission to design, implement, and evaluate programs to maximize how schools can work to end poverty. This could strengthen how our community understands curriculum and instruction as well as improve how non-academic programs, such as the nutrition services. Often well meaning interventions such as the new, offer vs. serve (OVS) approach to school lunch creates inequity for students living in poverty. My Head Start students are consistently under-nourished because they are only required to have three items on their lunch tray. For a preschool that is chicken nuggets, french fries, and milk. They do not choose the green vegetables or salads that they might prefer if they had been exposed to these foods. In the past we had “family-style) meals. This provided students the opportunity to choose to have additional portions of vegetables if they were still hungry. Although this option is still allowed under USDA guidelines it has been discontinued in our schools. Perhaps if anti-poverty advocates and teachers were involved in making these types of decisions my students wouldn’t be hungry each day. The key to this area of improvement is flexibility of time and expanding our ideas of where and how teachers can participate in service to the community.
9 Create career pathways that give teachers opportunities to lead and grow professionally.
Create a system where teachers can work within the school day to support our community and how it works to end poverty. Our ideas about what teachers are and can do is outdated. This is why mandatory professional development leads to ineffective and mis-spent time on outdated interventions. This is why teachers leave. Many teachers want to lead but they don’t want to be a principal. So, they look for opportunities elsewhere. Why not open up space for RPS teachers to partner with the Anti-poverty commision to end poverty through collaborative, focused, and sustained efforts.
Dr. Bedden and Mayor Jones we have an opportunity. It hinges on two ideas, The first: We are on the same team. We must combine our efforts. The second idea is we need to expand what we see as the role of teachers in our community. We need to trust in our teacher leaders and provide them flexibility to reach beyond their classroom walls with their expertise. We need to redefine professional development to include service to the community. Finally, we need to reprioritize decisions from the top down and the bottom up towards the goal of ending poverty in our city not just raising test scores or looking good on paper.
Dr. Bedden and Mayor Jones I challenge you to become #TeachStrong champions by working to create systems in our community to address poverty and support students.