Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Arne Blows Some Smoke at the PTA

Monday the US DOE put up the full prepared text of Secretary Arne Duncan's speech to the National Convention of the PTA. As always, Duncan presents a compelling pastiche of baloney, things that aren't technically "true," and fine rhetoric that bears no relation to the actual behavior of the administration. Let me take you through the highlights. It won't be pretty, but it's useful to see what smoke is coming out of the Washington fog machine at the moment, and this stirring speech is a great view of Arne's overall vision.

Warming Up

Arne opens up his speech as pretty much anybody would (Glad to be here! Your organization is great! Let's hear it for your leaders!) and then moves on to tales of his children's schooling. Their experience was not the typical 25-30 desks in a row. His son got to work ahead in math because, technology. His daughter got to attend a constitutional convention and Civil War day.

But it’s those kinds of opportunities that I think are so special. And why are those experiences so important? Because I think all of us – all of us as parents – want our children to be inspired, to be challenged, to be active participants in their own learning.

This is not the last time that Arne will say something that is true, but also completely disconnected from the kind of schooling promoted by his department's policies. I'm pretty sure we can make it a drinking game; every time Arne says something that would make a great basis for educational policy, but US DOE actually does the opposite--drink! Do I need to point out that Arne's kids attend a school that remains untouched by the policies that are being inflicted on the rest of us?

Pivot to Big Idea

But that's the warm-up. Time to move on to the real pitch.

"Every child – every student -- deserves an education that will prepare her for the future. And more and more, success in the real world won’t be just about what you know, but what you can do with what you know." Folks will need not just knowledge, but the ability to connect it, to use critical thinking, to work in diverse groups, understand technology as a tool and not an end in itself. Yeah, I know we just started, but go ahead and drink.

Young people will change careers many times. Oh lordy-- he's quoting Tom Friedman-- the best careers are the ones they'll create for themselves. You can take an extra drink just to forget.

"Fluency with critical thinking, readiness for life-long learning – that's what will matter." Is critical thinking some kind of foreign language. Will we use that in job interviews? "I am able to do advanced coding, and I am fluent in Spanish, German and critical thinking."

The real challenge will be "making this happen at scale." We don't need an education plan; we need a business plan. At scale? It will take a whole separate blog to look at how stupid those two words are.

Changity Change Change

If you only remember one thing, Arne wants it to be this-- public education has to change (private schools are free to carry on as is). And he says there is "growing agreement" about what has to happen. It's a nice rhetorical touch, suggesting as it does that there's a movement building and the train is leaving the station and if you want to be part of Big Things, you'd better get your ticket.

Arne says we need to prepare students for success in "college, careers and life." And he's going to lay out the change.

First, it's not about pleasant platitudes (drink). But he'd like to ask two questions. Who thinks they're better off than their parents? Who thinks their kids will have a better life than their own? Lots of people are worried about the future for their children, and they should be.

Booga Booga

Arne will now list a bunch of scary thing.

Parents see German, Korean, and Chinese kids"racing" past ours educationally, and suspect they will be better positioned in the global economy. Arne does not note that this could be because the feds and other reformsters keep repeating this over and over. Nope-- somehow, just somehow, parents have a sense that the sky is falling.

More young people are poor and living with their parents. Few middle class kids and fewer poor kids get college degrees. And college has become as expensive as a triple-decker caviar and diamond sandwich, while family income has not budged from peanut butter levels.

Arne is not surprised because "the education system we have today was designed for a time when higher education was simply a privilege reserved for the elite." And wait! What? I could have sworn that our system used to be geared so that Regular People of all stripes could get some sort of college, and it is only in recent years that college has become a privilege of the wealthy.

Now we'll trot out the usual "quality education can't be because of wealth or zip code" talking point. Also, we're going to have a minority-majority in schools shortly. Not that Arne is saying that the challenge is educating all those poor brown kids, because man, that would be appalling. No-- everybody's education must be better!

The Vision for Schools

Arne will now explain what these new schools are supposed to look like.

First, they must be supportive, safe and joyful. That's we must give eight year olds huge reading tests and flunk them based on the results. Ha ha. just kidding Take a drink.

No, this is actually to introduce a digression on guns. Too many still show up in schools shooting children, which we do with far greater regularity than any other country on earth. Arne supports -- well, actually all he explicitly supports is keeping "our children safe and free from fear."

On to the academics.

All children must be prepared for college. I'm not hyperbolizing, here. He says "all of them." He does acknowledge that college has value beyond job preparation, but his argument is based on two mis-statements of data.

He trots out the old college-income correlation. People who go to college make more money. That's a real correlation. Now, does it mean that people who come from wealthier background are more likely to become wealthy adults, and part of what comes with that wealthy lifestyle is four years of college, or does it mean that everybody at age 18 is on a level playing field and college is what decides who gets ahead? Does college redistribute wealth, or is it just one more marker of it?

Arne underlines his innumeracy by pointing out that the dollar difference is way more now than it was in 1965. Which is... obvious? Unless Arne is suggesting that cars, houses and salaried employees are also far more valuable now than they were in 1965.

Every student in America must be prepared to compete with – and actually to lead – the rest of the world.

Yeah, Arne said that.

As always, Arne's understanding of outsourcing seems incomplete. We keep talking as if India and China took jobs away by being "smarter" and "better educated", when most of the evidence would suggest they took jobs away by being "good enough" and "willing to work for really tiny wages." If Arne's argument were valid, we would also be trying to bring the garment industry back to the US by sending everyone to sewing school.

We didn't lose out to these countries because our education ceiling doesn't go high enough; we lost out because our poverty basement doesn't go low enough.

Another List

Yeah, I thought we had started a list of important school qualities, but somehow we're starting a list again. But here come seven factors of great schools of the future.

First, inspiring, effective, well-supported teachers; second, high standards; third, engaged parents and families; fourth, motivated students; fifth, courageous, committed, accountable leaders; sixth, a safe, secure classroom environment; and finally, access to modern technology.

Okay, I'll wait a second while you polish off an entire bottle.

Arne starts with his usual boilerplate about how we really should be supporting and valuing great teachers in this country. That leads us to these two paragraphs.

Doctors, top managers and pro athletes all have access to excellent coaching, informed by solid data. They receive top-notch training and ongoing development to hone their skills.

Together, let’s work to make all those elements the norm in teaching – better training, better resources, better support, and smarter accountability, tied to better information about student progress.

Quick! What made it into the second paragraph that wasn't in the first one?  Two things, actually-- the idea that teachers must be held accountable, and they need help figuring out if they're succeeding. Because, you know, if the scoreboard wasn't there, athletes wouldn't know how they were doing. If doctors didn't get bean-counter stats, they wouldn't know whether they were helping patients or not. And nobody in any professional field can do good work without having bureaucrats looking over their shoulder and threatening them.

"Part of great teaching is personalizing instruction, meeting the needs of 30 or more individual student..."Oh, Arne. I see what you did there. Thirty or more kids?  Yes, I bet that's exactly what classes are like at that awesome school your kids attend. Thirty-some kids in a classroom is totally ideal.

More List!

Arne talks through the rest of his seven items.

Teachers need techy tools-- and students need to have their data kept secure and private. This is either a non-sequitor, or Arne thinks that teacher technology should be about collecting student data. So if you were dreaming of universal Smartboards and document cameras, you're out of luck.

We should be focusing on mastery of skills, not time in seats (drink!) Students progress needs to hinge on actual demonstrated learning, and parents also need that kind of clear, specific report of student progress (because they have no clue otherwise?) with the kind of great information "than what comes from today’s simplistic bubble tests."

Hey! Here's an idea. We could have each student work with an education professional. That professional could use a whole array of formal and informal assessments to determine the student's progress, skills, and knowledge. Then the education professionals could send home periodic reports to the parents, make the reports available on line to parents, and also be available for occasional conferences with the parents about their child's progress. How does that sound, Arne? Would that work as an alternative to simplistic untested unvalidated bizarrely bad bubble tests (like, say, the PARCC)? Let's all take a big drink.

But don't drain your glass yet. Here's another thing that Arne actually said: "And where schools are spending too much time prepping for tests, they should cut back there as well." Drrrrrink! Because test prep wouldn't be related, would it, to a series of punitive and high stakes threats attached to test results, all favored, supported and promoted by the US DOE. "Too many mugging victims are handing over their money to threatening men with guns. Where that is happening, people should cut back on giving money to muggers."

Great teaching, that’s what leads to real learning and strong results in assessments – not time spent on test prep.

Arne said that too. Never mind taking another drink. Just hit yourself in the head with a brick, in honor of the miracle that Arne can actually say such baloney with a straight face.

Support and evaluation for teachers should take into account student growth and gain – as one part of a mix of measures including things like observations, surveys or portfolios of student work.

Drink. Arne somehow forgets that we don't have any sort of accurate way to measure student growth and gain. All we have are various forms of VAM, which we know does NOT actually measure much of anything except the gullibility of bureaucrats.

Better information means more thoughtful, targeted, and effective support—and nobody gains when school systems treat all teachers as indistinguishable.

That quote comes straight from the StudentsFirst/TNTP playbook. I guess treating teachers as indistinguishable does not include requiring them all to teach to the same standards. Drink.

Time for Some [Common Core] Smoke Blowing

I put Common Core in brackets because throughout this whole next section of his speech, which is totally about Common Core, Arne will never actually say the name once. He will just refer to them as "higher standards." And he will say a bunch of things about them that are not technically true.

-- these standards are beloved by teachers, who finally are freed up to teach critical thinking, a skill previously banned from all classrooms

-- these standards were totally created by a coalition of  " state leaders, parents, principals, policymakers, and education experts from across the country."

-- the standards were chosen by the states (which is technically true, in the same way that you will probably choose to give your money to the mugger who points a gun at you).

Also, this:

Third, higher standards of learning give parents more information about how well their neighborhood schools are performing.

No. No, they don't. A standard doesn't tell you anything more than a ruler that is in a desk drawer. You have to know how to use the ruler, when to use the ruler, how to read the ruler, and how to report what you think you've found out.

The standards do not tell parents shit. A reporting system based on the standards might-- if the system was based on something that collected valid, accurate data. And THAT data would only be useful is the standards were any good to begin with. If you have a mislabeled ruler that you hold cattywonkus to the edge you're measuring, you get information that is meaningless.

Argument by Anecdote

Having established that the strength of the new school system is that everything is reported through clear, reliable, scaled data, Arne will now prove that the system is working by offering data-- ha! Of course not. He will now tell some stories and include no data in his proof at all. Drink twice.

College Affordability

College has become really expensive. Arne and the President would like to fix that, so as of now, the US DOE will stop making gazillions of dollars of profits on student loans and cut rates accordingly. No, sorry, that's not it at all. Umm... they will be throwing their support behind Elizabeth Warren's proposal to slash costs for student loans. No, also not it. They are going to cap loan payment amounts for college grads at 10% of their monthly income.

Remember that lesson in consumer math about paying off your credit card? You know-- the one where they explained that if you only made the minimum payment on your credit card, you would end up paying 12,722% of the original loan? The loan repayment cap does keep some students from going under and declaring bankruptcy at age 23. It also means that the students' costs will be even greater over time. The US DOE is actually making college loans more expensive as a way of guaranteeing that the loaning agencies will not get defaulted on.

So, no. This did NOT make college more affordable. It made it more expensive. It just made it more likely that the folks who make college loans will get their money back, with enough interest to send their own children to private school, twice. Take a drink. With extra interest.

Arne acknowledges that many factors contributed to high college costs, including state budget cuts. He also notes, and I am truly quoting here, "Universities jacked their tuition up." 

More Flag Waving

Arne notes that the feds must strive to be great partners and acknowledges "what matters most will never, never be ideas that come from Washington." Which is true in the sense that most of these ideas are just passing through DC on a journey from the private board room to the public trough. So, maybe half a drink.

Arne is coming around the home stretch. He has more touching anecdotes-- well, images, actually. He has exactly one data point-- the graduation rate. Dropout rates are down by some measure. Arne says college enrollment is at "record levels" and given the current demographic dip and the way that my own local colleges are scrambling desperately to fill seats and save programs, I'm suspecting there's plenty of smoke puffed into that claim. And NAEP scores for younger students (you know-- the ones who have spent the least amount of time under this regime) are up-ish. Not that we know why. Nor do we know why high school scores are NOT up. Nor can we really, truly explain why the NAEP scores particularly matter. But I digress.

This is important work. If it seems speedy, that's because it is, because we just have to change everything right away. And PTA folks, we need your help. Support good teachers (aka the ones doing as they're told). Support changes in schools. And, I don't know. I just hear a dull buzzing in my brain. It's a Grand Canyon of baloney. And I never should have turned it into a drinking game.


  1. Unless I read too fast, you left out the part where Arne Duncan's kids don't go to school in a Common Core state. *wink*

    (And if it was in there and I missed it in the blur of awesomeness, you have only yourself to blame for all the smoke. LOL)

    1. Oh, wait, there it was at the beginning! Well, then, I guess you have it all covered very neatly indeed. :-)

  2. http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/06/24/325229848/a-major-shift-in-oversight-of-special-education

    "Huffman challenged the prevailing view that most special education students lag behind because of their disabilities. He said most lag behind because they're not expected to succeed if they're given more demanding schoolwork and because they're seldom tested."

    Seldom tested?!

  3. Excellent post, as usual. Many of the non-blogging among us would love to see Mr. Duncan's and Mr. Huffman's comments (in the link I posted above) ripped to shreds. Would you do the honor?

  4. Peter -

    Thank you for this dissection. When I tried to read his speech, I couldn't figure out whether it was better to tear out my hair or visit my nearby vomitorium. What killed me was his anecdote praising his kids' experiences NOT doing drill and kill worksheets in their rows. What the bloody hell does he think real teachers have been doing all along? What real teacher's classroom looks like Rocketship?

    I know it's football players who suffer brain damage from being concussed, but something must have happened to Arne playing hoops. It's as if he googles "public education" and spews forth whatever nonsense is contained in the first 10 hits. Problem is, then he repeats it, which is reported as "news", which makes the Google algorithm put Arne's remarks in the top 10 hits, which reinforces Arne's belief in all he says.

    On a personal note - are you related to the Edushyter? She does her drinking from wine boxes!

  5. Fantastic column, Peter: Let the drinking games begin

  6. Enjoyed this immensely. Reading your blog helps with the stress of being a NC teacher right now.