Duncan Tells Teachers To Lead the Transformation of Teaching

Arne Duncan speaks with teachers

Secretary Duncan speaks with the new Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

“Teacher voice is needed in order for real reform to take place,” Secretary Arne Duncan told the leaders of Teach Plus on Tuesday.

Teach Plus is a national nonprofit teacher leader organization that was celebrating its expansion to the nation’s capital.  The event was the first formal activity for a group of 25 high-performing teachers from the D.C. area. As the inaugural class of Teaching Policy Fellows, they will participate in leadership opportunities designed to amplify the voice of effective classroom teachers.

Secretary Duncan at the Teach Plus event

Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

Before the launch event, Duncan met privately with the Fellows and encouraged them to get involved and drive the change happening in the profession. He called on the cohort to make the most of the experience and really be leaders in transforming the teaching profession in their school, district, and nation.

When Duncan spoke to the group of 150 teachers and education leaders, he encouraged them to rebuild the profession so that schools meet the needs of students and teachers.  He urged educators to take responsibility for the growth of all children, including those with special needs and those who come from challenging environments in urban cities and rural areas.  “Teachers need to stop saying these kids and start staying our kids,” he said.

Clearly, the teaching profession is at a crossroads.  At that moment in time, I was humbled to be in the presence of such a committed and accomplished group of Teach Plus educators. Teach Plus aims to improve outcomes for children by ensuring that a greater proportion of students have access to effective, experienced teachers.  Now more than ever, we need teacher leaders like the Teach Plus Fellows and others who are totally committed to the potential of all students and who are not afraid to lead radical transformation within our profession.

Shakera Walker

Shakera Walker is a 2011 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow and Teach Plus Policy Fellow Alumni who teaches kindergarten in Boston, Mass.

Read the Teaching Ambassador Fellows’ recent article, Teachers Want to Lead the Transformation of their Profession.


  1. Secretary Duncan,

    I believe that every decision educators make–whether it’s in the classroom or the boardroom–should be purposeful, driven by a unified philosophy about teaching and learning. We need to ask ourselves the tough questions: What motivates students and teachers? What drives creativity? What does it mean to be educated in the 21st century?

    If you haven’t noticed, the landscape of education reform is littered with ill-conceived promises and discarded innovations. Every day I read about the next silver bullet, some “data-driven” program that will revolutionize the way we educate our children and train our teachers. Trial and error is a fine system, but not when billions of dollars in federal funding are at stake–not to mention the livelihood of millions of educators and the future of our nation’s children. My suggestion is this: Look before you leap! When we force ourselves to articulate our beliefs and clarify our goals, it is much easier to choose the right course of action.

    As a teacher, my personal philosophy is that top-down control of any kind is not only fruitless but harmful. I see this in my classroom on a daily basis. The more time and energy I spend creating the “perfect” lesson, the less my students learn because each student is different with talents, needs, and interests that are entirely her own. If, however, I allow students to take the lead in determining what and how they learn, the result is truly breathtaking. Learning is an organic process. Teachers may plant the seed, but what students latch onto and become passionate about is wholly up to them. The best we can do is tend the garden and admire the diversity of what grows.

    If you truly want to improve education in this country, please acknowledge that each school, each teacher, each student walks its own path of progress. We are all trying to walk forward. Trust me. Instead of bribing us with rewards and burning us with sanctions, get out of our way! Support us with feedback. Give us resources. Trust us to do what’s right. After all, this is our profession.

    Yes, improving education is a daunting task with no easy answers. But if we don’t involve teachers in the process, we will most certainly lose sight of our goals.

    Kelly Dillon


  2. I have been teaching for 31 years and only in the last 5 years has my state or school district included classroom teachers in decision making at any level let alone the highest levels. In the first 26 years my school district had pockets of excellence and meandered along at a better than mediocre level despite the incompetence or minimal competence of our administrators. The few competent administrators we had followed the tradition of leading by fiat so their results were no better than their incompetent fellows.

    Nearly 5 years ago the state decided it was serious about shared decision making and professional learning communities. The difference that has made is astounding. If only we could now be let loose to influence state and national policy as we’ve been permitted to influence local policy and practices. We could hardly do a worse job than the politicians and business executives who’ve been doing it for the last 30 years.

  3. First of all Thank you Secretary Arne Duncan for knowing the voices of teachers being heard,is where educational reform lies. Their voices can only be tranformational should they be allowed to speak honesly and without fear of losing their “job”. I wrote to you well over a year ago, and received a nice letter back from your representing correspondent. Although, I am was forced to file a NERC and EEOC August 2011 as I realized what happened really is not personal as much as it is CRITICAL. Highly effective teachers are no longer willing to sit back and bounce from one half baked plan to another any longer. We have watched how “No Child Left Behind” has left boat loads of students behind…. I have spent 83,000.00 of my own money in twenty-five years of teaching, I was a high achieving teacher, and yet my voice still hasn’t been heard. I askied to personally see you. I was willing to fly to D.C. I have an idea that puts things back in the hands of the professionals that are in the classrooms and have a proven track record of success, and it doesn’t cost a lot of money. Saving Public Education is not about money it is about “too much government” and not allowing professional teachers to do enough teaching.

  4. I am an early childhood teaching veteran of 25 years, and I have achieved National board certification through NBPTS for the past eleven years. I have dedicated my professional life to serving my students in the best way I can. I can honestly say that seldom, if ever, during my years of experience have I felt that the opinions or insights of teachers matter. We are dictated what we are to teach, and we are very aware how the trend of data-driven goals affect our professional performance evaluation. Those of us who question the reasoning behind some of the mandates placed on us by local districts are reprimanded and threatened with losing our jobs. I live in a state with no union to support teachers, so we have no protection. Unfortunately, what I see is that the administration is top-heavy with consultants and assistants to the assistants, and these people set policy for what we are to teach. Many of these people haven’t been in a classroom for very long, or they gave up on the tough part of teaching in order to be administrators. Granted, there are some weak teachers out there, and there should be a way to deal with that. However, most of the teachers with whom I have worked have had only the best interest of their students in mind. Yet, teachers are the ones whose jobs are threatened if students don’t meet the goals set by the administration. Why isn’t there some kind of evaluation system to show the effectiveness of all these administrators?

    • Sandy,
      I agree wholeheartedly. As James Comer said “no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Learning does not happen based on what administrators do or not do. Learning happens because of a relationship between a student and a teacher. The child must feel safe and respected in this relationship. Standardized tests, data-driven analysis, etc prevent this type of a relationship between a teacher and a student.
      I hope that Mr. Duncan will do some research on Montessori education, as Sheryl points out below. The Montessori MadMen have two fantastic fastdraws on the distinct contrasts between Montessori and traditional education (youtube) and Montessori is being adopted at a very quick rate both in public school districts such as Milwaukee and charter schools across the country.

  5. Yes, I would sooner have teachers making decisions regarding the education of our children rather than officials with no background in education.

    I would only hope that a fair percentage of those teachers were trained in the more holistic philosophies of education, i.e., Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia.

    DOE could help to educate the public about these often over-looked philosophies.

  6. Education in the county need reforming the books,reforming the organization, reforming teaching(Only professional people can teach) ,and reforming discipline.

  7. As teachers we do need to lead the transformation of education away from corporate based reform, high stakes testing, privatization, and weakened unions. Was that what you had in mind Mr. Duncan?

  8. After reading Mr. Duncan’s treatise, I am truly disturbed and annoyed that he considers this tripe to be “reformist” and revolutionary in scope.

    When will the bureaucrats realize that standards-based education at the elementary level should be secondary to outcomes-based and place-based, so that the men and women of tomorrow will have a far more complete and operable sense of self and place. In other words, real thinking empathetic human beings, not automatons.


  9. “Teacher voice is needed in order for real reform to take place.” Mr. Duncan, with all due respect, for real reform to take place, you have to think bigger than handing over the responsibility to the teachers. You have the highest position with regards to education in our country and you have an opportunity to lead…to push REAL reform. What is real reform?
    Real reform entails the following:
    1. Teachers should be trained in how to “Follow the interest” of each child. As Plato said: “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” Teachers know their students are unique, yet we force them to “teach to the test” and “drill” their students with facts, just so they can memorize them long enough to bubble in the correct answer and score higher on tests. Mr. Duncan, this ISN’T teaching…this is BORING and it drives children to hate school!
    2. Mixed age classrooms. Why is it that the number one “sorting” mechanism for traditional schools is age? Why should a 5 year old be confined to a room with a bunch of other 5 year olds or why should 8 year olds be in a room with a bunch of other 8 year olds? If you believe that all children develop at the exact same rate and learn exactly the same way, at exactly the same time and are interested in exactly the same things…then this would make sense. We know this to be false. Mixed age classrooms allow younger children to see what older children are working on and allow the older children to build confidence by “teaching” the younger children. Through this process, children learn to be part of a community…just like the REAL world.
    3. Children shouldn’t be “forced” to learn…because they WANT to learn. What they don’t want is to be confined to desks, being told to be quite and listen to the “sage on the stage.” I can remember sitting in these desks…and I was either bored or goofing around. Children want to learn…but not necessarily the same thing at the same time as all the other children.
    Mr. Duncan, you have an opportunity to lead this transformation in education…OR…you can be yet another politician who says the job to lead this reform belongs to someone else.
    By the way…if you think any of the ideas above make just a little bit of sense…learn more about Montessori education here!

  10. As the parent of a child who struggled due to the mismatch between learning capacity/learning style (i.e. intellectual intelligence) and the delivery mechanisms of school, it is critical that perpetuation of the system not be a factor in the change. The first and only question should be does this work for our children? All children enter school with shining eyes and eagerness to learn. What they leave with is often a cynicism about the system of education – classes that are not relevant, and when they do find something that interests them, they are not allowed to really learn about it, because the time is too short, and there are standards to drive content that must be covered (but perhaps not learned), and graduation requirements – no worries about the widening gap between ability and performance – let’s make sure our graduation rate stays where we need it. Then, if the child is lucky, they will go to a community college, but will be put into a developmental track to fill in the gaps from their K-12 knowledge base – again they are starting out behind, but now it is costing them money as well as time.

  11. I am not a teacher, but I think if Secretary Duncan thinks teachers’ voices are truly important, he should listen to them a little more carefully, rather than continuing to peddle reform policies that have not worked for the past ten years. And, the reforms are often counter to the things that President Obama says are central to a good education.
    There is no question we need to do better for our children, we also need to be more thoughtful about how we will do that.

    • I agree with Tracey. The DOE appears to be ignorant of research results (except for a chosen few studies that appear to support their policies) and has ignored insights of experienced teachers. This current move looks like window dressing.

      • It also raises the question of which teacher voices will be “included.” High stakes, predatory assessment of kids is a bet on failure. It’s interesting that Duncan lumps “teachers” into a generic group that speak of kids as foreign objects in schools. Anyone working day by day in a classroom deals with particulars. I’m tired of this accusation of “lack of care” or “lack of responsibility” being used in political shorthand as rhetorical blackmail. In the name of “care,” this rhetoric enables pundits and policymakers to ignore on-ground realities that include (but aren’t limited to) learning disabilities, lack of access to books/magazines, outdated materials, high faculty turnover, poverty, inadequate healthcare, housing instability. These realities aren’t excuses; they create specific needs in any living learning environment. Teachers who are in tune know the specific needs of students they see every day. “These” and “our” are not mutually exclusive.

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