Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Duncan brings the vision

Secretary Arne Duncan spoke last week to the National Education Association. I've seen lots of excerpts of his specific thoughts on policies about the teaching profession, but they lost his important starting point:
I know we won't all agree on everything—but I'm confident there will be more we agree with than not. It starts with our shared values.

We believe it is our moral obligation to give children the very best education possible. We believe every child can learn and every school can succeed. We believe teaching is a profession and good teachers and principals are essential to success.

Unlike many of you, my values and views on education were not shaped in the front of a classroom. In 1961 my mother began an after-school, inner-city tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago and raised my brother, sister and me as a part of her program.

That daily experience was an absolutely formative one for all three of us and we all tried to follow in her footsteps in various ways. It was work filled both with great heartbreak and also amazing triumph.

We experienced our share of early, violent deaths because of the community's chaos, and those experiences shape you and frankly scar you in ways that to this day are difficult to talk about.

But from the group of friends I grew up studying with and playing ball with, from one street corner at 46th and Greenwood, emerged literally a brain surgeon, a Hollywood movie star, one of my top administrators at the Chicago Public Schools, and one of IBM's international corporate leaders.

How did this happen? Because these children despite tremendous poverty, despite staggering neighborhood violence, despite challenges at home, had my mother and others in their lives who gave them real opportunities, real support and guidance over the years, and had the highest expectations for them. And because of that opportunity, their gifts and their talents, and their fierce desire to succeed, blossomed.

What I learned as a little boy, what continues to motivate my mother today 48 years after she began her work, are the same two values that motivate all of you.

It is a fundamental, unalterable belief that every child can learn, and a fundamental understanding of the tremendous urgency of our work. Simply put, we cannot wait because our children cannot wait.

I've met a thousand educators like my mother in schools all across America. I've seen them on an Indian reservation in Montana, in a West Virginia middle school, at a high school in Detroit and a charter school in Newark.

All of us remember educator or coach who changed our life. It stays with us forever. It sustains us, guides us and inspires us. They're the ones who commit those everyday acts of kindness and love and never ask for anything in return. They counsel troubled teens, take phone calls at night, and reach into their pockets for lunch money for children who are too ashamed to ask.

I've seen how much these educators want to be valued for their work and honored for what they are: dedicated, professional, compassionate, serious and responsible. These are the qualities of a great educator and we have millions of them all across America.
If you start there, and add that it's time to give each of those educators the benefits of a school culture that helps them get steadily stronger in their craft, you've got more than half of the core agenda for producing higher results for students. Subtract the daily stream of morale-sapping distractions and the steady burden of teaching in isolation rather than collaboration, and you've got two-thirds of what it will take. The other debates matter, but they matter less than developing and supporting teachers who start with that kind of dedication and continue to grow in the skill to deliver student learning.

The full speech, including the policy details that matter-but-matter-less, is here.

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