I’ve spent most of my adult life working as an education reporter, including 11 years at the Chicago Tribune. I visited hundreds of classrooms and learned valuable lessons about inequities in our system. But the lesson that most endured in my mind is the power of high-caliber teachers and principals.
As a reporter, I saw veteran teacher Judy Fromm coax Rayola Carwell out of her shell and re-energize the third-grader’s love of learning. Diminutive and indomitable, Fromm peppered her lessons with “sweetie” and “honey.” But she always demanded that her children at Chicago’s Stockton Elementary School perform to their full potential.
I watched novice teacher Montie Apostolos change the life trajectory of 34 eighth-graders at Sherman Elementary on Chicago’s South Side. A veteran of civil rights battles in Mississippi, she talked of fighting off water cannons, captivating her students and pushing them to greater achievement gains.
And I was awed by Principal Joan Crisler, a lightning bolt of energy who reigned over Dixon Elementary with warmth and resolve. She built a culture of literacy that motivated teachers and propelled students to excellence.
There are thousands of similar stories out there. Unfortunately, the public conversation about teachers has been dominated over the past year by talk of shortages, strikes and how the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision will affect teachers unions.
These are important topics that need to be discussed. But we should use these events — and the energy they’ve generated — to jump-start a conversation about elevating and modernizing the teaching profession and ensuring that our most vulnerable students have excellent educators.
Between 2008 and 2015, the nation saw a burst of policy changes around educator quality. Nationwide, states, including Illinois, overhauled teacher evaluations, tenure and dismissal rules. They crafted plans to ensure that underserved students do not get a disproportionate share of unqualified teachers. And they raised the bar to get into teaching.
Since then, educator quality has fallen off the table as a top policy issue. That’s a shame because research shows that teacher effectiveness is the primary in-school driver of student outcomes. It also shows that low-income students and students of color are least likely to have top-notch teachers.
Let’s leverage the energy around strikes, shortages and the Supreme Court decision to change that. And let’s ensure that union leaders, legislators, higher education administrators, state and school district officials and rank-and-file educators are at the table. Of course there are differences of opinion, but everyone has a reason to be at the table.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post recently that noted that 52 percent of teachers surveyed said their policy perspectives are only “somewhat” represented by the union, while 20 percent said they were “not very much” or “not at all” represented.
Teacher preparation programs in Illinois face their own worries. They watched their enrollments plummet by as much as 40 percent from 2000 to 2015. That has left some urban and rural superintendents scrambling to find special education, bilingual, math and science teachers.
It’s clear that fewer young people want to go into teaching, and current teachers want new policy solutions to ensure they are supported to grow in their craft. A few suggestions for state and local policymakers to consider as they try to attract and retain top talent:
Launch a statewide campaign — with teachers as ambassadors — to draw young people, especially those of color, into teaching.
Incentivize higher education and K-12 to work together to create pathways that let aspiring teachers earn college credits in high school, then move into postsecondary teacher preparation programs.
Provide incentives for teacher training programs and school districts to work together to align supply and demand, and also make it more rooted in K-12 classroom practice.
Provide more time in the school day for teachers and principals to plan and collaborate.
Create career ladders that let teachers take on leadership roles for extra pay.
It’s time to revive the educator quality conversations and develop policies that make sure we have more stars like Montie Apostolos, Judy Fromm and Joan Crisler.