The Civil Rights Movement of Our Time

Me on the set of NBC’s Education Nation; I’d probably have a similar expression if I had my picture taken in Buckingham Palace.

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.


17 thoughts on “The Civil Rights Movement of Our Time

  1. Tricia Noyola says:

    Hi Abby!


    There are so many pieces I agree with- the profession MUST be elevated in order to achieve true equity for students and to attract and retain the type of talent we want in the teaching profession. I think where I may potentially differ from you is I don’t think that this can be merely a grass roots movement. While the origins of the civil rights movement were certainly grass roots, it took some major changes in policy- and civil rights leaders demanded it. They would not have been content to merely sway people’s conscience: they knew to be on the road to achieving equality, there had to be some sustainable law and policy changes. And several of them were forced through with major opposition.

    For better and for worse, teachers actually do hold a lot of power. I have been in the company of so many principals who would LOVE to elevate the profession on their campuses and give their highest performing teachers what they deserve. Restrictive laws and policies prevent them from doing so. How can you elevate the profession when you are forced to retain teachers that are not good? And that is the ugly truth people don’t like to talk about. Some teachers are not very good and have little interest in improving. It pains me to say this as a teacher, but it is true. A nurse who constantly has patients get injured and die on her care will be let go. A law firm has the power and will more than likely let go of an attorney who routinely performs poorly. This is NOT to say that just firing bad teachers elevates the profession. But research proves that irreplacable teachers feel slighted when teachers that are NOT GOOD remain on staff and receive identical treatment.

    As long as the profession is designed to treat all teachers the same and resists any differentiation, then all teachers will be treated much like interchangeable parts in a giant, creaking machine.

    • Thank you for commenting Tricia. I agree that teachers cannot do it alone – absolutely. But I think we must be the ones who demand changes. Good teachers must insist their ineffective, and even damaging, colleagues be fired. For too many years good teachers closed their doors and did what they loved while ignoring systemic issues (Lord knows I am so guilty of this) but the time has come to open our doors.

      Thanks again for your insightful comments.

      • Courtney Stern says:

        I agree wholeheartedly that “ineffective, and even damaging, colleagues be fired,” but the trouble I have with this is that we don’t seem to have a reliable way to measure whether a teacher *is* effective. Sure, we can spot the super-star teachers, but where is the line between effective and ineffective drawn? What rubric or standard do we use are an objective measure that yields reliable and equitable results?

        One thing I struggle with as an educator is the fact that teaching is so isolating. I really don’t know what happens in anyone else’s classroom. I’ve been told I’m a good teacher. I’ve been told I’m an excellent teacher. I take it all with a grain of salt because I don’t really know what that means. I have no idea how my teaching matches up to that of my peers. What makes me good? I have my own thoughts on the matter, but nothing concrete and absolute to which I can point. Is it test scores? Having students on task during class? Student work product? Like-ability? Extra time? My lesson plans? The quality of class discussions? Classroom culture? Does the fact that I may very well spend hours upon hours prepping a lesson and scouring the internet and youtube to see how other teachers teach the same material mean that that teacher who doesn’t do that is “ineffective?”

        I think another part of the problem lies in an outdated job description for the job of “teacher” and a significant gap between the reality of teaching and the public perception of what what teaching involves. There seems, in my experience, to be a perception that teaching is a 7-hour a day job with more vacation time than any other profession. I don’t know a single teacher who shows up at that contracted start-time, leaves at their contracted end-time, and doesn’t do any work beyond that. I don’t know a single teacher that doesn’t spend significant amounts of money out-of-pocket to provide for their classroom. If doing all of these things are essential to being an “effective” teacher, then why aren’t teachers compensated, reimbursed, or at least recognized for these contributions? Are we essentially all ineffective because we can’t finish the job with the time and resources we are given? I think not, but if the job requires more than we are given and more time than that for which we are paid, the job description, expectations, and public perception — and I’ll even say compensation — should and must change to reflect the realities of the profession.

        It’s a sad, sad world where people will pay more for a manicure, a dog-sitter, a nanny, a car-detailing, or just about anything than they will for an hour of tutoring for a child.

  2. Laurie Calvert says:

    Abby and Trisha, I love this blog and Trishia’s response. I work for ED and was glad to meet Abby for two RESPECT discussions about elevating the profession, the most recent one at Education Nation. I think you are both right. We need teachers leading this work and we need some of the rules and laws to change. Teacher leaders need to be a force for getting this work done. Teachers need to work with their schools and districts and states to let our leaders and lawmakers know what it will take to transform our profession and deliver the education that all of our children really deserve. I am so glad you two are helping to do this. You rock.
    Laurie Calvert/Teacher Liaison/US Department of Education.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting Laurie! You were an inspiration at Education Nation – it’s teacher leaders like you who are getting this work done. Thank YOU for your work with RESPECT and with bringing teacher voice to the Department of Education.

  3. Kelly Smith says:

    A minor point — I wouldn’t under-value an effective, strong principal. Find a successful hospital or law firm and you’ll find a senior partner-in-charge or administrator that has a gift for leveraging the best performance from her colleagues.

    I have enormous sympathy for much of what teachers unions are fighting for these days. I find their arguments against the over-reliance on standardized tests for either measuring student progress or a teacher’s effectiveness persuasive.

    But I draw the line on tenure. Is it hard to measure teacher performance and to reward it justly with compensation and job security? Yes. But just throwing up our hands and relying on tenure instead of finding a fair system doesn’t serve the needs of children.

    I quibble with much of the school reform platform. But at a minimum increasing teacher compensation and dumping tenure would go a long way to increasing the stature of the profession.

    • Thank you for your comment Kelly – great point about principals. I would have quit long ago if not for some really excellent principals I have had the privilege of working for . . . their encouragement and coaching has been central to my development as a teacher.

  4. Chrissy says:

    You mention ways that people will be encouraged to become and to stay teachers, and as a person who is trained in science, I have a story.

    Towards the end of my undergrad years, I wanted to be a teacher. At that time, I had to choose where to pursue more training. I would have degrees in biology and chemistry (in my state, that would give me the content to teach both), but I would need more schooling in education, student teaching, and a master’s degree to be able to keep my license.

    I went and spoke with the education department. “Sure”, they said, “We have a program that will get you a master’s degree and a license in just 18 months!” I thought that sounded fast. I learned that to complete these requirements, I would take 18 credit hours each quarter of graduate level work, in the evenings, and during the day I would work full time in a school.

    I asked what the stipend was. He laughed. There was no stipend. I would be working full time and going to class at night. He also suggested how I apply for loans for this.

    I was not a stupid person. I had already been offered a job for $40k a year as a scientist, and a free-tuition with a stipend TA spot in another department on campus. I did not go into the education program. I went to the Geology department.

    In my state, you have to have a degree in the field you teach in high school. And a master’s in something. And you have to have a teaching license. Many teachers I worked with last year are still trying to get out from under their student loans. This really makes me sad. It was actually suggested to me that I pick up $30k of student loans to pay for my training as a teacher (after undergrad), so I could take a teaching job – and I was doubtful that I’d be able to repay that debt quickly. (Fun fact: as a teacher, from what I can tell I can expect to make about as much as I was offered for that first job right out of undergrad.)

    Short story: we lose people who want to be high school science teachers because you can get a great paying science job and go to school for free if you DON’T become a teacher. Its just economically sensible.

    • Chrissy thank you for making the un-sensible economic choice 🙂 I know our profession, and more importantly, our students are better off because you’re a teacher. You have a compelling story as both a science PhD and a certified teacher – run for school board and fix the injustices!

  5. mskretschmar says:

    Abby! So bummed to miss Ed Nation this year. I broke my foot playing tag!!! So glad Heather told me about your blog. Great post. I need to get to bed–but I love this idea of a “code of ethics” written by teachers. Interesting….

  6. Luisa says:

    I met a Canadian teacher in Peru who told me about a program where teachers in that district can take a sabbatical every five years. The sabbatical is paid for out of their own income (those who opt in have a portion of their salaries put into a special account each pay period), but they retain their positions and full benefits during this time. The sabbatical must be used for study in some area related to what the individual teaches, and the teacher must show evidence of how the sabbatical will enrich their students’ experiences and train fellow teachers upon returning. Toronto is one district where it’s extremely hard to get a teaching position, even in schools that mirror those in the US that are very hard to staff. Yes, this story is anecdotal evidence, but I think programs like these elevate the profession and potentially could have retained several excellent teachers I know.

  7. […] the welfare of teachers is inextricably linked to the effective education of children – when we elevate the teaching profession we secure an excellent education for students. Teachers unions play a critical role in advocating for […]

  8. […] time I am unsurprised by the lack of federal solutions to what I believe is a local problem. If education is the Civil Rights movement of our time we can hardly expect legislatures and bureaucrats to do the work of what must be a grassroots […]

  9. […] agree education is at a critical juncture in the United States and that the elevation of the teaching profession would serve as lever to improve our entire system. But how can we expect more respect for a profession with no career […]

  10. […] Several months ago, I speculated that solving the education crisis in our country would involve a grassroots teachers effort much like the Civil Rights movement. I […]

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