Education Secretary Arne Duncan likes to say that people who support the status quo in public education are “part of the problem.”

To wit:

He said this month in an interview with the Star-Ledger in New Jersey: “What keeps me up at night is the historic lack of urgency, the acceptance of the status quo. We need to change. Anyone who is defending the status quo is part of the problem.”

He told Wolf Blitzer of CNN in a January interview, “In a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy, we have to do so much better educationally, so anyone who’s defending the status quo, anyone who is saying we don’t need change is part of the problem.”

In fact, he says it in a good percentage of his speeches and interviews.

I don’t know who Duncan thinks is defending the status quo.

Unions? Or teachers who don’t belong in the classroom? Or teachers who might be great but are considered ineffective because their students don’t do well on standardized tests?

Or could it be people who don’t support his “Race to the Top” test-driven competition? Or people who don’t believe that teachers alone should be able to overcome the effects of poverty on children who come to school exhausted or hungry or ill? Or people who believe there are better ways to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness than using test scores?

To find out, I asked the Education Department to tell me to whom he is referring. In fact, I asked several times. I did not receive an answer. It can’t be because nobody there knows either, can it?

The following was written by vet­eran educator Nancy Flanagan, who takes a look at the issue of the “status quo.” This appeared on her Education Week Teacher blog, “Teacher in a Strange Land.” She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She is now an author and consultant.

By Nancy Flanagan

Hello, my name is Nancy and I’m an education reformer.

Yeah, I’m a teacher, but—surprise—I’m not in favor of the status quo. Not to put too fine a point on it, the status quo sucks. Not much to recommend the status quo in public education: inequitable, inflexible, mired in what might politely be called “tradition.” There are some terrific public schools out there, and a huge percentage of pretty good schools. But my take on the status quo is: We could do lots better. We should immediately reform our ideas and practices.

And another thing: I am not a union lackey. Ask anyone at the school where I taught for 30 years. I irritated the daylights out of my union leadership by being skeptical and questioning every decision. I usually need an adult beverage to tell my personal union stories—but I strongly defend the right, even obligation, of teachers to band together to demand productive working conditions and speak out for what they know is (sorry, here it comes) good for kids. Why would we ever want to reform schools in ways that aren’t sustainable or endorsed by the people who do the actual work?

As a reformer, I’m all for accountability. Accountability is something I have deep personal experience with, including being held accountable for regular, public “authentic performance assessments” done with my 300+ students. As a music teacher, I was accountable not only to all my school supervisors, but also parents (who were sitting on those ice-cold metal bleachers for Friday halftime shows—and making monthly payments on expensive instruments) and students (who had limited choices and could easily pick another elective). I had to demonstrate—at least 20 times a year—that I was teaching students new and worthwhile content.

I support that kind of periodic, critical assessment—that kind of reality-based accountability. I believe teachers should be required to assemble convincing evidence—data, let’s call it—that their students are meeting high and worthwhile goals, and accurately diagnose problems when the learning falls short. In fact, one of my core ideas about reform is: let’s invest in fully professional, career teachers. It seems to have worked for Finland.

Yup, I’m a reformer. I reformed my own curriculum dozens of times during my 30 years. I reformed my instruction about once a week, using the cutting-edge, innovative technique called “paying attention to what kids were learning.” I reformed my ideas about parent involvement from year to year (less fund-raising, more listening). And I reformed my analyses of state and federal education policy, every time a new silver bullet was fired, over my head.

I want to be—with my teaching colleagues—at the white-hot center of education reform. I find finger-pointing, referring to those who believe the market is the optimum strategy to fix our education problems as “deformers,” distasteful. I taught my middle school students not to call people names (I also taught them not to use the word “sucks” in my classroom, but let’s overlook that right now). Bottom line—I want to reform education. I know a thing or two.

So why don’t I get to be an education reformer? Is it because I never ate a bee?


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