To say “education is the civil rights issue of our time” is to say what many, many others have said before and it’s stating the painfully obvious. Thirty years ago the US was rife with major racial inequities but led the world in terms of education; specifically, in the percentage of secondary and post-secondary degrees. Today the US is 14th in post-secondary degrees and 22nd in percentage of high school degrees. In the 1970s, 1 out of every 4 jobs required a college degree and today 2 out of every 3 jobs require some college. As Jon Shnur, the founder of America Achieves, said “Today the minimal ticket to a middle class life is some kind of post-secondary degree.” Our education situation is disconcerting for all Americans; however, for minorities and those from low socio-economic backgrounds the achievement gap is formidable.
At Education Nation this week I heard from some of the most powerful figures in education like Secretary Arnie Duncan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone Geoffrey Canada. Everyone agrees we in a special moment of American history now – we are standing at a crossroads. This is the third time I’ve been to NBC’s education conference but what was different this year, is how everyone kept talking about the significance of teachers – not new curriculum, buildings, supplies or even social services – in solving our eduction crisis. Within the spectrum of “union bashing” to “let’s give teachers more Best-Teacher-Ever mugs!!” I experienced a real shift in my thinking about the achievement gap: when we elevate the teaching profession, we will see student achievement soar.
I’m not the only one who thinks the key is increased respect for teachers. The Gates Foundation has also identified this shift as the main mover in education reform as well. I attended a fascinating presentation by the Gates Foundation on a McKinsey & Co. report they just funded (and is not yet released!) about how to potentially elevate the teaching profession. They studied high-performing countries like Singapore and Finland who recently made big changes in their education systems and looked at how teaching moved from a less to highly respected profession. Additionally, Gates looked at other professions in the US – like engineering and, interestingly, nursing – and studied how these professions rose to prominence. They found that in some cases, like Singapore, changes were implemented from the top down. Officials increased the salary of teachers as well as raised the requirements for becoming a teacher (Singapore only accepts 8% of those who apply to become teachers) and low and behold, a decade later their country is a world leader on almost all measures of student achievement. However most examples of successful professionalization begin within the profession: nurses form an association, lawyers create the LSAT as a gateway to law school, doctors outraged with snake-oil sellers write a code of ethics for their profession. Then, often over the course of 100 years, the professions move from a collection of underpaid, under-educated, and under-respected workers to widely admired experts. Along with this advance comes major leaps in quality as well; higher respect for nurses results in better healthcare.
One exciting development aimed at increasing the respect afforded to teachers is the Department of Education’s RESPECT Project which will (depending on what goes down in November) be tied to a Race To The Top style competitive grant. This money would be used by districts and states to fund new career tracks, master teacher programs, reorganized school days, and other initiatives centered around increasing respect for teachers. All of this interest in teacher effectiveness is really exciting (and potentially damaging, as it was in Chicago) but I believe change will come not from the Department of Ed or the Gates Foundation but from teachers. If education is the civil rights issue of our time then the agents of change will likely look like the Civil Rights movement – a grass roots endeavor comprised of ordinary people who were fed up with an unjust system. For every Martin Luther King, Jr. there were thousands of maids who walked to work everyday for two years in Birmingham, students who sat with quiet dignity at lunch counters, and voter registration workers who set up tables in small towns all across the south.
So colleagues, I ask you: what does it look like for us to remain in our seat at the front of the bus? What does it look like for us to boycott an unjust system? What does it look like for us to carefully prepare to be non-violent when we are attacked by police and dogs so that the rest of the country will be appalled at the resulting images they see on the nightly news?
I suspect a large part of this shift will look like dramatic restructuring of our school day/calendar as well as the power structures within our schools. Principals are a historical hold-over from a time when teachers where groups of women and minorities who needed a white man in an office to keep them in check. Why couldn’t teachers run schools in the same way senior lawyers run law firms? Certainly more people would become teachers and stay in the classroom if there were pathways to authentic power within their schools.
So what do you think? I am deeply interested in other teacher’s thoughts on elevating this profession . . . please leave comment. A great first step in our movement is to begin talking among ourselves.