Duncan Appreciates Teachers (Who Keep Their Mouths Shut)

This being Teacher Appreciation Week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan felt obligated to say something nice about teachers and did so in a commentary piece for Education Week, a publication few teachers read (or even know exists).

More than a few educators responded online to his disingenuous mash of cliches and excuses with open letters of their own.

But the really low point of the week has to be when Duncan didn’t even bother to show up for the ceremony honoring the 2011 Teachers of the Year.

Probably because the educators attending, selected as the best in their states, had nothing good to say about the education reform agenda being championed by Duncan.

I love the part where one of the undersecretaries suggested the Department should rescind the award from one of the teachers who spoke. She was joking. Maybe.

Anyway, the bottom line here is that our Secretary of Education appreciates teachers in the abstract, but really doesn’t want to hear what even the best of them have to say on the subject.

Round Up The Usual Suspects

The foundation headed by former Republican governor of Florida Jeb Bush hosted an education conference this week in DC.

The keynote speaker was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who received a standing ovation).

Both agreed on many key issues of what they call “reform”, including the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and that lots of charter schools will fix everything.

Even worse, the sponsors of the event included a long list of the usual suspects when it comes to advocating for educational malpractice:

  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • The Walton Family Foundation
  • SMART
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Apex Learning
  • Charter Schools USA

And other large corporation and foundations with lots of money to back up their simplistic, standardized, profit-driven solutions.

These are the people building a national learning program for the future using a Frankenstein patchwork of failed ideas from the past half-century.

Making the Factory Run Cheaper

Someone needs to check into Arne Duncan.  Reading this snippet from a speech he gave recently, might lead you to think his body had been possessed by someone advocating for genuine education reform.

The factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century. Today, our schools must prepare all students for college and careers–and do far more to personalize instruction and employ the smart use of technology. Teachers cannot be interchangeable widgets.

Of course, the official federal philosophy of learning, the one normally promoted by the Secretary, is exactly that factory model, complete with a narrow, regimented process, and lots of standardized “quality” control.

But don’t worry. Duncan hasn’t really had a change of heart.

Zooming out to see the context of his remarks reveals that his primary message in this lecture was not about improving education but in finding ways to make the factory cheaper to run.

Yet the legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school finance systems.

Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, the use of technology in the classroom, inequitable school financing, the over placement of students in special education–almost all of these potentially transformative productivity gains are primarily state and local issues that have to be grappled with.

However, Duncan’s remark that really intrigued me was this one.

Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters’ degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers–with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science.

Is he saying that a person, other than us special people with math or science degrees, needs no additional learning beyond that which was included in their undergraduate program to be a good teacher?

Or maybe he wants to drastically improve and target staff development programs so that it’s a continual, expected part of a teachers job to advance their own learning.

More likely it’s neither. Duncan just wants a less expensive factory.

Not Much Merit In These Pay Plans

In his Class Struggle column this week, Jay Mathews spotlights a study which concludes that districts don’t necessarily need to pay more in order to find and keep good teachers.

They just need to do a better job of selling the idea that teacher pay isn’t all that bad. Especially if you can get two teachers to marry. Or something like that.

A marketing campaign to show students that teachers made more than they thought they made “would induce a 7 percent increase in the number of top-third students entering teaching each year (or an equivalent nationally of 4,000 additional top third students above an estimated baseline of roughly 55,000 who enter today,)” the report [from McKinsey and Co., the giant management consulting firm] said.

Paid training increased the number going into teaching by 11 percent. A 20 percent performance bonus to the top-performing 10 percent of teachers would produce the same 11 percent gain in top-third students.

But providing training costs money, something that is usually the first thing to go when politicians start cutting school budgets.

And that idea of performance bonuses? It lost some credibility this week after the release of findings from the “first scientifically rigorous review of merit pay in the United States” showing that paying big money incentives “produced no discernible difference in academic performance”.

Which, of course, did nothing to slow the Secretary of Education from pushing the concept as a major part of the Race to the Top competition and, also this week, sending $442 million to a bunch of RTTT lottery-winning school districts so they can set up merit pay plans.

So, whatever happened to the idea of only paying for “researched-based” concepts that have been demonstrated to be effective in improving student learning?

You know, the concept that was one of the cornerstones of No Child Left Behind.

And which has been consistently ignored by politicians and education “experts” since long before the law’s inception, going back to W Bush’s “Texas miracle”, which also turned out to be based on gut feelings and no proof.

Renaissance As Our 21st Century Miracle

You should probably be careful anytime you include a date in the name of a big reform project.

That date will eventually arrive and it’s likely people will check to see if your reforms actually happened.

Case in point is Renaissance 2010, the high profile attempt to overhaul the Chicago city school system, created by none other than our current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

So, 2010 is here, how did they do?

Six years after Mayor Richard Daley launched a bold initiative to close down and remake failing schools, Renaissance 2010 has done little to improve the educational performance of the city’s school system, according to a Tribune analysis of 2009 state test data.

Scores from the elementary schools created under Renaissance 2010 are nearly identical to the city average, and scores at the remade high schools are below the already abysmal city average, the analysis found.

The moribund test scores follow other less than enthusiastic findings about Renaissance 2010 — that displaced students ended up mostly in other low-performing schools and that mass closings led to youth violence as rival gang members ended up in the same classrooms. Together, they suggest the initiative hasn’t lived up to its promise by this, its target year.

Oh, but it gets better.

Following in the footsteps of Bush’s Texas “miracle” that became No Child Left Behind, Duncan is now incorporating all his wonderfully successful ideas from Ren10 into Race to the Top, the latest meaningless, not to mention expensive, educational-buzz-term-based national school reform program.

Duncan is using an unprecedented $4.35 billion pot of money to lure states into building education systems that replicate key Ren10 strategies. The grant money will go to states that allow charter schools to flourish and to those that experiment with turning around failing schools — all part of the Chicago reform.

Just as the previous administration assigned magical powers to high-stakes standardized testing, the current group is putting it’s faith in charter schools as an all-purpose educational cure-all.

Actually, the charter concept is not a bad one: allow educators to adapt schools to fit the needs of students instead of the other way around.

The execution, on the other hand, in most places has been mediocre at best (criminally dismal in too many cases) largely mirroring that of the Chicago “renaissance”: throwing lots of cash at charters to achieve mixed results.

Of course, there is a middle ground between the all-stick-and-no-carrot philosophy of NCLB and the quiz-show-competition, scattershot approach that is at the core of RTTT.

But finding it is going to require far more complex thinking than most of our national education “leaders” seem to be willing to consider.