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Former National Teacher of the Year Urges Colleagues to Believe that All Students Can Succeed

Jason Kamras spent years teaching math to middle-school students in the struggling Washington, D.C., public school district, achieving dramatic results in schools that you won’t find on a tourist map. President George W. Bush named him National Teacher of the Year in 2005, and now, as an influential administrator, it’s his job to place a quality teacher in each of the school district’s classrooms.

Kamras has strong ideas about what it takes to be a successful teacher in low-income, high-need schools. For teachers and future teachers at a recent conference organized by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and AAAS, he offered some simple but crucial advice: Have high expectations for students.

Jason Kamras

“Believe without a doubt that every single one of your kids—regardless of where they come from, what language they speak at home, how much money their family has—can achieve at the highest level,” he said. “If you don’t believe that, please don’t go into teaching.”

Kamras, director of Teacher Human Capital for D.C. Public Schools, spoke 8 July at the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program Conference, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and organized by AAAS. The Noyce program aims to recruit students and professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and train them to be K-12 teachers in high-need school districts.

About 475 undergraduate and graduate students, teachers and recipients of Noyce grants attended the 7-9 July conference in Washington, D.C. The Noyce collaboration also includes proposal workshops organized by AAAS for potential grantees and AAAS oversight of the Noyce program Web site.

Since the Noyce program began in 2002, NSF has funded 249 Noyce projects which, collectively, are projected to train 7700 science and mathematics teachers. As part of the NSF-AAAS collaboration, AAAS maintains a map of Noyce projects.

This year, the program received $55 million in federal funds. Colleges and universities receive Noyce funds to run programs led by faculty members in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as well as education faculty. Undergraduate and post-bacclaureate STEM majors and STEM professionals receive scholarships or stipends to support the cost of enrollment in a teacher certification program. Noyce projects develop partnerships with local schools, which help give teachers-in-training classroom experience.

Joan Ferrini-Mundy

Joan Ferrini-Mundy, acting assistant director in the NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources, said during the conference’s opening session that President Barack Obama and the NSF see the preparation of STEM teachers as a long-term investment with huge human and economic importance.

“You know more on a day-to-day basis about what students in STEM classes are thinking, are doing, are understanding about what their background is and about what the challenges are in the schools,” Ferrini-Mundy told the teachers and future teachers in the audience. This “collective wisdom” represents “an incredible national resource” that could be used to guide teacher training, she added.

The Noyce program is a way to boost K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education by providing students with teachers who already have a deep knowledge of science and other technical fields. To prepare these STEM experts with teaching experience, the Noyce program trains them about best teaching practices, such as student inquiry and hands-on activities. At the end of the program, participants receive a teaching credential. Scholarships and stipends support the nascent teachers who, in return, commit to teaching two years in a high-need school district for each year of scholarship and stipend support.

“In all our backgrounds, we know kids who slip between the cracks—kids who don’t have the support at home, who fall behind in classes, who give up hope,” said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. “But providing quality teachers for every child can turn that around. Good teachers can take low-performing students and help them become motivated and bound for well-paying careers.”

The struggling D.C. public school district, which serves 44,000 children, has gained national attention for ongoing attempts to improve education for some of the most impoverished students in the nation.

Kamras described the “enormous gaps in achievement” between high- and low-income school children. A 2009 study showed that only 17% of poorer kids—those who were eligible for free meals at school—were proficient or advanced in math, compared to 45% of wealthier students, he said.

Is poverty the only reason for the achievement gap? Kamras doesn’t think so.

“These gaps aren’t about the kids at all. They’re about us, the adults,” he said. He told Noyce attendees that as a nation, the United States hasn’t “made the commitment to ensure excellence in every school.” And if we did, these gaps would narrow.

“A lot of people don’t agree with me, but I’ve seen it,” Kamras said. He’s seen it in his own classroom, he said, and in some of the poorest classrooms around the country, where he visited after being named Teacher of the Year.

It takes good teachers, good schools, and good leadership to close the gaps, Kamras said. Good teachers, especially, make a difference. To the new teachers in the audience, Kamras emphasized that developing meaningful relationships with their students can be one of the “most powerful” things they can do in the classroom.

“Showing them that you care about them, showing them that you believe in them, pushing them to achieve at a higher level” is essential to improving student learning and achievement, he said.

Learn more about the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.

Learn more about AAAS Education and Human Resources.