Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An Open Letter to Arne Duncan

Dear Mr. Duncan:

There are no coincidences. I have been struggling with writing to you ever since the #AskArne call was announced on Twitter.  I knew 140 characters wouldn't do it.

So today when I opened an email from TC Record, I read one commentary that caught my eye: Why We All Need Integrated Schools: A Critique of a 'Successful' Urban Charter School and I thought of you and the USDOE. Zoė Burkholder offers an insightful critique explaining why integrated schools are needed based on her visit to DC Prep, an urban charter school in Washington DC, not too far from where you are located. This past year 100% of the 8th graders at DC Prep scored proficiently on the District math and reading tests.  

Ms. Burkholder, though, asks an important question. 
As I sat through the presentation by DC Prep founder and CEO Emily Lawson, I began to wonder what it costs to raise test scores on reading and math to 100% proficiency. I don’t mean financial costs, although the charter school’s impressive fundraising history suggests that money doesn’t hurt. I mean what does it cost in terms of educational ideals to focus so intently on the single goal of academic achievement as measured by standardized tests in reading and math?
It is when Burkholder digs a bit deeper into the type of learning privileged at DC Prep that questionable practices arise.  She writes:
A major learning component at DC Prep includes what Lawson terms “character education.” Lawson, who is white and upper middle-class, explains that students wear uniforms and are expected to conform to a complex set of behavioral rules and codes. This includes strict silence in the hallways and eye contact and appropriate verbal responses to teachers. The list of social skills becomes more specific for each grade, for example, teachers evaluate fourth graders for their ability to follow directions, get the teacher’s attention appropriately, accept criticism, communicate honestly, and express their feelings appropriately. Behavior is monitored through the use of a yellow score card that each student carries all day long. Teachers reward students for good behavior and penalize them for bad behavior by instructing students to add or subtract a virtual dollar to their score cards. This kind of behavioral conditioning is visible in many “successful” urban charter schools, like the KIPP schools, which use hand signals and chants to reinforce behavior.
In April of last year, a former graduate student of mine wrote a compelling post, "Miss C Recounts Teaching at a South Bronx Charter School." In that post, Miss C, a first grade teacher, wrote: 
Along with endless test prep for NYS exams, assessment and the quest for data were drilled into our curriculum and practices. Never in my life had I such a dizzying array of assessments, especially in the primary grades. Our math curriculum came with weekly tests that I had to grade using actual percentages scrawled on top, which felt bizarre and cruel to hand back to a six year old (not to mention a stark contrast to my usual star or smiley face). We were instructed to keep data on everything, and make sure anything we put in a portfolio, or hung up on a bulletin board was aligned to a rubric and graded. Our heavily scrutinized bulletin boards--which I secretly referred to as bulletin boreds--were depressing exhibitions of uniform student work that was graded and accompanied by lists of NYS standards and rubrics so observers could see what the “purpose” of the assignment was and how/why students received whatever grade they got. Giving grades was bad enough: putting them on display in the hallway was even worse. Low grades were not permitted to be displayed, so some students never had work shown. Bulletin boards were no place for whimsical artwork adorned with painted handprints, glitter, or anything fun. Nothing “counted” unless it had a grade and was approved by administration...
...I wonder about the high test scores my previous school boasts, and if they are an indication of real learning, or the result of endless hours of relentless test-prep that has taught students how to choose the correct answer at the expense of actually learning anything valuable.
In Dressing the Corpse: Professional Development and the Play of Singularities,  I chronicled a beginning teacher at an urban public school in Pennsylvania.  The teacher toiling beneath the district demands to "finish the basal literacy program" was required to adhere to a pacing chart that accounted for all available time from the beginning of the school year through most of June and to test all of her 2nd graders weekly using a battery of district prescribed literacy assessments that were aligned to the National Reading Panel Report.  As a result, the teacher was more concerned with completing the requisite number of pages each day than on thinking about the meaning children made. After leaving the teacher one afternoon, I went home and wrote:
On my way home from Harding Street School, I wonder what sense Ms. Sheridan is making of her new career. Is this what she imagined and hoped teaching might be? What is being displaced by the considerable importance attached to completing the program? Ms. Sheridan is learning how to implement technical aspects of the program, but I can’t help but think that the costs of this development may be greater than we can calculate...Ms. Sheridan and teachers working in similar conditions who are required to keep to a script are a lot like epic characters: “bounded, pre-formed, individualized by their various situations and destinies, but not by varying ‘truths’” (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 35). Bakhtin explains that epic is “a man speaking about a past that is to him inaccessible” (1981, p. 13). As a closed text, program language can be mimed, but not lived; for it matters not how long or how well the bard tells the given story, it remains a story beyond his touch, influence, and rebuke. By requiring teachers to implement “proven” programs as epic, what local truths are silenced? What potential insights are missed?
Gilles Deleuze notes, “[b]eneath the general operation of laws, however, there always remains the play of singularities” (1994, p. 25). It is this play of singularities that is of interest here. When implementing epic programs, there is neither occasion nor disposition to attend to the singularities present in the classroom.
So hold those thoughts about control, absence of agency, and behavioral conditioning and now take a look at the questions Ira Socol raises in his latest post, What are We Teaching? 
So, I am forced to ask this question, what have we been teaching, in our schools, in our homes, in our churches, in our everyday lives, that has allowed so many completely amoral people to not just be among us, but to rise to positions of responsibility?
In the post Ira links together actions where military and police oppression of citizen speech resulted in physical harm and death and closes by reminding us:

But I'm going to add something, the University of California at Davis, like the Pennsylvania State University, are not isolated places. They are all of us. These crimes, or those on the streets of New York, or the streets of Oakland, or the streets of London, did not happen because of a few villains, they happened because we all stopped working hard enough to build a moral, fair society.
Mr. Duncan, I think we are racing to the top of the wrong priority. You and President Obama repeatedly discuss the need to secure our economic security via education.  I want to urge you that without first securing our moral will, we have little left to offer our youngsters but yellow cards where we mark their behavior and award or debit them accordingly.  The distance between this repeated behavior at children and the societal behaviors Ira outlines is very close--very aligned.  One might argue that the first done repeatedly will surely lead to adults who are at best compliant citizens too afraid to voice their opposition or to even know they ought to feel outrage.

As a mom, I would raise the roof if I had a child at any of the schools written about in this post. I imagine you and President Obama would too. And as certainly as we know this to be true, we also know that there are significant numbers of parents who are not privileged to take such an action. Their actual voices are often missing in these conversations. The assumptions that govern how learners and their teachers are situated at school bears notice more so than a single high stakes test measure done on the cheap.  Compliance is learned not only by what we say, but also by what we repeatedly do. Some questions to frame our viewing might include:
  1. Are teachers and students valued as contributors of curriculum, not merely vessels through which curriculum passes?
  2. Are teachers and learners privileged to work inside the messiness of error making, problem framing and solving, and reflection without the threat of reprimand based on students' performances on single state measures?  
  3. Are teachers and learners agents of their own learning?
  4. Are teachers and learners acted upon by forces beyond their control?
  5. Do teachers and learners toil beneath the weight of irrational pacing charts, scripted programs, and endless test prepping?
  6. Do teachers and principals fear job loss and does this influence their work?
  7. Do children fear retention and does this influence their learning?
  8. Are learners controlled by behavioral management methods that are akin to what one might find in a prison setting?
Nel Noddings (2007) in When School Reform Goes Wrong states, "Most reform movements, paradoxically, have been flawed by moral shortcomings" (p. 79).   I think we know this to be true. Noddings closes by not only asking for NCLB to be repealed, but also offers ten major changes to the USDOE to consider. I am not sure if you have read these, but I thought I would pass them along. The full text can be found on pages 81-83.  She is asking you and your agency to:
  1. Recognize explicitly that education is broader than schooling.
  2. Recognize explicitly that children are different in their aptitudes and interests...
  3. Shift attention in research to, or at least include research that questions, basic premises.
  4. Deemphasize randomized experiments and field trials.
  5. Study carefully the preparation of teachers.
  6. Discourage states and districts from using retention in grade and withholding diplomas on the basis of test scores.
  7. Recognize that children develop at different rates.
  8. Encourage responsible experimentation designed to increase relations of care and trust.
  9. Encourage the study of new ideas for universal education.
  10. Restore genuine respect for the full range of human talents and occupations.
The course we are on is wrong. It is harming our children, our moral center, and our economic security.  There is no shortage of voices demonstrating this through countless classroom and parental accounts.  We need to listen. The adherence to testing accountability as the sum of what makes a learner and the learner's teacher 'excellent' is irrational.  I urge you to broaden the field of influence and start over. Beginning with Noddings's list would make for a fine start.  I am volunteering to help and suspect I am not alone. 


  1. Haven't got a clue who Arne Duncan is, but just wanted to say that that paragraph about Ms Sheridan struck a chord with me. I described a practically identical situation in a little cameo entitled "The Blasted Oak of EFL" (EFL refering to the business of teaching English as a foreign language). It comes up in searches on Google.

    Actually, I think the attitude to regimentation at school (that you also mention in passing) needs to be a bit more nuanced. Did you not experience regimentation at school? One of the high schools I went to was strict about things like that. That kind of order is not necessarily bad, not (at least) if there are also opportunities for individuals to enrich and deepen their personal engagement with things and acquire an ability to see beyond the line even as they stand in it.

    In a similar vein, let's not forget the old Marcusian argument about repressive desublimation. A widespread slackening and a one-sided emphasis on the play of singularities, can turn the struggle for a better society into an irrelevance.

    Oh, and lovely photo, by the way.

  2. @Torn Halves, Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education in the United States. Read your piece.

    You write: "Teaching can kill. And when the language is reduced to rules, lists and endless cloze exercises, and students are put through their paces again and again until they can tick the correct boxes, and along the way are denied the chance to make the language their own, the prognosis is not good."

    Agree about the prognosis. Disagree about the regimentation, especially when it is targeted at poor kids of color.

    As to the play of singularities, it is rarely a matter of all or nothing. My concern is that against such scripting, it is rather impossible to even notice a singularity, let alone attend to it.

    Do you still blog? I noticed the site where the post ended in 2009. If so please let me know as I would like to read more from you.

    Thanks for taking to read & respond.

  3. You write:

    "As a mom, I would raise the roof if I had a child at any of the schools written about in this post. I imagine you and President Obama would too."

    With all due respect, I believe they would not raise the roof; in fact, what you describe is the educational vision set out by this administration via RTTT. The NCLB waivers have control written all through them as well.

    The goal of education today is to supply the workforce, pure and simple. That is why this extreme detail to performance and attention to detail is driven into teachers and administrators....and children. Obama and Duncan frankly could care less about the teachers and children.

    When the Department of Education refers to children as "human capital" and when "Race to the Top" lists its stakeholders but omits parents and taxpayers, what you have described above is the result. Public education is a bureaucracy that serves itself, not the children.

  4. @stigretchen I don't think we actually disagreee. My comments were not about what Mr. Duncan or our President might do generally, but rather specifically with regard to their own children. The challenge is to treat and want for other people's children what we know we want for our own.