Wanted: Really Good Teachers

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“It’s all about the talent.” This is the conclusion that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other education reformers have come to after years of focusing on everything from class size to charter schools. Duncan is right. We all know what a difference a good teacher can make – one who not only knows the content but takes the time to make real connections with each young person, and not only sets high expectations but also facilitates success. We also know, however, that good teachers are not just found in public school classrooms.

Duncan is not only leading the call for talent development, he has decided to tackle one of education’s most sacred cows – teacher tenure. To win one of the Education Department’s coveted Race to the Top grants, states have to agree to implement a no-exceptions agreement to end seniority-based compensation and job security agreements in teacher contracts (this single criterion counts for more than one-third of the points).

What Duncan hasn’t done, however, is call for a broader definition of “teacher.” But, on the other hand, neither have we.

As the battles heat up around the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), many in youth work and youth policy stand ready to defend the funding streams set aside for out-of-school or school-linked programs. But how many of us are ready to argue for broader definitions of teaching and learning, and of teachers and learners that could bring this country’s education policies into the 21st century?

There are plenty of principals and superintendents who recognize the importance of expanding the definition of education to include non-academic competencies (like social and emotional learning). How many of you are willing to expand the definition of what you do to include teaching? Don’t good teachers and good youth workers have more commonalities than differences? If educators are moving quickly toward adopting “whole child” and “whole day” as the undervalued but important goals, should we be quickly positioning youth workers and youth programs as underutilized strategies?

I know we’ve worked hard to define youth work, youth organizations and even youth development as complementary to teaching, schools and academic achievement. I know, as Jane Quinn noted in her Youth Today column in May, that the term “youth development” is not as prominent as it was a decade ago. I agree with Jane that this is, in some ways, because the tenets of youth development have been embraced by policymakers and reformers as ways of achieving the country’s end goal: young people ready for college, careers and life.

Having broken through the surface of education policy, however, I believe those of us in youth work need a deliberate strategy to ensure that those tenets are not just absorbed into discrete pockets and programs, but unleashed to accelerate or allow for a series of system changes that could fundamentally change the education system as we know it.

Obviously, we need to keep our eyes on the various proposals to maintain or expand funding and coordination with youth-serving community-based organizations, parents and other systems (for example, the WE CARE, Keeping the PACE, Full Service Schools, DIPLOMA and RAISE UP acts). But we can and should do more to get to the grown-ups’ table. Youth development tenets and metrics (such as non-academic student competencies) have to be overtly integrated into education policy and incorporated into definitions of merit for teacher compensation and retention.

Everywhere the legislation pushes for expanded time, place, methods or staffing, we need to argue not only for funding, but for expanded data collection systems so that our value-added to learning time and learning outcomes can be counted.

Everywhere the ESEA legislation defines student outcomes, we need to argue for an expanded definition that includes all arenas of development – academic, civic, social, emotional, physical, vocational. Let’s prepare a consolidated list that represents the intersection of Developmental Assets, 21st Century Skills, and Social Emotional Learning and create the one-stop guidebook to measure the outcomes.

Everywhere the legislation mentions training or supports for teachers and principals, we need to argue for the potential inclusion of language that addresses the need for context as well as content training – training in creating learning environments. We also need to argue for language that acknowledges the secondary roles that are played by any and all adults who have accepted formal responsibility for improving this broader definition of youth outcomes. This would include non-classroom staff employed by public schools, the staff of organizations that have partnered with schools, and the staff and directors of organizations that have stepped in to assume responsibility for young people no longer enrolled in schools.

The “whole child” window has been opened. But it has opened in the midst of a huge push to transform schools that has educators focused inward to find solutions. This is not because educators believe they can do it alone. It is because they know they have to do it and are not at all clear about what those of us outside of the education system have to offer. We know. Under a broader definition of teaching and learning, we have good teaching standards and replicable practices, we have good learning outcomes and promising measures, and we have a motivated workforce that’s ready to demonstrate and grow its teaching talent.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. An expanded version of this column and links to related readings are available at http://www.forumforyouthinvestment.org.