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Mixed Messages from Duncan: What's Our Message to Him?

Last month Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responded to requests from his Teaching Ambassadors to record a special message to America's teachers.

His opening passage is appealing:

Excellent teachers matter. What you do has an extraordinary impact on student achievement and on their lives. Even in the best of circumstances, teaching is really, really, hard work. Great teachers go above and beyond the call of duty. You work tirelessly, on your own time. You work late into the night and on the weekends, working on lesson plans. You spend your own money on supplies for classrooms and lunches sometimes for your students. You wake up at night worrying about students who might be headed for trouble. And you enter challenging and sometimes dangerous environments, because you know those are the communities and students who need you the most. You care about every single child, personally.

But this week, when a school district in Rhode Island decided to fire all the teachers at Central Falls High School, Duncan "applauded school officials for doing the right thing." And the Secretary has a list of 1999 more schools ripe for "transformation."

The posts I have carried over the past month from Los Angeles teacher Chuck Olynyk bear witness to the toll this sort of draconian decimation takes on our teachers, many of whom are exactly the sorts of dedicated individuals who Secretary Duncan praises in his message. Am I alone in finding it hard to reconcile Duncan's words of encouragement for teachers working in challenging schools with his applause for the wholesale termination of an entire school faculty?

Secretary Duncan does care what teachers, think, however. And perhaps we should let him know.

The Teaching Ambassador Fellows are our profession's representatives in the Department of Education. They have set up a special site to collect feedback from teachers to share with the Department, as we prepare for reauthorization of NCLB.

Here is the first question they have posed:

Many teachers say they support ESEA's accountability measures, but that they need to be fair, based on students' academic growth, and can't be arbitrary or based on a single test score. What are your thoughts on how we do this best? What would it look like in your classroom? What would tests have to look like for you to think they were fair?

Over at the Facebook group Teachers' Letters to Obama discussion forum we are posting the messages we are sending. Here is mine:

Dear Teaching Ambassador Fellows,
Thank you for opening up a dialogue with teachers.

You asked what it would take for tests to be fair, and how that would look in our classrooms.

First of all, we need to be clear about what is unfair in current law.

It is unfair to expect students who live in poverty and violence to have the same outcomes as students who live in privilege and wealth. Poverty and violence have repeatedly been shown to have major effects on student performance. I am NOT saying that teachers and schools do not make a difference, but hunger and the trauma of violence also make a difference, and it is unfair to punish schools and teachers in impoverished areas when their scores are not as high as those in wealthy areas. This unfairness is compounded by the inequity of resources -- where schools in wealthy areas get more funding that those in poor areas. Teachers in Oakland, where I have worked for 23 years, are the lowest paid in the region -- and now our district must cut $40 million from next year's budget.

It is unfair that the law requires all subgroups to rise simultaneously. I understand the intention was to ensure that attention would be paid to all groups of students, but this puts diverse schools with multiple subgroups at a HUGE disadvantage. I taught at a school where we made big gains with our African American students one year, but we had a large influx of English Language Learners, and so our Latino group dropped by a few points. We were labeled a failure. The next year our African Americans and Latinos went up, but our Asians, already performing at a high level, stayed the same and did not rise. A failure again. This was completely demoralizing for our staff.

It is unfair that we test primarily reading and math, and largely ignore other subjects. This results in the well-documented narrowing of the curriculum. I work as a science coach in Oakland, and I can tell you there are elementary schools where teachers are NOT ALLOWED to teach science because they are required to spend every available minute following scripted curriculums in reading and math. Of course the wealthier schools in the district have time for science. A law that was supposed to create equity is having the opposite effect.

So what would it look like if it were to be made fair?

First of all, we would remove the absurd requirement that all students be proficient by 2014. We would create a system that allows each school to conduct an investigation into performance at their site, and set goals. These goals would extend beyond reading and math to encompass the other things that are valued in that community. We all know that we expect schools to do much more than teach reading and math. We need ways to set goals and measure accomplishment for more than reading and math. Can the students create a scientific investigation? Can they create an artistic performance in music or visual arts? Can they understand the past by reading historical documents? Our assessments should reflect much more broadly what we value.

What should those tests look like? They should be much more than multiple choice. They should include authentic assessments of critical thinking -- and they should focus on growth over the school year. For example, in science, a student could be given the task of making observations and coming up with a scientific hypothesis, and then designing an experiment to test his hypothesis. This task could be repeated in the Spring. This would encourage teachers to give students practice actually doing science, rather than merely memorizing facts for a multiple choice test.

We should ask schools to look at the performance of subgroups, but we should eliminate the expectation that every group should move up every year. We should allow schools to set goals for their subgroups, and reflect on what is occurring with them.

We should shift away from the emphasis on punishment and labeling schools as failures. We should move towards giving struggling schools support and encouragement to improve. Repeatedly studies emerge that the most powerful things we can do is give teachers time to collaborate. We need to set high expectations for teachers -- that they are capable of tackling these problems, and then give them the time and resources to do so. We should carefully evaluate research that shows the lackluster results of wholesale school reconstitutions in which staffs are blamed for the school's "failure" and required to reapply for their jobs. We should stop labeling schools as failures and shift towards a more constructive engagement with staffs, giving them time to collaborate, problem-solve and develop creative solutions involving parents and students.

What do you think of Duncan's message to teachers? What should our message be to Secretary Duncan? Will you send him one?

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