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In Three Acts: A Conference Call with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
Related Tags: Teacher Leadership
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Social media and 21st century tools play important roles in educational advocacy. And as part of an unaffiliated group of 12 educators who began a relationship as bloggers and Facebook account holders, I soon discovered this to be quite true when we embarked on an online road to Washington DC in an attempt to catch the ear of the U.S. Secretary of Education himself. And on May 24, 2010, that's just what we did.

Act I

The plan was simple: arm ourselves with the passion of the over 2,000 educators behind us, equip ourselves with our own experiences, research, knowledge, blogs, and audiences, and prepare suggestions for the U.S. Department of Education addressing concerns about the ESEA Blueprint.

So for weeks, the 12 of us met online, debating and fine-tuning, always making sure that we focused more on solution than complaint. During that time, we honed in on the following topics to guide our further studies and prepare for the call:

  • College and Career Readiness in Assessments
  • Great Teachers and Leaders
  • Diverse Learners
  • Safe and Successful Schools
  • Complete Education
  • Innovation

The topic that I specifically focused on with the wise and awesome Marsha Ratzel is College and Career Readiness in Assessments. Now, I think we all agree with the Blueprint that our job is and always has been to help our students be prepared for college or career -- whatever that career may be. But our argument was and is that current assessments do not test the very skills that leaders in both business and higher education are looking for. And the reality is that in education, assessments drive instruction.

We are working in a system where the tail is wagging the dog.

Marsha and I looked at polls from more than 2,000 business leaders from the Partnership of 21st Century Skills as well as studies from professors from the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, both of which mentioned the following skills as necessary for both potential employees and entering college freshmen:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity
  • Innovation

So our planned suggestion was this: Don't invest in more of the same tests; invest in the teachers who possess the knowledge of what true assessments can look like and what goes into preparing those assessments.

Rather than using a standardized test, let's assess how a student communicates a response to an inquiry or contributes collaboratively to a wiki. Let's assess how a student performs in a mock job interview complete with cover letter and resume. Let's assess the growth of a student by looking at a growing portfolio that reflects the best of that student's work throughout the year or, better, yet, throughout a number of years. Let's assess a student's contributions to a public service project, or a student's executive summary of the results of solving a local community problem.

We planned to also suggest that they tap into the existing talent in the workforce. After all, there are thousands of teachers out there who have already been developing better assessments and curriculum based in critical thinking, and who are just waiting to have their talents called upon.

Unfortunately, the call was not what we had hoped for.

Act II

So at 2:30 PST, on Monday, May 24, I found myself sitting in my assistant principal's office on the phone with (gulp!) Arne Duncan.

It should have all been a smooth deal, but frankly, for an initial first impression discussion, it was disappointing. It felt kind of like showing up in our scrubs, ready to dig in the dirt and realizing they hadn't even loosened their ties.

Now, I'm not saying that I thought we were about to make a huge difference in education with one 30-minute phone call. But it all began with this antiquated dial in phone conference system that garbled, crackled, and echoed. And it got me thinking how ironic this was that we were sitting there, talking to DC about 21st century skills, when we couldn't even communicate using those very tools. That's not to say that the 12 of us weren't doing our best. We had a Ning set up to backchat during the call so we could pass notes of encouragement, of policy suggestions, and share any frustrations.

Secretary Duncan said much of what we would want him to say: collaboration/good, teacher layoffs/bad, National Writing Project/good, narrowed curriculum/bad. But his disconnect lies not in what was being said as a goal, but in how they intend to make it all happen.

OK, so they believe in collaboration. So why don't we in schools have it? He believes in a well-rounded curriculum. Well, then why make success still based on test scores?

It's like saying, "We like pizza!"

To which we respond, "Well then, why are we still serving Melba toast?"

"Well, we believe in the power of pizza, so everyone make pizza!"

"Great, we're with you on this one, we like it too, but how do we make pizza with no dough, tomatoes, cheese, or toppings?"

The Blueprint is not an answer, it's a goal. That's where the disconnect lies.

Anyway, after Duncan talked, and Ratzel's wonderful intro was eaten up by the pops and crackles of the call, I was up.

Now, I can't for the life of me remember exactly what happened with my contribution. It's a bit of a blur. I remember being flustered by the sound problems and at some point, only 30 seconds in, I was stopped and asked if they had heard I said something about critical thinking.

I sighed before closing my notes and just focused on trying to jump quickly to our suggestion, because I really believe that if we can't come to a table with possible solutions, we shouldn't say yes to the invite. So I suggested that the funds (crackle, crackle) currently earmarked (line drops) for outside innovators be redirected to the thousands of teachers out there (garbled voice, buzz) to train them in the development and scoring of more critical thinking assessments.

"Well it just so happens, Heather..." they began, saying that they are planning to funnel $350 million for state assessment systems. And they spoke with much pride about Race to the Top (RTTT) allowing everyone to be eligible for their funds. But once again, there's this disconnect, because everyone being eligible does not mean everyone has access.

And that was it: my awkward moment of advocacy in the big league. I felt like Kevin Costner in Bull Durham. Beyond me, only three other speakers -- one of which was our very own Elena Aguilar -- were permitted the microphone and each were truncated in their turns and answered with pat responses from the Blueprint or RTTT.

We had swung for the outfield and missed -- or so I thought.


When last we left our Fellowship of the Ning we had ended our Arne Duncan call disappointed. A deep sigh for teachers all over. But (strike up the orchestra) hope soon appeared on the horizon in the form of...Arne Duncan?

Within 24 hours of our seemingly doomed call, it seemed that Arne Duncan and the Department of Education felt disappointment too and reached out to us in what can only be defined as hope after what appeared to be a very awkward experience for us all.

So on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 25th, the phone rang in two classrooms in two different parts of the country: one in California and one in Kansas. And the voice on the other line introduced himself as Arne Duncan. Anthony Cody and Marsha Ratzel, the two educators who have been the producers of our quest to get teachers' voices at the policy table, both spoke to Duncan who apologized for our uncomfortable and technologically strained call.

He went on to ask about their experiences, he sought input about some key issues from them and based on conversations with the group, and he insisted that he was interested in this being the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

So it seems, fellow teachers, that we are still at the table. And it is clear that we have both parties trying to make this dialogue work. Sure, sometimes it feels like a Tower of Babel, with two groups trying to speak a common language, but maybe the disappointment of our awkward call became our Rosetta Stone.

We hope this is the start of something.

But as teachers, we need to wage a battle of solution, not confusion or complaint. Every letter, every video, every sign, must offer educated suggestion. And it is our hope, the hope of the 12 who were granted this initial call, that more teacher voices will be sought.

It is our time, fellow teachers to show them that we are united not as a union, or a region, or single policy, but as a group of professionals. Teaching may be a science, but it is also an art, and we are the artisans of education's change: "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers." And that, dear reader, includes you.

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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Tim Venchus's picture

This all sounds like a potentially great step forward. I just finished reading The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner and he advocates for teaching the same skills you mention above (and provides a list of schools that are already doing it like High Tech High in San Diego and The Coalition of Essential Schools).

Can you please offer suggestions for what "regular" educators can do to support your cause?


Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert-Gawron
ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

There is so much a "regular" educator can do. For one thing, keep up on ed news. Put some bloggers you like and things like the ASCD Smartbrief on your Goggle Reader so that you can start by just educating yourself on policy.

Many teachers glaze over at the thought of policy, but what they don't realize is that policy is dictating our classroom practice. The next thing you can do is talk to others. Begin by commenting on blogs (like you are doing) and even start your own (that's what I did a mere few years ago.) The collaborative nature of blogging will put you in a network of other teachers to learn from.

There are also great communities out there, like the Facebook Letters to Obama, which is a growing community of teachers looking to develop teachers voices at the policy table. There are others out there too, nings and e-zines to subscribe to.

But also know that you aren't a "regular" teacher; you are a constituent and your voice counts to your representatives. They may not read the words in the letters (thought, clearly, sometimes they do) but they do count the numbers of folks who contact them with their opinions. Their agenda is their majority's agenda, so add your voice to it!

I know it feels like we do a lot already, but just putting a small percentage of our passion for teaching towards fighting for the good policies will educate those policy-makers who believe we are merely enactors, when, in fact, teachers should be co-creators.

If you are looking for bloggers to read, pop over to my site and check out my blogroll on the main page ( From that list, you might find folks you like to read. And many of them have blogrolls too.

But being a part of an online community, like Edutopia, is a great step. Have you joined the discussion boards yet? There are tons of educators talking about practice, policy, and everything in between.

But what I would suggest is to create a small list of issues that you want to throw your weight behind, and start with those. With all the challenges in education, if we just pick our way through solving them one issue at a time, eventually, reform will happen.

Once you have your list, check back and email me, maybe I can point you in the direction of folks to read for your further personal and professional education.

Thanks for your comment and support!

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

Love the post and the content. I am concerned that while it sounds great that we need to work with teachers to provide them support in teaching critical thinking and problem solving skills, there is a good number of teachers out there (often tenured) that do not want to learn or scared of having students be "innovative". They are often unfamiliar on how to be a facilitator of work and knowledge. In some of the work I have done in low performing schools I see a great need to re-establish a collaborative culture built on the core belief that all students can learn...not to mention all teachers.

Melissa's picture

I am special education teacher, and your words, your cause couldn't have a more valid arguement. I always said that if law makers saw the physical frustrations of my students during standardized testing, there is no way they would torture them that way. My students' scores go on to be weighted with the rest of the school's, effecting the total score/grade of my school and it's ranking within the district. My colleagues and I ask the question, if we are developing IEP's and the state/country recognizes these students are NOT on grade level, why should they be expected to take grade level tests??? Granted, some changes have been in the pike in my state, where alternative tests are now offered to students with disabilities. However, these assessments are still on grade level, but offer less questions with extended time. The main concern is still present... my third grade student that reads on a first grade level still will not find success on a third grade reading test given less problems and more time. However, if one were to look at this student's annual progress towards his goals and objectives, and this was used as a measure of success, then there would be something to celebrate.
Thank you for continuing to bring critical issues such as this to light, and enlightening other educators on how to be active change agents in our own small way. We can all be the stone that creates the ripple...

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