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Dear Mr. Duncan

Dear Mr. Duncan,

    We haven’t met. I would be happy to do so, but considering our respective views on education, leadership and what constitutes constructive education reform I rather doubt we will have that opportunity.  I do have several questions  and observations I would like for you to consider.  Let me say first that we seem to agree on the importance of teachers in the educational process.  Teachers do indeed make a difference in the lives of  children.  They do indeed deserve more respect and financial compensation than they currently receive.  I think, however, that our agreements end there.   I believe that teachers more often succeed in our educational system in spite of your “reforms” and not because of them.
    I would suggest that you, as Secretary of Education, should be a leader in  support of public schools and the efforts of thousands of teachers to make a difference in the lives of students.  I believe you should begin a national conversation on teaching and learning that does not begin with “the failure of public education” or the primary goal of eliminating “bad teachers.”  Public education is not failing.  We need you to point out that more students are graduating high school than ever before in our nation’s history, that our students are succeeding at high levels, that most high school graduates are more than prepared for work or college, and that the profusion of standardized tests we inflict upon our students serves a political purpose rather than an educational one.  We need you to answer the finger pointers that blame teachers for societal issues, to shout from the rafters that poverty and not poor teaching is the real culprit and to say again and again that public education is not failing because every child does not succeed any more than our republic is failing because several politicians are caught in bribery scandals, infidelity, DUI or influence peddling each year.  Public education is not failing and you should be one of those sharing our successes and telling our stories.  We can certainly improve but our public schools and public school teachers deserve credit for what they have achieved so far.  What we have is a leadership crisis of monumental proportions; one that has allowed the quest for public money, privatization, vouchers and a testing mentality to dominate the discussion about what public schools and public school teachers really do.  One question you might ask; if standardized testing is such a wonderful thing and necessary for accountability for public schools why haven’t private and parochial schools clamored for the same treatment?  I haven’t heard an answer to that one yet, have you?
    Every true profession, including teaching, has a method, a means and a clearly defined set of professional standards that can be, and often  are, used to remove those that do not need to be teaching our kids.  The standards and the process are there; what we need are administrators with the experience, courage and tenacity to use them as designed.  Our first step with poor teachers has always been, just as with students, to remediate rather than remove.  Perhaps a reminder from you that giving poor teachers an opportunity  to improve their skills preceding a dismissal would be appropriate.   Remember, however, that just as we can never eliminate every poor doctor or every unskilled policeman or every below average air traffic controller or  every ineffective politician we can never have every teacher meeting 100% of our expectations because the issue is two-fold;  whose expectations are we judging them by and what is the student’s environment they are attempting to overcome?  Teachers, after all, are people and have the same issues, problems and failings of every other segment of society.  At least 50% of every profession - teachers and administrators and politicians and athletes included - graduated in the bottom half of their respective classes.  To blame the relatively small percentage of teachers that fail to meet professional standards and expectations for the enormous number of societal issues students bring to their classrooms that are beyond the control of those teachers would seem to be nothing more than an effort to find a scapegoat in an ill-concealed effort to redirect focus and attention away from the failure of leadership and lack of political will on a state and national level.
    NCLB is a case in point.   Developed intentionally without input from educators or educational leaders, this law is borderline educational malpractice and morally indefensible unless, of course, you believe that weighing a cow and not telling the owner her weight until after she is sold  can help bring a better price per pound.  NCLB’s purpose is nothing more than the furtherance of the national voucher issue at the expense of public education.  The sham of “AYP” has led to teaching of the test, by the test and for the test to the detriment of teaching and learning for millions of students.  The longer this evil illusion is allowed to stand in any form leading us toward 100% of anything involving children the longer it will take us to overcome its’ negative effects later.  Lead the discussion to fix it, fix it quickly and include teachers in the reauthorization discussions.
    I applaud your creative efforts in using RTTT to supplant NCLB, but deplore the extent you require the implementation of untested, untried, unproven evaluation systems to judge teachers.  The strings you attach to these waivers are actually ropes that serve to tie the hands of public educators and are in many ways worse than those they supplant. Variants of the VAM evaluations, like CC, were never implemented on a small scale to first judge their effect, efficacy or worth before being brought forth wholesale and in their entirety.    Teachers attempted to foist these unproven measures on their classes would never be allowed to do so.  Trying it on a national scale before small scale implementation and testing defies logic by any definition.
    Speaking of Common Core, these standards were also intentionally developed without input from educators or educational leaders.  You have made acceptance of the “standards” a condition of your  RTTT program.  Without arguing the legality of these standards, it is incumbent upon you in your position as an educational leader to begin the discussion about how these standards may be revised and who may do the revisions.  At present there is no mechanism to do so.  Standards without a process for revision are not standards at all; they are a decree.  Read your American history to discover how well decrees have worked with the American people and you may begin to understand the inevitable pushback from states after the initial bandwagon effect of acceptance.  Begin the discussion now about a process for developmentally appropriate revisions and, again, include teachers in the process.
    Teachers are more than willing to be responsible for outcomes.  I would suggest that you re-think your insistence on the inclusion of the “value added” process that shapes evaluations and salary until you can produce or provide research  that says this is a sound, justifiable  educational process that produces positive educational outcomes.  Show us the studies that validate this approach.  Discuss the replications of research that show this idea will pay an educational and professional return on an enormous financial investment.  While you are at it, show us how Teachers of Exceptional Children, PE, Band, Chorus, CTAE and elective classes will be compensated for student progress.  Once you have done that, we can begin to discuss how parent involvement, poverty and student motivation is so often omitted from the “data driven” equation.  
    Perhaps a more practical approach might be “values driven and data influenced.”  Your efforts at present lead us to believe your primary motivational tool for teachers is punitive in nature.  How many of your coaches in middle school, high school and college years used only punitive methods to effectively  improve your basketball skills and those of your team?  How did you and your teammates respond to them?  How did your parents respond?  What lessons did you learn?
    Doctors, Dentists, insurance companies, police officers, lawyers and every other profession you can name are not only allowed but required to take into consideration pre-existing conditions, prior service, previous records and personal history of their clients when computing recommendations, outcomes, professional services, treatments and payments.   If you truly consider teaching a profession, can you offer them less?   To hold teachers or members of any other profession accountable for things they cannot control is reprehensible.
    One of the first things every teacher does at the beginning of a new school year is learn about his/her students.  It is incumbent upon administrators to follow that example.  Learn about teachers, learn about your profession, learn about those things that motivate teachers to help students succeed at higher and higher academic levels.  Learn also the difference in motivations for professional teachers and for corporate reformers.  Teachers, as you noted in the past, are indeed members of a profession of “nation builders and societal leaders dedicated to our highest ideals.”  Please do not confuse teaching, as you seem to have done, with social engineering and misguided corporate reform for financial gain.  We cannot fix every student and we cannot save them all, but we will save every child that we can.  You must be the leader out of the wilderness of blame and the wrong headedness of equating student progress to a score on a standardized test.   Talk to real teachers.  Learn from real teachers.  Be a teacher.  Lead.  

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