Education Opinion

What Should Arne Do?

By Peter Greene — August 27, 2014 6 min read
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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has taken plenty of grief.

He has been criticized by folks on the right who believe he is, at the very least, a hood ornament on the Great Studebaker of Federal Instrusion into education. He has been criticized by folks on the left for being the faceplate on the great machine that is dismantling the US public school system.

Arne is easy to pick apart (I should know-- I’ve done it here, here, here and here, to give just a few examples), and he invites it with such fumbling footinmouthery like his classic slam on white suburban moms. He buddied up with reformsters like John White and Kevin Huffman, cheered for the winners of the Vergara anti-tenure lawsuit, and called Hurrican Katrina a great step forward for New Orleans.

And so the pile gets bigger and bigger. The NEA called for his resignation. The AFT voted that he be sent to his room to think about what he’s done. Conservative CCSS boosters blame his intervention for damaging the Common Core brand. A soon-to-be-published Vanderbilt Law Review article asserts that the signature NCLB waiver program is illegal. NEA president-elect Lily E. Garcia characterized him as well-meaning, sincere, and dead wrong about just about everything. And that’s about the nicest thing anyone has had to say about him in a while.

We’ve hammered Duncan for what he’s gotten wrong. But as teachers, we know that you don’t foster improvement by focusing on the negatives. Can we come up with some suggestions for what Duncan should do? Let me give it a shot with the following suggestions.

Meditate in Pursuit of Personal Integration

I’m not kidding. There has to be a serious discontinuity somewhere inside Duncan’s head, because one of his defining characteristics as Secretary of Education is that the words that come out of his mouth and the policies that come out of his office don’t match.

It has been that way since Day One. Take this quote from his confirmation hearing:

I think the more our schools become community centers, the more they become centers of community and family life, the better our children can do.

There is more in a similar vein. And an admirable vein it is, too, but Duncan’s office has been a huge booster of the charter school movement, including the kind of charter-on-steroid action we’re seeing places like New Orleans and Newark, the kind of chartery “save kids from their zip code” systems that actively oppose neighborhood and community schools.

Duncan’s entire tenure has been more of the same. He uses rhetoric about how teachers deserve more respect and better pay, but he also applauds the death of tenure in California and suggests that educational mediocrity is enabled by the rampant lying of educators. He speaks about the importance of listening to teachers, but he rarely encounters a teacher who hasn’t been vetted and screened. Then we have his recent discovery that tests are being over-emphasized in schools across America, a shocking development that he deplores without any recognition that such test reverence is a direct result of his own policies.

When I look at the huge Antarctic-sized gulf between Duncan’s words and his actions, I can only conclude one of the following is true

1) He is dissembling in the political style

2) He doesn’t understand the effects of administration policies

3) He has in his head a powerful barrier against cognitve dissonance

4) He is privately wracked with existential angst

5) He is full of bovine-issued fertilizer

I’ll admit that some of these are more likely than others. But whatever the case, Duncan needs to align his words and his policies, because either his policies are a betrayal of his principles, or his words are lies. Either way, he needs to check himself. As a nation, we need to have an honest conversation about the policies the government is actually pursuing, not a pleasing word-massage that has no connection to reality. The honest conversation might not be fun or pleasant, but we still need to have it.

Do the Right Thing

The best positive steps for Duncan to take would be to actually reverse the destructive policies that he has been pursuing. I know high government officials rarely write their own speeches, so let me offer a rough draft that Duncan can feel free to use:

Four years ago, with the best of intentions, we embarked on an attempt to rescue American education from the flawed policies of No Child Left Behind and renew our commitment to our children’s education. In pursuing those worthy goals, we made mistakes. I stand before you today to announce that we are prepared to admit those errors and correct our course.

We believed in the promise of charter schools, but we have seen that, unregulated and unmonitored, charters have become a means of bilking taxpayers and destroying communities. We will require all states to return to tight caps on charter creation until we can develop policies that will allow charters to be developed responsibly, and not as get rich quick schemes for educational amateurs.

We believed that the development of national standards would bring consistency to our schools and economies of scale to the educational marketplace, which would in turn make our nation’s school system more efficient and economical. We can now see that no such thing occured. One size does not fit all, and the profit motive has no place in the classroom. As of today, we are withdrawing our support for any sort of national standards movement that does not come from the nation’s schools themselves.

We believed in the value of testing as a way of measuring educational progress. We have come to understand that tests provide a poor measure of the rich educational experiences we desire for all our children, and that our demand that tests be central to all aspects of education has simply warped and twisted the fabric of American schools. As of today, we will remove all federal standardized testing requirements, and we will ensure that such tests will never be used to evaluate students, teachers or schools ever again.

We recognize at last that the problems of poverty-strained schools cannot be solved by tests, attempts to shuffle teachers around, additional bureaucracy, and an infusion of untrained teacher temps. The solution for these schools is to work for long-term solutions to the problems of poverty, and, in the short term, blunt those effects by making sure that economic and educational resources are directed to those schools that cannot secure such resources on their own.

Finally, we pledge to take a step back and to trust the people of states and local school districts to make wise and well-informed decisions about their own education. We will listen to teachers and local officials.In the coming year, we will not issue a single educational edict from DC except to implement the changes that I have just described. And we will not take a single meeting with corporate executives from any education-based businesses. If they want your business, if they want to exert influence over you, they must come to you-- not to us. We are here to help you. We are going to stop telling you what to do.

See how easy that is? Duncan could be a hero tomorrow. If he needs a quiet place to think it over and get in touch with his better side, I have a spare bedroom and I live right next to a river. He’s welcome any time, and I promise not to say a single mean thing to him while he’s here.

ImageMy back yard. Duncan could have peace and quiet to get himself centered here.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats 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.