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.

Bad evaluations don’t always equal bad teachers



by Susan Cohen Smith


Whenever President Obama opines, “Bad teachers need to be fired after being given the opportunity to train effectively,” I am troubled by the vagueness of his statement. Specifically, who should decide when a teacher is bad?  What standards are to be used in making that decision?  How is the “effective training” opportunity to be realized?


My initial foray into teaching was not altogether different from what may confront a new teacher today. It was characterized by uncertainty, trauma, and virtually nothing in the way of significant support. I was assigned to teach art in an inner-city junior high school on February 1, 1971.  I took over for a teacher, a former classmate of mine, who quit mid-year in utter despair.


I was thrown to the wolves quite literally on day one.  Each of the classes on my roster contained 33 or more pupils.  I was also given an advisory and lunchroom duty where, I remember vividly being pelted with peas.  


On February 2, 1971, an art teacher at another junior high school was fatally shot in the schoolyard by one of his students. Upon hearing the news, several of my students informed me that I would be next. Schools were closed on February 3, 1971, in observance of the man’s funeral. I was grateful for the day off.


The following day, my principal formally observed me. The students were not well behaved.  I had only met with them one time before, and was not able to establish any sort of management plan. But most were working, albeit not perfectly. The principal spotted an off-task student and with finger wagging, tore into me in front of the class about how I should better monitor my pupils. At my insistence, we adjourned to the hallway where he continued to shout at me. The children, who became silent at the onset of his tirade, went wild.


The principal never set foot in my classroom again.  He did, however, place a note in my mailbox and in my personnel file stating that if I didn’t improve, I would be subject to an unsatisfactory rating and to possible disciplinary measures. He suggested I seriously consider other occupations or avenues of employment.


Back in those days, we didn’t quit or change jobs as readily as young people do today. To do so was tantamount to failure. To persist on the job wasn’t always the wisest choice, but quitting just wasn’t an option for most of us who had invested four or more years in post secondary studies.


After the inauspicious beginning of my teaching career, it took a great deal of fortitude and moxie for me to remain on the job. I credit my ability to endure that first half-year to a colleague, a diminutive woman with years of experience in the classroom, who serendipitously took me under her wing and effectively gave me what my college curriculum lacked. It wasn’t all smooth sailing during those 36 years that followed, but I humbly believe that I have made a small contribution in more than a few people’s lives. My collection of cherished memories and gratifying moments convince me that my years of teaching were, for the most part, well spent.


Many of my students went on to art colleges or to other post-secondary studies. They became teachers, lawyers, carpenters, engineers, nurses, plumbers, police officers, movie stars and parents. One is the CEO of an international non-profit health organization who authored a book and listed me first on her acknowledgement page. Many of them still see me, keep in touch with me and regard me highly.


I often think about the very different set of circumstances that may have occurred had I followed the advice of my first principal. His superiors must have realized that he was unfit to handle the rigors of a volatile urban junior high school and eventually he was “kicked upstairs” to a supervisory position. This practice of promoting incompetence on the administrative level, of course, persists today. Indeed, those furthest removed from the education process make up the majority of the decision makers; the latest trend focuses on the business community as education experts.


The President of the United States, in making those sweeping pronouncements about education, must recognize that those who judge teachers are sometimes unsuited to make such determinations based on their limited observations.  


I am reminded of the words of an administrator, mistress of the malaprop, who realized she had produced an unfounded negative assessment of me: “I must have misconscrewed what you said.”


Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at