Education Opinion

Ugly Babies

By Nancy Flanagan — September 07, 2010 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Quote from Arne Duncan, re: Waiting for Superman, the purported “Inconvenient Truth of education, an eye-opening, debate-defining, socially catalytic cultural artifact.”

The movie is going to create a sense of outrage, and a sense of urgency," says Arne Duncan, Barack Obama's Secretary of Education. "Nobody wants to call a baby ugly." [This movie] "is like calling the baby ugly. It's about confronting brutal truths."

“Too often our systems keep all of our teachers in the dark about the quality of their own work,” Duncan told an audience at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock. “In other fields, we talk about success constantly, with statistics and other measures to prove it. Why, in education, are we scared to talk about what success looks like?”

New York City schools chancellor and Duncan buddy Joel Klein:

“It’s gonna grab people much deeper than An Inconvenient Truth, because watching ice caps melt doesn’t have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives. It grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying.”

Then this:

“Teachers have been disrespected, beaten down for a long time,” Duncan said in an interview as his bus, stocked with pretzels, granola bars and apples, rolled through Arkansas. “We have to elevate the profession. We have to bring teaching back to a revered status.”

Do we sense just a touch of disconnect here? How does calling teachers (and their life work) “ugly babies” elevate the profession? How does claiming that teachers are selfishly denying kids the essential elements of a successful life serve to re-institute a national reverence for teaching?

Who’s leading all this beating down and disrespecting, Champ? And how will we turn this all around? With a shocking, catalytic documentary film?

It’s pretty clear that the administration’s PR job #1 is establishing the rhetorical framework for policy change--because if things were not perceived to be uniformly ghastly, we may be looking at investment and transformation over time for our most challenged public schools. Building on what we have. Hope.

But check out the quotes: Outrage. Urgency. Ugly. Brutal. Clueless teachers in the dark. Scared to talk about success. Kids dying.

Ten days ago, in Detroit. I’m leading a workshop for about 20 Detroit Public School teachers, who have volunteered to spend the entire school year examining their teaching practice, through the National Board’s Take One! process. It’s hot inside the cafeteria, and the ancient building smells of fresh paint and lemon disinfectant. We spend a couple of hours, sitting on plastic, kid-sized cafeteria seats, identifying and examining convincing evidence of student learning. It’s good work.

Before we break for lunch, I ask the teachers where they will be teaching when they formally report for duty the next Tuesday. And they don’t know. A couple of them have been reassured by a principal that they’re on the list for a particular school. But most of them hope to be told, via registered letter over the weekend, where to report--what building, what grade, what subject.

They will have, at most, a day to see if they’ve been assigned a classroom, review their curriculum, meet their colleagues, see whether any materials have been left for their students to use. The scariest thing is that some of them have no assignment at all, and will have to report to a local hotel to see which assigned teachers don’t show up--those “leftover” jobs have to be filled. And yet--there they are, on their own time, working to become better teachers.

They’re not “in the dark about the quality of their own work.” They know what success looks like--and they’re not afraid to dissect their own results, and use them to improve learning. They are not, in any sense, ugly babies. They also teach in a beleaguered school system that Arne Duncan called “Katrina without the hurricane.”

The path to elevating teaching and learning doesn’t begin with insults.

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.