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A Letter to Arne Duncan

Ohanian Comment: This just shows we can never underestimate Arne Duncan's gall/ disdain/chutzpah. There are LOTS of angry responses to Duncan on the Education Week site, where he posted his letter. It's worth taking a look.

Here is the first response listed there, followed by a letter back to Mr. Duncan.

by PL Thomas:

"Not too long ago, it was acceptable for schools to have high dropout rates, and not all kids were expected to be proficient in every subject. In today's economy, there is no acceptable dropout rate, and we rightly expect all children--English-language learners, students with disabilities, and children of poverty--to learn and succeed."
Few comments are more offensive or more inaccurate. . .

There is NO point in the last 120 YEARS that leaders and educators have not been lamenting graduation rates. Duncan has no experience as an educator and lacks the full and nuanced expertise of the FIELD and history of education to be making decisions about US public education.

As one example, see this:

"Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college."

From 1947! in TIME: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,934231,00.html

Duncan, Gates, Canada, and Rhee suffer the arrogance that they woke up for the first time in history and give a d*** about children and learning. . .yet the evidence is that millions of educators have cared and actually WORKED in education throughout the US for decades despite such political arrogance and ineptitude.

Few commentaries could be more disrespectful to the field of teaching than this one claiming to honor educators this week.

And don't miss Anthony Cody's response.

by Sabrina

This morning, I read Education Secretary Arne Duncan's Open Letter to America's Teachers. There's a part of me that would like to take his words at face value, and another part that is quite excited over the fact that us teacher-agitators have forced a shift in the conversation about education reform, such that he has at least acknowledged (if not acted upon) many of our concerns. But the gap between his words and his actions is too large to ignore. I've written him a letter in response.

Dear Secretary Duncan,

Actions speak louder than words. Though you often have nice words to say about teachers, what you do is more important, and your actions thus far do not indicate that you respect, value, or support teachers and our profession as much as you claim. Among other things, you have:

  • Praised the mass firing of all teachers in certain 'failing' schools, despite a lack of evaluation or evidence to justify such an action. This is like a doctor performing major surgery with an ax instead of a scalpel. You watched it, and applauded. How is that respectful? Did you stop to question if those teachers had been supported to be successful? How can you claim to value teachers when you praise school officials who treat us as if we're disposable?

  • Promoted questionable school reform policies embraced by powerful non-educators over the express opposition of many teachers (and public school parents, for that matter). You've also framed criticism of these policies as a defense of an indefensible status quo. This, instead of valuing the views of the people who work daily for America's students, and instead of honoring divergent views for what they are: a necessary part of any productive problem-solving exercise. How is it respectful to write off the informed opinions of concerned people who have spent their lives serving students and communities? (And how is it supportive to ask said professionals to continue trying to do more with less?)

  • Undermined the teaching profession by:
    o frequently elevating the views of non-educators over those of educated, experienced professionals
    o supporting programs and policies that continually lower entry standards into the profession
    o increasing the instability of the profession (and our schools) by promoting policies that tie teachers' evaluations and continued employment to flawed value-added measures based on flawed tests.

  • Speaking of those tests, you have elevated and increased high-stakes tests that are hastily scored by temporary employees and/or machines over classroom-embedded assessments designed and evaluated by teachers. You believe such tests should account for as much as 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation--with input from principals, the teachers themselves, peer teachers, students, and parents all crammed into the remaining 50 percent. That necessarily indicates that you value teachers' (and all public school stakeholders' judgment much less than the opinions of test-makers-- and temporary scorers, and machines. And you continue to allow schools to be closed or converted, teachers to be fired, and learning to be disrupted, on the basis of these tests. Not only is this disrespectful, it's perplexing given that you yourself believe they are so inadequate that you've urged us to spend hundreds of millions of dollars--during a budget crunch!--to replace them.

  • All of these actions are profoundly disrespectful to teachers, to say nothing of our students.

    Instead of ensuring that all students have equal access to qualified and effective teachers, your office has advanced an "experiment-and-punish" approach to teacher quality under which our neediest students suffer the most. You have done little to guarantee that teachers are suited to the profession and possess the necessary foundational knowledge and experience before entering the classroom, as is the standard practice in nations like Finland, and in successful public and private schools here in America. Instead, you have allowed the "highly qualified" standard to be watered down, and pressed to make it easier to get rid of poor teachers after they've already caused a problem. In doing so, you advocate for an erosion of teachers' rights that jeopardizes ALL teachers, good and bad. Promising new teachers, and teachers with long track records of success, have been pushed out of schools that need us for bogus reasons (when reasons have been offered at all) because we are now presumed guilty until proven innocent.

    Respect? Value? Support? Not seeing much.

    More fundamentally, your very presence in the role of Education Secretary reflects a level of disrespect for our profession not found in others. Our Surgeon General is a career physician, who earned a full MD before going into family practice. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a career naval officer, who studied at the Naval Academy before participating in combat operations aboard a destroyer. Yet despite "working in education" for a while, you never studied education, and you've never taught in a public school classroom. Working in non-profits, playing basketball, and being a political appointee are not substitutes for classroom experience.

    I can say firsthand that my beliefs about educational failure changed dramatically when I went from "working in education" to actually running a classroom of my own. Classroom teachers have to contend with far greater "accountability" while having far less flexibility or control over how, when, what, and with what we teach. Meeting the academic, cognitive, and social needs of 20 (or 30 or 40) students simultaneously is very different from working with small groups or tutoring one-on-one. Until you have navigated that, it is very difficult to fully appreciate just what teachers are up against.

    Schools are places where all of society's issues--all the "isms, all the politics, all the everything"--play out. Ideally, the person in charge of our whole school system would, at a minimum, have seen all aspects of it firsthand (as a student, as a scholar, as a teacher, as a parent, as a school leader, etc.) before ever being entrusted with overseeing it. We need leaders who can combine in-depth knowledge of education policy and history with practical experience at all levels of the public education system, and a proper respect for the perspectives of those doing the work every day.

    And if we can't have all that, then at the very least we need someone who is humble enough to admit what they don't or can't know, and defer to the those who do and can--instead of seeking the counsel of those who know even less.

    So what do you plan to do to prove you respect, value, and support teachers? And when can teachers expect your apology letter, for the disrespectful and destructive policy choices you've already made?

    An Open Letter From Arne Duncan to America's Teachers

    In Honor of Teacher Appreciation Week

    By Arne Duncan,
    Education Week, May 2, 2011

    I have worked in education for much of my life. I have met with thousands of teachers in great schools and struggling schools, in big cities and small towns, and I have a deep and genuine appreciation for the work you do. I know that most teachers did not enter the profession for the money. You became teachers to make a difference in the lives of children, and for the hard work you do each day, you deserve to be respected, valued, and supported.

    I consider teaching an honorable and important profession, and it is my goal to see that you are treated with the dignity we award to other professionals in society. In too many communities, the profession has been devalued. Many of the teachers I have met object to the imposition of curriculum that reduces teaching to little more than a paint-by-numbers exercise. I agree.

    Inside your classroom, you exercise a high degree of autonomy. You decide when to slow down to make sure all of your students fully understand a concept, or when a different instructional strategy is needed to meet the needs of a few who are struggling to keep up. You build relationships with students from a variety of backgrounds and with a diverse array of needs, and you find ways to motivate and engage them. I appreciate the challenge and skill involved in the work you do and applaud those of you who have dedicated your lives to teaching.

    Many of you have told me you are willing to be held accountable for outcomes over which you have some control, but you also want school leaders held accountable for creating a positive and supportive learning environment. You want real feedback in a professional setting rather than drive-by visits from principals or a single score on a bubble test. And you want the time and opportunity to work with your colleagues and strengthen your craft.

    You have told me you believe that the No Child Left Behind Act has prompted some schools--especially low-performing ones--to teach to the test, rather than focus on the educational needs of students. Because of the pressure to boost test scores, NCLB has narrowed the curriculum, and important subjects like history, science, the arts, foreign languages, and physical education have been de-emphasized. And you are frustrated when teachers alone are blamed for educational failures that have roots in broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded schools systems. You rightfully believe that responsibility for educational quality should be shared by administrators, community, parents, and even students themselves.

    The teachers I have met are not afraid of hard work, and few jobs today are harder. Moreover, it's gotten harder in recent years; the challenges kids bring into the classroom are greater and the expectations are higher. Not too long ago, it was acceptable for schools to have high dropout rates, and not all kids were expected to be proficient in every subject. In today's economy, there is no acceptable dropout rate, and we rightly expect all children--English-language learners, students with disabilities, and children of poverty--to learn and succeed.

    You and I are here to help America's children. We understand that the surest way to do that is to make sure that the 3.2 million teachers in America's classrooms are the very best they can be. The quality of our education system can only be as good as the quality of our teaching force.

    So I want to work with you to change and improve federal law, to invest in teachers and strengthen the teaching profession. Together with you, I want to develop a system of evaluation that draws on meaningful observations and input from your peers, as well as a sophisticated assessment that measures individual student growth, creativity, and critical thinking. States, with the help of teachers, are now developing better assessments so you will have useful information to guide instruction and show the positive impact you are having on our children.

    Working together, we can transform teaching from the factory model designed over a century ago to one built for the information age. We can build an accountability system based on data we trust and a standard that is honest--one that recognizes and rewards great teaching, gives new or struggling teachers the support they need to succeed, and deals fairly, efficiently, and compassionately with teachers who are simply not up to the job. With your input and leadership, we can restore the status of the teaching profession so more of America's top college students choose to teach because no other job is more important or more fulfilling.

    In the next decade, half of America's teachers are likely to retire. What we do to recruit, train, and retain our new teachers will shape public education in this country for a generation. At the same time, how we recognize, honor, and show respect for our experienced educators will reaffirm teaching as a profession of nation builders and social leaders dedicated to our highest ideals. As that work proceeds, I want you to know that I hear you, I value you, and I respect you.

    — Sabrina, PL Thomas, Arne Duncan
    Failing Schools blog





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