Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ten Moments in Duncan's ESEA Speech

Much will be written about Arne Duncan's January 12 speech about ESEA. I'm not going to attempt any big analysis (for reasons I'll get to), but I can't pass up a chance to register some quick impressions.

Opening with a shout out to Kaya Henderson, chancellor of DC schools. Just in case you're still wondering whether Arne is fully aligned with reformster interests or not.

Duncan throws in the LBJ story of taking a break from college to teach in a tiny underfunded elementary school. This means, I guess, that LBJ was actually the first Teach For America volunteer. So that's some historical perspective.

Duncan uses LBJ's story to set up a black-and-white choice on ESEA rewrite-- Congress faces the choice LBJ faced. "One path continues to move us towards that life-transforming promise of equity; the other walks away from it." Because it's that kind of all-or-nothing thinking that has always made American government super-effective. Either that or Duncan's opening with a bid that he doesn't even believe himself. Either way, not an auspicious beginning to the political wrangling that is coming.

Duncan can still talk pretty at times.

What we, as parents, want for our kids is an education that isn’t just about knowledge – it’s about those moments of excitement that we hear about at dinner at the end of the day, about creativity and wonder and curiosity. 

Fundamentally, we want our kids to have wonderful choices in their lives. 

But after so many years of hearing meaningless mouth noises, I still don't know if Duncan is a cynical liar or truly doesn't grasp the disconnect between the word salad he serves up and the policies that he pursues. I mean, how do you parse this-- "We want our kids to have wonderful choices, which is why we must subject them all to one-size-fits-all programs and testing that only measures one narrow sliver of the great breadth of human knowledge and achievement"?


The speech hits me as confused. It's the Elementary and Secondary act, but Duncan wants to talk pre-school. We are making very real progress on a list of great achievements (one or two of which are actually true), but "everyone in this room knows we are not even close." And Duncan can't decide whether he thinks NCLB is a terrible mess or a wonderful achievement.

He has a long list of things he believes, and again, they are a very pretty list in some places ("every single child is entitled to an education that sets her up for success in careers, college and life") and the same old baloney in other places (states should choose high standards "as they always have").

Duncan offers a new, extraordinarily limited rationale for The Big Standardized Test. Students need to take a test so they know if they're ready for college, because too many are getting to college and discovering that they aren't, and that's sad.

So congratulations, future tradespersons and stay-at-home parents! You don't need to take the Big Standardized Test at all! Woo hoo!

Man. Duncan is so full of baloney on testing that it will take a whole separate post just to deal with it. Incredibly, pretty much nothing that he says about testing here is 1) connected to reality or 2) not transparently crap. It's an impressive when a major government official can be so thoroughly and relentlessly wrong.

Duncan is happy to report that everybody is a fan of charter schools. Great. Nice to know that there's bipartisan support for privateers getting rich off of public tax dollars.

Duncan makes an impassioned pleas-- well, a string of questions, anyway (some intern really loves him some parallel structure)-- for working together, which hints at his biggest problem in this speech.

Man. The writing bot must have been tired after a while, because after many pretty sentences, Duncan drops this clunker into the mix:

 This country can’t afford to replace “the fierce urgency of now” with the soft bigotry of “It’s somehow optional.”

If you're going to make an impassioned plea for "the federal government should totally tell the states what to do without allowing room for argument, dissent or difference," you're going to need a way better sentence than that one.

Duncan reminds us that turning back the clock would be Very Bad, because back in the day things were Terrible. So let's all work together to do what Duncan wants us to.

Which again brings us to the central problem of Duncan's speech. Nobody cares.

Seriously. Is there a Republican anywhere in DC who thinks that he really needs to sit down and talk turkey with Duncan? Is there anybody of any part in any place in country who thinks of Duncan as an important leader in the field of education? If Obama is a lame duck, Duncan is plucked and stuffed and ready to serve.


  1. his logic is : which kids deserve the choices? the policies that he pursues. I mean, how do you parse this-- "We want our kids to have wonderful choices, which is why we must subject them all to one-size-fits-all programs and testing that only measures one narrow sliver of the great breadth of human knowledge and achievement"? and I say they ALL deserve the choices… in Arne's way of thinking only the affluent, the people who have affluent parents, the guys who ride in on their affluent parents' coattails (like Arne D.) and his friends… "I'm in the life boat " says Arne but there isn't any room in the life boat for those kids who failed the first grade test. There is even an algorithm that decides that favoring "curly fries" or some other creepy statement will predict your child's IQ and it is all hogwash…. junk science.

  2. How often are basketball players concussed? I know it's more common in football, but Arne started young, right? He's 50, so early onset of dementia is possible, ¿qué no?