Close Reading of Arne Duncan’s Feb. 7 Speech: His “Either-Or” comment

This series of posts responds to excerpts from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s speech “Fighting the Wrong Education Battles” on Feb. 7 to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  The bolded parts are Sec. Duncan’s speech.  The plain text is my response.

“I want to speak to you today not about Lady Gaga’s advocacy, but rather about well-intentioned advocacy that goes awry.

I want to talk about advocacy that inadvertently becomes less about helping children and making tough choices—and becomes more about maintaining ideological purity and making false choices.”

Mr. Duncan, the Montgomery County Schools have done some deep work in changing their schools.  A few years ago I read the book Leading for Equity by Childress, Doyle and Thomas which advocated reapportioning assets to targeted populations while raising the achievement for all.  I thought it amazing.  Since then I have learned about their Peer Assistance and Review program, a laudable program that has escorted hundreds of teachers to new careers.  Again, amazing.  I wanted it for our schools.   But you denied it Race for the Top funds because it did not include using test scores.  You talk that policy should not be an either-or choice, but miles away from your office you have a successful system that you ignore and deny because it does not fit your agenda.

“Well-intentioned advocates on both sides present policy choices as an either-or choice—not as a “both-and” compromise, however imperfect, that needs to be ironed out.
So, being “for” more state flexibility means you must be “against” accountability.
Supporting the use of student achievement data in English and Mathematics as one element in assessing school performance means you must oppose teaching a well-rounded curriculum.”

Mr. Duncan, one of the phrases I have liked from Diane Ravitch’s messages is that we should not go by the intention of a law or an idea but by how it plays out.  How are your policies of school assessment playing out?  I just read the March 2011 Educational Leadership (as a practicing English teacher, I am perennially behind professional reading), and found their article “High-Stakes Testing Narrows Curriculum” true.

I support the use of student achievement data in English and Math.  I just don’t support how you are using it.   And I find it interesting that you do not address the narrowed curriculum of RTTT.  You may acknowledge aspects of it, but you blame ESEA/NCLB, not acknowledging that to most practicing educators, RTTT is worse.

Close Reading of Arne Duncan’s Feb. 7 Speech: Either we are with him or we defend the status quo?

This series of posts responds to excerpts from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s speech “Fighting the Wrong Education Battles” on Feb. 7 to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  The bolded part is Sec. Duncan’s speech.  The plain text is my response.

“In the wrong education battles, the perfect, too often, becomes the enemy of the good. And the dysfunctional status quo persists, hurting children and teachers—and ultimately, our country’s economic competitiveness as we continue to under-educate far too many of our nation’s youth.”

Mr. Duncan, There are two aspects to this paragraph I found troubling.  First is assumption that fighting against the amount and use of standardized tests means defending the status quo.  This is erroneous.  Much needs to change in education, particularly as we learn more and more about brain research and we have increased technological options to assist in targeted differentiation.  Just because I am against your use of standardized testing does not mean I am for the status quo.   (Hmm… this strikes me as similar to one of your opening paragraphs.  I think you should examine your own beliefs and assumptions in that either-or part.)

But the other aspect I get frustrated by is the constant refrain that RTTT will increase our “economic competitiveness.”  What kind of economy are you picturing?  This reminds me of one of my  collected Tweets.


I hold with those like Yong Zhao that our best assets are our creativity and questioning.  I would advocate more project-based learning, which lends to collaborative critical-reasoning and creativity, our best national asset.  While researchers and academics will say that teaching critical thinking will increase test scores equally, such instruction is less controllable, less documentable, and therefore more worrisome with RTTT.

Close Reading of Arne Duncan’s Feb. 7 Speech: Calling on hypocrisy

This series of posts responds to excerpts from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s speech “Fighting the Wrong Education Battles” on Feb. 7 to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  The bolded parts are Sec. Duncan’s speech.  The plain text is my response.

“The second, related battle is over reforming teacher evaluation systems and the use and misuse of student achievement data in teacher evaluation.

Before diving into those debates, I want to make a couple of points.
I’m not in any way opposed to vigorous debate. In fact, I welcome it. I recognize these are issues that stir strong passions and opposing viewpoints. There’s a good reason why these controversies are referred to as “the education wars.”

I want to hear from teachers, and principals, and lawmakers, and union heads who disagree with me. That’s the democratic process at work, and I treasure it. The best way to sharpen your understanding of complex issues is to have your ideas challenged.”

Secretary Duncan, you want to hear from us?  Despite significant pay cuts to both me and my public-worker husband, we took our sons on our first family vacation ever this year… to DC, to the Save our Schools march.  While the organizers were willing to meet with you after the rally, you refused.  You were willing to meet before the rally to save your own public relations, but you were not willing to listen to us after the rally.  I also doubt you would have acknowledged the SOS march at all if Matt Damon hadn’t been keynote speaker. 

And please, Secretary Duncan, follow some teachers on Twitter.  Start with Katie Osgood.  

“In a single generation, the U.S. has gone from having the highest college attainment rate in the world among young adults to being 16th.”

This one makes me truly, truly angry.  The Obama administration has sat by while Governor Walker and Governor Christie and Governor Corbett and Governor Brewer and (fill in your own governor here) cut college spending, saying nothing.  Nothing.  At least until recently.  Doing a little research, Obama cut higher education  $89 billion over 10 years.  If you want to increase college attainment, keep it affordable.

Close Reading of Arne Duncan’s Feb. 7 Speech: Two more points

This series of posts responds to excerpts from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s speech “Fighting the Wrong Education Battles” on Feb. 7 to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  The bolded parts are Sec. Duncan’s speech.  The plain text is my response.

“But I was literally stunned when I discovered that several states had laws on the books that actually prohibited using student achievement in teacher evaluation. Think about how crazy that is—and what a perverse signal that sends about the entire teaching profession.”

I like the word “perverse”– I personally think it perverse when Teacher A, asked to take a class load with a really struggling cluster of English-Language Learners, and Teacher B, who will have no clusters this year, are both evaluated on test scores.  Perhaps you will adjust your metrics to account for this, but based on Pascale Mauclair, I think not.

“Just last week I met with Dru Davison, a fantastic music teacher in Memphis. Arts teachers there were frustrated because they were being evaluated based solely on school-wide performance in math and English. So he convened a group of arts educators to come up with a better evaluation system.

After Dru’s committee surveyed arts teachers in Memphis, they decided to develop a blind peer review evaluation to assess portfolios of student learning. It has proved enormously popular—so much so that Tennessee is now looking at adopting the system statewide for arts instructors. If we are willing to listen, and to do things differently, the answers are out there.”

I have sat with arts educators as they cried over the fact they are required to document how they meet EPAS or Common Core standards at the cost of their own standards.  It saddens me.  I question, however, this solution of Dru Davison.  Don’t test scores have to be part of teacher evaluation?  Isn’t that part of RTTT?  Isn’t that, again, why you rejected Montgomery County Schools?

I would love a portfolio system for all teachers.  That might allow more of the project-based and collaborative work that I believe enhances the skills Americans bring to the world economy. I would love for test scores to be used to diagnose and differentiate and not to punish.  I would love for us to work collectively to challenge the status-quo without demeaning teachers, denigrating experience, and elevating compliance to a testing system.

You might know that if you listened to all of us better.

Calling it what it is

MeerKat from Design and Photography

I am depressed.   Time to call it what it is.  Not a clinical depression.  No need to call me, write me, check on me.  But depressed.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

A year ago, I was in grief after Governor Walker’s Wisconsin Act 10, the one that took away collective bargaining, stripped massive funding from public education, and put my sons’ educational future in jeopardy.   Having experienced two sudden and unexpected deaths in my family in the previous two years, one of which was my father’s, it wasn’t hard to recognize grief.  I couldn’t sleep, becoming anxious and hyperactive.  That helped as I was often at the Capitol testifying or grading until one, two in the morning night after night.   I couldn’t eat, losing weight pound by pound, despite the pizza diet (thanks, Ians and the world).

Act 10 grief made me dizzy as I tried to recognize the new geography of my life.  This, too, was recognizable.  Didn’t I have to chart the new geography in my life as I lost my family members?  Act 10 grief made me question everything, holding each professional value and hope in my hands.  Act 10 made me look through others’ eyes, trying to consider their points of view.  Again, familiar grief.

When my father died, I read a book that said that if I could recognize the gifts I received in that grief, I would be closer to healing.  So I did that.  What did I get in my Act 10 grief?  I got awareness.  I took my head out of whatever sand it was buried in and I looked around.  And I found the gift of the grief: I became a MeerKat, that vigilant creature that crawled out of tunnels and watched for danger avidly.  I sought out media, eventually finding Twitter, and then I didn’t just watch Wisconsin.  I watched Ohio.  I watched Florida.  I watched New York.  I watched New Jersey.   I was on it, man.  That was grief’s gift.

But a year later, I can’t compare the griefs any more.   A year after my dad’s death (heck, even now almost four years later) I would get amazed at how strange isolated moments wind me, knocking me back in misery, missing him, but the general pattern to the days was lighter, better, freer.  I lost my anxiety.  I started to eat.  I felt hope.

Not Act 10 grief.  I don’t feel hope.  Hope?  I spend part of my summer protesting Barrack Obama’s Arne Duncan.  No hope there.  I see the injustice of posting scores in New York, but I don’t see outrage.   I don’t see either political party freeing itself from corporate malfeasance and greed in the education arena. There isn’t any lightening on the horizon.  No pink and yellow hues break through those clouds.

And I no longer feel like a MeerKat.  I am a duck.

Duck by Michael Kappel

My uncle, nearing 90, still harvests much of his own food, including ducks.  Assuming that the ducks outsmart the predators, he will occasionally get one and drag it down to his basement to behead and dress it.   All the other ducks run over and crowd around the basement windows, witnessing the act.

That’s what I am now.  As I read about Pascale Mauclair, I am a duck watching at the window. Watching an execution and simply waiting my turn.

A depressed duck.

Another Big Test Error: Misplacing Students into Remedial Classes

I have been keeping an eye on data for a few years now and I fully recognize how a single score can open or close doors for kids.  I take this fact seriously; I have no interest in doing anything that prevents a student from getting into the colleges and programs he or she desires. It breaks my heart to witness lost opportunities.

And so when the community college gave me the list of those from our school who were placed in remedial classes, I cried.  Those were my students, ones I could picture in my classes, right down to where they sat.  I know that students placed in remedial classes have far less chance of making it through, and I know those who don’t make it through are less likely to earn a decent wage.  My department is working to raise English scores on placement tests, sometimes compromising our beliefs about the classroom to make sure we get these tests/ test skills in more.

But today a colleague of mine sent me this:  Colleges Misassign Many to Remedial Classes.  I am both utterly stunned and completely not surprised.

It would seem that there should be more reliability  in placing students given the potential consequences.  It seems like every measure should be taken to be accurate on this.  I am stunned that the problem is so pervasive.

But then again, I’m not.  America puts faith in these multiple tests and their numbers despite significant evidence of their lack of reliability.  We pillory teachers like Pascale Mauclair when in reality we should be honoring her.

We are going backwards.   Testing could be an amazing tool for intervention, but right now it is blood sport.  We go after teachers.  We trap students.

It needs to change.