A Letter to Arne Duncan
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?