Remembering the Titans, Fulfilling the Promise

Alexandria, Va.—Billed as a “family reunion,” more than a thousand educators from Alexandria City Public Schools kicked off their school year Thursday morning with a convocation at T.C. Williams High School, and Secretary Duncan joined them.

In a moving ceremony, school district officials honored Ferdinand “Fred” Day, an educator and civil rights leader who was superintendent of Alexandria’s schools in 1971, during the time when the T.C. Williams football team made history by breaking racial barriers later chronicled in the film Remember the Titans. Day went on to become the first African American school board member in Virginia.

Secretary Duncan presented Day with a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol during President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, recognizing his contribution to civil rights. “I am grateful, grateful, grateful,” Day told the crowd.

Moments later, Alexandria Supt. Morton Sherman introduced Arne as the keynote speaker and acknowledged that T.C. Williams and other Alexandria schools have been identified by their state as having significant work to do. “Though we may not love (being a) persistently low-achieving school,” Sherman told the Secretary, Alexandria’s educators must remain true to “a strong, free public education for all.” He also applauded the Secretary’s leadership in urging Congress to pass the recent $10 billion education jobs bill, stating, “Some in this room have their jobs because of your efforts.”

Partly for fun and partly to make a point about what Sherman perceives as an over-emphasis on standardized testing, he asked a group of Alexandria staff called the “Superintendent’s Songsters” to regale the audience with a message for federal education policymakers, a song whose refrain declared that students “don’t need to know what’s not on the test.”

Arne reported to the audience on his “remarkable journey” touring eight states on a bus to celebrate and listen to teachers. He described Central High School, in Little Rock, Ark.—where, in 1957, nine African American students were denied entrance into an all-white school—as a place which “from that time of darkness, an unbelievable flower has grown.” And he touted educators at George C . Hall Elementary School, in Mobile, Ala., who transformed their school from one of the lowest performing in the state to one of the highest through their “tenacious, courageous” staff.

Then the Secretary turned his attention to apprehensions he heard from teachers on the road. “We absolutely have to fix NCLB (No Child Left Behind, the federal education law),” he acknowledged. In contrast to NCLB, the Obama administration’s plan for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act focuses more on student and school “growth and gain” than on snapshots of academic achievement. Duncan also decried the “dummying down of standards for political reasons” that he noted has taken place as a result of NCLB, forcing educators to “lie to parents and children, telling [students] they are prepared (for college) when we know they are not.”

During a question-and-answer period, Duncan addressed ways he is working to address the needs of students living in poverty, including $60 billion in new Pell Grants for college, a $2 billion investment in community colleges, and a doubling of the federal funding for programs that engage parents in their children’s educations. He also previewed the Department’s announcement later in the day of more than $330 million in grant awards to states for the development of a new, better generation of student assessments, addressing a common complaint from teachers that current “bubble tests” aren’t useful to them.

“Poverty should never be destiny,” Arne told the crowd of teachers, and with a standing ovation, they seemed to agree.

Laurie Calvert
Teaching Ambassador Fellow