Fixing Education From the Classroom Up

Drawing from classroom experience in New Orleans post-Katrina and in New York, Sydney Morris observed educators’ impact on students’ trajectories, and grew determined to do something about a system that lets so many kids down, especially our most underserved. The opportunity gap must be closed, and we know how to do it. Classroom teachers are the most important factor in students’ long-term success. Teachers’ own voices must be heard to be effective. Educators for Excellence gives teachers a platform to make change with grassroots, policy-focused, solutions-oriented organizing. A national network of nearly 30,000 teachers is making a difference from the classroom up.

she's been named one of city and state's 40 under 40 rising political stars Forbes is 30 under 30 in education soon she'll be 50 under 50 I'm sure in something she's a game changer she's a stove founder and starter and spark behind a movement that has grown into a coalition of 26,000 educators in more than a half dozen American communities please welcome Sidney Morris good afternoon everybody it is such an honor and a privilege to be here with you all today it has been a full day of rich and thoughtful discussions about some of our society's most intractable challenges and the innovative minds and ideas that are working together to solve them I'm really proud to be a part of it thank you for having me so like I said my name is Sydney Morris I'm the co-founder and co-ceo of educators for
excellence I am also a New Yorker born and raised and a proud public product of New York public schools however I headed south for college to Tulane University in New Orleans sadly in my junior year the historic and tragic Hurricane Katrina hit and devastated the city and commute including its public schools it was there that I started volunteering in an elementary school I founded and led an afterschool dance program and it was there and perhaps the most extreme of circumstances that I saw the incredible impact that educators were having on students trajectories and I knew that was something that I wanted to be part of I'd planned to go to law school I threw my LSAT to the side and instead I joined Teach for America and became a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher at PS 86 a traditional district Elementary School
in the Bronx in New York City and I quickly fell in love with teaching and all of its beautiful moments both big and small there was the time that I looked across the room and I saw Tiana become the teacher herself she was leaning over and helping her friend solve that really tricky math problem there was the time that Monet and I jumped up and down because she had finally passed the New York State math exam for third grade and then of course there is Hector vivacious energetic and a little bit mischievous Hector one day we were doing an art project and I look over and Hector is not doing his art project I walk over I have my stern teacher face on and I'm ready to find out what he's up to but when I got there I saw that
instead of doing his art project he was reading a chapter book under his desk this is Hector who came to me in the beginning of second grade not knowing the letters of the alphabet you might be able to imagine but I let that one slide I loved teaching and what I was doing inside the four walls of my classroom day in and day out with my students but I also found myself growing increasingly frustrated not with teaching but with the system that I was teaching in you see every day I stared at the 32 seven-year-old sitting in front of me whose education Zhai had been entrusted with knowing that they could sadly become part of a sobering statistic only 1 in 10 low-income students of color in this country will graduate from college
we are failing millions of students particularly those coming from our most underserved communities and leaving them unprepared for college career and life the result is a growing opportunity gap along racial and class lines that threatens the future of our community's economy and democracy but there's good news we know what works there is a large and widely respected body of research that now tells us the classroom teacher is the single most important in-school factor in improving outcomes for students in fact having a highly effective teacher three years in a row can virtually close the achievement gap that exists between low-income minority students and their more affluent white peers this finding spur conversations across America about how
to ensure that we have a great teacher in every classroom every year and yet what I and so many of my colleagues felt was that these conversations were often happening without us you see even though policymakers were talking about teachers they rarely were talking with teachers the voices and ideas of practitioners those most proximate to our students and closest to our challenges were not being heard in the rooms and around the tables where education decisions were being made now sometimes policymakers were talking to representatives of teachers their teachers unions which have historically been powerful levers for teacher led change but what my experience was and what data bears out is that there was a growing disconnect
that existed between teachers union leadership and teachers themselves national polls of teachers show that educators really support their union but increasingly they want to see their union be more student-centered more solutions oriented and more democratic in fact in the United Federation of Teachers the New York City Teachers Union that I was a part of when there was a leadership election for the president of that Union the largest local teachers union in the country actually the world fifty percent of the votes in that election came from retirees out of the universe of active teachers that could have voted in that election only about 17% of them had done so what I was feeling and what I was hearing from my colleagues was a disconnect their voices weren't being heard nor were they leveraging the
channels available to them to have their voices heard that's where educators for excellence comes in we were founded by myself my colleague Evan stone about 10 other teachers in New York City on a simple premise that for far too long teachers have been treated as subjects of change rather than as agents of change and so we set out to flip that dynamic on its head at E 4 E as we call it our theory of change is grounded in two long-term outcomes that we think are inextricably linked better outcomes for our students and the elevation of the quality and prestige of the teaching profession we know that there are major systemic and policy barriers in place at every level of the system that are preventing those two things from being reality right now there are many great organizations and many incredible
leaders that are working to change systems and policy most of whom are pushing on that system from the outside our unique complement to that is that we are simultaneously pushing on that system from within or as we like to say from the classroom up we do that by building a movement of forward-thinking solutions oriented reform oriented teachers through classic boots on the ground grassroots organizing then we work to identify train and support leaders within that broader movement to develop their leadership skills and then help them deploy those leadership skills by taking on key positions of power and influence in their schools in their districts in their States and perhaps most importantly within their teachers unions we then help teachers create their own policy recommendations to bridge the divide between policymakers
and the classroom because let's face it we believe that you actually get better policy when the people who are supposed to be implementing it have helped shape it and then we help our members turn those ideas into reality by running teacher led advocacy campaigns where we deploy every tactic Under the Sun from petition drives to rallies at City Hall to meeting with elected officials to earned and paid media campaigns to ensure that our teachers ideas are in all of the places where education decisions are being made and all the while we're scaling the model both within the communities that we serve and across the country our work is grounded in our teacher written declaration of principles and beliefs a broad vision for the change that we want to see this was our founding document that was written by a group of about a dozen teachers in a BYOB pizza shop in New York City's East Village and it has
become the organizing document that guides all of our policy and advocacy in communities across the country we've grown from that founding group of a dozen teachers and a pizza shop into a national organization and national movement of nearly 30,000 teachers across the country who are coming together to create change both locally and across our broader nation through our chapters we provide opportunities for teachers to stay informed to learn about education policy and research to network and connect with like-minded colleagues and directly with key education decision-makers to expand their leadership skills both inside and outside of their classrooms and to take action by crafting their policy recommendations and advocating for them to become reality since our launch in 2010 we've grown into a broad and
diverse base of nearly 30,000 Ephrem members 800 leaders have gone through our teacher leadership training program and deploying their leadership skills in organizing and mobilizing their colleagues and 220 of those leaders have also taken on positions of elected or appointed union leadership taking one of our most powerful education decision-making bodies and transforming it from the inside out our members have written over 30 nationally significant policy white papers on a variety of Fix from how teachers should be evaluated to making the teaching force more diverse to the kinds of discipline practices that we should use in our schools they've broadened the conversation nationally by sharing their voices more broadly in the news media with teacher ridden off Ed's letters to the editor and interviews directly with reporters and journalists and they've
gone straight to the halls of our decision makers having over 1100 teacher advocacy meetings where they're connecting directly with state legislators and district officials our members work has led to very significant systems level change in education from state legislation to district policy to Union resolutions our members have improved teacher evaluation in New York they've diversified the teaching workforce in Minnesota they reformed how teachers are professionally developed and supported in Connecticut our members are leading change from the classroom up this is Christina Kim she is an amazing elementary school teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District had the privilege of spending some time with her last week for the last several years
Christina alongside hundreds of our members in California have been working to transform the way tenure is granted in the state of California California has one of the most stringent tenure laws right now where after just 18 months a teacher is granted what is called permanent status this is not enough time for a teacher to learn and develop their craft nor is this enough time for an administrator to make a really important decision about whether or not this somebody is going to be a teacher for their career or whether we should dismiss them from the profession entirely and not to mention the way this system is structured is not aligned at all with what's best for kids three years ago every teachers in California came together to craft a policy paper with their ideas for how
they could reform teacher tenure in California they said we need more time for teachers to learn and grow and develop we need more options for administrators to have when making these critical decisions on behalf of educators and kids we need tenure to actually be tied to teachers effectiveness they took those ideas and those teacher generated policy ideas have since become a piece of teacher written legislation Assembly Bill 1220 the teacher and Student Success act a B 1220 is currently making its way through the California State Legislature this is the first time in 30 years that the California State Legislature has taken up the issue of teacher tenure
our teachers are meeting with electives they've met with every single editorial board in the state and they are testifying for why they think that this dramatic change will both improve outcomes for kids and uplift the teaching profession it's our sincere hope that in this legislative cycle this spring we will soon see this bill become law what's most profound about this is that this significant change is entirely teacher-led right now as we are all sitting here speaking there are teachers like Christina that are standing in front of classrooms across this country they are leading not just inside the four walls of those classrooms but outside of them as well they are teacher leaders
what I think being a teacher leader means is not just working within the four walls of your classroom definitely you're a leader for your students but also being a leader for other teachers I feel like there are a lot of policymakers right now in education who are disconnected from the classroom and so being the teacher leader is important because I'm advocating for the changes that I'm directly seeing a need for by being a teacher leader I've personally found that it's extremely powerful to show others what they can do in their communities around students who don't have opportunities need someone to advocate loudly for them and you have to be willing to fall on your sword sometimes and take a risk for your students so that they can have a better learning environment I was able to show students that I'm not just a teacher I'm a leader in our community and that meant a lots of colleagues who then joined in
the community the conversation and students who believed that they could do the same thank you so much it's been such a privilege and an honor to be here with y'all [Applause]