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Dunkin’ Dialogue

At a “town hall” meeting perched on the airwaves of Sirius XM Radio earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan acknowledged the “need to do a much better job of listening to and empowering teachers.”

The tone and wording of that confession suspiciously lacks that Agency’s familiar ring of omniscience. Have they really reached the point of admitting that they don’t have all the answers?  Teachers are, with good reason, wary of freely-given deference to their expertise emanating from those non-professionals, whether high profile or behind the scenes, who agitate and set crucial education policy.

Teachers sense that an absence of overt criticism may be more a ploy to get them to let down their guard than a genuine solicitation of partnership. ( A field application of the concept that “you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar”).

In his radio discussion, Secretary Duncan referred to teacher evaluation systems (which kept teachers in good grace and sufficed for generations when America led the world) as though he were talking about the Siegfried Line that needed to be breached. “Thanks to unions and school boards and superintendents working together,” he said, “real breakthroughs are being made.” (An aside: Are some team members are more equal than others?)

Still, however, “great teachers don’t get rewarded, teachers in the middle don’t get the help they need, and at the bottom…nothing happens there as well,” Duncan decries.

Definitions that won’t be pinned-down pay the price of being up-for-grabs. What does “great” mean? By whose reckoning and by what proper authority do they judge, other than the mere and often arbitrary political power invested in them?  What quality control standard is used to designate competent human resources who will intervene to assist “deficient” teachers? To whom will these mentors be beholden and how will their independence be safeguarded?

In some schools, mentoring of veterans is provided by “coaches” with scant instructional experience or class management skills but who were nonetheless hired because of their social or sentimental affinity with principals. Duncan clearly seeks to garner leadership “cred” by capsizing the dream careers of a greater percentage of teachers for reasons without necessarily distinct ties to performance accountability.

To evaluate teachers, Duncan claimed to be “much more interested in gain and growth than absolute test scores.”  (That was music to the ears of his studio audience at Sirius, but the tune was not part of his melody archive.)

Too remarkably audacious queries were posed almost submissively by the Secretary. It is doubtful that he would have asked them if he weren’t positive that he was the sole custodian of the correct answer.  Duncan wanted to know “How do you professionalize the profession?  How do you build real, meaningful career ladders so teachers will want to stay in the profession for 10,20, 30 years?” Was Duncan’s tongue “in cheek”?

Begin by putting educators in charge of their own profession. Theirs is a unique and tricky craft.  It requires creating and interpreting, not solely parroting. Don’t treat education as a “Stepford Wife” among professions. The staying power of teachers will increase exponentially if they experience respect not only in the abstract but also in the workplace.

The Obama Administration’s Blueprint for Reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which Duncan is the lead salesman, supports a well-rounded curriculum, rather than the narrowed syllabus that Duncan concedes teachers have been complaining about. As proof, he cites the government’s $300 million earmarked for competitive grants for teaching in the “STEM” fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

He didn’t address his Agency’s role in the neglect, some would say to the extent of abandonment, of a balanced course of study. The federal government, by its criteria for winning coveted Race to the Top dollars (such as standardized test scores in restricted areas), is “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”  Time and energy are lavished on targeted subjects that are relevant to RTTT at the expense of other academic disciplines that are no less vital.

For better or worse we must continue to work with Secretary Duncan.  It is to his credit that although he may not be amenable to absorbing into policy those views that clash with his own, he is neither violently allergic to them, unlike our local chancellor.

At least with Duncan we can have dialogue rather than simply “have words.”

Duncan does not come off as patronizing or condescending.  Could he maintain a cordial and non-dismissive tone when replying to the following comments of a blogger identified as “TFT” on the U.S. Department of Education website:  “You have demonized the profession and scapegoated teachers…claimed that charters can bring reform to scale…created a system of coercion (RTTT) that pits politics against the welfare of children.” That’s a harsh indictment that many classroom-based “grand jurors” would refer for prosecution.  School systems are carpeted wall-to-wall with potential evidence.

The blogger also argues that “universal health care and free early childhood education would do more to close the gap than all the school reform nonsense claims…Poverty is the cause.”

Now that’s another story.  Or is it?

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5 Comments:

  • 1 TFT
    · Aug 20, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    The disease is poverty. Duncan, Obama, Gates and the rest are merely targeting a symptom.

    Band aids are worthless.

    Poverty is the story. Ask any teacher. Ask Diane Ravitch. Ask Alfie Kohn. Ask the impoverished kids, their parents and grandparents.

    Duncan comes off as uneducated, uninformed and oblivious. Who cares about the rest?

  • 2 TFT
    · Aug 20, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Providing links to your references is a fairly common service bloggers provide their readers.

    http://www.ed.gov/blog/2010/08/secretary-duncan-we-need-to-do-a-much-netter-job-of-listening-to-and-empowering-teachers/#comments

  • 3 Akademos
    · Aug 20, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Anyone who fails to effectively address a majority of parent, community, school culture/disciplinary, instructional, curriculum, space, and student issues BEFORE dealing with teacher evaluation is either a fool or a fraud.

    If there is significant trouble in filling small (uncrowded) classes with students who are almost all truly at grade level, psychologically willing and able to focus and behave reasonably well and age-appropriately, in accommodating rooms full of good resources, in responsibly run schools, then you cannot start accurately evaluating teachers (beyond the heightened rigor of ed classes and tests and other new challenges in attaining tenure AND the increasing scrutiny that teachers have been receiving over the last several years from APs and principals), unless what you’re really after are talents that cover for your failure to fix the system. However, no army of pedagogues will ever possess enough talent to cover for your failure.

    Consider how doctors are rated online by their patients. Prospective patients can take a look and take it for what it’s worth. Much has to do with punctuality, bedside manner, comprehensibility, etc. Few patients are experts in their doctor’s fields and can’t really critique skills. Shall we professionalize the field of doctors office visitation? Set up a corporate ladder? Evaluate how patients with like disorders improve in various offices and insure that that is a major component in ratings?

    Teachers deal with the human mind in many stages. Reason, imagination, the kinds of critical thinking that so many adults fail to use in their lives and professions!

    Non-educators can only hack at dead wood, undo things, and propose mostly obtuse and inappropriate ‘improvements’ regarding data collection, ‘efficiency’, and ‘quality’.

  • 4 TFT
    · Aug 21, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Non-educators can only hack at dead wood, undo things, and propose mostly obtuse and inappropriate ‘improvements’ regarding data collection, ‘efficiency’, and ‘quality’.

    Best line of the day.

  • 5 Gideon
    · Aug 21, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    I could not agree more with this paragraph: “Begin by putting educators in charge of their own profession. Theirs is a unique and tricky craft. It requires creating and interpreting, not solely parroting. Don’t treat education as a “Stepford Wife” among professions. The staying power of teachers will increase exponentially if they experience respect not only in the abstract but also in the workplace.” For teaching to be a real profession, teachers should be in control of teacher education, certification, inculcation, professional development and evaluation. Instead, legislators and ed school set the requirements for credentials that have little connection to effective instruction and student success. Teachers must set the standards high for quality teaching, and hold their peers accountable. It is the latter that they are currently not believed capable of doing. If teachers were to participate in active peer review and make the tough but necessarily decisions about which teachers need help and which do not deserve to be in the classroom, they would get the respect they need.