Yesterday, in POLITICO’s annual education issue, reporter Michael Grunwald penned an enthusiastic portrait of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. My favorite quote was former Duncan aide Justin Hamilton saying that “everyone says” that they care about what’s right for kids. But “Arne f---ing means it!” (The implication was that others don’t.) This was the article’s recurrent theme— that the Secretary, his allies, and his underlings see Duncan as uniquely sincere in his commitment to the nation’s students. While I don’t think this is actually true, I do think they believe it to be true— and that illuminates so much of what ails Duncan’s Department of Education.
The danger with becoming convinced of one’s unique goodness is that it becomes only natural to dismiss those who disagree as insufficiently compassionate and concerned. In that way, self-righteousness morphs into close-mindedness, insularity, and disdain for those who might not see things the same way. Duncan’s allegedly superhuman commitment to kids has become a rationale for the Department to ridicule or ignore all manner of disagreement. (One only had to read Duncan’s remarkable interview last week with Alyson Klein of “Politics K-12" to see all of this on display). Indeed, some of us initially sympathetic to Duncan’s aims— and perfectly willing to concede his good intentions— have been struck by his tendency to dismiss concerns and belittle those who raise them. This kind of certainty in one’s own righteousness can even lead one into a double standard, as Duncan views the actions of others through a lens very different than the one he applies to himself.
- There was his speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors when he dismissed all concerns about the Common Core as the product of a tinfoil hat lunatic “fringe” and charged them with debunking concerns.
- In 2009, after nine months in office, Duncan finally got around to giving a speech titled “Reauthorization of ESEA: Why We Can’t Wait.” Ironically, Duncan took five more months just to issue a broad-strokes “blueprint” proposal for reauthorization, a proposal which then went nowhere in the Democratic Congress. He then went on to blast Republicans on Capitol Hill for inaction, and insist they forced the administration to resort to waivers.
- When congressional Republicans raised concerns about the administration preschool proposals, Duncan dismissed Republican concerns as “morally indefensible” and tantamount to “education malpractice.” He later expressed bewilderment at his difficulty drumming up Republican support. He explained, “I’m spending time every day, including this morning, talking to Republican members of the House and Senate to try and encourage them to be supportive....This should absolutely be a non-political, non-ideological investment.”
- Duncan supports charter schooling and dismisses charter school critics but, when the congressional Republicans pushed to make federal Title I funds portable to charter schools, he blasted them as enemies of public education. Duncan says that collective bargaining needs to be reformed, but he went out of his way to kneecap Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for doing just that. Duncan told Congress more than a half-dozen years ago that NCLB was broken and that the federal government needed to loosen its grip on schools, but he has savaged Hill Republicans as mean-spirited and anti-children for proposing to fix NCLB and reduce the federal role.
I could go on, but there’s no real point. For anyone who becomes convinced that they really care and uniquely get it, it’s remarkably easy to dismiss any and all concerns as signs that others just don’t care and don’t get it. I’ve been concerned for a while now that this is how Duncan’s Department of Education sees the world. I found the POLITICO piece instructive because it’s clear how reflexive, pervasive, and unapologetic that worldview is at 400 Maryland Avenue. Such a mindset is generally problematic, but never more so than when held by high-ranking government officials. For my money, this is a particularly useful prism for understanding those of the Obama administration, writ large, when it comes to education. As I put it in concluding my new essay in National Affairs on “The Real Obama Education Legacy":
Barack Obama came to office at a time of broad bipartisan support for education reform. And he managed to simultaneously exploit and fracture this goodwill. His aggressive approach politicized nearly all that it touched, leaving in its wake unnecessarily divisive national debates over issues like Common Core and sexual harassment on college campuses. Obama’s team went out of its way to attack school vouchers and for-profit colleges, to dismiss “suburban moms” and Capitol Hill Republicans, and even to scorn lunch ladies worried about unrealistic mandates.
Although some of Obama’s education moves have been inopportune, his agenda has also included a number of notions with real promise. But his administration’s excessive faith in federal regulation, lack of time for the niceties of federalism, and contempt for critics helped undermine these ideas and support for reform more broadly. Perhaps above all, Obama’s education legacy shows that good ideas executed poorly can prove not to be such good ideas after all.
It’s nice that Duncan cares. I’m perfectly happy to concede that he wants do to the right thing. But I don’t think that makes him unique, and I don’t actually think he cares a lot more than anyone else. In any event, caring isn’t enough. It doesn’t mean one is necessarily right on important questions. And it certainly doesn’t justify divisive, self-satisfied, or blinkered leadership.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.