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Arne Duncan Calls Two Teachers

Publication Date: 2010-05-27

Hello, This is Arne Duncan Calling

>My chat with Secretary Duncan second time worked

May 26, 2010

Julie Woestehoff Comment:
Hi Anthony- As someone who dealt with Mr. Duncan for over eight years in Chicago, I support your degree of skepticism about any positive outcome of this phone call.

Duncan is where he is because he sounds very sincere when he lies, prevaricates, and covers up the truth. His role has been to pour oil on troubled waters, not to improve schools or educate children. He is the "aw shucks" face of the school privatizers, period.

However, the fact that you did get him to respond is definitely a sign that you're now perceived as a threat. You have brought together and made public so many powerful, compelling statements from teachers. Your strategic approach to the forum was just the kind of careful preparation and follow up work that devastates Duncan and his gang.

You can tell from his vague, pandering comments that he means to assuage you and your allies, not change direction.

But you don't have to roll over for such an obvious ploy. Keep doing what you are doing -- crank it up! lots of us will help! -- and pretty soon Arne's act won't be enough. They may have to actually do something different.

Hello, This is Arne Duncan Calling...
By Anthony Cody

Yesterday afternoon my phone rang. "Hello, this is Arne Duncan calling. Can we talk?"

I had heard he might be calling this week, but I was still a bit shocked. "Hello, Arne!" I said a bit loudly. He asked if I wanted to share any more with him. I told him about Chuck Olynyk, a great Los Angeles teacher who had refused to reapply for his own job at Fremont High. I told him about the Oakland schools which face restructuring. I told him that I worked with the some of the teachers at these schools, and they were so dedicated to their students. I told him it was not fair that these schools that take on the greatest challenges, in the toughest neighborhoods, have the screws put to them. A teacher at one of these schools told me their principal is the heart and soul of their school, and yet they have been told they must fire their principal to qualify for a school improvement grant.

Mr. Duncan told me that the principal need not be fired if she had been there less than three years. (unfortunately, the principal has been there too long to use this loophole.)

I then said that the continued emphasis on boosting test scores made these schools focus too much on test prep. "Oh no, we don't want that," he said. "We are using a whole bunch of outcomes, like dropout rates, not just test scores."

I was honestly a bit incredulous at this point. I said "These schools are on this list because they haven't made AYP. The biggest factor in AYP is test scores."

Secretary Duncan responded, "But we are going to get rid of AYP."

I will have to investigate this. I have been under the impression that test scores remain hugely important in designating schools as being in need of restructuring.

Then I asked about followup. I said we would like a way to continue to have dialog on these issues. He said our group had obviously put a lot of work into preparing, and we had been "extraordinarily thoughtful and useful," and that he would have an assistant follow up with us to set up the next chance to connect. He placed a similar call to Marsha Ratzel, who helped convene Monday's meeting.

I have to say the impact of this is still sinking in. We wrote our letters six months ago, and we hoped we might be heard. We have many of the same concerns and even disagreements with administration policies that we had then. But it appears we now have the attention of the Secretary of Education, and we are speaking our truths. We are going to keep speaking up, and keep finding ways to get teachers around the country involved in thinking about these tough issues -- and finding ways to be heard.

The blog I posted on Monday was written in frustration, and asked whether we had been heard. The call from Secretary Duncan was an acknowledgment of that frustration, and an invitation to extend the dialogue. There has been a breakdown in communication between America's teachers and the Department of Education, that stretches back long before the current administration. There is a huge logjam of unheard ideas, perceptions and wisdom. We have not shared a vision for a long time.

In comments and emails in response to my first post I have been accused of groveling by some, and of being ungrateful and negative by others. This is symptomatic of the broken lines of communication we are trying to repair. We still have a long road ahead of us, but at least it feels as if we have a chance, and we will build on it as best we can, because our students deserve the best we can offer. I truly appreciate the chance we have been given, with special thanks to Marsha Ratzel, Patrick Kerr, Secretary Duncan and his staff. I will continue to share as the process unfolds. Join us in discussing next steps over at the Teachers' Letters to Obama Facebook group.

What do you think? Is there a chance we might begin to be heard?

My chat with Secretary Duncan...second time worked

by Marsha Ratzel

If you’ve read my previous blog entries you’ll see that I’ve been in a roller coaster Roller coaster

the last couple of days. Yesterday I started the day down in the dumps because I felt like the conversation with Secretary Duncan was so bad. Then I found out he felt badly too and to try and remedy everything, he was going to call me. I got a phone call 10 minutes after school and we talked about 15 minutes. My colleague, Anthony Cody, also received a call. Read about his experience here. I didn't write this blog entry right away because I felt like I needed to figure stuff out....I read once the trick with roller coasters is not to get stuck in the highs or lows of them. So I thought a day would help me process what I thought. I’d say those were some of the most fun 15 minutes I’ve had in a long time. I’m not a super political talker nor am an expert strategist but I am a thinker and passionate about my teaching practice. I got to ask him a couple of questions about things that really bug meâ€Â¦.my first question centered on assessment. I really tried to explain how assessments run the show in a classroomâ€Â¦.and it’s no different when the state relies on this single measure. Instead I tried to draw a contrast with the kinds of assessments I’m trying to developâ€Â¦ones that embed my curriculum objectives within a real life problem from the community. Right now I’m hoping to find a land use project where I can teach my rational number objectives alongside my earth science learning targetsâ€Â¦blend in a fair measure of reading and writingâ€Â¦work with a land developer and come up with some new insights that only kids can probably offer. I ask Secretary Duncan how the BluePrint would ever hope to do that? to which he told me about the millions of dollars that are set aside for developing new assessments that he hoped will be used to develop the kinds of things I am trying to do. It wasn’t easy but I had to tell him that I didn’t think that any teacher that I know would ever believe that all those millions of dollars would help them. We’ve had too many years of promises and the only thing we got was more bubble-assessments, narrowing the curriculum and make school a terrible place.

Here’s the most amazing part. I think he really heard me. I think he sort of thought that I’d be encouraged by the investment of all that money and when I wasn’tâ€Â¦when I sort of thought I’d never see a penny of impact in my classroomâ€Â¦I think he sort of got the idea what makes a gap between the DOE policy and the reality of a classroom. I told him I thought all the money would be eaten away at by state departments of education, special consultants and academicsâ€Â¦. very little of it would ever get to a classroom teacher like me. Heck if you think about itâ€Â¦why would we even need to go through all those layers if people like me (and I’m the same as most teachers you’ll find) already know what is best practices and we can do it without millions of dollars of help. I don't think he agreed with me, but I think he might have heard how a teacher feels.

Now I’m hoping it will help him remember we are smart, we are already capableâ€Â¦.just unharness from these high-stakes tests shackles and we’ll deliver something that much more powerful and much more engaging and will prepare kids to be good at something other than filling in bubbles.

My next question was about pay for performance. I see the single step pay as a broken system where you only have to keep from being fired in order to the get the same raise as anyone else. Why would anyone think that is a good system for paying people? I told him, though, that paying people for performance of their students on a single test ( for me that represents 3 days out of the 180 that we have school) is just as broken.

To this he responded that, “I hear you, I hear you”. I thought that was encouraging and I will tell you that he didn't offer me any pat answers either on this topic. He mentioned what they did in Chicago but he mostly listenedâ€Â¦to meâ€Â¦.a regular teacher who isn’t an important anyone. I tried to push him( isn't that a funny possibility) to make sure the Blueprint advocates for multi-faceted pay systems that are solidly built on student learning but also give teachers career paths to explore and grow into. OK, I know I’m a stup to think it will really make a difference in policy, but maybe it will faintly cross his mind????? Maybe one day he'll remember that teachers aren't afraid of accountability or transparency and want to be paid based on their performance. I mentioned work I'd done in the past.

Several years ago, I worked with a Teachers Solution group on pay. I told Secretary Duncan about that group where our organizer brought in speakers and we read papersâ€Â¦collecting information from the best programs out there at the time. We learned about the TAP program (Milken), Denver’s pay system, New Mexico, the growth models created by economists and more. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I think Secretary Duncan might have been surprised I actually knew about all these. I’m lucky because I worked with a good group and had time to learn. I told him our group created a set of ideas around which groups could begin to really study the idea of pay for performanceâ€Â¦and that we wrote a pretty substantial paper about it. He wanted to know moreâ€Â¦and as I sort of described the matrix of optionsâ€Â¦.I think he was interested. I guess so many teacher voices out there had made me think he'd stick to pay for performance linked to a single test or this growth model (neither of which I'm so thrilled about) so I was pretty shocked he was interested. Eventually he asked me to send him a copyâ€Â¦.and I actually think he’ll read it.

From there I just boldly asked him if he'd like to try again to discuss stuff with us. I told him we could be a great sounding board because we aren't affiliated with any political viewpoint or special interest group. And I suggested since we tried the DOE tech maybe he would let us do the next one trying our tech!!! I just asked him if he'd come if we invited him to something on Elluminate and could we begin to develop a working relationship/partnership. He said "Count me in" . So at least my group might talk with him one more time...and he could get to hear all the voices from our group because there are people that have just as much to tell him about the thing about which they are passionate.

Count me in???? Are you kidding me??? I was so thrilled. I was polite but I pushed and I tried to respectfully tell him where they were making mistakes. Goshâ€Â¦I just put it out there and hoped that it was taken in the spirit in which I offered it. Secretary Duncan throughout the call listened and I think he knew I was the good kind of oppositionâ€Â¦the kind that pushes you to be better than you will be if you only have “yes” men around you.

So here’s my big takeaway for myself. I had agreed to use a script to help me speak more coherently during the first call. I didn’t. I don’t know if I would have been OK if the technology worked well, but it didn’t and I felt like I was terrible. So this time I figured I couldn’t do worse so I just tried to be me. Not a big shot or a big education authority. I just spoke from my heart about the things I know I know more about than anyone in the world. My school and my kids. I was much better and I’m NEVER going to allow myself to get talked into using a script. I hope that sincerity and commitment to doing the best for my kids and for my colleagues came throughâ€Â¦I think it did.

So thank you Secretary Duncan. I know there are many reasons why you called me yesterdayâ€Â¦but I’m holding onto the one that you were a gentleman that wanted to hear teacher voices and when things messed up you wanted to set them right. That’s cool.

I don’t know if I made a crack in anything or if I helped DOE see what and how teachers feel. I wish I could because we are a force to be engaged. For so long we’ve been blamed and alienatedâ€Â¦.pushed aside because people don’t think we’re very good at what we do. If DOE could figure out how to talk with us; how to hear us; how to make us believe againâ€Â¦.wellâ€Â¦.educational reform would blow you away. There are so many of us that know what to do but we’re too far away from the seats of power to help or be heard. But for my 12 minutes, I was a citizen voicing my ideas and holding up my civic responsibility to try. And again I’ll say thank you Secretary Duncan.

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