Dialogue: Secretary Duncan and AASA Governing Board

AASA’s Position Statement 1:

“Public education is the cornerstone of our democracy and a civil right.’

U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan spoke to the AASA Governing Board on February 15, 2011. He also happens to be in Denver for a Labor-Management Collaboration Conference sponsored by a coalition of professional associations of educators and the US DOE.

Secretary Duncan made several points to the small audience of Governing Board superintendents while engaging in informal and diplomatic dialogue.  I can’t imagine keeping his schedule and speech commitments as he works the nation to build support for the President’s agenda, but speaking with superintendents has to provide him with a better picture of “boots on the ground” issues than he gets in the office. We all can learn a lot on “no office” days.

Here’s some of my take aways from his 29 minutes with the Governing Board:

1)   If Congress doesn’t revise the federal act of 2001, NCLB, and reauthorize and update ESEA, 98% of America’s schools will be labeled as failing in two years. One superintendent asked if the Secretary is willing to use his regulatory power to reverse sanctions if Congress can’t get it’s act together to revise the “craziness” of federal intrusion into our schools. The Secretary said we all must exercise our power to influence and persuade Congress to take this on amid other high profile needs for the nation.  He did not rule out using his regulatory power but stated it would be “last resort.”

2)   The big issue we face in attaining educational goals results from teachers’ unions who often are more focused on non-learning issues than learning.  The Secretary placed emphasis on leaders of professional associations working together to broker a “peace” settlement that addresses both professionals’ needs and learners’ needs.  He clearly sees teacher unions as a barrier to the change processes that USDOE supports for America’s schools, but holds out hope that the conference taking place here in Denver could make a positive difference.

3)   Several superintendents shared that federal “edujobs” money designed to save educators’ jobs in the classroom has been co-opted by state legislators and used to supplant their obligations to school districts across multiple states, “we haven’t seen one dime of it in any district in La.” (La, SD, Pa, Fl  were a few states represented by superintendents who spoke up on this topic, but many hands were raised when the question was posed to all – did this happen to you?) The Secretary said he wanted names.  I’d like to know what he can do about it when he gets them.  As one superintendent asked after our session, “Can he please put state legislatures in time-out for it?”

4)   Secretary Duncan heard loud and clear that the long arm of the USDOE and its impact on high stakes testing at the local level must stop in this next ESEA reauthorization.  No new news was shared here by superintendents about ongoing frustrations and concerns about the impact for special education and LEP/ELL students’ testing – just the question from the audience to the Secretary “What are you going to do about this?” The Secretary referred to the two consortia of states that are working on national alternative, growth model assessments that could take the place of state tests. These may offer relief from the stock selected response tests of the 20th century and the one-size-fits-all and pass-the-test expectations for individual learners.  The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is one of the two.

5)   One administrator asked why the USDOE wants students’ grades in all subjects as requisite to its data collection in states that took ARRA funds. The Secretary wasn’t sure but plans to check on that.

6)   The Secretary responded to a question about his comment when speaking in plenary session to the Teach for America 20 Summit participants recently that he’s “visited 100’s of classrooms across the country and TFA teachers are the best he’ seen.” He noted to the AASA superintendents that America has many, many great teachers who deserve thanks for their work, too, and that TFA teachers are a very tiny percentage of teachers in America.

7)   Secretary Duncan also spoke to increased education funding in President Obama’s budget proposal. He noted early childhood education as a focus along with technology, competitive funding (60% of DOE funds now competitive) for continued RtTT, teacher performance and I3 grants, and ESEA formula-based funding.  He stated that the President needs our support to ensure that adequate and continued funding for public education remains a high priority for the nation’s children and those who serve them.

I was personally disappointed that Secretary Duncan never specifically mentioned the National Educational Technology Plan that, in my humble opinion, is the USDOE’s best work to define and describe what contemporary and future learning must become to advance learners in every school and school district in America. He did emphasize educational technology as a critical investment for our nation.

And, I would have loved a “one on one” street game discussion on learning technologies between the Secretary and Alan November with two other AASA session speakers Diane Ravitch and Michael Fullan able to call “next” on topics of their choice.

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