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Leadership and Activism

To Secretary Duncan

While I am grateful that Secretary Duncan and his officers engaged with #blog4reform yesterday, I’d like to take a moment to challenge his characterization of what it was really all about.

On the blog, Secretary Duncan said:

Today’s conversation has focused on many issues that I think we can all agree on:

  • We need to raise expectations for America’s students and challenge them with standards that will prepare them for success in colleges and careers.
  • We need to elevate the teaching profession so teachers get the respect they deserve and the tools and time to do their jobs well and continually improve.
  • For education reform to be “real,” we need to focus on what works. We need consensus on the right way to measure students’ progress. And then we all need to hold ourselves accountable—and recognize those educators who are especially effective.
  • We need to involve parents as active partners in their children’s education so they can support the hard work that teachers do in the classroom.

Here’s what I heard yesterday:

  • We need to expect ourselves to teach right by America’s students and challenge them with opportunities to feel, make, and perform authentic, humane work that will help them uphold our responsibilities to one another as American and global citizens.
  • We need to elevate the purpose of public education so students get the opportunities they deserve and the tools and time to help themselves and their communities continuously improve.
  • For education reform to be “real” we need to acknowledge that many kinds of education work for many kinds of students, and that a national program driven by standardized testing and materials from third party vendors is the worst-fit for most students. We need consensus that there are several right ways to teach, learn, and demonstrate both. And then we all need to hold ourselves accountable for letting go of limiting and harmful past practices.
  • We need to open schools to parents so they can support their children and themselves where our shared work takes place, so teachers AND parents AND students can support one another’s hard work and learning.

I didn’t hear anything about doing things one way yesterday, and that was the whole point. We teachers, students, and parents have ideas, not a single idea. What works is bigger than any single program, and, frankly, what works for a closed system kind of program doesn’t change America or its democracy for the better. It borders on the fraudulent to claim that we’re developing any kind of robust or effective school choice movement in America when schools are united by mandate to serve the single measure of standardized testing and the kind of low-level teaching and learning it engenders in those of us who, by necessity, play it safe.

When the best a teacher can do is compromise his or her students’ learning and inquiry for test prep, that is not okay.

So, let’s have standards in literacy and numeracy and core competencies aligned to professional habits of mind – which are generally curious, determined, and iterative. Let’s standardize opportunities for early-childhood pre-school and reading. Let’s think about what we can do with school buildings instead of tearing them down. But let’s not go on pretending that raising test scores is a true or worthy measure of our culture’s achievements and dedication to its members. The tests change; the scales shift; still we cling to them. I say, “No more.” Our schools should stand on a foundation of equity and dedication to discovery, not on the pixie dust of vendors’ promises and the rust of last century’s factories.

While it may seem frightening to take risks with our children’s education by allowing true innovation in public schools, we need to take that risk and re-open debate about why and how best to school all children. We need to allow for differences of opinion and the implementation of diverse, juried proposals reviewed by expert practitioners.

I assure you, it’s a larger risk to our fraying democracy to continue schooling for compliance and industry.

Secretary Duncan, thank you for listening. Now it’s time to hear what we’re saying.

Let’s collaborate on a system worthy of our progress as a people, rather than on schools and measures that continue to exacerbate our worst tendencies in labeling one another. I know you have answers I need, and I know others have answers for us both.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


15 thoughts on “To Secretary Duncan

  1. while I hope the Secretary listens, I have strong doubts that he will, based on experience. In two conference calls, one with a large group of National Board Certified Teachers, and another with members of Teachers Letters to Obama, the experience of the teachers participating was one of frustration if not downright ire. They did not perceive that Duncan or the staff members on the phone call were really hearing what they were saying, but were using the occasions to reiterate their talking points.

    Good post, btw.

    Posted by teacherken | November 23, 2010, 9:44 am
  2. I am always drawn to articulations of diversity and differentiation in learning. We live in a multicultural world composed of wonderfully unique people. I acknowledge this means we need some common ground or values to keep us glued together. Institutions work to impose this uniformity on us and it seems we must challenge the pressure. Thanks Chad, I love your summary.

    Posted by Alan Stange | November 23, 2010, 9:51 am
  3. Chad,

    This is a very important and accurate response to Duncan’s post. Have you sent this to him and posted it on the blog? If not, please do.


    Posted by Adam Burk | November 23, 2010, 9:54 am
  4. Chad,

    Great response. I was very disappointed in Duncan’s piece. More of the same, not a reflection on what people were blogging about that day.

    I’m starting to really doubt the need for a Secretary of Education at all. It seems to compound the problem of mandating curricula and one-size-fits-all programs that water down teaching and ignore what communities really need.

    I agree that you should send him a link to this post.

    Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | November 25, 2010, 2:07 pm
  5. Chad, This is a really great post. Very tight and to the point–great correctives and clarifications to the Duncan discourse. There’s no lack of trying to communicate with the Department, as you note.

    So just as a thought-project, to what sense of desperation do you think Duncan et al is responding in his testing-and-standards-will-produce-better-results regime? Is the notion that teachers and systems are “hiding” their best practices, saving them for a rainy day, and that increasing, measurable accountability standards will cause practitioners to bring their A Game, whereas they’ve just been holding back before? (Whereas in my experience, most teachers are doing a lot of what they think is absolutely their best, but there isn’t skill and knowledge and practice room in the system to dramatically improve practice; there’s a lot in the system that constrains teachers against getting better at their work…) So do you think Arne is saying: let’s improve the profession by holding it to higher standards? Let’s punish the laggards? This really IS what good instruction looks like (multiple choice bubbles)?

    Just wondering what you and your great brain would say to that.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 3, 2010, 12:16 pm
    • I’ll think and read more on this and come back to it, but while I have a moment, here’s a line of thought I’ve been following that may be apropos:

      Schools – in many tangible ways – are driven by the fears of the powerful (including teachers within the context of schools).

      It’s natural to want to assuage those fears.

      Seduced thusly, its difficult to make decisions that are more about kid learning than adult soothing.

      We want to protect ourselves from failure; so do our kids; so do our politicians; so does the fed. I am heartsick with the compromises I make in fear of all kind of adult disapproval. What I do differently when I’m not compromising shouldn’t suggest that I am fearless, but rather that I am working through my fear.

      Our fears are manufactured, however, and we structure schools – and society – and measure them in such ways to make sure that our fears are grounded. We could have early-years schools hellbent on allowing kids to love reading and inquiry and all the scientific, mathematical, and humanist habits of mind that go with inquiry, as well as readiness-based, age-grouped-by-choice, learn-where-you-go schools made up of project-based teams of teachers and students working in tandem with 27-year old venture capitalists and 41-year old programmers to design the apps and services that pay for the learning and serve learners’ communities. We’d have nothing to fear if we trusted kids to discover the answers that elude us, but we’ll always have something to fear so long as we’re doggedly determined to validate ourselves by making sure that kids master the facts we mastered because, surely, even though we tested uphill both ways in a snowstorm, we were never second best.

      There is too much information to master to insist that our kids be masters of information. We need nerds who learn to think like Kirks for our global Kobiashi Marus, rather than nerds content to quote his lines. How many science classes today discussed the arsenic-eating bacteria, let alone went looking for any? (I mean, holy synthetic DNA – we can’t copyright ours, but what about arsenic-eating humans? Can the zombie remake of Arsenic and Old Lace be far behind?) How many classes instead covered tested biology standards mooted overnight? How many kids are enjoying the sublime wonder of dark objects hurtling ice at us from the stars? How many kids in writing classes know what NaNoWriMo is?

      Manifest Destiny is a horrible education policy especially in a world of information.

      So, let’s be honest about our fears and our need to work through them. We needs schools that read, write, and calculate in pursuit of acting, doing, making, and saving throughout communities. I’m afraid I’m not the teacher to get my students there, but I can work with that.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 3, 2010, 8:35 pm
    • Here are more AM thoughts on your question, Kirsten:

      I do think we’re right to be desperate about the state of our schools and the lack of opportunities for authentic learning, especially for our least and worst served students.

      What’s the best response? Is the short term one different from the long term one? What’s acceptable now as we work towards then?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 4, 2010, 8:45 am
  6. Hey Chad, What do you think of Michelle Rhea’s new venture, StudentsFirst, announced this am? Goals: Raise 1 billion in the first year. Fight.

    “The ultimate goal is to shift the power dynamic of education in this country, which I think for far too long has been dominated by special interests, whether the teachers’ unions or textbook manufacturers,” Ms. Rhee, 40, said in an interview.

    One issue she would tackle, she said, was the practice of laying off teachers, according to their contracts, by seniority rather than classroom effectiveness.

    “We won’t shy away from the fight,” she said. “We’re a little too obsessed right now with harmony in public education. How can we all come together and collaborate? That’s been happening the last 30 years, and because we’ve been trying to smooth each other’s feathers over and make the adults happy,” students have suffered, she added.

    Here’s an online interview:

    So what do you think about that for timeframe and response?

    Maybe we should start a thread on this?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 7, 2010, 10:29 am
    • Here’s my initial response at

      I don’t heart the idea of raising $1 billion to prove that school improvement isn’t about the money.

      I don’t know who the hell has been collaborating on anything in education for 30 years (military-industrial-textbook-testing complex?), but it wasn’t me.

      I don’t know that Michelle Rhee has the critical distance to see herself as a special interest of one, let alone as a part of the pop #edreform agenda – or to stop thinking that being those things gives her a magic badge. Teacher and parent police are not school reformers.

      Frankly, the price of school reform is the personal pain of teachers acknowledging that we’re doing school wrong and need to take personal steps to teach joyfully for authentic outcomes in our classrooms. The system isn’t coming and when it dares to evaluate us we get defensive rather than honest. Our counter-narrative should be one of ending school-wounding. Your book would do more good than all the power in this country if we educators were all ready to hear it.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 7, 2010, 10:49 am


  1. Pingback: Edustange » To Secretary Duncan « Cooperative Catalyst - November 23, 2010

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