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October 25, 2006:

Jason 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 bonus

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 your ideas?

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 leaders.

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 the country?

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. END