What Arne Duncan Really Meant

An Open Letter From Arne Duncan to America’s Teachers

By Arne Duncan

What Arne really meant.

I have worked in education (Never taught in a public school a day in my life. With the low pay, large classes, and top-down management, I’d never be caught teaching.) for much of my life. I have met with thousands of teachers in great schools and struggling schools, in big cities and small towns, and I have a deep and genuine appreciation (repeat platitudes enough, some teachers may begin to believe them) for the work you do. I know that most teachers did not enter the profession for the money. You became teachers to make a difference in the lives of children, and for the hard work you do each day, you deserve to be respected, valued, and supported (which is why I’m probably not the best guy for the job)

I consider teaching an honorable and important profession, and it is my goal to see that you are treated with the dignity we award to other professionals in society. In too many communities, the profession has been devalued. Many of the teachers I have met object to the imposition of curriculum that reduces teaching to little more than a paint-by-numbers exercise. I agree. (I’m a a politician not an educator so I have to tell you want you want to hear, in actuality though, I prefer business leaders’ ideas to tie your compensation to your students’ test scores on standardized reading and math exams.

Inside your classroom, you exercise a high degree of autonomy. You decide when to slow down to make sure all of your students fully understand a concept, or when a different instructional strategy is needed to meet the needs of a few who are struggling to keep up. You build relationships with students from a variety of backgrounds and with a diverse array of needs, and you find ways to motivate and engage them (Here’s hoping you aren’t smart enough to detect the irony in me having to argue you have a high degree of autonomy. Obviously, if you felt greater trust, I wouldn’t have had to include this paragraph at all.) I appreciate the challenge and skill involved in the work you do and applaud those (ten percent) of you who have dedicated your lives to teaching.

You have told me you believe that the No Child Left Behind Act has prompted some schools—especially low-performing ones—to teach to the test, rather than focus on the educational needs of students. Because of the pressure to boost test scores, NCLB has narrowed the curriculum, and important subjects like history, science, the arts, foreign languages, and physical education have been de-emphasized (which, apart from science, is fine by me since those subjects don’t impact our economic competiveness). And you are frustrated when teachers alone are blamed for educational failures that have roots in broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded schools systems. You rightfully believe that responsibility for educational quality should be shared by administrators, community, parents, and even students themselves (But since the Education Department can’t boss administrators, communities, parents, and students around as easily as you, deal with the scapegoating.).

The teachers I have met are not afraid of hard work, and few jobs today are harder (I’m guessing). Moreover, it’s gotten harder in recent years; the challenges kids bring into the classroom are greater and the expectations are higher. Not too long ago, it was acceptable for schools to have high dropout rates, and not all kids were expected to be proficient in every subject. In today’s economy, there is no acceptable dropout rate, and we rightly expect all children—English-language learners, students with disabilities, and children of poverty—to learn and succeed (even if our short-term “Race to the Top” funds only impact a tiny fraction of those students’ classrooms).

You and I are here to help America’s children (Well, I’m here to strengthen my resume, play pickup ball with O, and leverage this title into serious money going forward, but Harvard taught me you have to include this kind of sentence in a “letter of appreciation”.). We understand that the surest way to do that is to make sure that the 3.2 million teachers in America’s classrooms are the very best they can be. The quality of our education system can only be as good as the quality of our teaching force (my “legacy” insight).

So I want to work with you (well not directly, and after reading the comments, maybe not even indirectly) to change and improve federal law, to invest in teachers and strengthen the teaching profession. Together with you (well, with The Gates Foundation and the 3.2 million of you in mind), I want to develop a system of evaluation that draws on meaningful observations and input from your peers, as well as a sophisticated assessment that measures individual student growth, creativity, and critical thinking. States, with the help of teachers (fortunately, it’s always the state education officials in charge, God help us if it was “Teachers, with the help of their states”) , are now developing better assessments so you will have useful information to guide instruction and show the positive impact you are having on our children (or the negative impact many of you are having on your students).

Working together, we can transform teaching from the factory model designed over a century ago to one built for the information age (Catching my stride now! Almost like I’m channeling 2008 O.). We can build an accountability system based on data we trust (even if my department, your state education office, and the business community don’t trust you) and a standard that is honest—one that recognizes and rewards great teaching, gives new or struggling teachers the support they need to succeed, and deals fairly, efficiently, and compassionately (that’s gotta make union leaders feel better) with teachers who are simply not up to the job. With your input and leadership, we can restore the status of the teaching profession so more (or some) of America’s top college students choose to teach because no other job is more important or more fulfilling (so I’m told).

In the next decade, half of America’s teachers are likely to retire (some earlier than they had planned in part because of my department’s policies). What we do to recruit, train, and retain our new teachers will shape public education in this country for a generation. At the same time, how we recognize, honor, and show respect for our experienced educators will reaffirm teaching as a profession of nation builders and social leaders (crescendo time) dedicated to our highest ideals. As that work proceeds, I want you to know that I hear you, I value you, and I respect you (even if my actions suggest otherwise).

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