A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 01 2010

An Imaginary, One-Sided Chat with Arne Duncan on Teacher Quality

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I could tell that, as soon as he walked into the room, his real-life physical stature aligned extraordinarily well with his prominence in the Obama administration. His arrival, too, elicited a collective sigh of relief from the crowd crammed so tightly within the space that four sound-proofed walls had created. We really wanted to see him. And we were nervous. Ladies and gentleman, I was–on a scorching summer day in our nation’s capital–in a radio studio with the United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

Last week, I, along with thirty other DC region public school teachers, attended a teacher town hall meeting with Secretary Duncan sponsored and broadcast by Sirius/XM Radio’s POTUS channel. I knew that this was a special opportunity, so I cleared out my schedule in order to attend this event.

The goal of the meeting was to allow teachers to ask Secretary Duncan as many questions as possible about education reform here in the US. Tim Farley of XM Radio was there to moderate the discussion.  I snapped a photo of the two of them before the program really started (sidenote: it’s fascinating to be in a radio studio before a show goes live–though not as fascinating as this).  Secretary Duncan took a swig out of one of his three water bottles as we went live:

I found myself surrounded by impassioned teachers (read: teachers who wanted to ask questions); consequently, I was not able to ask the question that I had prepared for Secretary Duncan (though luck would have it that I was the next person waiting in line at the mic when the show ended!).  But I think the question is still worth asking.  I’m going to ask him this in my imaginary, one-sided chat:

The summer issue of the Atlantic features a guide to “the 14 and 3/4 biggest ideas of the year.” David Brooks elaborated on one of these ideas–namely, that “teachers are fair game.”  We seem to be living in an era in which attitudes towards the issues of human capital and teacher quality are shifting.  The recent round of performance-based firings in the DC Public Schools serves as evidence that this idea is, more than ever before, alive.

Do you agree that this idea is “big”?  If so, in what ways do you see this idea influencing or reshaping the Department of Education’s reform efforts and/or broader philosophy?

Presently, “teacher quality” is a catchphrase that has caught on in the world of education reform. Doug Lemov has a taxonomy on how teachers can improve the quality of their teaching.  Teach For America is one organization that has teacher quality at the center of its philosophy; one could argue that TFA is essentially one giant “experiment” in this area.  Seems promising, right?

I’d like to think that this idea is catching on.  Certainly, as someone living in the midst of some unprecedented developments in the broader timeline of education reform, I’ve seen good evidence of this idea being “big.”

Yet, I wonder whether we have made enough actual progress as a country on this front. Sure, policy-oriented discussions–whether at the dinner table, at think-tank conferences or in legislator’s halls–seem peppered with talk on this idea. Let’s figure out how to measure teacher effectiveness and fire those that aren’t effective, since “every child deserves an effective teacher”; let’s work on “building a better teacher“; and let’s think about how we can use professional development as a way to help teachers improve.

But where’s the evidence in the field–in the 100,000 schools across the nation that provide our children a public education–that this idea is really taking hold?

  • Indeed, one NTCQ study found that 75% of the 100 major school districts it looked at fire employees solely based on seniority, a practice that–come on, let’s be real–is archaic.
  • Or, take a look at the “dance of the lemons” in Los Angeles Unified School District, in which “[district] officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district’s 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance.”
  • If frolicking fruits don’t tickle your fancy, how about the “rubber rooms” of NYC (admittedly, they are being wound down), where incompetent teachers sit around all day and yet take paychecks from the city.  The 80,000-teacher district was able to fire just 25 tenured teachers during the 2008-2009 school year, and only two were based solely on incompetence.
  • But haven’t we already seen this debate before?  A decade ago, Julia Koppich, an education consultant, said this: “A 1998 Harris poll found that 90 percent of Americans believed that the most important factor in improving student achievement is having a well-qualified teacher in every classroom.”  If we’ve believed this for so long, it’s surely taken a long time to act on–or begin to act on–these beliefs.

Change is, surely, afoot.  But change must also come faster. Each second means another second where students are stranded in classrooms with poor teachers merely because those poor teachers couldn’t be removed from the system.  We’ve talked about this for far too long.  Let’s get moving–by moving out those teachers who don’t make the cut.
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    Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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