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The Real Nation-Builders

As it happens, I was in Detroit last Tuesday evening, the night of the President's State of the Union address. Edbloggers have been slicing and dicing the text (and subtext) of the speech all week:

Is it good that the President gave education so much airtime? How should we feel about rhetorical flourishes ("if you want to make a difference in the life of a child--become a teacher") that aren't backed up by the kinds of selection, preparation and support policies for building the teacher workforce that high-achieving nations have put in place? Should we be aiming to reach the highest percentage of college graduates in the world when many of our recent graduates can't find jobs that tap their skills and education?

Detroit is a great place to be thinking about those questions, a kind of Ground Zero for what happens when poverty seems intractable, school management issues are contentious (a word that doesn't even begin to describe the ongoing hostilities between the elected Board and the government-appointed Emergency Financial Manager) and the organization is wracked by a funding crisis.

The folks I was hanging out with were the perfect people to be discussing speeches about public education: a group of carefully selected, accomplished classroom veterans who are launching a Peer Assistance and Review program, to help teachers who are struggling. Down the road, the PAR group will take on evaluative responsibilities, a step toward professionalism, and cleaning house.

They're facing some minefields--mistrust and misunderstanding of their purpose, for starters--but they're determined to use their personal expertise to make things better in a system plagued with problems. Some of the teachers have also taught, or held administrative jobs, in charter schools. Some of their kids go to charters, as well. They're not defenders of the status quo or Pollyannas.

The teachers I know in Detroit Public Schools--to a person--are dedicated to the children who have no educational options, who will not be ferried to and from a charter school, who cannot afford a plaid jumper or musical instrument, let alone lunch. They have lived for years with things other teachers cannot imagine. The peer coaching job is not a cushy escape from the daily grind of the classroom, either--they will be returning to their regular teaching positions in a couple of years.

This particular group--educated, middle-class teachers, mostly African-American, engaged in the challenging work of recreating a broken-down system, organizing for equitable change--should be Obama's core constituency, his most loyal supporters. I wondered what they thought about his speech.

Not much, actually.

The remark about the Race to the Top being the "most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation" was not well-received at all. Michigan passed a package of "reform" legislation in hopes of getting some of the RttT largesse, but didn't make the cut. If there's a "race to educate our kids" as the President suggested, Detroit's already lost.

None of the legislation passed here--loosening charter caps, using test data to sort teachers, aligning MI policy with the federal language for turnaround school options--"raised standards for teaching and learning" in Detroit. None of these were "the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement."

What these teachers in Detroit are doing is innovative, and more than a little brave. And it certainly has the potential to increase quality teaching. Too bad the feds aren't pushing peer review. Or urban residencies for teachers. Or rich curriculum. Or building on existing strengths.

What was the lunch discussion about, the day after a major Presidential policy speech? Finland.

The Detroit teachers understood that Finnish teachers often worked in pairs--they were hoping to use the pairs model to build confidence and competency in their work with novices and teachers who were having a difficult time. If Finland could tackle challenges, so could they. It was a lively, forward-looking conversation.

As for President Obama, they were still proud to have voted for him. But convinced that he was getting bad advice from his basketball buddy and the billionaires who want to call the shots around public education.

In South Korea, teachers are known as "nation builders." Here in America, it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.

Which is exactly what the Detroit teachers are trying to do--stop making excuses for bad teachers and do something about the problem.

Is that nation-building?

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