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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

We Need More Dialogue & Less Monologue From Secretary Duncan

By Peter DeWitt — January 26, 2014 4 min read
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With a dozen states rethinking their decision to adopt the Common Core State Standards, and high stakes testing and increased accountability under fire, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is showing signs of frustration. Building a case for more rigorous standards, and once again trying to prove that the U.S. Public Education System is failing, Secretary Duncan is giving plenty of speeches.

In December 2013, Duncan blasted schools for dismal PISA results, and in early January he sent the same message to parents. Duncan stated,

As you think about how to use your voice, your time, and your energy, I want to pose one simple question to you: Does a child in South Korea deserve a better education than your child?" Duncan said. "If your answer is no - that no child in America deserves any less than a world-class education - then your work is cut out for you."

He’s right, our children do deserve a world class education, and parents should use their voice, time and energy. It certainly is the case in New York State, and after numerous forums that resulted in very little change, parents worry that no one is listening. After all, education and learning should be about dialogue and not monologue (Hattie 2009).

With respect to Secretary Duncan, speaking to parents about the need for change, and listening to the needs of parents is not at all about dialogue, and after several years of blaming schools for negative test results, Secretary Duncan should figure out a more effective approach.

He points to the 2012 PISA results, which came three years after Duncan became the US Secretary of Education. His consistent message has been to demean the public school system he is charged with leading. That’s not leadership. Leadership is inspiring people to make changes in their individual practices, and not relying on one test to prove that things need to change.

  • What are Secretary Duncan’s suggestions on better teacher methods in the classroom?
  • How would he differentiate instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners?
  • How would he meet the needs of students living in poverty?
  • What is his stance on social-emotional learning as well as academic results on international exams?
  • Children who come to school starving probably don’t care about tests as much as they care about eating.

It is important to point out is that the U.S. had the highest poverty rate (22%) among all of the other countries who took part in PISA. Secretary Duncan neglected to mention that 38% of the U.S. students who took the exam were from the two lowest social-economic categories. You can read more about that here (Ed Week article).

It doesn’t mean hundreds of thousands of teachers working with students living in poverty believe that those students cannot meet higher expectations. They just believe that there are additional important issues to solve for students (i.e. Social-emotional as well as academic) before they can get to higher expectations, and the Common Core is not the silver bullet that will solve them.

Clearly, Duncan’s negative approach of blaming public school systems for PISA results has not worked, so why is he not changing his leadership strategy? It’s not that I don’t believe that we can’t increase rigor, recruit better people into the profession, or even do better on an exam; it’s just that there is so much more to this than “public educators aren’t trying hard enough.” And considering he has been the leader of public education for the past 5 years, isn’t he somewhat responsible for our dismal results? We do live in an era of accountability, so shouldn’t he be held accountable for not focusing on more than test scores?

How Will We Recruit the Best and Brightest?

If Secretary Duncan is trying to recruit new teachers into the profession, he clearly needs to work on his people skills and marketing techniques. It’s amazing how often educators that he has stated that teachers are failing, or that our expectations are too low. With that perception being put out there by the secretary, politicians and education leaders, why would any of our brightest students, which we surely must not have a lot of because we are failing, enter into the profession?

In order to better prepare our young people to become teachers, we need to strengthen the programs that exist and recruit students, who don’t just get good grades, but have a passion to challenge students academically and help meet their social-emotional needs. That’s not going to happen if the Secretary of Education continues to portray all schools as failing, and all teachers as failures. As the “Failure” mentality trickles down, we may see more and more students disrespect their teachers, and look at school as a joke.

We need to shift our focus from “failing teachers,” and put our energy toward creating positive learning experiences for students, and we have to have a larger focus that test scores. Teaching is important but learning is more important, and it looks different for every student. Instead of taking a baseball bat to public education and public educators, the Secretary needs to find a new approach. What he is doing, will not only shame great teachers, but will make other teachers feel like victims, which will never help further his cause.

And what is his cause any way? Better schools? Better teachers? Does he not understand that most educators have that same goal?

Secretary Duncan’s actions do nothing to further the cause of strengthening public education. If anyone has low expectations, it’s the public. We have low expectations of our politicians who vote along party lines, and federal leaders who stand on their bully pulpit saying schools are failing. After decades of being called “failures” and going through federal changes every single one of those decades, it’s our leaders who seem to be failing us.

Perhaps it’s time to have less monologue and more dialogue so we can truly move forward.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.