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A Teacher Quality Manifesto

Posted: 2010-09-22

from the Wall Street Journal, Sept. 22, 2010. The author was named one of the best and the brightest of 2007 by Esquire Magazine and has been quite the media star in 2010.

Ohanian Comment: Interesting that Deborah Kenny advocates what many public schools have eliminated: Teacher treated as a professional whose decisions are respected by the administration. Let's celebrate this wherever it appears--public schools or charters. "Affording a teacher the freedom to do her job": what a concept. "Get out of their way." Do you hear that, Arne Duncan? Bill Gates? Eli Broad? Get out of their way!

The Wall Street Journal stuck on this misleading subhead: What happens to bright teachers stuck in schools that don't have the right to hire by performance and build a culture of excellence? They quit. A more accurate subhead would be: How does a school develop and keep bright, creative teachers? Get out of their way!

by Deborah Kenny

The documentary "Waiting for 'Superman'" (hitting theaters this Friday) and President Obama's Race to the Top competition have focused the national education debate on one question: How can we ensure a quality teacher in every classroom?

So far the answer has centered on accountability: standards, testing, data and evaluations. Accountability is critical. Without it, children's lives are ruined, and as educators we should not be allowed to keep our jobs if students aren't learning.

But accountability alone misses a more fundamental issue. If we want to elevate teacher quality in our country, we need to stop treating teachers like industrial-era workers and start treating them like professionals.

For the last seven years at Harlem Village Academies, we've been obsessed with teacher quality. Our strategy from the start was to attract talented people, create an environment where they could develop into great teachers, and hold them accountable. We were confident the results would follow.

Our teachers have indeed produced outstanding results, with test scores that rank our schools among the best in the country in math, science and social studies. Visitors see smart, driven, caring teachers in every classroom and ask us all the time: How do you do it? The answer: culture.

Culture—how people feel at work, how they are treated, and the values exhibited by their colleagues—determines the caliber of people who are attracted to an organization. Once hired, culture determines whether people will do their best work.

There are three aspects of culture that attract and develop effective teachers. The first is ownership. We need to trust teachers, affording them the freedom to do their jobs. Instead of mandating curriculum and micromanaging, we need to be clear about the goals, then get out of the way.

In our academies, teachers choose their text books, work closely with principals to make important school-wide decisions, and are not overly bothered with administrative work. A culture of ownership inspires teachers with an entrepreneurial spirit to turn on a dime and solve problems quickly. (One of our tenets: "If we ever become a bureaucracy, please shoot us.")

When a teacher has an idea, we say run with it. A math teacher took his fifth-graders on a 14-hour bus ride to Notre Dame University, where they became fired up about college. Ownership engenders passion and commitment in teachers, which inspires the same in students. In one classroom, a writing teacher is motivating students with a wacky song about homework, while another is leading a Socratic-style seminar with 28 students engrossed in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The second element is teamwork: helping one another, having fun together, and treating each other as we would want to be treated. Gestures of camaraderie—a cupcake on your desk with a note of appreciation, or an email from a colleague to join a Saturday football game—create a sense of family that makes teachers happier and more productive.

For teachers, teamwork also means the principal has your back in difficult situations, and the operations director works tirelessly to support you. We've learned the hard way that culture does not happen by itself. It's like marriage: It has potential to be the deepest kind of love, but you need to really listen to the other person and nurture the relationship.

Finally, schools need to elevate learning by creating a rich intellectual environment where teachers are treated as scholars and everyone is passionate about continually growing. The most profound professional development comes from teachers observing each other's lessons, doing a play-by-play analysis, and sharing ways the instruction could be even tighter the next time.

Our culture of learning means that we are relentless about ensuring that every child succeeds. Walk into the teachers' office on any day and you see teachers looking at student work together and using data to create tutoring groups. Some even individualize homework.

When a culture supports teachers to do their best work, students' lives change. "I used to get Fs and Ds on everything," a seventh-grade girl told me, "and I thought I would never make it. Now I get As and Bs, and I've learned that you can do anything if you put your mind to it."

Adult culture sets a powerful example for children. When an observer commented that he had never seen middle-school students showing so much kindness to each other, a special-education teacher explained, "I think they can tell that we're all a little bit in love with each other." The reason our kids are nice to each other is because their teachers set a tone of kindness and respect.

What happens to bright teachers stuck in schools that don't have the right to hire by performance, provide teachers with freedom, and build a culture of excellence? They quit.

Teachers who were underperforming in their old schools become rock stars in a positive culture. One outstanding math teacher said recently, "I was merely competent until I came here. Now I have clear goals and my good ideas are recognized and valued." A veteran art teacher said, "The culture changed my entire attitude." And last summer, a science teacher said, "I used to feel stagnant at work, but here our physical needs are met so quickly and our emotional and intellectual needs are taken so seriously. I get more done in a day than I used to accomplish in a month."

As the chief executive, I've made many mistakes over the years, but nothing has changed my reverence for teachers. The only way to fundamentally change public education is to build a culture in our schools that attracts talent, brings out passion, and holds teachers accountable for results. The task is urgent—children's lives are at stake.

Ms. Kenny is the founder and CEO of Harlem Village Academies. She is writing a book about her life and the founding of the schools.

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