Professional Learning

The New Secretary of Education Needs Better Ideas

January 20, 2009

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 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.

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