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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president Jean Clements



Late last month, President Barack Obama announced his Race to the Top, a competitive grant challenge for states to make major reforms to their education systems. Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president Jean Clements was one of just five speakers at the event, chosen to speak about her organization's efforts to improve teacher quality. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about how she got on the stage, and why she supports the president's initiative.

How in the world did you get invited to be one of only five speakers?

Isn't that an amazing fact? Yeah. I'm not exactly sure, except that it was through the American Federation of Teachers. ... Both (AFT and NEA) presidents were invited and allowed to bring a few people with them, just to be in the audience. And I don't know how it came to be that the AFT was offered the speaking spot on teaching quality. ... But when I got the call on Tuesday that I was being invited to sit in on a meeting with the President of the United States at the AFT's invitation, they told me that the AFT was going to be speaking on teacher quality. ...

Did you have any thought that they would say, 'Hey Jean, come talk'?

No. No. Not then. But by the next day ... the level of security clearance increased and the phone calls I was getting got a little more interesting. ... They were saying, there was just a really really remote possibility, just a remote possibility, that I could be the person that the AFT would have speaking on teacher quality. And I was speechless. My heart was racing. I was extremely nervous about that because now instead of being in the same room with the president I might be speaking on the same stage with the president. ...

Evidently their take on it is, if we're going to have people in the room with Race to the Top is unveiled, then we want to have local leaders from around the country where they know that these union leaders have done some extraordinary, different and not the classic traditional union types of things.

Stop right there. ... You are not ordinary in many ways, because you often wind up making agreements with the district that no other district is making. Things like performance pay. So the next question is, why are you so unusual?

... I want to find what works, and our teachers want to find what works. The teachers in Hillsborough County are passionate about finding the ways that are more effective for teaching every one our kids. And we have been talking in our country for years now about the achievement gap, and that poor and minority kids are still not getting the achievement gains that we want. In Hillsborough our district, we've done a lot of things that have made a difference and we've made phenomenal growth in bridging those gaps. But it's not enough, and it's not fast enough. I am a teacher first. I care deeply about the education that our kids receive. And I think that cannot be best if our teachers do not have the best conditions, the best opportunities, the best salary, the best opportunity for making this a rewarding profession.

Some of the decisions that we have made regarding performance pay have been practically based. Education in Florida is grossly underfunded. I don't see that changing any time soon. And our Legislature has only been willing to increase funding in specific areas if you're doing certain things. And so part of our support for performance pay, we do believe that student achievement is important. We do all strive as teachers to increase our ability to improve student achievement. And so being compensated and recognized for that is not a bad thing, as long as it does not take any money out of the salary schedule that we already have (which is inadequate), as long as it is money that is on top of what is already there, and as long as we can all agree on it being as fair as possible and using the right measures and metrics to try constantly to improve how we do measure student achievement growth and teacher effectiveness.

Don't you take a lot of heat for this?

Absolutely. But, you know, we keep having conversations with teachers in Hillsborough about do we do this or not? ... Some of the premises of MAP are inherently flawed. But it's $10.8 million and the state would not give it to us any other way. ... When you're being offered $10.8 million that's going to come into Hillsborough County through the pockets of our teachers, it's kind of hard not to try to make that work. And that's what we did. ... 

We said, this is based on some flawed premises. The fact that it was limited to a specific number of teachers was one of the worst things about it. We have always believed that any form of performance pay should be something which we agree is valid and fair and reliable, and every single teacher who demonstrates whatever that acceptable level of student achievement gain is ... should get the performance pay. ...

But don't the people who are really pushing this from the legislative side seem to think it's to set aside for the best teachers, and not everybody can be the best?

They seem to think that. And we disagree. We disagree. ... If they're saying that only a small percentage of us can be the best, then, what are they relegating all the rest of the students to? They're saying a large percentage of our teachers are not going to be good enough. I disagree. And, how can they justify a system which institutionalizes that belief, that most of the teachers are not very good? ...

It's really interesting, because the lawmakers when I talk to them about Race to the Top -- and these are Republican lawmakers -- they say, You know, that's the one policy where I agree 100 percent with Barack Obama. So I was interested to see you up there with him talking about these issues that when you come down here in Florida ... you're arguing with the same lawmakers.

So I hope they will give us more flexibility than they have in the past with funding. I hope they will give us more support for the kinds of plans that need to be in place to better support teachers, especially new teachers. To have a really good meaningful induction program for new teachers is not cheap. To offer the kind of quality evaluation and feedback and mentoring and support for teachers as they are learning their trade is not cheap. We had designed a program in Hillsborough in the mid-90s for peer support ... that we thought had tremendous promise ... We developed it with the district, the teachers and the university. The School Board adopted it. But we could never fund it. ...

So do you see the Race to the Top as a way to get there?

It's a great opportunity to get to implement plans and strategies to support teachers and compensate them in ways we've never been able to do before.

Even if it sounds a lot like Jeb Bush policies?

I don't think it sounds a lot like Jeb Bush policies. There are some big differences. When Jeb Bush talks about, I want highly effective teachers and I want all of our students regardless of what their ZIP code is to have great teachers, and a great quality education. I don't know a teacher who would disagree with that. ... The devil is always in the details. So some of the ways he tried to ensure that that would happen were not in my opinion the best way of achieving it. And they also were too exclusive. They did not allow for all teachers to be justly compensated for demonstrating achievement growth. They had not figures out yet how to evaluate teachers in high poverty schools compared to teachers in affluent schools. The first year we had the A-Plus plan and all the schools were graded, those grades corresponded perfectly to the number of free and reduced lunches in the school. It was a perfect correlation. ...

We have become more and more successful at getting higher grades under that A-Plus plan in our poorer schools, but with extraordinary cost. We've had to narrow our curriculum, do things that not all parents would even agree with.

You don't think that Race to the Top is asking schools all over the country to do the same thing?

I think it gives more flexibility than what we've seen in the past. It requires that districts and unions work together so that teachers have a voice in determining what it is in my district or my state that can really make a difference. It brings teachers into the picture in a way that we've not always done in Florida. ...

So, why aren't you ... somebody who's out there with the hot rhetoric and fighting for the cause? It sounds like you're finding different ways of getting there than the traditional union organizer.

Hillsborough has never been the average union. ... We were independent for eight years, not affiliated with any union. Hillsborough has always had a real independent streak. I live here. These are my children. These are the kids and the community that I care about. And I am most focused on making a difference in Hillsborough. The teachers are most interested in making a difference in Hillsborough. So I'm not out to save the world. I'm out to save the children in Hillsborough County.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:31am]


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