Schooling the Secretary of Education

January 11, 2016

New York City educator and writer Brian Jones was part of a roundtable with the new Secretary of Education John King. Here's what he and other teachers had to say.

LAST WEEK, I had the opportunity to join a small group of teachers at acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King's very first "Tea with Teachers" conversation during his first week on the job.

The topic was teacher retention. Roughly a dozen teachers and educators from around the country sat around a large conference table with King Behind us along the walls sat perhaps two dozen department staffers, many of whom, I learned later, are former educators appointed by King.

King opened the meeting by explaining that he has roughly 13 months in office before the next administration moves in. The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reduces the power of his agency to enforce standards, testing and curriculum, thus overturning crucial elements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)--though it leaves the overall edifice of standardized testing untouched, as even some supporters of the new law have commented.

King said his first concern is to figure out how to make sure states promote racial and economic equity in education, in keeping with the spirit of the 1965 law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that ESSA reauthorizes. King vowed to focus on students who are "most vulnerable"--including students of color, immigrant students and low-income students. He reminded us that he is the child of teachers and that he worked as both a teacher and as a principal himself. More recently, he was New York Commissioner of Education.

Teachers meet with Education Secretary John King (center, with glasses) for a roundtable discussion
Teachers meet with Education Secretary John King (center, with glasses) for a roundtable discussion (Department of Education)

BEFORE MAKING the trip, I asked several colleagues, on social media and in person, what I should say to John King about teacher retention.

Several of the responses can't be repeated in a family newspaper. Suffice it to say, King made some enemies during his time as New York's education commissioner. He forcefully pushed for teachers to be evaluated based on standardized test scores and vigorously promoted rapid implementation of the Common Core standards in the state.

He did all of this over the rising voices of dissent and protest. The movement of parents opting their children out of standardized tests grew from 80,000 students in 2014 to more than 200,000 refusing to take the tests in 2015. When King organized a statewide "listening tour," he was met by angry parents and teachers nearly everywhere he went, and the tour was cut short.

So as one of two New York educators sharing a table with John King (teacher, blogger and author José Vilson was the other), I approached the meeting with a certain degree of skepticism.

The preparatory materials sent to us in advance of the meeting deepened my concern. In the face of a national crisis of teacher retention, the administration was looking at two policy recommendations: prioritize the retention of "irreplaceable" teachers and strengthen the profession through "higher expectations."

A link to the Department's Reform Support Network, for example, emphasizes retaining so-called "highly effective" teachers. "In fact, the field's real challenge has been to retain more high performers," the document argues, "those teachers who achieve outstanding results with students year after year, and who leave classrooms at the same or only slightly lower rates than their average or less-effective peers." But what is meant by "outstanding results," if not raising standardized test scores?

A second document published by Public Impact also focuses on retaining only "highly effective" teachers. "Top-quartile teachers are so much better than their bottom-quartile peers, who today populate our nation's classrooms in equal numbers," the report states, "that they could close our nation's achievement gaps and raise our bar to internationally competitive levels in less than half a decade."

Through a combination of pay incentives, dismissal procedures for "low performs" and "extending the reach" of highly effective teachers (larger class sizes, online teaching, etc.), the authors optimistically project that "after five years of combining these strategies...nearly 87 percent of the nation's classes would be taught by great teachers, up from 25 percent today."

IN THE meeting, I took issue with these proposals. I argued that as long as the department defines "high quality" as raising standardized test scores, these policies would be old wine in new bottles. Furthermore, the attempt to identify such "high quality" teachers would do more harm than good. It would ratchet up the stakes of the tests and demoralize teachers whose greatness doesn't show up on such a limited measure.

Instead, I argued that the department should emphasize teacher retention--period. Make schools a great place to work. Emphasize the need for smaller class sizes, more autonomy and collaboration. After all, great teaching isn't a magical property that adheres to special individuals. Great teaching can be nurtured and cultivated. An environment that tries to bring out the best in all teachers will cultivate truly great teaching in some.

The idea that a great teacher can be a great teacher in any environment is wrong, I argued. Great teachers can't just be great in any classroom of any size. An amazing Kindergarten teacher with 17 students will have to teach differently with a class of 35.

(Note: I'll quote and paraphrase myself and Secretary King directly, but because our moderator encouraged us not to report what people said in the meeting by name, I'll report what others said anonymously, in fairness to those who did not expect to be on the record.)

Fortunately, I was far from alone in this line of argument. One teacher had learned about the unconventional methods used by John King's own teachers to reach and inspire him as a child. She asked the secretary how such a teacher would fare in today's test-and-punish environment. She described the mood among many teachers as one of "heartbreak," and said that teachers frequently write to her about how much they hate "the system."

Several teachers in the room explained that great teaching isn't innate--teachers can learn how to be great. One said that she was very proud her colleagues had created an environment where teachers who are struggling feel safe asking for help: She called it a culture built around an ethic of care: "We don't just say, 'You suck, see you later.' We say, 'How can we help you?'"

Other teachers echoed the point and talked about how much difference a principal can make in setting the tone for the overall school culture. Several attendees spoke about the importance of creativity, joy and autonomy in the classroom. "Confident, capable, highly intelligent teachers aren't going to want to teach by a script or teach to a test," one woman said.

Another teacher told a story of coming into the profession through Teach for America's (TFA) six-week "preparation." He said he had no idea what he was doing and went back to do an apprenticeship that finally made him feel competent to teach. He called for more apprenticeship models for teacher preparation. As someone who went through a similar program--the New York City Teaching Fellows--I agreed, and added that we should abolish TFA altogether.

As at least two educators pointed out, the "elephant in the room" was money. "This is the richest country in the world," one participant said. "There's no reason why we should continue to try to do education on the cheap." She added that intrinsic motivation was important in education, but "it won't pay the mortgage."

On this point, some of the teachers spoke in ways that might be construed as compatible with the pay-for-performance element in the new ESSA legislation, which incentivizes states to find ways to raise the pay of teachers who raise standardized test scores. Many teachers favored creating jobs in schools that would allow teachers the opportunity to advance their careers while staying in the school building--working with teams of teachers, etc. One teacher argued that rather than use the rubric of test scores for a career ladder, you could leave it to teachers to organize different roles for themselves.

Near the end of our time, one educator lamented that there hadn't been discussion of the importance of cultural competency among the nation's teachers. "Teachers need to believe that their students are fully human and fully capable," he said, adding, "My students know I care about them because of how I address them."

Another participant spoke about the fact that you can't attract people from diverse backgrounds if they have to take a huge financial hit to go through the process of becoming a teacher -- teacher training and apprenticeships need to be funded.

WHEN OUR time was almost up, I tried to get a last word in. A good starting point for policy, I argued, would be to treat teachers the way we want teachers to treat children. If we hang an ax over teachers' heads, they will turn around and threaten their students. As I said this, one teacher down the table called out that this goes for hanging an ax over the heads of administrators, too. Another chimed in "You-know-what rolls downhill!"

Conversely, I concluded, when we give teachers the resources to succeed and the autonomy to think for themselves, we encourage them to do the same for their students. Carrots and sticks only get you so far in the classroom and the same goes for policy.

King wrapped up by saying that he was both optimistic and worried. He said he was optimistic that the end of NCLB opened up the possibility of defining student success more broadly than reading, writing and math scores. He said he was optimistic that the Teach to Lead initiative started by his predecessor Arne Duncan could create a career ladder for teachers. He also said he agreed with the apprenticeship model of teacher education and said he was impressed by a model he saw where student teachers first spent time volunteering in community organizations before they began their apprenticeship.

King said he was worried about whether or not there would be anything he could do on the federal level to raise teacher salaries. He said that there is a lot of Title II money available for professional development, but a school system has to "have a lot of intentionality" in order for that professional development to focus on issues of race and class equity.

He talked about a teacher whose strategy was to consistently kick the Black boys out of her classroom, and said he saw that as a tension between the ideal of creating the best climate for every teacher and the need to get rid of some teachers. He agreed that principals play a large role in creating a healthy climate in a school, and said that in his experience, principals don't get a lot of training about how to do that.

Finally, King said he was worried about students who are learning English for the first time--about the growing linguistic diversity of the student population in comparison to the readiness of the nation's educators to work with them.

He thanked us for our comments, and the meeting was over.

ON MY way out, a staff member stopped to introduce herself. She was a former New York City teacher who was part of a large group of educators brought into the administration by King. She seemed genuinely excited by the new administration and felt that it could be a real shift from the days of Arne Duncan.

I have to admit that she added to my sense of surprise at the tone and content of the meeting. I was pleasantly surprised by the way King spoke, by the presence of so many staffers in the room who seemed to agree with what the teachers were saying, and by this woman's optimism that things could change for the better at the DOE.

The skeptic in me wonders why a secretary with just over a year in office might bring in teachers with large followings on social media (many of the participants have more then 10,000 followers on Twitter alone, for example). Given the way the Democratic Party has systematically led the drive to privatization and union busting, what else could be going on here?

One answer, of course, is that we're in an election year, and it's likely the Democratic Party will spend the next 13 months trying to take the sharp edges off their education agenda and make teachers--a crucial constituency--feel like they're being heard. Making popular teacher bloggers feel heard doesn't cost much.

As I wrote when a progressive educator took over the reins of New York City's school system in 2014, this isn't the time to put down our picket signs. If anything, this is the time to start printing more of them.

In December, before King took over, the Department of Education issued a letter threatening low-income parents that their school could lose funding if too many students opt out of standardized tests. We can't wait to find out whether or not John King will follow up on his predecessor's threat. Now is the time to spread the movement to opt out of standardized testing even more widely. Now is the time to insist on a change in substance at the Department of Education, not just in style.

I'm glad I was invited to have tea with acting Secretary of Education John King, and I'm glad I went. I said the same things to him that I say anywhere I go. Generally speaking, I don't drink tea, and I certainly don't intend to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid. I prefer coffee.

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