Monday, May 9, 2011

to arne - from a kinder, gentler me

Dear Secretary Duncan:

Last week I wrote to you in response to your Teacher Appreciation Week letter. I admit, my letter was kind of caustic. Well, actually, it was a LOT caustic. It had been a long week near the end of a long year and I just wasn’t feeling your love.

In fact, I haven’t felt your love since shortly after you became our Secretary of Education. I was a bit puzzled by your appointment. Your job qualifications were kind of odd for the position. You were a pro basketball player in Australia, worked for an investment company, were CEO of Chicago Public Schools, even though you had no education credentials, and then became Secretary of Education. I wondered why Linda Darling-Hammond didn’t get the job. Maybe her jump shot wasn’t all that. And yes, I know you helped out your mom in her after school tutoring program and that was cool, but that wasn’t really enough to prepare you for the jobs in education that you’ve held.

You confuse me, Arne. Despite the failure of Renaissance 2010 in Chicago Public Schools, (Chicago Tribune says ‘Renaissance 2010’ has failed) you keep insisting that those failed strategies be imposed on our nation’s schools. You have an impressive talent for not heeding the well-researched advice from such stellar education scholars such as Diane Ravitch, Stephen Krashen, Yong Zhao, Alfie Kohn, and a list of others. Oh yeah, you also don’t really listen to experienced veteran teachers either.

Arne, I so want to like you. Everyone says you’re such a nice guy, but I’m just not feeling you. You want to help our children be successful in school and reach their highest potential, and I give you props for that. But Arne, you’re going about it in the wrong way.

First, our children are not failing because of bad teachers. Our children are not failing because of LIFO based layoffs. Our children aren’t failing because of due process rights for teachers. Merit pay is not the answer. Teach for America is not the answer. Charter schools are not the answer. Bill Gates doesn’t have ANY of the answers. Our children are struggling for a variety of reasons:

·      Inequity in school funding: Our most struggling schools, those schools you call failures, sorely lack the resources needed to support our most struggling students. You poured salt on our wounds by implementing your Race to the Top program, which further exacerbates the economic disparity between schools.
·      Higher standards: Implementation of higher standards in many states (my state, California, being one) has lead to developmentally inappropriate curricula being imposed on our children. No matter how high your standard is and no matter how hard you work, you’re just not going get that newborn baby to walk.
·      Overloaded, yet narrow, curricula: Another result of raising the bar is that our curricula have become 10,000 miles wide and .000001 inch deep. We race through a developmentally inappropriate, test-focused, jam-packed, NARROW curricula then we wonder why our kids don’t score as well as kids in other nations (more about that later).
·      Larger class sizes: Larger class sizes severely hamper teachers’ abilities to best serve all of our students. Rule of thumb: The more challenging the student population, the smaller the class sizes should be. Class size does matter regardless of what Bill Gates says. Arne, Bill is a computer guy, not a teacher. Think about it. You’ve got two kids. Do you seriously think you would be as successful parenting fifteen kids versus two? (And that’s without having to teach them any academics.) Regarding class size, have you noticed that charter schools boast of small class sizes in their advertizing literature? The Obama children attend a private school with class sizes of 13:1. If it’s good enough for the Obama kids, it certainly is good enough for my students.
·      High-stakes testing: The sanctions threatened and imposed by NCLB have served to focus schools on teaching to the tests, resulting in the creation of massive test prep factories. And look what happened in your own neighborhood with Rhee and RheeraserGate. Do you think there is a correlation between test prep factories and drop out factories?
·      College-for-All: An over-emphasis on college readiness has encouraged the abandonment of vocational education classes. The insistence on college-for-all discourages those students that are not college material. News flash: Not all kids are college material. By eliminating vocational education and severely narrowing curricular offerings, we have created an atmosphere of hopelessness for many students. This atmosphere encourages kids to drop out because they see no substantive purpose for school in their lives.

Finally, Arne, POVERTY IS NOT AN EXCUSE. Poverty is a reality that affects student achievement. Research supports this, as does classroom experience. To deny the effects of poverty on children is patently unfair. Until you are willing to BEGIN the discussion by addressing the effects of poverty on our nation’s children (21% are living there), you will never be able to reach a solution. Denial of poverty and its link to student achievement assures the continued failure of our most needy students. And PLEASE stop telling the world that our kids are sucking on international assessments. They’re not. Schools with <10% poverty rank at the top on international assessments. In fact, our kids do quite well in schools with up to 49.9% of children living in poverty. Are you aware that the highest-ranking nation, Finland, has only 3% of its children living in poverty? Poverty matters, Arne. It really does.

So there you have it, Arne. Public education as seen and experienced through the eyes, mind and heart of a veteran educator who has dedicated her life to teaching our nation’s neediest children.

As I said before, I want to like you, Arne. I really do. But unless you start making some better choices, I won’t be feeling the love.


A Teacher Anon

p.s. If you are still wondering how the broader teaching community feels about your letter to teachers, don’t listen to Justin Hamilton. I think he’s just messing with you. Teachers still just are not that into you.


  1. Thank you for this well written letter. It succinctly expresses what I and many other teachers feel. Thank you!

  2. Thank YOU, Amber! It is such a frustrating time for those of us in public education. It is my pleasure to represent!!! :) Namaste.

  3. Well said. Child poverty rate in my city is 43.8% according to data from 2 years ago. Yet in our district the school board has approved plans to eliminate 247 teaching positions, cut arts programs, and hire more administrators.