Home > Uncategorized > Arne Duncan Continues Tour, Amassing Evidence of His Obliviousness

Arne Duncan Continues Tour, Amassing Evidence of His Obliviousness

August 14, 2018

Yesterday’s Common Dreams included a reprint of a column by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post titled “Arne Duncan Never Learns“. Ms. Strauss, like most reviewers who do not support his brand of “reform”, was appalled at his opening statement in his new book titled “How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.” That sentence? “Education runs on lies.” Ms. Strauss, ever the thorough researcher, offered a long list of times that Mr. Duncan used that phrase while he was Secretary of Education, and as I read through each one it became clearer and clearer that Mr. Duncan was not only lying to the audience when he uttered these epithets about public education, he was lying to himself and using these lies to buttress his narrative about “failing public schools”, a narrative that does not stand up to scrutiny.

Like earlier columns that review his latest book, Ms. Strauss’ includes highlights of an interview Mr. Duncan conducted, this time with  journalist Margaret Brennan on CBS’s “Face the Nation,.”The interview included this exchange, which includes my highlights:

BRENNAN: So, some colors and personal anecdotes but you also really, it’s not so much about how schools work but really an indictment of how schools aren’t working. It’s a very critical take in this book about the education system, and you say, “the education system runs on lies.” What do you mean by that?

DUNCAN: That’s a tough statement to make. But let me just give you a couple of notes. We say we value education, but we never vote on education. We never hold politicians accountable, local, state, or national level, for getting better results, higher graduation rates, more people graduate from college. We say we value teachers, but we don’t pay teachers. We don’t support them.We don’t mentor them the way they need to do their incredibly important, tough, complex work. And then maybe the toughest lie, for me, Margaret, is that we say we value kids and we’ve raised a generation of young people, teens who have been raised on mass shootings and gun violence. And that simply doesn’t happen in other nations. So I don’t look at what people say. I look at their actions. I’d look at their policies. I’d look at their budgets. And our values don’t reflect that we care about education, we care about teachers or that we truly care about keeping our children safe and free and free of fear.

Ms. Strauss, like me and presumably like most readers of this blog, looked at Mr. Duncan’s actions and was appalled at his ignorance and hypocrisy. First, we ALWAYS vote on education in America by adopting budgets at the local and the State level. Second, most parents assess the quality of their local schools by examining the quality of their child’s experience— not test scores or graduation rates. And, as I HOPE Mr. Duncan realizes, those parents who are engaged in the lives of their children are well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the schools their child attends and work with the schools to make them better. Finally, and most appallingly, when he held the seat as Secretary of Education Mr. Duncan never spoke out about the shootings that took place in the same way as he is now, he never enacted policies or budgets that would help schools serving disadvantaged kids get a good start and have an even playing field, and never supported teachers. Worse than his hypocrisy is his obliviousness. He fails to see that his policies damaged the equity in schools by diverting stimulus funds to assessments and the Common Core, crushed the morale of teachers by using standardized tests to measure their “performance”, and diverted attention away from the need to create the kind of nurturing environment in schools that might reduce the loneliness and alienation children feel.

Ms. Strauss does an excellent job of contrasting the failures of Mr. Duncan’s administration, page-by-page and section-by-section… but her best rejoinder dealt with his insistence that VAM would be a “game changer”:

Ample evidence exists that Duncan’s push for annual standardized testing for high-stakes decisions on teachers, students and schools was destructive and in some cases nonsensical. In some places, teachers were evaluated on students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach simply because test scores had to be used as an evaluation metric.

I do not believe Mr. Duncan intentionally undercut public schools. Rather, he had a narrative about education and how to “fix” it that he clung to steadfastly in the face of accumulating evidence that his “fix” was wrongheaded and destructive. It was his obliviousness more than his incompetence or ignorance that troubles me. When the facts on the ground were not matching his beliefs he chose to ignore them and as a result children and teachers across the nation suffered an extension of the test-and-punish regimen imposed by NCLB, a regimen that is now extended even further into the future at the State level by ESSA.

When President Obama was elected I hoped that NCLB would be replaced. When it was evident that the USDOE would be the beneficiary of stimulus funds, I hoped to see an upgrade to technology infrastructure or a redoubling of the redistribution of funds that was implicit in Title One. Instead, we got Arne Duncan’s RTTT: more tests linked to adverse consequences and less respect for the hard work being done by teachers. Hope vanished… and fear was increased. John McCain would have been happy with Mr. Duncan’s work.

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