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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 07/19/2010

A letter to Secretary Arne Duncan

By Valerie Strauss

Rita Solnet, a Florida businesswoman and education activist, sent me the following letter, which she wrote and sent to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. It raises some important issues, including what some people see as differences between Duncan's rhetoric and his policies.

Solnet refers to an article in the Kansas City Star on July 14, which reported on a speech Duncan made to the NAACP during its annual convention in Kansas City.

“The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve it in the classroom," Duncan told the delegates in a speech that you can read in its entirety at the Department of Education website here.

Here's the Solnet letter:

July 16, 2010
Dear Secretary Duncan:

Reading your comments in the Kansas City Star [in an article] entitled, “Education is Civil Rights Issue of Our Generation,’ I simply had to write.

I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. However, the DOE’s Blueprint for Reform and Race to the Top competitive grants abandon the very children who desperately need to be educated--those who are English language learners, the poverty stricken, homeless, autistic, disabled, etc.

The DOE’s reform initiatives and criteria to ’win’ grant money narrow the curriculum by its obsessive focus on standardized tests.

The DOE’s reform initiatives and criteria to ’win’ grants not only reinforce teaching to the test and constant test prep, but demand it.

If your salary, your livelihood, and your school’s very survival depend on students’ performance on one reading and [one] math test, wouldn’t you prioritize test prep above all else? Would you willingly risk your livelihood by agreeing to teach the most challenged students?

Further, does obsessively focused test prep on standardized tests simply negate any end result?

The DOE’s reforms are ... predicated on high stakes test scores from standardized tests. Why take a statistically proven failed initiative (NCLB, or No Child Left Behind) and use it as a foundation to launch new reforms?

Secretary Duncan, you have an opportunity to be the hero this country needs. You have the ability to stop these initiatives and regroup. Gain input from all levels of ’stakeholders’ in the process, gain endorsement of a new plan--a plan in which all levels of stakeholders take pride in developing and launching. Congresswoman Judy Chu’s plan is a great first start. The DOE’s proposed four (4) turnaround models [for the worst schools in each state] will not work. Scrap them, start over. Closing public schools should not be an option.

The higher the stakes for standardized tests, the greater the failure of education. I know you want our nation’s children to learn. Your staff relayed that you care deeply about children learning and succeeding in life. These proposed reforms will fail to educate children.

The DOE’s Blueprint for Reform merely ensures a society with lines drawn between the "haves" and the "have-nots". Even the hyped up charters aren’t saving these children. Many privatized charter schools won’t admit ’hard to teach’ students because it will drag their coveted high stakes test scores down too. Please don’t tell me this is a myth. I know it is true. I live outside the Beltway!

Since it is necessary to pigeon hole everyone these days--I’m not red, nor blue. I never owned a union card. I am from corporate America with an MBA. I’m not a teacher, although I respect teachers tremendously. I’ve volunteered in schools 15 years. I’ve held numerous executive and leadership positions. No child of mine ever played soccer. I am a parent.

Mr. Duncan, what you say and what you do, seem to me to be conflicting. Perhaps there is a communication disconnect within the ranks of the Dept of Education and the states? Perhaps there is a communication disconnect between your office and that of the DOE Grants’ Office? Whatever it is, it must be resolved. I’ve watched your interviews, listened to you at the Governor’s conference, read your speeches and articles '[about you] such as this one in the Kansas City Star, and the message is diametrically opposed to the actions of your office. I’m not alone in my thinking. I wouldn’t waste time writing to you if I was.

Undertaking a massive organizational change of any kind requires clarity in communication as well as input from those you expect to become your "change agents" on the front lines. Until this effort is stopped, examined, feedback incorporated, pilot tested, then launched properly, it will fail miserably.

The problem is, it will fail millions of children in this nation for yet another year. Public education is in shambles right now because of eight years of NCLB; not because of a slew of incompetent teachers. Reforms were tossed at teachers repeatedly year after year and each time the stakes were raised higher. Teachers seem to be under attack when many are already leaving the profession. Retention rate of qualified, seasoned teachers must be an even greater problem than ever before in our history.

This is not, as I am sure you are aware, some new product being launched in the marketplace which can be tweaked, then hyped, until it finds its niche. These are children’s lives, their futures, communities’ livelihoods all in jeopardy and all waiting for someone to stop this high speed train crash.

Be please that hero, Mr. Duncan. You are a natural fit for a Superman costume! Race to the Top and those four turnaround models are career kryptonite.

Thanks for reading this in advance,

Very truly yours,

Rita M. Solnet


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By Valerie Strauss  | July 19, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan  | Tags:  arne duncan, failure of nclb, nclb, obama's education blueprint, race to the top grants, rita solnet, school reform  
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I agree with Mrs. Solnet. You can't fire and "fail" your way to improving eeducation for all students.

if anyone wants a real-life example of how incredibly stupid RTTT and NCLB are, here's a link to a NY Times story on a terrific yet "failing" principal.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | July 19, 2010 7:09 AM | Report abuse

Great letter except for one thing: the writer thinks that Arne Duncan is capable of changing his ways, really listening to what other people say, and moving the nation to an education policy that actually makes sense. But he won't and he can't. His entire record shows that he is a complete ideologue who ignores evidence and contrary views while championing his own stupid, corporate-slanted schemes. This letter should have been addressed to Obama, not Duncan, urging the former to fire the latter.

Posted by: dz159 | July 19, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

This letter is heartening. Besides being generally full of common sense, it was fun to read, "I know this is true. I live outside the Beltway." LOL

Posted by: celestun100 | July 19, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

I read this link as well. It is just despicable that a good principal is fired and that others that probably cheat or just do test prep all year are being praised.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 19, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Justice Scalia has a few remarks on extortion regarding 18 U.S.C. 1951 and the term "under color of official right" that are worth reading:

Nikki1231, the article to which you supplied the link noting the release of the successful principal surely hits the target for "the essence of extortion is duress" as mentioned by Justice Scalia within the Court's conclusion in 1991.

Our schoolchildren have become property in a sense and monies are heavily attached to them, monies venomously sought after through profiteers of testing conglomerates, charter schools entities, business/ed schools, etc. Where will local elected school boards be in a few years during this Duncan/Obama reign of terror? They know. Duncan and Company squish the avenues of funding for education, save the avenues of their own choosing (i.e. Race to the Top), which will lead otherwise decent humans to do such uncomely things, apply for grants loading with wretched contingencies in order to merely have some meager funds with which to keep the school doors open.

Posted by: shadwell1 | July 19, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Thank you Mrs. Solnet for representing teachers so well. Coming from the business world it is even more important. I'm from the same county and this woman is amazing. I quiet the kids down to watch the Board meetings just to hear her speeches. She gets to the point quickly and sensibly and she is witty. We call her the teacher's guardian angel. Business people listen to her because she makes sense. Maybe the Dept of Ed will. Thank you, as a Florida teacher, I'm very grateful to you for all you have done for us this year.

Posted by: roberta67 | July 19, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Obama's team will NOT change.

We have seen the articles, and read the GREAT letters and internet comments that show a majority of America's teachers understand the failure of NCLB, Race and standardized testing.

What we do not yet have are national, state and local candidates who can put our convictions into actions. Where are you? Who are you? Many "someones" need to pick up the torch.

Posted by: jscott28 | July 19, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

I was initially distressed that Rita Solnet compared Arne Duncan favorably to Superman. This is because I think he isn’t one and because I want to dissuade the notion only a miracle can fix the schools, when what is needed are thoughtful and sensible solutions.

Then I decided that perhaps since Duncan already probably perceives himself as a super-hero, perhaps a logical first step is to flatter him so he’ll be open to receiving the much needed instruction on how a true human hero would act.

It’s very disheartening to think that the secretary of education’s ego is so great and mind is so closed that flattery is the only way to get his attention, but desperate measures are needed for desperate times. Let’s hope Ms. Solnet’s strategy works.

Posted by: efavorite | July 19, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I think she meant he could be Superman, if he rose to the occasion and blew the whistle on the NCLB and Race to the Top nonsense.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 19, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

I have been working closely with Rita Solnet for the past year on Testing is not Teaching, a facebook site that keeps the public informed on all issues pertaining to education locally in Palm Beach County, Fl. and, now, on a national level. We grew to over 11,300 fans. One thing I can tell you for sure about Rita, she is dedicated and very well respected for her hard work and views on both sides of the issue. If she had the chance to meet with those drafting policies, I think some changes could be accomplished. We should all follow her example and with our letters to Duncan, the Senators and Obama, but do not stop there. Get involved with your state reps, senators, school board members and so on, let them know that we are not ok with RTTT and NCLB. Together our collective voice will be heard!

Posted by: LisaMGoldman | July 19, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

This is not, as I am sure you are aware, some new product being launched in the marketplace which can be tweaked, then hyped, until it finds its niche. These are children’s lives, their futures, communities’ livelihoods all in jeopardy and all waiting for someone to stop this high speed train crash.

Great letter! A business person, not a teacher, recognizing and passionately telling people that teaching children is not the same as creating products to be marketed.

Nor should it ever be!

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | July 19, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

I don't agree with everything that Arne Duncan has proposed....but to all of those who oppose his (and others') measures....


Posted by: holzhaacker | July 19, 2010 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Great article Ms. Solnet. But Duncan will not listen to you, he will only listen to the business interests that stand to gain from his "supposed" reform. They are the only people he wants input from.

What he needs to be told is that unless he brings in true reform versus his "supposed" reform that a lot of Obama supporters are going to look for another candidate for the next election. These will be the people, like us, that he is currently ignoring.

Posted by: jlp19 | July 20, 2010 12:25 AM | Report abuse


Schools had begun to address that by using behavoiral intervention to keep inner city classes under control. Classroom management is 10 times harder in a poorer school in high crime, gang ridden neighborhood with fragmented families than in middle class or wealthier neighborhoods. The reason the kids don't learn as much in poorer schools is because there is so much more disruption in the classroom. That's why school started investing with in personnel with specialized training in classroom behavioral techniques.

But all that stopped when NCLB became law. That's because the schools had to divert the money used to pay for behavioral intervention to pay for yearly standardized test scores.

By the way, no school is totally failing, there are only parts of it that is failing. And to address those parts you need behavioral intervention (and social workers and counselors) to help the children whose emotional problems are destroying classtime. You can't use military type discipline with them, it just leads to more disruption. That why you need specialists.

Posted by: jlp19 | July 20, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse

@jlp19- I couldn't agree more. There is a wealth of information out there on behavioral programs. They work!

Posted by: Nikki1231 | July 20, 2010 7:50 AM | Report abuse

You're right.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 21, 2010 4:32 AM | Report abuse

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