Education Opinion

Does Duncan Believe in ‘Teach to Lead?’

By Justin Minkel — March 24, 2014 6 min read
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If you want to know what someone truly believes, don’t listen to what they say. Look at their actions. What they do every day, week, and year will reveal their beliefs more eloquently than any speech.

When Secretary Duncan unveiled the U.S. Department of Education’s Teach to Lead initiative earlier this month, he left me with three reasons for hope and one huge unanswered question.

Reason for Hope #1: He said the right things.

Arne Duncan has shown a willingness to listen to teachers that I never saw from Margaret Spellings. His speech was peppered with quotes from teachers including this one: “It is assumed that experience, innovation, and talent mean moving out of the classroom. I want a school where talent, experience, and innovation mean opportunities to lead from the classroom.”

He referred to bubble tests as an artifact that can and should soon be extinct. He described “classrooms that aren’t about lecturing and listening, but about inquiry and invention.” This is a far cry from the “back to basics” approach enshrined in NCLB.

Reason for Hope #2: He’s working with the right people.

The names “Sarah Brown Wessling” and “Maddie Fennell” should be as well known as “Randi Weingarten” and “Dennis van Roekel.” Sarah is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year; she serves in a hybrid role that involves teaching high school English in the morning and developing videos for the Teaching Channel in the afternoon. Maddie is a Literacy Coach, a leader in the NEA and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow. (Read her take on the Department’s initiative here.)

It’s significant that the Department is partnering with organizations like National Board and the NEA to undertake meaningful work. But it’s equally important that Maddie Fennell organized the conversation following Duncan’s speech, and that Sarah Brown Wessling sat on the panel that responded to it.

Maddie and Sarah are teachers. Not “teachers at heart,” not consultants, policy wonks, or administrators who fondly remember their salad days of teaching back in the Clinton era, but current classroom teachers.

The question is: Will current teachers have a direct role in shaping the Teach to Lead initiative, not just implementing it?

Reason for Hope #3: He listens to criticism.

Duncan acknowledged teachers’ frustration with over-testing, our desire for hybrid roles, and a damning study that “69 percent of teachers feel their voices are heard in their school, but only a third feel heard in their district, 5 percent in their state, and 2 percent at the national level.”

This ability to acknowledge problems in the system he steers is a far cry from the Bush-Spellings era. Spellings always seemed irritated and bewildered by the inability of teachers to realize that NCLB was manna from heaven, not the acid rain our students actually experienced.

When I asked then-Deputy Secretary Ray Simon about the deterioration of 21st-century skills like ingenuity and collaboration in favor of “pick-the-right bubble” basic skills, he answered with a common mantra, “NCLB was meant to be a floor, not a ceiling.”

In other words, teachers are free to teach all the good stuff, as long as we make AYP first--a recipe for inequity when the schools that struggle most to make AYP tend to be those with the most poor students. As a result, low-income children of color lost opportunities for the kind of thinking that would have let them become engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. In exchange, they gained a point or two on now-defunct standardized tests.

Spellings’ response to any teacher, parent, or administrator who cried, “The emperor has no clothes,” was to sniff with disdain and say, “They look just fine to me.”

Duncan doesn’t do that. He does, though, have a tendency to pretend he’s not the emperor. When he says lines like, “I know there are places where testing has gotten out of hand,” we have to remind him that he’s among a handful of people in the nation who have the power to rein that testing in.

When he points out, “my administration has added exactly zero new tests to what was required when we came into office,” we have to respond that he hasn’t done much to reduce the damaging quantity or improve the poor quality of those tests, either.

When he says, “It’s the beginning of the end for the bubble test,” we have to press him to hasten that end. He has the power and the obligation to students and their families to do it.

Still, he understands that the prevalence of multiple choice tests is a problem, not the solution that Spellings and Bush believed it to be. That’s a giant step forward...if he backs up that belief with action.

The huge question: In the 2014-2015 school year, will we see changes in our classroom, district, and state as a result of Teach to Lead?

Blind optimism is almost as easy as blind cynicism. What’s harder is to balance grounded reasons for hope with a memory that forgives but doesn’t forget.

My greatest hope when Obama was elected was that he would dismantle NCLB, from its focus on questions with only four possible answers to its bewildering belief that shame and stigma would somehow lead to educational excellence.

Then I saw the way Obama-Duncan’s Blueprint was rolled out. Once again, not a single teacher was in the room when it was written. The Department began contacting teachers once it needed advocates to give supportive quotes to the press.

We weren’t deemed important enough to help build it, just to help sell it.

Teachers, myself included, can be like Mark Twain’s proverbial cat. Once burned, we’ll never sit on a hot stove again, but we might not sit on a cold one, either.

Joe Biden said in the 2008 VP debates that he learned in the Senate not to question his colleagues’ integrity, even when he questioned their judgment. In that spirit, I’m taking Secretary Duncan at his word that “Teacher leadership means having a voice in the policies and decisions that affect your students, your daily work, and the shape of your profession.”

I’m looking at the partners he has chosen--active classroom teachers and champions of our profession like the National Board’s Ron Thorpe. I’m listening to his support for hybrid roles, teachers replacing consultants, and policies that no longer sabotage “inquiry, greater creativity, and deep and inspiring relationships” in our classrooms.

I’m not forgetting a Blueprint that had as its architect not a single teacher. I’m not forgetting that years after the RESPECT initiative rolled out, there are still plenty of superintendents touting plans to implement Common Core through the use of scripted curricula and outside consultants.

Secretary Duncan asked teachers to “hold us accountable, a year from now, for what we’ve been able to accomplish,” and we will.

But what makes Arne Duncan fundamentally different from Margaret Spellings is his capacity to learn. He has a humility that she lacked.

When I look back on my first year as a teacher, I shudder. I hope that when Arne Duncan looks back on his first year as Secretary of Ed, he shudders, too. But maybe the same things that helped me to become a much better teacher in my sixth year than in my first--reflecting on my weaknesses, seeking insights from colleagues, and learning to listen more than I talked--have worked for Duncan, too.

Time will tell.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher 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.