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Dear Secretary Mister Duncan, Sir

October 2, 2013

My name is Jill O’Malley Conroy, and five months ago today I became one of those “arm chair pundits” you described to our fellow Americans yesterday. My alternate name in this “alternate universe”, or “blogosphere”, as you also dubbed it, is The Indignant Teacher. My goal as such right now is to make sure our two candidates for Mayor of Boston are aware of this gigantic hoax that you and your circle are perpetuating. Because yesterday’s speech was just another part of this hoax, I have decided to address the parts that need addressing, in hopes of clarifying, one piece at a time. Let Americans decide for themselves who’s actually “manufacturing” all the “drama”.
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Secretary Duncan:
Also inhabiting this bubble are some arm chair pundits who insist our efforts to improve public education are somehow doomed to fail, either because they believe the government is incapable of meaningfully improving education or because they think education reform can’t possibly work since the real problem with schools is that so many children are born poor.
Your efforts are doomed to fail, but it’s not for either of what you claim the reasons are. They are doomed to fail because they were developed by non-educators, with non-education related degrees and non-teaching career experience; because they have been untested; because the earliest evidence of their success is non-existent, and in fact, it’s quite the opposite (look at NYC for starters). We are not saying the real problem is that so many children are born poor; we are saying that children who are born into poverty perform less well on achievement tests. 
In blogs, in books, in tweets, some pundits even say our schools are performing just fine and that fundamental change isn’t needed or that we have to address poverty first before schools can improve student achievement.  
Well, how would you interpret data from no-stakes tests like the NAEP in terms of student/school/district/state academic achievement and performance, then? And we do need to address poverty in order to effectively address student achievement. How are you able to dispute that?
At the opposite extreme, other commentators declare a permanent state of crisis. They discount the value of great teachers and great school leaders, and they call for the most disruptive changes possible, with little heed for their impact on our nation’s children.
Are you not considering yourself as someone who is parked at that opposite extreme, Secretary Mister Duncan, Sir? Are you not discounting the value of great teachers and great school leaders? Or is it that we have different definitions of the word “great”? Regardless, do you truly look back and see your changes thus far as being anything but disruptive? If so, dare I ask how you perceive them as being? And can you also please explain how you are heeding their impact on the nation’s children, yourself? Because in case you haven’t heard the message of us “arm chair pundits” – although we like to call ourselves “edu-bloggers” – it’s that the impact your changes/initiatives/reforms/ideas/moneymaking schemes are all having on our nation’s children is a very, very bad one. So why are you continuing?
 
Too many inhabitants of this alternative universe are so supremely confident in their perspective that they have simply stopped listening to people with a different viewpoint.
Yes, we have stopped listening. Because what you’re saying is pure bs, and you know it. Why else are you so afraid to have an actual conversation with Diane Ravitch, face to face, in front of the nation? Why else do you hide behind your keyboard and in the safety net of the other guys on your team? We know you’re all sweating now, with the release of Reign of Error. You’d be stupid not to be. 
This isn’t exactly an alternative universe, really, although sometimes it certainly seems like it sure is. The lengths that you and your buddies go to in order to protect your secret – that you don’t know what you’re doing and this is a big selfish scheme in real life – is astounding. It’s hard for the average American to believe, in fact. And you definitely do have a leg up on those of us living in that “bubble”, what with your ownership of mainstream media and all. But this bubble is bursting at this point, and while you may anticipate the upcoming “Education Nation” to be an all out attack, watch out. It may just turn out to turn right around and bite you all in your own ashes.
Instead of talking with each other, and more importantly, listening to each other, with respect and humility, and with a general interest in finding common ground, many of these people are just talking past each other, ignoring plain evidence and deliberately distorting the other’s positions.
This is getting exhausting. Secretary Mister Duncan, Sir, “these people” have been practically begging you all to have a conversation with us. You are the ones who are talking past each other, ignoring plain evidence and deliberately distorting the other’s positions! Allow me to speak for another when I take this moment to invite you and Diane Ravitch to have a nationally televised conversation n which you both agree to listen to each other, with respect and humility, and with a general interest in finding common ground. I’m pretty certain she’d jump at the chance, and it sounds as if you would, too, so let’s get started!
 
They are clearly not focusing on children and students. They are focusing, instead, on false debates. Fortunately, many people in the real world, outside the beltway and blogosphere, have tuned out this debate.
No, we’re focusing on the actual facts that only contradict what false debate you are maintaining. Although it’s not exactly a “debate” after all, since no one on your “team” wants to engage in an actual conversation with anyone on my “team”. And I don’t think we’re being “tuned out” at all; our message isn’t being heard only because you corporate reformers are stifling our voices and making sure most people don’t hear us.
They are too busy actually getting real work done. They’re focusing on students, whether they’re three years old, 13, or 33. All across America, states and districts are moving forward with courageous reforms. States are raising standards and expectations for students, and are piloting new and better assessments to show what students know and can do.
Perhaps most states are raising standards and expectations, but here in Massachusetts we have foolishly opted to “dumb-down” our standards in order to adopt your Common Core. Because money talks.
 
There is so much good work underway, and thankfully, the people doing the work are not distracted by all the noise and manufactured drama inside the bubble. In the real world, outside the Washington bubble, the vast majority of people aren’t debating IF college and career ready standards are actually needed.  They’re not advancing false narratives about a federal takeover of schools by mind-controlling robots. They’re just doing the hard work of putting high standards into practice.
I think you’re referring to public school teachers here, aren’t you, Secretary Mister Duncan, Sir? Six months ago I would have been lumped into this group myself, as someone who was “doing the hard work of putting standards into practice” myself. But it wasn’t because I agreed with what we were doing, Sir. It wasn’t because I agreed that college and career standards were actually needed. It was because I needed my job, and in order to retain my 15 year position I had no choice but to comply with these mandates and sanctions as you corporate reformers had laid out for us. Furthermore, I believed that “someone” up above me in the educational ranks had reason to believe that these changes would prove to actually be beneficial to the students who would be impacted by them. I believed there was some sound logic and reasoning behind them all, even if I couldn’t find them myself. I believed this because I couldn’t possibly believe any differently. But then I quit, and I dedicated myself to understanding what’s happening, which quickly led me to believe just how terribly wrong I had been.
They’re not questioning if a thoughtful system of evaluation and support is needed for both principals and teachers.
We “armchair pundits” are not questioning this either. We agree this is needed. We just also agree that your system is not at all thoughtful; frankly, it sucks.
They know that evaluation historically was generally meaningless, not developmental, and broken, and they’re working together to help educators strengthen their craft, and build real career ladders that recognize and reward excellence. Even in my home town of Chicago, less than a year after a bitter strike, a recent study shows that teachers actually LIKE the new evaluation system, and want to make it work, even if they have lingering concerns about how test scores are being used.
Shame on you for Chicago. That’s all I can say about that one.
 
In the real world, most people aren’t against meaningful testing. They know that we need some kind of test, to know if kids are actually learning, and to hold everyone accountable – including students themselves. That doesn’t mean they don’t have concerns about teaching to the test, or narrowing the curriculum, and I absolutely share those concerns.  But the idea that we shouldn’t gather real-time data on what students know and are able to do is simply absurd. The goal of education is not just to teach – it’s to have our students learn.
Thank you, Secretary Mister Duncan, Sir, but I’m pretty sure we know what the goal of education is. Nor are we against meaningful testing. But teachers should be evaluated on how much progress each individual in their classes are making from the beginning to the end of the school year, not how our students’ test scores compare to others. If I am teaching a 3rd grade resource room ELA class, and I have a student who entered my class reading at a mid-kdg level, made solid academic gains throughout the year, and was tested at an end of 2nd grade level in June, how does that make me an ineffective teacher? I’ll answer that for you – it doesn’t. In fact, it shows me to be quite an effective teacher, bringing a special ed student up over two full years of achievement in just one. Yet under your corporate reform evaluations, I would be ineffective.
 
Outside the bubble, people are not arguing in 140 characters or less about whether we need to fix poverty before we can fix education. That, like so many debates in education, is a false choice.  Of course, we’ll keep fighting poverty every single day – protecting the safety net,  providing critically important wraparound services, feeding hungry children and their families, crating jobs, combatting violence and creating greater access to health services. But we can’t use the brutal reality of poverty as a catch-all excuse to avoid responsibility for educating children at risk and helping them beat the odds as thousands and thousands do, year after year after year. Our children only have one chance to get a great education. They can’t wait for poverty to magically disappear. In fact, for them and their parents, education is the way out of poverty, and they don’t want to waste a minute. They are chasing the American Dream with everything they have. And we have to help them get there. We all share in that responsibility.
Then it’s time you stop letting people with no education background (other than their own schooling experiences) make these decisions. It’s time you stop insulting me and all the other citizens of this nation who are devoting their lives to uncover and share the truth behind your Hoax. It’s time you stop painting this picture of teachers who are lazy, unmotivated, unsympathetic, unqualified, and unprofessional. Your reforms are ruining the state of education in this country, Secretary Mister Duncan, SIr, and you should be ashamed of yourself.
 
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One Comment
  1. The only thing I would add, Jill, is that quite a lot of the critics are also the ones doing the hard work. Some of the most observant criticism I have seen of federal education policy is from those who actually have to implement it: teachers, principals, and yes, even school committee members. I also see a great deal of concern from those who best understand data and how it is properly used. Nothing that is coming from D.C. (and little, in Massachusetts, that is coming from Malden) appears to do that.

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