Standards Opinion

For Arne Duncan, the Buck Stops Over There

By Anthony Cody — January 25, 2014 8 min read
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Guest post by Jake Cooper.

President Truman famously kept a sign in the oval office that read, “The buck stops here.” Leadership leads, in large part, by owning the outcomes of its actions both good and bad, and by directly accepting the blame for failures of its oversight.

That’s what leaders do. It isn’t what politicians do. Politicians instead find someone else to blame. Leaders are chiefly concerned about successfully accomplishing the tasks entrusted to them; politicians are chiefly concerned with selling themselves to the public and maintaining their position. Leaders get things done; politicians market their own image, preened to perfection by dancing around challenges that a leader would confront head-on.

Our current US secretary of education, sadly, has shown little capacity to accept blame or take criticism for much of anything, but is a master of deflection. With Arne Duncan, time and again, the buck stops not here, but over there.

When it comes to education in the United States, the problem is, according to Mr. Duncan, “white suburban moms” who think their kids are smarter than they truly are. These silly women just don’t know enough to be as concerned as they ought to be about their kids’ brainpower. The problem, too, is career educators who have spent their careers lying to children and the public by not letting everyone know how dumb kids really are, in a callous and calculated effort to conceal the truth about themselves (i.e., that they, the public schoolteachers of America, are massive failures top to bottom).

The problems in American education can never, ever be traced back to federal policies or any activities in the purview of the Department of Education, if you listen to the man at the top of hat department. Duncan’s hands are clean, as clean as Pontius Pilate’s.

And what exactly is in the purview of Arne Duncan? How about ensuring equality of educational opportunity for children across our vast nation?

Are schools in the United States equitably funded, so as to provide comparable resources and instructional staff of similar wage and quality to all of our children? Nope--schools in the poorest neighborhoods across America are funded at levels far lower than schools in wealthy neighborhoods, and this occurs as a matter of policy, not by chance, providing wealthy schools (the ones that outperform most of the world on tests like PISA, though you rarely hear the administration mention that, as it doesn’t comport with the “all schools are failing” routine) with newer technology, far more well-stocked libraries, much more highly-paid teachers, more comfortable and confidence-inspiring learning environments, and any number of other advantages over their peers in the poorest areas. Yet Mr. Duncan never talks about the serial short-changing of education in poor rural and urban areas, perhaps because he can’t pin that one on parents and teachers.

“Forget about equity” seems to be the message. Perhaps Team Duncan ascribes to the philosophy that since politics make it hard to invest in poor kids at the same levels that our nation invests in rich kids, we shouldn’t even try.

So, okay, let’s forget about equity. Let’s talk about mere adequacy. Do schools in the United States have sufficient funding to provide the kind of wraparound social services that children living in devastating poverty--which, disgustingly, account for almost a quarter of the children in the wealthiest country on the planet--need in order to even begin to worry about learning more than survival? No, and if you don’t believe me, Google Trenton Central High. We educate our poorest children in bombed out, moldy structures befitting a third world nation.

Maybe we are a third world nation and just don’t admit it.

There are schools in our toughest neighborhoods that lack even basics like heat in the winter and A/C in the summer. This reality isn’t by any means adequate, never mind the inequity plainly obvious when one surveys the gleaming new school buildings in America’s cleanest, safest suburbs.

The sad fact is that there are two Americas. Arne Duncan should be taking ownership of the problem of inequity and inadequate funding for schools in poor areas. He should be using his bully pulpit to go after those who concentrate wealth away from the kids who need the most help. Instead, he spends his time bashing parents, students, and teachers for their perceived failings, and he simultaneously greases the skids for the 1% to wreck public schools via the shock doctrine of under-funding on the one hand and demanding the same results achieved by high-funded schools on the other, then applying punitive measures when the underfunded schools fall short, beginning with labels calling those schools’ quality into question and ending with school closures. Notice how this practice assumes that local educational shortcomings are exclusively the fault of local educators: federal educational policy and practice are held blameless at every turn.

Not surprisingly given this approach, Arne Duncan has overseen the closure of more public schools--predominantly in the neighborhoods populated by the poor--than any other secretary of education, ever. He has, in serial fashion, overseen the breaking of our forebears’ promises to provide a free education to all, trading the obligation of the public to care for one another--especially the weakest and most in need of generosity from the rest of us, our poor children--for the assurances of America’s richest and scabbiest hedge fund managers and CEOs--the same con artists who wrecked banking, housing, and energy, then got bailed out and left the middle class to pick up the pieces--that they will better serve children via competition, branding, marketing, proprietary software, and franchising. “Give us your schools,” they cry, “and we will save these children.”

Arne’s greatest sin is believing them. All his hope is in the rich. He is very disappointed in the rest of us.

Inner city public schools have been, for lack of a better term, sabotaged, then lifted up as examples of a “failing” public school system. Arne Duncan can’t speak enough ill of the system he oversees. When a hurricane wiped out New Orleans and killed hundreds of actual human people, Duncan said, incredibly, that it was the best thing to ever happen to the school system there. I don’t know that an American appointed or elected official has ever said anything more callous and cruel. I do know that since then, claims of a New Orleans “miracle” of privately-run schools doing what the public system was unable to do (and, bonus!, scoring mad profits for some kind oligarchs who had previously been cut out of the education biz) are more marketing than reality. New Orleans competition-based “recovery school district” is the second-worst district in the state several years after the “blessing” of Katrina. (Since the schools haven’t “recovered” in terms of quality, perhaps we can assume that the term “recovery” has more to do with the private sector recapturing funds that were once lost to public school taxation?)

Now, as Mr. Duncan laments the supposed lies pathologically told by professional educators, we find him sitting before a couple of teachers uttering the truly unbelievable: it couldn’t be “further from the truth” that Bill Gates has a “seat at the table” when it comes to education policy.

There is no polite way to say this: Arne Duncan is lying, and he serves above all the interests of the American oligarchy. He is no progressive, with a heart for the poor. He is a politician, a corporatist Mitt Romney clone who bashes his own 47%, those of us in the real world who teach and parent.

Bill Gates dictates American education policy, plain and simple. The Department of Education should be renamed the Department of Bill Gates.

To wit:

Gates’s foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help craft and subsequently marshal support for the Common Core State Standards, a set of national learning standards that will, in his words, “unleash a powerful market of people providing services...” Gates’s priority becomes Duncan’s priority becomes reality.

Gates’s foundation has insisted upon using test scores to gauge teacher quality, a practice that--despite the misgivings of many researchers--found its way (coincidentally?) into federal waivers requirements. It is a must--if your state wants a waiver from No Child Left Behind--to agree to judge teachers based on standardized test scores. Gates’s priority becomes Duncan’s priority becomes reality.

There has been an embarrassing carousel of workers going between the Gates Foundation and the US Department of Education, and vice versa. It is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. Gates’s people become Duncan’s people, and they drive policy. Duncan’s people, faithful servants, become Gates’s people, and are well taken care of.

Anthony Cody notes that the Gates Foundation offers to help states fill out the Race to the Top application required by the federal government, but only on the condition that the state requesting this assistance sign first an agreement with the feds to use the Common Core Standards. This is called a quid pro quo.

What we have with Arne Duncan and Bill Gates is a crafty politician executing the desires of the richest man in America, desires that run directly counter to the spirit of federal law which prohibits the federal government from controlling the nation’s education system. But if you’re rich enough, it appears that you can overrule federal rules that you find inconvenient.

And Bill Gates, Mr. Duncan tells us, doesn’t have a seat at the table.

In reality, Bill Gates is calling the shots. We all are left to hope Mr. Gates’s plans work, because--since no one ever voted him education czar--there is no way to evict him from the decision-maker’s seat that Arne Duncan has turned over to him.

The cynicism of those who value national standards more than they value democratic process is astounding. The surreptitious coup of the 1% in the halls of the US Department of Education is complete. Bill Gates is in charge, and Arne Duncan works in Public Relations.

What do you think? Has the Department of Education been taken over by billionaires pulling strings attached to everything in sight?

Jake Cooper is the pseudonym of a career educator.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.