Arne Duncan takes a lot of criticism from educators. They have never seen him as one of their own. For me personally, I wanted Linda Darling-Hammond to get the job. I don’t always agree with Darling-Hammond, but I do respect her as an educator and a researcher. When Mr. Duncan was hired I and a lot of other educators knew immediately what direction President Obama would drive in education. The die was cast. And I’m betting most would agree we might be upset about a lot of what has happened to public schools since the president was elected, but we are rarely surprised.
This is the first major speech Mr. Duncan has given I have heard since starting a blog. So it is with real interest I listened and tried to analyze what he said. He seemed more fired-up with this speech than many of the others. And some of what he said sounded good, especially at the end. But while many in the general audience and diehard Democrats might like the speech, I believe it is fraught with inconsistencies and misrepresentations. It is also rather insulting to educators and parents who disagree with his policies. There are more of us than he would like to acknowledge.
I have chosen some initial statements Mr. Duncan made to debate. He implied that many don’t listen and are uncooperative—like we are bratty school children ever clamoring and complaining but not seeing that the majority (he assumes) like the draconian reforms the federal government passes down to the local schools. Yet in the second statement (I mark his words in red) I noticed his comment about enforcing law. Public schools are being made to implement unproven curriculum changes like the law of the land when the control should come from within the community.
But here is some of breakdown of his speech and my most humble interpretation and armchair punditry.
This town, which so often thinks that it’s somehow the center of the universe, is, instead, an alternative universe.
While Mr. Duncan makes this statement about Washington D.C., some pretty harmful policies from his so-called alternative universe drive education reform today—reforms that a lot of Americans at the local level and even state levels don’t like or believe in.
Here you have some members of Congress who think the federal government has no role in public education—not as a backstop for accountability, not as a partner in enforcing laws and expanding educational opportunity, and not as a supporter of innovation and courage.
Mr. Duncan implies, I think, that it is the Tea Party that is hampering school reform in regards to Common Core State Standards. But there are a lot of other parents and teachers pushing back on Race to the Top including Common Core State Standards and PARCC. Many are democrats and regular old republicans. Many of us do not mind the federal government helping when state or local funds might not be enough. But the federal government is becoming more far-reaching in education policy than ever before. They are taking over curriculum and schools. They have, as just one example, emphasized Charter Schools and put tax dollars towards this endeavor, even though the research on charter schools is weak.
They have thrown their support behind privatization groups like The New Teacher Project, Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools to name a few. And while the Governors and state education commissioners have signed on to Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and PARCC, they include Achieve and the federal government. The standards have the essence of a national curriculum making many uncomfortable. It also raises a lot of legal questions concerning state rights. Many are concerned over the lack of pilot testing these reforms.
I must add that at the same time, the federal Head Start Program, mostly funded through federal dollars in the past, has been passed (Pres. G.W. Bush) to the state as a block grant where communities must now compete. This jeopardizes funding for the program. More and more it is my guess that we will see Head Start pass to private partnerships or be totally privatized. Or, we will see less and less in the way of preschool for disadvantaged children. Already we see that happening. Every day matters for today’s young children.
Inhabiting this bubble are some armchair pundits who insist that our efforts to improve public education are doomed to fail—either because they believe government is incapable of meaningfully improving education, or because they think education reform can’t possibly work since the real problem with schools is that so many children are poor.
In blogs, books, and tweets, some pundits even say our schools are performing just fine and that fundamental change isn’t needed. Or that we have to address poverty first before schools can improve student achievement.
Armchair pundits? Is he speaking of Diane Ravitch whose book questions current policies and is on the best sellers list? Bloggers and writers of other books, me included, could take offense at the armchair pundit reference. Most of us have degrees in education and years of experience working with students. Mr. Duncan’s lacking qualifications should be of concern. Not only is Mr. Duncan lacking a good educational background for the important job he is supposed to do, but many state education commissioners and those in education leadership positions throughout the country, like Kevin Huffman (TN) and John White (LA) and others, have little formal education and experience for the jobs they do.
No other profession would value the ideas of leaders with so few qualifications. Perhaps, because they lack qualifications, they don’t seem to value the criticism or debate of real educators. We have wanted a voice since the president took office. To Mr. Duncan’s credit I believe he has met with some on the other side of his beliefs, but their ideas are dismissed. Many parents, who know best about the needs of their children, are ignored as well.
As far as poverty, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think schools can’t be changed to accommodate students better especially in poor schools. But Mr. Duncan and those of his ilk want to make public schools the sole fixer of poverty. They do it in a rather harsh manner treating poor children like they need more discipline, even in the early years. They also fire teachers without providing them assistance, smaller class sizes, and/or support. Mr. Duncan should dialogue with the rest of us on those issues.
In blogs and books and tweets most educators and savvy parents know things aren’t right with our public schools. In fact, bad things have been done to schools in the name of school reform. Many of us believe the bad reforms started happening a long time ago with the damning school report A Nation at Risk.
A lot of us also heard about another report called The Sandia Report, http://www.edutopia.org/landmark-education-report-nation-risk lost forever in the 1993 Journal of Educational Research. This raised questions as to whether public schools were ever doing so badly to begin with. Then there was the 1995 book The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, and numerous books by the late Gerald Bracey. Those books found a place on our bookshelves long before Diane Ravitch turned her thinking around to reject the current education reforms so eloquently.
This is just a small analysis of Mr. Duncan’s long speech. I know I am one of many, and a lesser known individual, who critiques Mr. Duncan. It is enough for today. I will see if it is popular enough to continue analyzing this speech. I really sit at a desk to type. Now I need my real armchair and a cup of tea.