Good afternoon. My name is Kathleen Melville, and I am a teacher in a Philadelphia public school. This is my tenth year as a teacher, my sixth in the School District of Philadelphia. Today was my second day of school with my one hundred ninth graders.
I’m also a founding member of Teachers Lead Philly, a network of practicing teachers here in Philadelphia. At Teachers Lead Philly, we believe 1) that education is the most important challenge facing our city, and 2) that the best lever for positive change lies in empowering teachers. Teachers are the people who know the most about what conditions and what changes will best help kids learn. We are experts, and we are professionals, but we rarely have a say in the decisions that affect our professional lives and the lives of our students every day. Teachers should be a defining voice in education policy, but in the current climate, we have to fight to be heard.
Today, I’d like to speak to you today about two issues. The first and most important is our responsibility for equity in education. And the second is an opportunity to re-envision the teaching profession so that we can build the education system that our children deserve.
On the issue of equity, I’d like to thank Representative Sims for pointing out in a recent Op-Ed that Pennsylvania is one of just three states that do not use a funding formula to fairly distribute funds among its school districts. Because of this, children in Pennsylvania’s poorest communities are going to our state’s most underfunded schools. In other words, our kids who need the most are getting the least. Needless to say, this educational inequity is widening an already-startling gap between rich and poor in our state. I can tell you that my students and their parents still believe in the promise of education as a ticket into the middle class. For many of them, it is gospel. And it breaks my heart to know how profoundly Pennsylvania is failing to deliver on that promise. Representatives, if I were in your shoes, my most urgent priority would be to establish a fair and equitable funding formula for public education.
On the issue of the teaching profession, I’d like to say a few words about the quality of teachers here in Philadelphia. In my ten years as a teacher, I’ve taught in three very different schools. At the beginning of my career, I taught drama at the most prestigious private school in Guatemala. Then, when I returned to Pennsylvania, I taught for two years at a highly regarded Friends school on the Main Line. And now I teach in the School District of Philadelphia. And I can tell you unequivocally that the best teaching I have seen is taking place not in the expensive private institutions but in Philly public schools. Teaching a ninth grader to read is far more challenging than it is to assign novels to ninth graders who have been reading since they were four. Conducting class discussions is far more challenging when five of your students are still learning English and five have not eaten anything since yesterday’s school lunch. Guiding a child through the college application process is far more challenging when that child’s parents never went to college. Philadelphia teachers rise to these challenges every single day, and it makes them some of the best educators that I know. We rise to these challenges despite more difficult working conditions, despite being assigned to teach subjects outside our areas of certification, despite the instability created by high rates of staff turnover, despite crumbling buildings and unsafe neighborhoods. Because of these challenges, many of them specific to urban environments, I regard Philly educators as preeminent professionals in the field.
And I don’t mean simply to laud urban teachers for their willingness to sacrifice. It bothers me when people gush, “Oh you must have a heart of gold to be working with those kids!” It doesn’t take a heart of gold to do my job. My students and their parents give me reasons to admire them every single day. What it does take is a rigorous intellect, a resilient creativity, a deep respect for young people, and a commitment to the common good. Teaching is highly complex work, both inside and outside the classroom. On multiple levels - intellectual, cultural, emotional, physical - it is both demanding and stimulating.
I love my job. And that’s why it also bothers me when people ask, “After teaching, what’s your next step?” They assume that because I am a product of elite institutions, because I am smart and ambitious, teaching is only a steppingstone for me. Surely, I am on my way to some more important or prestigious career, one that pays better and garners more respect. I see this as a tragic undervaluing both of teachers and the students we teach.
I believe we need to re-envision the teaching profession. We need to begin to think of teaching more like we think of medicine – as a career that is as important as it is demanding, as respected as it is necessary. We need to make it a priority to attract, retain, and empower great teachers. Even in the midst of Pennsylvania’s education crisis, I believe there are ample opportunities to take steps toward this vision of the future.
As state legislators, you have an important role to play in building the foundation for a better education system in Pennsylvania. There are so many ways you can contribute.
First, start thinking of teachers as leaders of educational reform. Far too many decisions about education policy are made without a single practicing teacher in the room. Invite teachers to the table. If you don’t know any teachers, email me. I will get you one who is informed on education policy and ready to engage in research and decision-making. Teachers are experts on student learning and on the conditions that make great education possible. We understand how policy translates into practice, and we have great ideas about how best to help our kids succeed. Listen to us.
Second, beware of two dangerous red herrings in the current discourse on education reform. The first is seniority. This is an issue that has been blown way out of proportion and used primarily to demonize teachers’ unions. Its proponents claim that giving principals the power to hire staff regardless of seniority will significantly improve learning outcomes. I agree that there is value in hiring staff that fit with a school community’s particular goals and culture. In fact, I would be happy to see the School District of Philadelphia begin a transition to full site-selection by instituting it for all new hires. To insist on eliminating seniority now, however, at a time of record lay-offs and catastrophic instability, strikes me as nothing less than an ingenuous political maneuver designed to cut loose Philly’s most experienced and highest paid teachers. I fear the move toward a system that values inexperience, compliance, and cheapness over experienced professionals with strong, informed opinions. I see the push for eliminating seniority as an effort to push out experienced teachers in order to reduce costs. Those of us who are truly interested in building a healthy education system see the debate over seniority as a short-sighted distraction. There are so many more important ways to improve the system.
That brings me to red herring number two. Much has been made recently of the importance of teacher quality in improving educational outcomes. In many cases, this has led to near-paranoia about the “bad” teachers who are ruining our children’s chances at a better future. How can we identify them? How can we get rid of them? But again, I see this as a short-sighted distraction. Even the highest estimates put the number of incompetent teachers at no higher than ten percent. We’re devoting extraordinary resources toward hunting down this elusive ten percent, stirring up all kinds of anxieties and contentious debate. Meanwhile, we could be using these resources much more effectively to engage and develop the other ninety percent of our teaching force. Instead of trying to reverse-engineer an effective teaching force by finding and picking out a few bad seeds, we should invest in producing a higher quality crop from the start. Instead of using our resources to identify a small proportion of incompetent teachers, we should focus on building a system that raises the bar for all teachers and reshapes the profession as a whole.
I see a couple of ways to do this. First, we need higher and more unified standards for teacher education and entry into the profession. In order to raise the bar for entry, we probably need to raise teachers’ salaries in order to attract top college graduates (and not just for two years before grad school, but for the long haul). Second, we need more integration between K12 education and higher education. Philadelphia, for example, is one of the world’s richest educational ecosystems. We have some of the best universities, but that distinction does not extend to our public schools. We need incentives to bridge the gap between the ivory tower and the public commons. In the world’s best education systems (like Finland and Singapore), teachers and professors work together closely to produce research, pilot new programs, and learn from one another. More integration between K12 and higher education will make Pennsylvania an innovative, attractive place for teachers to pursue exciting, productive careers in education. And lastly, we need to increase support in terms of both time and resources for teacher-led professional development and collaboration. Research and my experience show that top-down mandated professional development is almost never successful. The best professional development is designed and delivered by teachers for teachers and directly addresses the needs and goals of specific school communities. As I’ve said before, teachers have the expertise and the vision to transform education. We need you to trust us with the resources to do our jobs well.