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Save Me A Seat By The Fire

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This is the second of a series of pieces former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is writing for The Huffington Post over the next few weeks through back-to-school season on U.S. Education. Read the first piece here.

If education reform is a fiery arena in public policy today, teacher effectiveness might be its hottest log. Across the country, state legislatures are taking unprecedented action to reform antiquated teacher preparation, evaluation, compensation and tenure structures. States and districts are partnering with philanthropies to pilot innovative approaches that aim to improve student achievement through the most important in-school variable: the quality of a child's teacher.

I applaud these efforts, and the willingness of so many governors and legislators to challenge the status quo -- and to risk being burned by powerful lobbying organizations -- for the benefit of students.

Of course, not everyone is pulling up a marshmallow stick to toast in the bonfire. Change always proves difficult, and there are many who find all this heat just a little too much. In the debate about improving teacher quality, we are seeing a sharp divide emerge between the old way of doing business and the new approaches being seeded nationwide.

To those in favor of the old way -- where we pay teachers based on how long they've been teaching, and who's earned credentials that often have no proven impact on student achievement -- I say get ready to be left in the cold.

We should be outraged about our ongoing achievement gaps, poor high school and college graduation rates and mediocre international rankings. We can't ignore the uncomfortable truth that such numbers reveal: We simply aren't getting the job done when it comes to educating America for the global knowledge economy. And good teachers, like good policymakers, know that we adults will have to get a little uncomfortable if we want our students to do better.

We need to tap the intellect and ideas of every possible sector if we want to make an impact on teacher effectiveness. This means being open to alternative certification, adjunct faculty, virtual instruction and a host of other new approaches to getting the best teachers in front of our students. It means lifting arbitrary caps on charter schools, inviting entrepreneurship into the classroom, and paying teachers based on performance and results.

The private and philanthropic sectors have already recognized this, and are offering their services and suggestions in a variety of ways. Instead of an outcry from the establishment and a knee-jerk reaction to slow the process down with regulations, we must embrace new ways of doing business. Of course, this is what our young people are doing all around us, living their lives on the cutting edge of innovation and waiting for us to catch up.

Many teachers themselves are leading and embracing critical reforms that provide opportunities for excellent educators to thrive (not to mention earning a living more reflective of the great work they do). And those involved with education from outside the classroom, like myself, not only respect and honor the teaching profession -- we seek to support and advance it through the work we do.

We all agree that teachers are critical to our education system. None of us would be in the positions we hold today without the excellent teachers we had along the way. Now it is time to hold everyone's feet to the fire as we recruit the best and brightest to the profession, revise old ways of measuring and supporting teacher impact and reward teachers at the top of their practice.

I'll say it again -- this can't be "us" versus "them." The most important "them" in education reform is the students, and it must be all of us for all of them.