What struck me most was the first question he asked when the crowd and the press were gone and it was just he and I, standing in my 9th grade hallway that was now serving as a secret service holding room: “The question is how do we get this to scale? How do we get the teachers and principals to get this to scale? We know we can find a scattering of dynamic principals and dynamic teachers in each city but how do we get a critical mass to change the entire country?” What was astonishing was just how quickly and how completely Senator Obama grasped the most compelling challenge in American public education today.
It was May 30, 2008, and Senator Obama had come to our school, MESA (Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts) to visit the school and give the first education speech of the general election at a town hall in our auditorium. One of the reasons for his visit was because we are a public school conversion and an example of district wide public school reform. Mapleton Public Schools had closed a comprehensive high school and opened 6 small high schools in its place.
May also marked the graduation of MESA’s first senior class and we had fulfilled a historic promise to have 100 percent of our seniors admitted to a 4 year college. In a community with high poverty rates, low high school completion and even lower college admission this was a significant accomplishment. Senator Obama had come in part to celebrate that achievement, which meant he could have been focused on any number of other issues: what is your counseling program like? How do you get parents involved? How do you integrate art into the curriculum?
These are all important issues, but none get to the heart of what it takes to enact systemic and lasting reform like the fundamental question of human capital. We have been honored to have hundreds of visitors at MESA over the years: elected officials, policy makers, foundation heads, superintendents, teachers and principals, and most of them focus their questions on other details- how big is your budget? What is your discipline plan? How do you make kids do homework? What is the dress code? What curriculum or assessment system do you use? These are all valid and important questions and I frequently ask the same questions when I am visiting other schools-but the essential question for people who are interested in getting reform to scale is figuring out how we find the right people and how we find enough of them. It is the most important question because it recognizes that the most important ingredient in any school’s success is not the discipline plan or the homework policy but the people.
This is the most urgent education challenge facing the country, and the most important question for candidates is how they plan to recruit, retain and reward the next generation of outstanding educators. Without a comprehensive plan to do that, any presidential education plan is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by Senator Obama’s insightful question, because this focus on systemic development of human capital is at the heart of his platform. The central importance of this issue is reflected in his comprehensive plan to recruit, reward and support teachers: recruiting teachers to the places that we need them most by providing incentives for teachers to take hard to fill positions or work in hard to staff schools; rewarding teachers by allowing them to take on increased responsiblity for increased pay (like mentoring younger teachers), and rewarding teachers that are getting transformative student achievement results; and finally supporting teachers by providing funding for more time for teachers to look at student data and modify their instructional practices as well as more common planning time. These platform planks are responsive to the real challenges teachers and school leaders face, and it was refreshing to visit with a candidate whose own personal principles match and inform his platform.
– Guestblogger Mike Johnston