Press Release

Richard Lemons

Vice President for K-12 Policy and Practice

The Education Trust

Testimony to the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching of the

National Education Association

February 10, 2010

If you will humor me, I thought it useful to anchor my comments within a set of personal experiences dating back some  20 years when I first entered the teaching profession.

As a recent graduate certified in secondary social studies, I sent out resumes to several districts and schools throughout North Carolina. Although obligated by the North Carolina Teaching Fellows scholarship to teach in the state, I had no strong geographic preferences. I heard from a couple of schools, and soon got interviews with two different schools in different districts. The schools served large percentages of poor rural and poor urban kids, respectively.

These two interviews went exceptionally well, with both principals lauding my performance and assuring me they wanted to hire me—I was all but shown the classroom where I would teach. And I wanted to work for either of the principals. They were thoughtful, they asked great questions, and they were concerned about my development and growth as a professional.

However, there was a “but.” They couldn’t hire me . . . “yet.” The district offices had not yet green-lighted filling the positions. As a result, the principals told me to hold on and be patient. They would be able to hire me, perhaps in August. (Please note that teachers were slated to report in mid-August.)

A couple of weeks later, a principal from a large and more affluent high school invited me to an interview. A day later, I had an offer. Although I was less interested in that position that those from the other two schools, I took the job—I was 22, and I need a guarantee that I could pay my rent.

As a first-year teacher, I worked hard simply to survive.

My content knowledge was lacking. Now teaching world history—a course I didn’t take in college—I spent my evenings trying to learn the historical facts and trends just prior to having to share them with my students. I also had no experience making sense of standards, which our district had just introduced, and I didn’t know how to use state frameworks to drive my instruction.

I did spend a couple of hundred dollars on alternative text books and teacher’s lecture outlines so that I could simply seem smarter than the students. (Again, I was 22, and I thought at the time that being a good teacher meant looking smart.) I pulled a handful of all-nighters, literally forgoing sleep so that I could show up in the morning feeling prepared for my classes.

My pedagogical knowledge was limited to mimicking the practices of former high social studies teachers or those I observed during my clinical training. I begged my colleagues for strategies, and I vividly remember having a long conversation with my department chair about needing to fill my “bag of teaching tricks” to better meet the kids. The larger part of that conversation was how to reach the students in my “basic classes,” whom I failed to engage, whom I failed to help see the relevance of the content, whom I failed.

My chair, though intelligent, passionate, and earnest, could not provide guidance, as he had been lecturing his way through the rarified air of advanced placement (AP) and honors classes for a decade. In the end, he helped me land on the same conclusion the rest of my department had long reached: Some students were harder to reach. No more how well you lectured—and believe me, I appreciate the irony of this statement today—some kids were not up to the task.

So, I performed for my students. I danced and sang, trying desperately to liven up the dates and facts of Cleopatra and Clinton, while discussing notes on a chalk board as the students feverishly copied them in their note book. It was a draining 180 days of labor. I have never worked so hard in my life.

That first year I taught several sections of world history, with a total roster close to 150 students. The sections ranged in levels, with me teaching a range of “regular” classes and “advanced” classes. On the whole I taught a fairly heterogeneous mix of students—black, brown, white, very affluent, and very poor.

And then something changed. Toward the end of that first year of teaching, I won a teaching award. I was honored as one of two first-year teachers of the year. I was awarded a plaque, photographed with the superintendent, profiled in the paper, appointed to a superintendent’s task force on instructional leadership, and I was the invited speaker before a large crowd of current and future teachers. And that summer, the school flew me to an elite prep school in Connecticut to be trained as an AP government teacher.

I had made the big time. I was—quite literally—going places.

The following year, I taught all advanced, honors, or AP courses. And if my memory serves me, I taught perhaps one African-American child. And while I can’t put my hands on the data, I am absolutely confident that the percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch dropped to all but zero.

If time allowed, I would also tell you of the tragedy when I was assigned to teach pre-algebra to some of the poorest and most mathematically behind middle-school students in Charlotte. Remember, I’m certified in high school social studies. But that’s a story for another time.

Pathologies of the Profession

If these experiences were random and idiosyncratic, they would be the makings of a disturbing yet humorous memoir of a first-year teacher. But what I didn’t get at the time is that these are pathologies of our profession—trends that replicate themselves and that seem absolutely normal in the culture of schools. These pathologies undermine the profession and, more importantly, the path of students, especially the students of color and poverty we have long marginalized.

1.  We often handcuff schools and districts serving a larger percentage of poor and minority kids, leaving them last in the hiring cycle. By the time they begin making firm offer letters, the applicant pool has become awfully shallow.

2. We underprepare our teachers for the complexities of the task, toss them in challenging situations, and expect them to learn on the job. Or we simply assume they already have learned it. If we are thoughtful, we give them the teacher’s edition of the book. And all too often, we expect our least experienced colleagues to teach in the most challenged environments, without resources or support.

3. We drop teachers into highly atomized work environments, expecting them to spend little meaningful time with other adults collaborating on the core business of schools—teaching and learning.

4. We provide very weak supervision and evaluation, often performed by people who don’t know what good learning looks like and conducted as an anemic ritual.

Research shows that these shoddy evaluation systems evaluate everyone as performing well, creating the fallacious sense that our profession is like Lake Woebegone, where all teachers are well above average.  Research also demonstrates that we have a wide range of effectiveness in the profession, and the impact on student learning is vast.

5. We identify quality without any reference to measured student learning. And we do this when we know that having an effective teacher three years in a row versus having an ineffective teacher three to four years in a row is akin to closing the achievement gap.

A parenthetical note: I should not have won that teaching award. I have no evidence that I helped students learn, much less learn deeply and in ways that would prepare them for life beyond graduation.  I built relationships with them—no small thing I know. I entertained them—perhaps a precursor of intellectual engagement for some. Beyond that, I’m not so sure. I’m not sure how anyone could have been sure.

We know something now we didn’t know 20 years ago—how important teachers are. The difference between top and bottom teachers is equivalent, in some content areas, to more than a year of instruction.

6. We incentivize and reward seeming effectiveness and years of experience with the opportunity to teach more highly valued courses—AP, honors, special content areas. We over-assign our new teachers the students who are farthest behind and hope miracles happen, or perhaps, more honestly, too many of us don’t expect any great success. We just need someone to teach these classes, and first-year teachers don’t have the political clout to push back. As for not knowing who is effective, once teachers begin teaching the more valued tracks and courses, a recursive but fallacious loop is often set in motion: “He teaches successful students; he must be successful.”

Given all of these realities, it should be no surprise that numerous studies have shown that highly qualified and effective teachers are not equitably distributed—high-poverty and high-minority schools have more than their fair share of very weak teachers in a district.   But lest we think this is simply a between-school issue, high-poverty and high-minority classrooms have more than their fair share of weak teachers within a school.

So where does the profession go from here?

We need to assure that the human resource functions of schools and districts do a better job of discerning potential effectiveness. And we need to make sure high-poverty schools and districts are not left behind in the race for talent. We should go even further in our lowest performing schools, giving our “turnaround schools” first crack at the best teachers and protecting them from the least effective.

1. We need to a better job of preparing teachers to work within the current reality of schools. Teachers need to know how to reach all students, they need to know their content, and they need to know how to work with standards.

We need to assure that those students who need more to catch up and thrive are given our best—not our least experienced, least qualified, and least effective. We need to align the incentives of the profession with the ability to produce learning for students—all students. We need to figure out who is the most effective in helping students achieve.

And yes, this means creating and using some measures of teacher impact on student growth over time. And no, this is not about punishing teachers: This is about giving teachers meaningful feedback on their performance so that they can grow, learning from the  most successful teachers—how do they plan, what is their practice, and so on. It’s about better understanding the practices of those teachers who succeed in accelerating the learning of those who come in most behind.

2. And this is about equity. To do this, we have to hold schools and districts accountable for not stacking the deck so that our poor and minority students draw the low card, year after year.