Heard on the Tour: Vermont Coffee House


Secretary Duncan stops at Muddy Waters cafe in Burlington, Vt., to talk with teachers on his listening tour about education reform.

Two weeks ago In West Virginia, our first listening tour stop , teachers told me they would have liked to have met Secretary Duncan after school for coffee.  They said the conversation he’d started at their school could have gone on for hours.  They’d have time for that after school, when they could relax and just let the conversation roll.

We took that advice to heart.  Before arriving in Vermont last week, we contacted a teacher at Colchester High School and asked where her teacher friends hang out.  She mentioned a café in nearby Burlington, a few blocks from the university.

That’s where 10 elementary and high school teachers stopped in right after school got out, grabbed a coffee, and sat down for an hour with Secretary Duncan for an open-ended conversation.  Teachers talked about everything from their personal reasons for becoming teachers, to experiences with their students, dealing with discipline, pressure to “teach to the test,” national standards, media perceptions of teachers, parents who are intimidated by teachers and schools, cooking for their families after working all day, class sizes, what to wear to school, music, support for teachers who want to be principals, “loan forgiveness” and more.  The conversation kept running for a couple hours, even after the Secretary had to leave for his next appointment.

Something that kept coming up again and again throughout the conversation was the realization that  teachers laugh and cry a lot.  We cry mostly in the first few years, then we learn to laugh more, and as we get older we cry with joy when our students succeed and graduate.  Maybe the teachers in Vermont are just highly emotional, but I don’t think so.  The teachers in West Virginia told us similar stories, with similar emotional reactions.  It seems that if you’re going to have a free-wheeling conversation with teachers, you better bring some Kleenex, or if you’re in a café, stock up on the napkins.  You’re going to laugh until you cry, and you’re not leaving until everybody hugs each other.  This “meeting” really set the tone for the next day’s school visits.

Tim Tuten
Director of Events, Office of Communications and Outreach


  1. I am writing to support quality pre-k for all children. In our community there are several unregulated preschools and nursery schools. These kinds of programs do not provide children with the start they need for the future. Often there are 30 children in a class with only a teacher and aide, and the teacher is not always required to be certified in early childhood education. Also they are not monitored to ensure that they are using an appropriate curriculum for preschoolers. Quality program have standards for their teachers and curriculum. All children should have access to high quality preschool,like PA PreK Counts, so that they can be prepared for Kindergarten and beyond.

  2. Secretary Duncan –

    There is a re-visioning of public education needed to make today’s educational system work. For too long, educators and school staff members have been left out of these talks and decision-making positions. Instead, school board members or superintendents have met to make choices that affect tens of millions of people. These people are not working with children each and every day. If you want the system of education to grow and change and move in positive directions, you MUST bring together teachers, parents, community members and support staff.

    We can no longer continue offering more with less and taxpayers are tired of seeing money thrown at education only to never know where it has gone. How about making the trail of government monies to education transparent, so that all of us can see where each and every dollar goes. Maybe then, we will realize that more is needed and that corruption in the higher ranks of education will not be tolerated or accepted.

    Finally, let’s remember that every child is unique and we must offer our children the wide range of courses and opportunities to explore their many intelligences, through art, music, drama, athletics, vocational education, AP courses, service learning opportunities and alternative education. We must not put every child into a cookie-cutter mold. All that will do is end up cutting off limbs and dreams and genius.

    Be cautious before making sweeping changes. Talk and listen and listen and listen…. all over this country, to hear voice of students, parents, community members AND TEACHERS. Then, listen some more and make suggestions and get comments, feedback. Make our profession count. Bring back professionalism and a respect for learning and teaching.

    Thank you for your time,
    Anna Woods
    High School English teacher
    Piedmont Hills High School
    San Jose, California

  3. Secretary Duncan,

    I am a Pre-K Counts teacher and I see the value of this program daily. I know that many of my students would not be this far ahead at the end of this year if it was not for this free program being offered. I have been able to get parents the resources they need to help their child early on. Many of my students come from a poor financial background and this early start for them will help them to succeed in school and better test results for the PSSA’s. It also allows for them to have a positive school start, that they may not otherwise have gotten. I hope this program continues to benefit many more students.

  4. Secretary Duncan,
    This listening tour is a perfect way to gather information from those who truly understand – the parents and teachers of young children. I am a former elementary teacher, now a university professor. The foundation provided via quality pre-K experiences is absolutely the most efficient and least expensive way to ensure the future academic and economic success of our most vulnerable citizens. Please continue to look for answers among educators. They know what is needed.

  5. Ready Children = Ready Schools. We must invest in our youngest citizens now. Brain development won’t wait and neither can we. We have a window of birth-5 when the brain is forming the most. Let’s use this time effectively and let’s use it now.

    Please don’t cut funds to our children. We Think We Can Do Better for our Children!

  6. As a retired elementery school teacher, I know the need for quality pre-K. Please heed the comments of those before me and me and those after me and work hard to fund pre-K.

  7. I am writing in support of quality universal pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten education.

    As a 1st grade teacher at an integrated urban public magnet school in Tucson, Arizona, I have a unique perspective. Roughly half of the students I teach qualify for free and reduced price lunches, while the other half are from relatively well-off families. Many of our students are children of educators and college professors. Most of the latter group have had access to high quality pre-k education, and most of the former have not. The difference is marked. Students with pre-k education have a significant advantage in the learning that is required of them from kindergarten on up. Furthermore, they are much more apt to form friendships and meaningful relationships with adults and peers, which builds their confidence in academic and social settings.

    Furthermore, I think many of our policy makers do not understand the realities of raising children today. Most parents of moderate means need child care in order to work and pay their bills. Many are forced to place their children in sub-standard day care, leaving them at a disadvantage when it is time to enter school.

  8. The summer after my senior year in high school, I started volunteering in my home districts preschool special education summer program. One of the boys I worked with in the program seemed to like me right away. He seemed to be there for physical rather than academic issues. Throughout the six weeks, the teacher, paid aide and I worked with him and his classmates by playing, reading and arts and crafts. I’ve baby sat for him ever since. He’s in kindergarten this year, and I substituted in his class. He was able to read the word in his handwriting book before the other teacher read it to the class. When I arrived at his house later that week to babysit, I told his mom about it, and how happy I was. She told me that his teacher (who I was subbing for) says that he’s the best reader in his class.

  9. May 27, 2009

    Dear Policymakers,

    I am a professional in the field of child care services and also a parent of a 3 year-old child. I am writing to ask that you universally support the early childhood education initiatives of the Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) in Pennsylvania which includes funding increases for Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts, Keystone STARS, Child Care Works, Early Intervention, and Nurse Family Partnership.

    These programs are vitally important to our young children and their families. I will begin by talking about the Child Care Works Subsidized Daycare Program. This program has an extensive waiting list for many counties in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Many parents need child care, but cannot afford to pay the full cost. This issue causes many parents to quit or lose employment. Child Care Works funding gives our young children access to high quality early learning programs. For example, the Keystone STARS high quality initiative which holds child care programs to higher standards. It is crucial that all children have access to these types of high quality early learning programs.

    The four Pennsylvania Pre-K counts sites in Monroe County have waiting lists for their for high quality programs. Pre-K Counts is closely linked to the Child Care Works Subsidy and Keystone STARS programs. The importance of Pre-K funding is clear because these experiences help prepare young children for kindergarten, school and ultimately for life.

    The Nurse Family Partnership program speaks for itself because it educates mothers and families who are pregnant with their first baby and works with the family until the child is two years of age. This program is especially necessary because it targets pregnant teenagers and low income families with limited financial resources.

    I will use my family’s experience with Early Intervention to illustrate the importance of this program. My wife and I were very concerned about our daughter’s development at the age of one year. Our daughter was not talking or pointing to objects at this age. We decided to have her screened by Early Intervention. She was found to have a delay in the areas of Speech and Language, which made her eligible for Early Intervention services.

    Our daughter has since been discharged from Speech Therapy and attends a high quality preschool program five days per week. She is developmentally on track. Our daughter would not be where she is at 3.5 years of age had it not been for the Early Intervention services that my family received. We are very thankful for this great program.

    In conclusion, all five programs are vitally important to the social, cognitive, and emotional development of our young children. Increased and sustained funding for these programs will give more children access to high quality infant, toddler, and preschool programs and every child regardless of their family’s financial situation deserve a fair chance even before they enter Kindergarten. Increased and sustained funding for these programs is a great investment and will benefit the future of our society.


    Robert Edler

  10. Parents ae accountable for making sure their child attends school every day. The “curriculum” that is in place is really preparing the children for Kindegarten and beyond. They are learning and enjoying it at the same time. The progam is requiring staff to be well trained; so children are benefitting. The financial assistance provided is a great help. You can get a wonderful education in asafe and nurturing environment and it can be at an affordable cost.Working parents do care and want the best fo their children.

  11. High quality free universal preschool is a must especially in low income communities with high teen births. The emergent SBRR literacy curriculum should be linked to the Kindergarten to grade 3 curriculum so that there is a seamless transition in this area. Transiton activities should be universal throughout the community and include transfer of assessment inforamtion, a move up day (visit to the kindergarten classroom), possibly a Teddy Bear Picnic, a plan for having kindergarten teachers visit the preschool site(s) and do a read aloud and interact with the students as a getting to know you activity. For technology transition activity a kindergarten children could take digital photos of what they would want to introduce incoming kindergarten children to in there building and then some could be selected to present the photos in a powerpoint presentation at the preschool sites and a booklet made of the presentation slides so that the children can revisit the school pictures over the summer. A week long summer session for incominig kindergarten students would be great if funding allowed to acquaint them with the school and classroom activities.

  12. Thanks for the listening tour and the opportunity to chime in on reform and recovery. As others have said, it starts with school readiness, namely high-quality early learning. It’s a proven investment, returning not only yields on money spent but immeasurable gains in human potential. Imagine how strong our nation’s economy will ultimately be when we prioritize investments in quality pre-k programs!

  13. I am joining many other voices in saying that quality preschool is very important. Here in AL (which we hope you will visit on your tour) we have taken a broad approach (not any one scenario works for any one situation) and in that diversity we are growing quality. We believe our results show that is the most positive approach.

    As one of the rare people who works with both preK and K-12, I also want to add my encouragement that you listen to teachers. Somewhere between what teachers know works and the quality research being conducted at the university and independent levels, information is being distorted and we are, in fact, in many cases, over-assessing children and robbing those who most need extra instructional time under the guise of always testing them. Testing should be for the sole purpose of determining where a child is so that teachers can then teach what that child needs. Expert observations from teachers must be trusted to supplement qualitative data.

  14. We can make the best use of are money by investing in early childhood education. We must start when the children are young, when their minds are like sponges, absorbing everything they come into contact with. Our best opportunity to save our country, our children our future is to invest in the education of young children. Noreen

  15. As a grandparent I have seen a vast improvement in one of our grandchild’s speech as a result of her working with a speech therapist. This has been part of a prekindergarten program. I am certain that this program has done much to improve her chances of being more than adequately prepared to enroll in kindergarten and later elementary school. Programs like this are vitally important in preparing children to meet the challenges of school. Invest in our youth and especially those needing assistance.

  16. I think it’s laudable that you’re out there seeking answers among the people who have actually had to deal with the education system, both as parents and as students.

    I’m writing to promote pre-K education for kids. When it’s done well, it’s a firm foundation for education in the future. I think it should be free and available to all. I think high school students should be encouraged to do co-op education in a pre-K setting if they’re considering elementary education as a career–or even considering having kids because so much of a child’s early childhood is pre-K education at his or her mother’s knee. The problem is that a lot of moms can’t afford to be home during the day. Many of them are raising children on their own and need to go to jobs. They see their kids for a precious, brief time in the morning and the evening between bed and day care. Kids spend way too much time parked in front of television or warehoused in daycare when real education could be accomplished. And kids love to learn. They love to show off what they know. They love to compete in learning.

    Please join with me in promoting pre-K education among the states, employers, voters, and parents you are meeting on your tour. Ask them about it. See what they have to say.

    And God bless you for looking for answers among the people. Jefferson would be smiling, along with Whitman, Horace Mann, and all the Great Democrats through history.

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