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Arne Duncan - Tough Questions from the Frontline


NEA members ask, Education Secretary Arne Duncan answers.


Edited by Alain Jehlen


NCLB

Can you change NCLB so that ESL and special education students are not counted in the testing for the standards? They are special education kids for a reason!

Laraine Yasui
Retired-fourth grade teacher, Pearl City, Hawaii

Secretary Duncan: The goal is appropriate evaluations for children who are learning English or have special education needs. The idea of not including them—I don’t think that’s where we want to go. Sweeping kids under the rug doesn’t make sense. If there are districts doing a great job evaluating ELL and special ed students, I would love to hear from your members. Read an extended answer.  Comment on our discussion board. 

Arts

As a school band and orchestra director, I have felt a serious lack of support for the arts. Do you and the President recognize that including fine arts in the core curriculum is essential to educating the “whole” child?

Don Travis
Middle school instrumental music teacher, Evansville, Indiana

Secretary Duncan: I worry a lot about the narrowing curriculum and the arts being lost. It’s so important that all of our students have exposure to arts, music, dance, sports, and find their interest and passion. As we move forward with NCLB, I want to think about how we encourage schools to give all children a well-rounded education.

It will probably help in the test scores—there’s a huge correlation between doing well in music and math—but that’s really not the point. It will engage them more in school and reduce dropout rates. As part of the core curriculum, after school, summers—how do we give students a chance to find their passion in life? extended answer

Charter schools

I have taught students turned away by our charter school. Almost all charters either fend off children with special needs, or push out students who don’t work hard, or require extra parent commitment. How is that a model for the rest of us?

Nina Romano
Kindergarten special education teacher, Somerville, Massachusetts

Secretary Duncan: If that’s going on, that’s not acceptable. But any good accountability agreement will look at those factors. If schools are not doing the right thing, that would be a reason for that school to be shut down.

In Chicago, we tracked special ed rates, retention rates, dropout rates. If charters are successful because they’re just working with elite kids, that’s not success. The goal is not more charters, it’s good charters.

I’m a big believer in giving parents a range of choices. This works better in urban than in rural areas, obviously. We have to do more to empower families, particularly poor families, who have historically had few options, if any. extended answer

Merit pay

Merit pay based on test scores is not equal pay for equal work. In my school, teachers have to do a lot more than they would if it were a middle class school. Teachers’ pay shouldn’t depend on student scores.

Victoria Siegel
Speech/language specialist, Oakland, California

Secretary Duncan: I’m a big believer in rewarding gain, not absolute scores. If you just look at absolute scores, you create real inequities. Also, compare schools with similar demographics so it really is apples to apples. And test scores should always be a measure, but not the measure. extended answer

Class size

I can teach 15 students much better than 30. When I directed the Project STAR class-size research program, I helped prove the value of small classes. What will the federal government do to reduce class size?

Elizabeth Word
Retired elementary teacher, Gallatin, Tennessee

Secretary Duncan: Actually, what we’re most concerned about right now is class size skyrocketing. If class size went from 25 to 40, that would have been a disaster. But due to this influx of resources, I think we’ve been able to largely stave it off and save a generation of children.

But given how tough things are, districts are going to be hard pressed to lower class size. That’s an important thing to do, but we’re fighting the battle not to get worse. extended answer

ESP Layoffs

NEA members report budget cuts are especially harsh on education support professionals. In Los Angeles, 64 percent of proposed cuts are support staff. What are you doing to ensure states use stimulus funds to save ESP jobs?

Kathie Axtell
Paraeducator, Olympia, Washington, and 2009 ESP of the Year.

Secretary Duncan: Our goal is to save educators’ jobs: teachers and support personnel. There are still devastating cuts out there, but I’m convinced we are going to be able to save hundreds of thousands of jobs.

We are looking for transparency about how stimulus dollars are spent. We want to reward states doing the right thing, but if states do things not in the best interest of children, we can withhold dollars in the second round. We also have unprecedented discretionary resources. I don’t want to micromanage, but where we have reason to be concerned, we’re not hesitating to step in. If cuts are widely disproportionate, that would be cause for concern. extended answer

Parent Role

Why do you think extending my work day is going to make any difference if Mom and Dad and Auntie at home aren’t doing anything to help me at school?

Laverne Mickens
Elementary arts and drama teacher, Springfield, Massachusetts

Secretary Duncan: We can’t afford to give up on any children. Is parental support hugely important? Absolutely. We have to do everything we can to encourage that. But the flip side is, whether parental support is there or not, we, as educators, also have a huge impact on students.

Where the streets aren’t safe, where the home might be less than functional, the best thing we can do is keep schools open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, six, seven days a week, 11 or 12 months a year.

That does not mean the school day becomes 14 hours. It means the building is open 14 hours a day. You can bring in a wide variety of nonprofit partners to do tutoring, sports, drama. You can do activities for parents—GED, ESL, family literacy. In some of the toughest communities in Chicago, we had 100 to 150 parents coming to school every day, not for their children’s education, but for their own. When families learn together, great things happen. extended answer

Poverty

Test scores are tied to parents’ incomes. When will politicians realize that although schools can help to mitigate some of the disparities in society, we cannot be the great equalizer that will leave no child behind?

Lori Mayo
High school English teacher, New York City

Secretary Duncan: I disagree. I see extraordinary schools where 95 percent of children live below the poverty line, where 95 percent are graduating, and 90 percent of those who graduate are going on to college.

We have to raise expectations. We have many examples—whether it’s inner-city schools or rural schools—where, year after year, schools are beating the odds. Children from desperate poverty are being very successful because of adults pushing so hard to help.

I know how tough that work is. I know it doesn’t happen overnight. But this is the most important work today. And it is happening consistently, more so today than ever before, which gives me tremendous hope for the future. extended answer

Web Exclusive: More Questions, Longer Answers

 

NCLB

Can you change NCLB so that ESL and special education students are not counted in the testing for the standards? They are special education kids for a reason!

Laraine Yasui
Retired-fourth grade teacher, Pearl City, Hawaii

Secretary Duncan: The goal is to give them an appropriate evaluation. Within the special ed spectrum, there’s a huge range from very high-performing students to students for whom taking the normal test is ridiculous. And so, as we think about NCLB reauthorization, what we want to look to do is to have appropriate evaluations for children who are either learning English or have special education needs, which very few places are doing well now. The idea of not including them or not evaluating them or not counting them, I don’t think that’s where we want to go. The idea of sort of sweeping kids under the rug doesn’t make sense.


NEA Today: Does that mean you would have kids who would have different standards? Right now, there’s the one percent who can have different standards and the two percent who can have alternate assessments for the same standards.

Secretary Duncan: I’ve never been comfortable with those arbitrary numbers. I think this is something you have to really look at, almost on a case by case basis, and as we continue this listening and learning tour, this is one of the things I’m asking everyone about: What do we do with English language learners? Which states have great models? What do we do with special education students? But the idea of arbitrarily picking a number and saying these kids are out, to me, does not make sense. And, so I want to re-look at all of that.

If there are states or districts that are doing a great job of fairly and accurately evaluating ELL students and special education students, I would love to hear about those models from your members.

Arts

As a school band and orchestra director, I have felt a serious lack of support for the arts. Do you and the President recognize that including fine arts in the core curriculum is essential to educating the “whole” child?

Don Travis
Middle school instrumental music teacher, Evansville, Indiana

Secretary Duncan: I worry a lot about the narrowing of the curriculum and the arts being lost under NCLB in the past. It’s so important that all of our students have exposure, particularly at a young age, to arts, music, dance, drama, sports, whatever it might be, and find their interest and find their passion.

The other thing that really bothers me is that some folks think that to do better in math, they need to eliminate art, eliminate music. There’s all kinds of research that shows this huge correlation between doing well in music and doing well in math, so you’re doing the wrong thing to meet your goals.

As we move forward with NCLB reauthorization, I really want to push against the narrowing of the curriculum in many different ways, including this one, and think about how we do more to encourage schools and school districts to give all of our children a very well rounded education. I’m convinced it helps students develop in healthy ways, helps them build a sense of self-esteem. 

I think it will probably help in the test scores, although that’s really not the point. I think it will engage them more in school and help to reduce dropout rates. 

So, during the school day and as part of the core curriculum, before school, after school, summers—again, this goes back to time—how do we think very differently about all those opportunities to give students the kind of broad-based range of experiences that give them a chance to find their passion in life and then pursue that?

Charter schools

I have taught students turned away by our charter school. Almost all charters either fend off children with special needs, or push out students who don’t work hard, or require extra parent commitment. How is that a model for the rest of us?

Nina Romano
Kindergarten special education teacher, Somerville, Massachusetts

Secretary Duncan: If that’s going on, that’s not acceptable. Let me start with that.

But any good accountability agreement with an authorizer will absolutely be looking at those factors. And if schools are not doing the right thing, that would be a reason for that school to be shut down.

In Chicago, we had some of those complaints, so part of how we held charters accountable was tracking how many students didn’t make it through their school, who left. Not that we did it all perfectly, but we looked at special ed rates, retention rates, dropout rates. We publish this every year for every school.

In Chicago, we were a 90 percent minority, 85 percent poverty district. The charters—surprisingly—were slightly poorer and slightly more minority than the district as a whole.

If charters are successful because they’re just working with elite kids or they’re putting out kids, that’s not success. These are not gifted schools. These are schools where admission should be by lottery, taking your regular public school student and serving them.

The goal is not more charters, it’s good charters. That means having a very high bar to entry. This is not “let a thousand flowers bloom.” You pick only the best of the best to do this work. Once you do that, you give folks real autonomy, and couple it with real accountability. And part of that accountability is serving every child.

NEA Today: What about the more subtle kind of selection, which I’ve heard someone describe as just having a grownup in their lives who was involved enough to choose a school. How can you compare results between schools where all the kids have that grownup, and schools where some kids don’t?

Secretary Duncan: I don’t have an easy answer for that. I will say there were children who attended charter schools who were homeless, where a teacher from their elementary school thought, this is a more nurturing environment, and put them in there.

So, you’re right, either they found the school or the school found them, or an adult in their life helped to do that. But to think that all the kids in these charter schools are coming from higher functioning families—that’s not my experience. Some of the most at-risk kids I’ve ever seen ended up in some of these schools. 

I’m a big believer in choice. I think New York does this: Every child applies to a school, whether it’s a charter or traditional school or whatever, so everybody is making a decision to go someplace. That does help to level the playing field and make the comparisons fair.

I’m a big believer in giving parents and students a range of high-quality options, and then following the data and finding out: Where we have long waiting lists, we need to do more at those schools. Where no one shows, and people move away, we need to close those schools. It lets everybody vote with their feet.

This works better in urban areas, where there’s more concentration of people, than in rural areas, where it’s obviously hard to get a choice.

I think we have to do more to empower families, particularly poor families, who have historically had very few options, if any. Create a menu of options, whether it’s math and science academies, or schools that focus on the International Baccalaureate, or the fine arts—we did single-sex schools—these are all schools of choice. No one is assigned.

If every parent can have four, five, six, seven great options, and let them figure out what’s the best learning environment for their kids—I think that’s unbelievably empowering. And it takes away what could be a legitimate concern: Is this really apples to apples? When you have real choice, it does make it more an apples-to-apples comparison. 

Merit pay

Merit pay based on test scores is not equal pay for equal work. In my school, teachers have to do a lot more than they would if it were a middle class school. Teachers’ pay shouldn’t depend on student scores.

Victoria Siegel
Speech/language specialist, Oakland, California

Secretary Duncan: I’m a big believer in rewarding gain, not absolute test scores. If you look at gain, it really levels the playing field. If you’re just looking at absolute test scores, I think you can create some real inequities.

And test scores should always be a measure, but not the measure.

In Chicago, we created a model that, actually, the best teachers in the system came up with. It really incented progress. It looked at a variety of factors, including test scores, but it was by no means limited to that. We did two things: Teachers would be rewarded based upon their students, but also upon the school improvement. You want to encourage teachers to work together and collaborate. Where these things never work is when you’re pitting one teacher against another and everyone shuts down.

And also, every adult in the building was part of the success—custodians, lunchroom attendants, social workers, security guards—not just teachers. In very high performing schools, it’s absolutely every adult building a culture of high expectations.

A lot of it was based on the Teacher Advancement Project, which is a national program that’s partnered with unions.

We only put it into schools where 75 percent or more of the teachers wanted the program. Over 120 schools showed interest. So there was a tremendous amount of interest amongst the teaching ranks.

There’s a real level of complexity. I’ve seen a lot of these programs not work. We tried to learn lessons from those that didn’t work: if you only look at test scores, or if you have a limited amount of money that’s pitting teachers against each other.

NEA Today: I’m sure Victoria Siegel would say that even if you look at test score gains, it’s still harder to move kids up one grade level at her school than in a middle class school.

Secretary Duncan: Right. So the way you do it is to compare a school with other schools with similar demographics. So, it really is apples to apples.

You could also make an argument that it’s easier to move kids who are further behind than to keep accelerating kids. So, whichever piece of that you agree with, the bottom line is, you need to be comparing schools against like schools. 

(Read a study of the first year of the Chicago TAP program by Mathematica Policy Research.)

 

Class size

I can teach 15 students much better than 30. When I directed the Project STAR class-size research program, I helped prove the value of small classes. What will the federal government do to reduce class size?

Elizabeth Word
Retired elementary teacher, Gallatin, Tennessee

Secretary Duncan: Actually, what we’re most concerned about, right now, is class size skyrocketing. If hundreds of thousands of teachers got laid off, I think that would have been an education catastrophe for our country. If class size went from 25 to 40 and we laid off teachers, social workers, counselors, librarians—that would have been an absolute disaster. But due to this unbelievable influx of resources for education because of the President’s leadership in Congress, I think we’ve been able to largely stave off an education catastrophe and save a generation of children. 

Having said that, given how tough things are economically, districts are going to be hard pressed to lower class size at this point. I think many people would agree that’s an important thing to do. We have over three billion dollars in Title II money, and much of that is used in classroom reduction now. But, right now, we’re fighting the battle not to get worse, and trying to do everything we can to make sure that class size doesn’t go in the wrong direction. And, that’s a very real fear and possibility in some places.

ESP Layoffs

NEA members report budget cuts are especially harsh on education support professionals. In Los Angeles, 64 percent of proposed cuts are support staff. What are you doing to ensure states use stimulus funds to save ESP jobs?

Kathie Axtell
Paraeducator, Olympia, Washington, and 2009 ESP of the Year.

Secretary Duncan: Our goal is to save literally hundreds of thousands of—and I always say, of “educators’” jobs: teachers and support personnel. And I’m convinced, with the stimulus resources, we are going to be able to save hundreds of thousands of jobs. We understand there are still tough devastating cuts out there. Every state’s been hit, but some states have been particularly hard hit.

What we are looking for is unparalleled transparency about how these stimulus dollars are spent, and tracking progress very closely, state by state, district by district. And while we put out billions of dollars, we withheld billions of dollars, as well. And we’re going to watch how states do. We want to continue to reward states doing the right thing. But if states are acting in bad faith or doing things not in the best interest of children, we have both carrots and sticks. We have the ability to withhold stimulus dollars in the second round.

And we also have unprecedented discretionary resources.  So we’re trying to do everything we can, through transparency, through real incentives, but also some potential consequences, to make sure states are not acting in bad faith and are not doing the wrong thing with this influx of resources.

NEA Today:  And would focusing layoffs on support staff be “doing the wrong thing”?

Secretary Duncan: I don’t want to micromanage it. But where we have reason to be concerned, we’re not hesitating to step in and try to push them in a different direction. If cuts are widely disproportionate, that would be cause for concern.

Parent Role

Why do you think extending my work day is going to make any difference if Mom and Dad and Auntie at home aren’t doing anything to help me at school?

Laverne Mickens
Elementary arts and drama teacher, Springfield, Massachusetts

Secretary Duncan: We can’t afford to give up on any children, even those who come from the most dysfunctional families. I’ve spent a lot of my life working with kids from homes with high levels of dysfunction, and sometimes very low levels of support. Despite those huge barriers, I’ve seen kids from these very tough, troubled backgrounds go on to do great things because there were adults in their lives who really cared about them and had the highest expectations and stayed with them for the long haul.

Is parental support hugely important? Absolutely. And, we have to do everything we can to encourage that. But, the flip side is, whether parental support is there or not, we, as educators, have a huge impact on how students do.

One of the biggest things I can think of, particularly for children who come from homes that are less supportive, is to give them more time. 

Where the streets aren’t safe, where the home might be less than functional, the best thing we can do is keep schools open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, six, seven days a week, 11 or 12 months out of the year. I think that’s the only way we begin to level the playing field, to give them the opportunity they need to be successful.

That does not mean just that the school day becomes 14 hours.  It means that the building is open 14 hours a day. And you can bring in a wide variety of nonprofit partners to do tutoring, mentoring, academic enrichment and sports and drama and art, and music and chess and debate. You can do a whole host of activities for parents — GED, ESL, family literacy nights, family counseling. 
In some of the toughest communities in Chicago, we had 100 to 150 parents coming to school every day, not for their children’s education, but for their own. And when families are learning together, great things happen.

So, I absolutely recognize the tremendous challenges that some of our students face. I understand that, sometimes, the home is less supportive than we’d like it to be. But that is all the more reason why great adults matter and why great time matters. If we don’t do more, the students are condemned to repeat cycles of poverty and social failure. And the only way we break those cycles is to do some very, very different things. 

Poverty

Test scores are tied to parents’ incomes. When will politicians realize that although schools can help to mitigate some of the disparities in society, we cannot be the great equalizer that will leave no child behind?

Lori Mayo
High school English teacher, New York City

Secretary Duncan: I disagree. I see extraordinary high-performance schools where 95 percent of children live below the poverty line, where 95 percent are graduating, and 90 percent of those who graduate are going on to college.

I think we have to raise expectations. We have too many examples—whether it’s inner-city urban schools or rural schools—where, year after year, class after class, not just one child somehow breaking out in some miracle, but where schools and school systems are routinely beating the odds. So I would really challenge that teacher to look at what’s happening, in New York City and other places around the country, rural and urban, where children from desperate poverty are being very, very successful because adults had the highest of expectations, pushing so hard to help them.

I know how tough that work is. I know it doesn’t happen overnight. But this is the most important work going on today. And we have too many examples of success now to think that it’s not possible. It is happening consistently, more so today than ever before, which gives me tremendous hope for the future.

National Board Teacher Lay-offs

I am a candidate for National Board Certification and I am being laid off after five years with my district. How do propose that teachers like me remain in this profession?

Troy Paula Kubly
First grade teacher in San Clemente, California

Secretary Duncan: I’m a huge fan of National Board Certification. There’s going to be a huge demand for teachers of that caliber around the country. I think people recognize that National Board Certification is some of the best teachers in the country going back and continuing to hone their skills and continuing to improve.

What I love about NBC is this: Students listen to what we say, but they watch what we do. Talk about being “lifelong learners”—NBC’s are living that. And the overwhelming majority of school principals understand what high caliber folks they are.

I feel badly she was laid off. But there will always be a huge market, a huge demand, for national board certified teachers.

Sidwell Friends

Why does the Department of Education advocate so strongly for more testing, teacher accountability and rigid curriculum, when President Obama sends his children to a school that emphasizes none of those things?

Hugh Brady
Retired eighth grade history teacher in Buffalo Grove, Illinois

Secretary Duncan: Well, I don’t advocate for more testing, I don’t advocate for a rigid curriculum. You’ve never heard me once say we need more testing. You’ve never heard me once say anything about a rigid curriculum. So, I think I agree with the questioner. 

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23-Aug-09


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