Standards Opinion

It’s Time for an ‘Education Spring’ in American Public Schools

By Marilyn Rhames — December 11, 2013 5 min read
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I was on a panel recently with Chris Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers and Anne Bryant, Executive Director Emeritus of the National School Boards Association. We were engaged in an incredible conversation about the effectiveness of the U.S. education system and the current debate regarding the Common Core State Standards. All three of us are ardent supporters of the Common Core. That was clear.

But it was a question from the audience that forced a bit more granularity about our hopes and wishes for the new standards: “Given the increasing polarized rhetoric around education in our country, what is the future of the Common Core and other reforms in American education?” The person asking the question works for a company that supports schools and districts and was genuine in her concern about where to focus her efforts.

My view is that like any efforts to improve and transform public education, the Common Core will not succeed if we do not engage teachers as the experts and leaders in the process. But if we do allow teachers to lead the way on the transition to the new standards, I believe we’ll see a powerful impact on student learning.

I’ve seen this firsthand throughout my tenure as a school administrator. When teachers are given the time and space to meet, collaborate and plan around curricula design, delivery and assessment, students always benefit. About a year into my tenure as superintendent of schools in Rochester, NY, we identified the Rochester Curriculum as one of the pillars of the district’s reform plan. The goal was to advance and support the heart of our work in Rochester: classroom instruction, led by the experts closest to the work-- classroom teachers. The Curriculum was a teacher-created online instructional framework that provided a common language and vision for innovative, student-centered and resource-rich instructional planning across all schools in the Rochester City School District. All units were aligned to the New York State Standards and identified key concepts, common understandings, essential questions, and student performance outcomes.

While the Rochester Curriculum brought structure to the process of planning, delivering and assessing the effectiveness of instruction, it did not detract from the art of teaching. It was a map, laying out the concepts and skills that all students must be taught in a logical order, leaving teachers the freedom to determine how best to meet the needs of their individual students. As we moved toward the Common Core, these same teachers led the work of integration and re-alignment, placing us well ahead of the New York State Department of Education’s implementation of new standards. I know we would not have had the level of quality, relevance or rigor if we had not put this work in the hands of our master teachers.

This leads to a larger conversation about the role of teachers in education reform.

My years as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, principal, district administrator, and superintendent played a role in the “reformer” I am today. Engaging with thousands of teachers in the last few years has convinced me that the teaching profession will not be changed by accountability, policymakers or superintendents. It will be changed by teachers. Even long-standing structural issues around how we compensate, evaluate and support teachers will move once we yield the podium to our teacher leaders through innovative approaches that represent their collective voice.

I think it’s time for an “Education Spring,” where teachers across the country rise up and take on leadership over their field.

But we have to give them pathways to make an impact. Fortunately there are a number of “teacher voice” organizations (e.g., New Voice Strategies/VIVA Teachers, Teach Plus and Educators for Excellence) that have emerged in this space and are shaping national and local policies. All three and the Albert Shanker Institute were part of a recent panel at the Center for American Progress discussing New Organizations, New Voices: The Landscape of Today’s Teachers Shaping Policy, a new report published by the Center. Policymakers and education leaders will do well listening to and leveraging these new organizations.

Teach Plus and New Voices (VIVA) have been instrumental in creating and supporting teacher leaders across a number of states. New Voices Strategies, led by Elizabeth Evans, has created a number of policy briefs for state and district superintendents, USDOE and the Gates Foundations, among others. These briefs were created and delivered by current, veteran classroom teachers.

I have another reason to be optimistic. I recently connected with the founder of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE) whose mission is “to develop, leverage, and retain our nation’s top-tier teachers for improved student and school performance through an intense, advanced program of study that balances instructional mastery and leadership.” Tony Klemmer, the founder and president, is an amazing educator who is leading change in teaching by focusing on deepening practice. He believes that through deepening practice we will create an army of expert practitioners committed to excellence in teaching.

Like medicine and other highly regarded professions, teaching will greatly benefit from a structure that gives teachers ownership of their development, evaluation, compensation and practice. School systems are complex organizations, and we continue to engage in great efforts to reform using multiple entry points from governance to funding to curriculum. However, all of these elements exist, or should exist, to facilitate and support the work of the classroom and the relationship of the teacher and student.

We witness leadership in the classroom every day. It is leadership born out of passion, experience and perspective focused on students. Transformative change will ultimately come from the voices closest to our students - the leaders in our classrooms and schools.

JEAN-CLAUDE BRIZARD is a senior advisor at the College Board. He is a former chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools and former superintendent of the Rochester (N.Y.) City School District. He is currently a board member for New Voices Strategies/VIVA Teachers.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course 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.