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Become a Teacher

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"If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child -- become a teacher. Your country needs you."

Nothing in President Obama's January State of the Union speech has stayed with me like these words directed to people -- young and maybe not so young -- contemplating their future. Has a president ever before used his ceremonial report on the nation's well-being to urge the audience to become teachers? Whether it's happened or not, I hope others were struck by these words as well, and I hope they stand as a rallying point for building the future of our country.

The juxtaposition of "become a teacher" and the president's reference to a "Sputnik moment" also resonated with me, I suppose because I'm (just) old enough to recall 1957 and how much changed in the following years. Although we misjudged the threat, it's amazing to think of how quickly the nation's thinking changed -- as well as our education systems.

The president could also have summoned December 7, 1941. In both cases we showed what a truly extraordinary nation we are, mobilizing in great numbers toward a goal of unquestioned consequence. We were driven by ideas that bound individuals together but also transcended individuals.

Both examples have one other thing in common: there was imminent danger, a threat to our well-being and way of life that was almost universally acknowledged. Sadly, that is not the case with the state of our schools and the education of our children, although one wonders why.

Americans understood why an orbiting satellite changed the nation's politics. It has not been as easy to locate the same urgency about a poor five-year-old who enters school with a fraction of the vocabulary that a middle or upper class child has, or an eight-year-old who doesn't read. No mushroom cloud appears when children lose interest in math and science in middle school, or when a teenager drops out. These stories are sad, but they don't register as personally as the image of our country sitting in the cross-hairs of an external force committed to our undoing.

Yet as the National Commission for Excellence in Education found in "A Nation at Risk" more than 25 years ago, the failures of American education pose an equally grave threat to our future.

The president talked about how South Koreans see teachers as Nation Builders. He could have gone further. In most countries that are now outperforming us on international ratings, schools are seen as the #1 strategy for long-term growth and success. This week in New York City, education ministers from most of the top-performing nations in the world will gather to discuss how to improve the teaching profession; the culture that supports great teaching in many of these countries is largely unknown in the U.S.

Yet teachers really are Nation Builders -- irrespective of whether they're given support to succeed. Who teachers are, how they are prepared and supported, what they know about both content and the way children learn, and their vision of the world shape the culture of our schools and the future of our country. And who teachers are and how they are regarded also shape who will be attracted to the profession.

What the President was saying went far beyond "become a teacher." I think he was saying to the entire education sector and people of every stripe: stop pointing fingers. Our future does not hinge on the outcome of charter schools vs. district schools, whole language vs. phonics, small schools vs. large, content vs. critical thinking, standardized tests vs. project-based learning, traditional teacher preparation vs. alternative paths, or what to me signals a new nadir in the conversation, "the reformers vs. the blob." The list of parrying beliefs is ponderous and long-standing. It also explains why so little progress has been made.

Given the challenges we face, we should be embracing all of the above, not out of some sense of "can't we all just get along," but because there are success stories and problems associated with each. Some traditionally prepared teachers are first-rate and others are lousy; some Teach for America graduates are great and others aren't; small and large schools are both good and bad. Brockton High School in Brockton, Mass. has improved itself dramatically without doing any of the things the most prominent reformers say must happen.

Instead of focusing on why one approach discredits another, we need to identify value wherever it exists and build on it. As historian David Tyack asserted years ago in his book, The One Best System, there is no one best system.

All of these things matter because they define not only our schools but the education profession. And it is the profession itself -- what it stands for and how it operates -- that will determine whether the best of the best choose to enter it. Back in January, I heard President Obama speaking to the profession as much as to our young people. Our country does desperately need them -- and we need them in large numbers -- but we also desperately need the profession to come together. In this "Sputnik moment," teachers and everyone associated with schooling have a big role to play, and the President was right in challenging them to be as good as the promise that is at the heart of education.