Dear California Teachers,
While you were in the classroom or eating lunch, or supervising lunch, or sponsoring a club, or helping students or attending an IEP meeting this past Wednesday afternoon, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was talking about transforming our profession, launching Project RESPECT – which stands for Recognizing Education Success, Professional Excellence, Collaborative Teaching. It took from 2009 to 2012 for the administration to come around to the idea of respect, I suppose, and their groundbreaking initiatives were pretty much what Linda Darling-Hammond would have proposed three years ago.
It was a typical Arne Duncan performance – full of sound bytes and ideas that most teachers would agree with, and utterly failing to recognize how difficult it is to separate the message from the messenger. While I credit the Secretary for some of what he’s said and done regarding early-childhood education, community colleges, and supporting the National Board, it’s hard to weigh those positives and find any balance with the disservice he’s done to schools, students, and teachers through policies and rhetoric relating to testing, evaluation, Race to the Top, school turnarounds, and NCLB waivers.
Most frustrating, however, is that you can’t even imagine having a legitimate debate about these policies with Duncan because he seems so incapable of owning and defending his positions. In the webcast announcing the ideas in the RESPECT plan, Duncan said at one point that teacher evaluation tied to test scores makes no sense. Anyone who’s been following this issue for the past three years knows that Duncan has repeatedly said the opposite, and has created policies that drive the use of test scores for teacher evaluation, and even praised the L.A. Times for publishing its own teacher rankings based on single tests (for the students). I’m left to wonder if Duncan is utterly lacking in self-awareness, or memory, or respect for the intelligence of his audience. When he talks about respect for our profession, he either doesn’t mean what he says, or doesn’t understand his own policies. Anthony Cody has done a fine job, multiple times over the years, probing the disparity between what they say and what they do when it comes to federal education policy: the Secretary, the President, and even the Education Department spokesman all suffer from this difficulty.
Duncan also saidon Wednesday that it’s a problem when test scores hang like a sword over the head of schools, referring presumably to NCLB – which he’s increasingly happy to trash – but ignoring the fact that the current “turnaround” models he’s responsible for are exactly the same in that regard.
I wish I could muster more enthusiasm for what I heard Duncan saying, but I have no trust, no faith in the person delivering the message. He either doesn’t mean it, or doesn’t get it.
I will write more about Project RESPECT, and my opportunity to talk about the plan with some of my educator peers and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow from the Education Department who visited the Bay Area this week.
Then, last night on The Daily Show, Duncan did it all over again for a larger audience. Even in an interview format, he can state an agreement with a question’s premise, ignore the substance of the critique, acknowledge the problem exists and then glide right past it as if he had nothing to do with the problem.
Jon Stewart has been a supporter of American teachers in a variety of ways, including the selection of guests on his show, supporting the SOS March last summer, asking some pointed questions to former White House Domestic Affairs Chief Melody Barnes. As people began to hear that Arne Duncan would appear on The Daily Show, I saw a few anticipatory tweets on Twitter – like this one:
To which I responded:
And that’s exactly what we got. Jon Stewart, to his credit, doesn’t limit himself to softball questions for guests, but neither is this a classic from the heyday of 60 Minutes. Here are a few of their exchanges, with some comments and editorializing thrown in.
Stewart: My mother is a teacher, and her friends are teachers, and they call me – at all hours, really, day and night. And they have an issue a little bit with this Race to the Top initiative that has been implemented; it was, I guess, a fix to No Child Left Behind? Explain Race to the Top.
Duncan: Well, a couple things. Race to the Top has done a couple things I think are so important. We’ve seen 46 states raise standards – college and career ready standards for every single child. We’re turning around underperforming schools. I think No Child Left Behind was largely broken, and we’re now providing waivers, flexibility to states. We wanted Congress to fix [NCLB], Congress is pretty dysfunctional these days unfortunately -
Stewart: I had not heard that! [laughter]
Duncan: So we’re trying to fix things as best we can. We can’t wait for [Congress] to move, and we’ve seen some amazing, innovation, creativity, coming from states.
NOTE: Duncan uses the phrase “turning around” and would probably like the audience to believe that there’s actual improvement. It would be more accurate to claim credit for imposing “turnaround” models on schools. These policies operate based on narrow definitions of “underperforming” and then undermine local decision-making, add further instability in places that need the opposite, and all without a shred of evidence that such approaches will help students. Then, he changes the topic to NCLB waivers which are simpler to explain and maybe more popular. They sound good in theory, but like Race to the Top, they use money to coerce compliance. It’s not direct coercion since the federal government does not directly punish states, but it is coercive in its effect because few states can afford (fiscally or politically) to pass up what the Education Department can offer; it’s a cheap form of conversion. Back to the interview…
Stewart: See, that’s what – what’s interesting to me about it is, a lot of the rhetoric on the Race to the Top and the RESPECT initiative is about innovation and creativity, but what I hear from the teachers is that there is an infrastructure that has been created that is actually more confining because it is causing the schools to teach to the test, that they must have to qualify for grant money. [scattered applause] And the three teachers here today [laughter]… I think it tends to frustrate them rather than free them to be creative and the powerful, innovative teachers that you’re looking for.
Duncan: So I actually agree with that, and the President addressed it in -
Stewart: Well there you go – so we’re done here! [laughter]
Duncan: The President addressed it directly in the State of the Union: he said we have to stop teaching to the test. And I lived under the other side of the law for seven-and-a-half years when I ran Chicago Public Schools. It’s the biggest complaint I hear, Jon, as I travel the country, is the narrowing of the curriculum that happened under No Child Left Behind. Yes, reading and math are fundamental, they’re foundational, but science, social studies, dance, drama, art, music, foreign languages, P.E. – all those things are really important as well. [unintelligible] what we do with this flexibility [unintelligible] moving away from No Child Left Behind is saying all these things are important. Yes, so is reading and math; we have to broaden the curriculum, a well-rounded, world-class education for every single child.
NOTE: Here, Duncan sounds sympathetic by showing some understanding of a portion of the problem, but offers no acknowledgment that the Obama administration has had over three years to mitigate the problem. Linking the problem to NCLB makes it sound like a Bush era mistake. There’s no accountability at all for what has happened under his own watch – which is an increased pressure for more teachers and more schools to teach to the test. It’s the maddening thing about Duncan (and Obama). It’s like they tracked mud into your house and then agree that no one should track mud into your house.
Stewart: But are we not still broadening the curriculum… – it’s like saying, okay, you don’t like the narrowness of the tests in these two subjects. What if we give you a “lazy Susan” of tests for a lot of -
Duncan: I don’t think it’s that at all. I think tests tell you some things, they don’t tell you lots of other things. We have to stop focusing on the absolute test score. We have to look at growth and gain, how much a student is improving. But I’m much more interested in longer term outcomes. Are graduation rates going up; are dropout rate’s going down? Are more students ready for college? Are they persevering in college? We have to educate our way to a better economy, that’s what this is about.
NOTE: So Duncan either can’t understand Stewart’s question or can’t break free of his own sound bytes. Stewart seems prepared enough for the interview to know that there are education “reform” proposals to expand testing by using more frequent tests in more subjects (the “lazy Susan” of testing options), but Duncan is talking about the limitations of tests. Again, the frustrating (and entirely predictable) element of any Duncan appearance is that he’s laying out a great critique of his own policies and prior statements without any apparent awareness. None of these multiple measures that he mentions would help keep a school out of program improvement status or spare them from having a “turnaround” imposed on them. He claims to be interested in these things and promulgates policies that effectively ignore them.
Stewart: Is this the way to do it? You know, the thing that strikes me about it – and I know how difficult it is, I think education is probably the most difficult area to attack because of the ecosystem that it’s involved in. It’s not straightforward and it’s not… but so much of the onus now is on the teachers, and by creating these benchmarks, it gives the false impression that teaching is science, when in many ways, teaching is an art.
Duncan: Teaching is an absolute art, and what we’ve done as a country is we’ve beaten down teachers, we’ve beaten down education. This whole RESPECT project that we announced yesterday is trying to dramatically elevate the profession, strengthen the profession. It takes years to master. Your mom’s a teacher, my mom’s been working in the inner city for fifty years. I know how hard this work is. We’ve treated everybody the same, we haven’t recognized excellence, we haven’t rewarded it, we haven’t learned from it. I’ve been very public – we should significantly increase teachers’ salaries. You know no one goes into it for the money but you shouldn’t have to take a vow of poverty either.
[Stewart jokes about teachers going into it for the money]
Duncan: We have a baby-boomer generation retiring. We’re going to need a million new great teachers.
Stewart: I love what you’re saying, but isn’t Race to the Top the exact thing that demoralized them even further than No Child Left Behind, because that’s… the issue isn’t, I think, intention, because it seems the intention of the Department of Education, the President, or at least the rhetoric that you hear on it, is absolutely wonderful. But it does seem that the methodology that they’ve employed has not had that effect. And maybe is this not the best use of the federal government because education is such… the diversity of the localities. It really is something that exists in the areas in which the kids are educated.
Duncan: What we’re trying to do is empower states and districts. And I always said I don’t want to micromanage from Washington, can’t do it. The best ideas are always going to come at the local level, not from me, or frankly, anyone else in Washington. The beauty of this plan is we’re trying to empower great local teachers, and principals, and parents, and superintendents, to put in place their plans to help their children. I’ve traveled to forty-four, forty-five states, rural, urban, suburban – answers aren’t going to come from us, they’re going to come in those communities.
NOTE: Duncan says things people want to hear, but the facts are that support will not flow t0 states that don’t adopt Common Core Standards, that don’t take the preferred approach to evaluating teachers, and now teacher training programs, and school turnaround models. States have to compete for resources by falling in line and racking up points to show their commitment to the vision of our Great Leaders. My friend and colleague Larry Ferlazzo describes Duncan’s words as an example of cognitive dissonance – and this portion of the interview is as good an example as any.
Stewart: Do you think that, what education suffers from in this country is that the paradigm needs to be shifted, that it seems that education has been cloistered and no longer has the same application to the modern world now, we’re still working off the past and trying to fix things that are really not à propos in today’s -
Duncan: I think our biggest challenge, Jon, is we’ve become too complacent. We’re sixteenth in the world today in college graduates. A generation ago we were first. It isn’t the we’ve dropped, we’ve flat-lined, and fifteen other countries have passed us by. We have to educate our way to a better economy. There are two million jobs out there today in our country that we can’t fill because we don’t have the educated work force to fill those jobs. And so we have to be willing to challenge the status quo. We have a million young people dropping out of school every single year – a million! There are no jobs, none. They’re guaranteed poverty and social failure. We have to challenge the status quo, we have to take some risks, and we have to do some things in a very different way. But we have to have a high bar, we have to have high expectations.
Stewart: I guess it’s the way you define the bar that’s probably the difficulty.
NOTE: Other than Duncan’s fatalistic view of what’s guaranteed to happen to students who drop out, it’s hard to argue against high standards for an educated work force. But Stewart is right in his quick response as they head into a commercial break – how do we define the bar? The more we rely on test scores as important measures of schools, teachers, or students, we lower the bar. Even with the New and Improved! tests we’re promised as part of the Common Core adoption and implementation, that would be the case. I don’t mean to say that the tests might not actually be an improvement, but if the hype over their improvement isn’t accompanied by more enlightened policies, we won’t have made much progress.
This is where the televised portion of the interview ends, and I’m going to dispense with the effort to transcribe the additional segments that can be viewed online. Here are some of the key points that arise:
Jon Stewart notes the disconnect between the outcomes we want for educated people and the outcomes we emphasize through standardized tests. He asks Duncan if federal policies haven’t pushed schools to teach to the test in order to qualify for funding – and on this question, I think Stewart’s formulation might be slightly off; it’s not the scores that qualify schools, districts, or states for funding, but rather than continued or expanded use of tests for various purposes. Duncan might tacitly be agreeing because he responds by describing the push for better tests and more measures of school quality. (He also repeats some of his earlier comments almost word-for-word). Stewart keeps pushing on the issue of Race to the Top being a mistake, and while I think he’s not completely familiar with how it works, he does raise the issue of competition and suggest that some schools in need of more support will be ignored because their state applications fail to play along with federal policy priorities.
In the third segment of the interview, they focus on wrap-around services for schools and other ways to link communities to schools. But near the end, Stewart tries one more time to get Duncan to address the disconnect so many of us feel between his words and his policies. He asks Duncan to speak to teachers “on a more human level” about their frustration. Duncan only repeats that he knows about our frustration, “it’s real” – and then channels Linda Darling-Hammond for a moment and says we can’t fire our way to the top. (I guess we can fire our way part of the way there, though? See “Obama Official [Duncan] Applauds Rhode Island Teacher Firings”). Stewart, again, asks Duncan to respond to teachers who feel Race to the Top was as bad as No Child Left Behind and has failed to make us feel supported by the Education Department. Duncan says Race to the Top is “trying to support great teachers.”
So, how about it, my fellow California teachers: do you feel supported by the Secretary or the President? Maybe when you see what’s in the RESPECT plan, you’ll feel better. I look forward to writing about it. But it’s hard to go forward on the positives of the plan first when the plan’s messenger leaves such negativity lingering in the edu-sphere. Let the three-day weekend pass, and then we’ll talk about RESPECT.