Kate Childs Graham
WASHINGTON—Statement from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s speech regarding the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
"As I've said before, any law that doesn't address our biggest challenges—funding inequity, segregation, the effects of poverty—will fail to make the sweeping transformation our kids and our schools need. Today, it was promising to hear Secretary Duncan make a call for equity, stressing, as we did through the Equity and Excellence Commission, the importance of early childhood education and engaging curriculum. It was encouraging to hear him laud the hard work of educators, who have had to overcome polarization and deep cuts after a harsh recession. And it was heartening to hear him acknowledge the progress our schools have made. However, the robust progress we saw in the first 40 years after the passage of ESEA has slowed over the last 10 years.
“On testing, we are glad the secretary has acknowledged that ‘there are too many tests that take up too much time’ and that ‘we need to take action to support a better balance.’ However, current federal educational policy—No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and waivers—has enshrined a focus on testing, not learning, especially high-stakes testing and the consequences and sanctions that flow from it. That's wrong, and that’s why there is a clarion call for change. The waiver strategy and Race to the Top exacerbated the test-fixation that was put in place with NCLB, allowing sanctions and consequences to eclipse all else. From his words today, it seems the secretary may want to justify and enshrine that status quo and that's worrisome.
“Yes, we need to get parents, educators and communities the information they need. And all of us must be accountable and responsible for helping all children succeed. That's why we have suggested some new interventions, like community schools and wraparound services; project-based learning; service internships; and individual plans for over-age students, under-credited students and those who are not reading at grade level by third grade.
“If one test per year can cause an entire school to be shuttered or all the teachers fired, something is wrong with the way that test is being used. Even in the District of Columbia, where the secretary spoke from today, the school district has pulled back from the consequential nature of these tests.
"At the end of the day, the most important part of the debate shouldn't happen in big speeches. It should happen in real conversations with parents, students and teachers, who are closest to the classroom. Communities understand the huge positive effect ESEA had for impoverished and at-risk communities 50 years ago. Those communities are saying loudly and clearly that they want more supports for students and schools, and data used to inform and improve, not sanction. It's my hope that, in the coming weeks, leaders in Congress and the administration will listen to these voices and shape a law that reflects the needs of all our kids."
Postscript: An advanced copy of Secretary Duncan’s remarks today included a quote from Albert Shanker, former president of the AFT, on accountability. To this, Weingarten responded, “If the secretary wants to invoke Shanker on accountability, then invoke him on his proposals for grade-span over annual testing. Shanker once called for ‘an immediate end to standardized tests as they are now,’ instead favoring testing over five-year intervals.”
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