Finding Our True Center

Ed. note: Secretary Duncan penned the following letter for a Virtual Conference that will take place during July.  During the conference, participants will discuss the question, “What is the center of the classroom?”

The center of a classroom is not a test, a textbook, or the posters on the wall. It’s not a state or district policy, and it most certainly is not a federal law.

The heart of the classroom is found in the unique relationships between students and teachers. In the same way that a family turns a house into a home, a physical and emotional transformation takes place when teachers and students work together in community to reach common goals. We see it in the trust, the expectations, the experiences and the knowledge of every person in the class.

Founder of Communities in Schools, Bill Milliken often says, “Programs don’t change people, relationships do.” That is why it is so important that our classrooms be filled with great teachers who have high expectations, content knowledge, sound pedagogy and the ability to connect with and motivate students. A teacher full of fervor, who is able to inspire and connect with her students and build a community of learners, forms this center.

Government cannot create these relationships, but what federal, state, district, and school leaders can do is create conditions that nurture and grow the talents of our teachers. Teachers need leaders who will provide them with authentic evaluations based on multiple measures, including reliable student achievement data. They need to be supported by meaningful professional learning opportunities that help them to grow and engage collaboratively to address their unique challenges. Teachers need avenues to connect with families and community partners. And they need us to respect them as professionals, pay them fairly for a job well done, and offer leadership paths that do not always force them to leave the classroom.

We must treat our teachers well. They are the force that forges the meaningful connections that are at the heart of every great classroom. Without teachers, the center cannot hold.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education


  1. I wonder how strong this relationship can be on an empty stomach? As Stephen Krashen has expressed in his many letters to news media organizations, we are worthlessly throwing money in the wrong direction. We are about to enter a hyper-testing environment of the likes we’ve never seen, thanks to Arne Duncan. Instead, these many billions of dollars should be directed toward the poverty epidemic. Over 20% of American students live in poverty. Krashen points out that Finland – the current poster child of public education – has less than 4% of its students living in need. Krashen’s blog is an archive of these letters –

  2. I agree that there needs to be a relationship between teachers and students. Teachers are stresed because they are held accountable for the students test scores. However students are being taught “the test” not how to think, predict and make assumptions which in the long run results in lower scores. Why can’t we let teachers teach and children learn and not TEST, TEST, TEST.

  3. Great post with nothing but great ideas. BUT, Mr. Duncan, you (and federal, state, and local govts) must walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

  4. “Teachers need leaders who will provide them with authentic evaluations based on multiple measures, including reliable student achievement data.”

    My home, New York State, has just emerged from the smoking rubble of massive test score inflation and has eliminated many of its better tests due to budget constraints, and yet currently it is impossible for me to be rated as an “effective” teacher– no matter how well I do on the other “multiple measures”– without the corresponding test scores. My colleagues in New York City are facing a battery of 16 new tests for the sole purpose of evaluating teachers– not to assist students. On the federal level, as described by AERA and other national education experts, no policy under Race to the Top has ever been proven “reliable” according to strong research. Given these facts, where do you propose we find the leaders you describe?

    “They need to be supported by meaningful professional learning opportunities that help them to grow and engage collaboratively to address their unique challenges.”

    Our district’s Director of Professional Development was just “downsized” out of a job. Every membership I have as a professional– NCTE, NYS English Council, ASCD– is paid for out of my pocket. Last year, my Human Resources department attempted to force me to use unpaid time to participate as one of the first teacher-bloggers on a nationally recognized think tank panel. My blog, slated by the Washington Post as one of the Top Education Blogs of 2010 last year, is not recognized, publicized, or otherwise valued by state or federal education policy. Given these facts, how do you propose that I continue to develop as a professional?

    “Teachers need avenues to connect with families and community partners.”

    I have no time set aside by my school in my daily schedule specifically for parent-teacher communication, because there is no metric by which this communication is measured, valued, or developed on the local supervisory or higher policy level. In order for me to concentrate fully on my pedagogy, therefore, all meetings, calls, emails, and other contacts must be conducted in the hours outside of the school day. Home visits are frowned upon; contact with students and even families outside of school in fact render me legally vulnerable. Given these facts, where do you propose I find the resources to communicate more thoroughly with my families and community?

    “And they need us to respect them as professionals, pay them fairly for a job well done, and offer leadership paths that do not always force them to leave the classroom.”

    At last reading, the federal budget has cut funding not only to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, but also to the National Writing Project, arguably two of the most successful professional development and leadership programs in the country. Current federal policy encourages other professional development and alternative pay schemes to be tied (again) to invalid and unreliable tests, using unproven and deeply problematic growth models. Less problematic recruitment and retention policies, proven to work in other international models, remain unaddressed. Given these facts, what do you propose will provide the respect, pay, and leadership that you state is necessary for my profession to improve?

    In the main I believe what you write here, Mr. Duncan, and I believe that you believe it, as well. Where I struggle, violently, is reconciling my current experience as a teacher– and my vision of the future of my profession– with these beliefs.

    • I can’t help but wonder if this new diagnostic for teacher performance is another unfunded program. Wouldn’t we study a program that works and collaborate with Finland on their model for success? Their students perform, their teachers are qualified and minimal testing shows admirable achievement.

  5. All platitudes here, Mr. Duncan. Yes, the heart of the classroom is the connection a teacher makes with her/his students. But everything the Department of Education is pushing with this so-called “reform,” goes against most of what you’re touting here. As tmare stated in her comment, as a teacher, how do you connect with a child when you have 40 kids in a classroom? That essentially comes down to classroom management and takes away from teaching & learning. How do you expect to attract the best and brightest teachers to work in the most high risk, neediest schools, when their worth will be measured (in most cases 50%) by their student’s test scores?
    Fear and intimidation for teachers doesn’t allow them to make these connections and surely doesn’t allow for creativity.
    Those of us who have the time and energy to follow this so-called “reform” that has infiltrated our school districts, know this really doesn’t have anything to do with supporting our teachers and helping our children. NCLB and Race to the Top are epic failures but you continue to push them. That will be your legacy, Mr. Duncan….

  6. Ironc that Duncan does nothing to support the relationships between teachers and students. Worse, current testing requirements are more likely to cause friction than communication in the classroom. The “commom goals” he espouses are higher test scores. Duncan so denigrates teachers that it’s shocking that he would even want them to speak to kids without a script.

  7. So start talking about how those relationships are affected when one or more of those in the relationship are hungry, abused, frightened, in pain, never been read to, alone, poorly parented, tired, or in need of dental care.

  8. We need a focus on creativity in learning – not just the facts! Teachers need training to engage students, make the classroom dynamic – good first step!

  9. And just how do I do that with 40 kids in a classroom originally designed for 30? I have 240 students, I’m lucky if I can remember all of their names after one month of school. Just try to deal with 240 students with about 250 minutes of instruction per day.

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