US Education Policy

Teachers Bring the Light

October 24, 2018  • Dan Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered remarks at the Teaching Matters 10th Annual Champions of Education Luncheon on October 24, 2018 in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

Thank you, Lynette, for that gracious introduction and for your leadership of Teaching Matters. This is an incredible organization that invests in teachers while at the same time supporting the New York City public schools—an incredible partnership that makes a difference for children, families, schools, and educators.

It’s wonderful to share in the celebration of 10 years of extraordinary service of the “singular sensation,” Olga Votis. Congratulations, Olga. It’s also great to see so many friends and colleagues in the audience, including Tom and Ingrid Edelman and Darren Walker who has brought to the Ford Foundation an impressive focus on justice and inequality, while also, to quote the New Yorker, leading with a refreshing candor that makes “hierarchical etiquette … hard to take seriously.”

But, most of all, I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you today about the profound and practical importance of teaching and teachers in our country.

My life and career—dating back to childhood—have been defined by education, and by great teachers. I have a slogan—“we create the education that we seek”—by which I mean that education is an active process and not a passive act—and once we grasp that concept we bring an interior freedom to all that we do which makes us who we are. Teachers have the sacred and just mission of awakening that creative capacity in all within their care.

Of course, there are many levers for change that we can pull to make impacts in education.

For some, it’s the working in the neighborhood and supporting families, identifying the different needs of different types of learners.

For some, it’s system leadership or political advocacy.

For some, it’s developing innovative curricula grounded in new research or emerging needs.

For some, it’s fighting structural racism through civil rights law, or fixing funding inequities, or finding educational opportunities for imprisoned women and men trying to pay their debt to society and raise their children in the outside world.

For some, it’s building the connections between schools and work.

For some, it’s serving as the leader of a school.

And for some it’s serving as the classroom teacher, or what I would call the classroom leader.

Which levers are best to bring about the change we seek?

One thing is for sure: it is never wrong to invest in the development and effectiveness of teachers—and in promoting the prestige of the profession. Numerous studies show the extraordinary impact for students of having outstanding teachers three years in a row—and of having poor ones those same three years.

Teaching Matters.

We all know this personally. My father taught for some 40 years in Baltimore City, where I grew up. I went into schools many times with my dad in high-need communities and saw his commitment, year after year, to empowering his students to develop the skills and mindset to create their education.

It takes a lot to be a teacher—and Teaching Matters helps to reinforce the habits and practices we see in our most impactful educators. They have to have emotional intelligence and incredible executive skills:

They plan purposefully.

They try to understand all the factors that influence each individual student.

They invest students in their own learning.

They set clear goals.

They execute effectively and efficiently in class.

They evaluate whether learning is happening, and adjust when they see that some students aren’t getting it.

And they self-critique in order to improve.

We also know that Teaching Matters from research, like Eric Hanushek’s 2014 study “Boosting Teacher Effectiveness” that says that one year with an excellent teacher “adds over $800,000 to the future incomes of students in a class of thirty” and that below-average teachers subtract from their students’ future earnings at the same rate. This difference in life outcomes because of great teaching is astounding.

And we know that Teaching Matters from examples.  I have many, having been a professor at Georgetown. and a president at Franklin & Marshall College—and I have worked with some of the greatest students in America who were educated in public schools right here in the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of.”

I want to back up the research point with a few names: RaeVaughn Williams. Vicki Rodriquez. Fatou Keita. Darrius Moore. Karolina Heleno. Alex and Sandra Welbeck. Ashley Cerone. Lia Tavarez. Jael Lewis. Elisjana Baqiri. Andre Simon. Prescott Owusu. Abby Morengbade. Amy Largacha. Chandi Danraj. Yara Ibrahim. Keiran Miller. And I could go on just saying their names, because they are all great people whose life stories and talent made F&M a richer and finer college for every student. All educated right here in the New York City schools.

Many of these students ended up at Franklin & Marshall College because we developed a talent strategy in 2012.  Let me tell you more about it.

In short, we decided to deepen the academic strength of our student body. To do that, we tripled need-based financial aid, built pipelines to schools and programs really preparing first-gen college goers for college, and looked carefully at the qualities and talents predictive of success at F&M, like work ethic, saying yes to opportunity, resilience, curiosity, a vision for education and excellent grades in a college prep curriculum. Test scores? No so predictive. Grit? You bet!

New York City was a central part of our strategy, and we widened our recruitment also to Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and rural Pennsylvania, where there are awesome students hungering for opportunity. We also worked with some of New York’s great education innovators like Prep for Prep, ABC, SEO, and the Posse Foundation—along with some of the great public charter networks like KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools.

In short order, these students, who no doubt had teachers trained through Teaching Matters, began showing their talent. As just one measure, our Pell grant students had the same grades, retention rates and graduation rates as the student body as a whole. In 2017, Pell grant students were over-represented in summa and magna cum laude.

And then Michael Bloomberg helped us broaden our reach and scale the work by creating the American Talent Initiative, through which 107 institutions so far, including the entire Ivy League and many public flagship institutions—have joined F&M in committing to a national goal of 50,000 more Pell Grant students enrolled in and graduating from leading institutions by 2025. Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t want me to share the good news just yet, but in two years, thanks to him, we’re off to a great start—thousands more students accepted and enrolled already.

Because I have worked with so many first-gen college goers, I have also worked with an enormous number of young educators—because that’s what first-gen college graduates do—they give back.

This combination of personal experience, research, and having taught generations of changemakers has convinced me more than ever that an effective teacher may be the most influential citizen in our democracy.

That’s because effective teachers give their students the capability to create learning themselves, and that power lets young people grow constantly, adapt to change, frame problems no one has ever thought to identify in order to find answers no one has ever thought to look for.

That means we must recruit, prepare, and empower teachers to be powerful change agents in student learning.

Teaching Matters is doing exactly that.

You focus on leadership development and results, critical in this era and every era. Dana Goldstein’s book “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” lays out the constant conflict over teaching—who gets to teach, what they teach, how teaching is compensated, and what it means to hold people accountable. Too often teachers are cast as part of—or entirely—the problem. It should said explicitly that some of this denigration of the profession is because it is a women-led field—and it’s a sad fact in our society that women’s leadership and women’s ways of impacting society have been consistently undervalued. But because of Teaching Matters, that is changing, too. Thank you.

Teaching Matters reframes that false narrative: teachers are the solution. Teaching Matters sees teacher as asset, difference-maker, and leader.

I really want to commend you for that, and I believe that the model of Teaching Matters will position you to expand your work at whatever pace you feel makes the most sense strategically. I do hope that you will look to grow, however, because the more teachers you reach, the more strong futures you’ll create.

Some people say we can’t afford to invest in young people and education right now, that we have other more pressing problems that demand our time and limited resources. But I say that the solutions to any of those other problems require young people who are educated, empowered, and inspired to act.

America should follow your lead. That’s the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.

“Smart” because today’s ten-year-olds will be the drivers of our economy in a few short years as one of the biggest generations in history—the Baby Boomers—retires and leaves millions of jobs requiring college degrees to be not just filled but recreated because of technological change.

And “right” because every young person possesses human dignity and thus has the right to develop her or his full talent, since no one is more human than anyone else.

Teaching Matters.

Not far from here, there is a statue of a teacher. You all know her. She holds a torch and a teaching tool—a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Frederick Douglass once said that “education…means light and liberty,” and I believe he would call her an educator—bringing light and liberty to millions.

If our shared future is to be bright, it will be because teachers brought the light.