Kamras ’95 on providing a quality education for all
After being selected as the 2005 National Teacher of
the Year, Jason Kamras ’95 spent the past year meeting with
educators and parents across the country. He attended some 150 events,
often giving speeches about his philosophy and vision for American
education. “A lot of places were looking for some inspiration,”
said Kamras, who focused on raising the bar for students in low-income
communities. A math teacher at John Philip Sousa Middle School in
Washington, D.C., he spoke with PAW associate editor Katherine Federici
Greenwood. [A condensed version of this interview was published
in the Nov. 8, 2006, edition of PAW.]
What do we need to do to close the achievement gap?
It all comes down to people — getting quality teachers and
school leaders to serve in our public schools, and in particular
in communities that have struggled … I don’t define
quality in traditional terms – how many years of experience
you have, or if you have a master’s, or if you’ve taken
all the right education courses. Rather [I define quality] in terms
of your belief in the ability of all children to learn and achieve
at high levels, and your ability to bring that to fruition –
to effectively help all children learn at high levels.
How do we get more high-quality teachers and school leaders
to serve in public schools?
I really thought about that a lot this year. … One, we need
to establish that definition of quality, so we know what we are
talking about. … Number two, we need to face a difficult truth,
and that is that not all educators, not all school leaders serving
in America, are effectively serving their children. And I’ve
really taken this year to challenge my professional unions and in
general the status quo to be a lot more progressive about embracing
policies that make it easier to transition out people who are consistently
ineffective. I think that’s really important. It not only
helps to remove those who are not adequately serving children, but
it also helps retain really effective people, because really effective,
ambitious people want to go to work with other ambitious, effective
people. And when they feel they are struggling against a system
that doesn’t have that — that’s one of the biggest
reasons why people leave education.
The second thing [we need to do to attract high quality teachers
and leaders] is we need to create school environments that are really
attractive to ambitious, high performing people. What I mean by
that is we need to get rid of the “it’s always been
done that way so that’s why we’re doing it” attitude
in education. Ambitious teachers and school leaders want to try
new things, they want to push the envelope, they want to extend
the school day or extend the calendar or teach a completely integrated
curriculum so there’s no math or English or science, it’s
all based around a single unit. Or they want to do experiential
learning and take the kids outside the classroom. The list could
go on and on. In education we’re still mired in a lot of the
same practices we were using 50 and 100 years ago. If we want to
attract ambitious, high-performing people, we need to give them
the opportunity to innovate.
It’s one of the reasons I’m a very big supporter of
the charter school movement. Because it does give people an opportunity
to say: Let’s wipe the slate clean and rethink how we want
to do this. Other things that help create that climate are having
really quality leadership. … You want to go to work every
day feeling that you have a leader who has set a vision who is interested
in collaborating with you, who is really working to galvanize everybody
toward a very important objective. We could do more, particularly
at the federal level, to create some financial incentives to bring
these great people that I’m talking about to serve in low-income
schools. That’s not to say that money is everything. …
I don’t think money is the driving issue for why teachers
leave … I think it comes down to the climate issues and the
collegial issues. Having said that, I think we can create financial
incentives that will make it a lot easier to be a teacher or a school
leader. I imagine a federal program that would offer bonuses of
$20,000 per year to any teacher serving in a low-income school whose
students, let’s say, perform in the top quartile of the school
system’s standardized test performance. This is all performance-based.
I would go even so far as to offer an extra $20,000 for math, science,
and special education teachers whose students also met this requirement.
That’s because we have great difficulty attracting people
in those fields. So a math teacher who works in a low-income school
and whose students meet the performance targets would get a $40,000
Wouldn’t offering bonuses of $20,000 or $40,000 to those
teachers be expensive?
Let’s say 100,000 teachers got that $40,000 double bonus.
That’s $4 billion, which may sound like a lot. But the federal
department of education budget this past year was about $60 billion.
We’re talking less than 1/10 of that. … I think that
could have a truly radical impact on making teaching a bit more
financially tenable for a lot more people.
I challenge our national leaders to step up to the national plate
and really use the bully pulpit — and I’m not just talking
political leaders, I’m talking entertainment leaders, religious
leaders, business leaders — to spread the message that one
of the most powerful and patriotic ways to serve your nation is
to serve as a teacher or as a school leader. If we fail as a country
to provide an excellent education for every child, then we not only
rob them of their civil and human rights, but we also jeopardize
our democracy and definitely jeopardize our future ability to compete
in the world.
Unless we meet the needs of all the low-income children, all
the children of color, and all the special education children in
America, then we won’t be able to compete in the global community.
… What a lot of people don’t realize is that those groups
[of children] make up a significant percentage of the children in
America. How did the teachers’ unions you met with react to
The union response has been mixed. Some officials I’ve spoken
to have been receptive, while others have been much less so. I am
sensing there’s a growing rift within the union community
between those who continue to adhere to more traditional policies,
and those who are willing to entertain more progressive ideas. I
think the important thing here is to keep a dialogue open, to keep
talking, and to always think first about what’s best for children.
I’m hoping we will reach a tipping point soon where policies
and the contracts that we all work under will reflect that unyielding
belief in excellence.
Did you come to these ideas and convictions before last year?
I had a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head, but I was forced
to put it altogether in a coherent way because I had to talk about
this a lot. I really went back and forth: What is most important?
Is it this or is it that? What I kept coming back to was the textbooks
you have or the per-pupil expenditure or how many kids you have
that are on free or reduced lunch or all these other things that
people talk about — none of them matter relative to the importance
of the quality of the people in the school buildings. And research
has confirmed this — the single most important variable in
determining student achievement is the quality of the instruction,
the quality of the teacher they have.
I’ve seen my own students who face extraordinary challenges
in their lives succeed at very high levels, and I’ve seen
many examples across the country of schools teaching in environments
and neighborhoods where most people say, ‘Oh, we can’t
do anything because of the poverty. We can’t do anything because
of instability in the home, we can’t do anything because of
gangs.’ But the students in those classrooms and in those
schools that have been really successful are doing extraordinarily
well in very difficult circumstances. The one constant I’ve
found where I see an example like that is they just have extraordinary
teachers and school leaders.
You saw this as you traveled around?
Yes. I knew it from my own experience, but then to see it is very
powerful. I was visiting schools. As I thought about this more and
more I came around to this – it’s all about the people.
We need to get extraordinary people into our schools, particularly
into low-income schools in America.
How did you know that kids were excelling?
I would visit a school in a community very similar to mine, 90
to 100 percent of students on free or reduced lunch, which means
that they are living in poverty, with your typical list of risk
factors. And you’ve got a school where 80 to 90 percent of
the students are scoring proficient or higher on the state exam.
And at a school two blocks down the road, in the same community
students are scoring 20 to 30 percent proficient. It’s not
the building, it’s not the per-pupil expenditures, it’s
not the books. It’s the quality of the teachers and school
How do you feel about the future of American education —
that is, do you think we can really ever get to the point where
every child in America, rich or poor, is provided an excellent education?
I’m very optimistic because I feel like there is a growing
mass of people in education who really believe passionately and
unequivocally in the ability of all children to achieve at high
levels. In America for a long time we’ve been stuck in the
innate ability model, the idea that some people are good at math
and some people are not good at math. And that’s that. I feel
like there’s a growing consensus that that’s not right,
that everybody can achieve at the highest levels in math. It’s
about effort and it’s about effective instruction. If we were
able to ensure that every adult in every school buildings in America
believed that every child, regardless of background, had the capacity
to achieve at high levels – if we could get that one thing
done, we could radically change education in America. We’re
moving toward a tipping point. We have a long way to go, but we’re
moving toward it.
The most damaging thing that many children face, particularly
in urban and rural school systems like Trenton and D.C., is that
there aren’t enough people who believe that the children in
Trenton can do algebra I in eighth grade so they can do calculus
in the 12th grade. I think people say, ‘Well, these children
face so many difficulties in their lives and they are so far behind
there’s no way they can possibility do this.’ That kind
of thinking creates a terribly corrosive effect. There’s a
self-reinforcing downward spiral of low expectations.
We need to start with saying every child can do it, and then structure
our instruction to make that work for every child. For example,
I would want every single eighth-grader in D.C. to be able to pass
a comprehensive algebra I exam. I know that there are many children
who at this point don’t have the skills to be successful in
algebra I in the eighth grade. Rather than say they can’t
do algebra I, let’s restructure the day. If it means some
students receive two or three hours of math a day to get them at
that point, then let’s do that. … But let’s not
lower that bar.
Are you looking forward to getting back into the classroom?
Yeah. I’ve learned great math tricks and games from other
wonderful teachers. So I’m excited to share those with my
colleagues and try them out myself.
What else did you learn during the year as you traveled around
I had a lot of reservations [about the No Child Left Behind legislation]
when I started the year. As I went through the year, I’ve
seen its impact. There’s still a lot that needs to be worked
on. But I think it has been quite positive. Let me give you an example.
I met a principal while I was on the road. He said, “Before
No Child Left Behind, I used to put a warm body in my special education
and my remedial classes.” And then he told me on the side
that his remedial math classes are usually all his low-income and
minority kids. And he said now, because of NCLB and because we have
to meet these targets, I have to put my best teachers in those classrooms.
If that is all that the law did in classrooms and schools across
the country, I think that’s incredibly powerful and incredibly
positive. The children who have been ignored and have not been receiving
the quality education for years are now being placed front and center.
Teachers, schools, school systems – you are responsible for
the achievement of all of these children.