President Obama at a recent lunch with teachers in the Blue Room of the White House. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is at the far left. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Here is the third in a series of pieces I have been publishing about a lunch meeting that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan had recently with four teachers from high-poverty schools that focused on education, the teaching profession and school reform.

The first was a post by teacher Justin Minkel — the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, a board member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and a member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory — who explained what he and his colleagues told Obama and Duncan.  He wrote, for example, “Scripted curricula, test prep, and micro-management are anathema to that kind of school culture, and they have a devastating effect on both teacher recruitment and retention.” You can read that piece here.

A few days after that I published a piece with reaction from readers, which you can read here.

Here is a third piece that asks whether Obama and Duncan actually heard what the four teachers were telling them. It was written by  Barnett Berry (@BarnettCTQ), chief executive officer and partner at the Center for Teaching Quality, a national nonprofit that supports teachers to transform the teaching profession.

By Barnett Berry

American students of color and poverty are far more likely to be taught by inexperienced, less prepared teachers, many of whom are teaching out-of-field.

Last week the Obama administration announced a new effort to recruit and retain “better teachers” for America’s high-need schools, launching the Education Equity Support Network. The effort is expected to “correct a national imbalance in which students who need the most help are often taught by the weakest educators.”

But before we raise our glasses to toast the USDOE’s 50-state equity strategy, let’s look at what it includes.

The USDOE has dedicated less than $4 million to the effort, set to focus on many of this administration’s (and, come to think of it, the Bush administration’s) policy proclivities: (1) grading teachers’ effectiveness on the basis of standardized test scores; (2) offering recruitment bonuses to entice “effective” teachers to move to high-need schools; and (3) jettisoning due-process employment policies to quickly get rid of those who do not produce high enough value-added scores.

In short: the 50-state equity strategy is to blame individual teachers. Or reward them. Blame individual teachers while blithely ignoring the real problem… a dysfunctional system that underdevelops and undersupports teachers, and does both with impunity when it comes to students in high-need communities. Reward individual teachers while ignoring the empirical evidence… which shows that working conditions are far more important than bonuses in persuading teachers to stay or leave their classrooms.

Don’t believe the research? Ask teachers themselves.

Last week, President Obama and Secretary Duncan turned to four classroom practitioners to discuss what it really takes to recruit and retain effective teachers for high-need schools.

Justin Minkel, an Arkansas teacher deeply committed to serving students living in poverty, was one of the four. I know Justin as a member of the CTQ Collaboratory, a powerful virtual community of more than 6,000 teacher leaders. His blog posts regularly present compelling arguments for a profession that is laser-focused on the interests of children—and what he wrote about the teachers’ meeting with Duncan and Obama is no exception. That post made quite a ripple, transcending the debates that often take place among “no excuses”school reformers and teacher union leaders.

For example, Justin says he and his peers raised questions about the current basis for judging teachers, shifting the focus from identifying “good” and “bad” teachers to creating a system that boosts the quality of teaching: “If we provide mentoring, collaboration time, and job-embedded professional development, the vast majority of teachers will continue to improve. Most people want to be effective at what they do. That is particularly true of professionals who have chosen to work with children.”

They raised how autonomy, collaboration time, and potential for innovation can set the stage for next-generation teaching policies that promote the equitable distribution of teachers.

How could Secretary Duncan act on what four teachers shared at lunch with our nation’s leader? Consider these four possibilities:

  1. Launching school-university residency programs inside of our nation’s high-need schools to fund year-long internships for 40,000 recruits who are prepared in and expected to teach in cohorts for at least five years in those same communities.
  2. Creating incentives for states to identify and certify teacher leaders for high-need schools, paying them more when they spread their teaching expertise to colleagues within and beyond their districts;
  3. Requiring the Education Equity Support Network data profiles to capture and report on teaching conditions such as autonomy, collaboration time, and potential for innovation—benchmarked to the recent findings of the Teacher and Learning International Survey (TALIS);
  4. Supporting a large cadre of classroom experts to redesign a teaching and school accountability system that recognizes the demands of 21st-century teaching and learning.

Duncan can point to ample research evidence to make the case for these investments. He can also highlight key features of the education systems found in top-performing nations, as well as what works well in other professions. Since the 1940s, the U.S. federal government has subsidized medical training to fill shortages and build teaching hospitals and training programs in high-need areas—a commitment that must be now expressed in public education and the teaching profession.

But most powerfully of all, Duncan can point to the perspectives of teachers like Justin. Who know high-need schools inside and out. Who are invested in their profession. Who are committed to the best interests of the children they serve.