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Secretary Duncan’s Town Meeting with RA Delegates

Thousands of NEA delegates left San Diego heading home earlier this week after what had to have been  a stimulating and provocative experience. Secretary Duncan’s Town Meeting with the delegates I would imagine was a highlight. I read his speech and listened to much of the dialogue. He certainly is good at what he does. He confronted tough issues head on in a forum that represents a broad range of viewpoints on hot button issues such as pay for performance, teacher tenure, standardized testing and charter schools. If you were in the room I’d be curious to hear your reaction.

After the last two occupants of his position in the previous administration (one of whom referred to the NEA as a “terrorist organization”) we have good reason to be cautious, even reticent, that this new secretary can unravel all the harm wrought by the current law. Duncan’s focus in the short term is on the 5000 worst of America’s schools, 2000 of which, it has been noted, produce 50% of all of America’s dropouts. It is hard for anyone to argue that this is not an appropriate area of concern. And if nothing else, NCLB has sharpened the focus on sorting out the lowest performing schools. As my mother, and I’m sure yours as well, so frequently admonished us, it’s not so much what you say as what you do.

Over the last eight years it seemed that the Bush administration felt that we knew what to do to close the so-called achievement gap, but that we were somehow holding back our best efforts to actually do it. The fact is that with a few exceptions here and there we haven’t yet figured out what to do on a large enough scale to reverse the inexorable impact that poverty and social class has on our ability raise achievement to the extent necessary in America’s lowest performing schools. The Bush administration and a “broad bipartisan consensus” in Congress 7 years ago held a metaphoric gun to our heads and simply said “Just do it!”

So far at least Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education are singing a different tune that resonates far better with America’s teachers and their unions. Once again we are being told that our voice is important and that we need to work together to confront seemingly insoluble problems. Consider these remarks by the secretary about how we should approach these 5000 schools:

We need to go into a room—states, districts, unions, administrators, foundations, think tanks, charters, non-profits, parents, and elected officials—lock the door—throw out the rule books—and start with a clean slate.

We need to be open and honest about the challenges and the barriers. If we agree that children need more time—then we must give it to them. If we agree that teachers need more support, then we must give it to them.

But if we agree that the adults in these schools are failing these children then we have to find the right people and we can’t let our rules and regulations get in the way. Children have only one chance to get an education.

This is a very different challenge than the blunt club – do it or else. It is a high stakes approach to solving a problem that relies upon first accepting common ownership of the problem and then must be premised on mutual respect and trust among the stakeholders. This approach, incidently, is similar to that used by CEA which led to the CommPACT Schools Initiative. It seems to me that Arne Duncan is working diligently on the trust issue with both NEA and AFT and their members. I am not quite there yet with the trust, but the direction seems right.

The delegates were very clear in pointing out the most absurd elements of NCLB and I think that the secretary agreed with much of what he heard with the possible exception of pay for performance. What was not so clear, however, is what the administration will be proposing to resolve these defects in the re-authorization. Could it be that they truly have not yet decided? What do you think?

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