Teachers at the table
A frequent complaint of teachers is that they aren't at the table when school improvement strategies are developed.
When they aren't at the table, they end up being on the menu.
During the last decade, teachers have absorbed much of the blame for what's ailing American schools. The teaching profession presents an easier target than the seemingly intractable problems of poverty, single-parent families and shrinking tax digests.
The Georgia Legislature, for example, has all but abandoned traditional public education, adopting the cartoonish rhetoric of "government schools" where liberal teachers indoctrinate children to unionism, vegan diets and electric cars. In debates in the General Assembly, teachers are often seen as adversaries and impediments rather than as assets and resources.
Yet, evidence from the remarkable education turnaround in Finland shows that involved and impassioned teachers are a critical element to invigorating schools.
Teachers were also central to the transformation of one of the nation's largest and highest-performing districts, Montgomery County, Md.
Montgomery now has the best overall high school graduation rate among large districts, as well as the highest graduation rate for African-American males. It leads the nation in Advanced Placement participation and achievement. In 2012, the percentage of Montgomery County African-American and Hispanic graduates earning a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam surpassed the national average for all graduates.
In tracking its students beyond high school, Montgomery found that nearly half the graduates from 2001 through 2004 earned a bachelor's degree within six years, compared to 27.5 percent nationwide
In Atlanta this month to address members of the National Education Association, the Montgomery superintendent who led those impressive results told teachers from around the country how the district did it.
"The most underutilized resource is you. Everybody is telling you rather than listening to you. What we did was listen. And when we listened, we organized a structure that drove a new culture, and that culture drove the graduation rate," said Jerry Weast, who retired from Montgomery County in 2011 after leading the system for 12 years.
The important dynamic in Montgomery was giving teachers the lead, said Weast. Among the changes that followed: Diffusing central office power. Creating bonds and collaborations among all school employees, including cafeteria staff and bus drivers. Bringing teachers to the table to set budgets, train administrators, induct new employees into the district culture -- including Weast's own replacement -- and revamp curriculum. Developing trust, stability and hope and speaking openly about sensitive issues, including race.
"When we worked together, that's when the magic happened," said Weast. "We had to develop our own tribe, have our own tribal culture."
"I can take no credit. They led the charge. They took over everything, and they held themselves responsible for it,'" Weast said of his teachers. "And they innovated new solutions."
The Maryland district drew national attention for its Peer Assistance and Review. The PAR program employs senior teachers to provide support and feedback to all novice and underperforming teachers. If the mentors don't believe a teacher is improving, the decision to fire the person goes to a panel of eight teachers and eight principals, all with equal votes.
"It took three to five years to build the trust to get PAR in place," Weast said. "Teachers had to see we weren't playing 'gotcha.'"
Montgomery also stopped following education fads, Weast said. "You have to have stability and persistence, folks, and consistency over the time. Don't be running around chasing every new little rabbit."
Nor is there any payoff to criticizing staff. "Beating up on teachers isn't going to get us there," said Weast.
"What I learned from the business community (is), they don't run around saying bad things about their employees," said Weast. "They don't use pejorative words like 'reform.' Go home tonight and tell your spouse you want to reform them. And see what happens."
Teachers in his county wanted to do more than prepare students; they wanted to inspire them, Weast said.
"You have to have people engaged. You can have all the strategic plans you want. But it's the people who execute the plans who make a difference."
"If you prepare students and don't inspire them, they are going to live in your basement," Weast said. "If you inspire them and don't prepare them, they're going to cost you a lot of money-- and then they'll come back to your basement."