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Arne Duncan for Secretary of State?

November 28, 2012

I had to rub my eyes in disbelief when I read the last sentence of the first paragraph of Thom Friedman’s column titled “My Secretary of State”. It read:

….my own nominee for secretary of state would be the current education secretary, Arne Duncan.

As I read on I was a bit flattered but mostly incredulous as I read through the Friedman’s analysis. I was flattered because Friedman recognized the balancing act school superintendents face:

A big part of the job of secretary of state is also finding common ground between multiple constituencies: Congress, foreign countries, big business, the White House, the Pentagon and the diplomats. The same is true for a school superintendent, but the constituencies between which they have to forge common ground are so much more intimidating: They’re called “parents,” “teachers,” “students” and “school boards.”

Having worked in a large county district, small rural districts, and three other “in between” districts, I can attest to the fact that the balancing act and the scrutiny of every decision is similar in all settings. The difference is that in the larger districts there is more media coverage and less opportunity for personal contact with “parents”, “teachers”, and “students”. A superintendent in a district serving 17,000 students has limited contact with individual teachers, parents, and students and instead deals with proxies: the union leadership, the county PTA leadership, and the student representative. In smaller districts the Superintendent actually gets to know teachers the same way teachers know their students, gets to know parents beyond those who serve in PTO leadership positions, and gets to see students in the classrooms and attend events and activities featuring students. Arne Duncan had one advantage over most superintendents: he was appointed by and accountable to one individual and NOT a Board… which would change the dynamics of the “balancing act” substantially.

Mr. Friedman’s analogy of negotiations between school boards and unions with negotiations between nations was also flattering. While negotiations between unions and boards are sometimes contentious, the ultimate stakes are inconsequential compared to negotiations at the international level. The last time I looked, Randi Weingarten doesn’t have nuclear weapons… though an early Woody Allen movie did suggest that the world ended when Al Shanker got his hands on some.

I was also flattered to read the heart of Friedman’s premise for the Secretary of Education taking over as Secretary of State:

The biggest issue in the world today is growth, and, in this information age, improving educational outcomes for more young people is now the most important lever for increasing economic growth and narrowing income inequality. In other words, education is now the key to sustainable power.

But in the next sentence and in a later paragraph, I became incredulous:

To have a secretary of state who is one of the world’s leading authorities on education, well, everyone would want to talk to him….

…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 or incentivizing start-ups or strengthening their rule of law will get our scarce foreign aid dollars. That race is the future of foreign aid.

Arne Duncan may be an astute politician, but he is NOT “…one of the world’s leading authorities on education”! And, as I’ve written on several occasions in this blog, his reliance on junk science like VAM to measure school and student performance is misguided at best and supportive of the emerging privatization movement at worse…. and linking “Race to the Top” and ‘reform” in the same sentence is maddening. Race to the Top reinforces everything that is wrong with the way our schools are structured. All of this led to my comment, which may or may not be published:

Arne Duncan’s so-called reforms have not improved schools one bit… even using the nonsensical metrics he has imposed through Race To The Top. If we are really interested in reforming our schools we need use technology to abandon the age-based grade cohorts and standardized test metrics that define the factory school and develop personalized education plans that match instruction to each student’s abilities, learning styles, and interests. Knowing what we know today about child development and having a wide array of freeware available on the web it is frustrating to see our Secretary of Education reinforcing the factory model of schooling developed in the 1920s. Arne Duncan is not reforming education, he’s engineering the model in place. Sal Khan and the developers of MOOCs, on the other hand, are making the kinds of disruptive change that will ultimately redefine schooling. See the Network Schools blog at waynegersen.com for more.

DO think Friedman is right that Race-to-the-Top style grants are the way to transform schools, but I do NOT think the incentives embedded in Race to the Top do anything to promote transformation… they perpetuate the factory model and emphasize teaching-to-the-test over creative problem solving and sorting and selecting students over educating each student to the fullest.

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