07/12/2011 11:02 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2011

The Teacher and the American Dream

We all just celebrated our nation's 235th birthday last week. Part of our great American heritage is the right to a free education. It is part of the American dream; come to America with nothing; get an education; get a job and lead a free and good life. We invite everyone and our philosophy is written in Emma Lazarus's famous poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

However, today the dream is in jeopardy. We have a two tiered education system: for our well-to-do, we have private schools or top performing public schools vs. for our inner cities and lower income areas, we have low performing public schools or charters.

What are we doing in our private schools that we are not doing in our public schools? Or in other words, why the rush to our private schools?

In our private schools, kids are getting a well respected teacher who is not teaching to the test and who is excited about teaching. We are getting parents who care about education and support teachers because they are happy their kids go to that school. In our public schools, we have scripted teaching to state mandated tests.

It is hard to achieve the American dream without the benefit of a quality education.

What is quality education? According research by the Gates Foundation, the key to quality education is a good teacher in every classroom. A few weeks ago, on July 1, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, wrote the following in a letter for the July, 2011 Virtual Conference on education.

The center of a classroom is not a test, a textbook, or the posters on the wall. It's not a state or district policy, and it most certainly is not a federal law.

The heart of the classroom is found in the unique relationships between students and teachers. In the same way that a family turns a house into a home, a physical and emotional transformation takes place when teachers and students work together in community to reach common goals. We see it in the trust, the expectations, the experiences and the knowledge of every person in the class.

The Gates Foundation and Arne Duncan are not the only ones to say the teacher is the key. Many educators and thought leaders also do so.

Panelists on the Teaching Panel at the Goldman Sachs-Stanford Education conference on June 23 all said that a high quality teacher is one who connects with the student. The panelists to a person said that the teacher who cared, the teacher who had high standards was their favorite teacher.

Here is another important fact: Students who could name a favorite teacher in school were the ones who stayed in school; students who could not name a favorite teacher were twice as likely to drop out, according to the panelists.

If most of our thought leaders agree that the teacher is the key and the relationship of the teacher to the students is also key, why we are not doing much more to support teachers?

According to Randi Weinberg, President of AFT, teachers need technology training, professional development, time to collaborate and appreciation. Teachers go into teaching to make a difference, not to make a big salary. That is why money is not principal motivator, according to Daniel Pink. However, to earn the respect of society, teachers need to be paid well. Our society gives respect those who earn high salaries. Look at the highly respected teachers in Finland, for example; teachers are one of highest paid professions.

Why aren't teachers appreciated more in America? Unfortunately, there is a tradition of low respect which we need to change. Why are professional development days being cut from the budget? We are prioritizing the wrong things at the government level.

Everyone looks to Finland as the highest scoring country on the PISA test (we are not in the top ten) and wonders what the 'silver bullet' is. (PISA test is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old scholastic performance.) There is no silver bullet; there is no superman. What Finland does is treat teachers with high respect, good salaries, freedom to adapt the curriculum and little standardized testing. All the countries that are scoring at the top follow the Finnish model.

We should too.

Unlike Finland, we have little respect for teachers and we have scripted curriculum in the classroom. Teachers are told what to teach on each day of the school year. This may be useful for a beginning teacher, but it is not good for the experienced teacher. It removes creativity and enthusiasm. We force teachers to use a scripted curriculum because we don't trust and respect the teacher and yet we want the teacher to be excited and enthusiastic to be in the classroom. Our policies run counter to our goals,

We need to ask ourselves, how can teachers feel good about themselves when they are scripted and constantly under attack? Films like Waiting for Superman only made teachers feel terrible about themselves by targeting them and the teachers unions as the main reason for failing schools.

If teachers feel bad about themselves how can they be in a position to give and make others feel good about themselves?

We have the Teach for America program which is a terrific program and a good way to get top students interested in teaching. But look at the statistics -- they only stay for two years. They leave discouraged because there is little or no support for new teachers. More than fifty percent of new teachers drop out after five years of teaching costing us millions of dollars in wasted resources.

The Gates Foundation, probably the most influential foundation focusing on federal education policies, knows that teachers are the key but their policies are not consistent with this. Rather than emphasizing testing and value added evaluation, they should focus on the best ways to support the teacher in the classroom.

We should all support the American dream by supporting the classroom teacher. That does not mean we give up standardized testing and evaluating teachers; it just means that we don't focus on it. We focus on supporting teachers.

Teachers, parents, and policymakers all have the same goal, a quality education for all. We need to work together as a team to solve our education problems today and not single out our teachers as being solely responsible. Hillary Clinton was right all years ago when she quoted the African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child." It also takes a village to assure quality education for all our children.