Standards Opinion

Paul Horton: Pseudo Democracy: Duncan Double Dribbles in Chicago

By Anthony Cody — October 28, 2013 7 min read
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Guest post by Paul Horton.

You may have heard about the Common Core Forums in New York, otherwise known as “the attack of the special interests.” New York Education Commissioner John King had a hissy fit when he was forced to listen to a few folks who not so gently disagreed with his ideas about Education Reform.

The Chamber of Commerce has also led a circus parade around the country in support of the Common Core. When a major employer comes to town and says it’s Common Core or the highway to the dormitory factory in some brand new Chinese city, how can we yokels have any doubts about standards as potentially unemployed citizens?

So when I got word through the campus e-mail chain that Arne Duncan would be speaking at a “Forum on the Implementation of the Common Core Curriculum” (Oct. 25) across the street, I said to myself, I have got to see what these Forums are all about. So I signed up on the “Eventbrite” page.

Given the fact that Arne’s popularity has tanked and that we have a huge number of aging friends of Bill Ayers in our strange neighborhood mix of neoliberal Nobel Prize winners or Prize-winners-in-waiting and old hippies in our neighborhood, I thought that the crowd would be something like the tin-can-in-the-hip-pocket redneck and hippie mix that I remember so fondly from the early seventies “Cosmic Cowboy” gigs at Earl Abel’s in Austin.

Boy was I disappointed! Everybody had suits on and because “Eventbrite” said that we had to be in our seats by 3:45 pm or we would lose our seats, most people got there by 3:30! Chicago traffic and the impossible Hyde Park parking must have diminished the desire of many to show up.

Lots of University of Chicago Professors of politics showed, as did lots of state legislators with lapel buttons. Like the well-behaved Episcopalians they seemed to be, these folks, some sporting very expensive suits, sat in the first three or four rows. Behind them were very young and green-behind-the-ears aspiring student politicos, mostly 1st and 2nd years at the college (U. of Chicago) desperate to glad-hand, flash smiles and skin, and otherwise impress the established politicos present. The rabble (like me) sat in the back or in the balcony.

I figured out the way things were going to go when David Axelrod made his introduction of Arne: “I first met Arne when I was going to school here and Arne was much smaller, but always showed up at Bartlett (The University Gym) to play.” The implication here was that Arne was and is tough, not afraid to play with guys bigger than him. Arne continued to prove his toughness when he played basketball on the same team as the President’s first campaign finance manager; and really proved his hoops mettle at Harvard and down-under in a ruff and tumble Australian professional league. There you have it, the toughness he learned on all of these basketball courts, and his five week Broad administrator training were all the preparation our Education Secretary needed for the brutal elbow-in-the-face world of Education Reform and the smack-talking teacher unions that insisted on playing a sissy game of always wanting to lower standards and protect bad teachers.

Things went downhill as the “Forum” began. Arne and Rick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute did their best to pretend that they were mortal enemies doing a great job of feigning civility.

Arne went on and on about how standards had been dumbed down, that drop out rates were skyrocketing, that scores were tanking, and that the sky is falling unless we do something drastic now. He said that we have to make schools accountable now or we will not be able to compete with workers in other countries. He went on to say that he has done everything to promote a higher quality of teaching but we just have no way of knowing how many teachers are truly effective.

Suggesting that the RTTT-required Value Added Assessments are the only way to determine “if the bottom ten percent of teachers in California are ineffective,” Arne insisted that he was all about supporting teachers with as much professional development money as possible. Indeed, his budget is full of professional development money. This sounded great to me until I remembered that he supported the firing of all of those Rhode Island Teachers and that he served on the board of the Union busting Broad Foundation. My colleagues in CPS aren’t exactly big fans of Arne, either

The bull meter between my ears started to move to the deep red as soon as he started talking and never made it back to the safety zone. It is still clicking, packing a bigger afterlife than the stuff Fermi and his buds set off four blocks away back during WWII.

I managed to calm down only when I began to recall that virtually none of what he said was true: graduation rates are at an all time high, test scores (NAEP) are at an all-time high (though they have been flat the past four years), the Common Core was not voluntary but coerced, the CCS were written by by testmakers, VAM assessments have no empirical validity, and standardized testing will not lower the achievement gap and is not great for kindergarteners.

Mr. Hess was his regular pushy self: the Common Core was not voluntary, it costs too much, and the Feds have no business doing what local and state school boards. He made it clear, though, that teacher’s unions were the problem and that charter schools were needed to bust them.

This “Forum,” sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Institute for the Study of Politics led by Axelrod was a not-so-thinly-veiled Pseudo-Event that would have made Daniel Boorstin, author of The Image A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, chuckle.

Only those seated within the first fifteen rows of the stage were allowed to ask questions, carefully selected by the microphone carrier. Those seated in the peanut gallery, like me, were clearly not to be trusted with a live mike. The first questioner flattered Mr. Duncan about his policies like a good former politician, and asked when Illinois would be granted a waiver from NCLB. A second questioner from the CPS central office gave a dissertation about why scores of students identified as at risk had remained constant for nearly forty years and what this revealed about policies meant to reduce the achievement gap. A parent asked why we “had only white men in suits discussing and making policies for kids.” And a high school student asked why no one was asking students about how to implement curriculum.

To all of these questions, our Education Secretary went into a prepared speech: representatives from his department were negotiating with people from the state board on a waiver; he closed schools that did not work and put kids into higher achieving schools as CPS CEO; most of his budget is going to efforts to reduce unequal opportunity in cities especially; and kids should not be making education policy because they might not do what was best for them in the long run.

When the “discussion” was finished, the press corps, that included representatives from the Sun-Times and Tribune, was escorted out of the back of the room to interview Arne. No one heard their questions reporters missed much of the second half of the forum that featured the comments of an AFT state representative.

What I observed was a carefully orchestrated staging of support for Mr. Duncan’s policies. The education power brokers of the state were present along with the press that had not bothered to show for Ms. Ravitch’s speech at Elmhurst College earlier this fall. Potential dissenters were screened by the “Eventbrite” service, a 4pm start, horrendous traffic, University police who were looking for placards and posters, and scarce late afternoon parking. A few teachers attended, but not many. Most teachers and parents were working or could not free themselves from afterschool duties.

My meter is still clicking, but it slows down when I cynically realize that this event was sponsored by David Axelrod to allow Arne to have an opportunity to speak to important opinion leaders in Chicago and Illinois. Rick Hess was trotted out as a conservative from AEI so that Mr. Duncan could appear on his left, as a Democrat on Education issues who cares about doing something for the huddled masses.

There was no way that most of the people in this audience would begin to understand that Mr. Duncan’s policies are actually to the right of Mr. Hess’ and Arne had a chance to repeat the canard that the only opponents of his policies were right-wing conspiracy theorists or self interested teacher unions. The real discussion, according to Arne, was between people like himself and Mr. Hess.

How can we create authentic forums for discussions of these issues?

Are Colleges and Universities willing to create authentic spaces for discussion between policymakers and concerned stakeholders?

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.