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What would you tell the president about education in America?

What if you got a chance to sit down with President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan over lunch. What would you tell them about what’s happening in your classrooms and what they should be doing about education policy in the U.S?

Would you tell them about the overuse of standardized testing? The difficulties of teaching? How to improve the profession? Poverty? Students coming to school hungry?

Four teachers recently got the opportunity to share their concerns. Read about their experience and what they told the president in the Education Week article – “President Obama asks teachers for help with education policy. What did they tell him?”

New Year Brings Only Uncertainty For ESEA

As the new Congress settles in after the so-called wave election sent a strong message to Washington, it remains to be seen just what the message was. For public education it seems even more complex and paradoxical. The last of the stimulus monies are being spent and the much talked about day of reckoning – the inevitable cliff – is here. If there is a single area of education reform that has been least discussed, it has got to be school finance. So now we are slowly clawing our way out of the deepest recession of our lifetimes and things are uncertain in our hometowns.

Could things possibly get worse?

The Obama administration has managed through the powerful influence of a handful of policymakers and philanthropists to extort states to make changes as a price of admission to the controversial Race to the Top competition. These included signing on to the Common Standards effort, facilitating the unfettered growth of charter schools,  and allowing for the possibility of including student test standardized test results in evaluating teacher performance. In the end, even through two rounds of competition few states received funding for their efforts.

Two years into his first term, having faced down the daunting economic situation and faced with new balance of power in the Congress, ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has yet to be reauthorized. Pundits are all over the ball bark in speculating as to the prospects for reauthorization. I tend to side with the skeptics. Secretary Duncan in a recent OpEd piece (Washington Post Jan 3) expressed optimism and apparently the administration sees ESEA as a fertile prospect for bipartisan cooperation.

Secretary Duncan cites the dissatisfaction  with the “one size fits all” nature of NCLB and the “teaching to the test phenomenon” and makes note of the effort to construct a new and improved testing regimen to which 44 states have given an initial nod of approval. He acknowledges that the teacher quality approach taken by NCLB is deeply flawed and applauds efforts to institute new and more sophisticated methods of teacher evaluation based on multiple measures of effectiveness. The fundamental question remains as to what the appropriate role should be for the federal government in public education. Has the escalating intrusion of the federal government over the last two decades netted any significant transformative effect educational achievement? Will the new Republican majority in the House bolstered by an ambitious core of less-government, less-spending Tea Party realize that they are the party of local control? And finally, after the success of the Obama administration in the lame duck session, will there be a willingness to hand over yet another victory to the president in education.

There will be much to talk about in the weeks and months ahead.

Signs of A Truce in the War on Teachers?

Last week NEA, AFT, and Secretary Duncan announced plans for a joint labor-management summit early next year to talk about collaboration in pursuit of education reform.  Certainly not a tipping point, but a welcome relief from the seemingly endless focus on ineffective teachers, “jobs for life”, and the infamous “Rubber Room” in New York City.

Perhaps the expressions of outrage from teachers and others are having an impact on the administration. I am not so sure. In any event, collaborative or interest-based bargaining is not a new concept. Anyone who has been involved in it knows that the most important ingredient is trust.  And secondly, if one party or the other comes to the table with a pre-conceived agenda, the likelihood of success is severely diminished.

It will take more than a summit to earn the trust of America’s teachers after Mr. Duncan’s unchecked enthusiasm for the firing of the entire staff of Central High School in Rhode Island and the unprecedented release of a Value Added Assessment analysis ranking and naming thousands of teachers in Los Angeles.  The LA Times used teachers as a lever to push the school administration to change its teacher evaluation system and fire more teachers.

Since Arne Duncan’s appointment, the ascendant views controlling the education reform narrative have been those of a handful of billionaires and an equally small number of high-profile urban superintendents. Add to this a more than receptive media, ever willing to make a clarion call for sweeping America’s schools clean of ineffective teachers, and you have a recipe for increased alienation among America’s hard-working teachers.

It is time for teachers to rise up from the stultifying impact of an ill-conceived law and reassert their right to be at the table. The Obama administration, whether intentionally or not, has contributed to the increasingly popular notion that all of America’s current ills can be remedied within the schoolhouse walls. The recent “manifesto”, issued by Michelle Rhee and Chancellor Klein along with a number of urban superintendents in the Washington Post,  is yet the latest manifestation of the “ineffective teachers are the problem” mantra.

Consider this statement from the Manifesto:  “As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.” [emphasis added]

Their proposal begins with a deeply flawed premise.

Richard Rothstein, who holds a very different view, responded to this assertion:

It has become conventional in educational policy discussion to assert that “research shows” that “teachers are the most important influence on student achievement.” There is, in fact, no serious research that shows any such thing. The assertion results from a careless glide from “teachers being the most important in-school influence,” to teachers being the most important influence overall. But because school effects on average levels of achievement are smaller than the effects of families and communities, even if teachers were the largest school effect, they would not be a very big portion of the overall effect. A child with an average teacher who comes from a literate, economically secure, and stable family environment will, on average, have better achievement than a child with a superior teacher but with none of these contextual advantages. Of course, some children from impoverished backgrounds will outperform typical children from literate and secure backgrounds, but on average, the extent to which children come to school prepared to take advantage of what school has to offer is a more important predictor than what even the best school can do.

Nicholas Lemann wrote recently in the New Yorker:

It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children’s Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools.

He concludes that:

We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that.

So I don’t see peace breaking out all over – far from it – but there are glimmers of hope.

EduJobs Effort Stalls in Congress

Memorial Day weekend invariably signals the denouement of the school year. In good years the feeling is good for both students and teachers. This year has been, by most accounts, anything but good and the prospects for short-term improvement recently became dimmer.

Congress adjourned for its Memorial Day recess without considering measures which would provide relief to local school districts around the nation faced with the very real prospect of massive layoffs. We are talking about approximately $23 billion and the ECS (Education Commission of the States) released estimates on May 28 that indicate Connecticut would receive nearly $251 million. Ninety-eight percent of the money would be distributed directly to local districts through a state’s school finance formula and ECS estimates that this translates into approximately 3000 teaching positions for Connecticut.

Depending on who you listen to, opinions range from “It’s dead in the water” to “They just could not complete it in time and will take it up soon after returning.”

Early last week, the Senate plan was to attach the measure to a military spending bill, but Senator Harkin announced that he simply did not have the necessary 60 votes required and pulled the bill. According to Michelle McNeill at EdWeek, Harkin is committed to finding a vehicle to accomplish it and cited the House effort. On Thursday, however, David Obey, (D-WI) chair of the House Appropriations Committee, decided not to convene his panel after having participated in a press conference on Wednesday with Arne Duncan and George Miller, (D-CA) chairman, House Education and Labor Committee, urging passage of the emergency measure.  Last Friday, after it was apparent that the proposal was in trouble and some Democrats were questioning the President’s commitment to the issue, the Washington Post published an op-ed piece by Christina Romer, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, “How to Prevent Huge Teacher Layoffs.”

There has been a lot of pressure exerted from a variety of reform groups to use the money to leverage states to eliminate seniority as the primary consideration in teacher layoffs — the so-called “last hired – first fired” provisions. The debate is not new, nor is its occurrence any less predictable. What may be new is how empowered certain insiders are feeling inside the beltway after seeing how successful Secretary Duncan has been using the same template with Race to the Top monies. For a flavor of the current debate on seniority check out these links:

– The National Journal Expert Blogs: Education  The Education Jobs Bill And Reform

– Joint Letter on Keeping Our Educators Working Act of 2010

The next few weeks are critical and it is well worth the effort to remind members of the Senate and House how important this money will be for Connecticut and the nation.

School Finance in the Obama Era

Having spent four decades in education, there is a tendency to feel like I’ve seen it all – and trust me, I have seen a lot.  In spite of that, I agree with John Yrchik, who was recently quoted in the Hartford Courant as saying he has never seen it this bad. We have a tendency to be apocalyptic in times of crisis – particularly when it comes to school funding – and the public frequently accuses us of crying wolf, but the current crisis that local districts in Connecticut are trying to deal with is very real.

The way we fund public education in the United States remains deeply flawed, even as we inch our way toward a more federalized and centralized system. We were reminded of the structural problem when Connecticut’s highest court resuscitated the most recent school finance lawsuit launched by CCJEF (the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding).  When the case finally does get to trial the fiscal situation that the Superior Court looks at will have considerably worsened since the adequacy study was completed and the case was filed. The impending layoffs and flood of pink slips not only tragically disrupt the lives of teachers, but dampen the ecology of the school and the system that surrounds it well into the future.

On April 14  Secretary Duncan pleaded for more money to avoid layoffs in an appearance before  the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee:

And so today, on behalf of governors, mayors, educators and students, parents, business leaders, community leaders and everyone who shares the view that education is the key to our economic strength and civic vitality, I urge Congress to consider another round of emergency support for America’s schools.

If we do not help avert this state and local budget crisis, we could impede reform and fail another generation of children. The fact is that gaps for special education, low-income, and minority students remain stubbornly wide.

One in four high school students fails to graduate. Forty percent of students who go to college need remedial education. And huge numbers of young people determined to go to college and pursue a career drop out because of financial or academic challenges.

If we want reform to move forward, we need an education jobs program. Jobs and reform go hand-in-hand.

The so-called "funding cliff"...

Duncan indicated to the committee that “between 100,000 and 300,000 teachers face layoffs”, but fell short of specifically endorsing a solution. Later that week, on April 19, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities released a paper, “Premature End of Federal Assistance to States Threatens Education Reforms and Jobs”.  It indicates that the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund has saved 284,000 jobs, but school districts and other local education employers have nevertheless cut 104,500 jobs. It further indicates that “Without additional federal aid, state budget cuts will cost the economy 900,000 public- and private-sector jobs.”

The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) had also just released the results of a national survey of its members, “Cliff Hanger: How America’s Public Schools Continue to Feel the Impact of the Economic Downturn.” The results report that two-thirds of members surveyed cut positions for this school year and 90 percent expect to do so for the coming year. The survey of 453 administrators also found that 62 percent anticipated raising the average class size, 34 percent were considering the elimination of summer school, and 13 percent were weighing the possibility of a four-day school week.

You may recall that back in December the House passed a jobs bill – Jobs for Main Street Act of 2010 – which contained a second stimulus directed at avoiding layoffs of teachers and other public employees. The Senate version of the jobs bill did not contain these provisions, so Senator Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and of the Senate Appropriations panel, filed a bill recently called, “The Keep Our Educators Working Act”. The bill mirrors the House passed bill and provides $23 billion for the following:

•    Compensation and benefits and other expenses necessary to retain existing employees, and for the hiring of new employees, in order to provide early childhood, elementary, secondary, or postsecondary educational and related services; or

•    On-the-job training activities for education-related careers.

Every educator should contact their Senator to urge swift passage of Senator Harkin’s bill. You can do this easily by clicking here.

The Obama education budget proposal, if implemented as recommended, would only further exacerbate the unmitigated disaster that lies ahead when the stimulus money dries up. I am referring to the proposed radical shift away from formula driven grants – the traditional mechanism for distributing federal education funds – to competitive funding. More on this later.

Crossing the Rubicon: Central Falls High School

I couldn't resist clipping this ironic juxtaposition ... two different approaches to accountability (CBS website).

We were all shocked by the decision made in Central Falls, RI last week to fire the entire staff of its high school. For many of us who are “long in the tooth” there may even be a sense of deja vu if you look at this as an impasse in a highly charged collective bargaining process.

It appears that, as an alternative to the more draconian proposal of closing and reopening the school, a longer school day and tutoring were proposed, and the union rightfully sought compensation. We don’t know all the facts, but it appears that the superintendent disagreed and the school board, in essence, says, “a pox on all their houses – we’ll fire them all.”

I hope that we were also shocked that Secretary Duncan almost immediately rashly  issued the equivalent of a profile in courage award to the Central Falls Board of Trustees. Let’s hope that he recants his comment as at best premature, or even a misstatement, as he did when he recently suggested that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that has happened to public schools in New Orleans.”

In any event, the Central Falls decision puts a face on what we can expect when decisions are made affecting the future of 5000 of America’s lowest performing schools. I was reminded of a meeting of an NCLB advisory committee convened by then Commissioner Ted Sergi, probably in 2002, to talk about how Connecticut would deal with the implementation of the new law. We were looking way down the road to when schools reach the restructuring sanctions. I recall reflecting to the group that day that there would be no greater test of our mettle as an education community than how we implement this provision. It seemed like a long way off, but here we are.

Secretary Duncan has committed to turning around 5000 of the lowest performing schools in the United States over the next five years. The good news is that there is serious money in the School Improvement Grant for perhaps the first time. The bad news is that the same administration that described NCLB as too prescriptive has put the prescription on steroids.

School turnarounds of the kind approved in Central Falls have little in terms of a track record, in fact, there is a body of evidence suggesting that, where tried, they have not worked. There is no question that these schools need a dramatic change of direction accompanied by a dramatic infusion of resources, but let’s hope that the most important lesson that we take from the unfortunate process in Rhode Island is that how we make these difficult decisions is almost as important as what we decide.

Connecticut thus far has taken a different approach to the difficult work of turning around underperforming schools. CEA, for its part, initiated the broad coalition that advanced the CommPACT Schools legislation: a demonstration that true collaboration can advance the ball.

The School Improvement Grant guidelines, adopted by the federal Department of Education, are intended to encourage draconian solutions, in spite of much comment pointing out the lack of a research base in support of these approaches. Charter school operators around the country have indicated a reluctance to get into the business of turning around the most difficult schools because they know how great the challenge is. Secretary Duncan, in his zeal to advance his agenda, damaged his credibility with teachers and their unions. Let’s hope that the shameful process in Rhode Island does not become the template.

We should know better and can certainly do better. Only time will tell.

Sanctions v. Incentives: False Choice for Teachers?

It is great that CEA has asked teachers why they chose to teach.  It is an important question to ask, particularly given the shroud of cynicism surrounding the profession going back to the release of A Nation at Risk, and reaching a high point in the first term of George Bush. Teachers need to share their stories to put a face back on our profession.

These are big questions. Why do people choose to teach? What are the circumstances that cause them to stay in teaching? And particularly pertinent to the current engine of reform – increasing teacher effectiveness – what motivates teachers to improve?

NCLB was, and continues to be, the “stick without the carrot” approach to motivating a workforce. Now we are embarking on what may well prove to be an excessive reliance on the “carrot,” particularly if the pay for performance crowd prevails.

In preparation for this next era of federal intrusion, we ought to be asking the next question: “What keeps you in teaching?” Not that we haven’t asked before: we have. If James Carville were writing this he’d probably say, “It’s the working conditions STUPID.”  And I’m not talking simply about “wages, hours, and conditions of employment.”  Rather, in addition to these, that complex amalgam of conditions  which enhance a teacher’s ability to become increasingly more effective. You know what I am talking about.

The merit pay narrative relies on a powerful mythology about how workers in all other sectors of the economy are paid and what motivates  them to perform.  Recent (and also not so recent) research debunks these myths.

The latest edition of Harvard Business Review offers 10 Breakthrough Ideas for 2010.  The first breakthrough idea is about motivation:  What Really Motivates Workers: Understanding the Power of Progress.  Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer “reveal what their research shows is the true key to employee motivation.” Among the findings from their analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries by knowledge workers who made daily ratings of their motivation and emotions, progress in one’s work – even incremental progress – is most frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation. The authors further indicate that “The key to motivation doesn’t depend on elaborate incentive systems. In fact, the people in our study rarely mentioned  incentives in their diaries.”

Another interesting finding that has some resonance for me is that those who manage these workers, when asked what they thought most powerfully motivated their employees, got it wrong.

Ask leaders what they think makes employees enthusiastic about work, and they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms. In a recent survey we invited more than 600 managers from dozens of companies to rank the impact on employee motivation and emotions of five workplace factors commonly considered significant: recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, support for making progress, and clear goals. “Recognition for good work (either public or private)” came out number one.

In the study, the knowledge workers ranked recognition low among the factors motivating their performance. Wait a minute, didn’t President Obama and Secretary Duncan recently say that “recognizing and rewarding teachers” will be a major driver in their proposal to revamp ESEA?  In fact, they have proposed a whopping quadrupling of the monies in the Teacher Incentive Fund. Could they possibly be barking up the wrong tree in the quest to improve teacher effectiveness?  It wouldn’t be the first time.

Consider the notion of progress. What has been the biggest criticism of Adequate Yearly Progress? The goal keeps moving – making the achievement of progress increasingly difficult until it reaches a point of impossibility. Is it any wonder that gradually, over the last decade, teachers find themselves in an existential vacuum? Anthony Mullen, one of the more articulate and thoughtful National Teachers of the Year, and also a CEA member, alluded to this recently in his blog Road Diaries (see the posting Teacher Tales).

Here’s one more recommendation as you think about what it is that motivates teachers and if we are out of line with the worldview of our brothers and sisters in the private sector. Check out the recent work of Daniel Pink, who recently published a book called “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motives Us.”  As Publisher’s Weekly puts it, “Pink cites a dizzying number of studies revealing that carrot and stick can actually significantly reduce the ability of workers to produce creative solutions to problems.”

Below watch Dan Pink explaining some of his ideas on motivation in an interesting and entertaining presentation from Ted.com.

President Wants ESEA Reauthorized This Year

I’ve been “offline” for over a month enjoying a bit of the freedom that comes with retirement.

On the national education policy front January was a relatively quiet month as over 40 states scrambled to meet the onerous demands of finishing the application for the Race to the Top competition. Connecticut was one of those forty states reaching for the brass ring for much needed monies. Connecticut is in a tier of states eligible to receive up to $175 million if the judges deem their application worthy of an award.

In the meantime, President Obama in his State of the Union message gave strong support to public education followed up with a budget proposal that asks Congress to approve a dramatic increase in ESEA funding – note that it has become fashionable once again to refer to the law by its actual name the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This has been promoted by Secretary Duncan, who frequently indicates that NCLB has become a “toxic brand” for the education law. Both President Obama and Arne Duncan have been talking up the possibility of reauthorizing the law by year’s end. So it seems reasonable to assume that soon the games will begin in earnest. If chatter on the blogosphere is any indicator they have already begun, and now is the time for educators to turn their eyes toward Washington. Read more

Let the Race Begin

On November 18th the Final guidelines and invitation for applications to the so-called Race to the Top competition were published in the Federal Register. The 102  page application for Phase I funding is due by January 19, 2010 less than eight weeks from now. The monetary stakes are high. According to the published non-binding estimates Connecticut can potentially tap into a range of money from $60 – $175 million. There are two preconditions: A state must have an approved application for stabilization funds, and at the time of applying, there must be not any legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers at the state level to linking data on student achievement or student growth to teachers and principals for purposes of evaluation. The guidelines are pretty much as they were proposed, but the department did respond to some of the more contentious concerns raised in the comment period and many of the hard edges have been smoothed out.

Two issues that engendered strong responses in the comments submitted on the draft guidelines relate to the linkage of student test scores to teacher evaluations and the over emphasis on charter schools in the turnaround of  what are now designated as “Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools”. Read more

The Bully Pulpit: The Master and His Apprentice

bully pulpit (a public office of sufficiently high rank that it provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter)


Last night President Obama took back the high ground in the health care debate after an ugly August. My impression is that he likely moved public opinion with his remarks.

Last Sunday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on the airwaves as well, as Bob Shieffer’s only guest on Face the Nation.

Another scheduled event which should have been welcomed by all Americans – the president’s address to America’s students – took an ugly turn as well, but once again the president turned the tide.

These are indeed puzzling times where even the most bizarre impressions and opinions are magnified by a 24/7 news cycle and a revolution in electronic communication.  Historically, I think we have always linked the Office of President with the power of the “bully pulpit”, but could it be that the information/communication revolution has broadened the distribution of the bully pulpit?  Or do I have too much time on my hands?

I listened and watched both of the events mentioned above, and I hope you did as well.  While Barak Obama has proven to be both eloquent and persuasive, Secretary Duncan lacks the polish of his boss, but what he lacks in rhetorical skills he more than makes up for in tenacity.  He can be very persuasive because when he says “jump”, many states have asked “how high?”  – particularly when he dangles $4.3 billion in front of them. It is “pay to play” in reverse.  Already eight states have made modifications in their state laws in order to meet the pre-conditions for playing in the Race to the Top  competition.

California is a case in point. In late August, Governor Schwarzenegger decided to call a Special Session of the legislature to deal with education reform.  Here is what he said:

Read more