Matt Damon, Arne Duncan and the Divisive Teacher-Quality Debate

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The Nation

Matt Damon, Arne Duncan and the Divisive Teacher-Quality Debate

Last weekend, two very different speeches on the future of the teaching profession made news.  

The first was from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who appeared Friday before the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, the organization that runs the elite National Board certification process for teachers. The United States must follow the example of the nations that out-perform us educationally, Duncan said, and begin to recruit most of our public school teachers from the top thirds of their college classes. To do this, he argued, we will need to raise average starting salaries from $30,00 to $60,000 and average salary caps from $70,000 to $150,000.

Is that really possible in a climate of federal, state and local budget cuts? We can find the money, Duncan said, by utilizing technology to “reorganize” schools (read: raise class sizes and shrink the teacher corps); instituting teacher merit pay based in part on student test score data; loosening teacher job security protections; and cutting teacher benefit and pension packages and redirecting some of the funds toward salaries.

Duncan knows such proposals remain controversial among teachers. “I respectfully urge everyone to take a deep breath, hold their fire, and see this as an opportunity to transform the entire profession,” he said, “not as a threat or as an investment we don't need.”

The second speech was from the actor Matt Damon, a public school graduate and son of a teacher who made news in March when he slammed the Obama administration’s teacher evaluation and pay proposals in a CNN interview. Speaking at the Save Our Schools protest march Saturday near the White House, Damon brought some in the crowd to tears as he painted a more holistic, even romantic portrait of the public school teacher’s role.

“I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test,” Damon said. “If their very survival as teachers was based [not] on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning, but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths, and helping us realize our talents. I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.

“This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel.”

After the speech, Damon and his mom did a short interview with a libertarian Reason.tv reporter. After criticizing “MBA-style thinking” in education policy and defending teacher tenure, Damon angrily contested the cameraman’s assertion that 10 percent of the nation’s 3.2 million teachers are bad at their jobs. “Maybe you’re a shitty cameraman,” Damon countered.

The video went viral.

The Obama administration’s education policies have always been controversial among more traditional education liberals, who are disappointed to see a Democratic president pursue an agenda of standardization and weakened union protections. But the always-contentious school reform debate has gotten even nastier over the past several months, with the role of multiple-choice tests emerging as the flashpoint.

Adult test-tampering scandals in Atlanta; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; Pennsylvania; and elsewhere around the country have focused new scrutiny on efforts to tie teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores. Polls of teachers’ opinions on performance-based pay schemes are divided; according to Education Next, 72 percent of teachers oppose such policies, while the National Center for Education Information finds 59 percent support them. What’s clear is that there is no teacher consensus in favor of the testing regimen created by No Child Left Behind, and that teachers don’t broadly support the Obama administration’s attempt to expand high-stakes assessments to subjects other than math and reading. Education Next found that 60 percent of teachers oppose tying tenure decisions to test scores. The NCEI poll reported that 44 percent of teachers are dissatisfied with student achievement testing in general.

Teachers (and parents, and Matt Damon) are right to be skeptical of the administration’s testing push. While “standards-based-assessment” doesn’t have to mean that students are sitting for dozens of new bubble tests—there are other ways to “test,” including portfolio-based systems, performance tasks and presentations—the fact of the matter is that some states and school districts will respond to the incentives of Obama’s Race to the Top program in ways that over-rationalize learning.

Case in point: While reporting from Colorado this past winter, I observed a school district, Harrison District 2 in Colorado Springs, that gives pencil-and-paper exams in every subject at every grade level. The second grade physical education exam asked, “Draw a picture of how your hands look while they are catching a ball that is thrown above your head,” and, “What are two rules students can follow so they do not run into others when running around in physical education class?”

The results of this exam, which tested reading, writing and drawing far more than physical fitness, impacted the gym teacher’s evaluation score and pay.

Arne Duncan is aware that there is a difference between sophisticated student assessment and bad student assessment. That’s why the Department of Education should provide states and districts with much more specific guidelines about best practices in assessment, particularly in non-traditional subjects such as art, music and physical education. In fact, this would be a great subject for one of the department’s national conferences, something akin to the event the DOE hosted in Denver in February on union-district partnerships.

Absent that kind of guidance, the protests of the Matt Damons of the world will only grow louder, and the Obama administration will lose crucial public support for its teacher-quality agenda.

Dana Goldstein

Dana Goldstein is a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation. Her writing on education, women's issues, public health, and American politics has appeared in The Daily BeastThe American Prospect, The Nation, the Washington Post, The New Republic, Slate and BusinessWeek. You can follow her work at www.danagoldstein.net.

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