Arne Duncan's Forgotten Enthusiasm for Trusting Teachers

The education secretary once liked the idea of letting them run their schools. It's an idea that still shows a lot of promise.
by | March 27, 2014
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, left, speaks with America's Promise Alliance chair Alma Powell, right, on Friday, Dec. 21, 2012. AP
 

Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, was an outstanding basketball player in his youth. But in his keynote speech to a recent conference sponsored by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, what could have been a free throw became an air ball, hitting nowhere close to the rim.

Duncan's theme was "teachers as leaders." But what he said was more a description of teachers as better followers. If his memory is good, he knows better.

Back in April 2010, in Duncan's executive conference room, there appeared two teachers, both pioneers in the movement for teachers to have real authority over their schools. With the sponsorship of the policy design group Education Evolving (of which I am managing associate), founders Ted Kolderie and Joe Graba brought to the meeting Carrie Bakken and Brenda Martinez. Bakken is the lead teacher of the Avalon School in Saint Paul, Minn., and Martinez had a comparable position in the ALBA School in Milwaukee.

Avalon is a charter school, which after 13 years of experience has developed a craft of how to govern itself without any administrators; it is a truly independent school. ALBA works within a traditional public-school district with unionized faculty constantly under fire from both orthodox union people and central-office bureaucrats, but because there is a Memorandum of Understanding, ALBA's teachers have the autonomy they need to work outside the dictates of the master contract between the district and the union. Their arrangement survives only because they get surprising results.

Bakken and Martinez described for the secretary and his senior staff how different schools run by teachers are: How they take students not succeeding in the regular system and personalize their learning opportunities, turning around students that the system is fast labeling as losers. How teachers, while admitting they are working more hours and harder than ever, are so professionally fulfilled that turnover is nearly zero. How these schools get better results year after year.

Maybe there is such a thing as political amnesia, because now, four years later, Duncan shows no signs of recalling this session and no sense that he recognizes the power in shifting to a policy of trusting teachers. At the same conference, a session featuring the education minister of Finland, whose education system is considered a model by many reformers, was standing-room-only. Observers said it was full of people resonating to the cultural notion of trusting teachers.

So, what did the secretary say? He cited an unnamed survey that he said found that "four out of five teachers reported being satisfied or very satisfied with their profession." Who did that survey, and how might we compare that with the many, many surveys showing dramatically opposite views?

Duncan, in announcing a collaboration with the teaching standards board, pointedly said that teachers would "have a voice." Minutes later, however, he was saying that "this only works if principals see it as part of the solution." If you are a teacher, you might wonder what change is being offered here.

He came ironically close to the core issue when he said that "the hallmarks of a profession -- think of law, medicine, architecture -- go beyond the standards it holds for itself, the rigor of training and the competitiveness of joining the profession. In a strong profession, members are recognized as experts and leaders in matters of policy."

For about a hundred years, the "deal" offered to teachers was something like this: They would not be given much authority over what matters in school but also would not be held accountable for results. In today's political climate, we are proposing to hold teachers accountable for results while still not giving them much authority over their schools. We will blame them for inadequate results, evaluate them by their students' aggregate test scores and tie that to their future pay. Why would any teacher take that deal? Is it any wonder that unions representing teachers resist that deal vigorously?

Just imagine transferring that logic to the medical industry. What if, on a given day in May every year, every medical clinic in America saw federal assessment officials measuring the health status of everyone enrolled in that clinic, then aggregated the results to give a score to the clinic and tied doctors' pay to those rankings. Imagine the uproar. But that is what we are doing in the education sector.

Here's a new, better deal for education: Find out which teachers would accept full accountability for achievement if they had full authority over what matters in school and give them that authority. Then measure the result and prepare to be surprised at what trusting teachers can accomplish.


VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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Curtis Johnson

Curtis Johnson is managing associate of Education Evolving, which designed the first charter-school law and initiated the movement for teachers to form groups to take charge of schools. He also is executive director of Citiscope, a recently launched global news service.

ABOUT VOICES

VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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