Testing, Early Learning, and the Pace of Reform: Talking with Teachers

Our work at the US Department of Education aims to make sure that students throughout this country have the education that they deserve – an education that will give every student a genuine opportunity to join a thriving middle class. A crucial part of that work is supporting, elevating and strengthening the teaching profession.

As often as I can, I spend time talking with teachers about their experience of their work, and of change efforts to improve student outcomes. (We have an important effort, called the RESPECT Project, dedicated to make sure that teacher voices consistently informed policy and program efforts here at the Department of Education.)  Lately, we have begun bringing a video camera to the conversation, and teachers have been generous in letting us capture these conversations so others can see them.

Recently, I visited Rogers Heights Elementary School in Bladensburg, Maryland, near Washington, DC. Rogers Heights’ students bring the diversity typical of so many urban communities; its student body is 97% minority, and 89% qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Half the students have limited proficiency in English.

I was really struck by how smart, committed and passionate the teachers were. We had an intense, honest, sometimes difficult conversation, and I left inspired. The kids at Rogers are in great hands.

I invited teachers to take on any topic they wanted to, and they took on some important and even difficult ones: the pace of reform, the need for arts education, the impact of early learning, and testing. These conversations with teachers help us get smarter about change in education in this country. I hope you’ll take a look; we’ve posted an 8 minute excerpt along with the full video of the hour-long conversation.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education 


  1. Dear Mr. Secretary,

    I want to thank you and the administration for your push on public school reform. As a 23 year veteran secondary education teacher at a large public school in the suburbas of Chicago I have witnessed and personally experienced seeing of both excellence and dispairity that the institution holds within its austere walls.

    I have so much hope in the movement toward differenciation in curriculum design and application. I am honored to be a part of assessment reform as well. However, I must try to reach your heart to listen and adress an obstile that may slow this effort down. The obsticle become entwined in the PLC model. PLC’s look idealic from their design but are easily manipulated by faculty who do not want to see reform efforts move forward. The division model can also create an interim level of administration that feels it must cow-tow to appease the union’s and/or staff who would like to sidestep and marginalize applications that serve students optimal learning environments. Strong teachers using their drive to excell both insid ena doutside the walls of the school are being intimidated to work less and perform at a more unified standard. If they strive to implement curriculum models that support reform but are still beyond what the PLC teams desires they are chastised for not being a team player. This will continue to spiral into medocre targeted performance on esetial outcomes. Lead teachers; model teachers, are not being allowed the opportunity to work at their potenital. I ask that this flaw be examined. I ask that if it is found that this theory is correct that remediation take place accordingly. We need to restore the passion for learning and desire of curiousity and growth back into our youth.

    Thank you so much for your time and consideration that you give to our nation everyday.


  2. Dear Mr. Duncan:

    I’m writing out of concern (and sheer frustration) for my newcomer English Language Learner (ELL) students’ participation in numerous standardized tests.

    In Portland, Maine schools, and I’m sure this scenario is repeated nationwide, we are in the midst of a very disruptive testing cycle, and it seems as if it will get worse as we ratchet-up education with the “Common Core.” Since mid-September, my students have been subjected to Aimsweb literacy and math “probes” (complete with a tester armed with a stop watch testing 5 year olds!), as well as the NWEAs and NECAPs, followed by ACCESS for ELL students. Nearly all students in grade 3 and above are involved in this battery of tests, which disrupts school for weeks at a time. The irony is that we are testing them on subject matter that they have never been taught, or hurry to teach, because there is no time to teach it! My ELL students, even those who have been in the US for a year or less, must take the same tests as their grade-level peers. Even with testing “accommodations” these tests totally elude my newcomers. [In addition, all 5th graders must take our state end-of-the-year science test, a standardized test on material that they never learn. The teachers have little time, and no resources to teach science — we are too busy giving tests and our district is too busy paying for them!]

    My greatest concern is for the students who at this most fragile time in the educational lives, are made to feel inferior since the tests do not test what they can do, but almost exclusively what they cannot. It seems that test makers, educational “reform” advocates, and public school naysayers feel that getting a baseline of student achievement supersedes the damaging psychological effects these tests are having.

    One of my 5th grade students from Iraq, who has been in the US for eight months, and who is only now getting comfortable being in a mainstream classroom, has had to repeatedly face the challenge of taking these tests in a language he barely understands. He can now read on a 2nd grade level. However, the language used in the 5th grade tests is complex and nuanced. Unless one has lived in a foreign country or learned a foreign language in a sink or swim situation, it’s hard to imagine the staggering amount of anxiety this situation creates. This students prides himself on this computational abilities, but over the course of this academic year he must endure several weeks of math testing that gives him the message that he is not competent. He sees a low math score as a weakness, and it takes his classroom teachers and me many attempts to convince him otherwise.

    I offer this account of one child’s experience, but I know his case is not unique. This type of message is being sent to newly arrived ELL students throughout the US. I hope you might be able to direct my concerns, or forward this letter, to an official who helps make these types of testing decisions. I would like to see a day when the TEACHERS who work with these students have some say in determining who is able to take these tests, and who is not.

    I have been relieved to read several articles recently that speak about the damaging effects of over-testing, as well as the non-developmental approach used to create the “Common Core” which inspires more testing and monitoring. I hope these articles will result in a more critical look at testing. We are creating a class of kids who know how to take tests, and teachers who know how to prep them. They might not be any smarter than previous groups of students, but they are becoming darn good test takers!

    Unfortunately, those who have the most tentative grasp on the English language are getting a very skewed idea of what education is all about. Will these children be able to imagine themselves as successful learners? Right out of the “starting gate” we are sending them the most damaging of messages — you are not going to make it! And, we send this message repeatedly throughout the year.

    I ask that you, and Project RESPECT, think about the effects that the frequency and level of testing is having on students. I’m not against students being measured, but there’s just too much testing and it’s too frequent. Just think what educators could do with those resources that are now diverted to testing companies — we could actually teach instead of test.

  3. I, too, am concerned about education in this country. The CCSS provides a rigorous standard for the education of all our students. The implementation of CCSS by states and communities will vary based on the ability to finance the professional development of their teachers and the purchase of teaching resources. National testing of all students to assess progress and growth is a lofty goal. There is much evidence in the news recently suggesting that standardized testing that is weighted so heavily by school districts results in inappropriate and unlawful, at times, actions by those in positions of power. Standardized testing offers only one type of measure of student progress and achievement. Observations by teachers in authentic situations are more apt to describe student achievement and prove that a student is growing toward the goal of college and career ready. National testing situations are not always a valid indicator of how a student performs in real world thinking, problem solving and collaborating. School administrations are continually caught between assessments that prove “real” and meaningful growth in their student populations and standardized test results. Does the CCSS truly require national testing in order to validate student success? I deeply question the step toward required national testing of our students and the value of the results.

  4. While I am encouraged that the Department of Education is listening to teachers, I am skeptical that it will lead to any policy adjustments. For example, I see no movement to modify RTTT, the signature effort of this administration to improve education but which continues to place an increasing burden on teachers. In the video, I see hints that teachers are openly discussing this issue, and that the administration is listening, but it does not bring out the extent of the problem. Let me state this clearly: educational policy, primarily at the national level, is the source of the problems with our educational system.

    One of the reasons for this is that national educational policy is contradictory and is therefore impossible to implement. At the most fundamental level, the conflict is between educational quality defined by standards and enforced by testing, and the emphasis on outcomes as measured by graduation rates. These are literally mutually exclusive with teachers are taking the brunt of the blame for failure to achieve this impossible dream.

    I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it is almost as though teachers are being set up for failure. Because of the inability to achieve an impossible goal, an ever increasing series of “reform” policies are being imposed. For teachers, it is like a treadmill that keeps speeding up.

    There are other fundamental policy conflicts. For example, virtually all of our national (and state) educational policy is created by people who were successful in school and who represent not just a particular demographic but have a mindset that expects certain cultural artifacts like work ethic and self control as natural behavior. These leaders then impose policies based on those expectations to a completely different culture that does not have the same attitudes and have no experiences or even expectations of educational success. Those policies don’t work, and they don’t work because those policies do not deal with the realities of actual student behavior, not because teachers do not implement them well enough. These policies take for a given that student effort and a desire to learn are fundamental student characteristics, when it would be more accurate to say that the exact opposite is true.

    Policies that do not deal with reality have zero chance of success.

    When you talk to teachers, Mr. Duncan, I am sure that one thing they tell you over and over again is that student discipline is a (if not the) major issue for teaching. National policies have been dealing with only one side of this issue, that teachers are the major influence on student motivation and that the rewards of education are intrinsically motivating for students. This might be true for some students, but any parent would also tell you that consequences are just as important as rewards for child development. However, consequences for poor student behaviors have been eliminated because of the disproportionate effect on minorities. This is like a shelf that only has support on one side, it is going to fail. Teachers need both components in order to be able to teach effectively, and it is policy that has removed this other leg of support.

    My message is this: in order to improve education, reform has to occur at the national policy level, not at the classroom level.

  5. The teachers having a voice is great. How about formalizing a process for the parents to have a voice as well. Schools need to hear from their customers about what they do right and what they do wrong (rather than just wanting the parents around who think everything the schools do is great). I would love a more challenging language arts curriculum for my children. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen in my school district unless the state or feds step in.

  6. Dear Mr. Secretary,

    You model citizenship in a way that inspires and ignites agents of change to stand up and speak. Thank you for your transparency and leadership in education.

    As an early learning pre-service teacher and graduate student, I attended one of the first roundtable discussions regarding the RESPECT project in Memphis, TN. In that meeting I was very outspoken about the affects of the unaddressed mental health issues in public schools and communities in the Greater Memphis Area. The merger of the Memphis City and Shelby County School systems provides a wonderful opportunity to transform public education, not only in my hometown, but in our nation. My idealistic visions of what could be have been continuously chipped away by a lack of transparency in the governing bodies involved and unbalanced priorities of leaders, teachers, parents, and Shelby County residents.

    Far too often I witness adults who neglect, disrespect, and distrust children. Young children are often dismissed from their God given liberties and rights as citizens, humans even in violent and traumatic events. The adults in their lives believe infants, toddlers, four and five-year-olds are unable to learn, problem-solve, remember, understand and make sense of things around them. This is farthest from the truth.

    Conception to age nine are truly the most formative and crucial years of a human’s development. Furthermore, the most sensitive time in human development is conception to age four. During this period the brain is developing at such a rapid rate, it is critical that the human is able to create at least one healthy attachment with an adult that is positive, in order to provide consistency and routine through a trustworthy relationship. The experiences and relationships during this period can optimize or adversely affect mental health and well-being. This is why we must invest in high-quality early childhood education, parent/caregiver education and mental-health counseling for those in need. This must be done not only for the security our Nation’s health and well-being, but most importantly, the whole development of our youngest citizens and their future contributions to society’s whole.

  7. i think that is so nice that you care so much about the students having their fun time
    – sammy velazquez department of defence school student (stuttgart germany)

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