In this issue of The Line, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos makes a candid case for elevating the teaching profession by allowing teachers to chart their own professional development path, extending teachers greater autonomy in the classroom, expanding mentorship opportunities and moving away from traditional pay scales to performance-based compensation.
Appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017, Betsy DeVos has led the Department of Education for two-and-a-half years. A Michigan native with a background in business, philanthropy and political activism, DeVos is the 11th person to hold the secretary position since the department was created.
Since the launch of this biannual publication nearly three years ago, readers of The Line have heard from four secretaries of education — Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan, John King, and now, Betsy DeVos — on a wide range of timely and important education topics. Their voices and perspectives each carry significant weight and influence in our nation’s discourse on the future of public education. The Line appreciates not only their service to our country, but their willingness to engage in civil discourse on the subjects covered in each issue.
“Teaching is a tremendous responsibility, but teachers have little of the thing that makes our country great: freedom.”
A great teacher inspires, challenges, nurtures and encourages students. She can turn a book into an experience, or he can turn a hero of the past into a role model for today, and a lecture into a lesson that stays with students for life. Teachers help their students develop their talents and become all they are meant to be. Being a great teacher is a high calling — and no small task. Teachers deserve our gratitude and our support.
Likewise, teachers deserve to be heard when they tell us there is a problem. From California to coal country, teachers have taken to the streets. Headlines suggest the demonstrations arise from disputes over pay, vacation days and benefits.
But if we tune out the bullhorns and look beyond the picket signs, the reality is often the protests are about something more. Perhaps the symptoms mask the underlying issue: a loss of professionalism and public respect.
Teaching is a profession that, given the crucial part teachers play in shaping the future of our country, should be highly honored. Teaching is a tremendous responsibility, but teachers have little of the thing that makes our country great: freedom. It’s time we elevate the teaching profession and empower teachers with the freedom they need to prepare America’s students for successful careers and meaningful lives.
This should be a topic of consensus. I agreed with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, when she recently said: “It’s things like being told to teach according to a set pacing calendar, even if students need more time. It’s getting in trouble for allowing students to continue a debate over two days, instead of one. It’s being treated as ‘test preparation managers,’ as one teacher put it, and ‘drowning in a sea of paperwork,’ as another said — data collection, data entry and data reporting. And, too often, top-down control trumps all else. That hurts students, and it demoralizes teachers.”
She has this view for good reason. Sixty percent of Ms. Weingarten’s dues-paying union members relay that they have moderate to no control over their classrooms. Why does anyone find this acceptable?
It’s time to acknowledge what is and is not working for teachers and for students. It is imperative that teachers have freedom inside the classroom, and that they have freedom to develop the skills they need to excel. They need the autonomy to keep getting better and to advance their careers.
Regrettably, teachers are all too often trapped in a one-size-fits-all professional development paradigm that is poorly aligned to the real challenges teachers face and fails to embrace what teachers, as individuals, bring to the profession as a whole. And those who have the capacity and talent to mentor other teachers and lead in schools are often given an unfair, binary choice between staying in the classroom or leaving it completely to become an administrator. For many teachers, current professional development tools are simply check-the-box exercises that ultimately have little impact.
I regularly visit with teachers from a variety of settings. Almost to a person, they describe their professional development as inflexible, off target and unhelpful. It frequently makes them feel disrespected and unappreciated. I’m not the first or only secretary of education to have this experience. ;”>My predecessor, Arne Duncan, said that when he asked teachers what they thought of systemic attempts to provide professional development, they would “either laugh or cry.”
Local districts spend billions of dollars on professional development programs, yet there has been little improvement in teacher effectiveness. The question of measuring and improving is large and complex. The Institute of Education Sciences recently found that current professional development programs produced only limited improvement in teacher knowledge and no significant improvement in student achievement. These shortcomings are no secret, and there is no excuse for continuing to foist failed policies on our teachers.
It’s time to try something new.
As a starting point, we could do more extensive research in order to understand new and innovative types of professional development programs that are most helpful to teachers and have the biggest impact on student achievement. And we should empower teachers with stipends — dare I say vouchers? — that they could use to take charge of their own career development. To that end, this administration has asked Congress for a $300 million investment in our teachers through the federal Education Innovation and Research program.
For instance, some teachers could use the stipends to develop classroom management skills that are applicable to their unique students and aligned with their own teaching experiences. Others might want to pursue National Board Certification. Veteran educators, for instance, might appreciate the freedom to learn how to harness new technologies for their students. Newer teachers may want to teach a subject for a time, change course and learn a new one for the benefit of their students. Perhaps a veteran teacher would want to do the same.
Our teachers should have the freedom to continue to learn, improve and iterate in their profession.
Additionally, we all know that teachers play a vital role in mentoring their students. But sometimes we forget that teachers benefit from having their own mentors — just as all professionals do. Many teachers have shared similar stories with me: those who had strong mentors are resolutely thankful that they did. It’s a big part of why they stuck with the profession, and it’s why they’re master teachers today. Unfortunately, many promising teachers who had weak mentors — or none at all — are lost to the profession forever.
Despite the acknowledged importance and benefits of mentorships, the most recent Teaching and Learning International Survey revealed that only about 16% of teachers participate in a formal mentorship program. More young teachers need opportunities to learn from the best. It’s common practice in other professions. Promotions are not earned simply by how many years you’ve worked at something. They are earned by those who demonstrate what they’ve learned from others and how they build on that to become great professionals in their own right. In addition to the $300 million proposed for the Education Research and Innovation program, this administration also proposes Congress set aside $200 million for mentorship and residency programs.
On top of those reforms, everyone must seriously address teacher compensation. And let me be very clear: great teachers are paid too little — full stop. That dynamic alone keeps many out of the classroom, and it compels many more to leave it. But uniform, blanket raises further de-professionalize and de-personalize this important profession. Step ladder pay scales are better suited to a 1970s assembly line, where workers are interchangeable (I’ve worked such lines). Teachers who work hard, continually aim higher, bring unique talents and deliver for students should be recognized and rewarded for doing so. This is particularly true for high-demand subject areas like special education, computer science, engineering, mathematics and technology. Performance-based compensation is good for students, and it’s good for teachers and the teaching profession.
Perhaps the greatest infringement on teacher freedom is the limited options they have when looking for a compelling position. From one generation to the next, America’s schools have continued to look the same: one school fits all. That’s one of the major motivations behind the administration’s Education Freedom Scholarships proposal, which would fuel states to be really imaginative in creating new and different kinds of K-12 opportunities for students and teachers alike. Just as families and students benefit from having more options to choose from, so do teachers. When so many lament the fact that too few of our best graduates choose teaching as a profession, common sense tells us that one-size-fits-all schools are not appealing places for the next generation of teachers to work.
It used to be considered a “self-evident” truth that we all have a right to freedom. It’s freedom that has made our country great, and freedom that elevates opportunity and empowers individuals. That’s why education freedom is not just for students and their families. Education freedom is also for teachers. When teachers have freedom, they’re better able to help prepare rising generations for what comes next. That’s good for our students, good for our teachers and good for us all.