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Some Unanswered Questions About ESEA

April 1, 2010

This post will be the first in a multi-part, multi-blog reflection on this topic.  Be sure to read down to the bottom to see who will pick up the discussion after I leave off.

Today I had the opportunity to listen to a webinar conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, which coordinated with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to invite National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) to participate in a discussion of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, (ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind in its most recent incarnation).  In preparation for Congressional work on ESEA, the DOE has released its Blueprint For Reform.

Though I have found myself disappointed in Arne Duncan more often than not, I appreciate his longstanding support for NBPTS.  The National Board is one of the best hopes we have for building the profession of teaching across the country, and it is fitting that NBCTs and other teaching experts should be consulted about this important legislation.

Judy Wurtzel spoke on behalf of the DOE, and after using up half of the time presenting the administration’s plan, she took some questions about it.  Not exactly a discussion – it sounded more like a friendly press conference.  News flash: Teachers left on the periphery of policy formation – again.

Sadly, Wurtzel didn’t have time for my questions.  (And to be fair, there were hundreds to choose from).  Or maybe the folks running the show didn’t like my questions, which would have been the most pointedly critical ones aired.  Was I the only one thinking this way, or could it be that they selected the “softballs” for the Q&A portion?

So, here are my questions about the ESEA Blueprint:

1.  Wurtzel said that when dealing with persistently low-performing schools, districts should be allowed to “do interventions that they think will work.”  Here in California, we’re seeing that if a school is on that list, they have to choose from a limited menu of drastic reform measures in order to receive federal funding.  Is that kind of semi-coercive and radical disruption what the administration has in mind when “allowing” districts to use their judgment about solving problems?

2.  Wurtzel emphasized that the adminstration’s blueprint supports plans that will build school and community partnerships.  That’s a wonderful idea.  But in their reactions to recent events in Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, Duncan and Obama have indicated that firing an entire school staff is a reasonable solution to chronic underperformance.  So, who are the community’s partners at those schools?  Those failing teachers who all deserve to be fired, or the new ones who don’t have any standing connection to the community?  How do you simultaneously build trust and tear apart communities?  (And if the superintendent and school board haven’t fostered conditions that support teaching and learning, why don’t they resign after carrying out the firing?)

3.  Wurtzel shared the good news about investment in education research, promising that the results would identify and helps spread effective strategies.  If they understand the value of research, why do they plunge headlong into school reform and teacher evaluation proposals that have little or no research basis?  I’m talking about the entirely misguided idea of evaluating individual teachers based on students’ standardized tests (a misuse of such tests according to the three leading organizations for education research and measurement).  I’m talking about the rush towards charter school expansion, despite mixed results in the research of charter school effectiveness, and serious doubts about their capacity to expand.  I’m talking about the mass-firings and other unproven “turnaround” options.

4.  On the topic of improving teacher evaluations, Wurtzel was careful to mention “student outcomes” as part of evaluations, and careful not to say “test scores” used for evaluation.  On one hand, that’s the way it should be:  we should be improving evaluations to include information about student learning.  On the other hand, when so many ed-reformers out there think educational outcomes are equivalent to test scores, it would be preferable to hear the issue addressed head on.

The webinar presentation had some good parts, too.  I heard an appropriate interest in expanding rather than narrowing the curriculum – though that goal seems tied to designing even more standardized assessments.  I liked the idea of developing a multi-tiered teaching certification (similar perhaps to the program in New Mexico).  And if the ESEA reauthorization includes funding for increased professional development and collaboration, that would be welcome news.

Some of my colleagues from Teacher Leaders Network were also listening in today, and have promised to add their commentary on their own blogs, so I hope you’ll jump over to read what these wise women have to say on the topic.

Mary Tedrow – Walking To School

Renee Moore – TeachMoore

Nancy Flanagan – Teacher In A Strange Land

Mary and Renee have recent posts on ESEA, but will follow up with their impressions from today’s webinar.  Anyone with comments for the Department of Education regarding ESEA can send them to esea.comments@ed.gov

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Sandy Dean permalink
    April 2, 2010 10:15 am

    I am glad you wrote about this, David. I thought I might be alone in feeling that we were being treated with condescension. The first half hour was spent with people reading to us.(You could hear their papers rustilin.) Is it not true that most of us, who have so much invested in seeing this renewal done right, have read the blueprint? I even had questions already written out and mine, like yours David, went beyond just seeking simple clarifications. ( There were about nine of them, but those that were selected seem to have been chosen to help the DOE’s case seem well thought out.)
    I turned off my computer and went for a long walk, the same strategy I used to use in the year that Reading First drove me from the classroom. After a few miles of deep breathing and enjoying the views from the hilltops, I came home and tried to let it go. However, upon reflection,I really don’t think any of us should let it go. I think we ought to find a way to get our questions and perspectives aired respectfully and professionally, but they shouldn’t be left to become the stuff of conversations we share among our colleagues who already understand what we are so worried about.

    So enough ranting. I will share one question that continues to roil. I hope others will air their burning questions too. So here is my contribution-

    Ms. Wurtzel began by talking about the fact that the US had slipped to tenth place in the world in terms of education outcomes. (I am not sure about the source for this. I thought we were lower than that on some charts.) A few weeks ago I attended a talk given by a professor from the University of Helsinki. Finland, you may know, ranks at the top of the charts in most international comparisons. She described many of the reforms that have taken place in that small country that took twenty years to enact, but the most impressive of these had to do with how teachers are educated and how they work. She spoke about teachers’ “encounters with ethical issues and their quest to find solutions to them”. The view of teachers is that they are “academic professionals who have the right and the obligation to develop curriculum.” If you read the ESEA blueprint, you will certainly not discern a stance toward teaching that is anything remotely like the one that pervades the highest performing country in the world. Why is that? Have we nothing to learn from those who have done this better than we have? Did anyone even bother to ask how they got to the top and why we have slipped so far?

  2. David B. Cohen permalink*
    April 2, 2010 10:59 am

    Thanks for the response, Sandy. I hope you’ll take a look at the other blogs as well. I think you’ll see that frustrations similar to those you express form a common theme.

    Your question is crucial: “Did anyone even bother to ask how they got to the top and why we have slipped so far?” Teachers have many of the answers, but we weren’t really being asked, were we?

  3. teacherken permalink
    April 2, 2010 11:58 am

    We so often seem to draw the wrong lessons when we look at international comparisons. Finland is one example – they are highly unionized, the job of an administrator is to support the teachers, they do not take a punitive approach to teaching. I strong suggest reading what Linda Darling-Hammond had to say about Finland in her latest book.

    I was invited, but had a conflict in participating in the webinar. Having read what several of my fellow members of TLN have had to say, I think I would have found the entire process incredibly aggravating – the idea that half the time was spend reading at you is an inconceivable waste of time, and seems to display an attitude towards teachers that is demeaning, that perhaps those participating might not have read the document in question.

  4. David B. Cohen permalink*
    April 2, 2010 12:14 pm

    Hi Ken –
    I think in part you’re responding to a point Mary Tedrow raises this point on her blog post. We can’t say for sure what everyone else did, but the five people I know who participated in this event had all done our homework and did not need to have a digest of it presented to us for over half an hour.

  5. April 5, 2010 6:09 pm

    I, like Ken, believe had I participated I would’ve felt extremely aggravated. Heck, I’m aggravated just reading about it! I have just spent the last year of my life serving on boards and committees so that policymakers are able to say they’ve included a teacher. I’m getting weary of being talked over and poopoo-ed (is that even a word?) and stared through (or stared AT like I have four heads.)

    Do we need to compile unanswered questions and forward them to someone of high authority?

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 5, 2010 10:48 pm

      Cindi – thanks for your comment. As for that final question, I don’t think we need to forward our questions any higher – because I’m skeptical about the effectiveness of that approach. The questions I have now are how can we present solutions and reforms proactively, and mobilize support for good changes rather than waiting to organize in emergencies. (see: Florida)

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