Thursday, July 2, 2009

Delegates to Arne Duncan: Listen to teachers!

Teacher pay tied to test scores? Not a good idea.

NCLB? Needs a lot of help!

But listening to each other? All right!

About 7,000 delegates heard U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak about the need for reform to teacher compensation and evaluation systems at the NEA Annual Meeting today. And then it was their turn.

At the top of their list? Making sure teachers have a seat at the table when federal lawmakers take on the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, especially when it comes to sensible measurements for students with disabilities or English Language Learners, and that new compensation systems take the complexity of their work into account.

(RA Today/ Rick Runion)

Consider, for example, Scott Miller's middle-school classroom in Hawthorne, California, where his immigrant students speak Urdu, Bangli, Arabic and Spanish -- and that's just second period, he told Duncan.

"I love my students and I think they’re all fabulous. But as you can imagine, they don’t perform well on standardized tests in their second or third language," Miller said. "Secretary Duncan, how can anybody possibly suggests that my family’s paychecks or my perform evaluation be based on their test scores?"

More photos here.

Great question, Duncan said -- and, judging from the applause, Miller's fellow delegates agreed. Special eduation kids and English Language Leaners do need to be fairly evaluated, Duncan said. "I want to be clear, I think we absolutely should be held accountable for their progress -- but to give a kid a test that they can’t read doesn’t measure their ability. It doesn't work. It doesn't make sense," Duncan said.

The law has some good points, but it also got a lot of things wrong, he said. "If some piece made sense, let’s keep it. If it didn’t make sense, let’s fix it." But Duncan said he doesn't have all the solutions himself. "Let's come back together and come up with something that does (work)," he suggested.

"Adult dysfunction" -- the inability of so many adults involved in education at federal, state and local levels to work together collaboratively for solutions -- is the biggest impediment to student achievement and sensible reform, Duncan said. "We haven’t talked to each other, we haven’t listened to each other. Adult dysfunction has stood in the way of children learning and we can’t afford that anymore," he said.

Listening to delegates today is part of the solution and he promised it would continue. "All I can say is, this is the way I work. And I want you to hold me accountable."

In addition to shared concern over English Language Learners, Duncan and the delegates also found common ground over the effects of NCLB on curriculum. "Our formerly rich curriculum, with its literacy circles and cooperative projects, (has been replaced with) benchmark testing, test-taking skills," complained Fremont, California, teacher Anita Vanegas. One of her students recently asked her, she said, "Why do we still have to go to school in May and June? The testing is over!"

"We’ve had a real narrowing of the curriculum and that’s a real problem," Duncan agreed. "I think it's so important for all children, but especially children from backgrounds where they're not getting their own piano lessons, to have exposure to art and p.e. and a rich array of activities."

And again he told Vanegas and her colleagues: "I don’t have all the answers, I hope we can come up with them collectively."

Delegates criticized Duncan's support for charter schools, saying more resources should be put into regular public schools instead, but Duncan pointed to the $100 billion for education in the economic stimulus bill and added, "I’m a fan of high-performing schools. Some high-performing schools happen to be charters."

The key to system-wide improvement, he suggested, is finding examples of excellence -- whether they're in charter schools or not -- and duplicating them. "I’m convinced we have more great schools, more great teachers than ever before in our country. We have more great ideas than ever before. We just need to listen, figure out what works, and scale it up."

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