These last weeks have seen the Washington establishment prove three times that they are clueless about what is going on in American classrooms.
The U.S. Department of Education, while having approved the McPherson USD using an alternative to NCLB testing, denied the Kansas Department of Education request for a state waiver on May 13. Similar to most states, Kansas faces being labeled a failure under NCLB as the insane 100%-proficient-by-2014 deadline approaches.
Secondly, in honor of Teacher Awareness Week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released an "Open Letter" to teachers on May 2. Teachers responded with nearly unanimous rage and disbelief, indicting that teachers in the trenches have no confidence left in the country’s education leader. Oblivious to the detailed criticism, the education press secretary brushed off the teachers’ responses, alluding that a silent majority of teachers are really supportive of Duncan’s position.
But the USDE "just doesn’t get it." If the Washington wonks actually went into classrooms and talked with teachers, they would find a high level of outrage at the direct results of recent federal actions. Thanks to a federal philosophy of blaming teachers, many states have taken away teachers professional decision-making, seniority, tenure, and collective bargaining. They have narrowed the curriculum to a few tested subjects. That narrow set of test scores is used to evaluate teachers and promote pay-for-scores. Teachers labeled Duncan’s call for more highly trained teachers (at the same time his department endorsed alternative programs with lower entrance standards) "pure hypocrisy."
While Duncan admitted that "broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded school systems" were beyond teachers’ control, his Blueprint for Reform enforces even more stringent penalties against schools with such children. While the attacks on teachers, the teaching profession, and public education, began under No Child Left Behind, they have intensified under Duncan’s watch. Despite working under duress, teachers generally remain quiet to keep their jobs. The overwhelming "profound disgust" expressed in response to Duncan’s open letter shows how clueless the feds are about teachers in the trenches.
Finally, a manifesto was just released (signed by a variety of individuals but including a large number of conservatives) that argues against one uniform national curriculum and test. The original report "A Call for Common Content" was issued by the Albert Shanker Institute in March. This counter-manifesto, "A Critical Response to the Shanker Institute Manifesto and the U.S. Department of Education’s Initiative to Develop a National Curriculum and National Assessments Based on National Standards" is being represented by media as a conservative battle of state-rightists against education reformers advocating for poor children in states that don’t care. In spite of the obvious fact that it was conservative President George W. Bush who first brought federalized education standards to Washington as No Child Left Behind, the Washington folks are framing this as a partisan debate. That would label nearly every school teacher as a conservative.
I pointed out how a uniform curriculum and test ends creativity in a recent Education Week blog. One insider contended it was a "red herring," that "there are protocols in every profession," and that doctors maintain their creativity.
But if current education criteria were applied to medicine: 1) hospitals would be closed if any patients died in 2014, 2) doctors would be fired or their salaries cut if patient outcomes did not climb each year and there would be one narrow medical measurement to determine this, 3) anyone could enter medicine without medical school as long as they passed some tests, and 4) all of the medical profession would be "held accountable"—that is "blamed—for any and all medical problems in the population.