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Secretary Duncan Owes an Apology to Teachers

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked teachers in New Haven, "how do we as a teaching profession create a climate in which everyone is clamoring to come into schools" being turned around under his School Improvement Grant (SIG) experiment. I hope that the word "we" means that his administration and teachers should be partners, and that he will stop aiding "reformers" in their war on teachers. If so, Duncan should start with an apology to teachers in general, and inner city teachers in particular.

Duncan seemed perplexed that only one teacher left a top-performing school to join a turnaround of low-performing school. This should be especially unsettling to Duncan because New Haven has worked with the American Federation of Teachers to create a balanced evaluation system. In many or most districts that have responded to Duncan's campaign to use test scores for firing teachers, leaving a low-poverty school for a turnaround school, where it will be harder to meet test score growth targets, could be career suicide.

And that gets to the first reason why Duncan needs to apologize. While he empowered enlightened districts like New Haven, Duncan has also empowered teacher-bashing in Washington D.C., with its abusive top-down IMPACT system for firing teachers. Duncan praised collaborative systems such as Hillsborough and Pittsburgh, while funding efforts in states like Florida and Tennessee to turn schools into test prep factories. Pressure from Duncan's DOE is cited as the reason why Buffalo must be willing to fire teachers based on the test scores of chronically absent students, but New York City and D.C. faced no sanctions when they used policies inspired by Duncan's SIG and RttT to drive out good teachers based on flawed test score models.

So, Duncan should start by saying he is sorry for imposing collective punishment on teachers in schools destined for turnaround. His demand that 50% of teachers be replaced in those schools, along with his incentives for using a statistical model for firing teachers, means that effective educators have lost their careers simply because they taught in ineffective schools. His mass dismissals perpetuate the "reformers'" myth that teachers' "low expectations" are the cause of dysfunctional schools. Under Duncan's rules, districts did not have to impose litmus tests on teachers or to systematically drive veteran educators out of the profession. But he funded districts that, predictably, used federal rules to get rid of Baby Boomers' higher salaries and benefits, and to keep veteran teachers from expressing their professional judgments.

For instance, two of the three teachers who spoke their minds to Duncan explained that teaching in the inner city is different, meaning that they need more training and supports. A New Haven teacher told Duncan that "teachers who are not familiar with urban education are 'not ready' for an environment like New Haven." Those sorts of judgments are heresy to many school and district leaders, however. Under SIG, expressing such opinions can be grounds for dismissal for being a "culture killer." Under SIG, administrators are empowered to impose their own culture on schools by getting rid of teachers who believe what The Turnaround Challenge concluded -- that instruction-driven reforms, even those fueled by "high expectations," are inherently incapable of turning around the toughest schools and that schooling must be a team effort.

Duncan should also apologize for his heavy-handed micromanaging of local policy. He created incentives for spending much (or most?) SIG and RttT money on computer systems, tests, and consultants. He has said nice things about full-service community schools and even provided a few meager grants that would fund the socio-emotional interventions and the early education that are required to overcome intense concentrations of poverty. At a time when those researched-based best practices are being cut, however, Duncan is lavishing funds on performance pay and the test-driven infrastructure that it requires. He again revealed where his heart is when a New Haven teacher said, "No one becomes a teacher to get rich." Duncan replied, "we're working on that."

Duncan asked, "where is the badge of honor" that would attract teachers to the toughest schools? The greatest reward for a teacher is the opportunity to teach effectively. We would feel honored, however, if our professional wisdom would be heeded before billions of dollars are spent (wasted?) on market-driven policies that were adopted simply because the "billionaires boys club" liked those types of policies. Had he respected the conclusions of inner city teachers and researchers at the Johns Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center, Duncan could have invested in the human capital necessary to provide mentors and other support staff necessary to make teaching a team sport. He could have invested in a farm club for nurturing talent for the toughest schools.

Maybe Duncan will listen to the one New Haven teacher, Tamara Raiford, who left a top school for an SIG school, and the head of the Connecticut AFT regarding alternative turnaround strategies. Raiford had been a paraprofessional but she was lured into teaching by a program to train paraprofessionals for the classroom. The union president "called for bringing back a statewide program called TOPS, or Teaching Opportunities for Paraprofessional Staff, to create a pipeline for more teachers like Raiford."

And that gets to the final apology that Duncan owes to inner city students. I have yet to hear a plausible scenario where Duncan's policies do not produce more mindless test prep and an exodus of teaching talent from the toughest schools. Teaching in the inner city is tough enough without being evaluated based on an experimental model that is unfair to schools where it is harder to raise test scores. Surely Duncan doesn't believe that monetary incentives, even if they were sustainable, could attract and retain the best teachers.

If teaching were just a pathway to wealth and respect, no apology could compensate for the insults and the damage that Arne Duncan has helped inflict on teachers. Teaching, however, is an act of love. Give us an apology and allow teachers to help formulate policies, and all would be forgiven. Duncan, by his rhetoric, seems to indicate that he is realizing that he has placed a number of bad bets while siding with the venture capital school of reform, and now he is saying almost all of the right things. If he is sincere, teachers will be open towards reality-based policies in a second term. If Duncan is sincere, he must know that teachers deserve an apology.