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Arne’s Message to Nation’s Teachers

July 30, 2010

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education (image from

Conscientious educators took time out of their summer vacation to listen to the messages from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and the President himself, at speeches made at the National Press Club and the National Urban League.  Vast amounts of commentary, critiques, and position papers have been written about the new education reform policies espoused by the federal government, but until this week, it was not made official in such a public and codified way.  So as any career teacher would do, I listened to the speeches, took notes, and reflected on the programs and strategies that the leaders in my field were now mandating.

For this post, please note my use of humor and satire.

Below are excerpts from Arne Duncan’s speech that stood out to me, and my interpretation as to how they will play out in real life, in a real world classroom and school.  The entire text of the speech can be read here.

Arne Duncan frames his education reform policies as a “quiet revolution” by brave warriors who are fighting together to improve education.  He states, “this quiet revolution is driven by motivated parents who want better educational options for their children…great educators and administrators…elected officials and stakeholders…and foundations and entrepreneurs.”  Including foundations and entrepreneurs tells me he is elevating the status of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and hedge-fund managers in this education reform era, and he considers them to be an important part of the equation to improve America’s schools.  He shows no concern about any possible monetary motives for these people to be involved in helping struggling schools, and obviously believes their interests are purely benevolent and altruistic.  Well if they’re okay with Arne, then I have nothing to worry about. All that talk about increasing market share and their lack of experience in education matters is nothing to be concerned about.  What a relief.

On Race to the Top funding he states, “with a budget of just $5 billion dollars — less than one percent of total education spending in America — this minor provision in the Recovery Act has unleashed an avalanche of pent-up education reform activity at the state and local level.” Later he states, “Nothing moves people as quickly as the opportunity for more funding — especially in tough budget times.” This quote tells me that I shouldn’t listen to the hype and concern about the monumental changes about to occur in American education; after all, it is just 1% of the total budget for education.  But that 1% has really brought about some exciting changes that will finally help turn around struggling schools and district.  And people are really moved about it because of the recession, and all this “extra money” coming their way.  How generous!

On the severe sanctions imposed on schools when their test scores are not up to par he states, “the only place where we are explicitly prescriptive is with the bottom five percent of schools.” Whew!  My school is not in the bottom 5%, so I don’t have to worry about being fired, my Principal being fired, converting to a charter school, or my school being closed permanently.  But what happens next year?  If each year the bottom 5% of schools get sanctioned, then in 5 years 25% of all schools will face these consequences.  And wait; these decisions are based on test scores?  Yikes!  Even if we keep improving, in 20 years, all schools will go through these changes.  Does that mean that a large portion of America’s school system will be run by private charter operators such as Green Dot, Edison, and KIPP?  I must have misunderstood.

Moving on!  On teacher evaluation, he said several things:  “Everyone agrees that teacher evaluation is broken…no one thinks test scores should be the only factor in teacher evaluations, and no one wants to evaluate teachers based on a single test on a single day.” Great!  He gets it.  He understands that so much factors into the students’ performance on exams, notably socioeconomic status; I mean hungry students with toothaches don’t learn as much as well-fed students who are healthy, right?  This means he will contact the districts in Colorado and Oklahoma who have decided to base a large percentage of teacher evaluations on their students’ test scores and tell them to stop immediately.  Surely he will call Michelle Rhee and ask her to rehire the 241 teachers she fired recently, in large part because of test scores.  But now I’m confused.  The teachers will not be judged on the test results from one single test…but the entire school can be deemed a failure based on this one single test, and sanctioned.  Odd.  I’m sure he is still working out the kinks.

On testing, he states “if we have better assessments that measure student growth and critical thinking skills across many subjects, we can stop assessing whether students are mastering the basics, and get a much fuller picture of student learning.” So the testing focus on English and Math (the basics) will now be expanded to testing in all subjects.  Now test prep can take place all day, every day, not just in the other classes.  No longer can I pity my English colleague across the hall who drills and kills his students right before each assessment.  No longer can I walk by the English department meeting and make funny faces at the teachers who have to stay after-school longer to be coached through the prescribed curriculum while we Science and Social Studies teachers get to innovate and be creative because we our subjects haven’t been tested yearly.  Bummer.  But hey, at least now we won’t be narrowed out of the curriculum!

Finally, Arne Duncan gave examples of schools that are doing things right and making a difference.  One of those schools was Urban Prep Charter in Chicago, which has accomplished fantastic things: “Go to Urban Prep in Chicago, an all-male, all-Black high school that replaced a school where only four percent of incoming freshmen were at grade. Today, every single member of their first graduating class is heading to a four-year college; 107 students — 107 graduating — and 107 going to college.” How inspiring! I immediately googled Urban Prep and found out the secret to their success.  It’s really very simple.  You set high standards and high expectations, and accept no excuses.  Hey-it’s the era of accountability, and if you can’t hack it then you can go back to the public school around the corner.  And that’s apparently what they did, because their graduating class of 107 used to be a freshman class of 166.  This is brilliant!


Public, sometimes you have to laugh in order not to cry.  I see the future of my profession, and it is centered around measuring learning, not learning itself.  It is based on concepts of competition and coercion for adults, and little understanding about how students actually learn and how schools are the glue of the community.  It destroys schools that serve students from poverty and rewards schools that adopt unproven reforms in order to acquire desperately needed funding.  Undoubtedly, this is the era of selling our souls, and many educators will not participate in this.  I hope Arne Duncan takes the time to listen to folks outside of his inner circle, but a part of me believes he already has and is unconcerned with our admonitions.  I hope I am wrong.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Gerald Ott permalink
    July 31, 2010 6:57 am

    The national standards called the “Common Core” are a part of the reforms the Secretary supports. As a clear articulation of what kids need to know and be able to do, the standards seem to be a good roadmap for reading and math teachers. What are your thoughts about these standards, Martha and can we use them (as high expectations) in a manner that avoids the pitfalls you describe in this blog?

    • July 31, 2010 12:04 pm

      Gerald, educators who choose to stay in education will adapt to new reforms, as misguided as we think they are. We always do. I have personal experience implementing comprehensive school reform in the early naughts, and know this much: any program/reform works if it has the buy in of all stakeholders. The first step would be for teachers and administrators to analyze new standards deeply and find ways to align the curriculum to the standards. This process would take a couple of years since people are in the mindset of teaching to current state standards.

      Now the standards I have seen are just for English and Math. I am not sure of there are some in development for Science and Social Studies. In California, we have pretty comprehensive standards, so I don’t see the state telling me to stop using the Social Studies standards and only use ELA standards in History class. Most likely I will be asked to embed the ELA standards into my History curriculum, but good teachers embed ELA standards into ALL subjects.

      Gerald, I appreciate the focus of creating good standards as a nation. But it seems this endeavor was done only to qualify for federal money, not because the idea was so powerful and valuable in and of itself. California’s standards did a pretty good job spiraling skills from one grade to the next. They may be a bit broad, but they are solid. Yet still, our schools are not where they should be. I wish the carrot in Race to the Top had been to invest in professional development, infuse struggling schools with support services that will mitigate poverty factors, and keep class sizes down. But we will work with what we are given. Thanks for your comment!

  2. August 1, 2010 8:45 am

    This is a great post. I can foresee the trajectory of education as it seems to be arcing right now… and where it ends up is fundamentally un-democratic. Part of the paradox of public education is that it is an essentially socialist concept folded into a competitive capitalist and achievement oriented culture where the people in power achieved their power through competition, whether economic, political, or both. It is logical then, for we humans as egocentric beasts, to assume that what worked for us to achieve our success is exactly what everyone else needs for them to achieve success. The problem with ascribing competitive capitalist ideals to public schools is that in order for competition to work, there must be a loser–yet schools are expected to have no losers: all kids are to achieve. I think that there are actually two outcomes which may manifest in the next two or three decades: school funding will be reformed and fully funded public schools will be able to achieve our aims for as many students as possible (more than we are now, by far, but not 100% because when dealing with people possessing freedom of will and choice, 100% achievement in a cohort of millions is a ridiculous charge); or, schools will end up privatized or for-profit, and the haves to have-nots gulf will expand…only those who can afford an education will get it. The rich and smart will get richer and smarter, the poor and uneducated will stay poor and uneducated. Sounds like the ideal model for a capitalist society in need of a labor pool. THAT is why I’m concerned about the billionaire philanthropist influence you mention above.

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