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A Letter to Arne Duncan

May 2, 2011
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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:
    • frequently elevating the views of non-educators over those of educated, experienced professionals
    • supporting programs and policies that continually lower entry standards into the profession
    • 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?

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59 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2011 6:01 pm

    This is great; very eloquent and terrifically on point. Thanks for stating this so perfectly.

  2. May 2, 2011 6:32 pm

    The jury is in. I have no faith at all regarding Duncan’s words and letters and speeches. Only dramatic and shocking actions and a complete reversal of prior policies could redeem Duncan at this point.

    • May 3, 2011 10:26 am

      I guess the most we can hope for at this point is that President Obama spends more un-teleprompted time in front of students talking about quality education. His gaffs are our only hope, unless he’s since been briefed by Duncan.

  3. May 2, 2011 6:38 pm

    Spot on!!!

  4. May 2, 2011 7:18 pm

    Totally nailed it. It’s really puzzling and striking to me that Duncan thinks this rhetoric is somehow going to convince us-that almost seems like the most disrespectful part of all. He assumes that we don’t have a grip on reality and that we’re completely clueless about the political environment in which we work. All I have to say is, he’s got another think coming.

  5. James F. Mothersbaugh, Jr. permalink
    May 2, 2011 8:26 pm

    My God, you are good, Sabrina. I’d follow you on Twitter, but nearly everyone I follow now RT’s you; that’s how respected you are!

  6. Kristina permalink
    May 2, 2011 9:34 pm

    Thank you so much Sabrina!!
    Very well spoken.

  7. Diana Kenney permalink
    May 2, 2011 10:06 pm

    To the point! I only hope Mr. Duncan is listening.

  8. May 3, 2011 4:15 am

    As always, well said! I’m glad someone like you is getting recognition by representing our profession so well.

  9. Jessica Hahn permalink
    May 3, 2011 4:30 am

    You go, Sabrina! Thank you for so eloquently stating what I am thinking!

  10. May 3, 2011 6:18 am

    YAY!

  11. jamie sunshine permalink
    May 3, 2011 7:35 am

    Please email this directly to him and send this to as many national newspapers as possible. This letter is brilliant and needs to be seen…even though most of the public, at this point, will feel we teachers just whine and whine. I’m tired of being direspected. It’s time we made ourselves heard!

  12. logical1 permalink
    May 3, 2011 7:47 am

    Very well written with a lot of very valid points! However, it was written with the assumption the reforms enacted Arne Duncan and other corporate reformers are about education. They’re not. They are about promoting an ideology, privatization, government retrenchment, and profiteering. Why else would they be so persistent in the face of mountains of research that disputes their claims? Why else would they want accountability for everyone but themselves? They want trainers, not teachers and to make the teaching profession into a low-skilled job. It is coming from the same place as the attack on middle-class workers taking place throughout our country. They are not only interested in maintaining the status quo (re: power relationships), but would like to solidify it forever by taking out the middle class completely. Their “reforms” have nothing to do with education and everything to do with good ol’ Milton Friedman/Ronald Reagan, neo-liberal ideology that plagues both parties.

    • May 3, 2011 10:03 am

      @ logical1: I agree with you 100%. Too many teachers have been too naive for too long and need to study up on neoliberalism by committing to read Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” this summer. The sweet talk coming from these people is manipulative and can not be trusted. Watch their actions, don’t listen to their words.

    • NYCee permalink
      May 6, 2011 5:23 pm

      Bullseye!

      Apologists for “reform” Democrats and union bosses (let us not forget – ahem – Weingarten!) really do need to get a clue. This is an unravelling of the middle class. Period.

      Progressives who do complain about Democrats corporatized ways, those who do bang pots on various issues, often totally miss what’s being done (undone) in education. They talk about the unravelling of our nation re the economy, unions, the tax/wealth chasm btw elites and the massive rest of us, the corporate designs on social security/medicare – yet they ignore the fact that Duncan and Obama have been hacking away at teachers/union protections/middle class/public education since the beginning of the Obama administration. They fail to see the connective tissue between what’s being done to education and those other areas of the political sphere.

      It is especially rich to those who pay attention to hear Obama/Duncan spin their reforms as necessary to make the future bright for our young people, careerwise – the dawning of a new age of prosperity across the land… if only we do it their way. Actually, they are preparing the ground for a neoliberal descent, where the goal is to have a lot of low paying jobs, and, as the old codger on SNL (Dana Carvey) liked to say… “And we liked it!! Dog eat dog…

      Those younger teachers who are bamboozled into choosing merit pay over security are going to be more than a little sorry when the day comes when they too get that pink slip. Merit pay will be cold comfort when the savings run out and theyve been stamped unfit without a life raft to cling to (eg, too old, ie, too decently paid)

    • Teacher permalink
      June 30, 2011 9:02 am

      I too agree with your thinking. Too often there is no rounded logic or simple observation of society applied to ultra liberal ideology. After reading some other responses to your post I think it wise to listen to some of our older teachers who themselves were educated during the Cold War, and are therefore familiar with the reality of socialist ideology. History will show that repressive societies are ushered in by liberal extremists who eventually find themselves inmates of the gulag. I believe there is a real danger here…please, please just do the research and discover who exactly were sent to the camps and what kinds of national policies and changes preceded the terrible, and failed, regimes of the not too distant past.

      Back to the subject of teaching: teachers are being held responsible, and indeed have been for some time now, to fix an ailing society. Young people need structure to thrive. There is not a classroom teacher who does not know this. So where does structure come from? Family, church, school. A safe and solid organization. What structures are politically allowed? Family… broken. School… ? What is the value of structure? It provides the framework to be receptive to instruction. What is the value of instruction? Ultimately it paves the way for a functioning society and a society functions when the members have the ability to follow rules. And what is the value of that? To explain to my students the value of having rules I simply ask the following question: What would happen if we had no traffic laws?

      So…if teachers, who are held responsible for creating a structured environment where learning (and independent thinking!) can occur, are under attack, where does that leave us?

  13. May 3, 2011 10:17 am

    This is Arne Duncan at his finest (that is, a lot of completely false rhetoric) and an absolutely appropriate and thoughtful take-down by a great teacher. Please know that a lot of us out here truly appreciate teachers and will stand and fight with you!

  14. May 3, 2011 3:05 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for reading and posting such great comments!

  15. mariasallee permalink*
    May 3, 2011 6:08 pm

    Dear Arne,

    Sabrina speaks for me too. ( BTW, If she hadn’t been so thoroughly raked over the coals by the idiocy of our district’s policies she might not have had the inclination to thoughtfully read and respond to your letter. ) I’ve been a little too busy with the rigors of teaching to read your latest thoughts on teachers. Thanks for your, uh, support.

  16. May 3, 2011 8:25 pm

    Duncan’s letter reminds me of how “Waiting for Superman” had a “Teacher’s Appreciation Week” where teachers could see the film for half price–they sh*t on you, and then act like they haven’t, or are too stupid to notice.

    • May 3, 2011 8:39 pm

      Exactly!

      Speaking of WfS, the comments on Duncan’s post reminded me of a few months ago, when Davis Guggenheim posted on HuffPo and (finally!) asked teachers what they thought were the biggest problems facing schools, and everybody just let him have it in the comments. Each time they pretend to care about teachers, teachers let them know what we *really* think. Here’s hoping we continue to raise our voices, and start taking action!

  17. May 5, 2011 11:47 pm

    Awesome post. Thanks for the good fight and calling out Arne Duncan.

  18. Steve Hays permalink
    May 6, 2011 8:22 am

    Thanks for a compelling and sensible essay.

    I hope you will not mind if I point out a grammatical error: “and another part that is quite excited over the fact that US teacher-agitators have forced a shift in the conversation about education reform…” “Us” should be “we”: WE teachers have forced a shift …

    • May 6, 2011 8:38 am

      Haha, thanks! Actually, the statement is kind of intended to be a joke-y, folksy moment. Do people still say “agitators” without irony?

  19. May 6, 2011 10:09 am

    Nice post.

    I’m not a teacher, nor, any longer, the parent of a school-aged child, so I have no dog in this fight.

    However, I know bullshit when I see it. I want to comment on the testing regime and the accountability regime being propounded by the likes of Rhee, Gates, Duncan, and yes, Obama, etc.
    It is commonly asserted that having measurable goals is how private industry works and it will work for the public schools as well.

    Well, I work in private industry, for one of our largest corporations. And it’s true, we are constantly told to create quantifiable, measurable “goals” for ourselves, to be evaluated on. However, what they don’t tell you is, in private industry, it’s all bullshit and everyone knows it. Good supervisors do not create bogus test measures that measure nothing of importance and run their departments based on such measures. A supervisor who fired successful employees who were doing good work because of bogus statistics might not last so long. In spite of all the talk about quantifiable metrics, private-sector managers are given more freedom to ignore statistics of questionable worth. Whereas you poor teachers are placed under the thumb of clueless buzzword-yakkers looking for scapegoats.

    It is they, not you teachers, who have given up on educating 95% of America’s students.

    Keep up the fight!

    • NYCee permalink
      May 6, 2011 6:41 pm

      Now that’s true appreciation.

      Thank you for that!

  20. Dumpster permalink
    May 6, 2011 1:08 pm

    I hope you CC’d his supervisor on this.

  21. teacher55 permalink
    May 12, 2011 11:38 am

    The comparison with the Surgeon General and Chair of Joint Chiefs is so perfect. And so is everything else about your post.

  22. Nicole Conaway permalink
    May 12, 2011 9:50 pm

    Well -said! Almost perfect. But instead of a letter of apology from Duncan, we need a letter of resignation!

  23. Las Vegas Teacher permalink
    May 16, 2011 5:42 pm

    I applaud you for getting CNN’s attention. We just got one of Duncan’s lap dogs as our deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction, despite his having ZERO experience as an educator. Meanwhile, we have laughingly low standards for promotion to high school (for example, students only have to pass four semesters of English or reading out of ten total semesters taken between 6th, 7th and 8th grade), teachers are being forced out of their careers, and education is being stifled to the point where the only thing the kids learn how to do is answer multiple-choice questions. I’ve been teaching since 2003, and I never thought I’d see the day when teachers are reviled, disrespected and blamed for every economic woe known to man. I knew I wouldn’t get rich, but I didn’t figure I’d get spit on as well.

  24. Nyla Bell permalink
    January 10, 2012 10:19 pm

    Excellent!

  25. A Non-traditional teacher permalink
    March 1, 2014 6:12 am

    This is an intelligent, passionate letter. Of course, things would doubtlessly be much worse under a Republican administration, but that’s cold comfort. (I will say, however, that “education credentials” can be vastly overrated. I’ve been a teacher in an arts high school for 35 years, in which most of the arts teachers are professionals in their field — no certification or education courses — and we have been wildly successful. It’s possible for non-traditional teachers to bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the classroom. Now, however, even the arts teachers are being made to tow the line re education credentials, and I only hope I retire before the arts classes have to show results through some form of standardized tests.) By all means, look at Finland (not the U.S. would ever admit that a foreign country has a better approach to anything — see France’s health care system, for example). Yes, many things about the teaching profession here are bad — pay, bureaucratic foolishness, ridiculous standardized testing, etc. — but we need supportive and informed reforms, not what we are getting from the Obama administration. As someone who worked the phones on his campaign, I am bitterly disappointed.

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