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Interview Of The Month: Barnett Berry From The Center For Teaching Quality

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Each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

This month I have the pleasure of interviewing Barnett Berry, the President and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality. In the interview, Barnett will tell you more about the Center, but I also have to say how impressed I am by its work. I guess you might call it an educational policy “think tank,” but what makes it so unique is that it actually works with hundreds of K-12 teachers from around the country to research and develop specific recommendations  and then advocate for them (in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, one of the Center’s programs). In its work, it also seems to recognize that, unlike some participants in the on-going school reform “battles,” the world cannot always be viewed in black or white terms, and that we have to transcend some of these differences to be able to move forward.

I’d strongly encourage you to explore the Center’s website and to also subscribe to Barnett’s blog, Advancing The Teaching Profession.

Can you explain what the Center For Teaching Quality is and some of the projects it’s involved in?

We are a research-based advocacy organization committed to improving student learning by advancing a 21st century teaching profession. However, we are much more than a think tank that conducts practical studies on teaching quality and promotes smart policy. The heart and soul of CTQ is our Teacher Leaders Network, a virtual community of accomplished teachers who work with community leaders and policymakers to transform teaching into the result-oriented profession students deserve.

What drew you to education and, specifically, to creating the Center?

Early in my life I saw many injustices, wanted to respond to them and was fortunate to be able to find a path in education to do something about it. On my mother’s side of the family there were quite a few progressive thinkers and political activists — both in and out of the mainstream. I also had a very influential father who was a Jewish merchant deeply connected to his community. He taught me a lot about not just thinking right, but also working hard and doing right.

I fell into the teaching profession when, as a college sophomore, a former high school social studies teacher asked me to tutor one of her struggling students. I was hooked. But after fleeing teaching after only 3 years (in 1981), I moved on to graduate school where I sought to better understand but also to overhaul the dysfunctional profession I fled. Later, as a university professor, I discovered I was more interested in transforming teaching, not just studying or even improving it. Since the mid-1980s I have had the great privilege of working with Linda Darling-Hammond. But the story begins earlier. My father was a salesman and I suspect it was in my DNA to create my own organization that could move fast and color outside the lines. In 1999, I created Center for Teaching Quality.

What are two things you’re very excited about that you see happening in education today and, on the other hand, what are two things that might be getting your blood boiling?

Great question.

The two things that excite me are the: (1) explosion of Internet tools that can spread teaching expertise (breaking down the longstanding organizational silos in which teachers teach) and elevate the policy voices of our most accomplished teachers, and (2) growing numbers of teacher leaders who are attracted to our virtual community, the Teacher Leaders Network.

The two things that make my boil blood are: (1) policymakers and pundits who profess to know how to cultivate effective teachers, but know nothing of effective teaching and the conditions necessary for student learning, and (2) leaders of non-profits that seek to advance teaching in America but avoid collaborating with others because of organizational turf and egos.

What are you reading these days?

I am reading George Lakoff’s The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. In his provocative piece, Lakoff, a cognitive scientist by trade, makes the case that “frames” not “raw facts” will advance more progressive public policy. Lakoff’s work is greatly influencing my thinking about the future of Center for Teaching Quality and how we advance a 21st century, results-oriented profession. I am also reading James Hirsch’s biography of Willie Mays, my childhood hero – a very cool book about the most amazing baseball player of all time.

If you were Secretary (or even Emperor) of Education, what are a few things you’d do?

First, I would create a public engagement campaign to promote teaching as a knowledge-based profession. My approach would be on the order of what the federal government did to promote the idea that cigarette smoking was bad for our health. Second, I would develop incentives for P-12 schools, higher education, health and social service providers, and community-based organizations to align resources and programs to serve students and their families. Finally, I would pay for 20,000 highly prepared teachers annually — through the urban teaching residency model — and build a plan for spreading their expertise in and out of cyberspace.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked you about?

Over the last several years the vitriol directed toward university-based teacher education and unions has both fascinated and troubled me. I find very few journalists questioning the near uniform enmity against those who seek to professionally prepare teachers and those who organize them for collective action. Don’t get me wrong — there is a lot wrong with both preparation programs and teacher unions. But their shortcomings are pale when compared to those of administrators who seek to silence even the best teachers, ideological researchers who produce shoddy evidence about what works or doesn’t, and politicians who make decisions about the best interests of themselves and the lobbyists who influence them, and not about students and the teachers who serve them. I would suggest the pushback against teacher education and unions is more about those who do not want a well-educated professional workforce, filled with empowered teachers who will not necessarily comply with those currently in power.

Thanks, Barnett!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. Thanks, Larry, for getting Barnett’s ideas out there in an enjoyable and thougt-provoking interview. As someone who would favour a different route to reform than RttT and the Blueprint, and who has been finding raw facts unpersuasive so far as I advance my ideas (which are mostly the ideas of the National Middle School Association and Mark Springer), I’d love to know more about the idea of “frames” and how they could be more effective. Thanks!

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