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Secretary Duncan Wants to Talk. What Shall We Tell Him?

Secretary Duncan wants to talk with us. Five months after I posted my Open Letter to President Obama, four months after we sent over 100 letters to Obama and Duncan, we are being invited to speak by phone with Arne himself. We are ready. More than 1600 teachers have joined our Teachers' Letters to Obama Facebook group, and we have been actively discussing the key issues in education policy. One of our founding members, Kansas City teacher Marsha Ratzel, set up a meeting with her Department of Education representative, and shared our letters with him. He was impressed, and pushed them up the line in the Department. Result? The Secretary wants to speak with us! Thank you Marsha!!

Over the next few days we will discuss what we want to say to Secretary Duncan and who should represent us. I invite you to join us. Post what YOU would like to say. Vote for others so we can determine who should represent us. This is our chance to be heard.

Here are some of my questions:

You have said that you are "tight on results but loose on means." However, your policies are setting some very bad means into motion. For example, in Florida, Senate Bill 6 will put in place new tests at the start and end of each year, in each and every subject, and the results on these tests will be used to determine 50% of a teacher's pay and evaluation, with no local control at all. This has been justified by lawmakers belief that this will earn them Race to the Top dollars. Are you happy with this direction they are taking from you?

You and President Obama have made it clear that you wish to move away from the punitive aspects of NCLB. We all know the terrible effect it has on teachers and students to have their school labeled a failure. But a central part of your reauthorization plan for NCLB is to label the bottom 5% of the schools as failures and require them to be restructured. Unfortunately the states have not shown much capacity or imagination in this regard, and once again, your mandates are resulting in heavy-handed actions as we saw in Central Falls in Rhode Island and Fremont High in Los Angeles. Since the categorization as "failing" continues to rely on the tests you have deemed inadequate, as many as 20% of our lower-performing schools are going to be in constant danger of failing to meet learning goals. Won't this inevitably result in the same sort of test-driven culture at these schools that has been the hallmark of NCLB?

President Obama and you have spoken about the desire to free teachers from the need to prepare students for standardized tests from September to May. However, when you speak of multiple measures, one gets the sense that the remedy is limited to adding high school graduation rates to the formula, and MORE tests in more subjects. To combat the narrowing of the curriculum to reading and math, we will test more, not less. And have tests at the start and end of each year so as to be able to measure growth. And those who have read the draft Common Core Standards have noted that it sets testable targets starting at kindergarten. Are you suggesting that the way to keep teachers from having to teach to the test is to add more tests?

From coast to coast, state budget shortfalls are having terrible effects on our schools. We are losing libraries, nurses, school counselors, safety officers, and class sizes are climbing. This is going to widen the gap between schools attended by children in poverty and those with wealth. In this climate, does it make sense to award federal funding on a competitive basis? Won't this widen the gap between haves and have-nots?

The major focus of this discussion will be the Blueprint for Reathorization of ESEA (NCLB) that came out a few weeks ago. An excellent review was offered a few days ago by Richard Rothstein here: A blueprint that needs more work.

Please come to the Teachers' Letters to Obama Discussion page and share your thoughts there as well as below.

What do you think? What would YOU say to Secretary Duncan if you had him on the phone?

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