University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

A Working Lunch With The President

In The View from the OEP on July 16, 2014 at 11:44 am

This past week, Justin Minkel of Springdale was one of four teachers selected to have lunch with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Here is a brief video clip of President Obama’s opening remarks.

All four of the teachers work in high-poverty schools, and the focus of the lunch conversation was on how to find quality teachers to serve in these environments. Specifically, the president wanted to know:

  • Why had the teachers stayed in high-poverty schools?
  • What can he and the Secretary do to support teachers in high-need schools?
  • What policies could ensure that students who need the strongest teachers receive them?

In the Washington Post, Minkel summarized the teachers’ four main points:

jones elem1. There’s nothing wrong with the kids.

Minkel told the president about Cesar, a 2nd grader who won $10 in a writing contest. When Minkel asked what he planned to do with his winnings, he said, “I’m going to give it to my mom to help her buy food for our family.” He also told the president about Melissa, a 2nd grader who became the only literate person in her family through a home library project and school-wide support. Melissa told Minkel one day, “Now when my mom and little sister and I are watching TV, they tell me, ‘Melissa, turn off the TV and read to us,’ so I do.” Students like Melissa and Cesar, who walk into the classroom with greater challenges than more affluent students, are not the obstacle to attracting skilled teachers to high-poverty schools. They’re the motivation.

2. “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.”

There is great pressure in many low-income schools to raise test scores, which can make teaching and learning less enjoyable for all. Minkel advised the president that teachers are hesitant to work in classrooms that are stripped of educational joys, such as literature, the arts, and critical thinking, to focus instead on test preparation. These teachers are concerned that this is not what students need in order to be successful. Minkel quoted the writer Philip Pullman, who said, “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.” He said in order to draw teachers to high-poverty schools to help students excel, we have to “restore some of that delight.”

3. It’s not about good and bad teachers. It’s about good and bad teaching.

According to Minkel, there are a “handful” of teachers who cannot or will not improve as teachers, but most of the time this is not the case. Some ways to improve teaching:

  • Allowing teachers time to collaborate
  • Allowing teachers the space to innovate
  • Peer observation
  • Building time into the school day for professional development
  • Mentoring
  • Reflection

With the right support systems in place, the teachers told the president that almost every teacher that is willing to work can move from being a novice to becoming competent and, eventually, excellent.

4. If we want students to innovate, collaborate, and solve real-world problems, we need to make it possible for teachers to do those same things.

Teachers should not be seen as just “consumers of policy, professional development, curriculum, and research”–teachers should be creating them.

Hope for the Future

Minkel states that there is hope for lower-income schools. If Springdale’s Jones Elementary, a school with 99% poverty, 85% English Language Learners, and nearly 0%  teacher turnover can create a climate of excellence, then so can other schools. Minkel concludes that there’s nothing wrong with the kids. There are inherent wrongs in the system, but none that cannot be remedied. Including teachers in the conversation on how to improve schools is not going to fix the American educational system, but it’s a good place to start. The last thing the president said to the teachers was, “You all make me feel hopeful.” Minkel states, “President Obama, you left us hopeful, too.”


Justin-MinkelBackground on Justin Minkel

Justin Minkel began his teaching career at P.S. 192 in Harlem, New York City, as a member of Teach For America. He went on complete a Masters in Elementary Education at the University of California at Berkeley. Most recently, Minkel has taught 2nd grade at Jones Elementary in Springdale, a high-achieving public school where 99% of the students live in poverty and 90% are English Learners. In 2006, Minkel was named Milken Educator for the state of Arkansas. In 2007 he became the Arkansas Teacher of the Year and was Nationally Board Certified in 2011. Minkel also writes a blog for Education Week and serves on the board of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY).  Minkel is also the author of the children’s book Clubhouse Clash. He will teach 1st grade part time at Jones Elementary next year.

Educational Philosophy

Minkel believes that his students should be engaged in meaningful real-world projects. For example, his 2nd and 3rd grade students have worked to design, build, advertise, and sell a product of their own invention. This project integrates the disciplines of math, technology, writing, design, and economics. Another of Minkel’s projects includes the engineering challenge of designing a parachute for a gummy bear. Minkel also engages his students through research and creative writing. Minkel believes that even young children should learn “21st century skills” including collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. He reminds his students that “your choices determine your destiny,” and he strives to provide his students with opportunities that allow them to develop their gifts and pursue their passions.

books1,000 Books Project

Another large part of Minkel’s educational philosophy is a strong belief in literacy and the power of putting great books into the hands of children. This belief and the realization that many of his students did not have books at home sparked the 1,000 Books Project. This project sought to provide a library of 40 books in each of his 25 students’ homes. Through donations from Scholastic and other donors, and money from Minkel’s own pocket, the effort was successful and accomplished for less than $100 per student.

We have heard of opportunity gaps, teacher gaps…but what Minkel worked to close is the “book gap.” Researchers have found that in a more affluent community, each child has an average of 13 books. These students have books of their choosing that they bring from home, read when their work is done, and take home with them in the evening. These books are read only for pleasure, not for a grade. However, many children in Springdale may not have books at homes and have limited access to bookstores and public libraries. In poorer neighborhoods, there is an average of just one book for every 300 kids. Minkel states that having books at home improves literacy because students can repeatedly read their favorite texts that are at their reading level. Students in Minkel’s class progressed from their first book, Where The Wild Things Are (a picture book) to their 40th text, The Lightning Thief (a novel for fifth and sixth graders). Also, his students’ parents reported that the children spent increased time reading at home.


It is exciting to have Arkansas represented during this recent meeting with President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan! Thanks to Justin Minkel for being an exceptional educational leader for Arkansas. Stay updated with Minkel’s latest contributions on his two blogs, Teaching for Triumph and Career Teacher, and follow him on Twitter:  @JustinMinkel


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