Duncan Speaks

July 2, 2009 | Blog

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan today delivered a major speech on the Obama Administration’s teacher quality priorities before the National Education Association. He challenged the NEA to think differently about approaches to teacher compensation, while thanking NEA for its support of National Board teacher certification. He also said that the Adminstration was not interested in imposing reforms on teachers, but wanted to work with educators to develop such reforms.

Here are some brief excerpts — on teacher pay and reform:

I am big believer in this program, but let’s also be honest: school systems pay teachers billions of dollars more each year for earning PD credentials that do very little to improve the quality of teaching.

At the same time, many schools give nothing at all to the teachers who go the extra mile and make all the difference in students’ lives. Excellence matters and we should honor it—fairly, transparently, and on terms teachers can embrace.

The President and I have both said repeatedly that we are not going to impose reform but rather work with teachers, principals, and unions to find what works. And that is what we did in Chicago. We enlisted the help of 24 of the best teachers in the system to design a pilot performance compensation system. We also sat down with the union and bargained it out.

It was based on classroom observation, whole school performance and individual classroom performance, measured in part by growth in student learning. The rewards and incentives for good performance went to every adult in the school—including custodians and cafeteria workers—not just the individual teachers.

Where you see high-performing schools—it’s the culture—every adult taking responsibility and creating a culture of high expectations.

On seniority and tenure–

And I’m telling you as well—that when inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules that we designed put adults ahead of children—then we are not only putting kids at risk—we’re putting the entire education system at risk. We’re inviting the attack of parents and the public—and that is not good for any of us.

I believe that teacher unions are at a crossroads. These policies were created over the past century to protect the rights of teachers but they have produced an industrial factory model of education that treats all teachers like interchangeable widgets.

On data, student assessment and teacher evaluation–

Now let’s talk about data. I understand that word can make people nervous but I see data first and foremost as a barometer. It tells us what is happening. Used properly, it can help teachers better understand the needs of their students. Too often, teachers don’t have good data to inform instruction and help raise student achievement.

Data can also help identify and support teachers who are struggling. And it can help evaluate them. The problem is that some states prohibit linking student achievement and teacher effectiveness.

I understand that tests are far from perfect and that it is unfair to reduce the complex, nuanced work of teaching to a simple multiple choice exam. Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions. That would never make sense. But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible.

It’s time we all admit that just as our testing system is deeply flawed—so is our teacher evaluation system—and the losers are not just the children. When great teachers are unrecognized and unrewarded—when struggling teachers are unsupported—and when failing teachers are unaddressed—the teaching profession is damaged.

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Carolyn Mason

    August 6, 2009

    it is interesting that a month has gone by and this is the first comment on your post.

    I come from a school that is very driven by data. In fact, in my opinion, we are over-emphasizing data. In our new math program adoption process during the past school year, all staff wanted was WASL test scores for math from schools using the programs we were looking at (Washington State). No one (from administration to teachers to community members) wanted to look at research (longitudinal studies) about the learning and teaching of mathematical concepts. No one wanted to have the difficult conversations about what is known about long-term development of mathematical understanding. No one wanted to ask, "What is it we believe about math education, based on real research, not just short term data? And what practices should we look for in a math program to support those beliefs?"

    So data can help with those quick glances at who in my class understands, who needs help, and who needs interventions. It can help me identify areas in which a colleague has strengths that I can learn from and what strengths of mine I can offer to him/her. But using short-term data to select educational programs is not the way to go.

    The same can be said about using data to evaluate teacher performance; the data excuse allows us to fool ourselves that the data is all there is to teaching and learning. It allows us to skip the hard work of actually studying longitudinal research into learning & teaching. And it allows us to avoid those difficult conversations about what the research means & how we will put the findings into practice. I would hope that my knowledge of research and implementation of best practices is part of my evaluation. The data-only route is too narrow.

    Data is for short-term diagnosis and problem solving. We (the educators, not just the test & text publishers, and not just the politicians) need to look at long-term research and application of best practices if we want long-term change in our schools.

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