Riding along with Arne Duncan on the back-to-school bus tour, Alyson Klein had the opportunity to do a little Q & A with Arne Duncan. The discussion indicates that there are some things that Arne just doesn't get. I recommend reading the whole piece, but there are a few moments I'd like to zero in on.
In the midst of discussing whether or not certain reporting categories may have masked or weakened accountability, Arne says this:
Accountability means different things to different folks. What we're asking for in the bill is not just data, which some would say is accountability, and not just transparency, which some would say is accountability, but actual action. And I think what we've been focused on the whole time with waivers is trying to transform low-performing schools.
So it's not real accountability until the big bosses tell you what you have to do next. It's a view of accountability that really tells us a lot about how Duncan sees the power dynamic. It's not just that the federal government is entitled to get whatever information they want to have, but that they are also entitled to tell the local entity what to do about any inadequacies that the feds diagnose.
Or to put it another way, in Duncan's vision of accountability, if a local district isn't getting results that the feds consider satisfactory, then that local district loses the right to local control.
This is one of the (many) ways in which the corporate management model doesn't fit democratic government. A CEO never rises to a height at which he says, "Okay, from up here I definitely don't have the right to tell people at that lower level what to do." The higher a Master of the Universe rises, the more people he is empowered to boss around. This is different from a federal system such as the one we allegedly have, where the highest levels of "management" are not supposed to be able to boss local elected officials around.
School Improvement Grant program
Duncan is sure this is working, despite the fact there's no reason to believe that the modest gains of some schools would not have been gained without any federal, string-encrusted largesse. Then we get to the large number of schools that went backwards. But Duncan is a believer because "everywhere I go I see firsthand the difference it's making." Can Duncan really believe that he sees schools that haven't been carefully selected and carefully prepared for his visit? Or that only his policies made teaching critical thinking possible?
Duncan refused to speculate or predict or offer plans for how to deal with the imaginary bill that may or may not eventually pass. He really doesn't seem to see any responsibility in the huge degree of pushback against the department because of his own work, and refers Klein to this piece by Kevin Carey that argues that a strong department is required to keep an eye on those lazy, cheating states.
His One Big Regret?
Duncan has his list of policy goals that he "regrets" haven't happened yet (early childhood ed money, etc), but pressed on what mistakes he would actually do differently, he cites the almost two years spent trying to fix No Child Left Behind with Congress. In hindsight, they should have just blasted the waivers through sooner.
It's not that I don't get the frustration of trying to work with a Congress that exemplifies how miserably dysfunctional our form of government can be. But when Duncan lists this as a regret, he's basically saying, "I wish we had circumvented the foundational structure of our government sooner. I regret that the framers created three branches in our government. I regret that American Presidents can't just rule by fiat."
The Money Quote
Duncan can generally be counted on to say something that is just kind of amazeballs. Here's the quote you'll be reading from this interview in many places:
...I think [overall] waivers have gone pretty darn well. You guys don't cover it much. But we have 44 pretty happy customers across the political spectrum.
Maybe this isn't a clueless quote. Maybe he is not, as some folks assume, referring to 44 states. Maybe the 44 happy customers are actually just 44 individual citizens of the US who are happy with how the waivers worked out. I could believe that, even if Duncan didn't count himself. But if that's not what he meant, then he's smoking something.
But Don't Miss This
Klein asks if he's worry that all of the crappy numbers coming back on Big Standardized Tests might scare the natives and cause more pushback. Here's his response:
What we're getting finally for the first time in decades is the truth...
And how is it, exactly, that he knows these tests tell the truth?
This is classic Duncan, the backwards data-driving reasoning of many reformsters. Duncan already knows The Truth, which is that many, many students, teachers and schools are failing. A test will prove to be a good test and data will prove to be good data by matching the conclusion that reformsters have already reached. Duncan is absolutely convinced that US schools are filled with big lying liars who tell the lies, and he will work tirelessly to find anything that will help him prove what he has already concluded.
Meanwhile, he's clueless. "No one is that focused on scores," he says, and I'm now thinking that he's not so much smoking something as shunting it directly into his brain. Because the kids who can't move on to Fourth Grade in some states because their scores were too low, or the schools that are being shut down or sucked dry by charters because their scores are too low, or the teachers whose professional evaluation is in some part set by BS Test scores-- I think all of those folks are pretty focused on scores. Plus, Duncan's comment sidesteps a big question-- why should anybody be focused on test scores at all?
I've come to believe that Arne means well. But he really needs to get off the bus, and do it some place in the real world.