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Tom | May 2, 2011

A Response to Arne Duncan's Letter


Duncan Dear Mr. Duncan,

Thank you for the letter. It was nice to read your sincere appreciation for the people who work in our nation’s schools, and a refreshing change from the treatment we received seven years ago when one of your predecessors referred to us as “terrorists.”

Most of us genuinely believe that you and the administration are working hard for the best interests of our public schools. We feel that you value and respect America’s teachers. While we may not always agree with all of your specific strategies or policies, it’s clear that you want the best for our students.

That said; I want to discuss the eighth paragraph of your letter:

“So I want to work with you to change and improve federal law, to invest in teachers and strengthen the teaching profession. Together with you, I want to develop a system of evaluation that draws on meaningful observations and input from your peers, as well as a sophisticated assessment that measures individual student growth, creativity, and critical thinking.”

When are you planning to begin working together with us? It’s been over two years since you’ve had this job and so far we haven’t seen much change in the federal law. I’m talking about NCLB, with its onerous sanctions. Those of us in the field are watching as good schools and good teachers are being labeled “failures” due mostly to the demographics of their student population and the relentlessly rising expectation of bad legislation.

And another thing. When you say you want to “work with us to change and improve federal law,” what exactly do you mean? As teachers, we know that could mean one of two things. There’s the “working together” where teams of teachers actually work together to plan a lesson or unit. In this form of “working together” the end is unknown at the outset. The team engages in genuine collaboration in which each partner contributes to the product. This is real and authentic teamwork.

Then there’s the other kind of working together. Many of us start the year by inviting our students to “work together” to form a set of class rules and responsibilities. For many of us, this is a disingenuous exercise; a façade in which the outcome is essentially predetermined. There’s no way, for example, that the rules we end up with won’t include something about “keeping our hands to ourselves.”

It might be OK to “work together” disingenuously when the rest of the team is eight years old, but we’re much older than that. And frankly, most of us know at least as much about education as you do.  

The evaluation system you describe in this paragraph sounds pretty cool. But it sounds a lot different from the plans proposed by the states that won your “race to the top.” Most of those plans seemed to use student performance as a proxy for teacher effectiveness. There’s certainly a connection between the two, but it’s not as clear as you might think. There’s a kid in my class, for example, who is so hyperactive that his body literally vibrates all day long. But his low test scores belie the enormous amount of effort and work it has taken to get him to read and write almost at grade level, and to get him to complete his math assignments independently. At the same time, the girl who sits across from him, whose parents are both doctors, reads better than either you or I. Her high test scores represent almost none of my effort and talent. I’ll gladly take credit for them, but frankly, she would have done just as well on that test with a folding chair in charge of the class.

One more thing. Our unions have taken a beating this past year. Mostly at the state level and by members of the media and business community. But there’s a sneaking suspicion by many of us that a lot of these people have become emboldened, not so much by what you and the rest of the administration has said or done, but by what you haven’t said or done. Contrary to popular myth, most of us actually feel represented by our unions. Their policies, after all, are directed by the teachers they represent. Our unions are us. And they do a lot of great work, for both teachers and students. Would it be too much to ask to have you stick up for us every now and then? 

So anyway, thanks for the letter. It was good to hear from you as we head down the homestretch of the school year. And if you really mean that part about “working together,” give me a call. I’ve got a few other ideas.



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I like that the teachers have that attitude and that they are trying to do something for the education system. Small steps to change big things :)

Vous êtes bien expérimentés et votre opinion est assez important pour moi en tant que lecteur, merci beaucoup pour ce blog

Thank you for saying so well what needs to be said. Did Arne reply to your response? I wouldn't expect him to and yet I wish he would. We all want to know how Arne could put something in writing that fully contradicts his actions! I would be completely unable to put something in writing that is false so I don't understand how he could do that. You say he's transparent but is he also truly unaware that he isn't really doing what he wrote? How does that letter hold water?? Sometimes I just don't understand people.

I don't trust him to support education in any truly meaningful manner.

He will stick to his business principles and watch one system after another fail; it's what happened in Chicago and what will happen to the areas he influences across the country.

Codespeak! A whole letter full of it.

I was disappointed that the gentle sarcasm in your letter-- What do you mean, a teacher at the table? We own the table!-- did not come through in the Huff Po quote, where only your polite opener was quoted. ("Thank you, Mrs. Cleaver! Is Wallace at home?")

Nice work, Tom.

I was in San Diego, too. I don't know that I distrust him; I think he's fairly transparent. I think the problem is that he doesn't trust us. He doesn't believe that when 99% of the teachers say that a law needs to be changed that maybe it needs to be changed.

I don't trust Duncan at all. I still remember listening to him speak at the NEA-RA in San Diego when he used code-speak to let everyone know he wanted to throw out union contracts and introduce business principles in education.

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