Gee, thanks, Arne!

May 4, 2011

After making a career out of scapegoating teachers, Education Secretary Arne Duncan published an open letter May 2 that praises their hard work. "I consider teaching an honorable and important profession, and it is my goal to see that you are treated with the dignity we award to other professionals in society," Duncan wrote.

This from a man who, as boss of Chicago Public Schools, routinely trashed this "honorable and important profession," while closing down schools, laying off teachers and opening nonunion charter schools. As part of the Obama administration, Duncan has taken his program nationwide with the Race to the Top program, which dangled $4.3 billion in front of cash-strapped states if they passed legislation that tied teacher evaluation to test scores and opened the way for more charter schools.

Brian Chidester, a high school teacher in Rhode Island, offers his own "appreciation" of Duncan's contributions to public education.

Dear Secretary Duncan,

I want to thank you for your letter of appreciation, published in this week's edition of Education Week. You are absolutely right that the teaching profession has been devalued.

I mean, it's Teacher Appreciation Week, and I've only been appreciated by you, and by my administration. They gave all of us a plastic pen with a ballpoint tip on one end and a pink highlighter on the other. It totally makes up for the massive pay cut they expect us to take in the upcoming contract. Oh, and our principal, who came on the announcements to appreciate us. That's usually how he appreciates us--by staying in his office, at least when he's in the building. We appreciate him, too.

Arne--can I call you that?--I really appreciate your concern for holding us accountable as teachers. I mean, you recognize, apparently, that the accountability craze has to be moderated, and that we should have some choice over our own poison. That must have been the thinking behind the Race to the Top program. I mean, what a great program! Four point three billion dollars! That's almost three-tenths of one percent of what the banks got! And all that money goes to develop new evaluation systems, new funding formulas, new charter schools, new consultants and, most exciting of all, new data systems! Woo hoo!

Arne Duncan on a visit to a school in Berkeley, Calif.
Arne Duncan on a visit to a school in Berkeley, Calif.

Here in Rhode Island, we really appreciate Race to the Top. Your program forced our little state to finally put in place a fair funding formula. Urban districts like Providence and Pawtucket got a little boost, because it was long overdue. Of course, they're still in massive financial crisis, but all of the almost 2,000 fired Providence teachers still feel appreciated--even when they found their jobs were being posted on Craigslist.

Oh, and suburban regionalized districts like Bristol-Warren, where I teach, had to accept that we were overfunded for years and really should learn to do with less--up to 50 percent less from the state, in our case.

Central Falls--everyone in education knows about Central Falls!--that troubled district magically developed a tax base and thus is getting a $6 million cut in state funds. Their teachers feel really appreciated, let me tell you, especially after all the high school teachers were fired last year--and I think I remember you cheering on their firing. It's a form of appreciation, right? A bunch more of them were fired again this year--mostly the ones who spoke out critically against the reforms you thought would turn their school around.

And Barrington, the wealthiest district in the state, got a big boost--in the range of almost 200 percent. Of course, that didn't stop the Barrington town manager from calling on the school district to cancel the raises negotiated in the teacher contract. Yes, we're all feeling mighty appreciated.

And the evaluation system you have sparked! What a wonder! Our dear state education commissioner, Cruella de Vil...I mean, Deb Gist, has worked tirelessly on this system. So tirelessly, in fact, that the system--which she at one point claimed had been tested and proved even before it was rolled out--changes every few weeks. We're told that they're only trying to get rid of the bottom 2-5 percent of teachers, though they really don't know. They finally figured out how to make "student achievement data" the "primary factor" in our evaluations, by putting it into a matrix instead of a formula. (I think they're hoping we'll all opt for the blue pill, though.)

It should only take our administrators a little over half of their time in a school year to evaluate us based on this new system, which will then be used to evaluate them. Oh, the attention we're getting! We really feel appreciated! This is the way to revalue the teaching profession! Also, the evaluation system is presented with nifty PowerPoint graphics that really make us all feel like stars!

Arne--does that rhyme with "darn," or with the purple dinosaur?--I really appreciate the time and thought you put into appreciating us. Some parts of your letter even sound like you've started to read that new book by Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Great book, isn't it? One thing, though--you might want to read the whole thing, and get to the conclusions--the chapter is titled, "Lessons Learned." It reads like a litany of all the things you're doing, prefaced each time with the words, "Our schools will not improve if..." You know, if you're bogged down reading about the failures of your friends in the Billionaire Boys' Club, just skip to that last chapter.

Thank you again for your appreciation!

Brian Chidester
World Languages Teacher, Mount Hope High School, Bristol, R.I.

First published at Rhode Island Red Teacher.

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