Arne Duncan, a teacher weighs in

16 12 2008

“To out-compete the world tomorrow, we must out-educate the world today.”  — President-elect Barack Obama

And with those words he appointed Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan to be the Secretary of Education.  He’s a man carrying a great deal of controversial decisions on his back, including closing schools that can’t seem to improve and overhauling curricula.

Here’s how I feel about it…

Plus:  He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard.

You can’t attribute that to politics.

Minus:  He has no formal teaching experience.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter, but it still makes me nervous.

Plus:  He’s for merit pay.

Most teachers are against this because the criteria for determining achievement is too subjective — which means that politics will trump ability.  But if the program doesn’t take money away from those who aren’t kicking out the top performers, then what’s the problem?  I’m for this 100%.  As I’ve said before, my motivation is seeing my students accepted at the top colleges and then going on to do something incredible.  Right now teacher pay scale is determined by seniority.  And a teacher gets a pay bump each year regardless of the performance of their students.  No tracking of students has been initiated on a large-scale level, and teachers aren’t told what happens to their kids down the road.  Teachers basically have to work blind.  Merit pay can be implemented only if there’s a solid record of the students’ abilities coming into the classroom and going out.  These records can be compiled, reduced, and utilized to finally see what works and what doesn’t in *everyone’s* classrooms.

Minus:  He isn’t for dumping NCLB.

In my opinion this is the worst educational program in my lifetime, and one of the worst in our nation’s history.  Those who don’t spend time in the classroom working directly with students only know the theory behind the policy, and the theory sounds good.  But in practice, it’s killing me as a teacher.  There’s a belief that student achievement can only feasibly be measured with a standardized fill-in-the-bubble test.  Only half of a teacher’s job is filling kids’ heads with knowledge and skills.  The rest is inspiration.  No one learns what they do not *wish* to learn.  A student needs to be motivated.  They need to *want* to learn.  Much of that falls on the parents, but teachers must cultivate it.  Testing them all the time brings a lesson in and of itself — that our goal for them is to be able to recite information and methods for our sake.  What’s their goal for themselves?  Shouldn’t THAT be the focus of any and all educational policies?  NCLB has got to go.

Plus:  He’s willing to shut down a failing school and fire the teachers.

This isn’t just a promise.  He’s done it.

Minus:  He does bring the stigma of being a political friend of Obama.

Obama is doing a decent job of selecting a diverse group of advisers and cabinet members from around the country.  He should be allowed to choose someone he thinks is good while also being from his past.  But in this case he had a pool of comparable choices for the post.  Not a biggie, though.

Plus:  He supports charter schools and the spirit of competition in education.

Without competition, how do you know if your school/doctor/mechanic/president is doing a good job?

Minus:  Given his career, I’m unsure of his exposure to rural districts.

I always said one of the worst curriculum decisions that my old, urban school district made was the removal of Home Ec.  That class was pivotal to teaching simple chemistry and measuring techniques to an entire set of students who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in those things.  And it shows in the performance of those students today.  You can say the same for shop class.

Plus:  He’s for transparency in school performance.

Up until two years ago my state had a website that anyone could access with a slew of information about any public school in the state.  Not only did I find this refreshing, and in some cases eye-opening, but I could also assign students the task of determining possible factors in student performance based upon the wealth of data they could access.  That site has since been removed.  I’ve contacted those in charge of maintaining that information and have been told that it was simply too time-consuming, and therefore would probably not be returning.  If Mr. Duncan can force states to report en masse to a team of analysts who can then disseminate the information back out to the public, that would be a major achievement.

So overall I think it was a good pick.  Let’s hope it was.  Feel free to give your opinion on matters in the comments.




9 responses

16 12 2008

I’m struggling with the idea of NCLB-style testing, myself. On the one hand, I think it’s an enormous time suck in a field where there is never enough time to teach everything you would like. On the other, testing itself is one of the only ways we can collect useful data on learning. So, we are caught in a sort of catch-22. We want to know, with hard evidence, that our reform programs are working, but we don’t want to impact the learning itself with the measures necessary to collect this information. I don’t see a clear solution, only those that lead to more problems, more questions.


17 12 2008

Yeah, what Jeremy said. I think it is nearly inescapable that we have to test, and that the tests must be standardized to meaningfully compare schools. The problem is that schools try to get ahead by spending all of their time teaching to the test, and neglecting the nurturing side of education that you mention.

17 12 2008

OT: Terry you might get a kick out of this… awesome lenticular cloud formations over Mt Ranier today. I saw them with my own eyes, but not at these cool angles.

17 12 2008
Mr O

“Plus: He’s willing to shut down a failing school and fire the teachers.

This isn’t just a promise. He’s done it.”

How on Earth is this a good thing? There wasn’t a single good teacher in the whole school? I remember when they did this crap in a Cleveland elementary school, they fired a first year teacher. Now I don’t think teachers at tough inner city schools should be blamed for the fact that their students are comming from families and neighborhoods that do not value education-and therefore they have no idea how to behave in a classsroom. Still, let us assume that there are some bad teachers here and there in low performing urban schools-this means we should fire every teacher? Even the ones fresh out of college just entering the profession? Think what kind of message this sends.

Oh, and for the record Duncan had these teachers moved to other Chicago schools. Still, I’d be willing to bet some of them are pretty darn good at what they do and would have worked well at Duncan’s new school. And of course ALL of them have something that this Duncan fellow clearly lacks; actual experience teaching in an urban environment!

17 12 2008
Terry Johnson

It’s not that there weren’t any good teachers, it’s that sometimes you just need to start with a clean slate. All the teachers were allowed/expected to re-apply for their jobs. They had to basically compete with other applicants in order to get re-hired for the next year. The school system in question raised their achievement rates by three times over the next four years.

In the business world, your job is never secure. If an insurance salesman doesn’t make his quota, if a mechanic is too slow at repairs, if an electrician keeps making a mess of the panel then that person gets replaced. It is almost impossible to get fired in education. Seen several lose their jobs for indiscretions, but for teaching ability? In fact, I have only seen one teacher get the axe for poor performance in my 10 years in the profession. With high job security one can become complacent. I hope that never happens with me. That spirit of competition, both me against other teachers and my students against the world, still drives me. I want to be the best I can be.

Back to Mr. Duncan. I can understand wanting to start over with a clean slate. I’ve seen it done once before, where an entire department was canned. Except in that case none of the former teachers were allowed back. It was the wrong thing to do. Two bad teachers getting six others fired (once again for indiscretions, not performance). One had been my teacher, and he was excellent. If the school had allowed them to re-apply, then I would have agreed with the decision. Remove the administration so there’s minimized bias in the re-hiring process and then give everyone an equal opportunity to make a difference in those kids’ lives. That’s what makes Mr. Duncan’s a good decision in my mind. And one I’m willing to go through myself if need be.

[I don’t think I’ve written a very strong argument here. But the idea is that fire burns away the impurities, leaving behind the substance you desire. In the case of a failing system, you should start at the top and burn downwards.]

17 12 2008
Mr O

Thanks for the response.

Let’s look at this thing another way. As it exists now NCLB demands 100% proficiency by 2012, as defined by individual state tests. Standardized testing, that is the only critirion upon teacher performance is based. I teach Science in a tough inner city school in Michigan. When I began my tenure 8 years ago the success rate on our MEAP Science test was near zero, last year we reached 40%, and yes I think that my teaching style and hands-on lesson had something to do with it. According to NCLB I’m still a failure, and if anyone came into my school (we have not made AYP in 5 years) they would have a good argument for shutting us down; so yes it ticks me off that I am working so hard and getting results and a man like Duncan could come in at any time and give me the axe. Afterall, I have kids of my own to consider.

So how’s about this. Duncan wants to be Sec of Education. Let’s say by 2012 every student in America is still not proficient in reading and math as measured by their state tests, can we fire Duncan? You gotta burn the system from the top down. Have his schools in Chicago reached 100% proficiency yet? If not, then isn’t he a bit of a failure?

I have a better solution. Student growth model assessments. Track student performance based on a standardized pre-test when they enter a teacher’s class and track their performance from marking period to marking period using similar tests. If the student is not showing growth consider all of the factors including: socioecoonomic factors, parental involvment, the number of behavior referrals the child has recieved . . . etc.

Frankly, I’m starting to forget why it is I work so hard at what I do. I love teaching , but i am tired of being the scapegoat for all of the ills of the world. Teachers did not create the harsh realities of the urban environment in which these kids live, and often we are the only positive-acting adults these kids see on a regular basis. So why punish us with clean slate style school closures and firings?

17 12 2008
Terry Johnson

Jeremy, I can see both sides of the NCLB issue. As a parent and former student, I *want* accountability from the teachers. From that viewpoint having a nationally standardized test makes sense. Students from all over can be tested against other students and then we can all see whether a school, or even a specific teacher, is performing to our expectations.

In reality the program is failing us. On the day of testing if a certain percentage of students are not available to test, the school automatically fails. Automatically. There are no ‘make-up’ days. If a certain percentage of the school’s population fails, then the school is deemed inadequate. The government’s solution isn’t to send out a team of experts to analyze the problems and work with the administration to make improvements, but to simply cut funding until either the school makes a miraculous recovery on their own or until it gets shut down. What this translates to is an administration under a lot of pressure from parents for the kids to achieve without any outside support. Administration can’t afford to hire better teachers or to put their current staff through extra education. So the teachers are told to improve without much guidance.

Alright, the multitude of problems with NCLB aside, can you think of any program that might replace it? I’ve tried and can’t come up with a better plan, either. And if such a plan were devised, who sets the standards by which all are measured? Me? You? Are we ‘typical’? We each have a biased view of what a student should be capable of. As does everyone else. That means any standardized test is subjective toward the test-maker. I find little value in subjective data across a population. Especially when I’m not the one doing the testing.

I will agree that we need a solution. But NCLB is not it. And I’m afraid any adequate program will be very, very costly. And since when have our leaders ever invested heavily in education?

17 12 2008
Terry Johnson

Mr. O.

I have got to agree with everything you just wrote! I am always for removing the leaders first. I think Spellings should have been gone a long time ago, and if Duncan continues down the path she started, then I’ll want him gone too. (I’m saying this and I know her second-in-command, Ray Simon, personally. He and my father are old fishing buddies. I have a lot of respect for him.)

Tracking student performance needs to be expanded to include pre-K through college. Teachers should be weighed within the system they work. And making incredible improvements should be rewarded, not criticized for not reaching an enormously lofty goal. Everyone knows that final goal of 100% in not achievable. But they had to make it that high because who could cite a justification for any other value? Any other number would be a blind guess which would mean nothing.

But you and I both know teachers who watch videos every day they don’t want to teach. And an administration who lets them. If the administration is watered down, then we can’t trust any of their evaluations. Fire the administrators and review all the teachers. What was done under Duncan was basically that. As I understand it, the teacher firings were basically a means of having the teachers justify their employment. A lot of hassle on the teachers, I agree. But our reality is, in the high school at least, teacher vacancies always outnumber the applicants. He wanted better teachers at that specific school. Creating those motions on the teacher’s parts only facilitated giving the ‘better’ teachers (terrible phrase — you know what I mean) school choice and the weaker teachers the vacancies. Probably didn’t make substantial gains across the city, but it might have perhaps made everyone involved feel some competition.

5 07 2009

One size fits all testing just does not work. Unfortunately, that is all that we have that we can use nationwide. If we want true data and authentic results, then more than one type of assessment is required so that all students can show what they CAN do, not what they CANNOT do.
Another factor that the powers that be will not (can not?) consider is that testing is automatically skewed by student disinterest and the whole package of outside issues that the child brings to school with him/her on a daily basis.
Is there a better way? Maybe Yoda knows…but I seriously do not believe that the government, with all of their human frailties, has a clue.

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