Federal Opinion

The Upside of Arne Duncan

By Nancy Flanagan — October 05, 2015 3 min read
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So what are we to make of Arne Duncan’s surprise departure from his cabinet position, where he dutifully played POTUS Basketball Bud and less-than-articulate mouthpiece for the extremely well-heeled Democrats for Education Reform?

Does anyone else wonder about the timing of this? Why was John B. King waiting in the wings? What’s the policy-making strategy here--and who’s calling the shots?

I have heard Arne Duncan speak--live, in a roomful of educators or ed-policy folk--perhaps a dozen times. Once, when he was the young, enthusiastic CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and flacking a (successful, meaningful) National Board Certification program in his district. Once, when he was speaking to state Teachers of the Year at an elegant banquet in a D.C. hotel--he had just been named Secretary of Education--and he spoke with great sincerity about a good public education as civil right for all children, and got an honest, unprompted standing ovation from some of the nation’s best teachers.

Later, I heard him speak to National Board Certified Teachers, suggesting that they (rather than “ordinary” teachers), ought to be making six-figure salaries. That speech went embarrassingly flat. I have also heard him make terrible, rote, off-the-prompter speeches where he couldn’t wait to get out of the room. No time for questions, thanks.

I have spoken to Arne Duncan in a tightly orchestrated and managed conference call, where he was supposed to be “listening.” I can testify: he’s fairly awful at candid dialogue or off-the-cuff Q & A, and that quality has not improved with time.

Perhaps Arne Duncan is just tired of being the Joe Biden of the Department of Education, kept on a short leash should he deliver another gaffe about suburban moms or the benefits of killer hurricanes. Perhaps he really does long to go home and spend more time with his family. Seven years is long enough--although the hands-down best Secretary of Education ever, Richard Riley, served all eight years of the Clinton administration.

I was never on the “Dump Duncan” bandwagon. I heartily disagree with the “NCLB on steroids” policy thrust of the current Department of Education, but I never saw Duncan as effective spokesperson for the behind-the-scenes big guns he for whom was fronting: Gates. Walton. Broad. DFER. He could dish out memorized talking points, sort of, but skilled interviewers have run circles around the Secretary of Education.

Furthermore, getting rid of a hapless Secretary doesn’t mean the policy-making will improve, just as getting rid of an incompetent President hasn’t meant smooth sailing for the Republic. Arne’s blunders have not slowed down the drive to capture the previously untapped K-12 education marketplace.

Every genuine reform movement must have articulate, inspirational leaders with a compelling rhetorical toolkit--and, as Buckminster Fuller reminds us, a brand new and more exciting set of ideas than the existing reality. Arne Duncan never seemed on fire about the messages he was charged with promoting: Testing as essential tool for re-ordering the system. Getting rid of “bad” teachers. Closing struggling schools. A two-tiered system of public education.

Maybe Arne Duncan just wants to get a jump on his next career, take advantage of his association with the White House to do something he actually feels passionate about. Or maybe those behind-the-scenes forces see the end of their influence, come 2016, and want to make the most of the remaining year. And John B. King looks like the man who can advance their cause more effectively than good ol’ Arne.

Is losing Arne Duncan a cause for rejoicing? Eh. Not so much.

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.