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Arne Duncan Goes After "Armchair Pundits"

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke publicly of Diane Ravitch in an interview in 2011, where he said: "Diane Ravitch is in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day,"

Yesterday he expanded a bit on this sentiment. Though he did not mention Ravitch by name, he seemed to have her in mind when labeling his critics "armchair pundits" who are "so supremely confident in their perspective that they have simply stopped listening to people with a different viewpoint."

I do not want to be guilty of this, so I listened closely to Secretary Duncan's talk. Here is some of what he said:

Secretary Duncan:

Also inhabiting this bubble are some arm chair pundits who insist our efforts to improve public education are somehow doomed to fail, either because they believe the government is incapable of meaningfully improving education or because they think education reform can't possibly work since the real problem with schools is that so many children are born poor. In blogs, in books, in tweets, some pundits even say our schools are performing just fine and that fundamental change isn't needed or that we have to address poverty first before schools can improve student achievement.  At the opposite extreme, other commentators declare a permanent state of crisis. They discount the value of great teachers and great school leaders, and they call for the most disruptive changes possible, with little heed for their impact on our nation's children.

Too many inhabitants of this alternative universe are so supremely confident in their perspective that they have simply stopped listening to people with a different viewpoint. Instead of talking with each other, and more importantly, listening to each other, with respect and humility, and with a general interest in finding common ground, many of these people are just talking past each other, ignoring plain evidence and deliberately distorting the other's positions.

They are clearly not focusing on children and students. They are focusing, instead, on false debates. Fortunately, many people in the real world, outside the beltway and blogosphere, have tuned out this debate. They are too busy actually getting real work done. They're focusing on students, whether they're three years old, 13, or 33. All across America, states and districts are moving forward with courageous reforms. States are raising standards and expectations for students, and are piloting new and better assessments to show what students know and can do.

There is so much good work underway, and thankfully, the people doing the work are not distracted by all the noise and manufactured drama inside the bubble. In the real world, outside the Washington bubble, the vast majority of people aren't debating IF college and career ready standards are actually needed.  They're not advancing false narratives about a federal takeover of schools by mind-controlling robots. They're just doing the hard work of putting high standards into practice. They're not questioning if a thoughtful system of evaluation and support is needed for both principals and teachers. They know that evaluation historically was generally meaningless, not developmental, and broken, and they're working together to help educators strengthen their craft, and build real career ladders that recognize and reward excellence. Even in my home town of Chicago, less than a year after a bitter strike, a recent study shows that teachers actually LIKE the new evaluation system, and want to make it work, even if they have lingering concerns about how test scores are being used.

In the real world, most people aren't against meaningful testing. They know that we need some kind of test, to know if kids are actually learning, and to hold everyone accountable - including students themselves. That doesn't mean they don't have concerns about teaching to the test, or narrowing the curriculum, and I absolutely share those concerns.  But the idea that we shouldn't gather real-time data on what students know and are able to do is simply absurd. The goal of education is not just to teach - it's to have our students learn.

Outside the bubble, people are not arguing in 140 characters or less about whether we need to fix poverty before we can fix education. That, like so many debates in education, is a false choice.  Of course, we'll keep fighting poverty every single day - protecting the safety net,  providing critically important wraparound services, feeding hungry children and their families, crating jobs, combatting violence and creating greater access to health services. But we can't use the brutal reality of poverty as a catch-all excuse to avoid responsibility for educating children at risk and helping them beat the odds as thousands and thousands do, year after year after year. Our children only have one chance to get a great education. They can't wait for poverty to magically disappear. In fact, for them and their parents, education is the way out of poverty, and they don't want to waste a minute. They are chasing the American Dream with everything they have. And we have to help them get there. We all share in that responsibility.

Secretary Duncan is right in a way. We have been talking past each other. But some of us have been attempting to engage in active dialogue with his administration literally for years. We collected more than a hundred letters from teachers four years ago that provided real world advice for the Department of Education. This earned us a short phone conversation with Secretary Duncan, where he did more talking than listening.

He wants to characterize his critics as "living inside the Washington bubble." I have only been to DC three times, and two of those times were for protests against the status quo. Those of us lifting our voices in concern about the effects of federal policies are speaking from our firsthand experiences as educators, as witnesses to school closures, to the effects of high stakes tests, the rising tide of segregation.

The insulting way that Secretary Duncan chooses to characterize those who disagree with his policies really speaks for itself.  He divides the world into those who he sees "doing the work," who may have concerns - which he, of course, shares, and those who disagree. Once we actively disagree, we become part of some "blogosphere," or "bubble," which, by his definition, is engaging in idle carping that undermines those in the "real world."

The fact that Diane Ravitch's book is among the top ten of the New York Times best seller's list must be a bit unnerving to Duncan, and that may account for this defensive rant.  His far preferred strategy, similar to that of Education Nation this coming weekend, is to ignore those who disagree. When that doesn't work, we hear attempts to marginalize, as in this speech. Gandhi once said "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." We are now being actively fought. 

We have asked for dialogue, literally for years. Perhaps when Secretary Duncan gets done attempting to belittle and marginalize those of us who disagree, we might get one.

What do you think of Secretary Duncan's remarks yesterday? How should educators respond?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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