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Teaching Profession Opinion

Rick & Maddie on Sec. Duncan’s Earnest Call for Teacher ‘Leadership’

By Rick Hess — March 17, 2014 6 min read
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Rick: On Friday, Secretary Duncan gave an address at the National Board’s inaugural “Teaching & Learning” conference in Washington. At the gathering, Duncan gave a speech on teacher leadership in which he unveiled a new “Teach to Lead” initiative. Now, the timing was odd for a big speech. Friday afternoon is usually when federal officials issue things they want folks to ignore; they get forgotten over the weekend and are dead and buried by Monday. I don’t think that was the intent here, unless the folks at ED realized that a close read of the speech leaves one more predisposed to think of teacher followership than anything else. (My pal, teacher leader, and beloved RHSU guest-blogger Maddie Fennel has a quite different take, and you’ll see hers momentarily).

Duncan called for more teacher leadership and acknowledged that education policy only means something if educators and problem-solvers ultimately make it mean something. Otherwise, it’s a lot of new rules and big words to no effect. I had two reactions to the speech. One, it’s good to see Duncan talking explicitly about the need for teachers to play a leading role in making change happen. Too often, Obama administration officials have seemed to offer teachers banal pats on the head while cheering broad new federal directives.

On the other hand, Duncan went on to blithely tout the administration’s wondrous “series of changes” that’s “raising standards,” changing assessment, and creating new systems for the “support and evaluation of educators.” He said that teachers want “more time, more resources and more information” as they do all this stuff, but never really conceded that any of the criticisms of these are reasonable or constructive. (Come to think of it, he mostly offered teachers banal pats on the head while cheering broad new federal directives.) Indeed, his call for teacher leadership looked like a call for teachers to help promote the Obama agenda--to shill for the Common Core, celebrate new teacher evaluation systems, and be excited that the feds are here to help. Am I being too harsh? You decide. Duncan: “The only way that higher standards, and new systems of support and evaluation, will work, is if teachers lead this change.”

It may be because I never bought into “hope,” “change,” and the magic of Obamaism, but I’m not sure how you can lead on somebody else’s agenda. When you push for what someone else tells you to, it’s usually called “following"--not leading. Anyway, Duncan announced a “Teach to Lead” initiative that he’ll be launching in conjunction with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. From Duncan’s description, sounds like the idea is to gather a whole blob of the usual suspects together to dream up proposals for new teacher leadership opportunities. Color me unimpressed.

Frankly, it’s too late for Duncan to talk seriously about teacher leadership. We’re well into year six of the Obama administration. The agenda is baked. The administration has no new money to spend and no legislative prospects on the Hill. The administration has a few more desultory months before the midterms and then will pretty quickly be transitioning to “turn out the lights” mode. The time for teacher leadership is from the get-go, when the policies are being proposed and shaped. Of course, as I’ve said before, teachers have no inalienable right to shape education policy--they need to earn it by being engaged, constructive, and sensitive to public concerns about performance and cost. (The same is true, of course, for doctors on health policy or anyone else). Sadly, Duncan had nothing to say on this question, about what teachers have done to earn their seat at the table or where he thinks they’ve fallen short (which would explain why it’s taken six years for him to get around to this).

Now, my take here may be unduly bleak. After all, I’m 100% behind the idea that educators need to help lead educational improvement. And, as I noted above, RHSU favorite Maddie Fennell, a veteran elementary teacher, former Nebraska Teacher of the Year, and current U.S. Teaching Ambassador, and who had a hand in the speech, is much more enthusiastic. So, today we’re doing something a bit different, with you also hearing Maddie’s take on the speech and on Teach to Lead. Maddie, it’s all you.

Maddie: Several weeks ago, while guest-posting at RHSU, I wrote, “Teacher leadership is the only thing that’s going to save the education system. Period.” I believe Secretary Duncan made his announcement because he, and other education leaders around the country who don’t spend their days in schools and classrooms, are finally realizing the same truth, “There’s only one way the big, important, difficult changes now under way in schools are going to truly pay off for kids -- and that’s with your [teacher] leadership.”

Is this another “pat on the head” initiative or is this the real deal? As I recently heard Dan Thurmon say, “It takes many small acts, not just one BIG act, to bring about real change.” Here are some early signs that I believe would be strong indicators:

1) Are there practicing teachers involved not only as participants, but as leaders of this initiative? The group MUST be chaired by someone who is living the change this initiative wants to promote--someone who works in a school daily and is actively involved in bridging the “implementation gap” between practitioners and policymakers. You have to walk the talk! And don’t fool yourself that those folks aren’t out there; NBCTs , State Teachers of the Year, progressive union leaders, Teacher Ambassador Fellows, and other teacher advocacy groups are not only hungry for the conversation, but ready to lead.

2) Teach to Lead needs the usual and the unusual suspects in the dialogue. Rick, you and I met because the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching reached out to include the voices of those who traditionally criticized the unions. I didn’t always like what you had to say, but you and others expanded my thinking and strengthened our final report. You can’t limit yourself to the vision of those who comfortably think like you. We need to have folks involved in this who can bring some constructive discomfort.

3) There must be an intentional effort to obtain massive input from some type of “crowd-sourcing” methodology. There were over 2,000 teachers in that room who wanted to be involved and I was immediately inundated with “sign me up” texts and emails. If we want to keep great teachers in classrooms as we systematize this work, we have to engage them. Great teachers who are solution oriented and able to think in the “big system” picture HAVE to be at the table so we don’t keep wasting time in passing bad policies that are intended to help kids but get screwed up. (I have 4 words for this: No Child Left Behind; maybe we should call it No Congress Lets it get Better since they can’t get their shtick together to fix it!)

Rick, when you read “The only way that higher standards, and new systems of support and evaluation, will work, is if teachers lead this change” you heard followership. I heard a humility that was asking for help, even from those in the audience who were truly ticked off at him. After his speech, Secretary Duncan answered questions from 4 of my colleagues I asked to be on the panel because I knew they wouldn’t pull any punches. Sarah Brown-Wessling, James Liou, Kim Ursetta, and Omari James were only the first to hold the Secretary accountable for his promise. I intend to be back at Teaching and Learning 2015 to do what exactly what he asked--"I want you to hold us accountable at this event, a year from now, for what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

You’re a glass half empty kind of guy, Rick; I’m a teacher, so I always have hope. However, I’ve also been around long enough to know “trust, but verify.” You can decry this as “too little too late"; I say it’s about d#$% time--now let’s make this work. Hey, if nothing else, it should help your book sales for The Cage-Busting Teacher [RH: which is due out in early 2015], right?

Rick: There you go. Two fairly different takes. By the way, even if it may be too late, I agree whole-heartedly that “it’s about d#$% time!” And, for what it’s worth, her response captures why I so love Maddie--I love the smarts, hard-headed optimism, and willingness to engage.

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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.