On the Same Page: Impacting Education at the Highest Level, Part II
Posted February 1
Recently, a 1982 Laboratory Schools’ alumnus, Arne Duncan, was confirmed as the Secretary of Education. I am very pleased that President Obama chose a practitioner who knows how to get work done through a political process rather than a politician who has never practiced education.
Last month I wrote some of my thoughts to Mr. Duncan before he became Secretary of Education. Included were the following issues:
- Keep your focus on urban education
- Surround yourself with the best from higher education, suburban schools, independent schools, and parochial schools
- Early childhood education must become a reality for all
This month I continue my thoughts in addressing Lab alum and Secretary of Education Duncan:
Fulfill the promise of an appropriate education for all⎯I was a special education administrator when the precursor to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed in Congress in 1975. At the time the law’s passage was welcomed with real hope for many forgotten children. Often described as the most important civil rights legislation for school-aged disabled children, it has not been fully actualized because it has never been adequately funded.
What has happened over the past thirty-three years has been an explosion of knowledge about how children learn and demonstrated success in meeting the needs of both an underserved and unserved population of children. And like you, having held school leadership positions where the education of all children was my responsibility, there simply is not enough money to do it right. Too many families were disappointed and too many hours were spent in adversarial positions because there was nothing left in the budget and we had nowhere else to turn.
Not all schools can help all children nor should they be required to. But, that does not absolve the public’s responsibility to provide an appropriate education for children including transportation, which will give them access to someplace if the neighborhood school cannot do so.
Assure an enlightened citizenry through educational balance⎯You know first hand that schools cut “frills” in an attempt to maintain the basics. It’s who defines that term and how cuts are applied that too often become a very bad solution to the underlying problem of cost. Physical education, world languages, libraries, and the arts are not “frills.” They are an essential piece of a well-rounded education. From the time of the Renaissance, every enlightened citizenry has known of the importance of culture, the arts, and being physically fit. Well roundedness is at the heart of Dewey’s philosophy and, as a young child, you had the good fortune of being heavily exposed to a balanced educational program. It served you well. Be sure that the states do not sacrifice balance with the current generation of children under the guise of raising test scores and lack of funding.
Expose the real challenges to learning⎯You often state, “Despite challenges in the home and challenges in the community, our children can be successful.” Be specific with these challenges, use a bully pulpit, and work with other federal and state entities to improve those home and community influences that undo the progress made during the school day. Imagine how successful our young people could be if the problems of the home and community could be minimized.
There are also significant challenges to changing bad practices in our schools, and we must attend to these as well. You showed great patience while in Chicago and listened to all of the reasons people gave to you for not changing the system. But your administration took action because the system was not working. We may not agree on which of these challenges are most important, but it is time to use both data and experience to tell it like it is or tell it differently so more will begin to listen.
There are several culturally embedded challenges to the developing minds of children and continuous learning, but I will address only one of the most obvious structural ones. While in Chicago, you began to address the traditional school calendar by creating year-round schools. There are very few developed countries in the world that create school calendars with summer breaks as long as ten weeks. The amount of time we spend in September to review materials learned from the previous year is wasteful. I believe that until we reduce the regression of learning and the time it takes to recoup skills, our young people will continue to lag behind their global counterparts.
I believe that carefully designed and controlled data will confirm my experience with this but expect the camp and vacation lobbies to fight vigorously any change to the status quo. Enhancing learning and restoring our country’s competitive spirit throughout the year should trump holding on to an outdated agrarian calendar.
Help make teaching a real profession of choice⎯I’ve been told that at some point in our history, the greater public held the profession of pre-collegiate teaching in high esteem. While I have no reason to doubt that, it sure has not been my experience during nearly 40 years in this business.
Many of my colleagues and I had other career choices that we could have made but chose teaching because a life of service appealed to us, and we believed in making a difference in the lives of children. And we did so knowing that there would be some financial sacrifice to our families and with little financial incentive other than to get old or to become a school administrator to improve our position in life.
Regardless of what one thinks about the formation of organized labor for teachers in the early 1900s, its rapid growth since the late 1960s, and collective bargaining in the twenty-first century, I shudder to think of who would be attracted to teach in our public schools without unions. As a twenty-two-year-old rookie teacher, I remember wanting to earn my age in thousands of dollars. Now that I am nearing the age of social security, the average teacher in America still does not earn my age, and many of them have had no choice but to take on second jobs to make ends meet.
Even more distressing is a generational change in the public’s attitude toward teachers. Our parents told us stories about days when teachers were the final word, no questions asked. That’s hardly the case today. Some would say that teachers are responsible for this change by publicly participating in actions designed to bring attention to sub-standard working conditions and compensation. These actions often cause unintended collateral damage to students. Parents and the public at large have long memories when the education of their children is interrupted. We must find a way to conclude collective bargaining without raising doubts about the professionalism of those whose work should be valued the most.
As Secretary of Education, you can help shape how our country shows respect for those who want to enter teaching. Creating incentives, forgiving loans for those who teach, profiling the best in our profession in a public way are but a few ideas, but your best advice will come from the thousands of “millennials” or “the net generation” who are just entering or about to enter the workforce. Visit Finland or speak with those who admire the esteem that the teachers hold in that country. Are there lessons to be learned that could inform a higher standard for our teachers?
And so, Mr. Secretary (you sailed through confirmation hearings since I started this letter), your plate is full; but just like our country has high hopes for the new President, those of us in schools and universities have high hopes for you. You cannot possibly undo the past and there will never be enough resources for you to do things completely, but you can begin by focusing on what is working well, using carrots instead of sticks, and actually listening to those given the opportunity and responsibility of shaping the future.