A Back-to-School Conversation with Teachers and School Leaders

As teachers gear up for a new school year, I want to offer two thoughts. One is a message of celebration and thanks. The other is a response to a concern that has come up often in many conversations with teachers and families, and which deserves an answer.

First, the thanks. America’s students have posted some unprecedented achievements in the last year – the highest high school graduation rate in the nation’s history, and sharp cuts in dropout rates and increases in college enrollment, especially for groups that in the past have lagged significantly. For these achievements, we should celebrate America’s teachers, principals, and students and their families. These achievements are also indications of deeper, more successful relationships with our students. All of us who’ve worked with young people know how much they yearn for adults to care about them and know them as individuals.

These achievements come at a time of nearly unprecedented change in American education – which entails enormously hard work by educators. Nearly every state has adopted new standards, new assessments, new approaches to incorporating data on student learning, and new efforts to support teachers.

This transition represents the biggest, fastest change in schools nationwide in our lifetime. And these efforts are essential to prepare kids to succeed in an age when the ability to think critically and creatively, communicate skillfully, and manipulate ideas fluently is vital. I have heard from many teachers that they have not received all the support they’d want during this transition. Yet America’s teachers are making this change work – and I want to recognize and thank them for that and encourage their leadership in this time of change.

That’s the easy part of this message. The harder part has to do with concerns that many teachers have brought to my door.

My team and I hold regular conversations with teachers, principals and other educators, often led by Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellows, who take a year away from their schools to advise my agency. Increasingly, in those conversations, I hear concerns about standardized testing.

Assessment of student progress has a fundamental place in teaching and learning – few question that teachers, schools and parents need to know what progress students are making. And few question the particular importance of knowing how our most vulnerable students are progressing. Indeed, there’s wide recognition that annual assessments – those required by federal law – have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus.

There are three main issues I’ve heard about repeatedly from educators:

  1. It doesn’t make sense to hold them accountable during this transition year for results on the new assessments – a test many of them have not seen before – and as many are coming up to speed with new standards.
  2. The standardized tests they have today focus too much on basic skills, not enough on critical thinking and deeper learning.
  3. Testing – and test preparation – takes up too much time.

I share these concerns. And I want our department to be part of the solution.

To those who are reading the last sentence with surprise, let me be clear: assessment is a vital part of teaching and learning, but it should be one part (and only one part) of how adults hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. Schools, teachers and families need and deserve clear, useful information about how their students are progressing. As a parent of two children in public school, I know I want that. And in fact, most teachers and principals I talk with want to be held responsible for students’ progress – through a sensible, smart combination of factors that reflect their work with students – not the level students came in at, or factors outside of their control.

But assessment needs to be done wisely. No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone – always on a mix of measures – which could range from classroom observations to family engagement indicators. In Nevada, educators include a teacher’s contribution to the school community in their measures; in Hawaii, schools consider student feedback surveys and professional growth, such as leading workshops or taking university coursework). Educators in Delaware look at measures of planning and preparation such as lesson plans and descriptions of instructional strategies to be used for students with diverse needs. Federal policy rightly stays out of picking those individual measures, but ensures that in evaluating teachers, states and districts include student growth, and consider multiple measures.

But the larger issue is, testing should never be the main focus of our schools. Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students – not just in a few subjects, and not just in “academic” areas. There’s a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students’ success. No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.

I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support, and more. This is one of the biggest changes education in this country has ever seen, and teachers who’ve worked through it have told me it’s allowed them to become the best teachers they’ve ever been. That change needs educators’ full attention.

That’s why – as I shared in a conversation with dozens of teachers at Jefferson Middle School in Washington, D.C. earlier today – we will be taking action in the coming weeks that give states more flexibility in key areas that teachers have said are causing worry.

States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we’ll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works, but typically I’d expect this to mean that states that request this delay will push back by one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments become part of their evaluation systems – and we will work with states seeking other areas of flexibility as well. We want to make sure that they are still sharing growth data with their teachers, and still moving forward on the other critical pieces of evaluation systems that provide useful feedback to educators.  We will be working in concert with other educators and leaders to get this right. These changes are incredibly important, and educators should not have to make them in an atmosphere of worry. Some states will choose to take advantage of that flexibility; others, especially those that are well along in this transition, will not need a delay. The bottom line is that educators deserve strong support as our schools make vital, and urgently needed, changes. As many educators have pointed out, getting this right rests also on high-quality assessments. Many educators, and parents, have made clear that they’re supportive of assessment that measures what matters – but that a lot of tests today don’t do that – they focus too much on basic skills rather than problem solving and critical thinking. That’s why we’ve committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create new assessments that get beyond the bubble test, and do a better job of measuring critical thinking and writing.

I’m concerned, too, when I see places where adults are gaming tests, rather than using them to help students.

And we also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.

There’s plenty of responsibility to share on these challenges, and a fair chunk of that sits with me and my department. We encouraged states to move a whole lot of changes simultaneously, because of the enormous urgency to raise standards and improve systems of teacher support – not for another generation of students, but for today’s students.

But in how this change happens, we need to listen carefully to the teachers, principals and other educators who are living it on a daily basis – and we need to be true to our promise to be tight on outcomes, but loose on how we get there.

From my first day on this job, the objective has been to work in a spirit of flexibility to help states and communities improve outcomes for kids. We need to make changes, but we are also making progress. I’m determined that, working in partnership, we’ll continue to do both – be flexible and make progress for our kids.

Change is hard, and changes of significance rarely work exactly as planned. But in partnership, making course alterations as necessary, we will get there.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

This post originally appeared on SmartBlog on Education.

41 Comments

  1. I completely agree with the question, How long have you taught in public school?… much less in a low socio economic neighborhood, Mr. Duncan?
    I left corporate to teach middle school math. The lower pay was easy to over look by the gratification of knowing I was making a wonderful difference in the lives of so many young souls. The joy of my new profession has gradually declined over 14 years of teaching. Testing measures have greatly over shadowed the positive impact I make on these students 180 days of each school year.
    Our students spend more time figuring out how to slip through testing than time to value education and apply their best efforts. Report card grades mean nothing to them because they know they will be passed on if they can pass STAAR (Texas) with the minimum requirements.
    These students have no one at home to support what’s happening in school. The vast majority of our neighborhood are immigrants. The remainder are plainly poor. The primary issues at our school are not due to the teachers. The education is top-notch in our school. We are left to raise these kids; we teach them social skills, teach them the value of responsibility and free education. We care more about the students’ education than the parents and it’s expected by parents. They complain about the free lunch (which I pay to eat because it’s really pretty good for cafeteria food), cell phones and playing on the computer are the primary goals for these children. They are spoiled with government assistance.
    The problem in public school goes much deeper than simply being a great teacher. Our district does not ALLOW failure grades. We fight to give students what they earned by refusing to bring a pencil and paper to class, doing work in class, doing homework, showing/trying to do work, and failing periodic knowledge checks in the classroom. These 20% or so of students literally verbalize the refusal to do basic requirements for school. We are told that we have failed if we fail a student on a report card. The students KNOW a passing grade will be “given” to them. Accountability has shifted 100% to the teachers. What happened to student accountability???
    Sad Regards,
    A Fabulous Math Teacher

  2. Secretary Duncan,
    Is it true that states like Louisiana can change cut scores on standardized tests such as the LEAP from year to year in order to manipulate statistics on how well (or poorly…depending on the case they are trying to make) their kids are doing? What good will Common Core do if individual states teach to common standards yet are allowed to manipulate and lie about the results? And, is there an agenda to lie to make public schools look bad and charters look good? Do you plan to address this? To take a good look at what’s happening in Louisiana? Did this same manipulation take place with the DC improved achievement results to which you refer?

  3. There are so many unanswered questions related to tying student performance to teacher evaluation. Will students be given a fall and spring test to measure improvement? Will the art teacher, the music teacher, and the shop teacher be judged on students’ performance on math and reading assessments? Will teachers who teach special needs or ESL be held to the same standards? When I ask these questions and get deer-in-the-headlights responses, it reminds me of an earlier time (the beginning of NCLB) when I was told that all students would meet standards by 2014. That sounds more like Lake Wobegon than reality.

  4. Education is not a race. Races have one winner. Children, teachers, schools, and communities should never be labeled as losers. Unfortunately, the new status quo does just that. The test and punish regime has run its course and it is time to stop, reflect, and move forward. As a veteran teacher of 24 years and a mother of four children, I understand how children develop and learn. I know that children do not all learn the same way and do not learn at the same time. I know that communities, school cultures, and children are complex and unique. No one asked for my input when developing a complex set of standards mapped backward from college level down to Kindergarten. I was sent to a myriad of trainings that emphasized what would be tested. I was not given curriculum to evaluate that aligned to this new set of standards. I had to align it myself and piece together materials that would help children meet the standards so that they would be ready for a complex test. I am still aligning and evaluating as I put things into practice. Think of all of the time and energy we have could have spent on learning about new technology, research, and innovations to foster learning. Fortunately I have networked with educators just like myself across the country. We support one another, share ideas, and fight for all of the children of this nation. It’s a great feeling to know that you are not alone when the oxygen is being depleted from your classroom, the soul of your teaching is being crushed, and you hear a constant message from the media and the US Department of Education that you are failing. All of this is happening in conjunction with a complete lack of funding, widespread inequality, and erosion of our due process rights!

  5. Sec Duncan’s recent invitation to Teach to Lead was a heartening moment for me. (See Advancing Teacher Leadership at http://tinyurl.com/qc6mld6) Carol O’Donnell, herself a teacher AND representative of the US Department of Ed, trumpeted the message at GE’s June conference at Disney, Florida. Many teachers about me nodded their head and whispered: “It’s about time.”

    Since returning to my district I’ve talked it up– this new idea about teachers being recognized as leaders. Leaders in their classroom, contributing to the school, involved in the community, whatever the particular “gift” the teacher showed might be appreciated to the point, as suggested by Mr. Duncan, as to even find alternative titles and/or additional compensation for them. In my excitement, I have shared the news with teachers, administrators, even with my Superintendent. But all have given me blank looks and no indication of hope or belief that what I was describing might become reality.

    Now, I am a leader in my own way. So I won’t let it stop me. But I’ve now had a chance to slow down and think about what’s in the way of Sec Duncan’s vision to liberate teachers. The system. And the money.

    I have observed program after program coming into our district over the last half dozen years. Not because teachers supported them, but because they offered federal and state funding. Reading programs, behavior programs, Response to Intervention… Intermediate offices needed the money to hire staff. Local districts needed the money to purchase programs and utilize the intermediate services. So money has conditioned the decisions and determined which programs we adopted. Very little local control there.

    After 35 years of teaching, I can still recall my college art professor’s quip: Criticism drives a wedge between the artist and his work. Testing and evaluation is that wedge in education. The wedge has split partner groups to the point that the system can barely function. Parents, teachers, students, administration– each group has its particular beef about the number and duration of high stakes tests. Students fear them, parent mistrust them, teachers resent them, and administration can’t afford them. But even with this common attitude, testing has only increased.

    Arguably, we have given up on the scientific method and abandoned intellectual reasoning when we can observe that the highest scoring nation in the world (Finland) has only one high stakes measure- in high school- and one of the highest indicators of teacher autonomy. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” seems to have some special implication for us here… if we could only grok it.

    Somehow this behemoth of an educational system we have created reminds me of the final scene in Jane Yolen’s adolescent novel “Wizard’s Hall”. In that book a great, magical beast is terrorizing the land. When it visits Wizard’s Hall, it cannot be deterred: one by one, it sucks the spirits out of all the students and their wizard teachers… spinning their souls out into a colorful thread which then becomes woven upon its own hideous body. In the last, the day is saved by Henry, an ineffectual young student who, although he has no power himself, happens to have the gift of enhancing the powers of all his fellows. Even so, the grit he needs to withstand the beast is generated by a saying his “dear old ma” used to recommend to him as a child: You must try.

    And that, I believe, is where we stand today. Despite the odds, the gloom and doom, the intransigence and indifference of the system, all of us in this educational story must persevere. We must try.

  6. The price of education in this country is no longer measured in dollars and cents; it comes at a tremendous emotional cost to those it’s intended to serve. Students enthusiastically enter the system with the unique skills and interests that we used to value, but they now exit as standardized versions of the government’s concept of a model citizen. We’ve taken away the arts, replaced vocational programs, diverted funding and resources away from special needs departments, removed the concept of play for younger children, added more high-stakes testing, and over-stressed our children to the point of hating school. However, none of those changes “fixed” the problem. So instead of concluding that those reforms were taking us in the wrong direction and changing course, we’ve chosen to apply the same “fix” to our teachers? “Here’s the script we want you to use for each day of the school year; the expertise you spent years cultivating no longer matters because [politicians, corporations, etc.] know more about educating students than you do! Better yet, let’s go so far as to allow professionals to test into a teaching license rather than requiring a background in pedagogy. It looks good on paper, so that should do the trick, right?” This idiocy is destroying education to it’s very core.

    I’ve been a teacher for 17 years, and although I’ve watched ed reform force a staggering number of talented teachers out of the profession, I refuse to turn my back on these kids. That choice comes at a cost, though. I worked for years to earn a tenure that has since been eliminated, my pay has decreased for the last two years to the point that I struggle just to afford health insurance for my family, I owe $12,000 in student loans for a graduate degree that no longer “counts” in my state, and my level of effectiveness is now based on the standardized test scores of students that I don’t even the opportunity to teach. Where is the sense in all if this, and how does any of it help our children? The very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, yet here we are!

    High- stakes standardized testing in its present form doesn’t prove anything except that a student is able or unable to take a test. These scores don’t fully quantify a child’s knowledge or abilities and shouldn’t be relied upon as such. Furthermore, teachers should be given the professional consideration and support that they deserve in order to do their jobs. I would never walk into a hospital and presume that I know how to meet the needs of a patient better than a licensed doctor does. Yet ed reformers, most of whom wouldn’t dare step into an actual classroom, have the audacity to do that to me over and over again. It boggles the mind.

    If you want to fix what’s wrong with education, then common sense dictates that you should rely upon the expertise of the people who live and breathe it everyday.
    *You give principals the leverage to remove ineffective teachers while allowing effective teachers the professional protection and support that a tenure offers.
    *You stop asking schools to do more with less as you filter more and more funding away from their budgets.
    *You encourage a well-rounded educational experience (which includes the arts, vocational offerings, etc.) in order to produce a polulation of workers with varied skill-sets.
    *You support programs that meet the needs of non-traditional students too.
    *You utilize a combination of objective and subjective data in order to determine a student’s knowledge and abilities.
    *Most importantly, you put the kids first! This isn’t Victorian England in Dickens’ Hard Times, they aren’t numbered “vessels” quietly waiting for knowledge to be poured into them, and they deserve better than what they’ve been forced to endure! We all do.

  7. I truly wish that education policy makers who have never taught in a public school classroom and who send their own children to private schools would actually go through the process of earning a teaching credential and then teaching in a public school for more than a year and be subject to their own policies. Perhaps then they would have a real understanding of how and why the system is failing.

  8. Dear Secretary Duncan,

    When you write “That’s why we’ve committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create new assessments that get beyond the bubble test,” I assume you are referring to The PSRCC and SBAC assessments. In this case, a consortia of states means Pearson Education, a British publisher. The states are not receiving hundreds of millions, they are just the middle man for the private companies who have used their influence to get in on “reforming” American education.
    Somehow, rich people can call themselves experts in public education without having ever taught in a public school. How many medical experts never practiced medicine? How many experts in engineering never took a college level science or math course? How many legal experts never went to law school?
    When you fly, who do you want the pilot to be? Somebody wet behind the ears, or somebody with many years of experience. Parents want teachers with 20+ years of experience, but these experts are leaving, as soon as they can, because of your reforms. Everything is going according to plan. Congratulations.

  9. The policies if this administration only exacerbate inequities in education that are rooted in poverty. The first step in improving is admitting you have a problem–that goes double for reformaholism.

  10. What these tests and the “rigor” of curriculum do to special needs children is a tragedy. I’ve heard your comments about special needs children, and they should all be like “regular” students. Some of them do not have the cognitive ability like you seem to think. Many of the education reform agendas you “bribed” the states with are completely contradictory with the federal laws of IDEA. Any test that does not grant the same accommodations that are listed in an IEP for a student should not be required. I know some GOP Senators wrote a letter to you about this very recently. What is your response to those accusations Mr. Duncan?

  11. So the world works like this: some people are greedy, and are good at accumulating money. They study where the money is, just like bank robbers. Even the poor school districts spend about $10,000 per year per student (the rich districts twice that), and if the greedy people can provide some “service”, they can take home maybe a 10% profit on whatever they sell to the district. School district budgets are big compared to local government budgets and, for example, used to be half of my state’s budget. So if you are a greedy person, there’s more money to be made than, say, in building roads or buildings for the government, because that education funding is an every-year expenditure. Like an annuity.

    So how do those greedy people get a piece of the education money pie? Our schools are failing, according to the press. Jonathan Kozol remarked that those of privilege rarely lack for arguments about why they shouldn’t have to give anything up. So the rich folks have constructed this fiction that they are entitled to lots of money even though it’s the poor people who do the obnoxious jobs in our society. And our government is there to protect those rich people, because they help the politicians keep their jobs. So the fact that poverty is the real reason poor kids in impoverished school districts don’t learn as fast as the rich kids in wealthy districts is overlooked. Well, not really overlooked – it’s actively hidden, behind the screen of statements like “our schools are failing”, and “many of our teachers are of poor quality” because that’s a lot cheaper way for the rich people to deal with it than coughing up enough money so the poor kids have a decent home life and a decently funded school system to boot.

    So we have (1) the greedy rich folks protecting their stash rather than paying higher wages to their poor employees or higher taxes to give the poor services to compensate for their miserable wages. We have (2) the greedy corporations looking to siphon cash from public education, agreeing purely for monetary reasons that lots of expensive testing is a great idea (and better than the kids spending that time learning). And we have (3) anti-education and anti-union politicians like Scott Walker who want to spend as little as possible on public education because they are in the pocket of rich folks who want to lower their taxes even further (said rich folks not bright enough to realize they would benefit in the long run from spending more on education by having a more educated workforce to take advantage of). Finally we have (4) clueless politicians who don’t understand any of this because they spent their youth in supportive situations and went to extremely well-funded colleges and their limited (if any) experience with teaching generally involved the most strongly motivated and family-supported poor students in quasi-charter school situations(Arne Duncan, Barack Obama) or clueless liberals who never attended a day of public school in their lives but rather went to private schools which charge as much as an expensive private college (Bill Gates).

    After an upper-middle class childhood, K-12 public schools, and state university, I spent 30 years in architecture, sent my two daughters to the local public schools, and thought I knew it all about public education – and then I became a teacher. Eight years in, I see that poor teaching is the least of our society’s worries. You want to measure me based on the growth of my students? Which ones – the ones who are homeless and come to school exhausted, the ones who are gang members and show up 40% of the time, the ones who have to spend virtually all their after-school waking hours taking care of four siblings and cousins under age 5 because mom is working two jobs and dad isn’t around, so they don’t get their homework done? The ones who didn’t have breakfast in the morning because the school bus rarely arrives in time for them to have the school breakfast, the ones who arrived this year as refugees from violence in Somalia, Iraq, Guatemala, who speak almost no English?

    And let me get this straight – annual tests, on different standards, with different questions, will measure growth? So they took Algebra 1 last year, and this year they took Geometry from me – what does the test measure?

    Mr. Duncan, I know several excellent high school English teachers who quit this year, retired a few years early, because they just couldn’t deal with the pressure your policies have added to the already stressful situation of teaching in a high-poverty school district where the principals are in fear of losing their own jobs if the test scores weren’t good enough. They had something like 30 years apiece of experience, and they were NOT the sort of teachers you want to leave the system.

    Duncan, either you don’t know what you are doing, or you are an incredibly evil person.

  12. I have read this article and the responses. Education is failing in this country. Why is no one listening to the teachers? We have too many administrators at various levels who are completely unaware of what is like to teach in today’s society.

  13. Resign Mr. Duncan, You’re not effective. Go teach school for three years in a row and educate yourself about the profession. Then you might understand a little bit about education in America. You must learn to follow before you can lead. Just move aside and make room for someone with the proper experience and training.

  14. I find it difficult to believe that your “team and you hold regular conversations with teachers, principals and other educators.”

    If this were true, you would not write “Increasingly, in those conversations [you] hear concerns about standardized testing…”

    Instead you would write something like: “from the get-go there has been an outcry about standardized testing, but we chose to ignore the professionals who actually teach our children.”

    Shame on you, your office, and the Gates and Pearsons, dressed in sheep’s clothing, purporting to “help” education, when instead you dismantle and profit off this poor model.

  15. I taught Kindergarten, however, my first and second grade colleagues say that teaching is not fun any longer. That they cannot teach effectively because of testing! It is sad when a 2nd grade student tells her retired educator Granny that she does not like school because they are always taking tests!

  16. (I know full well this wont get posted)

    I would ask for Duncan’s resignation, but we will get the same deal wrapped up as a different package in his place. And as in the case of Duncan, nothing will be improved.

  17. What a privilege it is to witness the slow re-education of Arne Duncan. Too bad my entire family has lived with your mistakes for the past several years. Last year I was forced to pull my 2 kids out of school to homeschool, rather than have them continue to take tests year round, and try to learn age-inappropriate Common Core “real life” literature and ridiculous math methods. I refuse to let them take part in a system which crushes their creativity and curiosity in order to bust unions and privatize education. My husband, a teacher, tries daily to overcome the hurdles your shameful policies have forced onto him. And by the way, just because you say this today doesn’t mean it changes our school system this year. Schools have been jumping through your hoops for years, but it’s still pretty tricky to turn on a dime every time Arne changes his mind about something.

    This lifelong Democrat does not understand how it ever made sense to CUT funding from struggling schools based on test scores via Race to the Top. Why, other than trying to privatize schools, would someone ever PUT struggling kids or schools into a “race to the top”?

    You realize that your colossal mistake has already caused hundreds of great teachers to quit, or to be fired, right? Are you planning to apologize to them now that you’re beginning to see the light, or somehow compensate them? And precisely how are you going to fix the wrongs you’ve done to my kids, and to the millions of others who have been living with your mistaken policies for the past few years?

    I can’t help but wonder how the teachers at Sidwell Friends would feel about having to give multiple tests throughout the year; about having to teach methods and standards that were forced upon them as if they, the teachers, had no experience or knowledge to offer; about having their annual contracts and salaries based on multiple test scores of a classroom of 35+ mostly-poverty-stricken high school students.

    The damage you’ve done will be felt for a long time. Allowing us plebeians to hold back for a year on test-based teacher evals is an insult, a pittance, and it’s doing nothing for your credibility. No, you’re going to need to jump under the bus and hand education back to the teachers and the parents in order to un-do your damage.

    I’m still a Democrat. But you failed my kids miserably. And YOUR evaluation does not meet expectations.

    • I so appreciate your statements about testing for the sake of evaluating teachers. I also believe Mr Duncan should step back and undo “Race to the Top” as a means to looking at teacher’s ability to teach and start using it as a means to support all the good teaching going on . If there is good administration at a school and in a District they hire good teachers and work with teachers, parents , and local community to give the students the best education possible. The monies promised to teachers who test well as bonus money should be used to support teacher ,parent, and student driven educational needs. As it is now Mr. Duncan sees money as the key motivator for teachers; I don’t know any teachers from my 30 years in education who did not have a student’s future as a productive well rounded citizen as their goal. He is using RtT ( Race to the Top) to pit teacher against teacher and administrator against teachers instead of supporting the goals of the schools.
      Again, I thought your reply to his suspension of testing to be used as a teacher gauge is ridiculous, and should be used as a help for teachers not a ploy to control money going into schools.

  18. Mr. Duncan,
    Were you a teacher? How much time do you spend in classrooms? Do you have any experience teaching young people? I would like you and all the politicians to spend at least 2 weeks in the classroom preparing students for these tests as well as trying to teach these young people to love learning, teach multiple subjects, have stellar classroom management, hold small group lessons, scaffold when needed, support all your students all the time even the high to low babies, create assessments, apply the standards to curriculum and tests, communicate all the time with parents, be a nurse, mentor, therapist, cheerleader, motivator, and advocate plus so much more everyday, etc. Please do all of this plus much more so you can get a taste of the daily life of a teacher. Then you should be evaluated on your performance at the end of your time in the classroom and how your students do on their standardized tests.
    I don’t mind the common core but it was ridiculous not to implement a curriculum to support the standards. Let’s see how you would survive in the classroom.
    Please create positive change in this country and stop adding so much stress to teacher’s jobs. The government is creating all this mess for teachers so it’s no wonder people don’t want to join this rewarding yet thankless profession. Don’t just give us your lip service. You really don’t yet understand what it’s like to be a teacher. Figure it out then come back and do your job.

  19. Back in my day of being a student we just had the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Now we have more and more! This gets in the way of creativity and learning. Schools need to be fun and engaging for students. Before I retired I led our elementary in heading up a geography rally for all classes 2-5. Well the third grade couldn’t do it because they were preparing for the pre WASL test in April-May. In other words children were learning on how to be better test takers as they had no time for learning about the nations of the world. Ridiculous! We waste 25 percent of the time in schools testing when the kids should be learning.

  20. The words sound great. I will believe them when I see the federal government denying funds to states for inappropriate use of test scores just as it does against states that don’t use test scores in all the ways the federal government wants them to be used.

    Measuring from year-to-year how a student is doing on their grade level standards is not measuring “growth.” I teach seventh grade. If a student comes to me with fourth-grade skills, and I raise them to sixth-grade skills, I have done a fabulous job of facilitating academic growth in that student. However, they will still fail the seventh grade tests, and I will still be looked down on as a teacher whose students are not showing adequate “growth.”

    Allowing teachers’ careers to be destroyed on the basis of such testing does not achieve any of the things your department purports to be seeking: student academic growth, excellent teaching, or assessments that provide valid measures of either of those outcomes.

    If you want to measure growth, you need to use tests that assess where along the pre-K to 12 continuum a student’s skills are each year, and see how that level changes from year to year. You can’t use a test that measures only grade level standards. If students are below or above grade level, testing only grade level standards tells you nothing about their growth.

    When your department DEMANDS that states stop punishing teachers by basing decisions about their employment on tests that do not measure what they purport to measure, you might stop getting so much pushback and hostility from teachers.

    • Yes! Measure each student’s growth individually. Let’s stop comparing TAG students with those on IEPs. I’ve had the same experience–kids who make incredible gains during the year, yet they still fall short of that magic number they need on the test. I can tell you that in my middle school we are dreading the “new and improved” SBAC test. Oh my, it’s going to be ugly.

      We don’t have a crisis in education; we have disguised mandates that undermine the efforts of professionals in the classrooms and the parents and students that we’re trying to serve. I don’t want to see American ingenuity become obsolete. We need time to teach our students to think and create, not try to decipher how the test writing company wants them to answer obscure test question. And now with the SBAC, I’m basically being asked to teach my students to abandon their own voice and write in a formulaic style that the computer will recognize as valid. This is wrong on so many levels!

  21. Mr. Duncan, your statements come too close on the heels of public urging from Bill Gates for states to slow down the use of high stakes tests for purposes of teacher evaluation and barriers to graduation. Mr. Gates, and others like the Pearson corporation, have a lot of money riding on the implementation of Common Core. The recent parental outrage over Common Core testing has them worried that they might lose the whole kit and kaboodle if things continue on the trajectory they are headed.

    I think you were given marching orders to urge states to slow down implementation of aspects of the Common Core that were most rankling stakeholders (REAL stakeholders, as opposed to the hopeful moneymakers of the investor class).

    And like the good little puppet you are, you fell in line and did as you were told.

  22. Mr. Duncan, I find your “conversation” disingenuous. Your Department of Education has foisted the testing mania on the states (despite federal laws disallowing this pressure). The agenda that your Department of Education espouses takes its marching orders from the corporate world that stands to rake in billions at the expense of all students, and particularly the most vulnerable students. These few sentences I find particularly galling: “Many educators, and parents, have made clear that they’re supportive of assessment that measures what matters – but that a lot of tests today don’t do that – they focus too much on basic skills rather than problem solving and critical thinking. That’s why we’ve committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create new assessments that get beyond the bubble test, and do a better job of measuring critical thinking and writing.” Assuming you’re referring to the PARCC and SBAC assessments that are designed to measure achievement on the Common Core State (sic) Standards, as a retired teacher of the deaf who has perused many sample passages and questions from the PARCC tesst, I find them developmentally inappropriate, unnecessarily complicated and ambiguous, sloppy, sometimes propagandistic, and ridiculously dependent on expensive computer hardware and software. In America we have the NAEP test that is effective and not high stakes. All of the rest of the mass administered standardized testing is an inexcusable waste of money and time, taking away from authentic teaching and learning. Please re-examine the premises of your agenda. Listen to experienced educators, not to financially-minded “philanthropists.” And while you’re reflecting on your shortcomings, please prepare a statement that expresses the rationale for thwarting the intent of FERPA by making changes favorable to those who will make obscene profits from compromising our children’s personally identifiable information.

  23. Dear Mr. Duncan,
    As a Retired Master Teacher I feel that the alternative licensure has been a major contributor to the failure of our students. Teaching is a calling and many of these people go into teaching because they are unable to find jobs in their respective fields. How can a business major teach reading to a kindergarten or a first grade student without the necessary background? Many of these teachers are not willing to spend the time doing research on their own to see how they can help the students, rather they rely on being spoon fed. The numerous hours spent in staff development for these alternative licensure teachers take away so much learning time from the students. Canned programs are implemented in the schools that stifle the creativity of the real teachers. One of my strengths was to recognize how each student learned and then adapt my lessons for each learning style. It took at least three years for me to become comfortable with teaching techniques and there was very little staff development. I did my own research and worked way beyond my contract hours in order to get the students learning styles down to a science. I was considered a highly gifted, and affective teacher. Where did this commitment to teaching go? The true teachers cannot do it alone.

  24. What I don’t see mentioned here (and I know is a HUGE concern for parents and teachers) is the unreasonable emphasis placed on standardized test results. Teachers should not be evaluated based on results from standardized tests, nor should schools be rated and, in some cases, closed based on test results. Students should not be detained based on test results, or required to stay at school longer. Tests should be used as guiding tools, not sole decision-making devices. I know teachers and parents are telling you this (I’m one of them). When will this change?

    • You are so right, thank you for taking the time to respond. I only hope someone is reading these comments who can DO something and thoughtfully take action.

  25. I read this in another letter: “A Gallup poll showed that although most 80% of parents were satisfied with the quality of their child’s school 54% were dissatisfied with quality of K-12 education in the U.S. This contradiction is the reason why politicians can pass laws that strip teachers of collective bargaining rights and courts can put an end to teacher tenure. Most people love their teacher and their school but they believe most schools and most teachers are failing.

    The truth is public schools are not failing. Public schools are doing what they are designed to do. They are designed to be unequally funded based on property taxes, so they provide unequal educations to children based on their parents’ income. They are designed to sort children into probably destinations so they track children and give them the type of education they think they need. Some are prepared for college and to become leaders while others are prepared to be low-wage workers. Public schools also tend to reflect the social inequities we see in society. Women have historically faced discrimination in our society and a profession that is made up of a majority of women is routinely attacked, blamed, and forced to accept reform efforts by outsiders. Can you think of a male dominated profession that is treated in the same way? Society has a history of discrimination against black and brown people and the history of school segregation continues to plague many public schools today. After desegregation was enforced, all black public schools were closed, many black teachers were fired, and an all-white hostile school system was forced to educate children they knew nothing about. As a result children of color were often labeled as special needs, tracked into vocational education, or pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline. The truth is public education has never fulfilled its potential because society has yet to do the same.”
    – Dr. D. Jones

    • You said a lot about society, and I would agree with what I interpret you to be saying. I see you signed with a Dr. at the front of your name, and I thank you for taking the time to share. School issues are societal based and parody in school climates should be a goal not as much as equality.

  26. As a parent of 3 youngsters who graduated from k-12 urban public schools, as a former PTA president, and as a long time urban public school educator (k-12 teacher, administrator, university teacher, researcher, advocate., I welcome this statement. I think it reflects a willingness to listen to and learn from critics. It acknowledges progress and gives credit to educators, families and students who helped produce this.
    Big challenges/issues remain. But I think this statement shows an openness that is encouraging.

  27. Dear Mr. Duncan,
    You can’ t have your cake (massive time consuming high risk standardized tests) and eat it too (time for children to be in programs that promote critical thinking. Your letter is trying to mollify the outcry by teachers and parents across the country. Yes, you say, teaching for the test is problematic, yes, critical thinking is crucial, yes, our schools are doing great, yes, our teachers are great, yes, we’ll give you a year. And then, BAM, comes the tests that will, as you say be, “sucking the oxygen out of the room.”
    Talk is cheap. Stand by your words and create possibilities for classroom environments that nurture growth from September to June that defines the whole child, not just the test scores, through performance assessment, portfolios, anecdotal records, writing drafts, conversations, classroom cooperation, collegiality, etc.

    N.B. Do you read these comments?

  28. There is a lot to question in this statement, but I want to look at #2, the concern that standardized tests assess “basic skills” but not “critical thinking and deeper learning.” Some of the Common Core standards describe complex skills I absolutely want my students and all children to possess: for example, “Write arguments to support claims using relevant evidence and valid reasoning.” The best, and indeed the only, way to assess whether students’ learning meets this standard is to have them write arguments to support claims using relevant evidence and valid reasoning. Standardized tests cannot adequately measure achievement of this standard — not even standardized tests that cost a quarter of a billion dollars to develop and implement. The real impetus for standardized testing is, of course, the need to measure how well teachers and schools are doing. But imagine that we trusted teachers to assess their students, and administrators to monitor their teachers. All of that money going to standardized testing could be spent on teams of educators who would evaluate schools, documenting the presence or absence of “critical thinking and deeper learning,” as well as student work that meets standards, and would report to the public on the progress of schools, teachers, and students. And yes, parents do want to know how their children are doing in school. That is why we have report cards and parent-teacher conferences. Teachers and principals and school communities also want to be able to compare their students’ performance in basic, testable skills, which they can easily do with existing instruments. These would be more reliable as measures of student learning if *no* stakes were attached to the outcomes. Would anyone, other than the Pearson Corporation, be unhappy with such an education system?

  29. King Gates speaks, and Arne comes slouching behind in agreement like Igor. A few months ago, the Gates foundation called for a two-year moratorium on using value-added measures (a.k.a. test scores) in teacher evaluations. Now, right at the start of the school year, comes Mr. Duncan saying essentially the same thing except he still needs to look tough in the eyes of his master, so he calls for only a one year waiting period. Don’t worry, Arne, master Gates will be pleased by your actions I’m sure. In two years your consultant position in The Gates Foundation will be assured with a nice tidy salary of around 750 K.

    The timing of this statement is suspicious to say the least. The school year has started, Arne! States and schools aren’t going to redesign their evaluation systems now, silly! As a high school teacher in a low-income district in Pennsylvania, I know that this year my principals will be using test scores as part of my evaluation. This is the first year they’ve done this. They’re not going to just throw that out because you wrote while sitting on the john on August 22nd. Come on, man. If you wrote this back in April then maybe schools and states would have time to implement change, but you wrote it AFTER school started. This statement reeks of a craven politician looking to curry favor from his base.

  30. I feel like two different Arne Duncans wrote this blog. A stand-in and impostor who is saying testing is sucking the life out of schools, and the evil, ignorant Arne Duncan who thinks standardized testing is anything other than a complete and total waste of time and money. Stop paying lip service and tell us what we really want to hear: That you’re going to step aside and let someone who actually understands education do the job right.

  31. Dear Secretary Duncan,

    As I read through this letter, I had to ask myself if there were not such an enormous outcry and pushback from parents and teachers, would you be writing this letter today?

    I have read many various statements from you in the past which appeared callously bureaucratic and lacking in empathy. Due to such attitudes there is a concerted “Opt Out” movement that is gaining national steam.

    I am thankful that parents are pushing back hard against government that seems to lack the ability to listen. In my own home State of New Jersey we parents have been met with scorn by our governor and his Education Department.

    I personally called our DOE to speak with the Assistant to the Commissioner and what I was told by Ms Erlichson was that I had “no right” to object to these tests. Imagine a government worker whose salary is paid for by my tax dollars speaking to a parent like that?

    But you see I was not surprised by her attitude since she expressed that she is empowered by Federal Mandates. That to me places responsibility at your front door.

    Tax dollars flow to States who tow the line. Department of Ed employees need to make sure that line is towed, and lowly parents “have no right” to object. Such is Ms Erlichson and Commissioner Hespe’s logic.

    Well, that does not sit well with me. So, I chose to join in the Opt Out Movement and my child did not take his mandated test. I have also chosen to join in with speaking out against callousness that seems to be the norm within government these days.

    In my view your letter pays lip service to the anger and pushback by parents and teachers. You have lost quite a bit of credibility since the onset of your tenure.
    A true readjustment with regards to the attitude of government vis and vis parents will eventually happen. But it will only happen when parents elect leaders who are truly going to listen to our concerns and consequently issue true changes.

    Until that time, I view this letter with appropriate skepticism which bureaucrats deserve.

    • Well stated and I hope someone who cares about parents, students, teachers, schools, and communities will read it and not just report it as another slam on government. Having raised three children and gone through the education system myself I whole heartily agree with you.

  32. “…the highest high school graduation rate in the nation’s history, and sharp cuts in dropout rates and increases in college enrollment, especially for groups that in the past have lagged significantly. ” Do you realize that this was the case before NCLB, CCSS, and all this testing anxiety – I mean madness!

    I believe the national “deformers”, most who have no knowledge of child development or teaching pedagogy are going at it backward at the back end instead of the front end- trying to hold teacher accountable after they have become teachers. You should be raising the standards of teacher training and having an internship and residency program as they have in medicine. This ensures that most doctors are excellent (though many are still not). However, our society better be ready to compensate teachers more because no one will go through this training without that end result.

    Furthermore, you have acknowledge that it takes a long time to become a great teacher and should change the job description to a teaching “practice” because as in medicine and law thats what it is. How old are the best football and basketball coaches? Yes, there are some that are in their 40’s but most are in their 50’s and 60’s. But, we expect teachers who are 25 to automatically be great!? That is ridiculous! Especially when it depends on our cliental – our families and the children.

    Moreover, you never mention the real issue and problem in education that all the billionaires refuse to mention and that all the child psychologists and education experts attribute to the real problems with schools – “Its the poverty stupid.” Sorry that is the reality. You can all bury your head in the sand and refuse to see this and you will continue to get the same results.

    I have traveled this country, have taught in 3 states, K-12, and have friends who teach in many states. When I first heard about CCSS I thought it was a great idea; for guidelines. However, a bad idea for stringent (rigorous as in inflexible and dead) when I read who put it together and who would benefit from it – $$ interests instead of children. Shameful, shameful, shameful.

    The data shows that 12 years of “reforms” have done nothing to improve teaching or learning and that it actually is producing children who think less and have learned less. Well in high and medium poverty areas at least. IN high income and private schools they have been free to pursue the broad liberal education that was intended to open minds; while most have closed minds – rigorously.

    I hope you take my considerations seriously and change the debate where it needs to be directed: at teacher training and poverty.

    • Well stated, again, I hope someone who can relate this in a straightforward manner to Mr. Duncan ( or even he himself should read and respond to your statements) so government might listen to the people who pay taxes and are the government should respond to the needs of the students not just the needs of the government to control education.

  33. Tests are taking a lot of time of learning. School only dedicates time for the tests, and not on learning. We need more learning, and less test. Too much stress for students and teachers, and less learning in the classroom. We need real learning, and more College preparation.

    • There are two ways to look at testing, one is formative testing which can be done with conversation, observation, projects, etc.. The other is sumative which should be done after the skill should be mastered.
      Formative Assessment:
      The goal of formative assessment is to gather feedback that can be used by the instructor and the students to guide improvements in the ongoing teaching and learning context. These are low stakes assessments for students and instructors
      Summative Assessment:
      The goal of summative assessment is to measure the level of success or proficiency that has been obtained at the end of an instructional unit, by comparing it against some standard or benchmark.
      I cannot believe Mr. Duncan is even aware of these forms of testing or he would be pressuring for more formative assessment of students and not putting ALL testing in the realm of teacher quality.

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