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NBA's Kevin Durant and the Status of Teachers

As you may have heard, even if you aren't a basketball junkie, all-star forward Kevin Durant announced Monday that he's leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors. Durant's decision to join league MVP Stephen Curry in Golden State was the talk of the sports world. There were endless analyses of his gifts, accomplishments, motivations, and the $54 million he's scheduled to earn over the next two years. 

Needless to say, this doesn't happen in teaching. In schooling, in fact, we've drifted into the habit of talking a lot more about the need to get rid of lousy teachers than about how to give excellence its due.

Getting bad teachers out of classrooms is all well and good. That kind of policing is essential. But I'm even more interested in schools and systems that nurture and reward excellence, and that give good teachers the chance to shine. Keep in mind the precocious lament from young Dash in Pixar's The Incredibles. When his mom insists, "Everyone's special," Dash mutters, "Which is another way of saying no one is." In practice, addressing mediocrity and celebrating excellence are two sides of the same coin. By fighting to change a culture where "everyone's special," it becomes more possible to recognize extraordinary effort and performance.

Tim Daly, formerly the president of TNTP, put it well. As I recounted in The Cage-Busting Teacher, he's argued, "The biggest mistake that we ever made with the teaching profession was rejecting the idea of distinction based on performance. If you take a sport, you see that some athletes get the star treatment. This is a good thing, for two reasons. First, they gain broad recognition and help elevate the sport. Second, they still bargain within the collective. More than inspiring division or envy, they raise the status of their peers and the sport. But in teaching, we suppress the distinction."

For nearly two decades, Leslie Ross has taught various subjects in Greensboro, North Carolina. She's worked long hours planning lessons, mentoring students, and writing small grant proposals. In recent years, she's taught high school biology. While her biology students outscored their peers on district-wide assessments by more than 25 percentage points, her school never acknowledged her accomplishments or provided much support. Ross says, "My school said, 'It's up to you to secure those funds. It's up to you to write the proposals.' There's a lot of lip service, but that's it."

After earning TNTP's national Fishman Prize a few years ago, Ross says, "They recognized me at a school board meeting and our district's annual State of Our Schools program. I got invited to have lunch with President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to discuss equity in schools. It was an amazing experience! People started looking at me and asking, 'How are you accomplishing things that no one else is?' I hadn't seen myself in that light."

She says, "It changed the trajectory of my career. It made me realize that what I'm doing needs to be shared with other people. I hadn't really considered that. Until I won the Fishman Prize, I hadn't realized that I'd never received that kind of recognition. Once I got it, it felt really good to have someone say you've done a remarkable thing and we'd like to share it. I want those 'attaboys' . . . and I try to do that for the teachers I work with. When you don't receive something you don't necessarily miss it but, now that I've had it, I wouldn't want it any other way."

Developing opportunities for great teachers to earn influence, autonomy, and respect ought to be central to any reform agenda. That it has not been is a serious failure. The main thing is to find ways to offer educators a fraction of the autonomy, respect, and success that free agency has delivered to tall men who bounce rubber balls. 

After all, professional athletes weren't always as fortunate as they are today. Matthew Futterman notes early in the terrific book Players, "The story of professional sports in the United States for the first eight decades of the twentieth century is largely one of exploitation. It's a story of one-sided contracts and lopsided deals." Today, thanks to free agency, savvy negotiating, and the creative leadership of a handful of athletes, agents, and lawyers, the big problem is the "crassness [too much] money has brought."

That'd be a nice problem for educators to have.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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