Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks

Arne Duncan continues to blow me away with his thoughtfulness, conciliatory tone, and balanced approach – I call it the iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove approach.  At the end of this email is the transcript of a long speech he gave a few days ago.


He knows the unions are filling teachers' ears with nonstop lies and distortions about the reforms he and the Obama administration are undertaking, so he bends over backwards to praise teachers and defuse the everyone-is-blaming-teachers nonsense:

I have come to Little Rock to begin our back to school bus tour at historic Central High School where -- 53 years ago -- the nation's attention was riveted by the courageous efforts of nine African-American students and their families in search of a better education.

Every day I think about the people in our history who had that quality of courage -- people like Dr. Martin Luther King and all of the heroes of the civil rights movement who forced a complacent nation to face the shameful realities of discrimination and do something about it.

Today, I see the same kind of courage in schools and classrooms all across America -- teachers, and principals who get up every day and face the extraordinary challenge of preparing our children for life in a democratic society and a global economy.

They -- as much as anyone -- are fulfilling the promise of equality embedded in our founding documents and codified in our laws over the past 234 years -- and that is why I often say that education is the civil rights issue of our generation.

They have chosen to be educators because -- like Bill Clinton and Dr. King -- they want to make a difference. They want to see our children succeed. They want to see America grow stronger.

These educators are willing to work in our toughest schools, with our most-challenged students -- devoting themselves completely and selflessly. They are heroes in every sense of the word and we launched this bus tour to honor America's teachers and to celebrate courage in our classrooms.

Over the next week, in large and small communities across America we will be meeting with teachers, hearing their voices, highlighting their success, acknowledging the hard work ahead and -- most of all -- thanking them for their commitment.

Joining me on the tour will be several public school teachers who are spending a year at the Department of Education helping shape policy and serving as resources to their colleagues in the classroom.

As my staff travels the country, they will also carry this same message of gratitude and appreciation for the hard work and commitment of our teachers -- and an open ear to hear them as they share their aspirations and their frustrations.

Our hope is that -- in the coming weeks -- every community in America and every parent in America takes time to thank their teachers and offer a helping hand -- because the responsibility for educating our children doesn't fall to teachers alone. It is everyone's responsibility.

He then talks about what he wants to see when ESEA/NCLB is renewed:

Virtually every administration has put its stamp on that law -- including Bill Clinton's and George W. Bush's. Now it's President Obama's turn. Our work has been underway for more than a year and while it may not make it to the finish line in the current session of Congress we expect it to be among the top priorities in the next one.

In any case, our approach to reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is fairly straightforward and is defined by three words: fair, flexible and focused.

We want more fairness in how states, districts and schools are held accountable. We want more flexibility in how schools and districts can improve. And we want more focus on the schools and students most at risk. Essentially, we want a smarter, humbler and more effective law.

Instead of holding only schools accountable we want to hold districts and states more accountable. No school is an island operating in isolation.

Instead of prescribing specific and often impractical interventions for the vast majority of schools -- we want to offer a clear definition of success and let most schools figure out how to get there. We must better support creativity and innovation at the local level which is where the best ideas will always come from.

And for the very lowest-performing schools -- we want to provide much more resources in exchange for dramatic and comprehensive reforms that have demonstrated success in districts across the country.

We will maintain key formula programs for low-income students, English learners, special education students and other special populations like homeless, migrant and rural students.

But we also want to embed into the law competitive grant programs like Race to the Top that are proving so effective in driving reform at the state and local level.


He also talks about what the highest-performing countries like Finland and Singapore are doing, especially around teacher quality and evaluation:

The Asia Society recently held an international symposium on teacher quality and they found that high-performing countries put much more energy into recruiting, preparing, and supporting good teachers -- rather than on the back end of reducing attrition or firing weak teachers.

Our competitors in other parts of the world recognize that the roles of teachers are changing. Today, they are expected to prepare knowledge workers, not factory workers, and to help every child succeed -- not just the "easy to teach." They have to harness new technologies and teach higher order thinking.

According to the report from the symposium, Singapore selects prospective teachers from the top third of the class and in Finland only one in ten applicants is accepted into teacher preparation programs. They only pick the very best.

England undertook a series of steps to raise the status of the teaching profession including a sophisticated advertising campaign, a televised awards program to raise the profile of teaching, and encouragement for alternate routes into teaching.

They also provide bonuses to attract teachers to commit to teaching in high-need communities. In five years, teaching went from being one of the least-desired professions in England to being one of the most-desired.

The other big findings are that the best teacher preparation programs place more emphasis on guided practice in classroom settings, more focus on problem solving and creativity, and more attention on the use of data and assessment to guide instruction.

When it comes to compensation and evaluation, there is greater variation. We know that entry- level salaries for teachers need to be competitive with other jobs in order to attract high-quality graduates, but beyond that, working conditions are more important than salary.

Finland and Canada do not pay teachers based on their performance, but China and Singapore do. And many countries use financial incentives to teach in hard-to-staff schools.

Most important, teachers in Singapore are appraised annually by several people and across multiple measures, including classroom delivery, collaboration with parents and community groups, and contribution to their colleagues and the school as a whole.

The issue of teacher evaluation is especially important today for a number of reasons. First of all, everyone agrees that our evaluation system is broken.

In many districts, 99 percent of teachers are rated satisfactory and most evaluations ignore the most important measure of a teacher's success – which is how much their students have learned. Many teachers get little or no meaningful feedback or have access to the data that can show them if they are making a difference -- and that's a tragedy. Teachers want -- and need -- this information.


Finally, he comments on the LA Times article:

This is a complicated and emotional issue for teachers, and it just got more emotional in the past 10 days with a series of articles on teacher quality published by the Los Angeles Times.

Essentially, the Times took seven years of student test data and developed what is called a "value-added" analysis to show which third- through fifth-grade teachers are making the biggest gains. The results are about to be posted on the newspaper's website in a searchable data base by teacher name -- taking transparency to a whole new level.

Needless to say, concerns are running very high in Los Angeles-- not only among teachers themselves but also among a wide spectrum of administrators, academics and reformers who question the validity of the scores and the value of the entire exercise.

Still others worry about parents with a limited understanding of what this information really means jockeying to place their children with the highest-ranking teachers.

I am a strong advocate for transparency. This is one thing that NCLB got right. By requiring districts to publish test scores for subgroups like minorities and special needs students -- it changed the national conversation and forced us to focus more closely on achievement gaps.

If it was up to me and the law allowed it, I would put out student attendance data and hold parents accountable. And while we're at it, let's put out funding and facilities data and hold school boards and politicians accountable.

Let's put out data on dropouts, college enrollment, college completion, loan default rates, and every other kind of data that can help us highlight our remarkable success and help us better understand why too many of our children are unprepared.

Let's do what the State of Louisiana is doing -- tracking student scores to teachers and teachers back to their colleges of education so we know who is doing a good job of preparing educators -- because the vast majority of teacher colleges in this country are doing a mediocre job at best.

The truth is always hard to swallow but it can only make us better, stronger and smarter. That's what accountability is all about -- facing the truth and taking responsibility and then taking action.

The fact is we publish a school's scores next to the name of a principal and a district's scores next to the name of a superintendent. As CEO of the Chicago Public Schools I absolutely felt personally accountable for the achievement of all my students. All of us in education have this responsibility though it can be difficult at times.

There are real issues and competing priorities and values that we must work through together -- balancing transparency, privacy, fairness and respect for teachers. This work is not easy but it is critically important.

I appreciate how painful this may be for these L.A. teachers, and I also appreciate the fact that even the best data systems won't tell the whole story. That's why it's so important to get teacher evaluation right to ensure they look at both student learning and other factors to paint a fuller picture.


Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock, Arkansas

August 25, 2010


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