Education Opinion

My Open Letter to Arne Duncan

By LeaderTalk Contributor — February 09, 2009 5 min read
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Dear Mr. Secretary,

Congratulations on your appointment as President Obama’s Secretary of Education.

Thank you for sending the message that you want to address and fix elements of NCLB rather than scrap the entire piece of legislation. While I am not as supportive as some, I do agree that NCLB started a meaningful revolution that has pushed the evolution of our educational system forward.

Thank you also for expressing the fact that you want to rename the legislation. I cannot recall any other legislative title that has been so misleading in its use (if not original intention). As a principal working with at-risk high school students I am faced daily with the task of helping to motivate students who do not fit within the traditional system. I work with the kids who have failed the state mandated tests and face the reality of not receiving their diplomas. Each year I have witnessed the expanding bubble of students who cannot pass a portion of the high stakes testing mandated in one form or another to the states.

I am the man who sits across from the crying student who has failed a test multiple times and realizes that...

they have just been left behind.

NCLB has possibly driven more students out of the system and left demoralized kids pondering their futures without a diploma than any other single action taken by our educational system since its inception. And it is not just individual students. Your own department’s statistics clearly indicate that AYP (as currently implemented) is labeling more and more schools as unacceptable.

Your three points of expanding early childhood education, creating better student assessments, and improving teacher quality are excellent starting points for your planned national discussions.

I argue that NCLB has restricted student choices and options by too limited an application of research and best practices. Somehow excellent pedagogy has become the new dogma - non-negotiable and non-adaptable. The opportunities for early childhood education (and success) are out there...well-developed assessments are available...and I would posit that our teachers are increasingly among the most highly skilled and knowledgeable in the world when it comes to effective methodology.

So what’s missing? NCLB has taken the art and heart out of education. Ask the students. Learning is no longer fun. The pressures are immense. The anxiety attacks of elementary-aged children are testimony that while we may be on-track with what research tells us about learning theory, but we are destroying the true underlying motivations for learning - a child’s natural joy, curiosity, excitement, and desire to explore and grow.

If you can find a way to re-introduce - or combine - what is right with No Child Left Behind with every student’s innate desire to learn, then...and only then...will we as a nation begin to have an educational system that does not leave a single - not ONE - child by the roadside.

How can we do this? I sincerely believe that any educational legislation must allow for more Options and Choices. We have become far too restrictive in our final accountability standards. Does anyone truly believe we will have 100% mastery of subject area knowledge by 100% of our students by 2012, 2013, or 2014. Noble? Yes? A worthwhile “ideal” target? Absolutely. Realistic? No. I have never met another parent, professor, politician, or educator who believes that it is.

But what about legislation that paves the way for every child to be prepared to take advantage of new learning opportunities that arise over their lifetime? What about legislation that somehow encourages everyone to develop abilities to disregard information as it becomes out-dated and acquire new knowledge as it is discovered? Wouldn’t that be a logical life-skill to encourage among all children? It would certainly be a starting point for better surviving in Friedman’s flat world of global revolution in communication and technology.

Mr. Secretary, as you move forward with your plans to evaluate and re-think NCLB, please consider revisions that emphasize OPTIONS, CHOICES, and ALTERNATIVES for all students. Think less in terms of INCENTIVES and more in terms of INNOVATIONS.

Please redefine certain critical attributes of needed educational reform.

Redefine success. Please do not restrict success to passing scores on the types of summative assessments currently so wide spread. Success must be measured in ways other than pencil and paper tests.

Redefine gifted to include the TOTAL CHILD and promote academic as well as esoteric learning accomplishments. (You are no doubt familiar with Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind.)

Redefine all time lines. Learning does not - and never has - occur exclusively between 8:00 am and 3:00 pm Monday through Friday...everything one needs to learn may, or may not, fit into a kindergarten through senior 13-year window.

In closing, I would like to share the input of one group and encourage you to visit their work. As you begin your dialog with leaders around the nation, there is a powerful document a group of superintendents in Texas have published. Working under the name of The Visioning Institute, their brief document is titled Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas - A Work in Progress for Conversation and Further Development. The true beauty of the document is that it does not dodge, run from, or argue against the continued need for accountability and testing. The document does not call for an end to monitoring student achievement and holding staffs, schools, and districts accountable for results. The document consists of Six Articles. Under each Article, profound and positive changes to the educational system are outlined and specific actions are recommended.

Again, congratulations on your appointment. I sincerely believe you are taking the task of Education Secretary at a historic crossroads at which the motivation and abilities of this nation’s educators come together ready to support and implement meaningful reform, renovation, and recreation of the educational opportunities we want all our children to successfully experience.

Greg Farr

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk 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.