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8/30/10 photo credit Michael Moore/The Keene Sentinel

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks to students and staff at Keene State College on Monday night.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Schools chief is college visitor

KEENE – U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan started out class with a pop quiz: How many of the nation’s teachers are expected to retire in the six or seven years?

The answer: 1 million, he said.

“That’s a third of the work force,” Duncan said, sitting at the front of a classroom at Keene State College on Monday evening. “That presents some big challenges, but it also presents some huge opportunities. The question is how we recruit that next generation of new talent.”

This was not Duncan’s class, but a mixture of undergraduate and graduate students in the college’s teacher education program. Monday was their first day of school, and Duncan was visiting with the students, as part of his “Courage in the Classroom” bus tour.

Duncan, who was CEO of Chicago Public Schools before being appointed secretary of education by President Barack Obama, rolled into Keene in a blue shuttle bus. He had come from a stop in Springfield, Mass., earlier in the day, with stops in Manchester and Portsmouth scheduled for today.

Duncan spent an hour with the students, some of whom were just entering their education program, and others who are already teachers and pursuing master’s degrees. Duncan went back and forth with the students about the future of education.

“Do you think teachers are respected enough in our society?” Duncan asked.

“It could be a little better,” said Cara Down, 45, who is pursuing her master’s degree in education leadership. One way to help is to get more people from the community into the classrooms to see where their money is going, she said.

Duncan said part of what he wants to do is shine a light on effective teaching around the country. He said he is confident the nation will be able to recruit the next generation of great teachers, but it’s about finding ways to retain them and not burn them out.

Duncan left no doubts about what he thinks needs to be done to improve teacher effectiveness. First, achieving tenure as a teacher should be a more rigorous process, he said. Right now, too many teachers receive tenure after accumulating two or three years of service as opposed to making it something they earn through performance, he said.

“It should be a meaningful bar, rather than just an absolute,” he said.

Also, Duncan said more needs to be done to reform the teacher evaluation process, too. Most evaluation systems are “broken and somewhat irrelevant.” Paying teachers based on their performance is also critical, he said.

“We should reward excellence more in education. Part of our challenge in education is we treat everybody identically,” Duncan said. “In far too many places, they don’t distinguish between the Picassos and the Mozarts and those just struggling to stay in the profession.”

But using standardized test scores to measure that could turn teachers away from urban, low-income areas, said Dottie Bauer, a professor in the Keene State College education department.

“I hope we can come up with creative ways to encourage new teachers to make that difference,” Bauer said.

Duncan didn’t shy away from asking students about controversial topics such as paying teachers in critical shortage areas higher salaries. Finding effective math and science teachers has been a struggle for decades, and Duncan asked whether they should be paid more to entice them to education.

There were differing opinions, with some students saying the reality is it’s the only way to bring them to teaching when they could make more in the private sector.

“If you want staff in a competitive market, math and science are more competitive, and you just have to pay more,” said Denis Jobin, 31. Jobin is an ESL teacher in Milford pursuing his master’s degree.

Others feared having a differing pay scale based on subject area would create animosity within schools. Corinne Ginsberg, 31, said too often, the way of thinking is to draw math and science people from the private sector.

“The way we should think about it is finding people good at teaching and giving them the skills,” she said. “Unequal pay not only sets a terrible work environment, but it doesn’t send a very good message to students either.”

Duncan’s visit comes a week after a poll showed support for Obama’s education agenda waning. Thirty-four percent of Americans give the president a grade of A or B with regard to his performance in support of public schools, according to an annual poll conducted by Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup. That is down from 45 percent last year.

The poll also showed that while the public is generally supportive of charter schools and improving teacher quality through merit pay, they do not support firing staff and shutting down low-performing schools.

Duncan has spearheaded programs like Race to the Top, which pitted states against one another to compete for billions in federal funding. New Hampshire applied twice for funding but was shut out.

Duncan said there is still room for states like New Hampshire to acquire funding for innovative education ideas. He said there would be another round of Race to the Top next year, but cautioned the money isn’t just going to come without dedication to real reform.

“We’re going to continue to put our resources behind places that are going to raise the bar,” Duncan said.

New Hampshire has received funding through the federal School Improvement Grant, which gives money to states that commit to turnaround in lowest-performing schools. Schools in three communities – Manchester, Pittsfield and Milton – will receive more than a $1 million in funding this year, said Kathleen Murphy with the state Department of Education.

In order to receive the funding, those schools had to choose one of four models for reform established by the U.S. Department of Education, all of which include replacing the principal. Schools in Franklin and Farmington opted out of taking the money because of the federal requirements attached, she said.

After the discussion, Ginsberg said staying in education has been difficult. She’s been looking for a teaching job for two years with no luck. She estimated she’s sent out a hundred applications.

Brenna Iselin, 25, chatted with Duncan afterward about the impact that student teaching had on her effectiveness as a teacher. Learning things in a college classroom was fine, but it wasn’t until she stepped into a classroom that she gained confidence, she said.

Iselin is now a fourth-grade teacher in Winchester, where she also student taught. The toughest part of the job she has found is getting parents with negative attitudes toward education to play a role in their child’s school.

“That negative attitude rubs off on their children,” she said.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or