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Duncan Stresses Commitment to Teachers

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At a sit-down on Monday at the offices of Education Week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed a number of issues that strike at the heart of teachers, including worries over being shut out of policy decisions, tying performance evaluations and pay to student test scores, and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In response to teachers feeling like they are too far from the center in terms of decision-making, Duncan spoke of the Education Department’s “unprecedented effort and commitment” to reach out to classroom teachers to find out what is and is not working for them. On every school visit he makes, Duncan said, he sits down with classroom teachers and solicits their ideas and opinions. He also referenced the Department’s Teacher Ambassador’s program, which was started under the Bush administration. Duncan pointed out that the current ambassadors are working in the department, as well as in the classroom, and providing feedback to the department. But he also conceded, “There are a lot of teachers in the country. We can’t reach everyone that we’d like.”

On the subject of tying teacher effectiveness to student testing, Duncan said multiple measures should be looked at, but stressed the connection between scores and teacher performance. “To say there’s no correlation there, or there shouldn’t be a correlation there, defies logic.” Duncan added, “I’ve said repeatedly you have to look at multiple measures. One of those measures has to be student achievement.”

According to Duncan, only Louisiana is currently tracking student gains back to teachers and to the education schools that trained those teachers. Duncan said he cannot understand why this kind of holistic tracking is only happening in one state. “It is not a miracle of technology,” Duncan explained, but rather about connecting student outcomes back to teacher preparedness, which he called a “healthy” process. “Changes are being made by tracking these things,” he added.

About the reauthorization of the NCLB law, Duncan said that education must rise above politics. He said doesn’t expect 100 percent consensus on a new bill, but the current conversation across the aisle has been “encouraging.” Duncan wasn’t specific on key elements of the bill, but he stressed that data, and financial support for the use of data, would be a component. Duncan described a scenario where there would be greater rewards and incentives for districts, schools, and “superstar teachers.” “We are moving towards a growth model [which measures results over time]. We want to be tight goals, but loose on the means to get there.”

Having been the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools for eight years (the longest tenured big-city school superintendent in the country) Duncan said he understand the concerns from teachers about the imposition of the federal law, but he also stressed that his focus would be on accountability that is fair. Duncan said that he has heard universally from teachers that they support growth and gain over absolute test scores, which he said levels the playing field. “No one’s saying, don’t hold me accountable,” he explained. “This is not a ‘gotcha’ thing.” He also stressed an urgent interest in rewarding excellence. “As a country we have missed the opportunity to encourage and define excellence,” he said.

Duncan also described current teacher evaluation models as “fundamentally broken.” And he added, “Let’s not use the excuse that we don’t have the answer [to fix the evaluations] to do nothing. We’ve said that data, talent matters, turning things around matters—but it’s also about how you get there. How can you defend teacher evaluation that is divorced from student progress? How do you defend that?”

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story had a quote about testing and teacher performance from Education Secretary Arne Duncan that has since been amended, subsequent to reviewing the official transcript.

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