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Learning to Ride the Bike

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This essay by Nevada science teacher Valdine McLean is adapted from testimony she gave during recent congregssional hearings on the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. McLean delivered her comments before the Committee on Education and Labor of the U.S. House of Representatives on the theme "Boosting Quality in the Teaching Profession."

As part of a new partnership, is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

How do you learn to ride a bike? Do you learn by reading the history of bicycles, or the owner's manual, or by naming all the parts, makes, and styles? The answer is soundly no! If you don't get on the bike, you'll never know how to ride it. Once you learn, you never forget.

Quality science teaching is about riding bicycles. Science teachers who don't teach students "how to ride the bike" do not promote the 21st century learning our economy needs. They do not produce the scientists of tomorrow or the engaged and inquisitive citizens required in a functional democracy. The "highly qualified" teacher provision of the No Child Left Behind Act may promote the recruitment of teachers who can teach students to name the parts of the bike—or meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals by answering all the facts on a single annual test—but it does little to assure that teachers will be able to prepare students who can compete successfully in a bicycle race.

I can't imagine teaching science without the bicycle in mind—without offering and coaching students in daily laboratory experiences, from extracting DNA to investigating the water quality of a 200 mile section of Nevada's Humboldt River. All of my students are expected to learn how to do the work of scientists, while learning science.

I can't imagine my English language learners and special education students not being able to use technology to produce slide shows, short videos, and Web pages to demonstrate their understanding of difficult concepts, in an appropriate time frame and without embarrassment. I can show you how they, too, can learn at high levels through skillful teaching, even though their standardized test scores do not always reflect what they know and can do.

Because I understand that science is not always easily accessible to students, I frequently develop cooperative projects with colleagues in art, shop, English, and computer science. One example is a "pumpkin catapult" activity we do every fall. It involves more than half of our student body—as well as parents, businesspeople, and others from throughout the community and the region—in hands-on lessons about physics and physical science. Activities like this also focus on skills identified by expert panels of industry and education representatives as important to the success of individuals and our economy in the 21st Century—skills like cooperation, teamwork, tolerance, effective communication, and friendly competition.

Disparities in Pay

The bike-rider analogy applies not only to students, but to teachers. To become a quality teacher, you have to have your own opportunities to ride the bike—and to ride it in increasingly challenging situations. Earning your college degree and passing subject tests are the equivalent of riding with training wheels—they only get you so far. School systems must provide the resources and support that will ultimately enable teachers to perform with great dexterity in the "bicycle rodeo."

A talented teacher shouldn't have to wait 25 years to earn the reasonable salary that a talented engineer might earn in the private sector in eight years.

A year ago, I accepted the invitation to join the TeacherSolutions team, supported by the Center of Quality Teaching and its Teacher Leaders Network, in hopes of transforming the teaching profession. We chose professional compensation as the first of many issues we hope to engage through our collective voices. Our resulting framework proposes that school systems pay teachers more when they help students learn more over time, and when expert teachers serve effectively as mentors, coaches, and teacher educators who help other teachers be more successful.

Aspiring teachers rarely go into teaching for the money. However, once we are hired, we quickly see who does what and for how much. There is great disparity in a pay system that rewards teachers simply for remaining on the job. Experience does not equate with quality. A talented teacher shouldn't have to wait 25 years to earn the reasonable salary that a talented engineer might earn in the private sector in eight years. If any private sector company stifled its employees in such a fashion, it would go out of business.

In order to lead and earn more money, teachers are forced to take administrative jobs where their teaching expertise is often not used. Can't we encourage our best to stay in teaching by offering them chances to work with teacher-education students, mentor novices, and train colleagues while still teaching children part of the time? Our best surgeons perform an operation one day and prepare future doctors the next. Why can't our pay systems do the same for teachers?

This country needs "bike riders" who are world class learners, who can become the leaders of tomorrow with the global skills necessary to take this great nation not only into the 21st Century but forward into the 22nd. To get these world class riders, we must recruit, retain, and reward teachers who are not only qualified to explain the workings of the bicycle, but can teach students how to get on that bike and ride it to the top of the hill.

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