Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Arne Takes Search for Clues on Road

Arne Duncan took a three-or-so day swing through the south, and along the way her reminded us about the many things he doesn't really get. Let's take a look at what comes up in coverage by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Not Answering Questions

AJC.com reported that in a meeting with a small, select audience, Arne was asked an excellent question by a student:

Noting how often Duncan cited the critical need for “effective teachers” during the roundtable, the student asked, “What does that really mean? How do we define effective teaching?”

Arne's answer included the observation that teaching is hard. Then he moved on to the notion that it involved head and heart. If you teach chemistry, you need to know stuff about it, he noted. But he also noted that the teacher who most "impacted" (gah) his life knew stuff, but cared about him. Did Arne address how the various forms of teacher evaluation required by the DOE include heart? Did he explain that Washington State lost its waiver because its teacher evaluation system did not properly evaluate the heart of the teachers? Sadly, Arne veered off from that to the old talking point of multiple measures, but did not explain which of the multiple measures might be useful for determining how much heart the tin teachers of the education forest are displaying.

Mirroring Students

No talking point tour would be complete without a mention of how the teaching force does not mirror the majority-minority of our teacher population. So Arne got that one out there.

A student asked how we can get more black and latino men to pick up the challenge, and Arne worked his way sideways into the real answer, which is that we don't need to up recruiting-- we need to improve retention.

What would keep more non-white male teachers in the field? More money isn't really the problem, says Arne. It's mentors, support and good administrators. Might be interesting to consider how much "good support" is a function of fully funding certain schools, and how much retaining good administrators might also be connected to schools that have enough resources for a leader to feel like she could do her job. But Arne's not going there. Instead, he's going to blame colleges that deliver unprepared teachers to the classroom (but he's NOT going to call out certain alternative programs that deliver "teachers" with only a few weeks of training under their belts).


“You give me the poorest kids in the toughest community, put them in a great early childhood program, great elementary and middle schools and great high schools with AP courses, and I am very optimistic about that child’s chances in life,” he said.

Give him credit for staying the course. Poverty is cured by pre-K education and lots of AP classes. It's as simple as that.

Duncan rued the lack of urgency around education, starting with a Congress that treats education as an expense rather than an investment.

I'll give him credit for this. That's actually a decent line. And I also rue the lack of urgency around education, because it leads to the notion that we might as well let a bunch of amateurs tinker around with it.

Just Plain Wrong

The AJC obligingly buries Arne's dumbest statements far down the article.

“As a nation, we are going to educate our way to a better economy. Companies are going to go to where the skilled workers are. Hopefully, it is here in the United States.” If not, he said, America will lose skilled jobs to India, China or Korea.

Really? So, the loss of jobs to India and China is not about their workers great skill in willingly accepting teeny-tiny wages for work in unregulated industrial sites? Again, kudos for the consistency involved in insisting that having more trained and educated people in this country will magically cause jobs to appear. Because everyone who knows an American in their twenties has heard the heartwarming story of how college graduates  over the past several years have walked out into a world of employers saying, "What!? You have a college degree?!! Wait just a second while we create a job just for you!!"

Then someone asked what a young teacher (why "young"? I have no idea) should do when confronted with students operating below grade level. Can you tell what's special about Arne's answer?

 “A lot of kids below grade level haven’t been challenged in the past. Having high standards for kids who are one to two years behind is exactly what they need. They need more time, they need after-school programs, they need work on Saturday and Sunday and they need summers. But if you have a class of 25 kids and 17 of them two or three years behind and that is what you are getting every single year, you have to look downriver.”

No, it's not that he proposes a bunch of bogus explanations for why the child is behind. Because, yes, students who have trouble learning simply need to be pushed harder. Also, students who are short need to be challenged to grow taller-- maybe put their meals on the top shelf of a bookshelf. And when faced with something that's hard for them, who doesn't dream of devoting all their spare time to doing it some more?

But no-- it's none of that. What's special about the answer is that it doesn't actually answer the question at all. When you have students are behind, go look at their previous teachers. Maybe give 'em the stinkeye. Because that will totally fix the students' current academic problems.

It may be that Arne, as NEA-president-elect Lily Garcia suggests, sincere and well-meaning, but he's so intensely and consistently wrong. Congratulations, Atlanta.