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“We don’t think that’s how the broader teaching community feels about it.” (UPDATED)

May 3, 2011

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: They’re noticing the dissension over at, too.

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.

Some of us are doing more

20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2011 10:27 pm

    Denial isn’t a river in Egypt. It’s what soulless autocrats like Duncan and the band of toadies with which he’s surrounded himself at DOE excel at when confronted by overwhelming evidence that the people they are supposed to serve are disgusted and dismayed by the “benevolent” policies being shoved down their collective throats.

    It’s utterly predictable, given the enormous denialism from DOE in response to Anthony Cody’s questions about the Obama speech vs. the Duncan reality, that they would similarly claim that words don’t mean what they mean, that people who overwhelmingly are stating that Duncan’s speech was transparent hypocrisy really support him, and whatever else it takes to help stuff their fingers in their and the Secretary’s ears. Duncan should resign: the mandate he deludes himself into thinking he has has now been very clearly, very loudly, refuted.

  2. Kristina permalink
    May 3, 2011 10:28 pm

    Apparently the only people that Mr. Hamilton asked were the people around his office.
    He obviously hasn’t visited my teaching community, because he would have had an earful.

    Unfortunately we can’t force them to truly listen, only continue to present them with the information and facts.

  3. May 4, 2011 3:50 am

    I think we should all write Mr. Hamilton right now.

  4. May 4, 2011 11:28 am

    Great response blog. And great initial blog.

    As Leonie Haimson said, this reminds us of Nixon’s claim that a “Silent Majority” believed his policies and behaviors were right. And we know what happened to Nixon.

    There’s something significant, I think, about the denials–something desperate. Prepare for a wave of harsh rhetoric and lots of reformy blah-blah.

  5. May 4, 2011 12:32 pm

    Good for you, Sabrina. I’ve said it before– nothing reminds me of the Bush administration so much as the Duncan administration inside the Obama administration. The DOE is a policy arm that’s run completely amok. The fact that the President could go before the Urban League last July— the Urban League and the NAACP and others had written a lengthy critique of DOE policies– and pooh-pooh their concerns as “a general resistance to change” tells me that whoever is running the political shop at the White House is utterly unaware that the people who actually voted for Obama are opposed to much of what Arne Duncan is out there doing.

  6. May 4, 2011 6:01 pm

    Miriam – I agree. We should all write Hamilton right now. I’m on it.

    I used to think Duncan was just kind of along for the ride. You know – “Hey I played basketball in Australia, what can I do with my life now.” I didn’t really think he understood what he was doing. The more I see him in action the more I think he’s fully aware. Guess I would have had that perspective all along had I been teaching in Chicago while he was there.

  7. Peter D. Ford III permalink
    May 4, 2011 8:24 pm

    The only time Duncan will get serious about listening to teachers is if in 2012 the poll numbers suggest teachers will vote in droves for someone else, specifically hold their noses and vote for the (gasp) Republican candidate.

    As I’ve said before, teachers can pull a Sun Tzu-style ‘end around’ the executive branch bureaucrats by targeting their electoral clout, if we have any, at Congress and state legislatures. ‘Throw out the bums’ who support anything with Duncan’s fingerprints on it, and that may be a ‘shot across the bow’ that will force him to listen and change before 2012.

    • tom permalink
      May 6, 2011 10:21 am

      rethink the vote republican thing. Too many people did that in 2000 and voted for Bush or Nadar instead of Gore, and look what that got you. Elections have consequences. If you want change you need to support blogs like this, and organizations that support teachers.

  8. John Young permalink
    May 5, 2011 5:46 am

    Justin Hamilton apparently is also a coward. I tweeted him @EDPressSec my phone number to have Sec. Duncan call me regarding the withholding of 11MM dollars from my district based on a lie….all he could do is parrot the local media response back to me.

    As for Sabrina’s take: Dead on.

    Still waiting for that call: 219.308.5338

  9. mariasallee permalink*
    May 5, 2011 6:59 am

    You know you’ve hit a nerve when they mention you by name. Ha, ha, ha! Way to go, Sabrina!

  10. May 5, 2011 7:38 pm

    When you think about it, Arne Duncan’s “Open Letter To Teachers”, is neither from Arne Duncan or directed towards teachers. It’s obviously snippets of happy talk stitched together from drones in the public relations department of the DOE, and it’s audience is not really teachers, who know everything in it is bullsh*t, but rather the upper-middleclass, “independent” voter, who they are convinced will decide the election.

    They hope that’s not how the independent voter feels about it (f*ck the teacher community), and this is a public relations exercise to sway them.

  11. Tara Park permalink
    May 7, 2011 5:19 am

    Come to the town hall on May 11th. Send your questions or comments before hand.

    In the past eight months, you’ve been a stellar participant in the education reform movement—you’ve told your friends about Waiting for “Superman,” shared the film with others, and asked tough questions of your representatives. Next week, you’ll have another chance to make your voice heard.

    Join us on Wednesday, May 11, for A PATHWAY TO EXCELLENCE, a national town hall event in Washington, D.C., moderated by CNN’s Jessica Yellin and featuring a distinguished bipartisan panel:
    • Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education
    • Geoffrey Canada, CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone
    • Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey
    • George Miller, U.S. Representative (D-CA)
    This event will be broadcast LIVE on our Livestream channel, and is an opportunity for you to engage in dialogue with some of our nation’s top leaders.

    Have a question for the panel? Email us, post it on our Facebook Page or tweet your question to @waitingsuperman with the hashtag #edtownhall.

    You can also upload a video question to YouTube and send it to us. (State your name, where you’re from, and keep your question under 30 seconds.)

    Be sure to watch A PATHWAY TO EXCELLENCE live at
    on May 11, at 9:00 a.m. EDT.
    The Waiting for “Superman” Team

    Email your questions prior to the event:

  12. juan cummin permalink
    May 7, 2011 8:26 am

    it’s time to eliminate DOE and the whole fed structure of “education”, return to private and homeschools NOW

  13. mariasallee permalink*
    May 8, 2011 9:31 pm

    When Hamilton referred to the broader community, did he pronounce the word “broader” with a long or a short ‘o’? Just wondering… 🙂


  1. “We don’t think that’s how the broader teaching community feels about it.” (UPDATED) (via Failing Schools) « Transparent Christina
  2. A Letter to Secretary Arne Duncan Re: the 2010 NAEP Civics Report Card | Mr. D’s Neighborhood
  3. The Silent Majority and Vocal Minority Defensive Technique « Failing Schools
  4. The Silent Majority and Vocal Minority Defense Technique « Failing Schools
  5. The Silent Majority and Vocal Minority Defense Technique « Failing Schools #RTTT #edreform #fail « Transparent Christina

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