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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I'm pretty disappointed in Barack Obama's selection of Arne Duncan for U.S. secretary of education. Devastated, to be honest. I don't get it -- a secretary of education who has never been a teacher? Who has never taught a single course? Who never attended a public school? Who doesn't send his own children to a public school?

It's not just his experience -- or lack of experience -- that disappoints me. I don't believe the headlines touting that he has transformed the Chicago Public Schools. A little digging into those claims reveals that the achievement gap between black and Latino kids and white students has grown during Duncan's tenure, along with a whole lot of other disturbing information about how he made the gains he did, and who they benefited. Bush's secretary of education has nothing but praise for Duncan. He supports No Child Left Behind. I really don't care that he can play basketball.

But let me quickly ground this disappointment in the life of one kid, a former student. Let's consider whether Duncan's proposals for how to improve student achievement would have worked with "Eddie" -- Eduardo Gutierrez (a pseudonym, of course).

Eddie was my student -- sometimes my obsession -- for three years, from sixth to eighth grade. He came from an overcrowded elementary school to the small public school in Oakland, California, where I taught, and was three years below grade level in English. He had repeated fourth grade and appeared to have very little interest in learning.

(Note: Arne Duncan supports making failing students repeat grades, in spite of the mounds of evidence that argues that repeating a grade does not work. It certainly hadn't helped Eddie.)

Eddie was charismatic, articulate, funny, and raging with twelve-year-old hormones; he lacked impulse control and had a frightening temper.

The truth is that, as teachers, we often have favorite kids, and I adored Eddie. He also represented so many Latino males I taught -- in his challenges, his strengths, and what he might face down the road. Eddie lived in a neighborhood rife with gangs, drugs, and dropouts. But this kid -- I felt -- could be turned around.

By the time he reached high school, Eddie was at grade level in English.

He wasn't the only one. I applied what I learned with Eddie to my other students, and dozens of students moved from the dismal ranks of "far below basic" (way below grade level) to "proficient" (grade level).

Here's what I learned about Eddie -- and education:

Bribes Didn't Work

I bribed Eddie in seventh grade. He wasn't doing much homework or taking advantage of after-school tutoring. I offered cash -- he didn't want it. I got desperate and promised a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula to see the Mayan ruins if he'd only get better grades. I am embarrassed by this now. It wasn't fair to the other kids. And it didn't work anyway.

(Note: Arne Duncan supports paying kids for good grades.)

I've since seen all kinds of material and behavioral incentive programs in middle schools. I've never seen any of them make any difference in the outcomes for low-income, "underperforming" kids.

Relevant, Engaging Literature Works

And then, to make a long story fit in a blog post, I gave Eddie good stuff to read. His all-time favorite book -- which he read twice -- was S.E. Hinton's That Was Then, This Is Now.

I taught him reading-comprehension strategies and word-analysis skills so he could access the text. I put him in literature circles so he could talk in a structured format. He loved to talk. I taught him how to take his leadership abilities and use them in a discussion group so everyone gained a deeper understanding of the book.

I guided Eddie in monitoring his own learning -- in noting his growth and progress -- and in identifying areas to work on. I helped him understand how he learned best. I assessed his learning constantly -- many times a day, in many ways. I adjusted my teaching based on what I found he needed.

I also allowed Eddie to show what he'd learned in various ways. He loved acting: He wrote and directed plays to demonstrate his understanding of seventh-grade history; he performed skits from the novels he read. And for these assignments, Eddie always did his homework.

What Else Worked: The School

Project-based, arts-integrated learning took place throughout our school. I had twenty-three students in each of two classes. With only forty-six kids, I could get to know their families, have long parent-teacher conferences several times a year, and manage student portfolios, performances, and publications. I could spend high-quality, one-on-one time with kids after school or during lunch. I could get to know them as people and as learners.

I also had the autonomy to make many curricular and instructional decisions. I didn't have to teach a scripted program or drill a textbook, and I could buy whatever reading materials I wanted. I taught the California State Standards in ways and at a pace that best served my students. It worked.

Teacher Research Really Helps

At my school, we believed we'd improve student performance and outcomes by doing one thing well -- looking at our own teaching practice and making changes to it based on the data we gathered. This is often referred to as action research, or inquiry.

I did not teach to the test. In those first years, I didn't even teach any test-taking strategies. (I probably should have.) And yet my students' scores skyrocketed after sixth grade. There were many reasons why this was so, but, more than anything, I attribute it to the classroom-based research I did.

That research taught me how Eddie learned. It taught me what worked for him and what I needed to do. It showed me how to change my own practice to meet his needs on that particular day. Standardized, scripted curriculum doesn't do that. Testing, once a year, doesn't do that, either.

What Didn't Work: Closing Schools

Eddie went on to a small, new high school. He got into some bad stuff, but he kept going to school, because he loved his video-production class. He passed the California High School Exit Examination. He went to school because when he didn't, teachers called his house and the principal showed up at his door. He was on track to graduate.

Then, after Eddie's junior year, the school was closed. Facing some major problems in leadership, it had struggled for three years. But it had also provided a safe community and a somewhat engaging space for many at-risk students. Students and their families were outraged.

Sadly, very little support was given to students to find another school. Eddie couldn't deal with the social and academic challenges of entering twelfth grade at a giant high school. He'd been a new kid at a school so many times. His life outside of school was too tempting, so Eddie dropped out.

(Note: Arne Duncan is a big fan of closing schools.)

Experience and Good Salaries Make a Difference

The high school Eddie attended did have its problems. As in so many of our urban schools, the majority of the teachers were new, and inexperienced with urban teenagers or the subject matter they taught. The demands placed on them were tremendous. Like so many teachers, they needed more help.

I am so tired of seeing thousands of young, underprepared teachers plopped into Oakland's schools, only to burn out within a few years. I have tremendous empathy for them; I was there. I am also tired of seeing tens of thousands of children in this school district not getting what they need because they have one inexperienced or ineffective teacher after another and after another.

Teachers stay in the Oakland Unified School District for an average of three years. Then they go where they get paid more and have easier working conditions. I don't blame them. This is a tough district to work in, and the salary -- held up to the cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area -- sucks.

Back to Arne Duncan

I don't know whether Duncan is a reformer or a pragmatist; I don't really care that he is willing to work with unions. I just know that the strategies he supports have not worked with the "low performing" students I've taught. (Read more on the debate about who Duncan is and what he believes here or here.)

Perhaps what's most devastating about this decision is that throughout Obama's campaign, his primary adviser on matters of education was Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, a contributor to Edutopia.org. She would have made a phenomenal secretary of education.

I don't know how to keep holding out hope for our impoverished, dysfunctional education system when no one at the top is talking about the stuff that makes sense on the frontlines -- like attracting, training, paying, and retaining excellent teachers, or the stuff that would make sense to Eddie.

What do you think of our new secretary of education? What advice would you give him? Please share your thoughts.

Comments (38)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lee Ten Hoeve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher I am ashamed to admit I did not know that much about the new Secretary of Education. I am terribly disappointed to hear he has never taught or thought highly enough of public education to entrust his own children to it. Those two facts alone are not encouraging. However I did find this quote "when you embrace innovative new approaches to learning, and when you create a professional climate that attracts great teachers -- you can make a difference for children" made by Duncan himself. I would hope - as this election was primarily based on HOPE he means what he says and has the means to get it done. You are right, we need better teachers, more flexibility in our classrooms, and more people in our administration who have toiled as we have and understand the work we do. I intend to do some digging and get back to you with a more informed expectation. Thank you for bringing this to educators' attention.
Lee Ten Hoeve
3rd year teacher
PreK through 8 (Inclusive Art Education)
Robert L. Craig School
Moonachie, NJ

Davis Graham's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As the one Administration sets and another begins to rise, the letter I wrote to Sec. Spelling rings the same.

Dear Secretary Spellings:

Thank you for the recent visit Tracy R. Justesen, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services made to Bookshare.org and for your good work on the Great Expectations and for the on going work which will take this country to new horizons of education.

Today the successes which have taken place in my life have been from a compassionate ear, a foundation of a solid family, Jesus Christ presence in my life and technology. Attached is the text of a presentation which I presented at the Florida Council for Exceptional Children, in October of 2008.

Organizations such as Bookshare, and Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic as well as www.readplease.com have put me for the first time in my life on the edge of a reading chair which was never in my life before. Today the written word is not a hurdle to me nor should it be in the way of education for a student in our academic environment in the United States of America.

With the tools as mentioned above there should be neither barrier, nor special classes for those who have dyslexia (whom I can only speak for) maybe others, which label a student. In today's educational world the way a dyslexic learns may be the way all should learn. The future landscape of learning should include Books on-line, which would be updated weekly or monthly with the changing environment of technology (or at least in digital format), and test made available in digital format, so for those in the past who had to have them read to the student now is done with text to speech software such as ReadPlease.

As for me and my children the current and future technologies which are here to aid in education make the mountain tops of the creative mind obtainable. We in this country have one thing which surpasses all others, Freedom, freedom to dream, freedom to speak, freedom to learn and freedom to achieve.

Thank you for your pursuit of accessible, yet even more obtainable goals you have set for our Nation by using today's technology for tomorrows' hope.

Thank you for serving our Country and children.

Davis W. Graham,
Executive Director/CFO
Manatee Diagnostic Center, Ltd.
Bradenton, Florida

Woody Ziegler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for presenting your insight concerning Arne Duncan, technology and instruction that works. Regardless of who the Secretary of Education is or should have been, a continued emphasis needs to be placed on education reform and educator preparation. Testing and accountability began the awakening the process. We clearly have data to indicate where we are failing to reach each and every student in every classroom - especially the urban schools. The expectation is now slowly becoming a demand for quality learning opportunities. Even so we have a significant distance to travel to complete this challenging journey.

Just as the political arena saw a significant change with President Obama's election, 21st century education will see a significant change. Starting with the teachers that are providing the educational experiences to the students. Retirements will be massive in the next ten years. New educators with greater technology backgrounds and new attitudes about learning should mean a new kind of teaching and learning experiences. The challenge is this new population of teachers; instructional coaches, mentor and building principals must know instruction to succeed. Quality-learning opportunities requires quality teachers and instructional leadership by the building principals. This is more than content knowledge, knowing the art and science of teaching - the pedagogy of education is equally or more important. Yet I hear that new educators do not know the how of teaching.

Until we place quality teachers that know instruction in the classroom and have building leadership that can support the teachers concerning instructional practice, we will continue to fall short of the goal of all learners prepared for their 21st Century future. All educators need opportunities to enhance their professional practice. Whether through mentoring/induction programs, professional learning communities, relevant evaluations and coaching tied to instructional, building professional portfolios about instruction and whole or small group discussion about the teaching and learning process, educators must continue to develop their ability to teach. Quality education will only happen with quality educators serving teachers as instructional leaders and quality teachers in the classrooms.

The challenge and nature of the factory model of education limits us to isolated rooms with doors closed. We must find ways to bring the educators together to watch, read, analyze, reflect on and discuss instruction. Recent research provides conversations about mirror neurons. Have you ever heard "monkey see, monkey do?" "What about, "teachers teach as they have been taught?" or, "the worst teachers are in the colleges teaching teachers to teach?" Will the new teachers entering education teach any differently than they have been taught? How would watching other quality educators assist in the duplication of effective instructional practice?

Athletic coaches have know this for years as they've utilized film and modeling as core resources for coaching at all levels, high school to professionals. What if we provided a similar opportunity to all educators? What if educators could watch good-to-great teaching from across the country? What if a common language and research concerning effective instruction were available to all educators? What if rubrics were available to assist in the analysis or implementation of the teaching? What if educators had the opportunity to reflect on what watched in other classrooms or video of instruction and his/her professional practice?

More than 15,000 educators/future educators, from across the country, have access to the Educator's Virtual Mentor (EVM) for all of the above functions. This tool is used to prepare future educators, and support educators currently working at the building and district level. (Click on this link to learn about the Educator's Virtual Mentor: http://www.impactmovie.com/l4tf)

Here is an e-mail message from Peru State College of Education faculty member, Judith Ruskamp. Judith shares the success of a presentation concerning EVM by her students to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) visitation team.

Hi, Woody! The visit was a good one. We had a great team. The presentation on EVM went very well! I had two teacher candidates demonstrate the system AND share their experiences with EVM in terms of how it has impacted their knowledge and skills as teacher candidates. The information you provided was excellent, and I added it to the handout that I provided at the beginning of the session. One reviewer commented that she didn't understand why other teachers colleges weren't using the resource. Marge Harouff from the NDE was also on the team as the state representative, and she was interested in how we were using the resource too. Additionally, the source has helped us to concretely address the diversity expectation even more effectively!

Overall, the presentation went very well, and I was so proud of our candidates and how they simply managed the presentation so effectively and efficiently.

Nothing speaks more powerfully about the success and importance of a resource that is being utilized than when information about it comes straight from those who are benefiting from it!

I just used it this afternoon in class to look at assessment, closure, lesson introductions, and cooperative learning for the teacher candidates' lesson planning project. It worked beautifully. I so appreciate your continued support and time in our efforts to use EVM successfully.

Have a great weekend.

Judith J. Ruskamp
Assistant Professor of Education
T.J. Majors # 327
Peru State College
P.O. Box 10
Peru, NE 68421

(402) 872-2301

Dr. Lammel, Senior Lecturer in the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Educational Administration department, uses another section of the same resource to prepare future principals for instructional leadership. These future instructional leaders have the opportunity to develop skills for observing and providing effective feedback to the teachers they lead and serve.

Both Peru State and UNL offer these experiences through online and in face-to-face classes. Contacts with Ms. Ruskamp and or Dr. John Lammel from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln can provide insight concerning teacher and leadership preparation.

Dr. John Lammel, (Sr. Lecturer)
Educational Administration
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
(402) 472-8867

Thank you,

Woody Ziegler
Milken Educator, 1996
Learning for the Future, Inc

Lee Ten Hoeve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Daniel,
If your "read" comment is directed at me, I intend too. I am a new teacher and I am learning everyday. There are things I do not know and I am not afraid to admit that. I aim to rectify the problem. Ironically, I was sent to this blog as part of a Graduate course assignment in order to "commune" with other teachers in a positive and reflective manner. I hardly find a single word directive interactive or enlightening. If I misunderstood your post somehow, please explain.

Cal Joy's picture
Cal Joy
Former High School Art and Science Teacher in Queensland, Australia.

Hi Lee,
Thanks for your post. We appreciate hearing your thoughts about the new Secretary of Education, your honestly and creditability are really valued here. I thank you for your insight and positive attitude.
I don't think the Daniel Forman "read" post was directed toward you. It's unclear to me exactly what Daniel was suggesting.

Edutopia Staff
Cal Joy

Lee Ten Hoeve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Cal,
Thank you.
-Lee Ten Hove

Sharon Spears's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to admit that I had no idea about the President's choice of Duncan for Secretary of Education. What a disappointment! Thank you for the information about her. As a special education teacher I feel like we are still trying to sift through the regulations for NCLB. These regulations can be overwhelming for a student with IQ deficits. Thank you for the information and the insight. As teachers, we definitely need to keep on top of this situation for the changes that are bound to come our way.
Sharon Spears
IDMi 1st/2nd grade teacher
Gwinnett County
Norcross, Georgia

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