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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