Education Opinion

Arne Duncan, Instructional ‘Shifts,’ and the Bad Old Days

By Nancy Flanagan — March 15, 2014 4 min read
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The moment for teacher leadership is now...and I absolutely promise my support.

Arne Duncan, yesterday.

Hmm. I’d be a little less dubious about the Secretary’s absolute pledge if I hadn’t heard him make virtually the same statement three years ago, July 2011, at yet another National Board for Professional Teaching Standards conference in Washington, D.C. At the time, his “teacher leadership” approach centered around paying “good” teachers more--six figures, in fact--a planned applause line that fell as flat, that day, as an unexploded scud missile. Evidently, the moment for “efficient” teacher leadership consisting of larger classes but “better” teachers has passed.

Arne Duncan’s current take on “leadership,” in the teaching profession: Go forth and lead your colleagues into promoting the Common Core State Standards and teacher-evaluation systems based on aligned assessments. Although he was smart enough to mask the language:

[Duncan] acknowledged that many teachers have felt overwhelmed by, or not included in, efforts to raise expectations for students (read: the Common Core State Standards, which Duncan did not once actually name in his 30-minute presentation) or to establish new teacher-evaluation systems, two priorities of his administration.

If anyone can sell the Common Core as essential foundation for the Future of American Education, it’s National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs), since they were once assured that they--accomplished classroom practitioners--were the real future of education reform. When NBPTS was founded, its third mission point (after establishing standards for professional teaching and a process for identifying and assessing that highly skilled teaching) was: “capitalizing on the expertise of National Board Certified Teachers.”

Today, the mission is a little different:

Providing programs and advocating policies that support excellence in teaching and leading and engaging National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) and leaders in that process"---and "raising public awareness with respect to the cognitively complex, collaborative and expertise-driven nature of teachers' work."

See the subtle shift? NBCTs used to be the go-to instructional experts. Their judgment and proficiency--honed by experience, demonstrated in practice and carefully selected evidence--were once considered the ultimate adjudication of what “works” in their own classrooms. Now--not so much. Now, it’s their job to advocate for pre-selected policies and raise public awareness around good teaching. Get on board.

Duncan, at least, learned his lesson in talking to NBCTs: acknowledge difficulties and don’t be too specific. Bill Gates’ speech at the same conference was more blunt and direct, asserting that controversy around the Common Core “comes from people who want to stop the standards, which would send us back to what we had before.”

And here’s the thing: What we had before was fabulous teaching, competent teaching, and weak teaching. Just as we do now. The whole point of developing a national certification for teachers was identifying and describing the core features that fabulous teaching--getting those accomplished teachers to influence policy in ways that would generate more fabulous teaching.

I wonder what, exactly, Gates thinks we “had before,” out here in the public school wasteland.

I can tell him: In addition to the aforementioned range of teaching skills, we had state content standards (some of which were actually pretty good). We had a plethora of professional development opportunities (some of which, including National Board Certification, were extremely useful). We had good school leadership and stinky school leadership. We had practical teacher evaluation from savvy principals, as well as crummy, perfunctory checklists. Rich curricula and impoverished, limited curricula. Wonderful schools and lousy schools.

And--we had teachers who “went deep” and “gave students tools” and “applied content and made it relevant” and “taught for the 21st century” and “boosted students’ capabilities.” Authentically. We shifted our instruction (recognize the buzz-phrase?) on a daily basis, tailoring it to the unique kids sitting in front of us.

And now, we find NBCTs tweeting things like “Common Core is an opportunity for teacherpreneurs.” NBCTs with ties to non-profits funded by Gates, of course. Sam Chaltain described this syndrome well:

Our society in general, and public school reform in particular, has shifted its moral center to the capitalist side of the values continuum. In that world, competition is king, and to the victor goes the acres of diamonds.

Why would the Common Core be an unprecedented opportunity, when state standards weren’t? The original national standards (actually created by teachers’ advocacy organizations, not David Coleman and a couple dozen of his closest friends)--why weren’t they the perfect opening for teachers to lead their colleagues, developing new instructional ideas?

When was the initial moment for teacher leadership? Maybe in the early 1990s, as the standards movement was gearing up, and NBPTS was a young, idealistic organization. Maybe in the 1960s, as teachers organized to protect their interests as a profession. Maybe in the near future, if veteran teachers refuse to roll over or leave their classrooms in despair.

If instruction--teachers’ core responsibility--is going to shift, it will happen because teachers decide to re-think their mission and the parameters of their work, not because lawmakers adopt the Common Core or devise teacher evaluation systems largely based on standardized testing, in hopes of getting federal money.

The moment for genuine teacher leadership may indeed be now, although not in the way Arne Duncan thinks. Let’s step up.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.