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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

Tom Friedman’s Embarrassing Man-Crush on Sec. Duncan

By Rick Hess — December 03, 2012 4 min read
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Many people say nice things about our earnest Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. It’s easy to see why, even if one thinks the Obama administration has made its share of mistakes on education. He’s a pleasant, even-tempered guy; has comported himself in Chicago and D.C. with class; and has gotten some significant stuff right, like giving his terrific “New Normal” speech and broadening out the reform agenda in helpful ways. But none of that explains the bizarre, mouth-breathing man-crush that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has on him.

In a NYT column last week that I found fairly disturbing (Arne, please call the stalker hotline before you turn in tonight), Friedman instructs President Obama that his next Secretary of State should be Duncan. Friedman’s got a number of reasons for this. My favorite is: “As our foreign budget shrinks, more and more of it will have to be converted from traditional grants to ‘Races to the Top,’ which Duncan’s Education Department pioneered in U.S. school reform. We will have to tell needy countries that whoever comes up with the best ideas for educating their young women and girls...will get our scarce foreign aid dollars.” Uhh, Friedman might want to check back with his sources at Foggy Bottom on the likelihood of all this. Imagining you can use an interesting and novel (if overhyped) domestic grant program as the foundation for revamping foreign aid is peculiar. Regardless, I love the notion of Duncan ordering would-be aid applicants to file their 500 page applications, filled with international development jargon, in line with his 19 priorities. That would be good fun.

In his typically measured prose, Friedman terms our earnest Secretary “one of the world’s leading authorities on education,” explaining, “Everyone would want to talk to him. For instance, it would be very helpful to have a secretary of state who can start a negotiating session with Hamas leaders...by asking: ‘Do you know how far behind your kids are?’” I’m kind of surprised to learn that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Friedman believes our biggest failure in Middle East diplomacy has been not talking with Hamas about proficiency rates.

Friedman writes, “Anyone who has negotiated with the Chicago Teachers Union, as Duncan did when he was superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools...would find negotiating with the Russians and Chinese a day at the beach.” Ummm, I’m not even sure what to do with that. First off, there’s zero evidence Duncan was a savvy negotiator. All those CBA provisions that Rahm Emanuel sought to address this year? Duncan did nothing to get those out, or to even make the public aware of them. (Oh, and remember that TNTP has reported CPS terminated just nine teachers for poor performance between 2003-08, during Duncan’s tenure as superintendent--not exactly evidence that Duncan was Horatio at the bridge.) Typically, you see, we say somebody is a good negotiator because of what they won in negotiations. Friedman doesn’t even try to go there.

More to the point, Duncan’s first-term accomplishments were fueled by an unprecedented infusion of more than $100 billion in education stimulus funding--$8 billion of which funded i3, Race to the Top, and SIG. I’ll tell you what, when you’re the guy with billions of dollars in free money during the Great Recession, you don’t have to be an especially good negotiator to get people to do things. For all Friedman’s enthusiasm for the Race to the Top, it’s worth remembering that the feds can get states to promise to do these things--but it can’t make them do them well. And, the frustrating thing, is that for things like teacher evaluation and school turnarounds, how you do them matters a lot more than whether you do them.

Friedman asserts, “Trust me, if you can cut such deals with Randi Weingarten, who is president of the American Federation of Teachers, you can do them with Vladimir Putin and Bibi Netanyahu.” This is just strange. First off, I’m not aware of any deal that Duncan has ever cut with Weingarten--unless it was him agreeing in September to help get Rahm to fold if she’d help keep the CTU strike from embarrassing President Obama in the weeks before the upcoming election. More tellingly, this is just the kind of silly, “ain’t-that-cute” compliment that is embarrassing to the entire K-12 sector. You know, “Oh, look, how cute... Sec. Duncan got Randi to attend a ‘collaboration’ summit in Denver--clearly, he’s the guy to get the Iranians to back off on the bomb, Egyptian president Morsi to abandon his totalitarian aspirations, and Syrian president Assad to stop murdering his countrymen.”

Like I said, I like Duncan. I disagree with plenty of things he’s said and done, but I respect him and what he’s trying to do. But fatuous commentary like Friedman’s envelops Duncan and the Obama administration’s K-12 efforts in fanboy praise and makes it harder to talk honestly about what the administration has gotten right and wrong.

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