Last weekend, two very different speeches on the future of the teaching profession made news.
The first was from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who appeared Friday before the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, which runs the elite National Board certification process for teachers. The United States must follow the example of nations that out-perform us educationally, Duncan said, and begin to recruit most of our public school teachers from the top thirds of their college classes. To do this, he argued, we will need to raise average starting salaries from $30,00 to $60,000 and average salary caps from $70,000 to $150,000.
Is that really possible in a climate of federal, state and local budget cuts? We can find the money, Duncan said, by utilizing technology to “reorganize” schools (read: raise class sizes and shrink the teacher corps); instituting teacher merit pay based in part on student test score data; loosening teacher job security protections; and cutting teacher benefit and pension packages and redirecting some of the funds toward salaries.
Duncan knows such proposals remain controversial among teachers. “I respectfully urge everyone to take a deep breath, hold their fire, and see this as an opportunity to transform the entire profession,” he said, “not as a threat or as an investment we don’t need.”
The second speech was from the actor Matt Damon, a public school graduate and son of a teacher who made news in March when he slammed the Obama administration’s teacher evaluation and pay proposals in a CNN interview. Speaking at the Save Our Schools protest march Saturday near the White House, Damon brought some in the crowd to tears as he painted a more holistic, even romantic portrait of the public school teacher’s role.
“I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test,” Damon said. “If their very survival as teachers was based [not] on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning, but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths, and helping us realize our talents. I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.
“This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel.”
After the speech, Damon and his mom did a short interview with a libertarian Reason.tv reporter. After criticizing “MBA-style thinking” in education policy and defending teacher tenure, Damon angrily contested the cameraman’s assertion that 10 percent of the nation’s 3.2 million teachers are bad at their jobs. “Maybe you’re a shitty cameraman,” Damon countered.