Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Arne Duncan call: The Final Curtain or Just Act 1 ?

By on May 25, 2010

Stay positive, I keep reminding myself. For if I don’t, my anger can make me unproductive to my cause. Stay positive, I keep reminding myself. For if I don’t, I stray from my general belief that politicians enter into their field with good intentions, even if those intentions are swept away with pragmatic game-playing and the need to impose ill-conceived change even at the detriment of  their decisions.

So it was with our call yesterday with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Now, I’m not saying that I thought we were about to make a huge difference in education with one 30-minute call. But I was hopeful that we were on the same page regarding the intention of the call. I was under the impression that they had granted us entry in order to hear suggestions from teachers to better the specificity of the Blueprint. Rather, it was what we had feared; he wanted us to come at him with questions, so that he and the members of the DOE could respond with answers from the Blueprint itself or from the Race to the Top policy.

Disappointing, because I believe that they are so fully neck-deep in Race to the Top, they could never about-face even when presented with the evidence to do so. They have so fully committed outrageous amounts of funds and, worse, so fully invested their reputation in this misguided and harmful program that they answer everything with this “RTTT grin,” like it is the answer to all possible concerns.

But I get ahead of myself. Here’s a rundown of the actual conversation:

It all began with this robotic, antiquated dial in phone conference system which garbled words, created echoes, and dipped in volume. We had suggested using Elluminate. And it got me thinking how ironic this was that we were sitting there, talking to DC about 21st century skills, when we couldn’t even communicate using those very tools. That’s not to say that the 12 of us weren’t doing our best. We had a ning set up to backchat during the process, and frankly that conversational B-story deserves its own post.

Because through our backchat we could pass notes of encouragement, of policy suggestions, of frustrations. And yes, there were many. Starting with the fact that Duncan and the DOE took 10 minutes of the 30 introducing their policies and trying to encourage us with what they were already doing. They threw out words like collaboration, teacher voice, fears about job loss, class size reduction, the fact that we’ve been asked to do more with fewer resources, the fact that we need better evaluations, and that we have been losing a more well-rounded curriculum. He claimed that he realized that in education there seem to be “many ways to fail, but few rewards to success.” They don’t want to micromanage. They felt that NCLB was punitive. It went on. Now, of course he said everything we all want to hear. But his disconnect lies not in what is being said as a goal, but in how they intend to make it all happen.

Ok, so they believe in collaboration. So why don’t we in schools have it? He believes in a more well-rounded curriculum. Well, then why make success still based on test scores? Where are the solutions?

It’s like saying, “We like pizza!”

To which we respond, “Well then, why are we still serving Melba toast?”

“Well, we believe in the power of pizza, so everyone make pizza!”

“Great, we’re with you on this one, we like it too, but how do we make pizza with no dough, tomatoes, cheese, or toppings?”

“Pizza good!”

The Blueprint is not an answer, it’s a goal. That’s where the disconnect lies.

Anyway, after Duncan talked, the robot voice introduced our first speaker, Marsha Ratzel, who had a great intro prepared which unfortunately couldn’t be heard due to the limitations of the technology. Then I was up. ( Beat beat) while I dial in a code to have my mute disarmed, (Beat beat) while the robot-voice introduced me.

I can’t for the life of me remember exactly what happened with my answer. It’s a bit of a blur. And I became flustered with the sound problems so I didn’t come off as eloquent or witty as I would have liked. Marsha Ratzel posted the text of our intended contribution here. But what was frustrating is that at some point, only 30 seconds in, I was stopped, being asked if where I was going with this was the need for critical thinking.

But it wasn’t only about critical thinking, I said. It’s about our assessments not reflecting the skills we all agree will prepare students for college and career readiness. “We’re all here to make suggestions,” I said. And what I suggested is that funds be redirected to the thousands of teachers out there to train them in the development and scoring of more critical thinking assessments.

“Well it just so happens, Heather…” they began, saying that they are planning to funnel $350 million for state assessment systems. But what we’re talking about, I tried to explain, is teacher created and classroom assessments, not state created assessments. He then told me that the funds are to encourage states to bring in teachers to the assessment scoring process. But we are suggesting that the money go to bringing teachers into the creation of assessments that test more authentic, project based skills. Once again, disconnect.

They spoke with much pride about RTTT allowing everyone to be eligible for their funds. But once again, there’s this disconnect, because everyone being Eligible does not mean everyone has Access.

Duncan mentioned his support of NBCT and NWP but never addressed the current threat to either program.

Beyond me, only 3 other speakers were permitted the microphone and each were truncated and answered with responses from the Blueprint or RTTT.

Here are posts from the other speakers and their take on the conversation.

Chuck Olynyk – “Word Game”

Anthony Cody– “Talking Into a Tin Can on a String 3000 Miles Long: Our Talk with Duncan”

Nancy Flanagan – “Speed Dating with the Secretary of Education”

Mary Tedrow – “Monday Chat with Duncan”

I’ll add more as they are produced.

There is definitely a common theme among them all: disappointment. But there’s another common theme as well: hope. We hope this is the start of something. We hope that the door remains cracked open. We hope that our voices can one day be joined with others in offering suggestions, not in asking questions.

For that is our goal here, fellow teacher, to stop asking questions. We can no longer afford to spend our precious time at the policy table asking questions that they control the answer to. The awkwardness of this conversation had more to do with this difference than anything else. They kept answering questions we were not asking. We kept making suggestions to policies they clearly see as their own solutions.

Our path is now clear. We need to wage a battle of solution, not confusion. Each message that is now produced from a teacher should no longer be a Question awaiting a response, as they are comfortable with. No. We must approach the DOE as advisors. Every letter, every video, every sign, must offer solution, disallowing confusion as to our purpose. When Duncan grants us entry again, or when he grants the next group entry, there can be no doubt that we are there not seeking clarification, as they may hope, but seeking to advise as teachers and experts in education.

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  1. Stacy
    May 25, 2010

    Sounds so frustrating! Maybe, if you ever get a second
    chance, you could change all of your suggestions into the
    form of a question. If it’s questions they want, then hide
    the suggestions in questions’ clothing (so to speak). Like
    for your suggestion about involving teachers in the
    creation process of state tests, maybe you could ask,
    “How are teachers able to apply to become a member of the
    State assessment tests? Is there a website or a snail
    mail address to which a teacher can send a request to
    participate?” Let try to find rhetoric in the blueprint to
    answer that! When in Rome, do as they do. Force them to
    find the missing pieces by asking questions that cannot
    be answered by looking in the blueprint. Force them to see
    the gaps. I am sure that you already considered this
    option and are saying “this idea is too little, too late”
    but that is how I have to work with my admins. Ask questions
    until the have to answer with the suggestion I was already
    trying to make. The only pitfall is that then they think
    that they came up with the idea and they end up taking all of
    the credit. But hey, as long as the problem gets solved, who
    cares about credit. Stay strong, sister! Keep fighting the
    good fight. All of the rest of us are counting on you!
    No pressure, or anything! 🙂

  2. Sarah Puglisi
    May 25, 2010

    I really enjoyed reading this.
    I know you didn’t enjoy the process, but you wrote so well that I’ll enjoy saying pizza for awhile.

    I’ve got to believe you were being derailed. I think they are capable of getting your point. Teachers have been derailed for years.

    I love this”I believe that they are so fully neck-deep in Race to the Top, they could never about-face even when presented with the evidence to do so. They have so fully committed outrageous amounts of funds and, worse, so fully invested their reputation in this misguided and harmful program that they answer everything with this “RTTT grin,” like it is the answer to all possible concerns.”

    I ought to blog about it I like it so much.

    The truth is they were so neck deep in NCLB there was no exit, no examination, no feedback loops, no ways to challenge assumptions.
    In the questions I wrote, 100, I had one based exactly in this. How exactly will you inform yourself to know if you are distorted?

    Except my question was a bit longer and probably better.
    I do want to know the answer to that.

    “They kept answering questions we were not asking. ”
    When I was in Graduate school I took a class that brought me to reading a guy in Madison, Wisconsin. I believe the book was “The Politics of Mis-Information” by Murray Edelman. I read several of his books. I’ll link to it.http://books.google.com/books?id=Ba5vR11O3nYC&printsec=frontcover&dq=politics+of+mis+information+murray&source=bl&ots=wnwCKLTsJ7&sig=rnsf8LCivOEU9m4O7QVXejLuUU4&hl=en&ei=JVv8S5S6MJT4MrK_iM8B&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false
    I offer this because it talks so well about this process of controlling the definitions, what can be heard, what can be said, and I think it’s clear you were dealing with a process like this. A friend says, “You don’t see whhat you don’t see.”

    My question was and remains to Mr. Duncan how can I go through another cycle that is, perhaps, and seemingly the blind elephant?

    I do not find this “educated behavior” nor do I find it something that we should model to our youth.
    We are then teaching how to disassociate, lie, control contexts or, in short, win at any cost.

    You wrote a great blog.
    I’m really proud of the efforts all of you are making.
    More of it!

  3. heather
    May 25, 2010

    Thanks Stacy!
    Interesting take on format. Format was a hard call. We didn’t want to cater to a Townhall Q & A, that wasn’t the point. If it’s is a conversation, then we respond to comments, not questions from one side and answers from the other. But, you’re right, there is a way to ask questions and still embed suggestion.

    Must mull this over…

    Good to hear from you!


  4. Kelly
    May 25, 2010

    Heather – Along with the other 2010 state Teachers of the Year, I had a very similar conference call in February with the Secretary of Education. There was a lot of “Department-speak,” but very little time for the teachers to offer their own perspectives. On a subsequent visit to Washington D.C., I was able to experience more “face time” and a meaningful exchange with Department staff. However, I sympathize with your experience and agree that much more time needs to be spent listening to those of us who actually enter the classroom and face the daily challenge of providing equity in education to all our students.

    I particularly appreciate your comment: “But there’s another common theme as well: hope. We hope this is the start of something. We hope that the door remains cracked open. We hope that our voices can one day be joined with others in offering suggestions, not in asking questions.” I also choose to embrace hope, not cynicism, about the future of our education system. It is our time as teachers to leave the sidelines and take a seat at the table; not quietly accepting policy decisions made by others, but offering substantive suggestions based on a real-world experience that will enhance our profession and the learning experience for all students. Carry on the great work you do in the classroom and the progressive advocacy you offer on behalf of our students and profession.

    Kelly Kovacic
    2010 California Teacher of the Year

  5. heather
    May 25, 2010

    Thanks so much for commenting. Our power as teachers will not only come from our talents, but more so from our ability to remain hopeful without sacrificing our content. Our power will come not in venting, finger pointing, and complaining, but in professional, calm collaborative and unity of message. That’s not to say each of use must agree on everything, but we must send clear messages to the DOE of what school really is and of the talents that lay untapped within their walls.

    Thanks so much for checking into tweenteacher.

    -Heather WG
    aka Tweenteacher

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