Friday, January 24, 2014

#AskArne & Spleen Theater

#AskArne is a video series on youtube that features Arne Duncan spewing baloney answering questions from theoretical teachers and other interested folks. It generally features the sort of straight shooting we've learned to expect from the USDOE, but the newly released "The Role of Private Funds and Interests in Education" could be used to fertilze all the fields in Kansas.

I am not going to be the first or last blogger to take a look at this (in fact, it looks like Anthony Cody and I were typing at the same time, and his version is much more grown-up and facty)  but the point of this blog is me to vent my spleen before I end up with little blown-up spleen parts all over my insides, so I am going to break this down anyway. I watch with the captions on and sound off because I think you get better face and body language reads. Also, I get hives listening to Arne's voice. I'll be using the closed captions as my transcript, so if somebody has bollixed that up, the bollixing will be reflected here.

This may be the toughest seven minutes I've ever watched my way through, but here we go...

Opening logo. I never really noticed before, but what the hell is that thing at the bottom of the tree? A flying snake wearing a beret?

Hey! It's Joiselle Cunningham and Lisa Clarke, teaching fellows from NYC and Washington state. "That means we are teachers on leave from our positions, bringing teacher perspectives to the Department." Oh, honey. I hope you do better work back in your classroom. They are standing at the National Library of Education, a thing I did not realize existed.

They're going to talk about private interests, and they cross fade into thanking Arne for taking the time to talk to them at this arranged interview that they were assigned by his office to conduct. This canned note of acting like he's a gracious guest instead of the ringmaster hits a nice, full false note right off the bat. Arne is sitting at a library table with the ladies in just-a-shirt, as if he's a Regular Guy and not a Very Rich Guy who likes to hang with Extremely Rich Guys.

So Lisa is going to ask the first question. And we leap right into it, asking if corporate-based philanthropists are playing too heavy a role in public education and if there's a corporate agenda at the Department of Education. This is a question she's "heard teachers asking" and the slight smirk that accompanies it suggests that the question reminds her of when her daughter asked if there was a monster in the closet. What I'm seeing is, "Please, Arne, calm the foolish fears of these silly people."

Arne is a good student who dutifully works important words from the prompt into the first sentence of his response. But as for that influence, "Nothing could be further from the truth." Not for the last time, I must applaud the special effects of the film. You cannot see his nose grow at all. "We listen to everybody," he says, and then proceeds to list a bunch of everybody's who are all the types of groups that cynics might call corporate-based philanthropy. "We try and spend a lot of time, "he continues incorrectly (it's "try TO spend"), "with teachers, listening to students, listening to community members." It's at this point that I start talking back to the screen. "Try harder, Arne."I say. My spleen is mollified. "A number of really important decisions we have made recently have been based on those conversations" he says, and then sticks the landing on the talking point about moving away from zero tolerance.

"Arne, let's stay on this for a second," says Joiselle, and I think it's cute the way she pretends to be controlling the flow of this conversation with her patron and boss. Then I hear "as we talk to teachers around the country" and I am momentarily wondering when the heck THAT happened. Was there a USDOE listening tour? Because I'm thinking that would be almost as much fun as a John King CCSS pep rally. Anyway, she's heard somewhere (everywhere?) that there's concern about private corporations and philanthropists that are involved in public education. What is the role of private dollars in public education? Which is a nice phrase, so kudos, uncredited writer.

"Sadly, education is underinvested in the vast majority of places this country." And then he's on to a list of things that schools need money for but I am busy brain-goggling. Wait! What? Because it appears that he is

A) admitting that schools are underfunded and therefor lacking in resources, which is funny, because in his blaming discussions of What's Wrong With Teachers and Schools and Teachers, this problem doesn't get much play  ("We should be amazed and proud that our teachers achieve so much success with so little help from us," said no Arne Duncan ever);

B) that when the government underfunds one of its agencies, the private sector should be picking up the slack. So, as roads and infrastructures crumble in PA, we should be getting corporations to pick up that tab. I myself am really looking forward to "The CIA, brought to you by Proctor and Gamble"

and C) that this private picking up of  public slack is not a civic duty or a contribution, but an investment, aka thing you put money into with the expectation of getting more money out of it.

In short (okay, not really) I'm pretty sure Duncan just said, "Come buy up our public education functions. They're going cheap and offer great ROI."

AND (bonus round) he said it in the process of proving that private dollars do NOT have undue influence on public education. Which I suppose could be true, because "undue" just means inappropriate and (anti-surprise) Duncan thinks "due" influence = "pretty damn much."

So now my spleen is singing "Ride of the Valkyrie" but Arne says that you have to have good smart partnerships and you don't want schools to be isolated from the community, and that's not entirely stupid, so my spleen subsides once again. Schools as community centers. Yes, that's swell too. For example--

BAM. We will now list Swell Things That Corporate Sponsors Have Done. GE Foundation. Ford Foundation helped with labor relations? Joyce Foundation helped with teacher evaluation stuff (and that has been a rousing success, cries my spleen) which comes in the same sentence as reducing gun violence in Chicago which I don't think is meant to be related to teacher evaluations, although who the hell knows these days. Now we'll spend a relatively huge chunk of time on P-Tech (sponsored by IBM).

Then Arne unleashes "Again, all of this should be determined at the local level, not by us." And my spleen is amazed at the special effects, because you can not actually see the room disappear under a giant tidal wave of bovine fecal matter.

That somehow leads directly to a new idea-- that with all of this unmet need, for teachers and schools to bar the door and say that all these people are bad somehow or have an agenda of hurting kids or hurting teachers is just-- well, that has not been his experience. So there you have it. Arne's decision here is completely data-driven by one piece of data-- his experience. And schools need money, and these rich guys have money, so what else do we need to know anyway?

New question. We name check a couple of other Teaching Fellows who heard a question about private interests and the new testing stuff. And my spleen is sad, because it knows this is an important question and it expects to hate the answer a lot. Anyway, Lisa is saying that some people claim the new assessments are just about making money, and could you, Arne, tell us what you think about that, because we, as teaching fellows working here at the USDOE as well as being functioning literate beings on planet earth for the past several years, have no idea what Arne Duncan might say about the role of corporate interests when it comes to testing. And Lisa makes a pouty face, like she is sad to even have to bother this Great Guy with such a mean-spirited inquiry. Seriously. My spleen thinks this is the worst infomercial ever.

Arne thinks that's an interesting question. He thinks the facts don't quite back up the worry and skepticism (so, only mostly back it up?) and here comes what I believe is an actual shiny new talking point. Here's the pitch-- schools have been giving oh-so-many tests anyway, and they were certainly made by companies, and golly, THAT was certainly expensive. But now we've got these consortia that can get those tests for you bulk, and THAT has to be cheaper (because the government always gets stuff for the best price) and economies of scale, dontchaknow. And you'll be glad to know that the test developers are working to some up with something that goes way beyond the bubble tests with critical thinking and writing, too. So yippee! More better tests! Saving money, so we can pump the leftovers back into the classroom. My spleen wants to run over to the pentagon to get a $10,000 hammer to smack Arne in the head.

New question-- Do states have a choice, Arne, with all this? And we are going to pretend that "this" means "tests." At this point my spleen begins to suspect that Pearson shot Arne's face up with a 50-gallon drum of Botox because how else could he get through all this without laughing, but it seems to be wearing off because he finds parts of this answer hilarious, like explaining that states can be part of one or both of the consortia or make their own tests out of everyday objects found around the house. But--again-- don't 50 states have more purchasing power together and also don't we want to be able to compare things all across the country and my spleen and I are vocal again, hollering, "Yes, Arne, I hardly know how to plan my lessons without knowing what the kids in fifth period English out in Medicine Hat, Wyoming, are doing!" Arne thinks states are free to do different things if they want to act like damn fools.

New question-- When guys like Bill Gates or Eli Broad start throwing money around, does that buy them a seat at the table? Joiselle asks this like she's in a hurry to get to the end of the question because it's a dumb question and he needs to kill it with fire. I unkindly suggest that the question is backward and would rather ask what Arne could do to get the USDOE a seat at Gates and Broad's table, but I can see I am living in disappointment here.

Arne says he has great respect for them and appreciates all their money. He smiles like he remembers the time they took him out for smoothies and let him lick their spoons. But no, they don't have a seat at the table. "You guys are the table," says Arne, and I think that's supposed to mean "You guys who are teachers" and not "You guys who are my departmental prop/lackeys" but it doesn't matter because my spleen just exploded in one brightflash of raging incredulity.

Teacher Lisa shares that she knows Gates did some work with teacher leadership stuff and so it's complicated, and I spleenlessly yell that, no, it's not complicated at all, but she goes on to say she'd really like us to engage each other and I'm thinking, yes, because after the many many many many many many many many invitations teachers have received to be part of the CCSSreformy movement, we all just keep turning them down and refusing to offer any insights at all, and she is smiling a little bit like she can't believe she's saying this rotting raccoon carcass of a talking point either, but she'd like this conversation to continue, perhaps on twitter because she heard that worked really well for Michelle Rhee the other day, so let's use #AskArne to do that. And then she thanks Arne for showing up to this PR moment that he ordered, and we're on to credits and I am picking up pieces of my spleen from around the room.

You should not watch this. Nobody should. It is one of the most cynical reality-impaired dog-and-pony-with-a-paper-cone-pretending-to-be-a-unicorn shows ever concocted, and now I have to go lie down.


  1. North Carolina hit the pause button on PAARC testing for at least a year, partially because the cost of computerized testing was going to be double the cost of the paper and pencil end-of-grade test.

  2. I spent time this morning watching Arne and reading your blog. I am a retired teacher in Michigan where our legislature has been on the road to destroying public education since Synder was elected. My son, daughter and my daughter-in-law are teachers and by listening to them I realize the problems they face that I didn't in my career. None of them are happy in their professions and that makes me sad. I always think that things can change in Michigan at the ballot box, but with a Democratic president who lets Arne control the education agenda in our country I am not hopeful. It will take an uprising by the common man to put public education back in the hands of the people. Until that happens, corporations will become more entrenched and our children will suffer. I want the best for my grandchildren, and testing them into oblivion and paying teachers as little as possible is not the best. Keep blogging Peter and setting people straight. We need voices like yours.

  3. This has been the distinguishing feature of the corporate raiders all along, their utter dishonesty about their true goals. If they had an honest theory about how public education could be improved in the public interest, they could have brought it up for widespread public discussion and debate, the way things are supposed to be done in a critically thoughtful and democratic society. But no, they know that if they told the truth about their end game then the public would see that it’s calculated to destroy public education for all time, not improve it. So they lie, lie, lie, and just keep lying. I guess they consider that business as usual — lying is just the new advertising.

  4. Best review of any informercial, anywhere, at any time. Nicely done, Mr. Greene.( I think you missed a piece of spleen!)