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Talking into a Tin Can on a string 3000 miles long: Our Talk with Duncan

So we twelve finally had our thirty minutes to speak with Secretary Duncan. We spent weeks preparing what we would say. We polled the 2000 members of Teachers' Letters to Obama and got more than 270 teachers to take time to share their ideas of what we should say. We knew we would not have much time, so we paired up, and wrote short statements carrying our experiences and insights. We wanted to be critical but constructive.

I want to find positive things to take from what unfolded, but it is challenging. Here is what happened. We were given a magic phone number to call in. There were about six Dept of Ed people back in DC in a room with Arne Duncan, who introduced themselves one by one. Then Secretary Duncan took the mic and talked very fast. He talked about how wonderful teachers are, and how much they had learned about the problems associated with NCLB, and how they were looking forward to making many changes. He also wanted to make sure we would support their push to get an emergency school funding bill through Congress right away to prevent teacher lay-offs.

Then, about halfway through our thirty minutes, it was our chance to talk. Marsha Ratzel introduced our goals. She said:

What we hope to offer you is a vast set of experience teachers who bring a wealth of knowledge to bear on the ideas put forward in the BP. These are respected teachers in their buildings, their state and beyond. We are not academics with lengthy research projects or a special interest group that is promoting something...instead we bring you years and years of in-the-trenches teaching of every kind of student you can find in the country.

But something was awry. Marsha's voice came in and out, rising and falling as if her mic was attached to a yo-yo.

Then Heather Wolpert-Gawron took the mic, and tried to explain why current assessment practices are inadequate, and why we need to move towards classroom-based assessments. She said, in part:

Many teachers have already developed highly efficient methods of assessing these higher order skills that colleges and employers are seeking. Persuasive writing to a Congressman to better one's community, wikis and blogs to collaborate in the elaborate solution of a math problem, applied science labs, real-world publishing of student work, exit portfolios that have been gathering a student's best work throughout their school career to show growth, mock job interviews complete with cover letters and resumes...all of these authentically assess skills and knowledge. Embedded in these are the core competencies we are all familiar with: writing, reading, and logic.

There are thousands of teachers willing to help create and score those assessments. We would like to suggest redirecting some of the funding the Blueprint currently earmarks for outside innovators toward training classroom teachers in promoting, developing, and scoring classroom-tested and authentic-skill assessments.

But once again, we were foiled by the phone connection. Halfway through someone on the other end said "We hear you saying we need more critical thinking, right?" Then we heard from someone that this was a great suggestion, and that they have earmarked more than $300 million for this purpose in Race to the Top. Great. Except they haven't. Not for what Heather was actually suggesting.

Then it was Mary Tedrow's turn. Her partner, Renee Moore, unfortunately was stuck on an airplane and missed the call. But Mary was actually loud and clear for some reason, and spoke eloquently for the need to invest in teachers' professional growth through rich programs such as the National Writing Project and National Board certification. Secretary Duncan said he was a big supporter of National Board and agreed with us very much.

Sandee Palmquist came next, and did a great job articulating the need for more individualized assessments that are developmentally appropriate. She said:

The Blueprint mentions Universal Design for Learning principles. The principles of UDL utilize systems of curriculum and instruction applicable to the greatest number of students with the least number of adaptations necessary to meet that goal. In applying those principles to assessment, we need to move away from standardized tests and toward multiple measures of student performance. While we appreciate the Blueprint's statement that assessment measures for these students will be more flexible in the future, the future cannot start soon enough.

"Oh, yes, we are working on new assessments," we were told.

Now our thirty minutes were up, and Elena Aguilar got the mic for a last comment, and suggested that the Department should take a closer look at how English Language learners were actually learning - and some of the strides being made at some Oakland schools in particular.

Then Secretary Duncan came back on, and thanked us all for our questions. And that was it. As for me, I never got to say boo. I had paired up with Chuck Olynyk, one of the many teachers at Fremont High School in Los Angeles who was told to reapply for his own job this year. We were going to advocate for more flexible models for restructuring schools (see my blog last week) but we were in the bottom half of the speakers' roster, so the call was over before we had our chance.

In a conversation after the call, Alaska Teacher of the Year Bob Williams, who also missed his chance to speak, said that perhaps the whole experience was a metaphor. Secretary Duncan and his staff could hear one another very well, but teachers' voices had a very hard time getting through.

It is a good sign that the Department of Education and Secretary Duncan created a space for teachers' voices to be heard. If they are really interested in hearing us, they will follow up, and we will be invited to share more.

The funny thing about the conversation was that the whole time, they seemed to think we had questions, and their job was to answer them. We had actually approached the conversation from a different place. We thought perhaps they might want to ask US questions, or hear our ideas about how to improve schools.

What do you think? Were we heard? What should we do next?


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