Education Opinion

If I Were Arne Duncan...

By Nancy Flanagan — May 09, 2011 3 min read
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Well. It turns out that social justice and the Secretary of Education are hot topics, drawing approbation as well as pushback. Who am I, the Teacher in a Strange Land, to question the policy parameters of educational equity and democracy? Inquiring minds want to know.

I am thinking here about attending a 50th anniversary celebration of the Brown decision in Washington D.C., where I was afforded an upside-the-head enlightenment by meeting a small group of elderly African-American women who lost their jobs teaching in all-black schools in the South, in 1954, when those schools were rendered “inherently inequal,” in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The teachers had plenty to say. Unlike the “better qualified” teachers in the integrated schools their students were sent to, they cherished the pupils they were instructing in 1954, enough to be very tough on them. They had been teaching a demanding traditional curriculum, plus other key life lessons, including why their pupils would always have to work harder to demonstrate competence, and whose rhetoric could genuinely be trusted. It was the first time I had really considered the widespread unintended consequences of the mother of all civil rights education law. But these women had lived with them, for decades.

Plenty of dubious legislation has been passed in the name of equity, and plenty of policy-makers have turned to puffed-up language--- changing life trajectories and overcoming obstacles--to pursue a range of goals, from the noble to the power-grasping. At the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio provides a sampling of these claims--then finishes up by questioning whose ideas about democratic equality are the most worthy. My nominees? The dignified ladies I met in D.C..

I’d also suggest the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation--an institution founded to overcome the legacy of “separate but equal.” Phoebe Ferguson, great-great-granddaughter of Judge John Howard Ferguson, will be presenting a free webinar on Thursday evening to discuss the policy decisions now being used to tear apart one of America’s best ideas: equitable public education for all children.

One thing I am sure of, however, is this: Vigorously seeking true educational equity should be Arne Duncan’s most important job. Perhaps his only job, as head overseer of rapidly increasing federal power over decisions that used to be made in the classroom, the principal’s office and the school board meeting. Providing solid research and rationale for every single one of the principles embedded in the Race to the Top, for example--and how they would demonstrably enhance prospects for all children, rather than simply scoring legislative wins, or providing windfall profits for education publishers and entrepreneurs.

But as Gamal Sherif points out, it’s important to have alternatives. He asks:

If you were the Secretary of Education, what would be your talking points on these issues? For each item where Secretary Duncan has fallen short for your expectations/hopes, how would you handle the issues? What do you want?

Just off the top of my head--if I were Secretary of Education, I would:

• Fight to preserve the idea of open opportunity embedded in our national consciousness, rather than use my bully pulpit to shame schools and teachers.

Support--through policy and language--public schools (not publicly-funded experiments in for-profit education).

• Honor the accrued wisdom of experienced, accomplished teachers and seek ways to use their talents to do a better job of inducting the next generation of teachers.

• Speak often and urgently about strategies other nations have used to successfully build more effective and autonomous teaching forces, including targeted professional learning, intense focus on school climate, and building assessment literacy in all teachers.

• Promote use of rich data to better analyze student learning, diagnose difficulties, and prescribe effective instruction--rather than promote the rank-ordering of teachers and kids.

• Publicly recognize and admire teachers who work in our most challenging schools--teachers as heroes--rather than allowing my press staff to joke that an outstanding teacher with an honest concern could have her award rescinded.

• Use federal education dollars equitably, rather than reward state compliance through competitive grants.

• Declare a moratorium on federally mandated testing, until the right combination and frequency of non-punitive, diagnostic assessments, administered by teachers and aligned with state curriculum goals, could be determined. Get out of the semi-fraudulent standardized testing business.

• Announce that the federal government was also out of the business of rewarding teachers for test scores, determining a national curriculum and inviting billionaires to try their hand at education policy.

• Ban the use of sports metaphors in education policy speeches.

What would you do if you were Secretary of Education?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.