Critical Lessons & Educational Change

Dear Secretary Duncan

Jessica K. Bacon

Fall 2009


I chose to write this letter to Secretary Duncan because I have strong interest in the No Child Left Behind Act, I and have more recently decided to engage this legislation in my dissertation (which has not yet started).  Because of this engagement, and thanks to projects in this class, I have had the impetus to begin trying to make sense of what will be happening under the Obama administration with this law.  Upon doing some digging, I have found that the trends going forward seem to be even more frightening than some of the decisions made during the Bush administration.

On a more personal note, another interesting aspect of this letter for me is the complex web of politics attached to this act.  During the Bush administration it seemed to only be sensible that the fundamental ideals of the act fit in with a Republican agenda.  It was thus interesting to me, to discuss increased amounts of testing with my very conservative grandfather who lives in South Florida.  Apparently in his area, students in urban schools are being tested every few weeks.  From his perspective it’s the “liberals” who want this.  My grandfather is a lawyer, and wrote me a letter explaining that (1) the liberals want more testing, (2) I am a liberal, (3) so I must be in favor of increased testing- (not a very rational chain if you ask me).  I am not by any means in favor of his increased testing, but, in fact, my grandfather does not believe me when I tell him that.  What is even more surprising to me is that it was associated (even if its just by him) with a liberal movement.  I had always assumed it to be the opposite.  It just goes to show me that there is no such thing as a republican/democrat binary and furthermore things are just so much more complicated than that, especially education reform.

The Letter

Dear Secretary Duncan,

I am aware that you are currently embarking on a “listening and learning tour”[1] of the country, touted to gain information from various stakeholders about the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  I am writing to you as a stakeholder and an individual committed to securing a better future for our nation’s youth and all subsequent generations.  I am urging you to read thoughtfully my words regarding the effects of the NCLB that I have uncovered through researching the act and through listening to teachers and students over the last 8 years.

The longer we keep the No Child Left Behind Act in its current form, the more likely children who need the most help and support will continue to fail. The goal implicit in the title of the act appears quite ironic, as many children continue to be left behind due to the effects of the Act itself.

Even though only quantitative methods, and “scientifically based research” were regarded in the original version of the act as the only valid form of knowledge production, perhaps a few quotes from real individuals might have a certain degree of impact on you.  Perhaps as we you read these quotes, you can also consider heeding the advice of Gloria Ladson Billings (2006) who urges us to consider that one possible solution for closing the education debt is to create an environment where “we were not so desperate for the expertise of education researchers that we could conduct multiple projects using multiple approaches.  It would be a place so hungry for solutions where it would not matter if some projects were quantitative while others were qualitative” (p. 10).

From a former kindergarten teacher we hear[2]:

“There was a time when kindergarteners loved school. There was a time when they could  play and learn at the same time. When their teachers could teach them how to tie shoes and be kind to each other. When they didn’t know what a “reading level” was. There was a time when they didn’t worry about learning how to take a multiple-choice test. Back in this time, I dreamed of being a teacher”.   ~Danette Gauger, kindergarten teacher, Sun Prairie, WI.

From a parent [3]:

“My son already hates school, and he’s just halfway through kindergarten. . . . Now kindergarten is a 30-hour-a-week job. There’s nightly homework; finger painting is a rare treat; and as for naps, there just isn’t time.” ~ L.J. Williamson, LA Times, 2/27/06

From an educator:

“I think what’s going on for our kids, and particularly the kids who have parents who are  least powerful, is the worst education I’ve seen in 40 years. I don’t have the same picture  of what this increased attention has done. I’ve never seen so many frightened teachers.  I’ve never seen so many frightened principals. I cannot imagine how you think that is going to help our race to the top, that the children in our most low-income schools are  surrounded by adults whose overriding concern is these terrible tests.” ~ Deborah Meier, Education Sector, 3/10/06

From a governor:

“I have a one-point plan for No Child Left Behind: Scrap it.” ~New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, September 7, USA Today

These quotes are important to consider, because they show the impact that NCLB has had on a variety of people, most importantly on students, parents, and teachers.  The decisions that you make going forward will have a lasting effect on each child who receives a public education in this country.  Unfortunately, the decisions will have more effect on students who need the most help, (i.e.: non-white students, low SES students, students with disabilities, etc.) as these students are often exceedingly more reliant on the resources you provide to them.  They do not have access to go elsewhere when they do not like the rules you make. It is thus vital that you make these decisions thoughtfully.  When you say you are on a listening and learning tour, are you really listening?  Are you really listening to the voices of students, parents, and teachers?  If you were, I think some of the decisions you are clearly on the brink of making would be different.  As you say, the reauthorization is something that “should start now” and “can’t wait.”  Although there may be urgency to change the law as it is, are you making the right decisions as you go forward?  I would like to provide a framework for considering the possible negative effects that will imminently occur, on several aspects of your proposal that you evidently intend to include in the new legislation.

Standardization of tests:

As noted in Race to the Top policies and in your speech, one of the goals that you have is for all states to adopt more standard testing policies. In your November speech, you stated:

“States and school districts don’t need a prescription for success, they need a common definition of success—which is why I am very pleased that 48 states and the District of Columbia are working toward common college and career-ready standards.  This isn’t a national mandate- – it’s a national movement, driven locally, and it couldn’t come sooner” (Duncan, 2009).

When you offer such financial incentives (spending up to four billion dollars) for states to accept your imposed standards, there is a shady boundary between what we might call a national mandate and a local movement.  Also, when you have such standards imposed on states, such policies become rather prescriptive for schools and teachers even if the original intention was otherwise.  I do understand that one of the major criticisms of the initial NCLB effort was that each state developed tests in very different ways, with very different standards.  Students who succeeded in one state may have failed miserably in another.  Although your proposal seeks to remedy this situation, it may create more unintended consequences in other areas.

Holding each student in the entire country to the exact same standards does not make sense.  Each student, school, school district, county, and state has unique needs and ever increasing diversity.  Assuming that we want everyone in the entire country to learn the same way, learn the same thing, and to produce knowledge in the same way goes against everything this country claims they stand for.  If lack of innovation is a problem in a global competition, how is this increased regularization going to help spark individual’s creativity?  Looking at this problem even more in depth reveals again how students who need the freedom to develop skills to be innovative, to explore, to become creative individuals, will have the least chance to do so.  These students are not students who often have after school opportunities to learn such skill, or who attend summer exploration camps, or who’s schools can afford to stray from just teaching to the test, because the students are already successful.

In order to create assessments that more aptly evaluate the unique gifts of children in this country, control of these standards needs to go back to the local schools.  Schools need to have the ability to decide whether a portfolio assessment, a standardized test, or writing assignments would best evaluate the students in their schools.  Assuming that everyone should be taking the same test is an absurd and damaging assumption.

Furthermore, discussing the potential negative consequences of increased standardization, it is interesting to consider the points of Pedro Noguera (2008).  Noguera describes how schools who serve students that have large immigrant populations who speak little to no English are held to the same standards as schools serving native-born English speakers.  Thus, what Noguera (2008) tells us is also true for many other subgroups where:

“schools serving poor children with significant social and psychological needs (for  example, housing, nutrition, health, and learning disabilities) and schools that are faced with shortages in essential resources (such as certified teachers, capable administrators, adequate facilities, and learning materials). In the name of equity and goal of “ending the tyranny of low expectations” all schools are being held to the same standards” (p.174).

When the various needs of students are so strikingly evident, does it really make sense to increase national standardization and ignore individual needs of schools and students?  Does it make sense to subsequently enforce negative consequences on teachers, students and schools that subsequently don’t meet a national standard?

Effects on teachers and teacher preparation programs:

In your speech, you state that:

“Educators also must learn to use student achievement data—first to improve instruction by identifying the needs of our students–second to insure that teachers who need more help get it–and finally to identify teachers who can’t measure up– even with help.  Liking student data to teachers, and teachers to their schools of education, can be a powerful tool in driving improvement. Why are these systems so rare?” (Duncan, 2009).

I would like to discuss with you a variety of reasons why these systems are rare and why they should remain rare.  Certainly it makes sense that if we have data on students, teachers should use it to improve instruction and to identify the needs of students.  However it is vitally important to keep in mind that there are many ways, beyond the information that a standardized test provides, to get to know the needs of students in a class.  A teacher may be aware that one of her students has quite a bit of knowledge but is simply not a good test taker—does that mean this child should remain in remedial education programs because of their inability to effectively perform on a test?

Secondly, having monetary incentives (and threats of firing) for teachers whose classes perform better is a potentially damaging way forward for teachers for many reasons.  Teachers who are teaching the students who are in the most need of good instruction will be threatened by these policies and will feel that they must continue to teach to the test and to only focus the entire curriculum for their students on the testing process.  School culture will become competitive, and damaging hierarchies will preside.  Cheating on tests and using students lives and educations to benefit test scores will become part of school culture to an even more damaging degree than was previously revealed under NCLB.  I am sure you have read the research about the problems the first time around- with this policy you are threatening to exacerbate the damaging effects of the law exponentially.  I strongly urge you to reconsider this provision.

Educational scholar Henry Giroux (2008) touches on such issues as he describes how schools have no longer been defined as places where equity and justice are important, but they have instead become testing centers.  No longer do teachers have control of the curriculum, but the curriculums and tests have been directly linked with economic modes of production.  Furthermore teacher preparation programs have been linked to these shifts, and they have commonly abandoned social justice models for models that use “competency-based testing for teachers, a lockstep sequencing of materials, mastery learning techniques, systematized evaluation schemes, standardized curricula, and the implementation of mandated “basics” (p. 442).  If you choose to link teachers’ pay and the teacher preparation programs they have attended to test scores these dangerous effects Giroux is highlighting will become exacerbated.

Community schools:

Although I find the majority of the proposals you are offering to be rather deleterious to the future of our schools, I would like to comment on several aspects of your proposition that I do in fact find promising.  You describe raising expectations for students in schools, and taking care of the whole child.  You also state that you are a:

“big believer in community schools- keeping school buildings open for 12 hours a day  and opening up the computer lab, the library and the gym on the weekends for our children and our families.  Give the community the key to the school and you give our children the key to so much more- exploration and enrichment, safety opportunity and hope.  It becomes the center of their lives” (Duncan, 2009).

I think that this is an extremely important point you make.  Having schools becoming an integral part of students lives in the community will broaden their connection to the community.

Author Gerald Grant (2009) would also agree with such a proposal, as he notes that an  important aspect of youths education, and access to social capital is measured by their access to community centers.  Also encouraging teachers and school administration to spend time in the neighborhoods of local schools and with students and families beyond the regular school day has the potential to increasingly strengthen the connection between school and home for many children.  This connection is imperative to strengthen, as there is often such a strong disconnect between school and home for many children, particularly for youth in urban schools.

In conclusion, I urge you to continue to listen to the voices of teachers, parents and students as you go forward with these extremely important decisions.  These decisions are not of minute importance, but will change the ways that our schools are run, and the way that our students will learn for the rest of history.  The trend of testing has only increased over the years.  A proposition such as the one you are setting forward could be extremely dangerous in many ways.  Please reconsider some of your positions and think closely about some of the central question such as; what is education really for?  Do we want to return to an education such as Horace Willard described back in 1890, where teachers lived “lives of mechanical routine, and were subjected to a machine of supervision, organization, classification, grading, percentages, uniformity, promotions, tests, examination” where this is no room for “individuality, ideas, independence, originality, study, investigation” (as quoted in Giroux, 2008).   Or instead do we want to build our schools around social justice, and make them places where all students really do have a chance to grow to be worthy, creative, smart adults?

I urge you to ask yourselves these important questions.


Jessica K. Bacon


[1] More information about the No Child Left Behind reauthorization can be found at  This includes information from the general website, as well as a transcript from the “listening and learning tour” stop in Washington DC, on November 9th, 2009.

[2] Quote retrieved from:

[3] The following quotes retrieved from


Duncan A. (2009, November 9).  U.S. Secretary of Education speech delivered at US Chamber of Commerce Education and Work Force Summit.  Retrieved from

Giroux, H. (2008) Teacher education and democratic school. In A. Darder, M. Baltando, & R. Torres (Eds.), The Critical Pedagogy Reader( 2nd ed.p. 438-459). NY: Routledge.

Grant, G. (2009) Hope and despair in the American city: Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006) From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in US schools. Educational Researcher. 35 (7) 3-12.

Noguera, P. (2008) The trouble with black boys:… And other reflections on race, equity, and the future of public education. San Francisco: CA. Josey-Bass.