Friday, June 28, 2013

Duncan Should Fear the BATs

What do the BATs have against Arne Duncan?
The first action the BAT Association took was to call the White House on Monday, June 24, and ask for Duncan's removal. But, why?
It's because he's a terrible Secretary of Education and his continuing presence in that office is emblematic of the contempt and disregard of real education by the Obama Administration specifically, and the power brokers in Education generally.
Let's begin with his qualifications. If you wanted someone to be the chief administrator of education in the United States, what do you think you would look for? A law degree? A distinguished career in politics? A degree in Zoology? If not, you may not be a sitting president as the former holders of this office have all had these qualifications. Career politicians and lawyers; that's who primarily has been in office as Secretary of Education since 1979 when the office was created. Is it really that odd that our educational system has been a mess in the last several decades?
So, by these standards, Duncan fits right in. He got a Sociology degree from Harvard and he was co-captain of the college basketball team. However, at least he has some experience in education having been the CEO of a charter school (not a public school, however) and then working as Deputy Chief of Staff for the Chicago Public Schools, and later the CEO for same. There are mixed reviews for his success in this area.
It could also be said that the reviews for his tenure as Secretary of Ed. are also mixed. His chief program has been Race to the Top, a series of incentives to push schools to reform and, supposedly, be better. However, one thing to think about: is it really a good idea to think of education as a race, with winners and losers? I think most BATs would agree that education is not a competition and that using such a metaphor tends to suggest you do not understand how students learn. It may seem trivial to some but it sets the tone.
Arne Duncan has demonstrated contempt for teachers. He has said, "Class size has been a sacred cow, and I think we need to take it on." Bear in mind, this is from someone who never had to stand in front of class of any size day in and day out. How he would be qualified to hold this opinion is a bit mystifying. But, what is not mysterious is the contempt this shows. The implication is that teachers are lazy or lying when we say that class size matters. It says that if we were really good teachers, we could teach to a large class just as well as a smaller class; it shouldn't matter what size it is. As a teacher of 12 years, having had both large and small classes, I can tell you this is not even close to reality. Smaller classes are always better. The only people that think larger classes are better are those more interested in saving/making money out of schools than seeing that kids get a real education.
Duncan gave a speech in 2009 that called for, among other things, unions to change their minds about tenure and teacher evaluation. This is a tired argument that blames teachers and unions for the problems facing the schools. Tenure doesn't keep bad teachers in the classroom, however. Bad administrators keep bad teachers in the classroom. Tenure is probably mis-named. It is really just due process. It means that you can't decide on a whim to remove a teacher because you don't like the cut of their jib. It means that you have to observe and document the poor teaching. You then have to discuss with the teacher ways to improve their teaching and give them the opportunity to improve. If they don't improve, then you document that and you can fire them. What's unreasonable about that? The truth is, many administrators don't want to do the hard work it takes to work with a teacher and help them get better. It is the equivalent of seeing a kid failing in class and telling him he's failing and then giving him an "F" without any opportunity or help to get better! We wouldn't accept that in a teacher and we shouldn't accept it in administrators.
But, the bottom line to this BAT is that Duncan clearly does not understand teaching, unions, or teachers. He goes on in the same speech to make a case for merit pay. At first, merit pay seems to make sense. You give extra money to teachers who do a good job. Sounds good, right? But, tell me, how many times have you heard a teacher say, "I got into this job because of the money." "I work harder because they pay me more," is not something any teacher ever uttered!
The real problem, though, is how do you identify better teachers? Test scores? I guess that's okay if you are really looking for higher test scores. However, I bet if you were to ask, most people would say they think education should produce better thinkers, problem solvers, or even a love for learning. I doubt many would even say, without prompting, that education's goal is higher test scores. So, why would you pay for higher test scores? Maybe you would need to observe teachers in the classroom, then. But, that takes a lot of hours by administrators. What criteria would be used to judge a good teacher? Are you looking for specific teaching techniques? You'd need to be specific as there is money on the line. Do you think a teacher who has honors students might look better than a teacher who has low-achieving students? Might that bias your judgment? There are a host of reasons why merit pay is not so cut and dry.
Every business professional will tell you that giving a reward for a certain behavior is going to get more of that behavior. Is money really a good motivator? This article from Forbes says no. This article from the BBC does a comprehensive review of money as motivator and also concludes that money is a poor motivator. In fact, when money is the motivator, particularly for specific tasks, it tends to decrease motivation overall. From the article:
“I am not suggesting that they [people] should not be well paid for doing their work," says Deci. "I am saying we need to get out of the place of thinking that the way to motivate is to give them incentives for specific tasks. We need to think about how to make the workplace one in which people will get their needs satisfied and in which they will perform well.”
It makes you wonder, with a degree in sociology, how does someone like Duncan convince himself that giving teachers an extra thousand bucks is going to make him work harder when a cursory Google search can lead to several reputable sources showing merit pay is a terrible idea, even if you do actually figure out a good way to judge teachers fairly.
On Tuesday, June 25th, Duncan gave a speech in which he allegedly defends the Common Core State Standards. The problem is, he avoids all the real issues that real teachers and critics have with Common Core and instead either sets up strawmen arguments or only addresses those held by crackpots and conspiracy theorists.
The real concerns about the Common Core were not addressed by Mr. Duncan. There are concerns that they are inappropriate developmentally for the lower grades. There are concerns about how these will be tested. There are concerns that the standards are being implemented without field testing and that they have been created largely without the input of teachers who will actually be using them. These are legitimate concerns. One of the largest and most serious concerns is that Pearson Education and other corporations stand to gain a great deal of money via textbook and assessment item creation. Pearson has the contract to create the assessments to be administered in 2014-2015. If you understand teaching then you must know that you should teach what you will test and test what you will teach. By Pearson controlling the testing, they are, in effect, controlling the teaching. A corporation's sole purpose is to gain greater profits for its shareholders. Corporations are not altruistic. One might argue that since Pearson makes money by educating students that it would be in their best interest to do a good job. But, that doesn't necessarily follow. How many products can you think of that are not of the highest quality but are still yielding a good profit for the seller? Therefore, it should be troubling that we are allowing, no, promoting the corporate takeover of public education in America.
The fact that Duncan does not address the real concerns about Common Core tells me that either he cannot because he doesn't have the wherewithal to defend the standards, or that he doesn't care to because they are indefensible and he serves the corporate agenda. In any case, you should feel insulted that he didn't offer a more substantive defense. The use of fallacies like strawmen typically indicates the speaker knows how weak their argument is and they are seeking to distract you from that weakness.
In 2012, Duncan gave a keynote speech, which you can view on YouTube or click below, in which he mentions the statistic that "Today, 2/3 of our teachers come from the bottom 1/3 of their graduating classes." (about 23:00 in) Larry Ferlazzo heard this stat being used elsewhere and dove into it in this blog post.
In addition, this article from Valerie Strauss' "The Answer Sheet" also looks at the numbers. Feel free to read these posts and the comments on Larry's post for yourself. My takeaway is that A) the thing he is quoting as a fact is not true, strictly speaking, and B) He is speaking in 2012 using data from 1999 and/or 2002 as if it was completely relevant to today. If this doesn't convince you of his ultimate contempt for teachers, I don't know what will. He very clearly will use bad information to besmirch the very people he is supposed to oversee. This is such a "businessman" mentality, to view his employees as mere resources to be consumed at will, rather than people.
The fact is that people like Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates who purport to want reform in education have attitudes like this. They throw out "facts" like this hoping you won't look into them, hoping their media profile will carry the day and you won't question if it's true or not. All they want is to destroy the credibility of teachers and their unions.
Why? Teachers have traditionally been very highly regarded, except in the last ten years or so. We have the relatively unique combination of being highly educated and of noble purpose. We have college degrees, sometimes more than one, and we spend our days trying to help people. As such, our opinions have carried clout. So, you can imagine that an organized group of teachers, like a union, can wield a big stick. If you are trying to take over public education because you, as a CEO, can see all the money running through schools and you'd like to skim some of that by running it through your corporation, you would realize that teachers' unions could present a stumbling point, or even an outright brick wall. You'd need to neutralize them. You can't have teachers looking at your business practices and products too closely and determining them to not be in the best interest of education, or kids. And that's why you see one negative story after another about teachers in the media. You have to get people to think teachers aren't worth listening to if you're going to start dismantling public education.
This is why Duncan should fear badass teachers, the BATs. We are not afraid. We are knowledgeable. We are not motivated by money. And, despite his smear tactics, we are not from the lower percentiles. Worse than that, we are angry. We are tired of being labeled "failures" despite being successful against all odds and with rapidly diminishing support and resources. We are sick of the ad hominem attacks against us. Most of all, we are pissed off that these people are coming in with the goal of making money off of our kids instead of educating them. For myself, I see myself as an advocate for, and protector of, my students. I think many teachers share this mindset, and I know badass teachers do. It's part of what makes us so badass.
So, when you show up with a smile and a hand reaching into our district's pocket, trying to say that you are here for the kids and you just want good teachers (after all, who doesn't want good teachers?) when in reality what you're doing is tearing all of us down, good or bad, that your standards, your assessments, and your policies are specifically designed to allow you to control all of us, regardless of quality, then we get angry. And, now there are a lot of us, together, and angry. Duncan should definitely fear us us because we will not use outdated stats twisted to our own ends. We will use real, current facts to expose you. We will see to it that you, and the other charlatans, are tossed aside and ignored. This is our profession. This is our life! We are teachers, we are badass, and we are not going away.


  1. Comprehensive! You've addressed every serious concern and every argument against them. Your article is clear, easy to understand and thorough. So let's hope it leads to some HONEST discussion with those that are in control! If not .... well, here come the BATS

  2. Thank you for those kind words, Joanne! I had hoped that it would be helpful to some. I believe there are some teachers that know something is wrong, but they aren't sure what it is, exactly. I wanted to show that teachers don't have a blind, unreasonable hatred of Duncan. Our hatred is well-thought out and clear! :)