The Arne Duncan reform train: when ‘all’ really means ‘some’

The Secretary of Education calls on teachers and their unions to reform their ways.  He asks others to commit to education only superficially.  


by Christopher Paslay


In recent weeks, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has outlined his plans for reforming America’s public schools in a series of high profile speeches. 


Although many of the proposals contained in these speeches make sense, Duncan still seems to oversimplify the problems facing our public school system.   


Education is much broader than teachers and schools.  Granted, a good teacher and a successful school are necessary for a child to learn, but by no means does education stop there.  There are numerous components to the education equation, relevant factors that have a significant impact on a child’s overall ability to learn (and on a teacher’s and school’s ability to be successful).


You have education policy writers, and their ability to develop practical and effective teaching strategies; you have colleges and universities, and their ability to properly prepare and train quality teachers; you have parents, and their responsibility to nurture their child’s thirst for knowledge by helping with homework and getting involved in their school; you have social service organizations, and their ability to provide the basics—such as asthma medicine and eyeglasses—to children without health care; you have the community, and its responsibility to instill in youth the values needed to be a good citizen.                  


Unfortunately, Secretary Duncan’s speeches have for the most part ignored the complexities of the factors mentioned above, and focused on one piece of the pie—teachers and schools—as if teachers and schools exist in a vacuum and are not interconnected to the whole.  He equates education reform to a moving train, and calls for everyoneall people—to get on board. 


“The education reform movement is not a table where we all sit around and talk,” Duncan told the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference on June 22 in Washington D.C.  “It’s a train that is leaving the station, gaining speed, momentum and direction. It is time for everyone—everywhere—to get on board.”    


But it doesn’t appear that Duncan’s definition of “everyone” really means everyone.    


A quick recap of all four of Duncan’s recent speeches might reveal this truth.     


On June 8th, Duncan addressed the Institute of Education Sciences research conference in Washington, D.C.  He focused on the need for a comprehensive data system to track student achievement and teacher effectiveness.   


“But to somehow suggest that we should not link student achievement and teacher effectiveness, it’s like suggesting we judge a sports team without looking at the box score,” Duncan told the audience. 


This makes sense, to a certain extent; there are many factors that affect test data other than teacher performance, of course.


But if we’re going to introduce a comprehensive data system into our public schools, why should this data solely measure student achievement and teacher effectiveness?  Why not extend this data system to track parental involvement?  To measure the effectiveness and practicality of educational policy and those who write it?  To measure the performance of superintendents and school board members?        


On June 14th, Duncan spoke to the 2009 Governors Education Symposium in North Carolina.  He talked about raising the bar in terms of assessment, and urged all states to adopt a set of international benchmarked standards that prepare students for success in the workforce and college.


“The standards must be tied to the endpoint of making sure students are ready to succeed in college or in the workplace,” Duncan said. “You must resist the temptation to make these standards too easy. Our children deserve to graduate from high school prepared for college and the jobs of the future.”


Again, why should these “higher” standards stop with students and teachers?  Why not raise the standards when it comes to the credentials needed to hold the office of Secretary of Education?  Shouldn’t candidates need at least some experience teaching in a public school classroom (yes, I’m referring to you, Mr. Duncan).  How about superintendents?  Education professors and writers of curriculum? 


On June 22, Duncan addressed the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference in Washington D.C.  He talked about ways to turn around failing schools. 


He had four basic models in mind.


The first involved stripping teachers of seniority, and giving principals full autonomy to pick their own teaching staffs.    


“Under this model, the children stay and the staff leaves,” Duncan said.  “Teachers can reapply for their jobs and some get rehired, but most go elsewhere. A few leave the profession, which is not all bad. Not everyone is cut out for teaching. Like every profession, people burn out.”


Duncan’s second option also involved replacing the teachers and principals.  The plan called for turning schools into charters, or handing them over to for-profit management organizations. 


Apparently, Secretary Duncan hasn’t been paying much attention to the for-profit management experiment in the Philadelphia School District.  Numerous studies have shown that these private managers do not raise academic performance. 


In fact, 16 out of the 20 elementary and middle schools currently being run by outside managers in Philadelphia performed lower than the city’s traditional public schools (this of course didn’t stop their contracts from being renewed this year at the cost of $9 million).      


As for charters:  How is it that some charters fail to raise academic achievement, embezzle millions of taxpayer dollars and still remain in operation? 


Duncan said his third turnaround model for failing schools keeps most of the existing staff but they must establish a rigorous performance evaluation system.  The school must also increase learning time for kids during afternoons, weekends, and in the summer, among other things.


Duncan’s last turnaround model: Close under-performing schools and reenroll students in better ones.


On July 2nd, Duncan addressed the National Education Association at their annual convention in San Diego.  His focus this time was on improving the quality of the education workforce—teachers, principals and education support personnel.


In this speech he immediately put the role of unions in the spotlight.


“I came here today to challenge you to think differently about the role of unions in public education,” Duncan said.  “When thousands of schools are chronically failing and millions of children are dropping out each year—we all must think differently.”


He urged “dramatic change” in education and insinuated that unions and their policies were standing in the way of that change. 


“We created seniority rules that protect teachers from arbitrary and capricious management,” he said, “and that’s a good goal. But sometimes those rules place teachers in schools and communities where they won’t succeed—and that’s wrong.  We created tenure rules to make sure that a struggling teacher gets a fair opportunity to improve—and that’s a good goal. But when an ineffective teacher gets a chance to improve and doesn’t—and when the tenure system keeps that teacher in the classroom anyway—then the system is protecting jobs rather than children. That’s not a good thing. We need to work together to change that.”


When it comes to unions protecting struggling teachers, Duncan may have a point; and I say this as a member of a teachers union myself. 


However, let’s back up a minute and talk about real teacher supports.  One of the biggest reasons teachers struggle is because of classroom management issues—you must have order before you can teach.  What are two big causes of management problems?  Class size, and the lack of alternative placements for troubled students. 


How long have unions been asking (begging, pleading) for smaller class sizes?  How long have teachers been held hostage by violent or unruly students who are kept in the classroom because there is no where to put them, or by laws that prevent their expulsion? 


Why don’t we cut class sizes or build more alternative schools?  Because it costs too much money!  And when it comes to money, everyone isn’t on board the reform train.  Money is going here, there, everywhere, but too little of it finds its way into the classroom for direct instruction.


So where is the hands-on support for the struggling teachers?  Where are the resources for the teachers who have 33 teenagers in their classroom, some with ADD, others with physical and behavior health issues, and no parental involvement? 


Real education reform is possible in American.  Teachers do have room to improve, and unions must learn to be more open minded and flexible.  But if real reform is going to happen, we all must truly get on board, and reform cannot stop with teachers and schools. 


To quote Arne Duncan:  “There is simply no more important work in our society than education. The President understands that, parents understand that, America understands that. Now we—all of us together—must act on that understanding and move forward.”


Now if only we could get Arne Duncan to expand his definition of “all” to truly include everybody.