Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Oh, Arne. Hush.

Arne Duncan has been pretty relentless in stumping for his new book How Schools Work   (a book which Amazon currently lists as the #1 best-seller in the category "charter schools").

I don't intend to read the book because I don't intend to enrich Duncan's already-blossoming bank balance with my own money. If you'd like a review of the whole thing, I recommend this review by Aaron Pallas for Hechinger or Valerie Strauss's take or even Rick Hess's reaction at Forbes. Duncan has written something, but it isn't really a memoir and it certainly isn't an explanation of How Schools Work, a subject on which Duncan remains spectacularly obtuse.

I've read much of Duncan's various attempts to pedal his tale, and now I've also listened to him speak about it on NPR, so that you don't have to. Spoiler alert: it will once again reveal Duncan's signature inability to reflect usefully on any of his experience. It is a common thread in most reviews of the book-- Arne Duncan never seems to learn a thing.

The interview starts out by noting that Duncan is the Secretary of Education who led us through the horror and tragedy of Sandy Hook, and then tosses out a softball question about his professional basketball career; for the record, he played pro ball in Australia which was "a lot of fun." Also, he met his wife there. Suddenly I realize that calls for LeBron James to become Secretary of Education are not as far-fetched as I was thinking.

Since Arne's opening line is "Education runs on lies" (which, as Strauss points out, is a lousy sentence), he's asked to lay out what the biggest lie is in education. He settles on three:

First, the lie that we value education. There's a valid point to be made here, but Duncan isn't going to make it. Instead he's going to say that if we were really supporting education, all politicians would come together in a bi-partisan, non-partisan agreement. Thing that Duncan has not learned: that his own preferred policies and ideas are not non-partisan. He will also tie this to another favorite point-- that folks don't vote based on education issues. He has a point here, but he may not have it for much longer. We'll see.

Second, the lie that we value teachers. We don't pay them enough, we don't support them as professionals, we don't give them adequate training, and we don't give them meaningful career ladders. Which would be a more meaningful list if it didn't come from someone who led the way in devaluing the teaching profession. He was a champion of Teach for America, the ultimate expression of the Anyone Can Do This ethos (and is an exemplar of inadequate training). He ignored what teachers had to say about any of his reform ideas, and he championed an evaluation system rooted in the assumption that teachers could do a better job but they're just too lazy and unwilling to get to work. And he called us liars plenty of times, too.

Third, the lie that we value our children. As a culture, that's unfortunately true. He's going to specifically point at gun violence. And only gun violence. Because if he were to acknowledge that we also fail to value our children when we allow systemic racism and systemic poverty, then he would have to confront his own notion that such socio-economic problems are just "excuses" for teachers to do a crappy job. Duncan's solution to poverty, racism, and even the challenges facing students with special needs was always "expectations." So all he's going to talk about is gun violence, because teachers and schools are supposed to be fixing everything else.

The interviewer asks about the whole "adults making decisions to benefit of other adults" line, and he doesn't really respond. The first part of his answer is that The Netherlands are cool. The second part is about the governor of Mississippi being disappointed that he couldn't get the money to fund a program. Because "we didn't have enough dollars," a construction that Duncan repeats before hinting that stingy old Congress is at fault. Oh, and those poor Mississippi kids ranking down at the bottom in everything. Except that Duncan/Obama created that whole game where the top states got a bunch of money and the bottom states got thoughts and prayers and encouragement to compete harder. It was the Duncan/Obama administration that rejected the idea of giving money where it was most needed and making states scramble for a limited pile of cash instead. What was kid-oriented about that approach, exactly?

The interviewer asks why Duncan is now pushing residency programs, when he had nothing to say about them when he was in office. "Oh, I totes did," fibs Duncan before bemoaning how teachers are unprepared. Actually, he says that teachers say they are unprepared. And knowing some teacher prep programs I can believe that's true, but having been an actual teacher, I cannot imagine anything that could make a 21-year-old newbie think, "Yes, I am totally prepared to face a room full of children tomorrow for the first time." Unless of course that 21-year-old newbie was a dope who didn't understand the situation. Just saying.

We move on to testing and Arne still doesn't have a clue why his test-centric evaluation system was so toxic or how it exactly played out. He tells a story about how in Chicago students were taking both the local system tests and the Iowa Tests (a test of basic skill developed at University of Iowa and widely used for decades) which he totally axed because, and he actually chuckles here, you know, why are Chicago students taking an Iowa test. I submit that's just about as dumb as anything Betsy DeVos has said.

Oh, and he wants higher standards so that college freshmen won't have to take remedial classes. And the standards shouldn't be set by the feds. "Common Core? Moi? That wasn't my fault!"

What about Betsy DeVos? Duncan is going to pretend there's some vast difference between them. A call-in listener asks a DeVos question, noting that privatization and charters seem to widen the gulf between haves and have-nots and what does Arne think about that. Which is a great question, because in these areas DeVos isn't pushing anything that Duncan didn't push for all his years in the office, but he side-dribbles over to a point about "nation-building goals" we should have, like universal Pre-K, higher grad rate, and leading the world in college completion. Will he explain how these build a stronger nation? He will not.

Can he come up with something positive to say about DeVos? "Hard to be positive about that" he says. I wish I could find a quote from his tenure in which he speaks out about what the DeVos's are doing in Michigan, but I want to finish this post before my children graduate from college. Here's the thing about Duncan's anti-DeVos rhetoric: it's not like she has just entered the ed reform arena, and it's not like she hasn't had her own state-sized sandbox to play in and push her policies, and it's not like Duncan wasn't Secretary of Education while that was going on. He had plenty of chances to complain about her ideas before, but somehow, back then, they seemed fine. In fact, while Michigan was not a Race to the Trough winner, they placed a respectable 23rd. Show me, please, a moment when Secretary of Education Duncan said, "Boy, that DeVos family is really doing things wrong in Michigan. Shame on them."

There's a simple explanation-- most of DeVos's policies match Duncan's policies. She's just more blunt, and she works for Donald Trump.

Duncan offers the observation that it's not in Trump's interests to have well-educated citizens, and I don't want to fall down this rabbit hole, but Trump's victory is not about uneducated working class voters. It's way more troubling than that. Nominally well-educated citizens elected him. That said, I see no reason for Trump to think that education is important.

Another call-in listener tries to hold Duncan's feet to the teacher-evaluation-linked-to-student-test-score fire. Duncan calls it a really fair question, and then fails to answer it. "What we tried to do..." he begins, and I would be fascinated to know what interfered with their intentions and why I should assume that they ever intended anything other than what they did, which was link teacher evaluation to student test scores (including the scores of students that the evaluated teacher never taught). It was a dumb idea, and it would be the simplest thing, the most elementary sign of reflection and insight for Duncan to say, "Yeah, we flubbed that one," but instead he has to pretend that some mysterious unseen force twisted their original intentions into the mess we got. Now Duncan says that testing should be only one piece, and that he likes peer review, and that finding a balance is complex and hard. Duncan is the kid in your class who throws a spitball at you, and you watch him throw a spitball at you, and you call him out for throwing the spitball at you, and rather than 'fess up like a grownup, he shrugs and says, "I have no idea how that spitball ended up flying at you."

The interview wraps up with discussion of gun violence in school, and I can't fault him here. Sandy Hook should have been a turning point; instead it became a sign that nothing could turn us around. Duncan is optimistic about the current youth-led movement. He is not optimistic about the DeVos school safety commission that has promised to ignore guns as a factor. This, Duncan says, is "intellectually dishonest," and he's not wrong. but there's something hugely ironic about that criticism coming from a man who couldn't be honest about what he was doing while in office and is now devoting more energy to maintaining his lies than on taking an honest look at what he screwed up, and how, and why.

I'm sure there will be more of this book-whoring junket, but this is the last I can write about it. We can only hope that, until he has a new thought in his well-paid, thinky tank, board-sitting head, he will just shush.

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