Friday, January 24, 2014

Arne Duncan Discovers the Obvious!

Every so often, one of America’s “education leaders” gets a whiff of reality and comes briefly to his or her senses. 

This week, U S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suddenly discovered that not all parents prefer higher standards. Duncan passed on this revelation to Thomas Friedman, editorialist for The New York Times.

Then Duncan and Friedman tipped their caps to Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World:  And How They Got That Way.

The author of this blog voted for President Obama twice and he’s still glad he did.
Unfortunately, Arne Duncan is a terrible Secretary of Education.

According to Friedman, here’s what transpired. Duncan gave a “feel bad” speech to a group of parents a few days ago. Friedman thinks President Obama should claim the speech for his own and make it his State of the Union Address. What was the problem Duncan chose to discuss before parents? Get ready teachers. You will be fainting in droves!

Harken to the Gospel of Arne:
“Are we falling behind as a country in education,” he wondered, “not just because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions, but because of our culture today:  too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel?”

Okay. Ignore the gratuitous slam directed at every teacher in the nation. (Duncan thinks we’re morons.)

Oh, yes. Remember that unions have blocked reform. That’s why reforms have failed. It’s not because the reforms have been misguided.  

Well, what does Duncan know now that he failed to grasp five years ago when he became Secretary of Education? He and Friedman now know what Ripley discovered while researching her book. And Ripley now knows what all of us teachers/morons know by…um…well…by teaching. One of these days, I need to complete a review of The Smartest Kids. The publisher sent me a copy and I admit liking it.

But could we please stop “discovering” the obvious?

Friedman  fleshes out his position with a pair of letters from actual teachers. (That alone is failry rare: an education expert quoting a real educator.) One first appeared in the Washington Post. The writer was a seventh-grade language arts teacher in Frederick, Maryland. She explained that she no longer wanted to teach. One problem was a “superficial curriculum that encouraged mindless conformity.” And who demanded that teachers follow such curriculums? That plan was foisted upon us by politicians, bureaucrats and non-teaching experts.

(People like Duncan.)

What most bothered this successful Maryland teacher was the reaction she met when she handed out low grades:
It was about this time that I was called down to the principal’s office…She handed me a list of 10 students, all of whom had D’s or F’s. At the time, I only had about 120 students, so I was relatively on par with a standard bell curve. As she brought up each one, I walked her through my grade sheets that showed not low scores but a failure to turn in work—a lack of responsibility. I showed her my tutoring logs, my letters to parents, only to be interrogated further.
Eventually, the meeting came down to two quotes that I will forever remember as the defining slogans for public education: “They are not allowed to fail.” “If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.” What am I not doing for them? I suppose I was not giving them the answers. I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them. I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time. I was not excusing their lack of discipline…Teachers are held to impossible standards, and students are accountable for hardly any part of their own education and are incapable of failing.”

Friedman also cited a letter from an Oregon educator. This time the writer noted that he had gone back and looked at tests he gave in 1992. They were tough and today few of his students could pass them. He notes—and Friedman seems surprised—that today you might get only 8 or 10 homework assignments turned in by a class of 35.

Let me scratch my head for a moment. I know teachers are supposed to be dumb. (Only Teach for America can save us!) But I can’t recall ever being called on the carpet by any parent or administrator because my class was too easy.

By contrast, I once had 36 students in my seventh grade American history classes fail a map test. I told all of them they’d have to stay after school the next afternoon and study for an hour. If they couldn’t make it I gave out my home phone number and told them parents should call. All showed up as required and reviewed for the test.

At the end of that hour, when all my kids headed home, my principal called me down to the office to thank me…Ha, ha, no!

He grilled me. Had I given a day’s notice so everyone would have rides home? “Yes,” I said. I mentioned that I had also provided my home number. “Do you think students are benefitting from staying so late?” he continued unfazed. “Won’t they be too tired after a long day?” It turned out a mother had complained because her daughter hadn’t said where she was going to be after school. So, mom ended up sitting in the parking lot waiting for the girl to appear. And this was back in 1978.

What Friedman, by way of Duncan, by way of Ripley, discovered is not new. My principal in the late 70s was fond of intoning, “If a student fails, a teacher fails.”

I always wanted to respond:  “If a teacher fails, does the principal fail?” But I didn’t think he’d appreciate my sterling wit.

I stood my ground that afternoon—and the next day stayed again—to re-administer the test. This time, one girl was missing. But 35 ordinary kids retook the test. All I did was switch numbers on the map and the matching choices around. Otherwise, it was the same test.

I never forgot the results as long as I taught: 24 “failures” had A’s the second time. There were 8 B’s, 2 C’s and a single D.

Not one child flunked after studying.

Now, here was Friedman last week—quoting Duncan—quoting Ripley. In a recent policy speech Duncan told his audience:
Amanda points a finger at you and me, as parents—not because we aren’t involved in school, but because too often, we are involved in the wrong way. Parents, she says, are happy to show up at sports events, video camera in hand, and they’ll come to school to protest a bad grade. But she writes, and I quote: “Parents did not tend to show up at schools demanding that their kids be assigned more challenging reading or that their kindergarteners learn math while they still loved numbers.”…To really help our kids, we have to do so much more as parents. We have to change expectations about how hard kids should work. And we have to work with teachers and leaders to create schools that demand more from our kids.

Ripley is a fine writer. But Ripley never taught. So she was stunned when she put together her book. And Duncan was stunned when he read it. And Friedman was stunned because he only writes editorials about education. Neither he nor Duncan ever stood in front of a class of 35 and asked for homework to be passed forward.

They have no idea what it can be like to see only a handful of papers coming up the rows. 

Let’s imagine that they had. I loved teaching and loved working with teens. But if Duncan and Friedman had been manning rooms down the hall they might not be shocked to hear that sometimes students don’t turn in work when they should. Or: they don’t study when they could. Then they’d realize that’s not really the fault of the teacher. They would know what every real teacher I ever met knows.

They would know that parents and administrators often complain, and complain vociferously, if a teacher grades hard and upholds high standards.

You can go back farther back into history to understand what might be wrong in American education today. If you want your child to get an excellent education keep in mind what Thucydides once said:

Not much is ever gained simply by wishing for it.
(c. 411 B. C.)

Even the ancient Greeks probably had trouble getting children to turn in homework.


  1. Thank you for writing this!

    1. Glad to be of service; pass the link along to your friends if you will.

  2. I was going through old notes this morning when I found a second example, also from the 70s, that might interest Secretary Duncan. In my class, when students missed work, I used to insist that they stay after school and make it up. To my surprise (and to the surprise of several of my friends who were using the same approach), it soon came down from the principal’s office that we could not keep students after school to make up work.

    Parents had complained. How many? It didn’t matter. The boss just wasn’t going to deal with it.

    We could call parents and offer “extra help,” he said. Or we could give “extra credit.” We couldn’t make kids stay to do missing work.

    I was horrified; but trying to reason with my principal was like arguing with a marble bust. So I began telling students who missed work that I was requiring them to stay for “extra help.” I simply made them do the assignments they had missed.

    (I used to give full credit, by the way, because I thought the penalty of staying after was enough; and I also wanted students to succeed.)

    At any rate, I was willing to do whatever was necessary to get grades up. I just wasn't going to lower standards or allow a boy or girl to receive a poor education if I could manage otherwise.

  3. Great post. Thanks for taking the time to write this. I am wondering when those in the "reform" movement will realize that it takes a partnership between teachers, parents, and the students for students to become successful. If there is a silver bullet in education, it would be this triangular cooperation. Seems that the powers that be are too interested in dismantling the public education system and turning it into a market-based entity. It is scary to think that our educational system is becoming privatized...

    1. Thanks. I agree about there being no silver bullet--and also the triangular cooperation. I've compared it to a stool, with any one leg being broken, making education harder by far. I may steal your phrase, sir.