Thursday, October 13, 2011

Meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Today I attended a meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, put on at H.B.Lee Middle School in the Reynolds School District outside Portland. The event was organized by the Oregon Education Association. The intention was to share some of our frustrations with the Secretary and hear his plans as they related to those concerns. In that, I’d say we were halfway successful.

300 educators packed one side of the school’s gym while the string orchestra played. There were 25 or so kids playing, and they were quite good. At the time, we didn’t know that was a kind of foreshadowing, because we were in for a virtuoso performance of a different kind, this one in evasion.

When Duncan came into the room, I was immediately struck by his height, and turned to my friend Jason Foltz, our OEA regional rep with whom I’d carpooled, and made a crack about how I expected Duncan was pretty good at basketball, and that was probably what got him the job in Obama’s cabinet.

Steve Novak, a former senatorial candidate and current candidate for a position on the Portland City Council, moderate the event, and gave a very brief introduction, sharing some information about the situation in which Oregon educators find ourselves. One revealing fact: In our 07-09 biennium, education was budgeted $6.3 billion by the legislature (before they cut into that). In the 09-11 biennium, we were budgeted $5.7 (before they cut into that). That’s a pretty dramatic drop-off, especially in the face of all kinds of new requirements coming down from the federal government during that time.

Then Novak introduced Secretary Duncan. He shared that Duncan had worked for seven years as the head of Chicago public schools, and that he’d previously played professional basketball. He then stole my joke, which I’m sure was entirely original when I said it. Novak also politely refrained from mentioning that Duncan has never worked as a classroom teacher.

Duncan then spoke for a moment. He acknowledged that it’s a tough time in education, and that school funding is the lowest it’s been in twenty, forty, sixty years (I suppose it has to do with how you make the calculation). He also said kids have more temptations outside of school. His interest, he told us, was in finding out how the Department of Ed. could best support us. He admitted that NCLB is broken, that it was too punitive, and that Congress was to blame for not fixing it. He promised waivers as a stop-gap since we can’t depend on Congress to fix NCLB. His interest is in working collaboratively with states, then in getting out of their way when they are doing well. I was particularly interested when he mentioned working with states to come up with creative methods to evaluate teacher performance, since I’m very skeptical about reform efforts that start with teacher evaluation and assume they’ll figure out the definition of “better teacher” later on, after they’ve measured it. He didn’t elaborate, though.

He also tied his listening tour in with the President’s push for the Jobs Act, which received applause. He described the effect the act would have here in Oregon, including $351 million for teacher retention which would employ an additional 2000 teachers, and $240 million for capital improvements which would fix dilapidated schools while providing a boost to employment. He was also very pleased with the $500 million the act would give the state in money for Early Childhood Education.

Once Duncan was finished, Novak introduced three storytellers who were chosen to explain the state of education in Oregon as it manifested in their personal experience. The first teacher, Sarah Williams, a math teacher from a community college, talked about the federal emphasis on degree completion, and how it was misaligned with the needs of many community college students. She described students who needed to pick up a few courses for work, those who transferred to four year institutions before completing their AAs, and those who received jobs before completing their AAs and chose to go directly to work in their fields. She asked the Secretary how the feds could penalize the community colleges when these students’ needs were so obviously being met.

The second storyteller, Cindy Johnson, is an Early Intervention Specialist. She works with disabled children who haven’t started kindergarten yet, helping them learn to cope with their disabilities to give them a good start when they begin school. As she explained to the Secretary, when new money is poured into Early Childhood Education programs like Headstart, although that is certainly a good thing, it makes those children eligible for Early Intervention help, even though those programs haven’t been given any new money, creating a crisis in their part of the system. She described kids with needs that were not being met because their teachers were now stretched so thin and have caseloads so large, they can’t provide the vital services they used to be able to provide.

Then an elementary classroom teacher named Joyce (I didn’t catch her last name) talked about how, when she began teaching, she was encouraged to avoid core content for the first month just to create a community of learners, but now she’s run her students through three standardized tests in the first month alone. The students are then color coded and divided into groups right down to the individual question they may get wrong, so they can be given specific instruction preparing them for specific questions. The number of minutes they spend sitting at their desks are measured so there’s no longer time to marry learning to movement. Students used to love independent reading, but now, if they score too low on standardized tests, they are taken out of their independent reading groups and put in remedial reading programs. These students now tell her, “I hate reading.” Joyce told the Secretary, “This is what No Child Left Behind has done to our schools.” The applause was deafening. She explained that we are now punished for things over which we have no control instead of being celebrated for our successes. Not only are students’ rich educations being left behind, but teachers are being left behind as well. “I would ask you, Mr. Duncan, to remove the business model from education and remember we are working with children, not interchangeable parts.”

When the applause died down again, Novak introduced educators who had specific questions for Duncan. The first questioner explained that public school teachers were out in front, supporting the charter school movement, back when we thought those would be models of innovation but would still be accountable to the public for their use of public funds. In light of the fact that 80% of charter schools are no better than their local public schools, and many are worse, she asked him to defend the push to increase for-profit and internet-based charter schools that take resources away from traditional public schools. Duncan said he did not support “drop-out factories.” He talked about some charter schools that have been very effective, but recognized that when there’s no accountability for these schools it’s a “recipe for mediocrity.” He did not talk about any method or interest in putting accountability measures in place.

The next teacher, Colleen Works, didn’t mention that she was our state’s teacher of the year. (I only know because she carpooled with Jason and I, and he bragged about her.) She’s a high school history teacher from Corvallis, and explained that she has 190 kids a day, ranging from those with the most severe learning disabilities to those who are our most advanced. She’d calculated that she’s given 30 seconds per child to prepare her lessons. She asked why, when that time is being filled by so many tasks designed to hold her accountable for her performance, there are no accountability measures being put in place for the people who design accountability measures. Duncan began with a complete non-sequitor about the importance of Pell Grants. Then he said, of accountability measures, that he favors those built around growth rather than raw measurements of student achievement. In this answer, he mentioned the Chalkboard Project, an Oregon-based non-profit school reform organization which is often at odds with teachers. The crowd booed, which seemed to take Duncan by surprise.

The next question, about TIFF and Waivers, was such insider baseball that Duncan told the questioner he’d be happy to talk with him about it afterwards.

A Para-Educator asked about the role of Paras. Duncan talked about how all the adults in a school need to work together, which didn’t seem to address her question at all. He then asked us to guess how much the federal government spends on professional development for teachers. Someone shouted “Zero!” He explained that the Feds spend $3.5 billion a year on professional development, and guessed that, with state and local funds, it’s probably double that, and yet we would guess zero because it’s spent so ineffectively. In my own personal experience, federal money that went to the National Writing Project had a dramatic effect on my teaching, but I only know about the role of the federal government in the program because they then cut that funding. I personally wonder how much of the disconnect is because of ineffective spending, and how much is simply a consequence of not advertising where the dollars come from when programs are valuable.

This brought us to what I thought was the most impressive answer of the whole event. A teacher from Beaverton asked how we could be cutting education while spending so much on the war in Afghanistan. Duncan said this question was a great one, at got at some deeper questions. He described the amount we spend on incarceration in this country, to applause. He described the need to allow immigrant children to enroll in our colleges, to applause. “Our priorities are out of whack,” he told us. He explained that he believes education is an investment, and that other countries are investing while we are cutting. “As a country,” he said, “we’re fighting for our soul.” Wild applause.

Notice what he did there? Incarceration rates are something that are determined by a host of agencies, and by different levels of government. The failure of the Dream Act can be pinned on Congressional Republicans. The rates of investment in other countries are determined by those countries themselves, and our ability to compete financially is largely determined by states, since the Feds only provide around 9% of public school funding. What was the one thing that Duncan’s boss actually has complete control over, and could eliminate almost immediately to show that we are getting our priorities back in order? The war in Afghanistan, the very thing the questioner asked about. Duncan not only dodged her question, but did it so deftly he had to stop for applause three times. That’s some fancy dancing.

The last question was the most direct. The educator asked Duncan how he would be convincing the Oregon Business Association to support us when he attended a gala fundraiser of theirs this evening. He told her that, though he believes “You will never have a great community or city without a great public school system,” we are all too mired in the blame game, that teachers need to look in the mirror, that we need to meet in the middle, and that we need to stop pointing fingers.

At that point I stood up and screamed, “BS!” Then I launched into an eloquent rant about how it was total garbage to demand that teachers meet in the middle with people who, in some cases, are ideologically opposed to public education, and that it’s unfair to tell people not to play the blame game when, in fact, teachers have made all the sacrifices and suffered all the abuse while their critics haven’t done a single positive thing for the children we serve. The crowd went absolutely nuts, and I sat down amidst a standing ovation.

Okay, that last part didn’t happen. Duncan thanked us all for coming out, we clapped politely, and our OEA vice-president, Johanna Vandering, encouraged us to send any other questions to Mr. Duncan through\tellarne and to show up at the huge rally at the state capital in February.

Maybe, by February, I will have figured out how to give that eloquent speech. But today I listened to the Secretary of Education avoid every tough question by blaming everyone else for the things that make my day-to-day job harder, then conclude by telling me I shouldn’t play the blame game. I can only hope he heard our discontent and isn’t deluded into believing we were satisfied with his non-answers to our questions.

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