Secretary Duncan Changes His Stance on ‘Shaming’ Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

After backlash from the education community, Arne Duncan rethinks his position on making teacher evaluations public.      

In August 1862, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Horace Greeley, an editor of the New York Tribune, stating, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” 

Although I can’t read the mind of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and find out how he truly feels about publishing the evaluations of public school teachers in newspapers, I’d be willing to bet his thinking is similar to Lincoln’s: If he could save his credibility without shaming any teachers, he would do it; and if he could save it by shaming all the teachers, he would do it; and if he could do it by shaming some and leaving others alone, he would also do that.     

At least that’s how it appears.  In August of 2010, when the Los Angeles Times made public the ratings of all of the teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Secretary Duncan supported the idea.  The Los Angeles Times covered the story:      

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday that parents have a right to know if their children’s teachers are effective, endorsing the public release of information about how well individual teachers fare at raising their students’ test scores.

“What’s there to hide?” Duncan said in an interview one day after The Times published an analysis of teacher effectiveness in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest school system. “In education, we’ve been scared to talk about success.”

Duncan’s comments mark the first time the Obama administration has expressed support for a public airing of information about teacher performance—a move that is sure to fan the already fierce debate over how to better evaluate teachers.

Last week, in an interview with Education Week writer Stephen Sawchuk, Secretary Duncan did a complete about-face and said newspapers shouldn’t publish teacher ratings.  Sawchuk wrote about his interview with Duncan on his blog:

Publishing teachers’ ratings in the newspaper in the way The New York Times and other outlets have done recently is not a good use of performance data, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview yesterday.

“Do you need to publish every single teacher’s rating in the paper? I don’t think you do,” he said. “There’s not much of an upside there, and there’s a tremendous downside for teachers. We’re at a time where morale is at a record low. … We need to be sort of strengthening teachers, and elevating and supporting them.”

Why the sudden change of heart?  Perhaps Duncan is just now realizing how pointless it is to make teacher ratings public.  Other than exploiting the public’s urge to see teachers pilloried, what good can it do; it’s counterproductive to think you can humiliate educators into becoming better instructors.  Plus, the “value-added” ratings are flawed and based too heavily on standardized test scores, which policy experts argue is harming education by narrowing curriculum and overlooking the intangible benefits of good teaching.     

Of course, Duncan could be changing his tune for political purposes, because he’s suddenly realized shaming teachers isn’t going to score the kind of points he thought it once would.  Surprisingly, his attempt to fan the flames of the public’s anti-teacher mentality has backfired.  When powerful education philanthropists such as Bill Gates write opinion pieces in the New York Times titled “Shame is not the solution,” explaining that embarrassing teachers “doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback,” and that such methods are a “cheap” way to fix real problems, people like Duncan start to listen. 

Duncan did attempt to address the reason for his sudden flip-flop in the Sawchuk interview, however.  Basically, he suggested that the whole debacle was the fault of the Los Angeles public schools.       

“What I was reacting to in L.A. was this mind-boggling situation where teachers were denied access to this data. The only way they could get it was through the newspaper,” he said. “There was clearly some level of dysfunction [in the district], that this was the only way they could get it.”

The only way teachers could get their own personal evaluation data was through the newspaper?  Did I hear this correctly?    

It’s clear there’s some egg on the Secretary’s face, and on President Obama’s by association.  But only time will tell if Duncan’s attempt to save his credibility will be as successful as Honest Abe’s strategy was to save the Union from succession.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Teacher Bashing

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