WASHINGTON — More than 40 students packed into the library of Ballou High School Tuesday to have a talk with the secretary of education. Striking an authoritative yet conversational tone, Duncan wasn’t at the Washington school just to give another speech. He asked nearly as many questions as he answered.
“I was really pleased with the format of the session,” said Holly McGarvie, a teacher at Ballou. “I really like the way he started out with questioning the students … I know that they thoroughly enjoy sharing their thoughts.”
Duncan’s visit was part of a week-long nationwide event run by Teach For America, a non-profit organization designed to place college graduates and professionals as teachers in high-need areas. According to National Communications Director Carrie James, there are more than 9,000 first and second year TFA teachers this year. McGarvie is in her second year with TFA.
The purpose of Teach For America Week is to “provide opportunities for local leaders to come into schools and talk to students about … how what they’re learning in school applies to real life,” said James.
Duncan spoke on a variety of education topics including quality and pay of teachers, graduation rates and parent involvement. He questioned several students on what they thought would most improve their educational experience. Sophomore Acey Calhoun suggested influential parents, which prompted Duncan to ask for a policy suggestion.
“I know people don’t like to pay bills, so if you had a fine for them, if they have a weekly checkup [at the home] and they aren’t doing alright … that would be another way to get kids to school,” Calhoun said. “If the kid doesn’t have influential parents, that’s when the school should get more involved.”
A main focus Tuesday was encouraging students to consider becoming teachers. According to Duncan, nearly 1 million teachers will leave the profession in the next several years as the “baby boomer generation moves towards retirement.”
“We want to have amazing young people come into education,” Duncan continued. “We want to make sure that that great talent reflects the tremendous diversity of our country, so getting more men, more men of color to enter the profession.”
According to the Department of Education, more than 35 percent of public school students nationwide — but only 15 percent of teachers — are African American or Hispanic. Ballou is an appropriate environment to encourage students to address this discrepancy. According to the D.C. Public Schools website, 98 percent of the 1100 students enrolled last year were black.
But at the beginning of the near hour-long event when Duncan asked students who wished to become teachers to raise their hands, no hands shot up.
“Some of us don’t want to be teachers. We want to be more, to make more money,” one student said.
Raising salaries, however, is one of the main ideas Duncan suggested for bringing more young people into teaching. The thought of higher salaries peaked the interest of the students.
“What if we paid teachers more money?” Duncan asked the students to a chorus of agreement. “What if we were to try to double starting salaries to teachers … what if a great teacher could make about $130,000, 140,000, 150,000?”
“I’m there,” one student replied.