May 25, 2011

Letter to Arne Duncan

 A letter from David Reber, who teaches high school biology in Lawrence KS

Mr. Duncan,

I read your Teacher Appreciation Week letter to teachers, and had at first decided not to respond. Upon further thought, I realized I do have a few things to say.

I'll begin with a small sample of relevant adjectives just to get them out of the way: condescending, arrogant, insulting, misleading, patronizing, egotistic, supercilious, haughty, insolent, peremptory, cavalier, imperious, conceited, contemptuous, pompous, audacious, brazen, insincere, superficial, contrived, garish, hollow, pedantic, shallow, swindling, boorish, predictable, duplicitous, pitchy, obtuse, banal, scheming, hackneyed, and quotidian. Again, it's just a small sample; but since your attention to teacher input is minimal, I wanted to put a lot into the first paragraph.

Your lead sentence, "I have worked in education for much of my life", immediately establishes your tone of condescension; for your 20-year "education" career lacks even one day as a classroom teacher. You, Mr. Duncan, are the poster-child for the prevailing attitude in corporate-style education reform: that the number one prerequisite for educational expertise is never having been a teacher.

Your stated goal is that teachers be "...treated with the dignity we award to other professionals n society."


How many other professionals are the last ones consulted about their own profession; and are then summarily ignored when policy decisions are made? How many other professionals are so distrusted that sweeping federal legislation is passed to "force" them to do their jobs? And what dignities did you award teachers when you publicly praised the mass firing of teachers in Rhode Island?

You acknowledge teacher's concerns about No Child Left Behind, yet you continue touting the same old rhetoric: "In today’s economy, there is no acceptable dropout rate, and we rightly expect all children -- English-language learners, students with disabilities, and children of poverty -- to learn and succeed."

What other professions are held to impossible standards of perfection? Do we demand that police officers eliminate all crime, or that doctors cure all patients? Of course we don't.

There are no parallel claims of "in today's society, there is no acceptable crime rate", or "we rightly expect all patients -- those with end-stage cancers, heart failure, and multiple gunshot wounds -- to thrive into old age." When it comes to other professions, respect and common sense prevail.

Your condescension continues with "developing better assessments so [teachers] will have useful information to guide instruction..." Excuse me, but I am a skilled, experienced, and licensed professional. I don't need an outsourced standardized test -- marketed by people who haven't set foot in my school -- to tell me how my students are doing.

I know how my students are doing because I work directly with them. I learn their strengths and weaknesses through first-hand experience, and I know how to tailor instruction to meet each student's needs. To suggest otherwise insults both me and my profession.

You want to "...restore the status of the teaching profession..." Mr. Duncan, you built your career defiling the teaching profession. Your signature effort, Race to the Top, is the largest de-professionalizing, demoralizing, sweeter-carrot-and-sharper-stick public education policy in U.S. history. You literally bribed cash-starved states to enshrine in statute the very reforms teachers have spoken against.

You imply that teachers are the bottom-feeders among academics. You want more of "America's top college students" to enter the profession. If by "top college students" you mean those with high GPA's from prestigious, pricey schools then the answer is simple: a five-fold increase in teaching salaries.

You see, Mr. Duncan, those "top" college students come largely from our nation's wealthiest families. They simply will not spend a fortune on an elite college education to pursue a 500% drop in socioeconomic status relative to their parents.

You assume that "top" college students automatically make better teachers. How, exactly, will a 21-year-old, silver-spoon-fed ivy-league graduate establish rapport with inner-city kids? You think they’d be better at it than an experienced teacher from a working-class family, with their own rough edges or checkered past, who can actually relate to those kids? Your ignorance of human nature is astounding.

As to your concluding sentence, "I hear you, I value you, and I respect you"; no, you don't, and you don't, and you don't. In fact, I don't believe you even wrote this letter for teachers.

I think you sense a shift in public opinion. Parents are starting to see through the fa├žade; and recognize the privatization and for-profit education reform movement for what it is. And they've begun to organize --Parents Across America, is one example.

. . . No doubt some will dismiss what I've said as paranoid delusion. What they call paranoia I call paying attention. Mr. Duncan, teachers hear what you say. We also watch what you do, and we are paying attention.

Working with kids every day, our baloney-detectors are in fine form. We've heard the double-speak before; and we don't believe the dog ate your homework. Coming from children, double-speak is expected and it provides important teachable moments. Coming from adults, it's just sad.

Despite our best efforts, some folks never outgrow their disingenuous, manipulative, self- serving approach to life. Of that, Mr. Duncan, you are a shining example.


dave said...

Both can't be right but both are assuredly wrong. One refuses to see that there is a problem. The other is unable to see what the problem is. Both are trying to make a system work that will never work in the field, only in a hothouse where little depends on it. There have been centuries of controlled experimentation, and things have been found that work, until those ideas are applied to the whole system. Then they are certain to fail, and they always do.

Anonymous said...

Dave that comment is so brilliantly generic it could apply to nearly any difference of opinion.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I always thought it was lame that they beat on teachers for the fact that students don't always succeed.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, that's the goal, dontchya know? There must be two sides to every story .. even when one is totally ridiculous.

Weldon said...

Dave, for all the talk of "crisis" nobody has yet to produce any data outlining what this "crisis" is. Graduation rates are increasing, schools are safer than ever before, standardized test scores in every quintile are up, writing proficiency is way way WAY up...

What *exactly* is the "problem" with education that requires so much systemic change to "fix"?

Anonymous said...

Excellent letter. Thanks, from a public school special educator.

dave said...

'What *exactly* is the "problem" with education that requires so much systemic change to "fix"?'

The problem is that classroom education is hideously expensive, unethical because teachers are the ones who give the grades, and increasingly ineffective every year after first grade. After 12 years of schooling, something like 2 pct minimum should have doctorates, maybe 10 pct master's, and 33 pct bachelor's degrees or better equivalents, all with better standards than now. Our medieval school systems can never aspire to adequacy, not to mention excellence. In our medieval schools, most of the time, the school and its employees are the enemies of most of the students. This is not merely a matter of perception, it is unfortunate reality.

Anonymous said...

That is the best letter I've read ever. Really! It is.

How dare they declare war on teachers in this country. The family unit is broken. Why not start there and see how much more the kids improve when they have no more hunger and all of the sleep they need.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love this letter. And that doctor/police officer analogy was absolutely brilliant. I also believe there is an enormous problem with the school system, but not nearly because of the teachers - rather, because of their inherent factory-like structure. This video lays it out incredibly well:

And this from a more philosophical perspective:

Anonymous said...


Either you are being paid to write your dribble from a wrong wing "think tank" or you are an idiot.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Mr. Reber. Excellent letter. This whole reform effort is so misdirected. This adminstration and Congress should be doing something about the horrendous amount of poverty in this country. That is clearly the problem. Look at PISA scores. We have the best education system in the world, if you look at schools with under 10% poverty. More than 20% of the children in this country live in poverty. How can any politician sleep with those numbers?

Anonymous said...

People hem and haw about this issue, but the numbers don't lie: $7,000 per public school student annually vs. $40,000 per prisoner annually spent.


Joan D said...

Brilliant letter! Lays it all out and then some. I will forward to all my colleagues who continue to push the rock uphill everyday.

A Retired (37 years)
LA Inner City Teacher

Anonymous said...

Mr. Reber, your letter is a masterpiece. I salute you. Your letter so eloquently gives voice to what we in education know to be true. Thank you so much! You have inspired me. I am now going to write a few letters myself!

A retired teacher (35 years)

Anonymous said...

Dave is a hack. Fuck you Dave, you know nothing about school and you probably get paid to troll pages like this.

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