I met with Arne Duncan today

…but let me start at the beginning of my day, actually, I will begin with the events of the night before when I was at the AFT, American Federation of Teachers, convention. This will not be a short story so get comfortable.

I was invited to meet with the Chicago delegation that was participating at the AFT Convention and had the great pleasure of meeting Michael Brunson who is now the new Recording Officer for the Chicago Teachers’ Union and Karen Lewis, the new president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union. See: CORE Wins Leadership of Chicago Teachers’ Union and Karen Lewis’ Acceptance Speech

They were fresh from their victory in Chicago where they took over the union leadership and are hard at work at taking back their schools after several years of Arne Duncan and charter schools.

Listening to Ms. Thomas speak in person, I could well understand how she won the leadership in Chicago. Her passion, warmth and intelligence come through in everything that she says. She is a great speaker and an impassioned educator.

Everyone there was warm and friendly and I enjoyed meeting new people and sharing our stories.

During the course of the evening, I heard that something was to happen at Aviation High School where Arne Duncan was to be speaking the following day.

Someone said that I should bring my camera and record the events. See, this is when I really start feeling like a blogger. I thought that sounded interesting and intriguing so I decided to go the next day.

As fate would have it, my internet went down just as I was getting directions to the high school. I remembered that there would be a bus leaving the convention center to head to Aviation High School so I caught the next bus downtown and was fortunate enough to be able to catch a ride on the convention bus.

Aviation High School, by the way, is a small school with an all-district draw. It is located in Des Moines, Washington which is about a 30 minute ride from downtown Seattle. The focus of this school is in the area of science and technology. It has been open for three years and it is my understanding that they will be moving into a new building shortly.

On board the bus I saw people who I knew and began to make new friends as well.  There was a lot of positive energy and camaraderie during the ride. People were laughing, chanting and sharing stories. I was having a great time. People were making signs and I made one too. Mine said “parents FOR teachers”.

I felt like I was on the Magic School Bus. It was a gregarious and upbeat group and just about every seat was taken.

During the ride someone announced that about 50 people protested Race to the Top in front of the Wild Ginger where Arne Duncan was having lunch with a select few.

When we arrived at Aviation High School, we pulled up and the police officers said that we could not be on the school grounds so we got off at the exit to the school and headed to the sidewalk where we waved signs and chanted. The sun was out, it was a beautiful day and everything was going well.

About 45 minutes into our sign waving and cars honking, three well-dressed individuals appeared and asked who our “leader” was.  One person came forward and they spoke for a while.

The offer had been made to have an opportunity to speak to Senator Murray’s staff after the event to let them know what our concerns were. They also said that we could come in an listen to Duncan but we had to leave our signs outside. That sounded reasonable. I wasn’t there to disrupt the proceedings, none of us were.

I thought, OK. It’s not the Senator herself but it wouldn’t hurt to talk with her staff so I saw this as an opportunity to share our views. After about an hour of sign waving and chanting, all of the guests had arrived so some of us opted to stay and hear Arne Duncan while the majority of people needed to return to the convention.

When we got to the table to sign in where there was a plethora of LEV sticker buttons, some of Murray’s people said that the event was for people who lived in Washington so the AFT members from other states were not invited.

I said “I live in Seattle, I’m a parent and I vote” and I walked on in. The rest of the contingent soon followed.

We got inside and there were seats in the back rows that they indicated we were to sit in. That was fine with me. At this point I had my reporter’s hat on, my notepad, (still no laptop) and extra pens to record so I was ready to go.

Looking around I saw two familiar faces, Melissa Westbrook and Stephanie Jones  with CPPS, but that was it. I suppose because it was not in Seattle there would not be too many Seattleites in the crowd. Total count not including press and the entourage of Murray and Duncan was about 140 people at most sitting in the gym.

Because it was a gym and the mic didn’t work well (do they ever at any school?) and there were huge fans in the back of the gym that made a lot of noise, it was hard to catch the introductions or much of what any of them said but I will share what I heard and saw.

The sound bites and rhetoric would start flowing from Murray and Duncan so I will limit repeating  those remarks. You’ve heard them before and you will hear them again. What was most interesting is what the other guests had to say.

By the way, there were to be questions from the audience, but I’ll get to that later.

So Murray starts out with “These are challenging times for all of us” I told you there would be a lot of that.  I have no qualms with Senator Murray but it’s just amazing to see how much one can say and yet not say as a politician.

She begins to introduce Aviation High School as a school where private and philanthropic organizations have come together with public education to develop this school where technical skills are developed and that she wanted Duncan to see what was being done in the state of Washington.

Arne responded with a few platitudes. He comes across as a good spokesperson, kind of slick and almost like a jock.

The panel was introduced and I only got maybe 50% of what they were saying. There was the principal and “CEO” of the school, just like a charter school, a CEO of some Seattle based business, a student of AHS, a recent graduate of AHS and a teacher from AHS who used to work at Microsoft. There was another person on the panel but I didn’t understand who he was.

What I did catch was the following.

The moderator asked the AHS student what he liked best about the high school. The student said that he liked having project based curriculum where he could create, project manage and present to professionals what he had designed. (Now let me say right here that this is the exact opposite of what Arne Duncan’s reform has done. His RTTT directives are about a standardized curriculum and testing based on a narrow scope of information.)

The recent graduate of AHS answered the question by saying that when she began her internship upon graduation she felt confident about what she was asked to do. She said it was “no big deal, I’ve done this before”. She felt that AHS had prepared her well for her first job.

Again, I must describe the parallel between AHS and Nova, our alternative high school in Seattle. The students are prepared for life in general at Nova not only because of the project-based learning but also because of the decision-making process that happens at Nova. The Nova students have the responsibility of organizing and developing with staff what happens in the school, from deciding on and creating their own events to interviewing potential staff and making decisions along with the faculty on who would be the right fit for the school and the culture. The students also take complete responsibility for their course choices working alongside a core coordinator. By the time these students graduate, they are ready to take on life as responsible citizens.

The difference being that Nova has been around 13 years longer than AHS.Both are successful and neither is a charter school. One receives business backing and the other struggles with the same financial picture that all of the other high schools have in Seattle.

The next question from the moderator was why is AHS successful and does it have to do with the meshing of the private sector (a term that was bandied about many times) and public backing.

The principal said that they see it as a prototype, (as Nova was to our new STEM school in Seattle. The principal of STEM conferred with Nova’s principal, Mark Perry, on Nova’s successful model of project based learning.)

Let me back track a little here so that you understand why I keep bringing up Nova. Our school as well as other alternative schools in Seattle, have been under siege since the reign of our Broad Board of Director’s Superintendent, Dr. Goodloe-Johnson. We have had our schools closed, moved and marginalized and now we dealing with curriculum alignment which has no bearing on project based classes and would destroy the successful curriculum that has been developed over the years in our alternative schools. Hence,the parallels.

The question was then asked of the “private sector employer” regarding what makes AHS successful and he said that the graduates are able to think critically and solve problems (the antithesis of RTTT with narrowed scope of focus on subjects by way of curriculum alignment, high stakes testing and merit pay).

Then there was a question posed by the moderator about the “culture” of AHS.

The principal stated that there is no basketball or football at AHS, just like Nova, because they wanted to use their resources elsewhere. At Nova, if the students want to have a sport within the school, it is their responsibility to develop the program. Nova has roller derby, Ultimate Frisbee and Parcore.

Then the principal said that their school was not about high school proficiency exams or the WASL, it is about what students learn and experience every day. Excellent!

The moderator then asked a question about “failure”. (Tell me this whole thing wasn’t scripted).

The AHS student said that it is how they learn. He said that “it’s the best way to learn”.

The recent grad said that they still continue to fail but at the school that they attend now, they don’t give “F’s” so it’s OK to try something outside of their comfort zone. (Just like Nova, you receive credit but not a grade).

I kept thinking about how this would fit into Arne’s framework of RTTT education reform. My answer in two words is, it doesn’t.

Then Arne had his opportunity to speak. This is what I wrote down. “Facing huge challenges”. “I’m optimistic”. “Celebrate diversity”. “Need to have 10 more, 100 more of these (schools) around the country”. We do, Arne.

Then there was applause.

Wow, one sound bite right after another. I wrote it the way that I heard it.

Then there was a question to Patty Murray of how “this project based approach” can be implemented on a Federal level.

She never answered that question but said something else that I couldn’t catch.

Then Arne jumped in again, more rhetoric and more applause.

At about this time, someone whispered to me that if we didn’t ask any questions during the Q and A period, we would be able to meet with Murray’s staff, otherwise the deal was off. I laughed out loud and said “that’s b——-“and shook my head. I was not going to agree to that deal. I had come there to listen and report but after that remark I decided that I would ask a question and a rather directed one at that.

At this point people from the audience were introduced. First up was Mary Lindquist, WEA President, who asked the question “What can we do to support our teachers?” She said that AHS has an exciting program and that there are also programs similar to it throughout the state such as the Tacoma School of the Arts which receives private and public support.

Then Arne responded to Ms. Lindquist concern regarding, I guess, the support of teachers with saying  “I am desperately worried about this.”

Patty Murray said that they were working on a supplemental bill to try to get the RTTT funding through the Senate. (Arne Duncan’s RTTT funding request got a kibosh from Congress and instead Congress added money to keep teachers on. Thank you for that. Now it has to get through the Senate. Arne was all up in arms about it but Congress is beginning to question the validity of the RTTT demands, particularly the charter school issue. Anyway, we’ll deal with that in another post.)

I would highly recommend that an e-mail to Patty Murray would be in order at this time if we don’t want the demands of RTTT in the state of Washington.

Then Randy Dorn, the Washington State School Superintendent, was introduced. He said that there are STEM schools throughout the state and that there are schools, I think that he was referring to a particular ESL school, that has extended days and classes on Saturday’s. He said that all of these schools have been created within the existing “rules” I’m not sure what his point was. Was he trying to say that we do have schools similar to charter schools and therefore don’t need to change our laws to accommodate RTTT funding?

Again, an e-mail to Randy Dorn would also be a good idea.

Then Bill Williams, the Executive Director of the Washington State PTA, was introduced. He said that the fixation on test results inhibits learning. Those were his words. Now I am truly starting to question the push by the Seattle PTSA and Kim Howard for all things RTTT. Is there a disconnect between what the State President is saying and what Ramona Hattendorf, the Seattle Council PTSA President and her retinue keep trying to pound away at, MAP testing and merit pay? Inquiring minds want to know. This will be fun to get to the bottom of.

Then Trish Dziko was introduced and started to speak about TAF Academy where there is a 75% population of children of color and a population that is under-served in the district. She said that in the lifetime of her children, there will not be charter schools in Washington so “give us the funding” that is needed.

That remark received a big round of applause.

Then the business person said that there was a business consortium that was going to be giving $50M to fund additional STEM programs. This guy also gave accolades to Arne and Obama for the RTTT initiative. I don’t think these folks understand that RTTT is in in direct conflict to what this guy and others see as positive programs. Project based programs cannot exist within the framework of RTTT initiatives.

Sometimes I think people need to understand what they are applauding.

There were to be questions from the audience at this time but I suppose they decided against that. I had not agreed to the deal of not asking questions and others might not have either.

Patty Murray said that she would take “all of this” back with her to DC.

Arne said something about being “serious about competing in the global economy” and then Arne acknowledged the principal of AHS on the job that she was doing. There was a standing ovation for that and then it was over.

Our group was taken to a classroom where there was bottled water on ice, thank goodness for that, and tables set in a semi-circular fashion.

It was interesting how they shuffled us out of the room while Arne was shaking hands but that was OK with me. The last thing that I wanted to do was shake the hand of someone who was causing students and teachers so much grief and destroying schools, neighborhoods and communities around the country.

One of Murray’s staff said that the secretary would be there in about 15 minutes. I thought, secretary, what secretary? Someone is going to be taking notes? Well, whatever. I was glad for the water and a cool room.

We sat around the table and gathered our thoughts. Then someone told us that Secretary Arne Duncan would be with us shortly. Then I thought, oh that secretary! Whoa! Wait a minute, Arne Duncan was going to sit down and talk to us? Yeah, right, OK just like his “Listening Tour” that he had when he was supposedly listening to teachers. parents and business leaders about education in this country and then turned around and did what his intention was all along, RTTT.

Well, he did come into our room, shook our hands as we introduced ourselves and then sat in the chair that was in the middle of the semi-circle.

Jesse Hagopian, a laid off teacher in the first round of rif’s and closures in Seattle, started the conversation. He asked why a school has to be privatized for it to work. How do we fund public schools so that they can function properly? The Credo report states that charter schools are no better than public schools so what is your reasoning behind charter schools?

Duncan said that there are good charter schools and bad charter schools. I had heard him say that before. Some of us think that he is starting to back track from that issue because as one Senator pointed out to Duncan during recent hearings on RTTT funding, charter schools wouldn’t work in rural counties. It’s also been well established that charter schools segregate students and that most do not perform as well as public schools.

He said something about getting additional funding through the Senate, but nothing really addressed Jesse’s questions.

Then a teacher from Detroit began to speak saying that Arne is a union buster and was stepping up the privatization and segregation of public schools. He was angry and went on until someone interrupted him to ask a question.

A Seattle parent asked the question about the bill that will be coming up for a vote regarding state income tax in Washington and if that passes, we will have sustainable revenue for our schools. With that revenue, the demand for charter schools could be replaced with our ability to provide the much-needed funding for public school education in our state.

Then I brought up the concern that there are successful project based schools in Seattle referred to as alternative schools but with the demand for curriculum alignment and standardized testing, these programs could easily be destroyed. I said that he and I seem to have the same concerns and intentions but that the ramifications of testing, performance pay and curriculum alignment on our schools can be damaging.

Duncan mentioned a “well rounded education” passage in his bill that addresses those concerns. I haven’t looked it up yet but will follow-up on that at a later date.

Then a teacher from Chicago talked about her concerns for her students. Her school is surrounded by charter schools so her school receives all of the students that the charter schools discharge due to lack of performance on the part of the student or IEP issues. She said that there is no funding for the public schools to handle the load of special need and low-performing students that they receive back into their system.

Arne answered but it was just rhetoric again. He said that he would look into it.

He said, getting back to my question that the Department of Education can’t devise curriculum, that’s a relief, and that no one has demanded merit pay although he supports it.

He had to leave but shook everyone’s hands again.

After listening to Duncan, I came away with the impression that he thinks that what he is doing is the right thing but is not aware of how his agenda is affecting schools, students and communities. But then again, how could that be? What he did in Chicago he is trying to nationalize now through RTTT. I know that he has heard this all before from teachers and parents in Chicago over the last few years. Then, knowing that it’s not working in Chicago, why is he continuing to think that his idea of education reform will work anywhere else?

I appreciated the fact that he spent time speaking with us but also felt that these conversations needed to happen not only with Duncan but also with our Senators and Representatives.

If you participated in the day’s events, please feel free to add your observations and comments.