Arne Duncan’s new ‘top advisers’ (update)


President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan ( Courtesy of ed.gov)

(Update: Comment from Education Department)

Throughout the first Obama administration and well into the second, many teachers and principals said they could not get a word in edgewise to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his advisers, who plowed ahead with education reforms that many educators said blamed teachers for things that weren’t their fault and set up standardized test-based “accountability” systems that were unfair. If Duncan was listening to anyone, it appeared to many educators that it was Bill Gates, who was pumping many millions into the reforms Duncan was promoting. Tensions between Duncan and many teachers were so high that in May 2011, he wrote an open letter during Teacher Appreciation Week in which he felt compelled to declare his respect for teachers:

In the next decade, half of America’s teachers are likely to retire. What we do to recruit, train, and retain our new teachers will shape public education in this country for a generation. At the same time, how we recognize, honor, and show respect for our experienced educators will reaffirm teaching as a profession of nation builders and social leaders dedicated to our highest ideals. As that work proceeds, I want you to know that I hear you, I value you, and I respect you.

Teachers weren’t buying it. A few months later, in July 2011, delegates at the annual convention of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country, passed a resolution ordering the NEA president to “communicate aggressively, forcefully, and immediately” to President Obama that the NEA was “appalled” by Duncan’s school reform policies. One of the articles in the resolution said the “NEA is appalled”  with “Duncan’s practice” of

Failing to respect and honor the professionalism of educators across this country, including but not limited to holding public education roundtables and meetings without inviting state and local representatives of the teachers, education support professionals, and faculty and staff; promoting programs that lower the standards for entry into the profession; focusing so singularly on teachers in the schools that the other critical staff members and higher education faculty and staff have been overlooked in the plans for improving student learning throughout their educational careers.

Things didn’t improve. In January 2014, the Education Department released a video in which Duncan sat at a table fielding questions from a few teachers, and during the discussion he was asked about the influence of Gates and billionaire Eli Broad on education policy. He responded:

I have tremendous respect for them and am thrilled that they have given — lots of other places they could choose to put their dollars. The fact that they are trying to help education is a very positive thing. But no, it doesn’t give them a seat at the table. You guys are at the table. But again, having people who have been successful come back and give back and be part of the solution is really important.

Last month, delegates to the 2014 NEA convention passed a resolution calling on Duncan to resign because of his department’s “failed education agenda” that they said has focused on high-stakes standardized testing and has continued “to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.” Several days later, the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union in the country, approved at its convention a resolution calling on Obama to put Duncan on an “improvement plan” that would require the education secretary to resign if he fails to meet targets.

Since then, Duncan seems to be on a campaign to tell teachers he cares about them and is listening to them. The most recent visible sign of this is a blogpost he wrote on the department Web site with this headline: “My Top Advisers: Principals and Teachers.” Dated Aug. 8, it says:

I had three conversations last week that served as valuable reminders of the impact of visionary, skilled principals. In one conversation, a group of award-winning teachers emphasized repeatedly the important role that great principals play in recruiting and retaining the best teachers in challenging school environments. One teacher, Laura Strait, shared that she moved from Massachusetts to California just to work for an outstanding principal.

I have never seen a high-performing school without a great principal. Principals are key to education change efforts, and I can’t overstate the importance of courageous leadership.

As we work together to prepare our students for success, it’s vital for me to regularly tap into the collective wisdom of our schools’ instructional leaders. In two other conversations I had with educators last week, I met with principals in Toledo, Ohio, last Tuesday and in the District of Columbia on Friday. I wanted to hear from them about what’s working, what isn’t, and what the U.S. Department of Education can do to better support them. In both cases, I asked for a candid conversation, and I got it.

At D.C. Public Schools, I spoke with a group of 200 principals and central office leaders to thank them for their commitment to their students and schools and listen to their thoughts as they head back to school. I shared Laura Strait’s story – she’s a winner of TNTP’s [formerly known as The New Teacher Project] prestigious Fishman Prize – and challenged them to be that principal, one who is so strong that a teacher would follow them across the country to teach in their school. That’s the kind of leadership we need everywhere.

At Toledo Public Schools’ Woodward High School, I met with nine principals of northwestern Ohio schools – from urban, rural and small town environments – to hear about the impact that all the changes happening now in K-12 education are having on their students, teachers and families.  I was pleased to hear that Ohio’s Race to the Top grant has funded meaningful professional development that has helped to bring teachers at many schools out of their classroom silos to more effectively collaborate with their colleagues to meet the unique needs of each child. Race to the Top funding has also made some dramatic innovation possible: For example, it’s helping to transform the middle and high school in rural Van Wert, Ohio, into a New Tech school that utilizes cutting-edge resources to enable kids to fully develop the critical thinking skills that today’s employers need and tomorrow’s jobs will demand.

However, I also heard loud and clear from Ohio principals that the quick pace of change is causing angst for them and their staffs. From the transition to college- and career-ready standards and assessments to new teacher evaluations, there’s been an unprecedented amount of change within a short span of time. All of the principals made it very clear that they’re seeing strong progress in their schools, and don’t want to stop the momentum. As Woodward Principal Jack Renz said, “If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind.”

These are not easy times in education. What I hear from you, our principals and teachers, influences what we do at ED. As we start the school year, it’s important for districts, states and the staff at ED to hear your voices.

Can we build on positive momentum to help each student reach his or her full potential? If the answer lies with educators like those that I met last week – courageous principals and the passionate teachers who want to work with them – then I have no doubt in my mind that we can.

A problem for Duncan is that many teachers and principals  don’t think the answer lies with his reform policies or his embrace of alternative teaching programs such as Teach For America and TNTP.

Update: Education Department spokesperson sent this comment in an e-mail:

You’re noticing something Arne has been doing for five and a half years. He has teachers and principals on staff with whom he consults regularly, and he talks with educators regularly both in D.C. and on the road. Last year, Arne and our teaching fellows engaged with thousands of teachers around the country. Summer can be a time to have deeper conversations, since teachers and principals don’t have as many obligations.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · August 9, 2014