Last Wednesday, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the Reading Public Schools and, along with DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester, MTA President Paul Toner, and others, engaged in conversation with Reading teachers, administrators, and students about the state of education in Reading, our state, and the country.
This focused conversation on educational policy and issues began prior to Secretary Duncan’s arrival on Wednesday morning with a roundtable discussion between Reading teachers and administrators, USDOE Principal Ambassador Fellow Joshua Klaris, and Teaching Ambassador Fellow Emily Davis. The purpose of the the Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellowship Program is to enable outstanding teachers and principals to bring their expertise to and expand their knowledge of the national dialogue about education. In turn, they facilitate the learning and input of other educators and community members. Roundtable discussions are one of the means that the USDOE gather feedback on what is working and not working in education.
The topic of the morning roundtable discussion with the Fellows focused on Envisioning a Teaching Profession for the 21st Century or RESPECTeaching. This DESE project has seven critical components including shared responsibility and leadership for teachers, attracting and retaining top teaching talent, providing continuous growth and professional development, having high standards of professional practice for teachers and principals, providing a professional career continuum with competitive compensation, creating conditions for successful teaching and learning, and engaging the community so that every child is safe, healthy, well-nourished, and ready to learn. Some simple questions that were asked to our teachers and administrators included, “What areas are we doing well in?” and “What areas do we need to improve in?” The metaphor that was used to initiate the discussion was the remodeling of a home. If the district represents your home, do you need to make just cosmetic changes, minor renovations, or major reconstruction?
Reading teachers and administrators engaged in some thoughtful and meaningful conversation with the ambassadors. They discussed how they found visiting each other’s classrooms and learning about best practices critical to professionally growing. They enjoyed the challenge of being a teacher leader and working with others to implement new standards and curriculum; however, more training is required for teacher leaders to facilitate conversation among colleagues. Everyone agreed that finding more time for collaboration is critical to continue to move forward as a school district. They also expressed concern about the social and emotional needs of students and how teachers are struggling to address those needs. The ambassadors, who have facilitated these roundtable discussions throughout the country, commented that this was one of the most meaningful conversations that they had about educational issues during their year as USDOE ambassadors.
When the Secretary arrived around noon, he was greeted by student ambassadors and district and community leaders, including School Committee members, Town Manager Robert LeLacheur, Jr., Board of Selectmen Chair James Bonazoli, and Reading Education Foundation President Christine Kelley. After the meet and greet, Secretary Duncan, along with DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester, and Board of Education Chair Maura Banta, visited Coolidge Math teacher Chris Friberg’s Grade 8 math classroom where students were working collaboratively to solve a complex problem. They walked around the classroom and had engaging conversations with students. The Secretary then proceeded to the Coolidge Library Media Center where he was greeted by teachers, administrators, parents, students, and community leaders.
The roundtable discussion with Secretary Duncan, Commissioner of Elementary and Secretary Education Mitchell Chester, Commissioner of Early Education and Care (and Reading resident) Tom Weber, MTA President Paul Toner, Parker student Kathleen Walsh, RMHS student Parker Webb, Superintendent of Schools John Doherty, Assistant Superintendent Mary DeLai, Assistant Superintendent and Facilitator Craig Martin, Killam Principal Kathy Giles, Parker Principal Doug Lyons, Birch Meadow Principal Eric Sprung, Coolidge Teacher Laura Warren, Parker Teacher Julie Merrill, Wood End Teacher Ellen Commito, RMHS Math Department Chair Trey Skehan, and RMHS Director of Guidance Lynna Williams focused on college and career readiness, how our district is addressing these standards, and the challenges we are facing in implementing those initiatives. Topics that were discussed included the implementation of the new math and literacy curriculum frameworks, the teacher evaluation system, district determined measures, how we need to teach students perseverance and “grit” and the collaboration between labor and management to make the implementation sustainable and embedded. Students Kathleen Walsh and Parker Webb talked about how it is more fun and engaging to learn from each other. They commented that teachers are empowering students more “to do the work and learn.”
As the conversations continued, it was evident that what these education leaders were hearing was unique and special and not replicated in many other school districts. Secretary Arne Duncan and Commissioner Mitchell Chester called the Reading Public Schools “Pioneers” for their willingness to take risks, try new things, and not be afraid of failing. MTA President Paul Toner talked about Reading’s “secret sauce” and how the district’s culture of collaboration and teamwork is unique and not common in other school districts. They realized that they had come upon a special place; a place where collaboration and teamwork is the norm; a place where teachers are trusted to do the difficult work of teaching; and a place where students are supported in their learning.
After leaving yesterday, Secretary Duncan tweeted out two comments specific to Reading:
Administration, union, principals & teachers in Reading, MA have built a culture of trust and collaboration other districts can learn from.
MS student in Reading MA on transition to higher stndrds,”I’m learning more frm peers than frm teacher & I’ve never understood math so well”
In his speech on Friday at the National Board on Professional Teaching Standards Teaching and Learning Conference, Secretary Duncan made the following remarks about his visit to Reading:
“But the only way that higher standards, and new systems of support and evaluation, will work, is if teachers lead this change in partnership and collaboration with principals, parents and communities. That’s what I saw in Reading, Massachusetts — teacher leadership in action, middle and high school teachers all working together, owning this transition.”
The visit and conversations with state and national education leaders provided a reaffirmation that we are on the right path. The only way that we can accomplish this challenging work is to work together as a team. We are proud of the fact that Reading is a community where critical discourse on education issues is accepted and teachers, administrators, parents, and the community work together to provide the best possible learning environment and opportunities for our students. We need to keep the positive momentum continuing and have the types of productive conversations like the roundtable discussions on Wednesday. Because of the collaborative effort that exists in our community, days like Wednesday are possible and should be celebrated. Not many school districts and communities have these types of opportunities and it is because of that “secret sauce” and culture of collaboration that make it possible.
Thank you for your continued support of the Reading Public Schools.
For more pictures on the visit, go the United States Department of Education Flickr Site.