Federal Opinion

An Open Letter from an American Teacher to Secretary Duncan

By Anthony Cody — May 02, 2011 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recognized Teacher Appreciation Week with another of his confusing tributes - a mixture of fulsome praise, acknowledgment of the errors of NCLB, and a reiteration of the fierce urgency he feels for pushing forward his agenda. This has become a familiar message, offered every time he encounters teachers.

In my continuing effort to engage this administration in meaningful dialogue, I offer the following open letter in response to him.

Dear Secretary Duncan,

I continue to be confused by the messages you are sending to teachers.

Your letter states:

In today's economy, there is no acceptable dropout rate, and we rightly expect all children--English-language learners, students with disabilities, and children of poverty--to learn and succeed.

You are clearly aware of what has happened to school budgets in today’s economy. What does it mean to say it is unacceptable for a single student to drop out, or for students with disabilities to fail, when the funds that support these students have been slashed to bits?

You state:
“The quality of our education system can only be as good as the quality of our teaching force.”

How is it that your Department of Education continues to fund programs that place poorly trained interns in urban classrooms, and supported legislation that circumvented a court decision that ruled such interns are not “highly qualified”?

If you agree with us that it is unfair when “teachers alone are blamed for educational failures that have roots in broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded schools systems” why did you support the firing of the entire staff of teachers at Central Falls High in Rhode Island last year?

If you are aware that, as you said:

Because of the pressure to boost test scores, NCLB has narrowed the curriculum, and important subjects like history, science, the arts, foreign languages, and physical education have been de-emphasized.

Why then do you continue to support the labeling and even closure of schools using these narrow indicators?

If you realize that worthwhile evaluation means “real feedback in a professional setting rather than drive-by visits from principals or a single score on a bubble test,” why do you support publication of teacher quality rankings by newspapers like the LA Times, which rely exclusively on test scores?

Why do you require, as part of Race to the Top, that states adopt teacher pay and evaluation practices that significantly increase the use of test scores for these purposes?

You write:

So I want to work with you to change and improve federal law, to invest in teachers and strengthen the teaching profession. Together with you, I want to develop a system of evaluation that draws on meaningful observations and input from your peers, as well as a sophisticated assessment that measures individual student growth, creativity, and critical thinking. States, with the help of teachers, are now developing better assessments so you will have useful information to guide instruction and show the positive impact you are having on our children.
Working together, we can transform teaching from the factory model designed over a century ago to one built for the information age. We can build an accountability system based on data we trust and a standard that is honest--one that recognizes and rewards great teaching, gives new or struggling teachers the support they need to succeed, and deals fairly, efficiently, and compassionately with teachers who are simply not up to the job


Earlier in your message, you seem to be acknowledging that the current accountability system - the result of decades of work by presumably well-meaning and intelligent designers -- is unfair to teachers, and results in a narrowing of the curriculum for students in poverty. What makes you think that our current generation of policymakers and test designers have a hitherto unseen capacity to produce NEW tests and evaluations that are so vastly superior to existing ones?

The current state-level budget woes appear to be a long-term, rather than a one-year phenomenon. Given these financial pressures, won’t the great expansion in testing in the works divert even more scarce resources from classrooms?

We have, as I have pointed out since I wrote my original open letter to President Obama a year and a half ago, a deep gulf of mistrust between your policies and the nation’s teachers. Your letter does very little to bridge this gulf.

Your press office responded last month to related questions that I raised, but I must confess my concerns persist. Until these issues are resolved, I find it difficult to take seriously your proclamations of support and honor for the teachers of America.

By the way, I will be at the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC, on July 30th, protesting these policies with several thousand other teachers, parents and students who share my concerns. Might we arrange a meeting?

Skeptically yours,

Anthony Cody

What do you think? What is your reaction to Secretary Duncan’s missive? Do you have any questions to add to mine?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.