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Young Teachers Find a Voice

I often refer to the new generation of aggressive and innovative teachers as the Brat Pack. That label was first attached to a clique of young film actors in the 1980s, and not in a positive way. But the 20- and 30-something educators I am talking about have some of that same star quality and group consciousness. They are bright and restless risk-takers. They have become major annoyances to school leaders who do not share their values. They have started charter school networks, invigorated public school systems and turned teacher unions in new directions.

But it occurs to me that I am judging this group by a relatively few members who have gained control over their working lives. The vast majority are still teaching in schools that offer them little support and even less opportunity for leadership. What are those unsung Brat Packers like? An intriguing initiative by a Boston-based nonprofit group called Teach Plus has found a way to gauge what they are thinking, and use that analysis to bring even more energy to the cohort.

Their latest report, “Ready for the Next Challenge: Improving the Retention and Distribution of Excellent Teachers in Urban Schools,” is available at their Web site, It is the work of 15 educators -- average age 30, all under 40 -- who were brought together to give young teachers a voice in the most important issues facing their profession.

The instigator is a former teacher named Celine Coggins. She had become a labor management consultant, helping school systems and teachers unions collaborate on ways to raise student achievement. She noticed that at the many meetings she conducted, young teachers were nowhere to be found. As usual, older professionals were deciding the future with little input from the educators who would have to deal with the consequences of those decisions.

Coggins, now the executive director of Teach Plus, found others who shared her concern. With the help of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy and the Boston Foundation, they set up a program that recruited young teachers in the Boston area to meet once a month at night, four hours at a time, for 18 months. Some of them taught in charter schools, some in regular public schools, but all dealt with significant numbers of impoverished students. They studied and discussed the state of urban education. They shared their mutual uncertainty about staying in teaching when the opportunities for creativity were so few and the pay so static. Then they created a plan to address those problems and take urban schools to a new level.

They borrowed some ideas already popular among innovators, such as higher pay and more responsibility for teachers who have demonstrated excellence. But at the center of their plan is a fairly original concept: recruiting accomplished urban teachers in groups, not one by one, and using those teams to change school cultures.

They call their idea the Massachusetts Teaching Excellence Collaborative Model, but Coggins said she is already talking to school systems outside the Bay State about its uses. Teachers would apply for membership in what the group calls the Excellence Corps, open only to those with at least three years of urban teaching experience and a demonstrated effectiveness with urban students. The selection criteria would be rigorous, including demonstration of content knowledge taught well, skill with data assessment and evidence of student achievement gains.

This sounds like an urbanized version of the certification program run by the National Board for Professional Teaching Stanards, but the Boston area teachers have given it a twist. “Instead of filling individual roles, schools would commit to hiring a team of teachers who have been selected to the Excellence Corps,” their report proposes. “Corps members would comprise no less than one-third of the teaching population in a school. Attaining Excellence Corps status would be a visible goal to which teachers could aspire from the start of their careers, thereby promoting the retention of teachers who desire career growth and colleagueship.”

There would be a base salary increase of 10 percent for corps teachers hired to work in corps-oriented schools. There would be extra schoolwide and individual bonuses for meeting achievement goals. But changing the school culture is the heart of their innovation. “In our view,” they say, “money matters -- but it is only one piece of a complex puzzle. Money does not outweigh a strong teacher’s interest in having good colleagues and supportive working conditions.”

The report’s 15 authors are Neema Avashia, Darren Burris, Aislin Davis, Maria Fenwick, Jessie Gerson-Nieder, Caitlin Hollister, Elsie Huang, Michelle LaMarca, Kelly Langan, Melanie Livingston, Adebayo Owolewa, Noah Patel, Caroline Sekula, Jalene Tamerat and Doannie Tran. They have left many questions unanswered. How do you deal with the jealousies that might arise when the Excellence Corps, these chosen few, arrive on campus? Who is going to set the standards for the corps, and how exactly are we going to measure their success, or lack of it?

The original Brat Pack had the same problem. Many people resented their celebrity, and hoped they would fail. But there is a big difference between the culture of success in Hollywood and in an urban classroom. There are no press agents or personal assistants to help a teacher get through a day in Roxbury or Anacostia or Harlem or Southside San Antonio. These young teachers know how hard it is, and how much more they could do if they went in as a team.

It is a new way of thinking about giving children the education they deserve. If it swells the ranks of urban teachers, bringing in even more young people willing to raise the standards as a team united for kids, so much the better.

By Washington Post editors  | April 17, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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It seems the majority of these young teachers, that you laud, are "former" teachers. It seems it is easier to start up a corporation or company than it is to teach. I would think if they were so bent on improving students' lives, and the teaching profession, they would remain teachers. I will read the report, but I can't recall many of these "Brat packers" that stayed in teaching terribly long. Rhee left after 3 years, and I will have to see the report to see how long Coggins stuck it out. One item that might interest your readers is new teachers graduating and entering the schools(Rhee and Coggins for example)get their school loans taken away, in many, many urban districts, if they agree to work in an urban district for at least 3 years...hmmm...

Posted by: researcher2 | April 17, 2009 8:18 AM | Report abuse

This sounds great to me. As an older teacher, I am amazed by the quality of some of the new teachers coming along.

Posted by: pittypatt | April 17, 2009 9:29 AM | Report abuse

To researcher2: What gave you the impression they are former teachers? I don't recall writing that, or seeing it in the report. They did their committee work on Tuesday nights, once a month, after school.

Posted by: Jay_Mathews | April 17, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I was primarily referring to this "The instigator is a former teacher named Celine Coggins". Rhee also started up a group, and is highy considered despite being a former teacher of just three years. I wasn't speaking about the group that were meeting after school, but rather the "group" of former teachers lauded by you and other people in the media recently, many of whom only have 3 years of actual teaching experience prior to starting things like what Coggins and Rhee have done.

I am just tired of seeing the media laud people who only hack it for three years. Even if they start up noble corporations, projects etc. 3 years is nothing (some only hack it for a year then write a book about how awful it was). I also started to speculate about those that made it the three years in urban districts, and wonder if they benefit from the programs that pay off their student loans if they agree to work in an urban district for three years.

Posted by: researcher2 | April 17, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

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