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.

Iron Chef Education

I guess we have our official new education buzz phrase to replace “no child left behind”.

Race to the Top

Does anyone else think that sounds like the title of a game show?

Reading news reports from last week’s reveal of Obama’s new education reform proposal reminded me of one of those television cooking contests.

As near as I can tell, the federal government is going to divvy up a huge pot of money among contestants states who take the same secret ingredients and mix them together into an educational stew, one that will like be only slightly different from one plate to the next.

But the pieces of this new educational recipe really aren’t all that new.

On Friday, Obama will officially announce the “Race to the Top,” a competition for $4.35 billion in grants. He wants states to use funds to ease limits on charter schools, tie teacher pay to student achievement and move for the first time toward common academic standards.

Of course the primary method currently used to assess student learning will continue to be the corporate produced and scored multiple choice test, a vehicle which is cheap and easy but offers little or no real information.

Only now we’re going to have a national version of these “assessments”, with student scores linked to the pay of their teachers.

The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan calls this plan Education reform’s moon shot.

It sounds more like a low-rent cooking show in which the cooks use third-rate ingredients to make the same minimally-acceptable meal.

Education is All About The Feng Shui

So, what’s the biggest problem with No Child Left Behind?

Exactly, it’s all about the name and a bad image.

The Obama administration has made clear that it is putting its own stamp on education reform. That will mean a new name and image for a law that has grown unpopular with many teachers and suburban parents, even though it was enacted with bipartisan support in Congress.

“It’s like the new Coke. This is a rebranding effort,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “The feng shui people believe you need to take the roof off buildings to allow bad chi to escape. Let’s hope this helps.”

Bad feng shui? Really?

Ok, if there was a really crappy product on the shelves of your local store, and you knew it was really crappy, and the manufacturer gave it a new name and put it in different packaging, would that make the contents any less crappy?

NCLB is built on incredibly flawed concepts and the implementation was a mess from day one.

It needs to be torn down and trashed (just like the cheesy school house representing it at the DOE) instead of slapping on a new label.

More of the Same is Not Reform

This week Time Magazine has an interview with Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, calling him an Apostle of Reform.

Nice title. However, you won’t find much “reform” for American schools in what he has to say.

Duncan wants kids to spend more time in class, which makes very little sense without talking about what they will be doing with those extra minutes.

More of the same is not reform.

He likes charter schools and wants to give parents more choice.

Which is fine until you realize that most charters use the identical instructional model, curriculum, and materials as public schools.

More of the same is not reform.

And choice is wonderful as long as the people doing the choosing have a good understanding of their options.

If you plan to ask parents to select a school for their child, they first need understand the different educational philosophies being used by the charters.

As opposed picking the one with the slickest marking campaign.

Then we get to No Child Left Behind.

Duncan thinks the problem with this train-wreck of a law is that we need national goals instead of letting each state set their own.

That goal would be to have “common college-ready international benchmark standards”.

Roughly translated that means one standardized test that continues to focus American education on sending every child to college.

Whether or not that form of post-K12 training is the best fit with the interests and skills of the student.

In other words, more of the same.

Throwing Money

The morning Post tells me that our new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, gets $5 billion from the newly approved economic stimulus bill to support “educational innovation”.

What the article doesn’t do is offer a clear idea of what anyone in charge means by “innovation”.

However, I have a couple of ideas for where to start.

Kill off No Child Left Behind and go looking for classrooms that don’t look like they did fifty years ago, including those not in the US.

And don’t send a dime to KIPP or anyone pushing AP classes as their one and only solution.

Move Along… Nothing New Here

Arne Duncan, nominee to be Secretary of Education, had his confirmation hearing before a Senate committee yesterday.

So, what did the future leader of American education have to say?

He laid out a thoroughly pragmatic agenda, vowing “to scale up what works” to raise student achievement. He said the Obama administration intended to expand early childhood programs, encourage charter schools, improve teacher training and recruitment, reduce the high school dropout rate and increase college access. He called education a moral obligation, an economic imperative and “the civil rights issue of our generation.”

He also stated.

“We must do dramatically better. We must continue to innovate,” Duncan said. “We must build upon what works. We must stop doing what doesn’t work. And we have to continue to challenge the status quo.”

Sorry, but the agenda he outlined for the panel contains very little innovation and sounds exactly like the status quo.

We are at a point in American education where “pragmatic” is just not good enough.

Advice For The New Secretary

For the Monday morning education page of the Post, editors asked some experts for advice they would offer to the new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, whose confirmation hearing is tomorrow.

My favorites come from “The Author”, Alfie Kohn:

Theory, research, and practice all suggest that carrots (merit pay for teachers, cash rewards for students) and sticks (public shaming, threatening to close down schools that need help) are as ineffective as they are insulting. But a wrong-headed strategy becomes far worse if the criterion for success or failure consists of the scores on fill-in-the-bubble exams. Thus, lesson #1 for the new secretary: Standardized tests measure what matters least. Mediocre schools can often manage to jack up these scores, in part by eviscerating meaningful learning opportunities for students. Terrific schools, meanwhile, may have unimpressive test results because they’re busy helping students to think not memorize isolated facts or waste time practicing test-taking skills.

“The Critic”, Gerald Bracey:

Education doesn’t need reformers. It needs renewers. There’s nothing renewing about charter schools, merit pay or, especially, No Child Left Behind. When’s the last time anyone spoke about “love of learning” rather than raising test scores?

I’d like to see President Obama set in motion a means of establishing forums at the local level, certainly no larger than at the state level to debate what educative experiences children should have to help them become engaged in and responsible for their own learning and become citizens in a democracy (which we nearly lost in the last 8 years). Right now, we’re just teaching them to be passive which is what some believe corporate America wants but it won’t say so.

And “The Professor”, Diane Ravitch, professor of education at New York University.

You have a chance to make a historic difference by abolishing the No Child Left Behind legislation. Signed into law in 2002, this law has turned our schools into testing factories, narrowed the curriculum to the detriment of everything other than reading and math, and prompted states to claim phony test score gains.

The law’s remedies don’t work. The law’s sanctions don’t work. The goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 is ludicrous; no nation or state has ever reached it.

I can only hope our new national education leaders will listen to them.

Side note: In the dead tree edition of the paper, all of the short pieces of advice were in one article, occupying one newspaper column. For the online version, they posted each segment on a separate page, not even linked in a thread. I suppose that produces more ad impressions, but it doesn’t establish any continuity for the theme and is very, very annoying.

Change That Looks Pretty Much The Same

We now know the next Secretary of Education is going to be Arne Duncan, currently the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

But what does that mean for American education and more specifically for any real reform of the system?

If you listen to Gary Stager (and I generally do), the choice pretty much means no changes from what we’re doing now.

Duncan is a fan of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and never met a standardized test he didn’t love. His education policies and practices are indistinguishable from those of the Bush Administration. In fact, the current unqualified Secretary of Education Spellings virtually endorsed Duncan while she posed for for a photo-op with him four days ago. Today she praised Duncan’s nomination while spinning her own tall tale and invoking romantic visions of student accountability.

According to everything I’ve read about Duncan, his “reform” efforts seem to be centered around charter schools, NCLB-style standardized testing, and merit pay for teachers.

Unfortunately charter schools, while a wonderful concept with lots of potential, have largely turned out to be selective, underfunded clones of the schools around them.

Most use the same traditional structure, curriculum, and teaching methods as the public schools their students formerly attended.

Uniforms, boot camp regimentation, and adding hours to the day or days to the year is not innovative and fundamentally changes nothing.

The American concept of school needs a complete overhaul, not thousands of little experiments that do little more than tinker with the current format developed a century ago.

As for merit pay, any system that targets individuals does little more than reinforce the illusion that teachers are independent contractors, each classroom is an island unto itself, and that nothing outside the door affects the kids.

If you are going to pay bonuses for improving student learning, it must go to teams of teachers, entire schools, or even to communities of people from inside and outside the physical building.

And then there’s NCLB. Forget it!

The law is based on the incredibly stupid philosophy that all kids learn at the same rate, that all schools/students/teachers are exactly alike, and that anything worth learning can be assessed using a standardized test.

NCLB needs to scrapped and instead the next Secretary of Education needs to begin the change process with a serious discussion about the concept of what it means to be “well educated” and about the skills and knowledge kids need to develop to be successful in their lives, not just on the next test.

However, if everything I’ve read about our “pragmatic” (the adjective most used to describe Duncan) new leader of American education policy is true, we will continue to tinker about the edges and call it “reform”.