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Teaching Our Kids in a 21st Century Economy

It's past time to transform an educational culture that's failing too many of our children.

| Mon Nov. 28, 2005 3:00 AM EST

The problem is that we are not applying what we’ve learned from these successes to inform national policy. We need new vision for education in America – one where we move past ideology to experiment with the latest reforms, measure the results, and make policy decisions based on what works and what doesn’t.

Now, if we are going to learn from schools that work, we must begin by admitting the obvious: money matters. In too many places, kids are going to school in trailers where rats are more numerous than computers. Smaller classes, books and lab supplies, better paid teachers, modernized buildings with the latest technology – all of this is critical if we are serious about educating our next generation.

But money alone won’t make a difference without reform. And by the way, we won’t be able to muster the political will to get more money into the system unless taxpayers are convinced that the money will produce measurable results. Fortunately, those who work in the field know what reforms really work: a more challenging and rigorous curriculum with emphasis on math, science, and literacy skills. Longer hours and more days to give kids the time and attention they need to learn. Early childhood education for every child so they’re not left behind before they even start school. Meaningful, performance-based assessments that can give us a fuller picture of how a student is doing. And putting effective teachers and transformative principals in front of our kids.

All of these reforms need to be scaled-up and replicated across the country. But in the time I have remaining, let me use just talk about a few to point to what’s possible, starting with one place where I think we can start making a big difference in education right now.

From the moment our children step into a classroom, new evidence shows that the single most important factor in determining their achievement today is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it’s not who their parents are or how much money they have.

It’s who their teacher is. It’s the person who will brave some of the most difficult schools, the most challenging children, and accept the most meager compensation simply to give someone else the chance to succeed.

One study shows that two groups of students who started third grade at about the same level of math achievement finished fifth grade at vastly different levels. The group with the effective teacher saw their scores rise by nearly 25%. The group with the ineffective teacher actually saw their scores drop by 25%.

But even though we know how much teaching matters, in too many places we’ve abandoned our teachers, sending them into some of the most impoverished, underperforming schools with little experience or pay; little preparation or support. After a few years of experience, most will leave to pick wealthier, less challenging schools.

The result is that some of our neediest children end up with less-experienced, poorly-paid teachers who are far more likely to be teaching subjects in which they have no training. Minority students are twice as likely to have these teachers. In Illinois, students in high-poverty schools are more than three times as likely to have them. The No Child Left Behind law, which states that all kids should have highly qualified teachers, is supposed to correct this, but so far it hasn’t, because no one’s followed through on the promise.

If we hope to give our children a chance, it’s time we start giving our teachers a chance. We can’t change the whole country overnight. But what we can do is give more school districts the chance to revolutionize the way they approach teaching. By helping spark complete reform across an entire school district, we can learn what actually works for our kids and then replicate those policies throughout the country.

So here’s what I’m proposing: the creation of what I call Innovation Districts. School districts from around the country that want to become seedbeds of reform would apply and we’d select the twenty with the best plans to put effective, supported teachers in all classrooms and increase achievement for all students. We’d offer these districts substantial new resources to do this, but in return, we’d ask them to try systemic new reforms. Above all, we’d require results.

In Innovation Districts, we’d ask for reforms in four broad areas: teaching, most importantly, but also how teachers use their time, what they teach, and what we can do to hold our schools accountable for achievement.

We’d begin by working with these districts to strengthen their teaching, and we’d start with recruitment. Right now we don’t have nearly enough effective teachers in the places we need them most: urban and rural schools, and subject areas like math and science. One of the main reasons for this, cited by most teachers who leave the profession, is that no one gives them the necessary training and preparation.

Around the country, organizations like the Academy for Urban School Leadership in Chicago are changing this by recruiting and training new, highly-qualified teachers for some of the hardest-to-teach classrooms in the country. We need to expand this by giving districts help in creating new teacher academies that will partner with organizations like this to recruit effective teachers for low-performing, high-poverty schools. Each teacher would undergo an extensive training program before they begin, including classroom observation and participation.

After we recruit great teachers, we need to pay them better. Right now, teaching is one of the only professions where no matter how well you perform at your job, you’re almost never rewarded for success. But with six-figure salaries luring away some of our most talented college graduates from some of our neediest schools, this needs to change. That’s why teachers in these Innovation Districts who are successful in improving student achievement would receive substantial pay increases, as would those who choose to teach in the most troubled schools and the highest-need subject areas, like math and science. The city of Denver is trying pay increases in partnership with the local union, and when Chattanooga, Tennessee offered similar incentives for teachers who taught in high-need schools, student reading scores went up by over 10%.

Of course, teachers don’t just need more pay, they need more support. One thing I kept hearing when I visited Dodge Elementary School in Chicago is how much an encouraging principal or the advice of an experienced teacher can make a difference. That’s why teachers would be paired with mentor teachers who’ve been there before. After a few years of experience, they’d then have the chance to become mentor teachers themselves.

And to help them deal with those few disruptive students who tend to slow down the rest of the class – a problem I hear about from teachers all the time – we’d expand innovative programs being used in states like Illinois that teach students about positive behavior.

Finally, we would also require Innovation Districts to work with their unions to uncover bureaucratic obstacles that leave poor kids without good teachers, including hiring, funding and transfer policies. Districts would work with unions to tackle these problems so that we can provide every child with an effective teacher.

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