Waiting for American Teacher

In American public opinion it almost goes without saying that teachers should be paid more. The public is especially supportive of increasing compensation for accomplished teachers, teachers dedicated to working in hard to staff subjects, and teachers committed to closing the achievement gap. We’ve seen several polls that demonstrate the sophisticated thinking that both the public and teachers bring to this issue. The 2010 PDK/Gallup Poll is the most recent example, but there’s an extensive body of evidence that has been accumulated by Education Sector and Public Agenda, Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other sources.  With all of the support for higher salaries and a professional compensation system, it begs the question, “Why haven’t we done it yet?”

Enter Dave Eggers’ Teacher Salary Project, and the documentary movie American Teacher.  They identify a core problem in American education – “the real and imminent crisis in our educational system—how little we value our strongest, most committed, and most effective teachers, and the ripple effect this has on how our children learn and their potential for future success.”  With a rare blend of passion and reason, Eggers and company work backward from the right thing – excellent and committed teachers – and they ask, “Can’t we just get to solving the problem?”

American Teacher does not offer a specific solution.  What makes the film worth waiting for, though, is the way it models the tone and demeanor that is necessary to find one.  It is deeply respectful of how high the stakes are for our students, and how hard the work is for our teachers.  It is vividly aware of how much the job of teaching has changed, and that the new professional burdens that teachers carry are one among many reasons to change the ways they are paid.  Most of all, it explains that if we are going to increase teacher pay, we have some tough questions to ask and answer.

For at least a quarter century, policymakers and thought leaders have been looking to answer those questions. Too often, they have lined up in sides and shouted across a table at one another about why their best ideas, and none other, should prevail.  The pros and cons are more than familiar, and teachers are left with variations of the single salary schedule, a compensation technology invented in the era when you had to call an operator to place a long distance call.  It offers teachers a form of security, and it is a tool that school districts use to address matters of basic fairness. It can be serviced easily through collective bargaining or legislation.  But it does not fulfill the wishes of either the public or the teachers, who are making do with a form of security, not a pay system worthy of their evolving profession.

These are tough questions to answer. They can only be answered when people sit down to have tough conversations and find new ways of working together centered around the common goals of improving student achievement and paying teachers a professional salary that they deserve.

Tonight, I will be attending a screening of American Teacher in Washington with Chrisanne LaHue, who is an instructional leader for the District of Columbia Public Schools. Secretary Duncan will give opening remarks.

Click here to watch preview clips of American Teacher.

–Brad Jupp

Brad Jupp is Senior Advisor for Teacher Effectiveness and Quality at the Department of Education

Teaching Ambassador Fellow Lisa Coates Discusses Weathering the Special Education Storm

Teaching Ambassador Fellow Lisa Coates Discusses Weathering the Special Education StormMy desire to become a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow was driven by my professional commitment to the equitable treatment and outcomes for students who have emotional disabilities. On a rainy Thursday last week, I was able to bring my voice to the table and sit down with Alexa Posny, assistant secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and staff from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in a March 10 roundtable discussion.

“Where should the department place its focus for students with emotional disabilities?” asked Assistant Secretary Posny.

The power of that question was pivotal. In the moment that it was asked, my purpose as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow became clear. Policymakers and leaders in the federal government were listening to me.

I did not hesitate to share my concerns for stronger teacher preparation programs and professional development that centers on the leadership for learning and equity and accountability for students with emotional disabilities. Nor did I hesitate to discuss teachers’ needs for time and space to collaborate with a positive perspective for students with emotional disabilities.

Teaching Ambassador Fellow Lisa Coates Discusses Weathering the Special Education Storm Special education teachers faced with increasing complexity, rapid change, and global objectives find themselves weathering a storm of issues that have caused some to leave the profession. State, local, and federal regulations–which should be providing a life raft–instead all to often add to the problem.

One issue I raised in the discussion was value-added performance evaluation systems. Research on value-added models has focused almost exclusively on general education students, but it hasn’t addressed the needs and abilities of other populations. We discussed the need for greater thinking about special education students when using value-added measures of teaching effectiveness.

“Working with such a diverse group of learners, has made me become a firm believer that one-size does not fit all,” I told the group.  In addition, I gave examples and insights into what groups with unique needs endure personally, socially, and academically to meet NCLB’s standards and how such facts need to be put into consideration when determining teachers’ contributions to student growth.

Of course, we did not solve all of the problems of NCLB in one day, but we were able to address many of the special education issues I face every day. We talked at length about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which authorizes formula grants to states and discretionary grants to institutions of higher education and other nonprofit organizations to support research, demonstrations, technical assistance and dissemination, technology and personnel development and parent-training and information centers.

Most important, in the midst of the storm, I felt listened to.

Lisa Coates
Lisa Coates is a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow who teaches in Ashland, Virginia.

Read about Secretary Arne Duncan’s 3/15 visit with students with disabilities at Beers Elementary School in Washington, DC.

Read 3/15 speech to the American Association of People with Disabilities Secretary Duncan Vows to ‘Move Away’ from the 2 Percent Proxy Rule in Assessing Students with Disabilities.

How to Play Catch Up in Math (While Moving Students Forward)

Guest Blog:  John Seelke, High School Math Teacher

This item comes from John Seelke, a high school math teacher and 2007 Presidential Awardee in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST) in Washington, D.C..  I met John at a teacher town hall with Secretary Duncan at SiriusXM in July.  At the time, I was struck by his passion for teaching and reaching at-risk students.  He recently passed along a strategy called “Remediation through Acceleration,” which he uses to help students who are behind in math while teaching the regular curriculum.  –Laurie Calvert, Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow

How to Play Catch Up in Math (While Moving Students Forward)For years, math teachers have faced the conundrum of what to do with students who are in their class but are not fully prepared to tackle the grade-level material. For some teachers, the solution has been to focus on remediation (for example, spending weeks on positive and negative numbers in an Algebra I class). I found this strategy unsatisfying, however, because it continually leaves students with gaps in their knowledge, and those gaps are simply passed on to the following year’s teacher.

As a new teacher at McKinley Technology High School, I struggled to get kids caught up while also teaching them the material within the curriculum.  Fortunately, my principal introduced to me the idea of “remediation through acceleration.” The concept introduces students to higher-level thinking and higher-level problems. Within the context of those problems, the teacher offers remediation to students who need it.

On the first day of the school year, I adopted this method in the first lesson for my pre-calculus class. Instead of spending the class on review, I had the students create a unit circle, using concepts they should have learned from previous classes (plotting points, using a protractor, etc.). By the end of the second day of class, students had used the assignment to create a unit circle and a sine and cosine graph. By monitoring each student’s progress at every step, I could tell which students struggled with math concepts, and I targeted them individually. Most importantly, the students moved ahead with important material in the pre-calculus class and felt proud that they were learning something new.

Download from the IES Clearinghouse: Research on Helping Struggling Students in Math.

Rural Charter School Makes Education Real for Students


The community of Walton, Kansas, has embraced a charter school as a tool for designing an educational program that is meaningful in their distant rural town.

Using a charter school grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the Walton 21st Century Rural Life Center has fully integrated agriculture and project-based learning throughout its curriculum and established partnerships between local farms.

But agriculture is only one of many possible career paths for students at Walton, said Principal Natise Vogt. They learn science while raising chickens and gathering eggs, math and angles while making planter boxes, and both literacy and computer skills while researching wind energy generated by the turbine outside their windows.

Walton has used the flexibility of the charter program in innovative ways to add relevance to the curriculum for his rural students. Students learn by making tangible connections between their education, the community, and the larger global economy. As a result, Walton has seen community involvement and pride increase—along with higher test scores.

“Kids can be excited about learning, and want to learn when what they’re learning makes sense to them,” said Principal Vogt.

The President’s fiscal year 2011 budget requests a $54 million increase in the Charter School Grants Program, seeking $310 million and representing another step toward meeting the Administration’s commitment to double financial support for the program. Where it makes sense, grants from the charter schools program can serve as a tool for innovation in rural communities.

John White, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach

More information about the Charter Schools Program is available from the Education Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement at: http://www.ed.gov/programs/charter/index.html.

Watch a video telling the story of this compelling rural charter school.

View more photos.

Boom Bag Strategy Is a Blast in US History

Karishma Merchant is a master at motiviating students like 11th grader Markus Philson to become involved in American History.

Karishma Merchant is a master at motiviating students like 11th grader Markus Philson to become involved in American History.

Washington, DC — Last month while visiting Karishma Merchant’s AP US History class at Collegiate Academy, I saw a master teacher using a strategy that ignited her class.

The technique is called “Boom Bag.” I saw an entire class of students working in pairs to compete for points as they reviewed material for an upcoming exam. I was struck by how enthusiastic students were and how engaged they seemed in the learning.

Here’s how Ms. Merchant describes the technique, which is easy for teachers to make and is “loved” by her students.

“What I do is on slips of paper write down open ended questions, content specific questions, and skill/strategy-based questions along with an answer [on the other side of the paper]. For open-ended questions, I write down ‘answers will vary’, and I put them in a paper lunch bag. [The bag also includes] slips of paper that say ‘Boom!’ (about a 1/3 of the number of questions).

“In pairs students then face off in a competition. Student A will close her eyes, reach into the paper bag that Student B is holding, pull out a slip with a question, and hand it to Student B. Student B will read aloud the question for Student A to answer.

“If Student A answers correctly, then she gets to keep the slip of paper and count it as a point; if she gets it wrong, it goes back in the bag. If Student A had drawn out a slip that said ‘Boom!’ then she would be required to put all of the slips she had collected from previous rounds back into the bag and start from 0.”

This process goes back and forth, alternating between the two students for a limited time, usually about 15 minutes at the end of class. The points can be used in a variety of ways, like for extra credit or as part of a whole-class contest.

Ms. Merchant’s students said that she chooses the activity selectively, usually using it for several days in a row prior to an important assessment because the students love it and the activity really increases their retention.

When I visited, as soon as Ms. Merchant picked up the boom bags, the eleventh graders began squealing, “Boom Bag! Boom Bag!” and high-fiving one another.

Laurie Calvert is Teacher Ambassador Fellow at the US Department of Education from North Carolina

Karishma Merchant has been teaching history at Collegiate Academy, in Washington, DC, for four years.

Let Students Explore on a Writing RAFT

Lisa CoatesSeeing the 6-word Autobiography posted recently (http://blog.ed.gov/page/2/) reminded me about a writing strategy that I love to use.  I was introduced to the idea several years ago, when Hanover County (VA) Public Schools, as part of their literacy initiative, chose Project CRISS (CReating Independence through Student-Owned Strategies) as a method to encourage our students to become more involved and excited about their learning. 

As part of this, I use a RAFT strategy (Santa,1988) that employs writing-to-learn activities to enhance understanding of informational text. Instead of writing a traditional essay explaining a concept learned, students demonstrate their understanding in a nontraditional format that encourages creative thinking and motivates students to reflect on their reading in unusual ways.  RAFT is an acronym that stands for:

  •  Role of the writer: What is the writer’s role: reporter, observer, eyewitness, object, number,etc.?
  • Audience: Who will be reading the writing: the teacher, other students, a parent, editor, people in the community, etc.?
  • Format: What is the best way to present this writing: in a letter, an article, a report, a poem, an advertisement, e-mail, etc.?
  •  Topic: Who or what is the subject of this writing: a famous scientist, a prehistoric cave dweller, a character from literature, a chemical element or physical object, etc.?

As a middle school special education teacher, I have found that my students can be reluctant writers, but RAFT writing provides them with choices and fosters creativity, while encouraging students to write across the curriculum. 

I also like the RAFT strategy because it builds critical thinking and addresses a variety of learning styles.

How to build a RAFT:

  1. Think about the concepts or process that you want students to learn as they read a selected passage. Consider how writing in a fun way may enhance students’ understanding of the topic. 
  2. Brainstorm possible roles students could assume in their writing.
  3. Decide who the audience would be as well as the format for writing.
  4. After students have finished reading, identify the role, audience, format and topic (RAFT) for the writing. Assign the same role for all students, or let them choose from several different roles.


RAFT Examples for Math

Role Audience Format Topic
Zero Whole numbers Campaign speech Importance of the number 0
Scale factor Architect Directions for a blueprint Scale drawings
Percent Student Tip sheet Mental ways to calculate percents
Repeating decimal Customers Petition Rules for divisibility
Prime number Rational numbers Instructions How to read a graph
Parts of a graph TV audience Script Laws of exponents
Exponent Jury Instructions to the jury Perfect, abundant, deficient, amicable numbers
One Whole numbers Advice column Role of variables
Variable Equations Letter Comparing volume measurements
Container Self Diary Explain differences of triangles
Acute triangle Obtuse triangle Letter Argue the importance of functions

Lisa Coates
Lisa teaches at Liberty Middle School in Ashland, Virginia.  She is a Classroom Teacher Ambassador Fellow.