Arne Duncan's Open Letter Makes Teachers Furious

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hoped to gain the goodwill of the nation’s educators with an “Open Letter” to teachers. But as Diane Ravitch explains, many reacted with fury.

Nick Wass / AP Photo for State Farm

The first week in May was Teacher Appreciation Week. On May 2, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released an “open letter” to America’s teachers, thanking them for their service and saying, in essence, “I hear you, I respect you, I understand your problems, I want to work with you.” It should have been about as controversial as the president’s annual Thanksgiving message, but in this case the letter backfired. Teachers reacted to the letter with outrage, as if it were addressed to the turkey community on Thanksgiving Day.

No one should be surprised. Behind the teachers’ rage and skepticism is the fact that Duncan has time and again said that “bad” teachers cause low test scores, refusing to recognize (as he did, belatedly, in his letter) that low test scores are primarily caused by poverty and lack of family support. Teachers remember that he cheered when the entire staff of Central Falls High School was fired (albeit temporarily). They recall that he was one of the few to applaud when the Los Angeles Times published teacher effectiveness ratings online, based on flawed test score data. They know that his Race to the Top program has encouraged state legislatures to pass laws mandating that schools evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores, even though testing experts say that such ratings are unreliable and inaccurate. He has been notably silent as legislatures have stripped teachers of seniority, tenure, and collective bargaining rights.

The expressions of outrage began with dozens of comments posted in response to Duncan’s letter on the website of Education Week, the journal where the letter first appeared. The overwhelming majority reproached him for insincerity and hypocrisy.

Many teachers hold Duncan’s policies accountable for the public disrespect now directed at teachers in the media. They’ve learned to respond to what he does, not what he says.

The outpouring of anti-Duncan sentiment by teachers then inspired a reporter for Huffington Post to write about teachers’ skepticism. More than 300 comments followed the Huffington article, almost all came from teachers critical of Duncan. Many teachers posted comments on the U.S. Department of Education’s own website, and few supported Duncan. Many comments were not just skeptical, but scornful.

Then the bloggers began to weigh in. Blogger Sabrina Shupe Stevens of Denver wrote a searing critique of Duncan’s letter, which foreshadowed much of what was to come. Actions speak louder than words, she wrote. If he really appreciates teachers, why did he celebrate the mass firing of teachers in Central Falls, Rhode Island, last year? Why does he listen more to non-educators than to experienced professional educators? Why does he support programs to lower entry standards into the profession? Why has he pushed flawed methods of evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores? Why has he made high-stakes testing more important than ever? All of these actions, she wrote, are “profoundly disrespectful to teachers.”

Oakland teacher Anthony Cody, a National Board certified science teacher, asked: How could Duncan expect better outcomes for students when school budgets across the nation were being devastated by deep cuts? How could Duncan insist that we need a higher-quality teaching force even as his own Department of Education “continues to fund programs that place poorly trained interns in urban classrooms”? How could Duncan complain about the pressure to boost test scores, when his own department supports the use of test scores to fire teachers and close schools? How could Duncan say that he wants more complex ways to evaluate teachers, when he applauded the publication of teacher effectiveness ratings by the Los Angeles Times based solely on bubble-test data?

Cody, who writes a regular blog at Education Week called “Living in Dialogue,” is widely recognized among teachers as a national leader, although he has no position in either of the nation’s teachers’ unions. Cody and prominent colleagues from across the nation are organizing a march on Washington on July 30 to express their profound disgust with the current attacks on teachers, the teaching profession, public education, and the misuse of test scores to fire educators and close schools that need help.

Ken Bernstein, a highly honored teacher in Maryland, regularly blogs on the Daily Kos, where he asked Duncan how he could echo the genuine concerns of teachers without acknowledging that his own policies devalue the work that teachers do. Bernstein also noted the disparity between Duncan’s words and his deeds. In his letter, Duncan stated that teachers should not be blamed for “broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded school systems,” but Bernstein pointed out that nothing in the Obama administration’s policies address those critical issues. “Teachers are frustrated and angry,” he wrote. He called on Duncan to work with experienced educators, to take advantage of their knowledge and experience, and to truly listen to them.

Next, Duncan’s press secretary reacted to the outpouring of criticism by asserting that the negative response did not represent “how the broader teaching community feels about it.” That opened a new opportunity for bloggers to excoriate both Duncan and his staff. The appeal to the “ silent majority,” wrote a social studies teacher, reminded him of Richard Nixon’s claim that a “silent majority” supported his policies in Vietnam. An urban teacher complained bitterly that Duncan had failed to stand up for teachers when their job security was under attack; that he continued to support wholesale firing of entire school staffs based on test scores; that he discounted the importance of experience in the classroom; that he vocally supports programs to place inexperienced teachers in the nation’s schools; and that he has little standing to speak about teaching because he was never a teacher.

Many teachers hold Duncan’s policies accountable for the public disrespect now directed at teachers in the media. Consequently they can’t find it in their hearts to trust Arne Duncan when he thanks them for their service. They’ve learned to respond to what he does, not what he says.

Diane Ravitch is the author, most recently, of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic).