In Keynote Speech, Bennet Says New Approach Needed to Support, Reward and Retain Talented Teachers in America's Public Schools

In a Speech at Center for American Progress, Bennet Emphasizes Central Role Teachers Play in Improving Student Outcomes

Washington, DC - In a keynote speech before the Center for American Progress, Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator for Colorado and former Superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, highlighted the need for a new approach to support, reward and retain talented teachers in America's public schools and stressed the important role they will play in improving student outcomes and preparing our kids for the new economy.

"We have got to come together and design the system that's a 21st Century approach to attracting and retaining teachers to our schools," said Bennet. "It is a national conversation that we should be having because this is a national issue that we have. I think that we should be doing everything that we can to encourage the kind of innovation that we see in Denver and see in other places."

In his remarks, Bennet highlighted the need to fundamentally transform our approach to recruiting and retaining talented teachers in America's public schools, and cited steps taken by the Denver Public Schools drive student achievement and improve student outcomes.

Bennet also stated that school districts across the country have proven that improvement is possible, and that the country must continue to identify and bring to scale successful models that drive student achievement and prepare our kids for the new economy.

Click here to access the event footage. Scroll to minute 5 to watch Bennet's presentation and his answers to audience questions.

A full transcript of Bennet's remarks is included below:

Thank you all, it's great to see you this morning. I really appreciate your letting me have the chance to come. I'm going to try to be as brief as possible. Having said that, I'll break that promise. And we'll have some Q&A afterwards. I want to recognize CAP's great work here and acknowledge two people from Denver with whom I have had a very cherished relationship. My union President Kim Ursetta, who's here, who ran the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, with whom I battled, with whom we struggled, and with whom we made a huge difference together. And with Brad Jupp, who worked with me side by side from the day I became Superintendent, Brad was a union leader in the Denver Public Schools for many years. He came over to work with me and to help refine and develop Procomp, and he is one of the true educational reformers in this country now working for Arne Duncan. And it is a great pleasure to see you. Even though we work in the same town, we never ever see each other anymore.

And to CAP, I want to thank you, John, for focusing on what really matters, rather than the reform of the day, the flavor of the day. But to understand that fundamentally and at its core, education, just like almost everything else, comes down to the human beings that are actually in the class. And I'm very grateful for your focus on that and for the focus on the panels on that and the papers you are going to hear. I looked at them last night, and there's a lot of good stuff in there, so you are going to have a good conversation today.

I always start by reminding people what we are really dealing with here because not enough people in the country understand what the outcomes are for kids in our country. I'm going to give you a couple statistics, I'm not going to bore you with a bunch, but I'll give you a couple. One, when I took the job as Superintendent of the schools, one of the most alarming statistics that I read was that on the 10th grade math test administered by the state, in a school district of 75,000 children and a city of 550,000 people, 33 African-American students were proficient on our 10th grade math test, and 61 Latino students were proficient on our 10th grade math test. Fewer than four classrooms-worth of kids in that 75,000-child school district proficient on a test that measures a junior high school standard of mathematical proficiency in Europe.

We know that children in poverty by the time they get to the 4th grade are already two to three grade levels behind their middle-class peers. And we know that today's 4th graders that are living in poverty, stand a one in two chance of graduating from high school and a one in 10 chance of graduating from college. Those are the same odds by the way, their older brothers and older sisters had and the same odds their parents had - a 1 in 10 chance of graduating.

Our economy has already transformed itself. If you look at the last job creation we had in the United States of America, we created about 5 million jobs that required a four-year degree. We created somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 or 3 million jobs that required something less than that in terms of post-high school education. We lost jobs for people without high school diplomas. We lost jobs for people with a high school diploma, but not any work in college. That trend is not going to reverse itself. So these gaps that we have, that we confront today, if we do nothing different, are only going to grow. And they are going to grow exponentially.

We're not going to have time today to talk about all of the things that we need to change in our delivery of public education, which by in large owes its design to Colonial America and to the period right around World War II. We could take up the whole week talking about what we could do, but this is what I want to talk about today. In my view, there's nothing more important for us to recognize, than that we no longer live in labor market that discriminates against women and says you have two professional choices - one is being a teacher and one is being a nurse. Our entire system of training, of compensation, the way we think about retaining teachers, evaluating teachers, the way we think about inspiring teachers, maybe that's the most important thing, belongs to an era that no longer exists. And we got away with the system that used that discrimination to subsidize our public education system and to say, you know what, we are going to have the very best people in our classrooms, willing to teach Julius Caesar every year for 30 years, because nobody is going to ask them to do anything else.

This is not a political trope for me. This is the hardest job anybody can do, is teaching in one of these urban school districts. It's harder than whatever anybody else here does besides the teachers that are here. And we have got to come together and design the system that's a 21st Century approach to attracting and retaining teachers to our schools. And what I would just submit at the end of that, I'm going to say one more thing, is that the policy conversation we're having right now, is not at risk of actually dealing with the issue that we're confronting. It is too narrow, it is too small, it is a national conversation that we should be having, because this is a national issue that we have. And I think that we should be doing everything that we can to encourage the kind of innovation that we see in Denver and see in other places, encourage the kind of discussions that Kim and I had. They were tough, but they were worth it. And it shows it can be done.

The last thing I want to say is this, and this is something I really thought hard about last night before I came. One of the acquired learnings that I had, based on my time in Denver, is that there is enormous reform fatigue in this country. There's huge reform fatigue among our teachers. There's huge reform fatigue among our principals. And that's a particular problematic when you're dealing with a culture, that is defined, as much as this culture is, by mistrust and by worry. And so, while I used to say that our reform, our instructional reform, was absolutely breathtaking in its lack of originality, and I continue to believe that, our approach was different. And for reasons that I don't understand, no one else seems to be doing it.

So, let me give this to you as an idea for the people that are actually thinking about the policies and asking the question of yourself: how do we actually get this done? How do we move from a good idea, to getting it done? How do we deal with the conflict that inevitably arises in schooling? And, I think that the first piece of that is recognizing how tough the culture is and reasons why. It's hard when you've dedicated your life to teaching and your kids don't seem to make any progress and you lose all sense of your efficacy or collective efficacy, and that's tough. That's a tough starting point.

So, here were my two ideas on this and I thought they worked out well. One was, before I became Superintendent I asked Brad about this, I said that I would meet every morning, virtually every morning, with a group of 15 of our principals for two hours in their schools. Every three weeks I saw every principal in the school district for two hours, for the nearly four years that I was Superintendent of schools. And the conversations were not about who got left on the bus, or was the boiler broken, the conversations were all about teaching and learning.

I'll give you an example, it was this narrow. For three weeks, we took around the same one and half page piece of student work. It's important for people to look at student work. Here's how professional development goes in America on student work. It's important that you look at student work. Go back to your building and tell your teachers they need to look at student work. We took the same one and half page piece around with us and we would pass it out to the principals. It was a 4th grader's writing, but we did it the same writing at every level. And the same thing would happen every single time. Which is, people would look at this, and they would say I can't read this, this doesn't make any sense to me, this looks like a foreign language. And just when they would crescendo, my chief academic officer would say, based on what you've read what are Nancy's strengths as a writer. So everybody would have to dive back into the piece of paper and for an hour we would have a discussion where people would say Nancy writes from left to right, she has some sense of story structure, she spells high frequency words correctly. We'd say, why is that, and they would say, well maybe she had a vocabulary test and we'd say maybe. Or maybe her teacher has a word wall in her classroom that she's using to scaffold her instruction. The point is we don't know, but let's not make an assumption about that. And then, they would say she has stamina as a writer. Which would turn out, for reasons that I am not going to bore you today, not to be true.

Then the last part of our conversation was how do you take what you just went through and what you just learned back to your building and engage your teachers in this conversation, so that the instruction changes, not next year, not after professional development next summer, but in the next period, for Nancy and for all the Nancy's that are in every school district in our country who are writing something that our own folks are saying they can't read. That had an enormous impact on the culture because we built a principal core that understood that their job was not to keep the system the same; it was to change the system. And by in large they understood that their job was not to grind down the people that were working with our kids but to try to support them. And, I don't remember the numbers exactly but, the DCTA did a survey of its members every year and there was a question on that survey that said from the teachers. The question was, my principal supports me as a professional in the building and respects me. That went in a year from something like 35 percent yes, to something like 71 percent yes. Can you imagine how much easier it is to do the kinds of reforms you all care about and I'm thinking about when people feel like they're being respected by their principals.

The second thing I did was that I said I would meet with every faculty in the school district every single year. We had 150 schools, give or take, and we spent an hour. Five minutes at the beginning is all I took and the rest of it was completely open and completely free form. And the point of it was, the first year to be a piñata. To have people say, which they said, the first year, Kim will remember this, we were here before you got here, and we are going to be here after you leave. And you know nothing about what it is we do every day. To which I could say you're correct about that, that's why I'm here. But the next year what it allowed us to do is we were implementing the reforms, was to get feedback directly from the teachers, unmediated by the bureaucracy. And they would say things, like you must not have intended this, or you guys are completely out of your minds for doing this.

The one I remember that comes to mind today is a very simple one, we had gone to standard-based report card, no more ABC and D and F, but 1,2,3, and 4. The standard-based report card. Because of the reform that we did, because of what I did as Superintendent, teachers were no longer able to print their report cards at their desk when they needed them for their kids. The IT department was printing these things in the building downtown and then trucking them to our teachers when it was convenient. Because of their feedback, we changed that, we took that pain point away from people and we didn't, eh, other things. Except for Kim Ursetta's. But no, but there things like that, that we changed.

And in January of the second year, we cut a video that said based on the feedback you guys have given us, here are all the changes that we're making to the reform that we're engaged in. Something that had never happened in the history of the Denver Public Schools, which was people actually listening. So my final observation is this, we need to radically change the delivery of public education in this country. But we're not going to do it if we don't intend to, the cultural work that has to be done to make sure we go faster on this, rather than slower on this. Thank you.