Give school reformer direct intelligence

Secretary of Education wants to hear from you, so talk to him

Dr. Ann Schulte is an associate professor of education at Chico State University.

During the next few months, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is coming to towns across the country on a “Listening and Learning Tour.” He is hoping to hear from citizens about what they think should be done to improve education. He has said that we are currently in a window of opportunity that we have not seen in a long time and are not likely to see again.

During the tour, Duncan is asking for ideas that are outside the box while still being pragmatic. He has been a strong supporter of both charter schools and merit pay.

One of the primary qualities that allow charters to be successful is the level of autonomy and freedom from conventional bureaucracy. Although Duncan points to schools in his former Chicago district as examples of how charters can better serve underperforming students, often charters end up enrolling higher-performing students. Instead of being exemplars of how to help public schools better serve all children, they are often seen as a way out of public schools.

If autonomy is a distinguishing feature of an excellent charter, then how can we provide that kind of opportunity to all public schools? Instead of spending the time and energy creating charters, why not invest those resources in giving the public schools the ability to make changes that are meaningful and enduring for the institution—changes that empower those talented teachers already in public schools?

When touting merit pay, Duncan says he knows that people don’t go into teaching for the money, but we must award excellence. If we are going to think outside of the box, perhaps we can think about new ways of defining excellence and authentic ways of rewarding it. In addition to standardized test scores, might we reward schools where students love to learn?

I believe that what many teachers might appreciate more than a few extra dollars is a little more freedom to make learning meaningful and more respect for their professional abilities to do so. Yes, teachers must be accountable for making sure students learn to high standards, but accountability systems that invite teachers to be a part of the process and provide ongoing professional development are more likely to succeed for both teachers and students.

It will be difficult to restore hope in really competent teachers who are demoralized and weary, but actually having a national leader listen to their experiences and their professional expertise will be a step in the right direction. Before this window of opportunity slams shut, invite Duncan to meet your teachers. E-mail him at <script type="text/javascript" language="javascript">{ document.write(String.fromCharCode(60,97,32,104,114,101,102,61,34,109,97,105,108,116,111,58,97,114,110,101,46,100,117,110,99,97,110,64,101,100,46,103,111,118,34,62,97,114,110,101,46,100,117,110,99,97,110,64,101,100,46,103,111,118,60,47,97,62)) } </script>.