“We don’t think that’s how the broader teaching community feels about it.” (UPDATED)
The wave of teachers who are openly questioning the hypocrisy evident in Education Secretary Duncan’s letter this week keeps growing, enough to generate a story of its own. Several teachers and commenters, myself included, are quoted, as is USDOE Press Secretary Justin Hamilton.
When [fourth-grade] teacher-turned-advocate Sabrina Stevens Shupe saw Duncan’s letter, she was dismayed, saying she felt it did not reflect his policies.
“There were so many things going wrong in terms of false assumptions and things that are not consistent with his actions,” she told The Huffington Post. “If you’re somebody who’s reading it, and you’re not aware of the whole back story, it sounds very nice. It’s so duplicitous.”
So Stevens Shupe wrote a letter back to Duncan in the form of a blog post, saying that “actions speak louder than words.” She took issue especially with his message about testing because, as she wrote, “you have elevated and increased high-stakes.” She said Duncan’s letter struck her as a public-relations stunt.
“It’s disappointing to hear that someone feels that way, but we don’t think that’s how the broader teaching community feels about it,” said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the Education Department.
“We don’t think that’s how the broader teaching community feels about it.” Really? I’m honestly struggling to figure out on what grounds Mr. Hamilton can make such a statement. The overwhelming majority of tweets, blog posts, and comments in response to Secretary Duncan’s letter are remarkably negative– even on their own website, where they have the privilege of moderating the comments.
Mr. Hamilton also cites the fact that Secretary Duncan has visited 169 schools in close to 45 states to support Duncan’s statement that he’s committed to working together, adding that “everywhere he goes he sits down with parents, educators, education stakeholders, community members.” No one is doubting that he sits frequently– what we doubt is whether he’s actually listening to those of us who take the time to write and speak of our own accord, or acting upon the feedback we’re attempting to provide.
(Now, I can’t be the only one who questions the value of brief, staged visits and photo ops as opportunities to seriously engage deep issues. For folks who don’t know, when big wigs and public officials visit schools, they’re not usually allowed to see how things really go down. One, the official’s team usually picks friendly venues, because few things are worse for a political appointee than to be booed out of a school auditorium. Two, school leaders expect and require everyone– teachers and students– to be on their “best” behavior. And in the Stepford-like world of school, your “best” behavior means never asking questions or doing anything that could possibly be construed as anything but a grinning acceptance of whatever is being done to you. The proceedings are usually scripted down to the minute, in order to comport with said official’s tight schedule, and to keep anybody from having to do anything uncomfortable, like confront real issues or solve actual problems.)
We also know from experience that Secretary Duncan:
- is willing to say everyone agrees with him when we know that to be untrue. For example, many educators have spoken out against components of Race to the Top from its inception, yet Duncan was once quoted in the New York Times as saying he’d encountered “zero opposition” to the plan.
- tends to view these outreach opportunities as a space to talk at teachers, instead of approaching them as an opportunity to listen and learn. For example, when Anthony Cody (also quoted in the article) and a group of accomplished teachers managed to set up a conference call with him back in May of last year,
The funny thing about the conversation was that the whole time, they seemed to think we had questions, and their job was to answer them. We had actually approached the conversation from a different place. We thought perhaps they might want to ask US questions, or hear our ideas about how to improve schools.
So why should we believe Duncan or Hamilton when they say they’re taking our concerns to heart? Why should we believe either of them know anything about how the “broader teaching community” feels, when they offer no evidence to substantiate such a claim, and all of the available evidence suggests the exact opposite?
Messrs. Duncan and Hamilton, at some point you are going to have to stop trying to placate or talk over those of us who quite legitimately disagree with you, and actually deal with the substance of what we’re saying. You’re also going to have to stop making things up– you can’t get away with that in the Internet Age. If your actions begin to indicate that you are willing to work with us in good faith, we will be happy to do so. But your repeated lies and distortions have cheapened your words too much. We’re not buying it.
ETA 2: From my incredibly astute friend Anthony Cody:
So either the overwhelming majority of teachers feel as do Sabrina Stevens Shupe, myself, and the roughly several hundred who posted critical comments in response to Secretary Duncan, or we represent some sort of cranky complainers, outside of the mainstream of American education. Which is it?
Going back to Secretary Duncan’s letter, there is a huge clue there that they actually know the answer to this question. He states in his letter that when he visits schools he finds teachers “are frustrated when teachers alone are blamed for educational failures that have roots in broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded schools systems.”
This is hardly the sort of feedback that would indicate support of the Department’s agenda. It seems to me that this summary of frustrations aligns much more closely with the skeptical response I shared in my own open letter this week.
It is possible that the bubble-like environment described by becut has allowed Secretary Duncan to sail along with his agenda unaware that he has succeeded in alienating the vast majority of American teachers. Or it is possible that he and his Department are aware of this alienation, and are simply hoping that the traditionally docile teaching profession will, in spite of our great frustration, do little more than post angry comments on our blogs.