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An Audacious Hope for Arne Duncan

By Ellen Balleisen — April 27, 2009 4 min read
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Her name was Paige, she lived in Chicago, and by the age of 11 she had been in the 3rd grade for three years. Her previous teachers disagreed about why she wasn’t learning and how she could best be helped. And in a 2005 New York Times article about Paige’s predicament, various education experts and administrators weighed in on the policies that had resulted in her three-year stay in 3rd grade, and her eventual placement in a middle school special education class.

Arne Duncan, now President Barack Obama’s secretary of education, was one of those interviewed. At the time, Mr. Duncan headed Chicago’s public schools. Before his school system implemented a tough retention policy, he told the Times, the schools were just “perpetuating the cycles of poverty.” Yet he also said he didn’t think students should be held back three times.

Mr. Duncan didn’t offer a clear plan to address Paige’s problem, and neither did anyone else quoted in the article. But several mentioned high-quality early-childhood education as the way to avoid persistent failure in elementary school. A parent leader at Paige’s school suggested that Paige would not be in such dire straits if her mother, a high school dropout, had been more involved in her daughter’s learning during her preschool years.

In his new role as the nation’s educator in chief, will Arne Duncan treat programs for young children and poorly educated adults as part of the educational mainstream, and not as stepchildren to K-12 and higher education?

Paige’s story haunted me long after I finished reading about it. I thought not just about the inadequacy of both social promotion and multiple retentions, but also about what those quoted in the article had said about averting the problem in the first place. Would Paige now be succeeding if she had been in a good early-childhood-education program as a toddler? Would it have helped if years ago her mother had enrolled in a family-literacy program that taught parents how to engage young children in learning?

Certainly Paige’s chances for success would have been much better if she had received a high-quality preschool education, and if her mother had been in a high-quality adult basic education program. But even if the mother had been in a literacy or General Educational Development program and the daughter had been in preschool, was it likely they both would have received top-notch instruction?

I doubted that the answer was yes. Early-childhood education and adult basic education share the space at the far margins of the teaching profession. Pay in both fields is very low. So is prestige. And funding for programs in both areas is meager and vulnerable to sudden cuts.

In the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, the first sentence of the description of an adult-literacy teacher reads, “Many adult-literacy and remedial education teachers work part time and receive no benefits.” A bit further down, we learn that “budget pressures may limit federal funding of adult education, which may cause programs to rely more on volunteers.” Regarding the employment outlook, the description concludes: “Job prospects should be favorable as high turnover of part-time jobs in this occupation creates many openings.”

Preschool teachers fare no better. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ job-assistance program for returning service members, “Turnover in this occupation is high. Many preschool teachers and child-care workers leave the occupation temporarily to fulfill family responsibilities, study, or for other reasons. Some workers leave permanently because they are interested in pursuing another occupation or because of dissatisfaction with long hours, low pay and benefits, and stressful conditions.”

No one goes into teaching to become rich. But those who teach K-12 generally have annual salaries that go up significantly with years of experience, and decent pensions and health insurance. This signals society’s recognition that educating children between the ages of 5 and 18 is a professional career.

If you look at the employment conditions of early-childhood and adult-literacy teachers nationwide, it’s hard not to conclude that educating young children and low-skilled adults is far less important in society’s eyes. But it’s also hard to understand why we feel this way, when educators say early-childhood programs can prevent elementary school failure, and economists say the U.S. can remain internationally competitive only with a highly skilled workforce.

In his new role as the nation’s educator in chief, will Arne Duncan treat programs for young children and poorly educated adults as part of the educational mainstream, and not as stepchildren to K-12 and higher education? Mr. Duncan has a track record as an advocate for early-childhood education. He worked with President Obama on his education platform, which includes calls for more federal investment in preschool programs, and he expanded slots for preschool children in the Chicago schools. He hasn’t, however, explained his views on teacher pay in this area. He also hasn’t spoken much about any aspect of adult basic education.

Right now, Secretary Duncan is learning the ropes in Washington. Paige’s academic nightmare, which he discussed with a reporter several years ago, is probably not at the forefront of his thoughts. Still, I have an audacious hope: for Mr. Duncan to remember Paige, and then to connect the dots between her plight and the plight of our nation’s most marginalized educators.

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2009 edition of Education Week as An Audacious Hope For Arne Duncan

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