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They're Not Listening
An Educators' News Editorial
March 15, 2010
I had an interesting and disappointing experience recently that may say a lot about the crafting of the Obama administration's current proposals for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). As a citizen and a retired teacher, I wrote both the President and Secretary of Education in January about my concerns with their market oriented approach to education reform.
Over a month passed without a response, and my concern over the lack of a response began to deepen. While the President and Secretary have conducted their "Listening and Learning Tour" about education reform with great fanfare, it appeared to me that they think we are the ones who are supposed to be listening and learning, not the other way around. They couldn't be listening to real teachers and come up with some of the education proposals they are making.
I really believe that elected officials, even the office of the President of the United States, have a responsibility to participate in two-way communication with their constituents. So I decided to try to elicit a response to my concerns by removing myself from the firstname.lastname@example.org mailing list with the following tart comment:
Since my wife and I had been very minor contributors to the 2008 Obama for America campaign, I thought surely the prospect of losing a previous contributor to their never ending campaign for further contributions might attract something other than a canned email acknowledgement. To their credit, the stream of constant emails from Barack, Rahm, David, Michelle, and many others stopped immediately. But there was also no response to my concerns about the Obama/Duncan steamroller that is now threatening public education.
It was at that point I concluded, "They're not listening." Or at the very least, "They're not responding."
To be sure it wasn't just me, I sent out inquiries to some other writers about any feedback they might be receiving from the administration. Widely respected educator and now blogger for Education Week, Walt Gardner, wrote back:
If you perceive a theme emerging, I think you're right. I really didn't expect either President Obama or Arne Duncan to pick up the phone and call me to get the straight stuff on education. They obviously have settled on a plan and not unexpectedly, are going to stick with it. Candidate Obama extolled bottom up change, but as President seems to employ only top down "reform" efforts in education. This approach, coupled with Secretary Duncan's reliance on business oriented initiatives, leads me to believe that the Obama administration is no longer, if it was ever, listening to those with the most experience with the problems of education, classroom teachers.
Tempting the Einstein definition of insanity of "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," I sent the President a snail mail letter last week expressing my views on education reform. The letter will undoubtedly lie unopened in some anthrax-sniffing security chamber until well after the President and Secretary of Education deliver their misguided proposals to Congress for ESEA reauthorization. But that really doesn't matter, as the letter was more of an exercise in trying once more to believe in a fallen hero than a real attempt at communication. I was like the jilted lover who can't stop themselves from sending one more plea to their estranged. I'm disillusioned.
If the President and Secretary were listening, good teachers already maxed out in their efforts to improve education would tell them that their proposal to use merit pay as an incentive to get them to work harder is simply a bad joke. Those good folks are already doing all they can do. And the ones who would be influenced by such incentives are probably ones that need to be "weeded out" anyway.
They'd tell the president that every time he talks of placing a great teacher in every classroom by recruiting new teachers, he adds to the incorrect public perception that all current teachers are inferior, and grossly offends those great teachers already there doing seven amazing things before breakfast each day.
Teacher bashing has become a national pastime, and the President has done absolutely nothing to diminish it.
Good teachers would ask how can you herald charter schools as an answer? Studies have already shown that the few successful charters can't scale up to replace traditional public schools, and such charters are based on unsustainable models as Walt Gardner aptly stated in The Beatings Will Continue Until Teacher Morale Improves:
Secretary Duncan attempted to sound reasonable trying to sell his irresponsible plan to use high stakes testing to evaluate teachers when he addressed the National Education Association's annual meeting last July in San Diego:
The Secretary ignores the fact that teacher evaluations are the province of state and local governments. Indiana's Race to the Top proposal established a 51% test score minimum in teacher evaluations, as reported in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette:
I can hardly wait until a school board member somewhere in Indiana decides the 51% minimum isn't enough and proposes 75, 85, or the business gold standard of 100% of teacher evaluations being based on student test scores. It sure would save administrators a lot of time observing teachers.
Michigan City special education teacher John Easton quickly brings all this foolishness down to earth when he states, "I think they ought to cut back on some of that testing and teach kids what they need to know. That's what the real goal is here."
Diane Ravitch pretty well refutes the Secretary's logic in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Diane's final observation about homes, of course, brings us to the dirty little secret in education that no politician wants to touch. Certainly we need more great teachers, and good, fair evaluation systems to retain the good and counsel out the bad. But America must address its education problems in a much larger perspective, rather than the past and current plans of focusing solely on teachers, schools, and test scores.
Unsolicited Advice for our President and Secretary of Education
Unsolicited Advice for America's Teachers
Unsolicited Advice for the AFT and NEA
Maybe if we could get some kind of audience with the administration, we should follow Arlo Guthrie's advice from Alice's Restaurant and walk in, sing a bar from Alice's Restaurant and walk out. As Arlo says, "Maybe they'll think it's a movement." And while it won't be the "Alice's Restaurant Halftime Massacre Movement," there definitely needs to be a movement of America's teachers in defense of their chosen profession.
Odds 'n' Ends
This editorial has been written with different audiences in mind. The primary audience, our President and his Secretary of Education, obviously aren't listening. I've shied away here from looking for any ulterior motives, conflicts-of-interest, or influence peddling by members of Arne Duncan's non-teacher inner sanctum. But I do believe they are there.
My second audience is the teachers and parents of America. I still believe our current President was the best choice we had in the 2008 national election. I believe his selection of Arne Duncan was a politically motivated exercise in cronyism that avoided a confirmation battle over the far more qualified Linda Darling-Hammond. In choosing Duncan and subscribing to his now discredited claims of school reform success in Chicago, the President has turned his back on public school educators and possibly is leading America into another lost opportunity to positively impact public education.
America's students, parents, and teachers deserve better.
Let me rephrase the words of the fictitious president, Andrew Shepherd, from the movie, The American President:
This is a time for serious people, Mr. President, and your four years will soon be up.
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©2010 Steven L. Wood