Data Opinion

Is Arne Duncan Really Margaret Spellings in Drag?

By Diane Ravitch — February 24, 2009 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I have been watching and listening to our new secretary of education, trying to understand his views on the most important issues facing our schools and the nation’s children. I wanted to believe candidate Barack Obama when he said that he would introduce real change and restore hope. Surely, I thought, he understood that the deadening influence of No Child Left Behind has produced an era of number-crunching that has very little to do with improving education or raising academic standards.

We truly need change and hope. I thought he understood. He chose to keep his own children far from NCLB. He decided to send them to a private school in Washington, D.C., that shuns the principles and practices of NCLB.

However, based on what I have seen to date, I conclude that Obama has given President George W. Bush a third term in education policy and that Arne Duncan is the male version of Margaret Spellings. Maybe he really is Margaret Spellings without the glasses and wearing very high heels. We all know that Secretary Spellings greeted Duncan’s appointment with glee. She wrote him an open letter in which she praised him as “a fellow reformer” who supports NCLB and anticipated that he would continue the work of the Bush administration. (Recall, Deborah, that the media today defines an education reformer as someone who endorses Republican principles of choice and accountability.)

Everything I have seen and learned since Duncan came to office has supported Secretary Spellings’ admiring comments about Secretary Duncan. It turns out that Duncan, like the Bush administration, adores testing, charter schools, merit pay, and entrepreneurs. Part of the stimulus money, he told Sam Dillon of The New York Times, will be used so that states can develop data systems, which will enable them to tie individual student test scores to individual teachers, greasing the way for merit pay. Another part of the stimulus plan will support charters and entrepreneurs.

Duncan paid his first visit to New York City last week (“New Education Secretary Visits Brooklyn School,” New York Times, Feb. 19, 2009). He did not visit a regular public school, but a charter school. Such decisions are not happenstance; they are intended to send a message. Bear in mind that the regular public schools enroll 98 percent of the city’s one-million-plus students.

At the charter school, Duncan endorsed the core principles of the Bush education program. According to the account in the Times, Secretary Duncan said that “increasing the use of testing across the country should also be a spending priority.” And he made this astonishing statement: “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not...Right now, in too many states, quite frankly, we lie to children. We lie to them and we lie to their families.”

Wow! More testing is needed. In New York City right now, students take a dozen tests a year. How many more should they take? How much of the stimulus package will be used to promote more testing across the country?

Are we lying to children? Deborah, you were principal of an elementary school. Could you look second-graders in the eye and tell them that they were on track to go to a good college—or not? Did you know? Did you lie and say that they were when they were not?

Doesn’t this inflated and grandiose rhetoric grate on your sensibilities? Are teachers “lying” to children and their families right now when they can’t project whether second-graders are on track to go to a good college? Isn’t this claim—that we know which 7-year-olds will go to a good college and which will not—a baldfaced lie?

I am sorely disappointed in Arne Duncan. I don’t see any change from the mean, punitive version of accountability that the Bush administration foisted on the nation’s schools.


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