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arne duncan meets bats

Arne Duncan Drops in Unexpectedly on Meeting With BATS at US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and Gets an Earful!

On July 28, 2014, following the BAT Rally outside the US Department of Education, a delegation of BATS went up to the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to share some of the main issues that BATS had with Department Policy. Representing the BATS were Marla Kilfoyle, General Manager of BATS. Dr Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University, Chicago BAM (Badass Moms) leader Shoneice Reynolds and her son Asean Johnson, Tennessee BAT leader Larry Proffitt, and me -- Dr Mark Naison, co founder of BATS. The meeting had been set up by Marla Kilfoyle through an official of the Department of Education’s Office of Communications.

Arne Duncan was not originally scheduled to attend the meeting, but dropped in unexpectedly in the middle. What follows is my account of the meeting, including the dialogue with Mr. Duncan, along with some reflections on what it all means. How much of what transpired will lead to further communication and action, and how much represented a “smoke and mirrors” game by officials of the Department remains to be seen.

After going through security, we were escorted to a conference room in the US Ed Department’s Office of Civil Rights, where we were met by 9 people, including a senior staff member of the Office of Civil Rights, James Kim, who chaired the meeting, along with staff members from the Offices of Communications and Community Outreach and several student interns with the Department. Mr Kim, who chaired the meeting, was very cordial and asked us if we could present our major concerns, saying he hoped we could find areas of agreement as well as areas where we disagreed, and that a dialogue could develop which would hopefully continue after the meetings.

When Mr. Kim asked if someone would present the groups major concerns, I stepped forward, I decided to do so in a manner which would focus attention on Department of Education policies that maximized educational inequality and violated the civil rights of students, parents and teachers in inner city and working class communities. Using my own experiences in the Bronx as a reference point, I said that BATS were deeply concerned with how Race to the Top Policies, which required rating schools and teachers on the basis of student test scores, closing allegedly “failing schools,” and preferring charter schools over public schools had the following consequences:

  • Leading teachers in vulnerable neighborhoods to “teach to the test” to the detriment of activities which fostered student creativity.
  • Leading to the use of recess time, gym time, and after school time to test prep, maximizing health problems in poor and working class neighborhoods
  • Leading the mass firing of veteran teachers and a sharp decline in the percentage of teachers of color on many cities.
  • Leading to the destabilization of neighborhoods and the smothering of parent, teacher and student voices in the shaping of education policy.
  • Leading to the demonization of public school teachers and their being blamed for everything from the achievement gap for the persistence of poverty and inequality.
  • Leading to the best young teachers leaving the profession prematurely

The irony here, I said, was that these policies, promoted with Civil Rights rhetoric, were riding roughshod over the Civil Rights of residents of inner city communities. I asked for a two-year moratorium on all these policies -- no more school closings, no more VAM, no more charter school creation -- and a new effort by the US Department Education to have teachers voices have a primary role in shaping Department policy rather than business leaders.

My remarks appeared to catch many of the officials there by surprise. Several agreed with what I was saying; others tried to defend Department of Education policies and say states were ultimately responsible for the abuses I was describing

The points of agreement expressed by Department of Education officials who spoke up were on the following issues:

  • Need to reverse the declining percentage of teachers or color
  • Need to stop best young teachers from leaving the profession
  • Need to stop use of recess and gym for test prep
  • Need to end demonization of teachers by public officials

However, several of the officials, while agreeing that we needed to address the above problems insisted that school closings, charter school preferences, and the use of test scores to rate teachers and schools were not the sources of those problems

As this point, Shoneice Reynolds, Asean Johnson, and Larry Proffitt entered the conversation forcefully and eloquently. Shoneice and Asean talked in depth about how in Chicago, community schools were first starved, then closed and charter schools put in their place, smothering and stifling parent voices, depriving children of great neighborhood schools, and making Chicago neighborhoods more dangerous. They gave example after example of one great program after another being eliminated in public schools, while charter schools were created which were often limited in their programming and abusive in their discipline policies.

Larry Profitt described how rating teachers on the basis of test scores was driving the best teachers out of the profession in almost every school district in Tenneessee and were severely constricting the curriculum. Both put the blame squarely on the US Department of Education for promoting policies which led to those destructive consequences and for promoting rhetoric which demonized teachers.

Right in the middle of both of these conversations, Arne Duncan walked in and introduced himself! Needless to say, we were surprised because we were told he would NOT be at the meeting. Especially since he entered, along with one of his top aides, just as things were starting to get heated and real disagreements were emerging.

After introducing himself and saying that he could only stay for a few minutes, Secretary Duncan asked for two things:

  • first if we could articulate our concerns about the Department’s policies on dealing with Special needs students, and secondly,
  • if Shoneice and Asean could step out with him to talk about what was going on in Chicago.

In response to his first comment, Marla Kilfoyle started speaking about her concerns about Department from her standpoint of the parent of a special needs student as well as a teacher. She said it appeared that Department policies were forcing school districts to disregard individual student IEP’s and exposing special needs students to inappropriate and abusive levels of testing.

Secretary Duncan deflected her remarks by saying that the Department was concerned that too many children of color were being inappropriately diagnosed as being Special Needs children and that once they were put in that category they were permanently marginalized.

Secretary Duncan deflected her remarks by saying that the Department was concerned that too many children of color were being inappropriately diagnosed as being Special Needs children and that once they were put in that category they were permanently marginalized. He then said “We want to make sure that all student are exposed to a rigorous curriculum.”

At that point, I interrupted him in a very loud voice and said “ We don’t like the word ‘rigor.” We prefer to talk about creativity and maximizing students potential.”

Secretary Duncan was somewhat taken aback by my comments.

He said “we might disagree about the language, but what I want is for all students to be able to take advanced placement courses or be exposed to an IB (International Baccalaureat) curriculum

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At this point, Larry Proffitt interrupted the Secretary and said that in Tennessee, Special Needs students were being abused and humiliated by abusive and inappropriate testing and that their teachers knew this, and were afraid to speak out.

We were clearly at an impasse here, which the Secretary dealt with by saying he had to leave and asking Shoneice and Asean to step into the hall with him and continue the conversation.

The rest of us in the room were all now pretty confused and more than a little upset. However, James Kim spoke up and said that the rest of the DOE staff were ready to spend up to a half an hour more continuing the conversation, and hopefully we could develop some consensus on areas of agreement and ways of continuing the dialogue.

Now things started to get really interesting! The woman from the Communications office who hadn’t previously spoken up, said that she was concerned about how angry teachers were at the Department since it was her experience that every time Secretary Duncan travelled to a new city, he met with teachers to hear their concerns. I then said, perhaps impolitely, that the Secretary fueled teacher mistrust by making statement after statement showing disrespect for teachers, from his support of the firings of Central Falls Rhode Island teachers in 2009, to his comments on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans public schools, to his support of Cathy Black for NYC school chancellor, to his recent endorsement of the Vergara decision undermining teacher due process.

“Maybe if you can tell him to stop making provocative comments like these,” I said, “maybe teachers will regard the Department more favorably.”

At this point, Dr. Yohuru Williams chimed in with a suggestion for how the Department could genuinely welcome teacher voices -- calling a “National Teachers Congress” -- where teachers from all over the country could come together to frankly express their concerns about Department of Education policies. He added “those teachers can’t be handpicked to say what the Department wants to hear, they have to be democratically selected.” His suggestion was discussed for several minutes and the Communication directors promised to give it serious consideration. This was one of the few talking points in the meeting from which there might be some serious follow up

After this the Director of Community Outreach and one of the interns started critiquing our perspective that federal policies were driving the best teachers out of the profession, stifling creativity in the classroom, and leading to a decline in teachers of color. In doing so they started defending school closings and VAM, asking us whether there were any circumstances under which schools should be close and whether there was any method of evaluating teachers that did not rely on student test scores.


At this point, Dr Williams spoke up, saying that in Connecticut, the suppression of community voices in cities like Bridgeport by unelected school boards was being justified by arguments that mayoral control was supported, if not required, by Race to the Top, and that similar dynamics were at play in Hartford and New London.

“Does the US Department of Education support real democracy in education decision making,” Dr. Williams he asked?

They two officials had no real answer to what Dr Wiliams was saying and deflected attention from his critique by insisting that we needed to hold teachers accountable by student test scores because there was no other way of making sure teachers took every student seriously and helped all of them reach their full potential.

Now things started to get really heated. Larry Proffitt said that teaching to the test is not real teaching and to have students full potential unleashed , you needed teachers to give them individual attention and kinds of indepth instruction and inspiration that no bubble test could measure. I said VAM was a disaster, along with the rest of Race to the Top, and we need a two-year moratorium on test-based teacher evaluation.

James Kim then entered as a peacemaker and said “how can we keep this discussion going?” We said, call us back. We are glad to continue a discussion about how to best get teacher voices more input into Department policy, how to find forms of assessing teacher quality that do not depend on student test scores, and how to attract and retain more great teachers, especially teachers of color.

Mr. Kim and the two communications office said they would find ways of keeping the conversation going, and then called an end to the meeting.

We left the meeting feeling that we had spoken frankly, that we had been heard, that some people agreed with our main points, while others disagreed.

However, nothing concrete had been achieved. There were no policy changes that anyone had agreed to and certainly no overall agreement to reverse the directions of Race to the Top.

There were a few small glimmers of hope at the end of the meeting. Mr Kim, the top Civil Rights official , came up to me after the meeting and said that he really liked our group, that he would try to find ways of keeping the conversation going, and that he would like to meet with me the next time he came to New York. I agreed to remain in communications with him. Through the entire meeting, he had been respectful, helpful and astute.

Then, after everyone else left, another staff member from the Office of Civil Rights came up to me and said he really liked what we had to say. What could their office do right now to help us? I thought a second and said to him, “Investigate charter school abuses. All over the nation, unregulated charters are employing disciplinary practices and expelling students in ways which would not be acceptable in a public school. If your office would start investigating such practices as civil rights violations, it would make a huge difference.”

He smiled at me and said “Thanks for the suggestion. I will look into it.”

His response gave me a glimmer of hope that some of the ten plus people in that room were on the same page as BATS on a few issues, even though the Secretary was clearly unmoved by anything we said.

mark naison

We spoke truth to power, without fear and without compromise.

Whether we will be called back to continue the conversation only time will tell.

Mark Naison
With A Brooklyn Accent