Dear Jennifer: Dissent is the Vibrancy of our Democracy

In the mid-1990s I lived in an asian country for five months. I won’t say which here on my blog, because I don’t want their censors to find this blog and ban me from entering the country. If you are curious which country, go to my vita and look for the fellowship that I received in 1996. At any rate, one of my English students cried for a solid two hours during a conversation. She was majoring in journalism in a prominent university and she was upset that she would never be able to critique the policy or social order of her homeland in her published work because of the political structure of this particular country.

Dissent is the vibrancy of our democracy.

Which brings me to an article published in EdWeek by Dr. Jennifer Jennings, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at NYU and formerly the blogger Eduwonkette. She was writing about a speech given by Secretary Arne Duncan at the recent AERA meeting in San Francisco. I was at the AERA session, I believe I was sitting next to Jennifer in fact. Below is a photo I took from my seat.


Here are a few excerpts from Dr. Jenning’s article:

I agree with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on just about nothing. I think Race to the Top is an evidence-free mess. I think the idea of a test worth teaching to is a willful misunderstanding of the science of testing. And I can’t agree with Duncan’s insistence that the cheating scandals that have garnered widespread attention in recent months are a parable about “rotten” school cultures and not a reflection on the incentives that we’ve forced upon teachers.

But as I sat on the floor of a packed ballroom in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association last week, I was embarrassed—no, humiliated—that some of my colleagues booed the secretary of education when he approached the microphone for his keynote speech. It is one thing to disagree with some of the Obama administration’s policies, to bring countervailing data to the table, and to engage in reasoned—and, one would hope, enlightened—conversation. It is another thing entirely to abdicate our most sacred responsibility as researchers—a commitment to ideas, to data, to truth, to real debate—at the altar of one-upmanship.

What saddens me is that the educational policy debate has become an overwhelming chorus of boos, of shout-downs, and of bitter personal insults, rather than a real debate about ideas and data and first principles.

If there is one lesson from this conference, Secretary Duncan, you showed America’s educational researchers that we can have a different debate—one in which we rely on ideas and open disagreement and reason, and not on schoolyard bravado.

First, I should say that most of the protest at the speech was silent. There were probably 20-30 people holding up signs that said “Not in my name.” Second, I should say that the boos that welcomed him were relegated to about 15-20 people out of perhaps 3,000 in attendance. Even if there would have been 1,000 people booing, I would have been okay with that also. What Dr. Jennings did not mention is that there was a smattering of boos during the speech also. I found myself booing when Arne Duncan stated the following bravado:

All students are motivated by high-stakes testing.

Even though I only booed once, I should have booed more and louder. If you talk with students, actually spend time in schools, you will find out Mr. Secretary, that for some students high-stakes exams actually serve as a disincentive for some students to stay in school. See my conversation about this in a Teacher College Record publication and The Voice.

On my Facebook page, there was this exchange when I posted the Edweek link to Dr. Jenning’s article. A Stanford grad school buddy posted the following:

Wow….really? How does that make us different from Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” at President Obama? Can’t we respectfully disagree without heckling?

I responded:

Dissent is the vibrancy of our democracy. It also wasn’t the internationally televised State of the Union. It was an AERA session.

A prominent educator from Chicago added:

Many have been respectful, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. The policies he promotes are killing our children, schools and communities. Arne is not the President of the United States, thank goodness. If you can think of a better way to address the pain Duncan has brought to the entire country, I would be thrilled to hear it and work with you to achieve it.

Mr. President, we desperately need you to turn attention to your Secretary, the testing companies, national standards, charters, vouchers, Louisiana, TFA, Chicago. You have met or exceeded expectations in other areas (depending on your political persuasion of course), but on education I am saddened that you are clearly dropping the ball. On this I believe that many Republicans and Democrats agree. Although there is this. Please engage. While the cat is away the mice will play.

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  • This type of dissent is important and necessary in today’s world of lies and marketing spin. During some of the many recent school closing hearings in Chicago, audiences of parents, teachers, students, and community members repeatedly stopped speakers from spreading complete untruths. In some cases, the audience acutally shut down entire meetings or forced the CPS reps to stop speaking. This was a powerful form of participation in a process that was purposefully designed to silence the voice of the people. Thanks to this type of resistance, communities forced CPS to stop taking hours to sell their hype through powerpoints of misinformation and instead made the meeting fully participatory. Given Arne Duncan and Co’s history of the same sorts of lying and falsehoods, I believe we should make it our mission to SHUT HIM DOWN. Do not give him the floor, instead force him to listen to the real experts: the people actually in these schools and communities.


  • Link error on the “this” at the end of the article.


  • If only I were smart enough to be there! I would have booed until I laughed from my ears being tickled.

    I’m angry because I have a memory.

    I’m angry when I think of my education in a small factory town just outside of Houston and how great I remember it being. There were AP classes if you wanted. Drafting classes, shop classes, child care, band, etc. and everyone seemed to get along and find their way. I did well enough to go to UT then U of H and eventually become a teacher myself. I had some great ones in those schools.

    I’m angry when I remember that when I started teaching that I had the good luck to work with a great bunch of people on the East side of Houston who loved teaching and wanted to teach in that high need environment. We adopted a belief and set of practices that worked on our craft, engaged and involved kids and the test (TAAS back then) woudl take care of itself. It did as our kids did well on those and the SAT’s and then went on to a schools that were right for them. Some to community college, UT, A & M and Georgetown.

    I’m angry when I remember that I had kids of my own and then went overseas to teach where no state tests were in the way. Stanfords, PSAT, SAT and AP’s to see where our kids were at and get them to where they wanted to go, but no TAKS or what ever your state calls it’s atrocity. Man the academic freedom that one has when you remove those wretched things. The creative power that is unleashed is amazing! My children flourished and hopefully so did my students.

    I’m angry at myself for choosing to move back to the US knowing that NCLB had changed things considerably as had the Texas Legislature and TEA. The difference between knowing and reality was stark. Again I was lucky that I landed in a school that was more like my first-teach well, improve yourself and TAKS then STAAR will take care of itself. However, the never ending drone from TEA and HISD about how hard STAAR would be and that Commended under TAKS will barely be passing under STAAR and no one knows what it will look like and no one can help you was unnerving. Faculty ignored it, but most above bought into the mass line.

    I’m angry that my daughters’ schools were not like mine. They were test prep mad and they had difficulty adjusting. Going from a rich, project and inquiry based education to test worksheets was difficult. As they moved up to new schools this improved very little. Conflicts arose. Outside of regular parent meetings, I had never had to have meetings with teachers or administrators. I have had them at all my daughter’s schools about TAKS videos being shown during breakfast to veiled threats about removal if scores weren’t raised to the misuse of testing and scores.

    I’m angry because some teachers are going along but I get it. I sheltered my students as much as I could from the testing craze. Unfortunately they heard it from friends, family and the media too. I raised my voice and objected at faculty meetings. I raised my voice and objected at professional development events. Some agreed and some added to the testing madness by increasing workloads on kids to inappropriate and immoral levels given some ages. I taught AP Human Geography to freshmen and that was troubling to me so I made massive adjustments to the course and the kids were successful. People who should have known better poured on more meetings and more and I objected and offered alternatives to no avail.

    I was so angry that I joined a community group CVPE in Houston and started speaking out. I spoke to the HISD Board last May to pass the TASB resolution reducing STAAR though they watered it down. My daughters spoke as well and continue to. I was angry that the Board had cut jobs including my wife’s and expected STAAR scores to be high. I was angry that months after massive layoffs in Houston the Board passed a new Teacher Appraisal tool, a TNTP brainchild, that required more of everything with less resources and fewer people.

    I was so angry I left, but still continue to raise my voice when I can as a parent. My apologies, but these memories of acting out Grendel in Middle school, working with Bela Kalick, Art Acosta, Miriam Liebowitz, runing through oblek with my daughters is too strong to accept accountability and its advocates. I’ve said it before, but I am glad that none of my school memories involve test pep rallies, test pizza parties and it saddens me that my daughters’ does.

    STAAR must go. NCLB must go. TNTP must go. Arne must go.


  • I’m still confused why some are disappointed about the jeering towards Sec. of Education Duncan? I understand the argument of respect and behaving properly, I was raised in a traditional Latino family where you never talk back to elders and turning the other cheek was expected so to not offend anyone.

    However, considering the attendees of AERA, we are all educators who are passionate about improving our education system so that it is equitable, allowing every child to have a successful education.

    With that, our passion should be ignited, just as it was in some people, when an idea contradictory to ours is presented. Was the jeering proper? No.

    Nonetheless, I will tell you what else is not proper:
    Closing over 100 schools in the last decade in Chicago.
    Pushing reform that destroys communities which then leads to violence.
    Closing schools because that are not “academically strong”, only to have 94% of the students continue at other low-performing schools. (again destroying communities)
    Disproportionately closing schools in high-minority communities.
    Creating an education system that has demoralized our teachers and students.
    Allowing charters to come into struggling neighborhoods, only to have them exclude neighborhood students and “chose” from around the district. (this is divisive and further destroys a fragile community).

    All of these practices have occurred in Chicago, and I point them out because Sec. Duncan began his education career there. Unfortunately, these practices are not limited to Chicago. With that, as educators, whether we are in the classroom or in the ivory towers, we need to use our voice and speak out when there are injustices done. As Dr. Martin L. King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”


  • Monty J. Thornburg

    In fairness to President Obama, I found the following on another blog. RESPECT … for teachers? I responded as follows:

    I said, “I’m gratified to know that “Teachers working temporarily at the U.S. Department of Education launched a national dialogue with their classroom colleagues to talk openly and honestly about the challenges and aspirations of America’s teachers” is supported by President Obama.”

    “I personally, in effect, just lambasted President Obama (on another blog) for not caring about teachers. The cost is minimal. in my opinion, because the Obama Administration is about to embark on using U.S. taxpayers money for Race to the Top, Common Core standards in 46 states. A move that will surely effect the “aspirations” of teachers. It’s a program that will grease the palms of the Oligarchs who pitch themselves as philanthropists.”

    While gratified by President Obama’s support, of teachers with a survey, I’m remaining with a skeptical perspective.


  • Monty J. Thornburg

    Philanthropists in “sheep’s clothing” are Oligarchs

    According to Dr. Charles M. Payne, University of Chicago:
    “Schools should be places where teachers are trusted, students are challenged, and parents are engaged, Payne said Friday at an annual conference hosted by the Education Trust, an advocacy group. When that happens, students show up and teachers stick around, and that alone can boost student achievement.”

    Dr. Vasquez H. suggested that we pay attention to experts such as Dr. Payne, (quote above) if we are really interested in how to improve schools. I agree!

    Yes, we need “trusted teachers” that are invested in, encouraged and want to stay, and do stay in schools: Not TFA “flash in the pan” teachers who leave en mass to pursue new careers after their two year commitment … see previous blogs.

    On the ground, teachers these days are too often seen as “unfunded liabilities” after a lifetime of dedication. The new teachers following them are not impressed (I can tell you from observation) with this treatment and lack of respect. As some media outlets and other negative elements of society continue to use education as a political football they are creating a condition in my opinion where we are going to have a huge teacher shortage in CA.

    How will current attitudes of distrust and with the mantra of “accountability” and “manufactured failure caused by NCLB” help build a positive culture in schools as Dr. Payne tells us we need?

    I think we need not listen to the “talking heads” (see previous blog). The talking heads are simply looking for a handout from the so called philanthropists who are in turn in “sheep’s clothing” the same oligarchs looking to take $billions of citizens tax dollars; tax dollars to pay for their soft ware and computer technology, it’s all for sale. None of the politicians on the left or right, including President Obama, seem able to stand up to these oligarchs and their K Street lobby.


  • Monty J. Thornburg

    Excuse me for typo: There is a central question that always seems to come up with students here in CA.
    See above:


  • Monty J. Thornburg

    Yes, dissent is the vibrancy of our democracy. I don’t think it matters if we feel loud dissent, or quite dissent, are most appropriate. I think what is important to Arne Duncan and President Obama is a divided public and they don’t know what to do. Can AERA researchers help? I don’t know but I do think the current Administration is walking the tight rope between a failed, NCLB with “meaningless tests” that lead to AYP scores but little else (Bush Administration) and, a demoralized core of K-12 educators in America, as I see it from my vantage point on the ground!
    In CA where I’ve taught and administered public schools for over a decade, and where I’ve dutifully administered the NCLB, STAR Testing, each year, I can tell you that many if not most students don’t care about these tests. There central question always seems to come up with students here; “Does this affect my grade?” Answer, well no! The results of the tests often come in the summer or year after they are given and students have, by then, moved on to other classes and other schools.
    Yes, you were right to boo Arne’s statement that: “All students are motivated by high-stakes testing.” How ridiculous! Does he really believe this? That’s why CC is trying to come up with a scheme that will give teachers feedback in real time, in the year, even month the tests are given.
    This nation-wide (46 states as of now) experiment is untested; will require massive expenditures in computer and broad-band technology, massive training of teaching and evaluative staff. Who are the real winners? I say the 1% Oligarchs who will win (make $billions) even if the plan fails!
    What’s really going on, I think, is that Arne and President Obama came into office with, educational leaders trying to navigate the winds of privatization, guided by high stakes tests, and the dangers of falling revenue and the manufacturing of a public opinion against teachers, teacher unions, and the educational “monopoly/bureaucracy” if you will. The public has been led to believe that they can evaluate their schools on-line with AYP scores. President Obama and Arne Duncan are caught between a public with various political ideologies and concerns, a demoralized and de-skilled teaching force in America and at the same time they are trying to satisfy the 1% oligarchs who are now heavily invested in this sham at the expense of the 99% or even Tea Party, taxpayers.
    As I see it, we are all in this together against the Oligarchs, or are the philanthropists?


  • Dr. Jennings should applaud, not scold, her colleagues for ‘booing’ the worst ever Sec’y of Education.

    His RttT policies have created anguish for teachers and students, and huge profits for Wall St., Pearson, McGraw-Hill, K-12 Inc., Edison Learning, and many others.

    The President is tone deaf too. He declared National Charter Week simultaneous with Teacher Appreciation Week. Democrats, what a party.

    Duncan has not bothered to reach out to work with those who protest his policy of privatization, has he? He needs to do more listening. Teachers and researchers at AERA were, to my mind, trying to be help to focus his attention.


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