Secretary Duncan Talks About Teachers: Talent, Diversity, Compensation, Closing the Achievement Gap

In this February 16 video, Secretary Arne Duncan answers questions about teachers and teaching. Topics include talent, diversity, compensation, and closing the achievement gap.

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  1. Secretary Duncan,
    I am a science teacher in the Atlanta metro area, develop my own classes and teach a variety of grade levels as well as teachers. I have been doing this for the past 25 years and thus been able to observe public education up close at preK, K, elementary, MS, and HS levels for an extended period. I have come to the conclusion that our education system is broken and many of the solutions that have been or are being offered to fix it, like NCLB, are making it worse instead of better. I believe that a key reason for this is that, to evaluate educational success, we measure the wrong thing! We have been evaluating success in education by using standardized tests to determine a student’s ability to correctly mark a sheet of paper. These tests have become a monster that drives education to the extent that we have forgotten what the basic objectives of education should be. We have been at this so long that the basic structure of public education is off track.
    It’s time we took a fresh look and asked, “When a student graduates from high school what does he really need to know AND BE ABLE TO DO. I would state that as a minimum, a high school graduate should know how to read and write, do basic math, and understand how our society works well enough to participate and become a good citizen. A high school graduate should be able to see things that need to be done and take actions to solve problems on his own initiative. He should be well prepared to become a responsible citizen.
    Schools today are organized around administrative efficiency and managing the maximum number of students with the minimum amount of money. Education has become an effort to stuff as many facts as quickly as possible into the brains of our hapless youth, to somehow keep them intimidated and disciplined tightly enough to get through the next exams so they will get good grades. Students get frustrated and loose interest in the whole process. Education practiced in this manner is a lot like pushing a rope up a hill.
    When I began teaching we had 1/2 day volunteer kindergarten classes. The young children and their teacher arrived at our science center all excited and very eager to learn. A class usually was 10 students or less and you had time to deal with each student’s questions and even listen to a few stories. When all day Kindergarten became manditory the class size went to 18-20 and the whole atmosphere changed. After the first few weeks of schools the children were no longer excited about learning. The teacher had to work constantly to just manage the children and getting them to pay attention was a huge problem. Most of education I see today is like that. The students are not interested in learning, they are bored and realize that there is not enough time for the teacher to seriously address their questions or problems in the time alloted.
    The worst part of all this is that students are given no responsibility and have little opportunity to express themselves.
    What is meant by measuring the wrong thing? If we want our graduates to become good citizens as well as learn to read and write, we need to evaluate our schools in other ways that to measure a student’s ability to make small marks on a sheet of paper. If we want a supportive community with parents, local businesses, government, etc. then we need measure and reward things that show that. Maybe schools should get funds based on how many parents and teachers attend PTA meetings, or provide matching contributions to schools that can get funding support from local businesses or organizations. With modern technology we could measure student success by tracking them for about 5-10years after they leave school and look at things like how well a school’s graduates do in college (not just that they get accepted in one), how many register to vote and do vote in local elections. How many volunteer for service or do community service work. These measurements are more difficult but they will better reflect the success of our education system. If a farmer want to grow more corn, he can choose to measure the success of his efforts in a variety of ways. For example, how tall and green the corn plants grow might be a good indicator. The farmer may choose to add more nitrate fertilizer to get taller, greener corn. But if that is successful, it does not mean he will have more corn, just taller and greener stalks. To get more corn, his measure must be more direct, and his actions directed toward getting a higher yield of corn grains.
    So in education if we want to have graduates that can function better in our world, we must be more careful in defining what a successful graduate should be; what he knows and what he should be able to do, then finding measuring tools that will guide us in that direction.
    The education industry that churns out these standardized tests and flashy textbooks is not helping us to educate our children. It is leading our education system off a cliff.
    I would recommend that we can really help teach our children some responsibility by restructuring the high school years so that the HS students are used as an educational resource to teach elementary children. They could become mentors and coaches in the classroom used to help the teacher follow the progress and assist each elementary student. Elementary students would then have much better feedback and support than is possible in a normal classroom. Sure this would be a difficult transition from where we are today, but just think of how much better our education system could be, and how it could improve our society.

  2. Sec. Dunkin,
    I just heard a quote on the news concerning public employee unrest in WI. This is not about money as you inferred. This is abut taking away the right to collectively bargain. If this goes through, several of my friends who are very good teachers are making alternative plans. They will have to leave the field because of family finances. In MN, the Gov raised taxes on the people with the most income 3% and will have lots more money to help out his budget than Gov. Walker putting all of this on the middle class workers. He helped create the budget crisis by giving sweetheart deals to those who supported him – and he’s only been in office a little over a month!

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