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Education Opinion

Hello, This is Arne Duncan Calling...

By Anthony Cody — May 26, 2010 3 min read
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Yesterday afternoon my phone rang. “Hello, this is Arne Duncan calling. Can we talk?”

I had heard he might be calling this week, but I was still a bit shocked. “Hello, Arne!” I said a bit loudly. He asked if I wanted to share any more with him. I told him about Chuck Olynyk, a great Los Angeles teacher who had refused to reapply for his own job at Fremont High. I told him about the Oakland schools which face restructuring. I told him that I worked with the some of the teachers at these schools, and they were so dedicated to their students. I told him it was not fair that these schools that take on the greatest challenges, in the toughest neighborhoods, have the screws put to them. A teacher at one of these schools told me their principal is the heart and soul of their school, and yet they have been told they must fire their principal to qualify for a school improvement grant.

Mr. Duncan told me that the principal need not be fired if she had been there less than three years. (unfortunately, the principal has been there too long to use this loophole.)

I then said that the continued emphasis on boosting test scores made these schools focus too much on test prep. “Oh no, we don’t want that,” he said. “We are using a whole bunch of outcomes, like dropout rates, not just test scores.”

I was honestly a bit incredulous at this point. I said “These schools are on this list because they haven’t made AYP. The biggest factor in AYP is test scores.”

Secretary Duncan responded, “But we are going to get rid of AYP.”

I will have to investigate this. I have been under the impression that test scores remain hugely important in designating schools as being in need of restructuring.

Then I asked about followup. I said we would like a way to continue to have dialog on these issues. He said our group had obviously put a lot of work into preparing, and we had been “extraordinarily thoughtful and useful,” and that he would have an assistant follow up with us to set up the next chance to connect. He placed a similar call to Marsha Ratzel, who helped convene Monday’s meeting.

I have to say the impact of this is still sinking in. We wrote our letters six months ago, and we hoped we might be heard. We have many of the same concerns and even disagreements with administration policies that we had then. But it appears we now have the attention of the Secretary of Education, and we are speaking our truths. We are going to keep speaking up, and keep finding ways to get teachers around the country involved in thinking about these tough issues -- and finding ways to be heard.

The blog I posted on Monday was written in frustration, and asked whether we had been heard. The call from Secretary Duncan was an acknowledgment of that frustration, and an invitation to extend the dialogue. There has been a breakdown in communication between America’s teachers and the Department of Education, that stretches back long before the current administration. There is a huge logjam of unheard ideas, perceptions and wisdom. We have not shared a vision for a long time.

In comments and emails in response to my first post I have been accused of groveling by some, and of being ungrateful and negative by others. This is symptomatic of the broken lines of communication we are trying to repair. We still have a long road ahead of us, but at least it feels as if we have a chance, and we will build on it as best we can, because our students deserve the best we can offer. I truly appreciate the chance we have been given, with special thanks to Marsha Ratzel, Patrick Kerr, Secretary Duncan and his staff. I will continue to share as the process unfolds. Join us in discussing next steps over at the Teachers’ Letters to Obama Facebook group.

What do you think? Is there a chance we might begin to be heard?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.