Education Opinion

Speed-Dating With the Secretary of Education

By Nancy Flanagan — May 24, 2010 4 min read
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So, we had our big call with Secretary Arne Duncan and some members of his staff today. Our planning for the call resembled the landing at Dunkirk: ten speakers, each with a two-minute riff, on a variety of issues identified by the 2000 members of Teachers’ Letters to Obama, a Facebook group started by Anthony Cody.

We got 30 minutes of the Secretary’s time--a kind of speed-dating model--using a conference call program straight out of Mad Men, where you had to press in a code number, announce your name and your “company” and then someone there had to electronically unmute you and ask you to say your name again. Cumbersome. And dated. The electronic version of the audio firing squad, not conducive to dialogue. Why don’t these folks use an electronic meeting program?

The call started five minutes late, and the Secretary, as expected, did a little political spiel. The sound quality was absolutely wretched. In what Bob Williams noted was a very ironic metaphor, we could hear them, but they could not hear us. At 22 minutes into the call, only one of our teachers had spoken, and she was forced to repeat her remarks several times.

The Secretary and his staff were prepared to answer our questions. But we didn’t have questions. We had informed observations about the way education policy is being shaped--and we had a few suggestions. Mostly, we had a burning desire to be heard--to have the US Department of Education understand that teachers are eager to share their expertise, to realize that policy created without input from those who will be implementing that policy doesn’t have much chance of success.

Only three of us got to “say our piece” in full. We had one truncated speaker--and then, bingo, time’s up, kids. We’re not discouraged, though. We have many media and networking channels to work, and hope for additional opportunities. We’re planning a policy report and YouTube videos. Today was just a toe in the door.

Still, I was slotted as the tenth speaker, and was neither seen nor heard today. My assigned topic was “Fostering Innovation"--the part of the Blueprint for revising ESEA that recommends a system of competitive grants to fund all those “proven innovations” (kind of an oxymoron, no?). Since I didn’t get to actually speak these words, I’m printing them here.

We appreciate the Blueprint’s focus on Fostering Innovation--we agree that innovation, rather than punitive, test-based “accountability” is the key to rebuilding and revitalizing public schools in America. We are not sure that competitive grant programs which reward states and schools that closely align themselves with Department goals are moving us toward greater equity--or even genuine, out-of-the-box innovation from the field. We’re particularly steamed that the advantage seems to be going to states where wealthy investors think they can shape education policy. We’d like to remind the Department that the most productive, promising innovations--things like pay for performance, for example-- only work when real teachers have input into planning and decision-making. The Race to the Top leaves teachers out of those critical conversations.

In our discussion with the 2000 members of the Teachers Letters to Obama group, we hear stories about how the press (never known for accurately portraying education policy) is now targeting teachers and their associations as the reason that competitive funding has been denied. (In my state, the headlines read “Michigan Loses the Race to the Top,” and the stories were all about how the teachers block change.) In a time of dire economic crisis, when all parties must work together to keep kids and learning uppermost, pitting states against each other by how much political will they can muster to pass RTTT-friendly legislation will not lead to any of the things that could make our education system better over the long haul: shared expertise, the right uses of data, building on what’s good in our public schools, personal leadership, long-term investment in human capital.

From the standpoint of the Teachers’ Letters 2000, and the classroom, competitive federal grants feel like just another way for someone else to re-design and control the actual work done in schools: teaching and learning. I suppose it’s exciting to be looking for policy that changes everything, but the constant churn of “preferred” reform initiatives is very hard on those who have dedicated their lives to teaching students.

We see that the Blueprint aims to provide “flexible funding streams for locally created innovation.” We are hoping that there are ways for real teachers--not just well-connected organizations--to have a shot at funding for the kinds of innovative schools and programs that we know, from extensive experience, will work for the very diverse kids we teach, all across America. And--we’re ready to help.

Look for further links at this site to other impressions from the Team of Twelve. Onward and upward.

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.