An (Imagined)Interview with Arne Duncan: Probing the Mind of the Uber-Educator

Secretary Duncan, can I call you Arne?
 
Of course
 
Classrooms range from students in wealthy high achieving school districts to schools in the poor crime-ridden neighborhoods. How can you have the same expectations for these kids?
 
You’ve hit a key issue: I expect every teacher to move kids, for the year the teacher is in front of that classroom I expect the teacher to move the student to the next level. In some schools we require extra supports, more guidance, health clinics in schools, perhaps small classes, or tutoring: these extra services will impact the rate and sustainability of the growth, we cannot accept excuses. The Education Trust  research shows us that there are many examples of highly successful inner city schools. In Chicago we supported Community Schools that are also supported by Randi Weingarten the AFT union leader.
 
How do you get the most successful teachers to work in the poorest schools?
 
Part of the answer is funding formulas, the needs of kids must drive funding, look at the work of Robert Gordon an economist, now working in the White House. Pay matters: we have to be willing to drive resources to the most challenged schools and compensate the staffs accordingly. States must be much more flexible in certification standards, alternate routes will attract many more highly qualified candidates.
 
Do you feel that seniority based salary schedules should be junked?
 
Junked is too strong a term. Student performance, peer review, principal judgement and longevity should determine compensation. In every other high salary, high skill profession pay, to some extent, is based on
performance.
 
Wouldn’t pay for student performance result in endless test prep?
 
Student performance, in my judgement should be a factor, not the only factor. Colleagues should be involved in evaluating colleagues. In NYC teachers served on hiring committees in a recent reorganization. Each and every teacher, from year one to year whatever must be expected to improve their skills. Accountability is not a dirty word, it is the essence of any school system. We constantly evaluate kids on report cards, on standardized tests, on SAT exams. Rating teachers “S” or “U” is not acceptable, evaluations must be nuanced and have meaning, and paying someone more for better performance is simply commonsense.
 
Will teacher unions accept this premise?
 
In the most unionized school district in the country, New York City, the union and the school district negotiated a school wide bonus plan, a good first step. Union bashing is not productive. Change is difficult, but inexorable, I am optimistic that school districts around the country will begin experimenting with a range of models.
 
Why?
 
In a few weeks we will ask for proposals and fund initiatives in 150 school districts: these plans must be bottom up, negotiated at the local level, and, I have confidence that we will see many different fascinating approaches.
 
Will teacher union have to sign on to these plans?
 
That is a local decision …
 
Do you oppose teacher tenure?
 
No, not at all. Teachers serve a probationary period, usually two or three years during which the principal evaluates performance and can decide whether or not to retain a teacher. Tenure simply means that a third party insures a level of due process. Teaching is not a guarantee of a lifetime job. Due process must be fair and swift, it should not drag out and be excessively costly. A negotiated arbitration process exists in many districts, as long as it is expeditious it will be accepted by teachers, school districts and the public. Teachers don’t support incompetent teachers.
 
Teachers fear that your emphasis on data systems is simply a ploy, your goal is to evaluate, pay and dismiss teachers according to pupil achievement – are they right?
 
Data collection systems are at different levels in different states. We know that longitudinal student data will enable us to track students and track teachers. It will enable teachers, schools and school districts to make better decisions for kids. It is also a tool in tracking teacher effectiveness, not the only tool, but, an important one. The important element is the teacher in the classroom and part of a judgement must be student progress.
 
Isn’t the history of top down reform poor?
 
You are absolutely right, that’s why while we are establishing criteria: the programs must be designed at the school and school district level. What works in one state may not work in another. In a changing world, a rapidly changing world, we welcome teachers and their unions as partners.
 
Wouldn’t you agree that NAEP is the “gold standard” for assessing school district performance?
 
Yes, it is the only national assessment.
 
During your tenure in Chicago and Joel Klein’s tenure in NYC NAEP scores were flat … doesn’t this cast doubt on your claims of making progress.
 
NAEP is one assessment, graduation rates increased dramatically, we closed many ineffective schools, we made significant progress.
 
Would you agree that research should drive our decisions?
 
Of course
 
Many research studies  point to the issue of teacher turnover, and the reasons teacher leave the profession is not salary it is job dissatisfaction, your emphasis on monetary rewards fly in the face of research.  In addition there is no research that shows monetary rewards improve practice. Ideology seems to be trumping fact.
 
Ideology is not a dirty word, ideology can drive practice and change the status quo. Too many are wedded to the past and try to use research data to stand in the way of change – I am convinced that our policies will close the achievement gap … remember school systems were not built to serve the needs of employees … the new face of education may be discomfiting for some, but we believe it is the only way to respond to issues that have eluded us for too long.
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