Thoughts on Booing Arne Duncan at AERA

A lot of hullabaloo has been sparked regarding Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s anger-rousing presentation at the American Education Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting last week in San Francisco. Jennifer Jennings publicly apologized to him via her blog in Education Week here. Others have mocked her apology such as here. Diane Ravitch questioned the meaning behind the boos here.  I missed the beginning of his talk (I was coaching a graduate student on her writing/work after a presentation), but I managed to catch most of it.

Let me set the stage: AERA was grossly underprepared for the large audience who wanted to hear Duncan. When I arrived at the rooms (three conjoined hotel conference rooms) this is what it looked like:

arne duncan

That wooden door you see on the left was where he was speaking. I couldn’t even look in because the doorway was crammed full of people and the gross feeling of warm air heated by hot bodies wafted out of what was normally an overly-air conditioned space. I am sure that heat was generated from everyone simmering over his words.

I wasn’t there when he approached the stage and was booed, but I did hear booing as he spoke. I didn’t boo, but mainly because he wouldn’t have heard me. But I would have booed had I been in the audience. Shamelessly. Instead I cursed quietly to myself and tweeted and facebook updated my rage.

As I stood far removed from the Secretary of Education himself and listened to his words via a circular speaker in the ceiling amid a grumbling crowd, I thought that the entire situation seemed a pretty apt metaphor for the distance between us. Me, a teacher who spent 11 years in failing schools here in New York City who now teaches community college. Him, a policy and government guy. There will always be rooms and crowds and grumbling to separate us. We will never talk face-to-face.

He made a lot of comments that caused me shake my head and roll my eyes with a group of folks from UCLA who crowded beneath the overhead speaker with me. But I found myself seething at one particular statement he said:

“Our high needs schools have yet to find the most talented teachers.”

Wow. Thanks, Arne.

I was (am) a talented teacher. I am not afraid to say that in print. I love teaching deeply. I work hard at it. I was a talented teacher in my high needs school, and I worked with MANY talented teachers. Yes, we had teacher attrition among our talented teachers. Many left to go work at schools with less “needs.” Many left from burnout. Many left because it’s hard to make ends meet on a teacher’s salary here in NYC. But many stayed. Many talented folks stayed. And of those talented teachers, many are still at my old high school today, right now as I type this, negotiating the end of beautiful spring day, short attention spans, skimpy spring clothing, and the upcoming Regents Exam stress.

I was infuriated by his statement. I posted it on Facebook, where, of course, my teacher friends all rallied around me. One friend, a composition teacher and scholar, said, “Sounds like he should have taken a writing class, in which one learns about understanding one’s audience.” I had a nice chuckle at that. Until I thought about it.

The thing is, he DID know his audience. Just two hours earlier, I had been the discussant on a panel presentation called “Adolescents and High School Problems.” Four researchers presented their work on homelessness, truancy, drop-out rates, and high-aggression students from high schools in the U.S. and Europe. As I stood to give them my feedback, I asked if anyone in the audience of about 30 people had ever taught high school. ONE hand went up. ONE HAND. onehandonehandonehand.

Only one.

I realized that Arne Duncan felt he could say something disparaging about teachers who work in high needs schools because, for the most part, they are not at AERA. They are in their classrooms on a Tuesday afternoon, TEACHING. And, just as there is a divide between myself and Arne Duncan, there is an equally as large divide (if not larger?) between the practicing educator and the world of educational research.

My take away from Arne Duncan’s talk was that he felt at liberty to say what he said because the audience at AERA is not filled with practicing pedagogues from the nation’s public K-12 schools; it is filled with academics, researchers, graduate students who want to be academics and researchers, and a few teachers. And while I find much of what Arne Duncan said problematic, I find the absence of teachers and those who have taught for sustained amounts of time (not the 2-years TFA “experience”) within the world of educational research equally as problematic. I feel that the folks that booed were perhaps booing for teachers and the state of public education today because teachers barely have a whisper in the world of policy, theory, research, and reform. I appreciate that spirit of collective anger–I do. Teachers and schools need people in their corner. And I would like to say that the teachers need to be the ones booing, the ones raising hell right now, but I also know from a professional standpoint that such a move is too risky for many.


I have no grand conclusions here, just wishes that there were more teachers at the tables of AERA, that more researchers spent time teaching the population that constitutes their data, that more policy makers took a year off here and there to teach in a high needs school, and that more booing came directly from those who have reason to boo the loudest: the teachers, administrators, parents, and students who are the high needs schools in our country.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Booing Arne Duncan at AERA

  1. Pingback: A Conference for Educators by Educators | readwriteteach

  2. Great post. I share your sentiments, as someone who has taught public high school, taught college, and is a parent of a public school fourth grader. It’s probably not a surprise (even if disturbing) that so few public school teachers are encouraged to participate in educational research conferences, given budget constraints and the overall cultural mindset in the public schools over the last decades. but it obviously needs to change. As for Arne Duncan, I’m not sure what it accomplishes to boo him (though it felt good, I’m sure), but I don’t have any moral opposition to it. Perhaps the better, more effective strategy would be to confront him on the idiocy of comments such as the one that you cite about the dearth of excellent teachers at challenging, inner city schools!


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