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A Silicon Valley Lesson for Secretary Duncan

June 25, 2010

GraduatesThe graduation season continues this weekend, and here in the San Francisco Bay Area the high profile commencement speeches will come from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who will address graduates at Foothill Community College and DeAnza Community College.  The choice to speak at community colleges highlights the administration’s focus on the important work of community colleges in addressing the highly varied needs of diverse adult learners – some recent high school graduates preparing to move on to a four-year university, and others seeking job skills or enrichment opportunities at varied stages in their careers and lives.

Martha J. Kanter, appointed an Undersecretary in the Department of Education last year, served for as the President of DeAnza Community College for several years and then led the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District.  There is a justifiable pride in our state and local community colleges, and the Secretary’s visit here helps to validate the important role that our community colleges play in the education system.  During difficult economic times especially, the community colleges become even more important, as they must somehow handle increased demand from all angles – budget-conscious high school graduates decide on a more affordable route to a bachelor’s degree, while workers seek new skills and training to improve their chances in a challenging job market.  To the extent that Duncan’s visit reflects the administration’s commitment to support and improve community colleges, I say thank you for that, and welcome to the Bay Area, Mr. Secretary!

Imagining your remarks to the graduates, however, I expect, Mr. Duncan, that you will go beyond discussion of policy matters relating to community colleges.  Perhaps you will mention the importance of a solid education to prepare everyone for work, to contribute to society and take control of their own lives, for the benefit of themselves and their families.  Indeed, I expect it’s this kind of thinking that motivated the graduates to pursue and complete their studies.  Though I wonder if you might consider please that the current direction of federal education policy denies many students and teachers the conditions that would best support education.

Daniel Pink’s recent book, Drive, points out that people are not motivated so effectively to do their best work, or best learning, by external motivators like test scores or bonuses, nor by their punitive counterparts, such as being fired or having a school restructured.  In fact, people perform best at a task when their internal motivation is triggered by the chance to gain autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  Has education policy in recent years done that for teachers and students?  You may not have started this trend, Mr. Duncan, but you and President Obama are pushing us along the same path, with only some minor course corrections.  All around the country, teachers, parents, and even students have tried to communicate to you, on multiple occasions, that we need to refocus education policy and de-emphasize testing.  You’ve ignored the opinion of leading educational researchers, even been advised by the National Research Council that your concept of teacher evaluation needs revision.

Instead, provide us with more autonomy, by supporting local initiatives to improve schools with teacher and parent partnerships, rather than forcing states to Race to the Top by falling in line with federal policy initiatives.  You have noticed, surely, that this race has not inspired or motivated the nation – and to the extent that it motivated cash-strapped legislators and superintendents, the excitement faded significantly within a year as states dropped out of the race early.  If there’s a role for the federal government to play in local education, let it be less controlling.  Support the conditions that allow people to do their best.

You can help teachers attain mastery of teaching not by pushing the use of bad data, and not by encouraging the rapid deployment of underprepared Teach for America recruits, but rather by improving teacher training (as you have suggested -thank you), and by improving our work conditions in ways that allow for continual learning.  Compared to our international counterparts, American teachers have very little opportunity to work together, to focus on curriculum and instruction in our own context, and to exercise the prerogative of professionals to make the best choices for our students without being locked into prescriptive approaches that are not working.

You can inspire teachers, students, and parents to recognize that education has a purpose we can all believe in and use for motivation by ending educational policies that treat people and communities as data.  So often we have heard you say the right things on this score, but the policies that come down from Washington D.C. undermine that message – totally drown it out, in fact.

You join us today in Silicon Valley, and I’m sure that our regional success in technology and innovation will be alluded to in your remarks.  However, there’s a key lesson from Silicon Valley that I don’t think you have applied to your own leadership yet, and I hope you will consider it:  success is built on failure.  Around here, and elsewhere I’m sure, innovators fail, accept and celebrate failures, and learn from failures.  On Saturday morning, speaking in Cupertino, you will be 1.5 miles away from the home of Apple Computers.  I wish you could count the iPhone and iPad owners in your audience, and then consider the history of Apple, and how long it’s taken to reach this point.  Are you willing to admit or celebrate any failures?  Are you receptive to hearing about any in education, without insisting on prescribed solutions or punitive consequences?

One of the most memorable interactions I had in the past couple years of my teaching was a very short, and perhaps trivial interaction with a high-level administrator in my school district.  Passing me by chance as he walked across our campus, he asked how everything was going.  I had been somewhat preoccupied with something that wasn’t working in my teaching, and I told him so.  His response: “Well good for you for trying something new!”  There was an unspoken trust on his part that of course I intended to fix, and would fix whatever needed correction, and carry on delivering quality instruction overall.  His confidence in my ability to self-correct, learn, and improve did wonders for my motivation.

Now, ask yourself, Mr. Duncan:  are you cultivating an educational atmosphere in America where you could walk into a school or district and have anyone celebrate failure in your presence?  As our “educator-in-chief,” wouldn’t that be a goal worth pursuing?  Wouldn’t it show a greater understanding of education and innovation?  However, you are on record favoring the wholesale firing of teachers, and advocating a law that provides limited, punitive “turnaround” measures (opposed not only by many teachers but also by the National School Boards Association).  Who will share with you what’s really going on, and who will be honest with you that we don’t always know if our next step will work or not?  You should react with skepticism at over-confidence, but you shouldn’t be surprised when that’s all you’re offered.

So, instead of fostering autonomy, mastery, and purpose, the Obama administration’s education policy you’ve directed brings us less of everything we need (except money – which you’ve tied to a series of misguided or hasty changes).   My hope is that while you’re here with us, Secretary Duncan, you might do more than offer your message to our graduates.  Take a quick study of Silicon Valley, and learn a lesson about the conditions that would really motivate people towards innovative teaching and learning.

Photo used by permission.  Original by KitAy at

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