How Should We Support New Teachers? Arne Duncan Hears From NEA-Student Members

How can this nation do a better job of attracting, supporting, and learning from great teachers? U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan really wants the answer to that question—the country really needs the answer to that question, he said—and he got it on Monday from a group of NEA-Student members.

These future teachers were frank: They want to be respected for their choice to serve students, schools, and communities, they said. And they want to be better supported as they make the transition from student to teacher.

NEA student members meet with Education Secretary Arne Duncan (far right) at the Department of Education. Photo: Mary Ellen Flannery

“I just ended my master’s program,” Virginia Vogelman, a graduate of New Jersey’s Montclair State University, told Duncan. “And now I am finding that my union is the only place I can get help in transitioning from college to the classroom. And they’re offering experienced educators as trainers, which is so important. The only way we’re going to get high-quality teachers is if we have educators leading educators.”

“That unions are stepping up is phenomenal. Districts and unions need to do it together,” Duncan said. “What do you think we spend on professional development each year? $2.5 billion. But when I say that to teachers they usually laugh or cry. They are not feeling it. We have to do better with professional development money.”

The conversation between Duncan and the NEA-Student members was the latest in a yearlong series of U.S. Department of Education-hosted “forums,” where small groups of students have helped to inform federal education policy and guidelines. Among the attendees were newly elected NEA-Student chair David Tjaden of Iowa and outgoing chair Tommie Leaders of Nebraska, as well as: Daniel Hendrix and Brittany Jones of Virginia; Krista Scanlan, KeShanda Golden, and Mercedes Barbosa of Maryland; Christopher Graham of North Carolina; Caryce Gilmore of Tennessee; and Vogelman.

Teacher education was a hot topic, of course. Maybe future teachers don’t need so much theory, Duncan proposed. Maybe they need more information about “how to engage with their students,” said North Carolina’s Chris Graham. “A lot of those challenges in the first three years (of teaching) could be alleviated if we just knew how to engage with students,” he said.

“There are some fantastic schools of education,” Duncan said. “There are some in the middle and there are some that are poor. We are pushing hard to get them to change, but I’d give us a C-minus. We haven’t moved stuff.”

How can the Department encourage true collaboration between school districts and colleges of education—that’s the real solution, and it doesn’t always happen, countered Caryce Gilmore. “There’s a county in Tennessee that wanted to stop taking student teachers altogether,” she told him. Duncan guffawed. “I was desperate to get student teachers in Chicago! That’s your talent pool!”

Duncan likes the idea of “residencies” for new teachers—yearlong, classroom-based programs that pair rookies with veterans, in the manner of medical hospital-based residency programs—and so does NEA. In its three-point “Leading the Profession” plan to improve the teaching profession, NEA has advocated for every future teacher to participate in a full year of residency under the supervision of a master teacher, and also undergo a rigorous classroom-based performance assessment at the end of his or her candidacy.

While the students offered answers, they had just as many questions for Duncan, and challenged him to explain current Department thinking around minority teacher recruitment, education funding, Race to the Top, charter schools, and more. “When you talk about charters and innovation, isn’t that the stuff we want to bring to regular public school classrooms?” asked Virginia’s Daniel Hendrix.

“This isn’t about charter vs. district. It’s education success vs. education failure,” Duncan said.

But they found agreement around the necessary role of educators in policy discussions. “We have so many great teachers, but we haven’t listened. And teachers are so nice they haven’t demanded a seat at the policy table… . Stay in the classroom, but speak—and speak together. People will have to listen,” he told them.