A Call to Teaching

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It is a great honor and thrill to be here speaking to you today at the University of Virginia, at the university that Thomas Jefferson founded and in the famous Rotunda that Jefferson designed.

I want to talk today about the teaching profession and issue a call to Americans to become a teacher. I recognize that in addressing an audience composed mostly of aspiring teachers from the Curry School of Education that I may be preaching to the choir.

But I am addressing my remarks not just to those of you assembled today in this majestic Rotunda but to a generation of college students, professionals rethinking their careers, military veterans, retirees and others who may be thinking of becoming a teacher. Put plain and simple, this country needs an army of great, new teachers—and I can think of no better place to start recruiting them then in Thomas Jefferson's hallowed halls.

There is no question that our country needs you. Our children need you. As you know, the world is changing. Unlike University of Virginia students in earlier generations, you and your students will, in a few short years, be competing for jobs in a global economy.

It may not be visible to you yet, but even now, you are competing not with students in your hometown or the state of Virginia but with your peers in China, India, Canada, and Denmark. By 2016, just seven years from now, four out of every 10 new jobs will require some advanced education or training. Thirty of the fastest growing fields will require a minimum of a bachelor's degree.

The education that millions of Americans got in the past simply won't do anymore. In the information age, it is impossible to drop out of school and land a good job. Even workers with high school diplomas but without college degrees are going to find they have limited opportunity. As President Obama has said, in the era of the global economy, "education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success—it's a prerequisite to success."

Now in America, education has always played a unique role. Education, as Horace Mann said over a century ago, is the great equalizer in America. No matter what your race, creed, or zip code, every child is entitled to a quality public education. In making the case for universal education in the United States, Thomas Jefferson sought to "bring into action that mass of talents which lie buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development."

Yet today, two centuries later, we still have not achieved the dream of equal educational opportunity.

Nearly 30 percent of our students today drop out or fail to complete high school on time—that is 1.2 million kids a year. Barely 60 percent of African-American and Latino students graduate on time—and in many cities half or more of low-income teens drop out of school.

I believe that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. And if you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, the classroom is the place to start. Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.

Now the nation's rising educational demands are only half the picture. The other half is that a massive exodus of Baby Boomers will retire from the teaching force in the next decade.

We currently have about 3.2 million teachers who work in some 95,000 schools. But more than half of those teachers and principals are Baby Boomers. And during the next four years we could lose a third of our veteran teachers and school leaders to retirement and attrition. By 2014, just five short years from now, the U.S. Department of Education projects that up to one million new teaching positions will be filled by new teachers.

These major demographic shifts mean that teaching is going to be a booming profession in the years ahead—we anticipate that school districts nationwide will make anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 new, first-time hires a year during the next three years, and as good economic times improve, about 200,000 new teachers will be hired annually.

But the challenge to our schools is not just a looming teacher shortage, but rather a shortage of great teachers in the schools and communities where they are needed most. Right now, high-poverty, high-needs schools often struggle to attract and retain good teachers.

Teacher openings in science and math—subjects that are so important to the future—are often hard to fill with effective instructors. And students with disabilities and English language learners are still underserved. Rural classrooms are facing shortages. We have far too few teachers of color. Nationwide, more than 35 percent of public school students are Hispanic or black but less than 15 percent of our teachers are black or Latino. It is especially troubling that less than two percent of our nation's teachers are African American males.

To make the American dream of equal educational opportunity a reality, we need to recruit, reward, train, learn from, and honor a new generation of talented teachers. This call to teaching as a great public mission of our time is very much in keeping with Thomas Jefferson's own views of education and aspirations for the University of Virginia.

It was Jefferson who favored a school system in Virginia "which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest." It was Jefferson who thought that Virginia should support impoverished students whose talents were "sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use if not sought for and cultivated." And it was Jefferson who thought that teaching, an educated citizenry, and public service were the essential cornerstones of democratic government.

Jefferson reminds us that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. They can help bridge the gap between the world as it is—and the world as it should be.

And so it is that great teachers do extraordinary things— I believe they are absolutely the unsung heroes of our society. There is a reason why so many people remember a favorite teacher, even decades later. A great teacher can change the course of a student's life. They light a lifelong curiosity, a desire to explore, and a hunger for knowledge. It's no surprise that studies repeatedly document that the single biggest influence on student achievement is the quality of the teacher standing in the front of the classroom—not socioeconomic status, not family background, but the quality of the teacher at the head of the class.

I don't know if the Curry students realize this, but a number of our nation's presidents once were teachers. Woodrow Wilson, who graduated from the law school at the University of Virginia, taught at John Hopkins and Princeton and was renowned as a great teacher who was available to his students day and night. Wilson later wrote of his experience that "No one long associated with the profession of teaching can have failed to catch the inspiration of it, or to see how great a power may be exercised through the classroom in directing the thinking and the ambitions of the generations coming on."

Lyndon Johnson was a teacher too, many years before he became president after the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson, for those of you unfamiliar with the details of his legislative record, may have done as much to advance the cause of equal opportunity in America as any president in our history.

It was Johnson who signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that created a federal role to aid disadvantaged students—and that law defining the federal role in K-12 education persists today. President Johnson started the Head Start preschool program for low-income students. He signed the Higher Education Act, marking the first time the U.S. Congress approved scholarships for undergraduate students.

But Lyndon Johnson never forgot his time spent at the front of the classroom. Johnson went to Southwest Texas State Teacher's College in San Marcos, Texas. But he had to interrupt his studies after a couple of years when he couldn't afford the tuition. With a two-year elementary school teacher's credential under his belt, the 20-year old Johnson headed to Cotulla, Texas, a small town not far from the Mexican border, to teach at the Welhausen Ward Elementary School.

Every student at Welhausen Elementary was Mexican American, poor, spoke little English, and literally came from the wrong side of the tracks in Cotulla. No one wanted to teach at Welhausen, so Johnson became both a teacher and the school principal shortly after he walked in the door. There was no lunch hour at the school. There was no playground equipment or supervision—recess consisted of sending the children outside in the Texas sun to stand around on a dirt lot.

So Johnson, despite being strapped for money, purchased sporting equipment. He ordered the other teachers to organize games at recess. He worked long hours and pushed his students to learn English. He organized a debating team so the children could practice language skills and arranged for transportation himself because the school had no bus.

The experience of being a teacher always stayed with Johnson. Years later, he said he "could never forget seeing the disappointment in [the students'] eyes and seeing the quizzical expression on their faces when they had come to school that morning, most of them without any breakfast, most of them hungry, and all the time they seemed to be asking me, 'Why don't people like me?' Why do they hate me?'" "You never forget," Johnson said, "what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scar on the face of a young child."

Now, nearly 40 years later, when Lyndon Johnson signed that landmark Higher Education Act he still vividly recalled his elementary school students. Before signing the bill into law, Johnson recollected "the pain of realizing and knowing that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this Nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American."

Now I don't want to romanticize the role of a good teacher. Teaching is hard, hard work—and Lyndon Johnson and Woodrow Wilson would have been the first to acknowledge that. Even the best teachers have heartbreaking frustrations and disappointments.

But most teachers will also tell you that the rewards of being a teacher far outstrip its disappointments. Teaching is one of the few professions that are not just a job or even an adventure—it's a calling. Great teachers strive to help every student unlock their potential and develop the habits of mind that will serve them for a lifetime. They believe that every student has a gift—even when students doubt themselves.

The teachers that you will remember years later are the ones who wanted you to solve problems like a scientist, write like a poet, see like an artist, and observe like a journalist.

To shape students, to develop their gifts is one of the richest rewards imaginable—and it is a weighty responsibility.

I learned those lessons firsthand as a kid growing up in Chicago. My mother ran an inner-city afterschool program in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago, and raised my sister, brother, and me as part of her program. Every student in her afterschool program was African-American and came from a low-income family. Many of the students had to overcome tremendous adversity every day just to be in that program.

When I was little, the older students tutored me. When I got older, I tutored the younger students. That is her philosophy—the 15 year-olds tutor the 10 year-olds, the 10 year-olds tutor the 5 year-olds, and the 5 year-olds help to clean the tables.

I saw in that program, day after day and year after year, that a well-run tutoring program is a good thing. But I learned that a good tutoring program run by a caring adult was a great thing. The students my mother tutored felt that she understood them, and they knew that she cared deeply about what happened to them. The sense of connection that great teachers create is second only to a parent's love in its power to transform lives.

So I think that teaching should be one of our most revered professions, and teacher preparation programs should be among a university's most important responsibilities.

But unfortunately that is not the case today. In far too many universities, education schools are the neglected stepchild. Too often they don't attract the best students or faculty. The programs are heavy on educational theory—and light on developing core area knowledge and clinical training under the supervision of master teachers.

Generally, not enough attention is paid to what works to boost student learning—and student teachers are not trained in how to use data to improve their instruction and drive a cycle of continuous improvement for their students. Many ed schools do relatively little to prepare students for the rigor of teaching in high-poverty and high-need schools.

In all but a few states, education schools act as the Bermuda Triangle of higher education—students sail in but no one knows what happens to them after they come out. No one knows which students are succeeding as teachers, which are struggling, and what training was useful or not.

Now I am glad to say that the Curry School of Education is a happy exception to many of the trends troubling education schools. As you proceed through Curry, you will have meaningful clinical training and classroom supervision. You will develop rich liberal arts content knowledge. And you will be exposed to teaching in high-needs schools. Nearly 750 students graduated from Curry last year, most with masters degrees or higher.

Now if the nation is going to depend on teachers to boost college graduation rates and remain economically competitive, we cannot avoid depending on teacher colleges to prepare a new generation of teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that schools of education produce about 220,000 certified teachers a year. Alternative certification routes, like Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and teacher residency programs, currently produce fewer than 10,000 teachers per year.

So it is clear that teacher colleges need to become more rigorous and clinical, much like other graduate programs, if we are going to create that new army of great teachers. But I'd also like to see high-quality alternative pathways for aspiring teachers, like the New Teacher Project, the Troops to Teacher program, and Teach for America, expand in coming years.

We need to use every high-quality avenue possible to recruit teachers, whether they are older, successful adults interested in taking a new career path, or college seniors looking to serve the country and work with children.

I'm thrilled that Jefferson's educational ethos remains so vibrant at the University of Virginia. Last year, almost seven percent of seniors at the university applied to Teach for America. This fall, 52 graduates from last year's class began teaching in urban and rural public schools through Teach for America, which gives U. Va. the seventh-highest total of TFA teachers last year among large colleges and universities.

So I hope you go forth from this Rotunda with a sense of possibility. I thank you for your interest, for your courage, and for your commitment to becoming teachers. I am going to strive to bottle that collective passion and take it with me elsewhere as I travel the country.

And as you prepare and train to become teachers, I hope you will remember the lessons of great teachers who went before you. Yes, you'll have some failures along the way. That's part of the process. But you will also have the rare opportunity to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of children, most of them less fortunate than you. Every year, a teacher has 180 days in the classroom to shape human potential—to make that personal connection that transforms lives.

So go to the rural hamlets like Lyndon Johnson's school in Cotulla. Go to the barrios. Go to the inner-city neighborhoods. Help a child with disabilities conquer their self-doubts. Ease the load for a student who speaks little English. Teach science and math with expertise and passion in a school where historically it has enjoyed neither. I think Woodrow Wilson put it best. He said: "We are not put into this world to sit still and know; we are put into it to act." So let us go forth and act.

Thank you.