In our polarized political times it is really hard to find a government official with high approval ratings from all parts of the political spectrum. However, the Secretary of Education seems to be an exception; who doesn’t love Arne? He is both Obama’s basketball buddy AND was rumored to be on the short list for Mitt Romney’s potential Education Secretary. As a teacher, I have great admiration for Duncan’s deep respect for teachers as well as his commitment to educational equity for all of America’s children. So I was a bit taken aback when I came across an op-ed on NBC’s Ed Nation site titled “American Students Deserve Better Than Arne Duncan.” Even more interesting is the fact the piece is written by a 17 year-old high school student. While well-written, it is easy to recognize the classic adolescent tone I have come to love/have nightmares about:
Look, I wholeheartedly respect Secretary Duncan and I’ve met him a number of times, but the Department of Education deserves nothing more than a big fat F for its first term. Race to the Top has been an utter failure for brutalizing the teaching profession, adding irrational testing for preschoolers (I wish I was kidding), driving a national obsession over high-stakes testing, and pushing for charters to hijack public schools. It’s like a “Russian novel, because it’s long, it’s complicated, and in the end, everybody gets killed,” as one superintendent quipped.
Despite the youth of the author, this paragraph sounds par for the course in terms of what we get from most media outlets – this student has a bright future on talk radio, CNN, or FOX. While I might write “hyperbole” and “combative tone” in the margins of this essay, I tried to look past the “big fat” rhetoric and tease out her argument. She believes too much attention has been devoted to what is wrong with our schools, teachers and students while proposed solutions are inadequate and uncreative. True story angry teenager, true story.
Unlike this student, I don’t believe Arne Duncan is to blame for the current crisis in American education. The Secretary seems to be doing everything he can (and then some . . . click here for the most amazing Onion article). Solutions will come from us. Teachers have the on-the-ground experience, the daily love of kids and the creativity necessary to fix what is wrong with our system. Here are some thoughts and suggestions about teachers taking the lead:
- Don’t Wait for Superman, fix the problem yourself: Many of us get stuck in the trap of thinking “Oh I’m just a teacher, I can’t do anything about X . . . maybe if I were the principal or the superintendent or a millionaire.” Chances are you can make a difference; particularly if you get together with a couple of colleagues or parents and work together.
- More of us need to be campus leaders yet remain classroom teachers: We talk about how great it would be if teachers had career ladders that kept us in the classroom but how many of us are putting ourselves out there? Lead that after school professional development, volunteer to run that committee on turning around school culture, or meet with your principal about the proposal you have put together. The key to making this work is to have a great relationship with your principal. See this post for my tips on working with principals.
- Teachers have power in numbers: Maybe it is just my vantage point from the very non-union friendly state of Texas but I don’t hear many solutions coming from our national teachers unions. I think this is beginning to change however the change isn’t happening fast enough. How could we come together to elevate our profession? I love the Margret Mead quote that says “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Find some colleagues who want to work on the same problem you do and make it happen.
- Lobby your elected officials or run for office yourself: School board members, state representatives, congressional representatives and the Secretary himself are all interested in hearing solutions from the people who are actually doing the day-in-day-out job of educating children. Write those emails and letters. Pick up the phone. Get your name on a ballot.
If Arne Duncan isn’t going to wave a magic wand and make it better, what else can teachers do to contribute to solutions? I would love to hear your ideas, please leave them in a comment!