Below is a transcript of Arne Duncan’s speech, followed by a teacher panel discussion regarding Teach to Lead at the 2014 Teaching and Learning Conference.
Thanks, Ron [Thorpe] for that warm introduction and for all of your leadership. Congratulations on what has become one of the most dynamic discussions of teaching anywhere. You’ll be very relieved to know that unlike some of your other speakers, I will not be singing a capella, sharing my views on Abraham Lincoln, or putting a new operating system on your computer.
I have really been looking forward both to talking with this group, and to the conversation organized by my good friend Maddie Fennell — who is a leader for the Teachers of the Year, for the NEA, and for our Department, as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow — and a National Board candidate.
For me, this is one of the most important conversations of the year.
The truth is, I’ve been looking forward to this discussion, even though I know some teachers — including some here today — are frustrated with some of my administration’s policies. I know there are some differences of opinion about the changes now under way in schools, and in fact, that’s part of what I want to talk about today.
I am convinced that the profound changes schools are undergoing now will bring enormous benefits for students, and allow teachers to do more of what they love. But in all humility, to get to that place, I need to ask all of you for your help, and I’m determined to do my part to support you. Not through rhetoric and aspiration, but through some concrete steps that I’ll lay out today.
Let’s start with where we stand.
A series of changes — in raising standards, in assessment of student learning, in systems for support and evaluation of educators — is changing classrooms pretty much everywhere.
It’s great that a large majority of educators have voiced their support, over the past couple of years, for state-led efforts to raise learning standards. Almost no one wants to return to dumbing things down and lying to children. But other parts have been harder.
A lot of teachers, and principals, have said that they feel off-balance getting up to speed with these new systems — and haven’t had the support they need and deserve. We know that no-stakes dry run of the new assessments, which will begin over the next few weeks, will be hard and choppy — and that’s exactly the point of a dry run — to get the kinks out.
Now, where folks have been immersed in this change for a while, and where teachers have received good preparation and support, and where they helped lead the change — there is enthusiasm for the direction we’re headed in. Take Andrew Vega, a teacher I visited earlier this week at an amazing turnaround school in Boston, Orchard Gardens. He had a transition that was really rough at first, but has become a huge opportunity for both him and his students. In an article he wrote about his experience, he said he is now — and I quote — “a better — and happier — teacher than I’ve ever been.”
Visiting four Boston-area schools earlier this week, that was a sentiment that I heard fairly frequently from teachers — significant early worry, evolving over time to a sense that their students, their schools, and their practice are in a much better place.
But it’s absolutely clear that a lot of teachers want more time, more resources and more information. Teachers, and parents, have also expressed dismay about testing taking up too much classroom time. Finally, a lot of teachers are frustrated — and maybe that’s a gentle word — about plans that will hold them accountable for tests attached to new, career- and college-ready standards before they feel they have mastered them.
In the midst of those very real challenges, all of you — America’s teachers and school leaders — have accomplished some remarkable, remarkable things. The nation’s high school graduation rate today stands at 80 percent — the highest in our history. That progress has been led by African-American and Hispanic students, often living in communities that — for too long in our nation’s history — were denied real educational opportunity. Closing those insidious opportunity gaps is what fuels the passion of so many of us — and we are making progress. Dropout rates are at historic lows — with minority and low-income students accounting for much of the improvement. College-going rates are up sharply for our students of color.
That’s huge, and the credit for that progress goes to you, your students and their families.
We all know that, for all these improvements, we still have a lot further to go. I always try to make sure people know both sides of the story — the enormous progress and the very serious and urgent work ahead, to close achievement gaps and keep up with our international competitors, and give our children a real chance in life.
But I’m not sure people pay enough attention to the progress that you have worked hard to achieve.
And one of the things that troubles me most is that in the midst of these huge changes, you — the people who are carrying out that change — haven’t felt like you’ve had a voice. Or — just as concerning — that the only way to have a say in the direction of education, was to stop teaching children — stop doing what you love most and move out of the classroom and into administration.
According to a new poll, 69 percent of teachers feel their voices are heard in their school, but only a third feel heard in their district, 5 percent in their state, and 2 percent at the national level.
That’s unacceptable — and it’s time to change that.
There’s only one way the big, important, difficult changes now under way in schools are going to truly pay off for kids — and that’s with your leadership.
I know that may be a strange message for some to hear — especially if there are parts of this change you disagree with.
But it’s true. So many teachers have told me they want to build classrooms that serve students better, through more inquiry, greater creativity, and deep and inspiring relationships. Ultimately, the changes now under way will give teachers more room and support to do that. In the places where this transition is well along, you can literally see it happening. I saw it this week in Boston and Worcester.
But the only way that higher standards, and new systems of support and evaluation, will work, is if teachers lead this change in partnership and collaboration with principals, parents and communities. That’s what I saw in Reading, Massachusetts — teacher leadership in action, middle and high school teachers all working together, owning this transition.
Federal, state, and local leaders can’t make this change easy. But we can support your leadership, whether that means having a stronger voice in policy, or a stronger role in guiding your profession and your newer colleagues.
I’ve heard from so many teachers who are tired of the heartbreaking choice between serving their students and serving their profession. I’d like to quote from one teacher, who was asked in a job interview where she wanted to be in five years. She answered that her dream was to remain in the classroom, but then wondered whether that answer actually hurt her, because it is, and I quote, “assumed that experience, innovation, and talent [mean] moving OUT of the classroom. I want a school where talent, experience, and innovation mean … opportunities to lead from the classroom.”
I’ll borrow a phrase from Orchard Gardens’ Andrew Vega: teacher leadership must be a force for changing education — not a result of it.
[The Teach to Lead initiative]
That’s why I’ve asked my good friend Ron Thorpe and the National Board to join me in convening an effort that will raise the visibility of teacher leadership throughout our nation.
Teachers have spoken eloquently about how important it is to have a voice in what happens in their schools and their profession — without leaving the classroom.
That’s what Erin Dukeshire is doing. She’s a science teacher, also at Orchard Gardens, which until recently was one of the lowest-performing schools , not just in Boston, but in the entire state of Massachusetts. An arts-focused turnaround there has brought huge gains over the past couple of years — seeing students learn two-digit multiplication by doing the salsa was amazing. Erin helped pilot a national initiative called Turnaround Teacher Team, or T3 — a teacher-developed effort to improve low-performing schools. And she only decided to take her passion and talents to this historically struggling school because of that leadership opportunity. We need to make that experience the norm, not the exception. We need to attract and retain the best teacher talent in the communities that need it most — and authentic leadership opportunities help us do just that.
Two more examples:
Matthew Courtney is an NEA Teach Plus fellow and union leader. Seeing a need for high-quality professional development in Kentucky, he divides his time between teaching and running the Bluegrass Center for Teacher Quality.
Finally, Katie Herring is a first-grade teacher on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, which I visited in 2011. She co-led an effort to establish parent universities and to organize parent-student teams that made recommendations for improvement at their school. Reflecting on that experience, she said, “Now that I see how powerful our collective voice can be from inside the classroom, I can’t leave it.”
These teachers — and thousands more like them — are proving that their leadership matters — not just because it’s good for the profession, but also because it helps the children they care about so much. Tennessee, as it raised standards, had the foresight and vision to ask its teachers to lead the effort, rather than high-priced outside consultants. And 700 teachers stepped up to train 30,000 of their colleagues on new, higher standards. The result? Research showed a real payoff, as measured by both observations and student achievement. This is about both strengthening the profession and serving kids better. Tennessee, not coincidentally, is not just getting better — it is the fastest improving state in the nation.
That’s why Ron and I are working together on an initiative called Teach to Lead. Our aim is to encourage schools and districts, and hopefully even states, all over the country to provide more opportunities for genuine, authentic teacher leadership that don’t require giving up a daily role in the classroom. And because this only works if superintendents and principals see it as part of the solution, they’ll be involved from the start.
We will convene a group of teachers, principals, state Chiefs, teachers’ groups and district leaders, among others. This group will take the steps necessary not to create white papers to decorate shelves — but to foster real-world commitments on teacher leadership. This group will announce significant commitments from districts, teachers’ groups, and others who want to be part of the solution to make teacher leadership real at scale — using the ample existing body of work on this as a springboard for action. And I want you to hold us accountable at this event, a year from now, for what we’ve been able to accomplish.
The timeline will be short, but fortunately, our effort builds on years of great work. Thanks to leadership from my friend Dennis van Roekel and NEA’s Teacher Leadership Initiative, thanks to Randi Weingarten and AFT’s Raise the Bar, thanks to the thousands of teachers and principals who helped build our RESPECT effort, and thanks to great work in this area that the National Board has led, we are starting from a position of strength. There are great examples of places where teacher leadership opportunities are already real — from here in D.C. to Iowa to Denver to Charlotte, North Carolina. There are just far too few of them.
Teacher leadership means having a voice in the policies and decisions that affect your students, your daily work, and the shape of your profession. It means guiding the growth of your colleagues. It means that teaching can’t be a one-size-fits-all job — that there must be different paths based on different interests, and you don’t have to end up with the same job description that you started with. It means sharing in decisions that used to be only made by administrators — and the best administrators know they’ll make better decisions when they listen to teachers.
Surveys show that nearly a quarter of teachers are very interested in hybrid roles that involve work both inside and outside the classroom. They also show that a lot of teachers are moving out of classroom roles because they need to, not because they want to. This is a stunning statistic: in a survey in one district, 59 percent of administrators said they would have stayed in the classroom if they could have received the same compensation.
Ultimately, it’ll be up to all the folks involved to define what powerful, ambitious commitments look like — this effort must be shaped by teachers. Hopefully, many of you will join us. So you’ll be hearing more about this as it develops. But I can tell you what teacher leadership doesn’t mean: clerical or administrative work with a pretty title, counting books or setting schedules. It’s not about managing projects and initiatives in which you had no say. It’s not about a rubber stamp to ideas that have already been decided. It’s about your voice, your vision, in the life of your school, the work of your school system, and the shape of your profession.
The hallmarks of a profession — think of law, medicine, architecture — go beyond the standards it holds for itself, the rigor of training and the competitiveness of joining the profession. In a strong profession, members are recognized as experts and leaders in matters of policy. That needs to happen much more in teaching.
Supporting teacher leadership has costs, and I want to make sure that our Department is continuing to be part of the solution. I am asking our team to make supporting teacher leadership a focus in all relevant funds, and to make sure we can build authentic teacher leadership into everything we do. We will also get information to states and districts how those funds can be used to support teacher leaders.
There are steps districts can take, as well, to offset costs. For example, districts could follow Tennessee’s example and hire their own great teachers, rather than outsiders, to lead professional development — today, that’s costing schools thousands of dollars per teacher per year. Sarah Brown Wessling — who’s on our panel — teaches three high school English classes and supports PD for her district. That’s a model to think about.
This new partnership with the National Board builds on another great connection: the TEACH campaign, a national effort to raise the profile and perception of the profession, particularly among young people, and to recruit the next generation of top talent into our nation’s classrooms. We’re thrilled to have as partners the Ad Council, the NEA, AFT, Teach For America, UNCF, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and others.
In conversations over the next few weeks with the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Council of the Great City Schools, and others, I’m going to urge state and local leaders to join our new effort on teacher leadership.
At our Department, practitioners spend a year working as Teacher Ambassador Fellows — and now also Principal Ambassador Fellows. They are extraordinary educators, and we are fortunate that they advise us, and talk with others about our initiatives — and they are heard on important policy decisions. I’m going to ask other policy makers to consider similar approaches, so teachers and principals sit at the policy table.
And I want to act on other concerns that I have heard many teachers express.
On over-testing: I know that there are places where testing has gotten out of hand. We absolutely need to know how students are doing; teachers and schools need to assess student progress thoughtfully; nobody seriously disagrees with that. But too many school systems have allowed unnecessary and redundant tests to be layered on. I should also be really clear that my administration has added exactly zero new tests to what was required when we came into office.
I also recognize that a lot of teacher frustration surrounds the current standardized tests — and we’re going to see real changes there. As assessments become woven into the learning process, I believe the day is not far off when bubble tests will seem as old-school and outdated as vinyl records and payphones.
We’re already seeing first steps in that direction. This year, some students in most states will take the field test attached to new, higher standards — a no-stakes dry run. There will be bumps for sure — technical problems and bad test items — but that’s the point — that’s why there’s a dry run. It’s the beginning of the end for the bubble test.
I also take really seriously the questions about timing of accountability attached to the new standards. Several months ago — after multiple discussions with many teachers, including our own Teacher Ambassador Fellows — we moved to provide an additional year to states that demonstrated a real need for that extra time, and to avoid double-testing students. I know that this will remain an area of disagreement for some, and I appreciate the hard work of the National Board on measures of student progress.
There’s a lot more that our administration is doing, under the President’s leadership, that will have a major impact on teachers and on the lives of students. Our agenda stretches from cradle to career. We’re traveling the country and working as hard as we can to make high-quality preschool accessible to every family, and to provide intensive support to children and families in places with high poverty and big achievement gaps. Allowing every child to have access to high-quality early learning opportunities may be the best gift we can give to children, families and our country — not just over the next three years, but over the next three decades.
We have a plan to make high-speed broadband available to nearly every school — to better empower teachers and enable students in their own leadership. We’ve doubled the federal investment in Pell Grants, supporting an additional three million students, and are working to make college more affordable. We have been able to increase the number of Pell grant recipients from about 6 million to 9 million — many first-generation college goers, whose life chances you helped to transform. We also directly support great teaching in several ways, including $2 billion annually that states can use to recruit, prepare, develop and retain great teachers. Quite frankly, I’m not convinced that many states use those resources wisely or effectively to help teachers improve their craft — I’d love you to help shape those strategies back home.
But I want to stay on teacher leadership.
I’m glad to know that — for all the challenges and difficulties of the current moment — the inherent rewards of teaching are enormous. Four out of five teachers report being “satisfied” or “very satisfied” in their profession, and a Gallup poll last year found that teachers rank second only to doctors in well-being.
But the changes now happening represent an opportunity to strengthen teaching profoundly, in ways that not only benefit students, but enable teachers to do more of what they love.
Teaching will change, too, as the nation’s understanding deepens about the critically important factors that may be just as important to student success as reading and math skills — factors like grit, perseverance, resilience, and confidence.
The role of teachers in leading through this change isn’t a nicety — it’s a necessity. Teachers must shape what teaching will become.
The great news is, the classroom this generation’s kids need is the one that so many of you have said you want to create. That means — as many of you have said — classrooms that inspire and support children to become not just masters of knowledge, but powerful thinkers.
It’s about empowering students to thrive in an innovation-focused world where the best jobs, as Tom Friedman has said, might be those they invent.
I’m a public school parent, of 10- and 12-year-old kids, and the classrooms my wife and I want for our kids are the same kinds of classrooms you envision. Classrooms that aren’t about lecturing and listening, but about inquiry and invention, acting out a constitutional convention or piloting a flight simulator — teaching that pushes kids to be active thinkers and participants in their learning.
I’m immensely optimistic that the changes happening today will enable teachers to make that kind of experience a reality for more children. I believe — because I’ve heard it from teachers — that the next stage is about unprecedented opportunities to innovate, to be creative, to focus on critical thinking and problem solving — the exact things that teachers tell me brought them into this profession.
It’s a sea-change that many teachers have long hungered for. As one teacher put it, it’s about interactions between teacher and student that “challenge students and foster a sense of joy,” or, as another teacher said, build a “learning lab fueled by curiosity and passion.”
It’s about lifting up great teaching so that every child has the kind of opportunity that will give her a good chance in life. It’s what President Obama meant when he said, in the last State of the Union:
“Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.”
The moment for teacher leadership is now.
The change happening today won’t ever be easy. You may not agree with every part of it. But for the sake of your kids, and for your profession, this change needs your leadership.
So, I humbly ask: lead this change, now, for the good of your profession, and for the good of America’s children. I promise my support.
Thank you, and let’s turn now to the conversation.
ARNE DUNCAN: I’d now like to welcome Maddie Fennel to the stage. As you might know, I sort of think Maddie walks on water. She’s taught for 24 years in the Omaha public schools, which has been very supportive of her as a true teacher leader. Maddie’s work first came to my attention when she chaired the NEA’s commission on effective teaching and teachers, which issued a report in twenty-eleven that hugely shaped our own work at the U.S. Department of Education on our RESPECT initiative. If those two reports looks similar they should, because we intentionally stole many of Maddie’s great ideas. Then in 2012 she joined me as a part of the United States delegation to the Second International Summit on the teaching profession. Because she’s not busy enough, she started a new leadership role as a literacy coach this year and she’s also, as I said, a National Board candidate. So, as you can imagine, I’m pretty proud to have recruited her to our team as a 2013 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow. Maddie, your show. Please give her a warm round of applause.
MADDIE FENNELL: Thanks, Arne
DUNCAN: You’re welcome.
FENNELL: Well good afternoon everyone. So I brought some friends with me to have a little dialogue. And so I’d like to introduce them to you now. First I want to introduce…cause we thought well we really want to get a wide selection of leadership here. And we thought, well let’s talk to someone who’s at the beginning of their career. So first I’m going to invite out Omari James. Omari James is a first year high school teacher in English in Montgomery City Public Schools. Now, I know we keep getting this bad rap of the smart people aren’t going into education. Right? You hear that too often. Well, I want you to know that Omari graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Maryland and was valedictorian of his Master’s program. Omari, please come join us.
Our next speaker today is going to be Kim Manning Ursetta. Now Kim has been a leader in her union and a leader from her classroom. Kim is a bi-lingual pre-kindergarten teacher in the Denver Public Schools. She did something all of us would like to do during…after she finished her time as president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, she started her own school—a teacher-led public school. They have no principal. It’s all led by teachers. That’s..I know. Anybody wanna go work there? Start one of your own? Wouldn’t that be great? And that’s the Math and Science Leadership Academy. Kim is also on the board of the National Board. Kim, join us please.
Some of you may have seen our next speaker on television. Sarah Brown Wessling is not only an English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa, but she’s also the 2010 National Teacher of the Year. She’s a Teaching Channel Teacher Laureate. And she’s also on the National Board…board of directors, of the National Board.
And joining us today from Boston is James Liou. James spent nine years as a high school social studies and history teacher. Then he went on for four years to work a par program—Peer Assistance and Review. But he told me today…he said “One of the things I want you to talk about is the fact that now I’m in administration, but I’m feeling a real identity struggle with that. I want to maintain my heart as a teacher and still be able to create the room for things to get done, and I moved into administration to do that.” He also says he credits the National Board, and he was also a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, and he credits those two things for helping him find his advocacy voice. Please welcome James.
So we’re gonna have a conversation. Okay, this is just not your typical question and answer kind of thing. And, so I told the guys and gals here, “Well let’s just pretend we’re at Starbucks. And then Kim said “Well why can’t we pretend it’s Friday afternoon at 5:15, why can’t we be at a TGIF?” They wouldn’t let us bring the martinis in the building Kim, I’m so sorry. But what we really want to have is a dialogue. I want you to know that these people have been chosen, not only for the variety of leadership positions they’ve already held, but because I told them not to pull any punches, and Arne said, “I don’t…I want to know what the real questions are out there.” And they have real questions, cause these are real classroom practitioners. I was trying to get Sarah’s questions from her the other night and she emailed me, she’s like, “Maddie I’m sorry they’re late it was parent-teacher conference night, I feel asleep at my computer.” Okay, this is the real deal here. And so we want to have a real dialogue and a real back-and-forth about the kind of questions that we thought you would want to ask, and we know they wanted to ask. So with that, Sarah, you’re awake now. You want to kick it off?
SARAH BROWN WESSLING: Yeah, absolutely. You know, one of the things that we know about teaching and learning is that the, the person who is doing the talking is the person who is doing the learning. And so I really applaud this idea of getting teachers to talk, bringing them to the table because we know if teachers don’t have that voice and they don’t get to exercise it, there, there’s not going to be any kind of collective clarity. So, I think that’s really um an important um facet of your message. But I also know that part of the reality of this in schools and in classrooms is that um innovation can come at the price of isolation. So I’m really curious about how we create schools that embrace the kinds of cultures that are ready to elevate all of these teachers, without creating this difference between those who are teacher leaders and those who are not yet, because I think, what I heard you say, what that it’s really important that everybody gets elevated because of this work.
DUNCAN: So I think what I’ve struggled with and so many of you have struggled with is this sort of binary system, this bifurcation that you either were a classroom teacher and did the same thing year after year after year, or you left to make more money, to do whatever and walked away from what folks loved most and did best. And for me there’s never a right or wrong path. It’s about creating a set of options at scale that don’t exist today and obviously some amazing leaders here. I told some stories, but honestly these are exceptions to the rule. These are not the norm so the question is how do we, that’s what’s always challenge—for every challenge in education: drop-out rates, graduation, whatever it may be, they’re being solved somewhere in the country today in remarkable ways. What we have not done is scale fast enough. And so the question is, can us, with you guys with National Board, with other partners who want to come in, can we start to make this a norm? What’s so interesting to me in all of this, is what that we’re asking of principals, what we’re asking of administration, is the same thing we’re asking of teachers in the classroom, and it’s a little counterintuitive, it’s a little scary, is to give up power. So we’re asking teachers not to stand in the front of the room and just lecture and have rows of students. And again, classroom after classroom, I talk to twenty-five, thirty year veterans who say, “That was a really hard change.” But they are so much happier. They are so much more effective now, but that’s not what they’ve done forever. So just as we’re asking teachers to do that, and have students teach each other and work together in group and challenge each other and struggle, were asking principals and administration to do the same thing, to give up some power, to be less top-down, to be less, you know, bureaucratic and to bring teachers to the table. And it is not easy and not everyone’s gonna grasp it, but I promise you the results for students, the results for teachers, the results for schools, for districts, will be very, very powerful. (1:15:02).
WESSLING: So I think that’s really, you know, interesting, fabulous. Um, how do you, how do you think schools and teachers are going to balance kind of this undercurrent of competition with the release of power and control. (1:15:48).
DUNCAN: Competition between whom?
WESSLING: Well, you know we publish, you know, we publish teachers BAM scores. We, you know, there’s kind of this, you know, undercurrent of competition in our systems. So how do we balance that?
DUNCAN: Well, so to be really clear, where there’s competition between teachers, that’s a huge problem. There’s no upside there. What we need to do is to build high performing teams and there is no high performing school that has one amazing teacher and no one else. High performing school have high performing teachers, they have high performing principals, they have high performing custodians, they have high performing lunch room attendants, they have high performing parents—
DUNCAN: —and everyone working together.
DUNCAN: And so, it’s how do we build a culture where we all hold each other mutually accountable, where we put the tough issues on the table and work through them. But then get to a better place. And again, this is all easier said than done—
DUNCAN: —the theory’s great. Not to give too many anecdotes but I was in Reading, Massachusetts, earlier this week. Reading is a very, very high performing district. [It] could have sort of stood on its laurels. Reading is actually leading Massachusetts to higher standards. And there are teachers at the table, there’s management at the table, unions at the table, the administration’s at the table. And it is a profile in courage. And it is hard, and it’s messy and they argue and they disagree, but that is the only way we get there. They’re not complacent. They’re not in their silos. They’re challenging each other. To hear the teachers talk about how their practices changed over the past couple of years is stunning, and it’s sort of getting through this really hard time at first. And there’s lots of reasons why you wanna pull back. Hearing students, a couple students, one of the students said, “I’m now learning more from my peers than I am from my teacher.” It’s a really profound statement. Again that could be seen as threatening, or that can be seen as unbelievably powerful. I happen to think it’s really powerful. That’s the kind of teamwork we need. But again, what’s happening in Reading is not always happening as we know in school districts either in Massachusetts or around the country.
FENNELL: So James, what do you think? You’re in administration now. Do you agree with Sarah that there’s gonna be a problem, here? That there’s gonna be a bit of a power struggle?
JAMES LIOU: I think there could be. I mean, I mean, I think the thing that comes to mind for me with this focus on teachers as the most important factor for student success, it feels a little bit like a paradox for me, if I can offer it that way. In a sense for folks like us who are lucky to have these amazing leadership opportunities, accolades, um leadership roles. They’re greatly appreciated. And in a sense, we, we get an opportunity to, to be, to receive some of the glory. Look, look at how amazing teachers are and what they can do. But the flipside to that is sometimes it seems through a focus on evaluation, sometimes regardless of real circumstances that are challenging in schools um or the issues that students come to school with, teachers are shouldered with all the blame. And so I think for me, what, what comes to mind with, with the competition piece and the remarks, uh Mr. Secretary is how do we avoid this situation where perhaps unwittingly, we just add more responsibilities and expectations on the backs of teachers to lead without all the conditions necessary to make it, make it so.
DUNCAN: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a. That’s a really important question and I would say for us to fully understand and appreciate what all of those conditions are, we can’t do that and can’t act upon them without teacher voice. So it is, maybe a chicken or an egg or a conundrum. I’ll just give you a couple things we’re working on, in part because of what we’ve heard from teachers. We’re working very hard on the Promise Zones initiative which is trying to bring concentrated resources across the administra—the administration to our most devastated communities. So not just great work in schools, great afterschool programs, Department of Labor, jobs, HUD, housing, agriculture, food. You know, I sort of go right down the list. People don’t know Katherine Sebelius has been an amazing partner and not just in early ed, she has hundreds of millions of dollars that are helping to create school-based healthcare clinics.
DUNCAN: The President recently announced My Brother’s Keeper, which I think is a profoundly important initiative to help our young men of color, and we all know by every measure, by every measure, our young black and brown boys are not getting the opportunities they need in any systematic way. So we are trying to do what we can, obviously so much more to do. But to really understand all of those complexities and to address them, not just as school systems, but as non -profits, as social service agencies, as the business community, the faith based community, everybody coming together. Teachers have to be at the table to do that. Another anecdote, I know I’m giving too many, I just had a really good week. We went to uh, another, a high school in Worchester, Massachusetts, that a couple years ago was in the bottom five percent of schools in the state. It was recently named a Blue ribbon School. So bottom five percent to top one percent. It was a school that had a rich history that had become antiquated, outdated, all kinds of issues, dropout rates, violence, amazing principal amazing teachers. That school, they have a functioning bank, auto body shop , 24 programs, carpentry, beauty stuff, something I’ve never seen before, a fully operational veterinary clinic, students training in there, dogs and cats in there. This building serves not just students, it serves the entire community. Teachers have made that happen. And this whole fight, college verses careers, false choice, college and careers. Eighty, I think eighty-three percent going to college there, seventeen percent…that kind of community commitment, everyone coming together, that only happened because of what teachers and the principal have down there. Final note from a place that had a horrendous dropout rate, just a few years ago, it’s now 1.3 percent. Kids know why they’re coming to school everyday, they know why, what, why their education is important, that’s the kind of situation we need to create.
FENNELL: You know…
LIOU: Can I do one quick follow up?
FENNELL: Sure, go right ahead. Go right ahead.
LIOU: So I must say I love the Massachusetts examples. I don’t know if anyone else is from Massachusetts. This was terrific.
FENNELL: This is not rigged. We did not bring you in from Boston just cause he went to Massachusetts
LIOU: Yeah. But uh one thing that I asked some amazing educators in Boston and Massachusetts to contribute to this…uh one question that came up is do you think that principals in school districts more broadly are ready for these distributive leadership models. What’s an individual teacher like the amazing teachers in this, in this room right now, what can each person here do, and and what access do they truly have to be leaders in their schools?
FENNELL: Before you answer that, let me ask something, can I get an applause from the audience if you think you work for an administrator who believes in distributive leadership? Okay.
LIOU: That’s great.
DUNCAN: It’s a good vote. We don’t know what percent that is. We didn’t…luckily you didn’t ask for applause on the other side.
FENNELL: Yeah I know.
DUNCAN: It may, it may have been louder, ummmm
FENNELL: Yeah. And I’ve worked for both so I know what that’s like
DUNCAN: Well, and again everyone here obviously understands we have one-hundred thousand schools we have one hundred thousand principals and we have everyone from A to Fs on this and on everything. And so for me the question is not can we force people to do this? Probably not. Can we beat them into doing it with sticks? Probably not. Can we create some significant incentives? I think we can do that. Can we start to hold them accountable? We think about more comprehensive actability systems…what are teacher turnover rates at schools? How many veteran teachers are staying? Is there a sense of trust? Can we survey teachers? Can we survey students? And so this is not about trying to do a hundred thousand schools tomorrow. This is about a coalition of the willing. And there are many, many principals out there who live and breathe this, who were those fantastic teachers not too long ago, maybe wished that had those opportunities, or maybe had them. And do I’m actually, again really optimistic. Coalition of the willing, go step-by-step, learn we’ll make mistakes, there will be a spread, well figure stuff out. But if we can learn rapidly…and for me it’s not just about creating the opportunity, it’s what does this do for student achievement. If this doesn’t move student achievement…important, maybe not getting there. What I saw at Worchester High School was extraordinary teacher leadership having a profound impact on student learning and student engagement, and if we start to drive this, if we start to see not just what it’s doing for the teaching profession, what it’s doing for students, this thing takes on a life of, life of, its own. One quick analogy and not that all of these things are comparable…When I went to Chicago Public Schools I was a big believer in community school, schools being open twelve, thirteen hours a day, six, seven days a week, whole host of after school programming. Um that was not wildly popular with all my principals. And it’s amazing to hear the complaints, a big one being were gonna run out of toilet paper—
DUNCAN: —and figuring out the nitty gritty, and we don’t want to open our classrooms. So we started small, we started with a small coalition of the willing. Not surprisingly, better results, less discipline, better grades, students staying in the community. Over time we went to a hundred and fifty schools, a hundred and fifty schools opened much longer hours, GED, ESL, family literacy nights, all kinds of things, not sticks, all carrots. I think that may be a pretty apt analogy or metaphor for what we’re trying to do here.
FENNELL: You know, I know what of the things that really intrigues me about Massachusetts is their evaluation system, and how they don’t, they never built in a certain percentage. T hat’s when they looked at student achievement, because they said “well use that as a fulcrum and well look at test scores, and say if test scores are really low, that just means we need to go look at that teacher again, were not gonna to figure that in as a percentage of their actual evaluation.” And I think one of the elephants in the room, and one of the things people really want to know is do you believe that evaluations should be 50 percent of …or that student test scores should be 50 percent, and then that those value added measures and things should be published in the newspaper? Does that move us forward?
DUNCAN: So on, on both of those, I never have said and never will say that those should be fifty percent. So anyone who’s says that is either lying or misinformed and uh so just want to be very explicitly clear on that. I, I don’t see the value of publishing teachers stuff in newspaper, um. That’s going on now in Florida, obviously happened in LA a couple years ago, and there’s just not a lot of upside there, so it’s, it’s not one… the, the harder question Maddie that again we’ll all have probably five different opinions or three thousand different opinions is, I do think having real ways of evaluating how much teachers are contributing to students learning each year, for me that is very important, and we recognize children have tremendous range of abilities and challenges. Whether it’s a gifted child, a homeless children, a ELL, special needs child. But take any one of those populations, let’s take ELL students we know that if ten thousand ELL, ELL students in New York are taking, are taking Algebra One, there’s a huge spread in outcomes there, and I want to know who those teachers are that are having a huge impact on student learning, real students learning two or three years’ worth of instruction, knowledge for a year of instruction, and not everyone is comfortable with that. And what we do with that and how we do that is hard, it should never be determined by me at the local level but places like Massachusetts, places like Tennessee places like Kentucky are struggling with this, and no one has it right or no one has it perfect, but honestly for the first time we’re in the game as a nation thinking about these things and if we wait for it to be perfect we will never get there. Let’s learn together, let’s be humble, let’s be nimble, let’s make adjustments. And finding out how to talk and identify about extraordinary teachers, I think this, the country’s been scared to do that. And you have a bunch of folks here every single one, you know national board certified teaching, teachers that’s a huge amount of work. It is extraordinary.
FENNELL: Tell me about it, I’m still trying to get mine.
DUNCAN: I pushed this for so hard in Chicago. We went form about nation, about nine, I think we had six nationally board certified teachers, literally in the system when I started. We had twelve hundred when I came to Washington. We pushed this very, very hard. Teachers said . . .[it was] the hardest thing they went through but the best thing they went through, lots of tears along the way, but we made it through. But we have to talk about excellence. We have to award excellence. And when we treat everybody if they’re the same I think we demean teachers and that’s not a true profession.
FENNELL: So Kim, you’re in a teacher-led school. How do you handle that there’s no principal saying good bad. How do you guys handle that, and what’s it like on the ground?
URSETTA: Well, I first want to recognize that I do have two, two of my co-lead teachers are here with us today, because we are a team and we work very hard together and um whenever you look at an evaluation of our school we, we have created our own peer systems and review process that we do and then of course follow um the, the district process as well and so were constantly in each other’s rooms and able to give each other um feedback um but I think the other piece is really the culture that we’ve, we’ve set up of really trusting each other and getting to know each other’s leadership and teacher styles and really then focusing on what we want to do as a staff in order to move our students. I am proud to say that we are only in our fifth year and we only have two years of student achievement results and we’re outpacing the other schools in our neighborhood, which is ninety-seven percent free and reduced lunch um and, and um ninety-eight percent Latino and so were, we’re doing very well considering we’re a new school. Um and we…
FENNELL: So what are some of your challenges?
URSETTA: Yes. Well I, I think one of the challenges really is you know we have all of these, these great ideas and, and the issue is really policy versus practice and so we have our own way of doing things with a very distributive leadership model and it’s hard to get the middle management…so our superintendent is very supportive um but the people in between don’t under how we operate, and so it’s really a real struggle for us to say yes we are a teacher-led school, yes we do things differently, but I’m sorry we can’t give you an answer yet because our staff needs to talk about it, or this needs to go to the um data and curriculum committee to really look at how it will impact our programs and so we can’t get an answer to our administered supervisor right away and so it becomes a struggle to really allow us to try to implement innovative practices with the fear of failure, as rated by school accountability reports and then really looking at what a great, what, how things will impact our students. And so were constantly trying to juggle between what happens in our school, trying to get the outside world of Denver Public Schools to understand what we’re doing, and then of course, you know, making sure that our, our students and parents are happy and successful.
FENNELL: Tell him, can she tell…tell him a little bit about what happened with your TIFF grant? I think you need to hear this one.
URSETTA: Yes. So um Denver Public Schools has received um another TIFF grant um and were looking at teacher leadership and so our teacher leadership team got together and put together a teacher leadership proposal um that would have a coordinator of all of our leadership efforts, all our different teams submitted it to the district, and they said, “Great your ideas are really innovative. Great, but your gonna do it our way, and so the way that the TIFF grant came out in all actuality
FENNELL: Has that ever happened to anyone before? Great ideas, but now do it my way? Yes? Yeah…
URSETTA: So, I mean great opportunity to start some leadership initiatives, but again we have high stakes accountability that we all have to be held accountable for certain things, um and so then there become this this culture of we want to try new and innovative things but there’s the fear of failure. And so allowing teachers and teacher-led schools to try and do things differently isn’t necessarily an in an accepted practice because of the fear of failure
FENNELL: So how do we create an environment, because we know Google does it, and all the what, the what’s the other one you were talking to me about?
FENNELL: …Yeah, Fedex, Facebook…they all allow people to learn through failure, which we tell our students to do, but because of the high stakes testing our, you know, we don’t feel we have that opportunity as teachers, so how do we start to change that culture?
DUNCAN: I’ll say two things, I want to say first, and I want to come back to this…this is like a fascinating conundrum. So again let’s go back to this week. Uh they were struggling to teach their fifth graders two digit multiplication, two digit times two digit, two digit times three digits. One of the teachers, math teachers, happened to be a dancer, started to use salsa.
DUNCAN: Now I intentionally stayed in the back of the room and didn’t dance, but they clearly felt the permission to try some radical things, and it was amazing to see kids figure this out using their feet. Um what we have to do is a couple of things. One is this focus on a test score as a measure of accountability makes no sense whatsoever and they’re all kinds of problems with No Child Left Behind. That’s at the top of the list and obviously we tried to fix No Child Left Behind. It’s broken, tried to fix it with Congress. Congress is broken, so we’ve done all these waivers.
FENNELL: We need more teachers in Congress then. We could fix that.
DUNCAN: Oh amen, amen. And again, Republican, Democrat, left, right, we don’t care. We need more educators in Congress it’s hugely that a whole ‘nother conversation, hugely important. Um but what we’ve seen coming from states is some very different ideas about accountability. Yes, looking at growth and gain, but looking at high school graduation rates, looking at reduction in dropout rates, looking at college-going rates, looking at college-perseverance rates, looking at college students take…how many, what percent have to take remedial classes. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about higher standards folks may not realize this…places like Massachusetts , which is arguably the highest performing state in the nation, forty percent of their high school graduates, not the dropouts, forty percent of their high school graduates are taking remedial classes in college. They’re not ready, and burning through Pell grants. That’s why we have to raise the bar together. But my, my point is the people who are moving to a much more comprehensive, a much more holistic sense of accountability. And people critique me saying it’s too complicated, it’s more complex, it is, but obviously if you have great 3rd grade test scores, and a fifty percent dropout rate, it’s hard to get a job with third grade test scores, so we have to get beyond that. And again the leadership isn’t coming from me or anyone in Washington, this is coming from folks at the state level and we need to continue to look again at a series of different things. Let’s look at Kindergarten readiness. Let’s look at parents’ surveys, teachers you know, we can get more and more sophisticated here, and that leadership is coming from the state level but I want to come back just quickly because this is just such a fascinating conundrum. Someone is going to win, it’s, I don’t want to say it is a battle, but someone is going to win in this. Either the Denver Public Schools will change and be more supportive of you and create more space for teachers like you to do this or certain point you guys would get too frustrated and close up your tent and go do something else. That’s exact, you know, and it’s gonna play out and your tough and you’re doing fantastic work, but if they don’t find a way to support you and other educators like you, other folks won’t follow in your footsteps. And it’s an amazing school to have in Denver and I applaud your leadership, but we don’t need one teacher-led school, we need five, we need ten, we need fifteen, and we need to figure out how we build systems that do that and so how we help, not just Tom Boseberg, who’s always classic, usually a leader gets it, there’s all kinds of folks in the middle where it’s really hard. This is like a real time case study, if we can’t help, you can change some, but if we can’t change or help change the system to help support you, we lose so much of the potential and creativity and ingenuity here, and so we got to work on that one together.
URSETTA: We’d love to have you around
DUNCAN: I will come out.
FENNELL: So Omari
DUNCAN: And I will snatch back that Tiff grant unless they get their act together.
FENNELL: Oh there you go. Oh go back and tell them that. Uh oh, here we go. Oh the things you do when you’re more than fifty miles away from home. Um so Omari you are a first year teacher. Don’t you love it? No doubt, no doubt a future National Board Certified teacher, right?
DUNCAN: No pressure, no pressure
OMARI JAMES: It’s gonna happen.
FENNELL: Listening to what the Secretary says and listening to this conversation about teacher-led schools and teacher initiatives, does that make you say, “Oh that not what I signed up for”, or “Now I might actually stay around longer’? How do you feel about that?
JAMES: Oh through everything that’s happened over the years, when I was going through the education program. And now I’ve never for one second felt like this is not what I wanted to do. Um and I can’t stress that enough that I can, and I’m sure that I’m not the only person here that can say that I’ve never felt like there’s anything that I wouldn’t want to do and enjoy in life and I think that I’m very lucky, along with all of us, to be able to say that we have found a passion, a craft, that we can hone that just happens to pay, uh…pay.
FENNELL: But it doesn’t pay enough, right? Well I’ll say that too.
JAMES: And, well, you know, I was a part of the teach campaign uh…panel awhile back and, and I, we heard from all these different people that had these brilliant experiences going into education and I look around me at work and I see all these other creative, brilliant minds and…and you, you’ve all seen it before. I, I feel like such a baby and a child saying this cause I’m still getting through my first year and you’re all veterans, but… We’ve all seen those people who have left the profession, and I think it’s really powerful to, instead of thinking of it they get tired of it and leave, but instead think of it as…they love the children so much, they love what they’re doing so much, and despite that, they decide that they have to leave, and I think that’s really powerful. And I watched someone that I’m working with, who I aspire to be, I want to be this person, and in the last few weeks they’ve decided that they just can’t do it anymore and it’s really shaken me to my core seeing that. And it goes back to this feeling that they don’t have as much control over where their classroom is going, as they would like, and year after year it’s just gotten to be so much for them. So I’m wondering what we can do for teachers to feel like that have that amount of control and I love this idea of having them more in the conversation. I was talking to someone and they said that it would be amazing if teacher were able to sit in on some of these sessions where the policies are being developed, or even have the people developing the policies come and shadow the teachers for a week or two. You know? And this entire initiative just seems like that golden turning point for us to really start that process, so I’m just wondering what can we do to make it so that these teachers feel, these teacher that are amazing and so talented but are feeling so worthless, get that feeling of accomplishment that they remember.
DUNCAN: Yeah, there, there’s, it’s a, it’s a great, great question and there aren’t easy answers. So, you know, I always, it’s easy to point fingers and lay blame. I always try and be very self-critical and look in the mirror and so what can we do to be part of the solution. So we’ve tried to in a very real way uh bring in the Teacher Ambassador Fellows, and it’s uh critical to be at the table. Some of these policy debates are tough and go on and on, and like do I really wanna be at this table? But so much of the hard decisions we’ve made have been profoundly influenced by our Teacher Ambassador Fellows, uh frankly our decision to really think about this new initiative, that wasn’t my idea, that came from our Teaching Ambassador Fellows. They’re shaping our agenda. Um you talked about uh teacher uh shadowing teachers, so our teams, you know we do that now every single year and send tons of our folks out to classrooms and it’s the come back and sort of debrief at the end of the day, and it is so invigorating both for the teachers and for our staff. And so to build these bridges that, that, that, they don’t happen naturally. We don’t do it all perfectly. They’re probably a million things we should be doing. We’ve done the Teacher Ambassador Fellows for a while. I had a principal come up to me two years ago and say, “Why didn’t you have, why don’t you have a Principal Ambassador Fellowship?” Never thought of it how…you know, how dumb was that? So we started that. So you have to keep trying to get better um can we start to replicate some of these things with state boards of education and with districts? Again easier said than done um but I think building in some of these things won’t solve any of these problems overnight, but starts to create a culture of trust, of collaboration, of mutual respect, of understanding we’re not gonna agree on every single issue, but we’re gonna work on this together. The final, and Maddie I just want to, you know, again trying to put hard issues on the table and just appreciate you coming and teaching so much, I worry desperately about the lack of teachers of color and men of color in the teaching profession and…
FENNELL: Mhm. Absolutely.
DUNCAN: Hopefully folks here know, you look across the nation less than one in fifty of our teachers is a black man and if you put black and Latino men together, it’s about 3.5 percent. And I want every teacher to be a great teacher, I just want them to reflect the great diversity of our nation’s students, and quite honestly very few schools of education have shown any interest, or creativity, or a sense of urgency on this issue, so we want to keep all our great teachers, we need a lot more men and a lot more color to come in. Um we need them in high schools, we need them in our elementary schools. And we have too many elementary schools that don’t have a man of color in them and there is no upside for any of our children for that, so again, just in a very real way, over the next five, ten, fifteen, twenty years how we support teachers like you to stay there to be successful um, as a nation we are failing that right now and we have to get a lot better.
FENNELL: Great. So we’re about to get the hook, and I’m sure these people have dinner reservations. And we’re behind time. So we wanna let you go, but before we do that, can I ask, by a show of applause, how many of you are interested in Teach to Lead and being a part of the dialogue, and being part of developing the policy, not just implementing it? Okay, so before they assault me when we, or you, when we walk off stage, let’s just tell them, how are they gonna get involved in this?
DUNCAN: Uh they gotta, it’s all you.
FENNELL: He moves faster. His legs are a lot longer.
DUNCAN: So we need to figure that out quickly. But, uh, you know, uh our team has been talking about it with Ron. Um we want to move on this very fast. I’ve already put out there that, a year from now we want to come back, and this is not about feel good, talk good, this is about real commitments. So what we need to do is figure out, I don’t have the answers, is the short answer, we need to figure out like next week how we’re gonna start to get real feedback, how folks can participate, and how we start to drive this in a real way.
FENNELL: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much. Thank you to all of you for being here today. And to you for waiting with us past time.