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Reading Between the Lines: What Arne Duncan Was (Maybe) Thinking in His Letter to Teachers

As part of Teacher Appreciation Week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan published an open letter to America’s teachers. Perhaps Secretary Duncan writes his own speeches—but the fact that the U.S. Department of Education lists 124 employees for the Office of Communications and Outreach suggests otherwise. Perhaps the Secretary’s mind wanders as he reads the texts prepared for him—and perhaps he inserts his own thoughts as he reads along.


Below, I imagine just what those thoughts might be.

Secretary Arne Duncan thanks teachers at Randolph Elementary School in Arlington, VA, on National Teacher Appreciation Day. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Education)

I have worked in education for much of my life. I have met with thousands of teachers in great schools and struggling schools, in big cities and small towns, and I have a deep and genuine appreciation for the work you do. I know that most teachers did not enter the profession for the money. (That’s why I’m such a strong supporter of basing merit pay on growth in students’ test scores.) You became teachers to make a difference in the lives of children, and for the hard work you do each day, you deserve to be respected, valued, and supported. (And as long as it doesn’t get in the way of raising test scores, I’m committed to that goal.)

I consider teaching an honorable and important profession, and it is my goal to see that you are treated with the dignity we award to other professionals in society. (Recall how outspoken I’ve been in the face of portrayals of teachers as incompetent in forums such as the film Waiting for “Superman.”) In too many communities, the profession has been devalued. (Perhaps you’ve heard of Central Falls, R.I., which did the right thing for kids by firing every teacher in the district.) Many of the teachers I have met object to the imposition of curriculum that reduces teaching to little more than a paint-by-numbers exercise. I agree. (Given the narrowing of the curriculum that our policies continue to promote, though, it’s more like paint-by-a-single-number. And who decided that the number should be 6?)

Inside your classroom, you exercise a high degree of autonomy. (Unless, of course, you want to be able to hold onto a job in which the performance of teachers and schools is based almost entirely on students’ standardized test scores.) You decide when to slow down to make sure all of your students fully understand a concept, or when a different instructional strategy is needed to meet the needs of a few who are struggling to keep up. (You also have a great deal of control over how many hours a day you devote to test preparation.) You build relationships with students from a variety of backgrounds and with a diverse array of needs, and you find ways to motivate and engage them. I appreciate the challenge and skill involved in the work you do and applaud those of you who have dedicated your lives to teaching. (Of course, I also applaud those of you who have dedicated the first two years of your lives after college to teaching before moving on to your real careers, which is why we awarded Teach for America $50 million in our Investing in Innovation competition.)

Many of you have told me you are willing to be held accountable for outcomes over which you have some control, but you also want school leaders held accountable for creating a positive and supportive learning environment. You want real feedback in a professional setting rather than drive-by visits from principals or a single score on a bubble test. (That’s really a caricature, I must say. Usually there are at least two bubble tests involved.) And you want the time and opportunity to work with your colleagues and strengthen your craft. (Increased time to collaborate with colleagues is one of our signature unfunded policies.)

You have told me you believe that the No Child Left Behind Act has prompted some schools—especially low-performing ones—to teach to the test, rather than focus on the educational needs of students. Because of the pressure to boost test scores, NCLB has narrowed the curriculum, and important subjects like history, science, the arts, foreign languages, and physical education have been de-emphasized. (That’s why we’ve funded two large consortia—to the tune of $330 million—to develop new state assessments in English and math only.) And you are frustrated when teachers alone are blamed for educational failures that have roots in broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded schools systems. You rightfully believe that responsibility for educational quality should be shared by administrators, community, parents, and even students themselves. (But don’t expect these shared responsibilities to show up in the teacher evaluation systems that states proposed to win those big Race to the Top bucks.)

The teachers I have met are not afraid of hard work, and few jobs today are harder. (If I keep saying this, perhaps you won’t notice that our policies are the major reason this is true.) Moreover, it’s gotten harder in recent years; the challenges kids bring into the classroom are greater and the expectations are higher. Not too long ago, it was acceptable for schools to have high dropout rates, and not all kids were expected to be proficient in every subject. In today’s economy, there is no acceptable dropout rate, and we rightly expect all children—English-language learners, students with disabilities, and children of poverty—to learn and succeed. (Just don’t ask me to define what that actually means.)

You and I are here to help America’s children. We understand that the surest way to do that is to make sure that the 3.2 million teachers in America’s classrooms are the very best they can be. The quality of our education system can only be as good as the quality of our teaching force. (Well, there’s that pesky poverty thing affecting the quality of the education system, but you can’t incentivize poverty.)

So I want to work with you to change and improve federal law, to invest in teachers and strengthen the teaching profession. Together with you, I want to develop a system of evaluation that draws on meaningful observations and input from your peers, as well as a sophisticated assessment that measures individual student growth, creativity, and critical thinking. (I’m a firm believer in making policy based on assessments that won’t exist for several more years.) States, with the help of teachers, are now developing better assessments so you will have useful information to guide instruction and show the positive impact you are having on our children.

Working together, we can transform teaching from the factory model designed over a century ago to one built for the information age. (And the market-based reforms that we incentivized in Race to the Top, such as lifting charter-school caps, are the key to doing so.) We can build an accountability system based on data we trust and a standard that is honest—one that recognizes and rewards great teaching, gives new or struggling teachers the support they need to succeed, and deals fairly, efficiently, and compassionately with teachers who are simply not up to the job. (I, for one, have so much faith in value-added measures of teacher performance based on standardized tests that I think they should be made public, to reward excellence. Imagine a great teacher’s pride at wearing a scarlet “A.”) With your input and leadership, we can restore the status of the teaching profession so more of America’s top college students choose to teach because no other job is more important or more fulfilling.

In the next decade, half of America’s teachers are likely to retire. What we do to recruit, train, and retain our new teachers will shape public education in this country for a generation. At the same time, how we recognize, honor, and show respect for our experienced educators will reaffirm teaching as a profession of nation builders and social leaders dedicated to our highest ideals. As that work proceeds, I want you to know that I hear you, I value you, and I respect you. (Now if you’ll excuse me, Bill Gates is on the line.)

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Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan Stat...