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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Transforming Teaching

By Maddie Fennell — July 23, 2012 6 min read
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Note: Maddie Fennell, former Nebraska Teacher of the Year and chair of the National Education Association’s Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, is guest posting this week.

In just three weeks I will be starting my 23rd year as a classroom teacher. I have taught 1st, 6th, and now I teach 4th grade, all in inner city Omaha (yes, Omaha does have an inner city -- and the unfortunate statistics to prove it.) I’ve been a proud member of the National Education Association (NEA) and a union leader since before I began teaching. I was active in the NEA Student Program during my college years, and I even worked at NEA for two years before I began teaching.

So what’s a nice union girl like me doing blogging in Rick Hess’s space?

Well, short answer... he invited me. When I met Rick I was pleased to find that we actually agreed on several things (and that he didn’t really have horns and a tail as I’d been warned.)

Rick and I met because, at the request of NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, I chaired the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching. Rick agreed to be on our Advisory Committee; we were looking for divergent opinions to engage in our work.

Today I’m going to share more with you about our report, Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning, which Rick endorsed as “surprisingly terrific.” The report is both a vision for the future and a call to action for our profession.

In July of 2010, President Van Roekel called on NEA members to take charge of leading the transformation of the teaching profession, and called for a special Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching to wrestle with critical issues facing our profession.

The Commission, which began meeting in December of 2010, was independent of NEA and focused on the task of clearly defining what an effective teacher does, knows, and is able to demonstrate.

The 21 accomplished educators who comprised the Commission built on our own professional experience, the collective thinking of our colleagues, and conversations with and research from with those with expert knowledge in various content areas.

We examined our existing reality and reached the conclusion that the current policies and processes that govern teaching have failed to create a system that supports a high-quality profession. Those with little understanding about the teaching profession have been allowed to establish programs, set standards, and shape policies that impact teaching and learning. Absent a new approach to teacher policy, it is unrealistic to expect schools and teachers to prepare all students with the skills and knowledge necessary for the 21st century and beyond.

Our work took us across the country to engage with dozens of education experts and--even more importantly -- thousands of practicing teachers from every type of school and community. Both teachers and experts were eager to engage in meaningful conversations about our profession, define the meaning of effectiveness, and take responsibility for the work of teachers and student learning. Through this dialogue, common themes began to emerge as educators shared not only their dreams for what we could become, but also their ideas for how to translate those dreams into reality.

All students deserve an effective teacher. To make this a reality, the teaching profession does not need tinkering, it needs seismic changes in recruitment, preparation, professional development, and the evaluation, retention, and dismissal of educators. Our nation's primary and secondary education system is interrelated -- it involves students, teachers, parents, administrators, policymakers, and other key stakeholders. Teacher involvement in instructional decision making must be significantly increased. Teachers must be physically present wherever and whenever decisions are being made. Teachers need to do more than simply implement others' policies and visions. Teachers around the country embrace accountability when it comes with the equivalent authority in decision making.

Those conversations, and additional research, helped us build a vision that will strengthen the teaching profession and ensure that America’s students are prepared for tomorrow’s global challenges.

Our vision is of a profession that clearly and visibly puts student learning at its core and guarantees that students acquire the critical thinking ability, ingenuity, and citizenship skills they will need to thrive as 21st century citizens.

What we’ve created is a mosaic; a vision of change that can be realized from the smallest school district to our largest urban areas. We learned from our successful colleagues in Singapore that change must be made comprehensively and systemically. We understand that many of our suggestions may need to be implemented incrementally, but they also must be seamlessly interwoven in their execution.

The schools we envision develop students’ academic knowledge, critical thinking skills, and ability to innovate, while also attending to their overall well-being.

Our vision for the teaching profession rests on three guiding principles:

Student learning is at the center of everything a teacher does. Teachers take primary responsibility for student learning. Effective teachers share in the responsibility for teacher selection, evaluation, and dismissal.

We envision a teaching profession that embraces collective accountability for student learning balanced with collaborative autonomy that allows educators to do what is best for students.

For us, “accountability” doesn’t simply mean counting test scores - and “autonomy” definitely does not mean that teachers get to close their doors and do what they want.

Instead, we work collectively with our fellow educators to develop our skills, knowledge, and best practices, and independently apply that knowledge in our daily work. We share responsibility for student outcomes and collectively, our professional choices and judgment are honored. As education professionals, this improves both our professional status and the quality of public education.

We believe that the most difficult part of this work may actually be changing the CULTURE of teaching. We all know that you can change policy without changing people’s beliefs and actions.

Real change will come teacher by teacher.

The transformation will begin when teachers claim authority to set and maintain high-quality standards of effectiveness and develop systems that ensure the integrity and continuous growth of the profession instead of accepting a position at the end of the decision making line.

We must redefine accountability as relational rather than numerical. Accountability isn’t about the numbers we achieve on a test. Real accountability is accepting the trust the public has in America’s teachers and embracing our professional and individual responsibility for student learning and well-being.

We need to make our practice public -- open our doors, step into the corridors, and share responsibility for all our students, including the most challenging. We envision a professional culture in which effective teachers are attracted to the most challenging schools where students’ needs are highest.

We need to empower ourselves to be the change agents we know are needed! We have to stop making movies about teachers who are only effective when they go outside a broken system and instead move forward and change the system itself!

Transformational change requires collaboration among a wide variety of stakeholders. While teacher quality is often viewed as a local issue, it is also a national responsibility.

The last component of our report is our Call to Action, which focuses on the commitment that will be needed to actualize the vision of this report:

We call on our fellow teachers to join us in changing the culture of teaching; We call on our institutions of higher education to work in genuine partnership with practicing teachers to reform every aspect of teacher preparation; We call on school districts to embrace teacher leadership and implement both proven and innovative programs of evaluation, peer review, and compensation; We call on state education agencies to think beyond state borders and help to create systems for the teaching profession based on a shared, nationwide vision of great teaching; We call upon state legislators to support programs that work and to put students and teachers ahead of bureaucracy and politics; We call on the U.S. Department of Education to support a national, teacher-led (not federal government-led) transformation of the profession.

When the Commission report was released, NEA responded with “NEA’s Three Point Plan for Reform”, which outlines three specific Commission proposals upon which NEA would take immediate action. At the same time, President Van Roekel developed the Joint Committee for Leading the Profession. The Committee, comprised of local, state, and national union leaders, was charged with developing a definition and action plan for how NEA can lead the profession.

Change is needed in our profession; if we don’t choose to lead the change, then we will be forced to react to the changes being forced upon us. The Commission -- a collaboration between accomplished educators who developed a vision and a call to action -- was a first step, but it’s going to take an entire network of willing change agents to transform our profession and the education system. As the largest teachers union in the country, the NEA is taking responsibility for the quality of teaching and for student learning, and leading a substantive collaboration among all stakeholders.

--Maddie Fennell

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.