There's a proverb that says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." I thought about this as a high-ranking official from the U.S. Department of Education came to speak with me and the Chicago Teach Plus Fellows on September 9. He was a part of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's bus tour, which included ED officials leading focus groups with teachers across five Great Lakes states. He brought a draft document called "Envisioning a Teaching Profession for the 21st Century," and asked thought-provoking questions to test the limits of some big ideas. What followed was simply fascinating.
But first I must explain that the Teach Plus Fellows in Chicago are a diverse group of teachers with a wide range of thought. Some of us teach in charter schools and advocate for such, while others teach in traditional district schools and are staunch supporters of the teachers unions; one teacher instructs multiple grade levels in her public Montessori school, while another teaches freshman algebra. We have an art teacher, a Spanish teacher, and a librarian. Several have National Board Certification, while others were once experts in other professions. A few became educators through alternative certification programs, while others took the traditional route of majoring in education in undergraduate school. Some of our schools are consistently high-performing, while others are chronically low-performing. The one thing that unites us is our concern for and dedication to our students.
Needless to say, when Massie Ritsch, ED's Deputy Assistant for External Affairs and Outreach, presented a hypothetical "vision" for the teaching profession, it made for a lively, and at times combative (but always civil) conversation. Unlike a proposal or position statement, a vision is supposed to push our thinking beyond what we might see as possible. It's supposed to challenge us to define the ideal scenario and does not necessarily need to be confined to the parameters of today's reality.
So let's talk money:
What if the starting salary of all new teachers was $50,000? Would a new teacher trade in her promise of getting a large pension to potentially earn up to $150,000 a year in as fast as 6 years? In other words, would a new teacher prefer to get the bulk of her compensation upfront and personally decide how to invest for retirement, or would she make prefer to make substantially less to allow the state help fund and manage your retirement plan? What if the state agreed to match her 401k fund at 5 percent while still requiring a minimal pension contribution to keep the system afloat? Would teachers with more than 10 years of vesture support this plan if their pension programs remained unchanged? Would you be willing to work a 235- to 250-day school year to earn a six-figure salary? In an ideal world, should teacher salaries be based on work performance, or should it be based on the number of advanced degrees, graduate level credits, and years of classroom service? And how married are you to tenure? Would you agree to forgo tenure to earn the salary of a veteran principal?
What if all the nation's 1,400 teacher preparation programs were required to track and publish the classroom success and retention of their graduates? Or should the government simply limit the number of accredited education programs to 250 to 500 institutions based on their records of effectiveness? Should all pre-service teachers be required to do a one-year teaching residency at their own expense (with options of student loans, grants, scholarships, etc)? Or should that be at the district's expense?
Would you be willing to do away with having students taught in grade levels, instead placing them in classes based on their skills and abilities? Would you agree to having low-performing students placed in smaller class sizes (12-15: 1) and increasing the class sizes of higher performing students? Do you believe in mandating that only the most accomplished teachers (criterion unspecified) in the district can work in high-need schools and incentivizing them to do so?
I am a big supporter of innovation in education. I believe the public school teaching profession is long overdue for an extreme, complete and radical makeover. But just how do we do it in a systematic way that is honest, fair, and apolitical? This is an extremely complex problem to try to solve. The complexity is compounded because the deep-rooted distrust and suspicion of the parties involved often negate otherwise valid ideas. The exercise of critiquing the ED's hypothetical also showed me that even some of the best and brightest teachers in Chicago won't always agree on what new direction, if any, our profession should take. (In fairness, we had less than 2 hours to hash out a loaded, five page document.) With large numbers of teachers expected to retire this decade and with teacher retention being a persistent problem, American educators must come to a consensus about how to build an educational system that will attract and sustain quality teachers.
Whatever decisions are made to help restore the dignity and professionalism of teaching will have to come from us, not from the bigwigs in the U.S. Department of Education. That's why they conducted teacher focus groups and have hired Teaching Ambassadors to give them a dose of pragmatism to their strategizing. I do think they are on to something. Creating a sound vision of the profession from which all policy could flow is an essential step toward re-establishing America as the country that leads the world in education.