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Teachers and Education Policy: Two Voices in Dialogue: Part 1

Teachers Anthony Cody and Patrick Ledesma, both NBCTs and members of the Teacher Leaders Network, have taken two very different approaches to promoting the teacher voice in education policy. Anthony began with an open letter to President Obama, and then launched a Facebook group, Teachers' Letters to Obama, which now has more than 3000 members -- some of whom spoke with Secretary Duncan last May. Patrick has served for the past four months as a Teacher Ambassador Fellow for the US Department of Education, and in that role has represented teachers in discussions of policy. What follows is a dialogue between them, sharing their perspectives. This is Anthony's response to Patrick's post here, The Teacher Voice in the US Department of Education.

(Update: Here is Patrick's response to this post (part 2), and MY response to him (part 3).

As we write, the dialogue between the Department of Education and teachers is broken. Notwithstanding the efforts of the Teacher Ambassador Fellows, (which Patrick described here) we have a major failure on our hands. Most teachers are completely turned off by the "education reform" agenda currently being advanced by Secretary Duncan.

Let me share with you how I believe we got here.
Many teachers and organizations have pursued dialogue and sought to shift the direction of the Department over the past year and a half. A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education offered a fresh framework that many supported, and many others raised their voices to object to the core pillars of Race to the Top. A year ago, frustrated with the policies of the administration, I wrote an open letter to President Obama, which I posted on my blog. Here are the issues I raised in that letter:

It appears that Race to the Top funding will not be used to save jobs or plug massive holes in state budgets, but instead will be used to "drive reforms." But these reforms do not enact the vision you have put forward.
As it stands now, Secretary Duncan has initiated policies to:
  • "Turn around" 5000 of the nation's "worst" schools (based on test scores) although recent reports from Chicago reveal that the 5,445 students displaced by his school closures there did not do any better than before.
  • Tie teacher pay to test scores, though research and common sense suggest this will result in even more narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test.
  • Insist, in spite of more and more research that questions their effectiveness, that charter schools should be dramatically expanded.
  • Rank teacher preparation programs - once again, by how well they increase student test scores

I got a huge response from other teachers that indicated they shared my frustration. I started collecting their letters, right there on my blog, and on a Facebook group I started called Teachers' Letters to Obama. After a month I had collected more than 100 letters, which I sent directly to President Obama and Secretary Duncan. In January of this year I shared excerpts from letters in a commentary in Education Week, and a link to download the whole collection.

We were actively seeking a dialogue with the Department of Education. We had very specific concerns, and a whole host of constructive suggestions about alternatives to the policies we saw harming our schools.

I got one short letter from the Department acknowledging the letters and thanking me, but no further contact. Then one of the members of our group got in touch with someone in the Department and convinced him they ought to hear from us. We were invited to have a conversation with Secretary Duncan.

We spent more than a month polling the then 1600 plus teachers in our group, and organizing a group of about a dozen who would represent us, and deciding on the issues we would discuss with him.

When the day in May finally arrived, we found we had only about fifteen minutes time to try to convey the pent-up frustrations of an entire profession. Secretary Duncan, for his part, seemed to think he was there to answer our questions, rather than take in our perspectives from the front lines.

The next day I got a follow-up call from Secretary Duncan, who wanted to know what my message for him was, since I had not had a chance to speak the day before. I shared my conviction that the way they were forcing schools with low test scores to close or fire principals and staff was very unfair. Secretary Duncan suggested that I was misinformed - that the principal need not be fired if she had been there less than three years. But this principal had been there four years, and indeed, would have to be terminated for the school to qualify for improvement funds.

I wrote that day:

The call from Secretary Duncan was an acknowledgment of that frustration, and an invitation to extend the dialogue. There has been a breakdown in communication between America's teachers and the Department of Education, that stretches back long before the current administration. There is a huge logjam of unheard ideas, perceptions and wisdom. We have not shared a vision for a long time.

But that call was the last we heard from the Mr. Duncan and the Department of Education.

We have continued our work at Teachers' Letters to Obama to get teachers informed and active in influencing education policy - we now have more than 3,000 members. But we hit a dead end with the Department of Education.

Patrick Ledesma's post, "The Teacher Voice in the US Department of Education," shares his experience of serving as a Teacher Ambassador Fellow under Secretary Duncan.

I suppose his intent is to reassure us that indeed, teachers' voices are present there. But I am not reassured. He writes:

Many teachers are concerned, upset, and even angry by the recent educational debates in the media that have collectively unfairly criticized and bashed the profession.

This continues to be the most difficult issue in education debates. In my experiences with other TAF and ED officials, how the message is interpreted and misinterpreted continues to be a heavy concern. The TAF have produced our own brochure to highlight the issues from our own classroom perspective to address the issues of assessment, evaluation, charter schools, etc.

When I read this brochure, I found some disturbing things. First, the preface, written by Secretary Duncan himself, states this:

In recent years, the federal government hasn't helped solve problems for teachers. The No Child Left Behind Act created incentives for states to lower standards and measure students' skills by using low-quality "bubble tests." The law focused on punitive measures when students didn't reach an absolute standard, yet failed to acknowledge growth.

The first section of the brochure is entitled "How the Blueprint for Reform
Empowers Educators," and is a point-by-point defense of the document. The trouble is this defense is not credible. The brochure is full of vague statements "teachers deserve to be evaluated fairly and paid for the hard work they do." But when it comes to specific policies and practices, the Department is still following in the footsteps of George W. Bush.

Secretary Duncan says that he is opposed to the emphasis on bubble-in tests, yet the Department of Education is INCREASING the stakes of tests even more than under NCLB.

Duncan has supported:


  • The firing of principals and even entire staffs based on low test scores (see Central Falls, Rhode Island, earlier this year.)

  • Tracking test scores of teachers back to the source of their teaching credential to rank the "effectiveness" of these schools.

  • The publication in the newspaper of so-called Value-added rankings of teachers - based solely on test score data

.

So while Secretary Duncan comes to teachers and says we have been unfairly blamed, when the rubber meets the road, he joins in with the blamers.


Some parts of the brochure are misleading at best.
For example, this passage:
Does the Blueprint for Reform favor charter schools? Under the new plan, do charter schools receive preferential funding? The Blueprint does not favor one form of public school over another. As Secretary Duncan says, he is for whatever works well for students. Of the $28 billion the president has proposed for the 2011 budget, less than 2 percent is set aside specifically for charter and other autonomous public schools.

Focusing on specific setasides is not the point. To qualify for Race to the Top, states were required to remove any limits on the expansion of charter schools. This led a number of states to change their laws. This paves the way for unfettered expansion of charters, even though they have not been shown to be any more effective than regular public schools.


Similarly, states were required to change laws to allow test scores to be used for pay and evaluation. Lawmakers in Florida responded by passing a law that said 50% of teacher pay and evaluation would be based on their students' test scores. Only the mobilization of thousands of teachers and parents in opposition forced a veto of this law - directly inspired by Race to the Top.

Patrick asserts: "When teachers can interact directly with ED officials in a professional manner, clear and concise dialogue occurs to advance issues on all sides."

I really would like to know on what issues that teachers care about we have achieved advances. I have not seen any significant advances in the past year.

We were professional in our approach, and we did our best to engage the Department regarding our concerns. But I have come to believe that the Secretary does not really want to hear about the teachers who WERE being fired for low test scores as a result of his policies. He does not want to hear about the continued narrowing of the curriculum that results from test scores being used for teacher evaluations and pay. He does not want to hear about the suicide of Rigoberto Ruelas, unfairly labeled "less effective" by the Los Angeles Times. He does not want to acknowledge the extensive research that shows that Value-Added is too unreliable to be used to determine pay or evaluations. Even documented studies showing that pay for test scores does not even work to raise the scores are ignored.

I am not the only one saying this
. Last week, Dr. Pedro Noguera, who served on President Obama's education transition team, described a meeting early this year, when he spoke to fifty high level staff at the Department for ninety minutes. He shared his concerns, which are very similar to the ones we have raised. "Then I left and nothing changed. I realized that the Obama administration was staying the course not just in Afghanistan, but in education."

The dialogue that we sought with the Department of Education went nowhere not because we were uninformed, nor because we took the wrong tone.
I can only conclude that it went nowhere because the Department has an agenda that has been set in stone and they are determined to carry it out. The reassuring words that we read in the Blueprint and the Teacher Ambassador Fellows defense of it ring hollow. They are quite literally incredible.

I am not sure where to go with this dialogue now.
I am committed to the idea of a dialogue - an exchange of ideas and perspectives in the hopes that we can learn from one another. However, what we have learned thus far is that nothing we say has resulted in any change of policy. So I offer this history of our attempts at dialogue to you, Patrick, as our ambassador, and I ask you. We know we have listened. We read the Blueprint and responded to it. We know we have spoken clearly. When were we heard? Where can we find evidence that our efforts over the past year have had an effect?

What do you think? Has the dialogue between teachers and the Department of Education broken down? What can be done to repair it?

(This is my response to Department of Education Teacher Ambassador Fellow Patrick Ledesma's post, The Teacher Voice in the US Department of Education. Here is Patrick Ledesma's response to my post is here.)

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