Federal Opinion

Teachers Feeling Unappreciated by Secretary Duncan

By Anthony Cody — May 06, 2011 3 min read
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Teacher Appreciation Week got off to a rocky start for Arne Duncan. He posted a letter to America’s teachers, acknowledging our frustration, but expressing his determination to push forward the agenda that has us so frustrated. His letter was posted in three places that I have seen. Here, on Teacher Magazine, where there are now 76 responses, only about three of which could be interpreted as vaguely supportive or even neutral. The rest ran the gamut from skeptical to caustic. On the Huffington Post, and the Department of Education web site, here, where there are 74 comments, the response is similar.

I posted my response on Monday, and Sabrina Stevens-Shupe wrote an open letter that raised many of the same points raised in my letter. These posts, combined with the overwhelmingly negative comments posted in response to Secretary Duncan’s letter, prompted Department of Education press secretary Justin Hamilton to respond in the Huffington Post. He said:

It's disappointing to hear that someone feels that way, but we don't think that's how the broader teaching community feels about it," said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the Education Department.
In response to teachers' claims that Duncan was disingenuous in saying he intended to work together with students, Hamilton noted that the Education Secretary has visited 169 schools in close to 45 states. "Everywhere he goes he sits down with parents, educators, education stakeholders, community members," Hamilton said.

I read some of the other responses that were posted. One was especially telling.

A commenter named becut wrote on the Huffington Post:

Arne Duncan visited my school. The school cleaned the main building spotless, put up large university banners and huge glossy pics of students enjoying themselves at school. Mr. Duncan visited a second year "Teach for America" teacher's classroom. Her (period) 3 students were rearranged with only the good students. Her record was touted for raising some of the lowest math students test scores.
Many of the teachers knew that during this teacher's first year she had extreme difficulty managing classroom discipline; another teacher had to take her difficult students everyday and security was called daily to her room. It was so insulting to the experienced teachers that this teacher, who could not even control her classes was given such high praise. Most math teachers know that if you take very low math students and teach them the simplest thing (1+2), their scores will rise. She shared a practice test she was using which had actual problems from the test, just in a different order.
Mr. Duncan never knew what he was being fed. He never visited random classes, un-announced. He went to 2 classes that had been staged. The parents were hand selected also. The community people he met were politicians (the mayor, school board members, city councilmen, etc.), and businessmen. They changed our bell schedule, we had to hold all the other students until he left. He never saw anything real. He never talked to anyone other than people the administration selected. Media photo opportunity, that's all!

This might explain how Secretary Duncan and his team have formed the impression they have of what teachers think. As an old saying goes, “The rich man knows not who is his friend.” When you are handing out billions in government funding, it might be expected that many of those hoping for some of that will appear to support you. But the response to Secretary Duncan’s letter has been far more revealing than his school visits appear to have been.

I wrote last week about the “bubble” that has been inflated around the supposed value of test scores. I wonder if Secretary Duncan is somehow living inside of that bubble, and is unaware of the depth of the frustration felt by classroom teachers.

So either the overwhelming majority of teachers feel as do Sabrina Stevens-Shupe, myself, and the roughly several hundred who posted critical comments in response to Secretary Duncan, or we represent some sort of cranky complainers, outside of the mainstream of American education. Which is it?

Going back to Secretary Duncan’s letter, there is a huge clue there that they actually know the answer to this question. He states in his letter that when he visits schools he finds teachers “are frustrated when teachers alone are blamed for educational failures that have roots in broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded schools systems.”

This is hardly the sort of feedback that would indicate support of the Department’s agenda. It seems to me that this summary of frustrations aligns much more closely with the skeptical response I shared in my own open letter this week.

It is possible that the bubble-like environment described by becut has allowed Secretary Duncan to sail along with his agenda unaware that he has succeeded in alienating the vast majority of American teachers. Or it is possible that he and his Department are aware of this alienation, and are simply hoping that the traditionally docile teaching profession will, in spite of our great frustration, do little more than post angry comments on our blogs.

Some of us are doing more.

Some of us are actively organizing to change the direction in which we are headed. We are calling for parents, teachers, and advocates for children join us at the Save Our Schools March this July 30th, in Washington, DC.

We are connecting with parents like Tim Slekar and Michele Gray of Pennsylvania, who have been organizing others to get their students to opt out of state standardized tests. We have found common ground with activists like Rita Solnet, one of the founders of Parents Across America. These three will be leading a discussion at the next Save Our Schools webinar on Saturday, May 7, at 8 pm eastern. Please join us.

What do you think? Do those of us voicing skepticism in response to Duncan’s letter represent a fringe element? Or are we in the mainstream of teacher opinion?

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.