Heard on the Tour

One of the most important things we can do as policymakers is stay connected with the people who will be affected by the decisions we make.  Our first listening tour stop was a powerful reminder of the value of listening to teachers, parents, and students.

The elementary school teachers and parents reminded us of three things:

  • Leadership matters. In both schools, teachers told us that they stayed because their principals allowed them to perfect their craft, removed barriers, effectively brokered resources, and supported them. Parents felt welcomed by the principals and recognized that great principals attract and retain great teachers.
  • The use of formative assessments – and the resulting data – can be transformative. In both schools, teachers used formative assessments frequently to gauge student progress, shuffle student groupings, determine who needed extra support (including Response to Intervention) and extra challenge, and to otherwise drive their instruction. They painted an incredibly clear before picture (“we told parents that their children couldn’t read, but that was all”) and after picture (“we can tell parents that their child can’t read because he has a specific challenge decoding a short ‘a’ sound”) and spoke passionately about how their use of data made them better at their jobs. Parents commented on how this specific information was much more helpful to them.
  • Preparation matters. Teachers generally agreed that their education had not prepared them to be highly effective in the classroom. Many teachers commented that they felt like they got an education that taught them how to teach 25 years ago, and not one that prepared them for teaching in the 21st century.

We heard an equally important set of themes at the community college event:

  • Cost – even at community colleges – makes it difficult for people to go back to school for retraining. It is hard to raise a family and find enough money to take courses.
  • We need to continue to work on quality articulation agreements between community college and four-year institutions, so that the courses taken at community colleges can be transferred when students pursue a four-year degree at a college or university.
  • People are grateful for community colleges and their ability to serve such diverse constituencies. In many instances cited by people who spoke, the community college was the critical part of the path to enabling them to fulfill their higher education dreams.

As we leverage big opportunities – and work through inevitable challenges – in the coming months and years, I’ll be reminded constantly of the impact of decisions on people in the classroom, both K-12 and higher education.  I am grateful to the people of West Virginia for their openness in sharing with us what makes a difference in their lives every day.

Margot Rogers


  1. I have been in education a long time as teacher, counselor and principal. At our school we were losing 27 days of instruction due to testing. We scaled back and consentrated on reading and math. Our students are doing much better. I praise my teachers for thier work. They are the single most important people on my staff. They have day to day contact with the children.PL107-110 has set up schools to be failures.
    I refuse to let that happen here. We work too hard! I believe that all children can learn if they are taught at their proper instuctional level. Please listen and make wwise decisions.

  2. July 11, 2009

    Dear Mr. Duncan,

    I am delighted that you are on a LISTENING Tour. Please during this LISTENING Tour, I implore you to LISTEN, rather than use the “LISTENING” Tour to promote your agenda for our schools.

    I agree with you about the need to improve our schools. Most agree that we as a country can do better with regards to school, just as we can do better in other areas such as health care, the environment, the way we treat one another, and civil rights.

    The first thing I suggest to anyone who thinks they have the solution to issues schools and teachers face is to teach for a month, without any assistance, at a school in a troubled and high poverty area of our country. Then, from there, go to a most remote and desolate area of this country and teach there for awhile. Teach a month in upper class suburban schools. Compare and contrast your experiences with a group of teachers.

    Second, ask the students, “What would you like to learn? What is important to you?” Also, ask the teachers the same questions. I bet if you asked just those two questions to students and teachers (using a wide and random sampling), the education agenda for this country would emerge loud and clear.

    Third, talk to parents of the kids who are labeled not proficient. Listen to their pain. Look for the gifts in that child labeled as not proficient.

    The current system compels teachers to focus their teaching efforts on test scores. Teachers are told they must raise test scores. People are labeled as the result of test scores. This kind of approach impedes creativity and curiosity, and certainly does not promote a love of learning.

    Schools would improve immediately if we did the following simple things:
    1. Have a moratorium on testing.
    2. Use the money spent on testing to:
    a. lower class size,
    b. invest in libraries, and
    c. have long-term, quality professional development directed by classroom teachers for they know what they need.
    3. Rely on the expertise of teachers (who interact with students everyday), along with the students themselves, and their parents/caregivers to determine how well a student is learning and what s/he is learning.

    None of us are finished products. The term mastery is an oxymorom. When students of all ages are allowed to explore, to wonder, to question, to make mistakes, amazing learning happens. Unfortunately, the current climate in schools hinders joy for learning and does not promote true education. Educare, the Latin derivative of the word “education,” means to lead out.

    Mr. Duncan, let’s educate for Human Greatness rather than passing some test. If we as a country Educate for Human Greatness and truly LEAD OUT, the rest will take care of itself. The dimensions of Human Greatness are: Identity, Inquiry, Interaction, Initiative, Imagination, Intuition, and Integrity. Holding schools and teachers accountable for helping students GROW in these human dimensions and characteristics should be the goal of accountability.

    Good luck on your “LISTENING” Tour. Please, Mr. Duncan, LISTEN. Teachers are heroines and heroes! Our young want to learn. What teachers and students, alike, dislike are NCLB and all its trappings. The No Child Left Behind Act has left many more children behind than ever before.

    President Obama is a good guy and I believe his heart is in the right place. He wants for other children what his two daughters have—a progressive education with caring, intelligent teachers. I believe that is also what you want for the young of this country. Thus, with this in mind, I implore you to rethink you current stance on education.

    May democracy and social justice reign.

    Again, good luck on your LISTENING Tour.

    With warm regards,
    Yvonne Siu-Runyan, Ph.D.
    Professor Emerita, The University of Northern Colorado
    Veteran Teacher with 40+ years of experience in grades K-12 (inclusive) in five different states
    Current home: Boulder, CO

    P.S. I don’t agree with George W. Bush’s notion that we teach a child to read so that he or she can pass the test. Instead, we teach a child to read so that s/he can examine different perspectives, be a contributing members to society, and be a self-fulfilled, conscious, and responsible citizen.

  3. Hello.

    I would like to know when you are coming to Florida, particularly Miami. I have been a teacher in the Miami Dade County Public School System since 1974. This is the worst that I have seen us fail students and teachers in my career.

    Money has been squandered shamelessly in the legislative level, district level down to the school level. Incompetence is rampant at all levels. Cronyism and vindictiveness are the watch-words in most schools and district offices. Children and educating them hasn’t been a priority here in a long time.

    Principals seemingly have no one to answer to and are persecuting, yes, persecuting teachers at a whim. Complaints are made and dismissed. The broad spectrum of charges a teacher can experience are levied with little to no due process, while the children go unchecked and the school itself is filthy, especially if the administrator in charge is female.

    I was a part of a team of teachers who helped establish and create William H. Turner Technical Arts High School. There was so much promise. We performed many miracles in that school. Unfortunately, the district began to use Turner as a “training ground” for principals. The ‘revolving door’ of administrators, with their own vision for the school, were put in place. Now we are breathing the last fumes of our once illustrious reputation. Now the school has too many poorly trained, undedicated teachers; too many children who supposedly applied to attend this School of Choice who don’t have a clue what school is all about.

    Enough about Turner.

    Middle School needs to be changed back to Junior High. For the most part in Dade County, middle schools are doing a really poor job at teaching children what they need to be able to do once they enter high school. Middle School, in my humble opinion, is: A poor joke being played on minority children. Two things it does produce quite well: 1)students who believe that doing little to nothing to get A’s and B’s is what school is all about; and 2)teaches the average male to hate school and education. We get these kids in high school at grade 9 and many don’t know what “study” is nor how to study; their parents have been accustomed to ‘pretty’ grades and cannot fathom why you, the high school teacher, cannot accommodate them.

    I have refused, all of these years, to become mediocre or drop the level of my own standards and expectations from each and every child I have had in a classroom for 35 years!

    I truly believe that 6th graders should return to the ranks of the elementary school; 9th graders should be taught in junior high school. The maturity levels are not there. The brain of many of these children has not developed; brain-stems are disconnected.

    As far as I’m concerned, the Miami Dade County School Board and its superintendent should be removed from their positions and replaced with people from the state Department of Education until such time as suitable replacements can be found. Enough is enough. Teachers are literally beaten up at the school sites; children are being unprepared, in most cases, at every level.

    The legislature refuses to bring the state back to the stature it once had, thanks to John Edward Bush. Many of the reforms and legislation on the books has put public education in extreme jeopardy in this state. I believe many belong to that age-old faction who wishes public-free education to be destroyed. Therefore, a two-tiered society can become a reality: poor and rich. However, I digress.

    Please allow me to attend any meetings you plan if your schedule permits a visit to our beautiful city.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Sincerely yours,
    Gertha L. Poitier-Whitehead

  4. Kadkins is right, most people just take statistics and rankings at face value without having the slightest understanding of what all those numbers really mean. We have problems within our schools but a comparison to other nations is not necessarily the answer. In addition, how many immigrants continually stream into our nation and take advantage of our public schools and attend our universities?

    I also agree with those who have posted comments regarding the daily realities that teachers and their students face. Our society is creating more and more baggage for students and teachers every day. We have to realize that schools can’t remedy every problem in this country. Our nations leaders, our parents, all adults are going to have to take responsibility for creating a society that fosters our children rather than dragging them down.

  5. Free public education for all students of all abilities is one of many reasons this country is wonderful. Why do we compare our children with other countries who educate only their best and brightest? Let’s see how we rank in science and math when these countries begin educating every single child regardless of ability. Thank a vet and remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for your educational opportunies this Memorial Day!

  6. There’s so much garbage going on in schools these days that school newspapers should have crime beat sections. How can ANYTHING positive occur in environments like that?

  7. Thank you for this opportunity to weigh in on a subject that I am passionate
    about. With all other public institutions under fire, I will go down fighting
    for public education as I feel it is the last best social equalizer. That is not to say
    education reform will be easy or quick and we must be careful to do it right.

    I am a teacher, an adjunct college instructor, and also a school board director
    in my home district. As a school director of a small school district (800 in the
    7-12 high school) we are supporting the administration in their efforts to
    continue with a full inclusion model and differentiated instruction in best
    practices. I believe our Superintendent has done a great job of growing quality
    teachers and providing equal access for all children to reach their full
    potential (clichés aside). There is currently momentum growing with parents of
    junior high students who want ability grouping brought back into the junior
    high. This is an undercurrent that has surfaced in many surrounding communities
    as well. Our district removed honors courses in 7th and 8th grades three years
    ago in order to
    provide choices to ‘tweens’ in defining their future career direction. Honors
    courses resume in ninth grade. We need help in supporting children in poverty,
    children in the middle, children of race, children with disabilities, and
    children [and parents] like ours who need to learn about diversity, integrity,
    and tolerance.

    Our little district is one of the best in Pennsylvania [East Lycoming School
    District in Hughesville, PA]. I know this because we have 2 Blue Ribbon
    elementary schools, and we have 12 National Board Certified teachers. We get
    results. I truly believe teacher quality and student achievement are directly
    related. But some of our parents are (understandably) only interested in the
    growth and achievement of their high achievers. They feel that lower achievers
    are holding their children back. As a district we strive for achievement of ALL
    students and have taken NCLB to heart -seriously -with thoughtful
    directed changes to achieve the results prescribed by NCLB. But it is
    increasingly difficult. We need to educate parents.

    As for international standards… I believe we need to get on track quickly
    because the world is truly FLAT. Our kids need higher standards and
    internationally benchmarked standards. I would love to see us offer Mandarin
    Chinese as a language. But parents must buy in to any new standards

    Education is not about money… it’s about dedication to quality and Equality…
    quality of teaching, quality environments for learning, quality administrations,
    quality learning opportunities…. FOR ALL CHILDREN.

    I am looking forward to your approach and solutions but not without caution.
    Teacher bashing has become a national sport and teachers are key to any

    Thank you for the opportunity to express my opinions. Quality education is key
    to your success, to my success, to our country’s success, but more importantly,
    to global survival.

  8. I taught many years in Wheeling District #21, (Illinois), retired, and then moved to the Phoenix, Arizona area and started teaching again. We used Everyday Math in Illinois and I felt my first graders had a much better understanding of math in Illinois because of that program. We also had higher math standards.

    My daughter teaches in a village in rural Alaska. Their school district has 10 areas of standards (five academic and five others). This approach seems to make for a more well-rounded student. I feel strongly that the fine arts, home ec, shop, automotive, and financial skills should be taught to all students in addition to the academic skills. Some of these are survival skills.

    In the last month a Smart Board was installed in my room. All teachers need to have this latest technology and training available. Today’s students, raised on television, respond much better to interactive technology than they do to paper and pencil tasks that use a text book.

  9. I taught many years in Wheeling District #21, (Illinois), retired, and then moved to the Phoenix, Arizona area and started teaching again. We used Everyday Math and I felt my first graders had a muuch better understanding of math in Illinois because of that program. We also had higher math standards.

    My daughter teaches in a village in rural Alaska. Their school district has 10 areas of standards (five academic and five others). This approach seems to make for a more well-rounded student. I feel strongly that the fine arts, home ec, shop, automotive, and financial skills should be taught to all students in addition to the academic skills. These are survival skills.

  10. Mr. Duncan,

    Please visit some rural schools in your journey. Much of this nation has rural schools with small enrollment numbers. Rural schools struggle to offer students a varied, standards based, high quality education that will enable our students to be ready for the real world. In particular, as a 7-12 teacher I see our high schools are hit very hard by the economic woes of late. The state of Washington is ranked number 43 in school spending and this affects Career and Technical Education programs, Art, Music, both AP and remedial English/Math classes, and Special Education programs.

    My school is on Orcas Island. It is rural and remote plus it is not easily accessible to the mainland since we are served by an hour and half ferry ride. We have approximately 450 students total. For two years running we have been awarded “A School of Distinction” for excellent WASL scores and high academics. We have excellent academic standards in our schools but continually face teacher RIFs, budget cuts, every year more and more demands are demanded of us with no money attached.

    Orcas is doing everything possible to save money, spend wisely, and offer a high quality education. Yet, our community is continually giving to the school so we can offer basic classes. Two years ago our district faced a $350,000 budget shortfall, last year it was $450,000, and this year it is $650,000. A fund raising entity, OIEF (Orcas Island Education Foundation), scrambles to raise the replacement money from our generous community. However, every year more and more is still shaved out of the entire school curriculum and our children suffer. This is a national embarrassment to deny financing to schools and force them to fund classes through bake sales and dunk tanks!

    I feel quite strongly that students in small schools should have access to the variety of programs that exist in the much larger districts. The funding of rural programs should also be based on a difference formula than a big school. Plus, something needs to happen to help an already overworked staff to deal with the myriad of state and federal reporting procedures. For every federal or state dollar, it costs a small district .25-.50 cents to process and track that money. Ridiculous!!

    It pains me to know our kids miss out on vital educational and work related skills that so many other city students have the benefit of exploring through their expanded Career and Technical Education programs, Art, Music, Drama, AP classes, etc. All rural schools need your support and guidance to develop quality, fully funded, CTE, Art, and academic programs for our student’s well-rounded education, college placements, and work readiness.

    You want to be connected to the people of America, then come and visit us in the San Juan Islands and I am sure our teachers, school board, admin, and entire community will be happy to discuss with you our many troubles with the current educational system.

  11. Until there are consequences for the child and the parent along with teachers and schools no plan will succeed. I teach in a high risk rural school. Education is not a top priority for most of my students, getting a driver’s licence and a car is. If you want to find ways to make NCLB work visit high risk schools during the school day..talk to teachers and students.

    Carole Smith

  12. in alabama, we are currently allowing students to pass 3parts of the graduation exam for their diploma. why cant we retro this back several yrs as I have a neice who wants to go to college but a couple of yrs ago they had to pass the 4 parts. she cannot pass social studies and has tried many times. retro this back so that people qualified and wanting to go on can go to college. also, i totally agree that classes need to transfer from community colleges to 4 yr institutions, i got into this myself and almost could not make it. it is a money making racket and we are all in need of some help with these issues. thanks, cindy k.

  13. The entire educational community is so focused on who is to blame for the failure of students that they are not really abk to see the problems. I don’t believe that the negative appproach that we are currently taking will solve anything. The system has many problems but until administrators, teachers, and parents begin to truely work together nothing will change.

    There is no way that someone in Washington can possibly really be able to recognize what the problem is in any given school without being there. Looking at test scores does not give one the entire picture. Threats of system takeovers by state or federal governments has only led to more disruption at the grassroots. You are setting kids up to fail by creating an advisarial atmosphere within the schools. Teachers cannot do what they do best when they are in constantly seen as what is wrong with education. Beating up the the people who are on the front lines is not the answer.

    We have made hundreds of changes that people without education backgrounds thought would work and still our system is failing. Perhaps it is time to begin to look at the students and their parents. We need to ask why are children not coming to school ready to learn? How can we expect a child living in a local homeless shelter to concentrate on school? How can a child that is caught up in adult problems be taught? The time is now to look at the social problems of our country and how they are affecting the schools.

    One of my daughters has been teaching for 7 years now and has had to attend the funerals of 3 of her students. Deaths that came about through violence not in the school but in the home. She has been called to testify in one criminal case just to identify the child because the mother, grandfather, grandmother, and father were all in prison leaving. She has been contacted to get a description of a missing child because the family didn’t even have a picture of him. The stories go on and on but the bottom line is that each morning she is expected to teach these children and get them ready for life. They can see little connection between learning to read and the life they are facing. Coming to school hungry and worrying if they will be beaten to death when they go home seems to take about all the energy they can come up with.

    We need to listen to our teachers and give them the kind of support that they and their students need. They don’t have time for all the changes that take them out of their classrooms. The elementary level is where we need to concentrate for that is where the foundation for higher learning is layed. Give teachers a real chance to fix the system and I am sure that we will see changes.

    We need to stop letting the business world have such a loud voice in education. They mean well but have no idea of what the process involves. They seem to think that every child is just the same and learns at the same speed. They apply their assembly line mentality to the process without consindering that these are human children not widgets.

  14. As a high school math teacher who is retired from the military, I wonder if there has been any thought that the increasing number of GED’s and dropouts may be based on the format that we have for HS. If you stop to think, we are using a format based on the early 20th century and we, society, culture, and economy have left that time in the background. Only the format of schools has not changed and maybe reform needs to start with an improved form. I see schools open from 0700 to 1900 with integrated day and night and adult education.

Comments are closed.