Saturday, December 20, 2014

What Has Arne Learned?

Over at the official blog of the Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan shares "What I've Learned in Fifty States." Spoiler alert: nothing.

Arne can be excused. Many people are unclear about the meaning of "learn." Learning implies a change of state, a movement from not-knowing to knowing, from not-understanding to understanding. The world has a large supply of people who are not interested in a change of state, and so their interactions with the world around them are not about understanding or grasping or discovering, but about confirmation. They are not looking for a change of state, but of a more solid, comfortable settling into their status quo.

Politics are not conducive to learning. You don't get many political points for saying, "Hey, I've look at some facts, talked to some people, examined the issue, and I've come to a different understanding." In life, we aspire to be, find, foster life-long learners. In politics, learning just gets you a "flip-flopper" label.

So it's not particularly surprising that in traveling through fifty states, Arne "learned" that he's always been right about everything. Not once in fifty states did he encounter something that made him say, "Damn. I need to rethink this."

Can Arne learn? It's a tough call to make from out here in the cheap seats. NEA president Lily Eskelsen-Garcia once declared that he was well-intentioned and sincere, but just wrong. Many folks suggest that he's corrupt and in the pocket of business interests, but I think that's facile. That kind of corruption comes in various shades, few of them simple quid pro quo pay-to-play. I think it's more common that you spend time with rich, important people and they are charismatic and they seem to make a of sense and so, hey, you adopt their view because it just seems so right. I look at things like the last Pearson essay about testing and, man, it looks and sounds like the work of really important people who really know what they're doing, and if I weren't inclined to be a skeptical asshole, I might find it pretty convincing. Maybe Arne's just in way over his head and he's naturally attracted to the cutest lifeguard that fishes him out of the water. Maybe he just doesn't know any better. This is a mystery I still to solve with the clues that make it out to the cheap seats because as it turns out, Arne and I just haven't had a face-to-face conversation yet.

Arne wants us to believe that he's really been listening, but poking through his map of visits reveals very few actual encounters with actual teachers in actual public school settings.

During the past five years, whether my visit was to a conference, a community center, a business, an early childhood center, a university, or one of the more than 340 schools I’ve stopped by, I’ve come away with new insight and knowledge into the challenges local communities face, and the creative ways people are addressing them. I know that in order to do this job well, it’s vital to never stop listening, especially to those in the classroom each day.

Except that most of those 340 schools were backdrops for political business, settings for conferences or announcements that allowed for good eyewash for department business as usual. And when Arne tells me that he's come away with new insights and knowledge, I challenge him to cite a specific example. I'm not going to hold my breath waiting; can anybody remember a single moment in his career that Arne has said, "Hey, from seeing how this looks on the ground, I've learned this thing that I didn't previously understand/know/believe"?

Duncan goes on to cite some specific visits in which he was excited to discover that he has been right all along and that his policies are awesome. This is not learning. By the end of this piece of puffery, it's clear that Arne has learned nothing in five years, but he has collected confirmations of his pre-existing beliefs.

He's had the chance. Say what you want about the people in the Resistance opposing the reformster policies and programs-- we aren't very hard to find. Find just one of our blogs, and the links will open up a whole world of differing opinions and spirited discourse. LEG reported a fairly direct conversation with him. And to his credit, he once actually sat in a room with some BATs. At this point Arne really has no excuse for not being at least familiar with the real arguments against his policies. He could learn about the data that shows how VAM is a failed useless tool, or that his testing program is disastrous, or that modern charters are an unregulated theft-fest. And yet somehow, even a simple "We don't all agree on how best to serve students in America's public schools" doesn't make his list.

I go back to the department blog because it is a striking example of writing at its absolute worst. It fails first in voice. There really isn't anything here to indicate that the post was written by a real person; it could as easily have been written by an intern with Arne's itinerary and a list of department talking points open in front of him. It's seemingly meant to be a personal reflection, and yet there is nothing personal about it, no trace of personality in it. This adds to the cumulative impression I've formed of Arne; he seems to bring nothing personal to his job, but seems to view it as the business of implementing ideas, policies and talking points that he has no personal investment in. When you can take it, try looking for a clip of Arne talking about basketball, and compare it to one of his official secretarial duties. Only one of those activities seems to awaken any personal passion in him (spoiler alert: it's not the one that involves your tax dollars at work).

But this is also the sort of writing that makes me scratch my head and look around for an audience. It's like a man on a soapbox delivering a desultory sermon to nobody. Who did he imagine reading this? Are his critics supposed to be reading it  and thinking, "Damn, I've had this guy all wrong. I am now convinced of his rightitude!" Are his supporters (I imagine there must be a few) suppose to take heart from a rousing pep speech, because I don't think this is that. Is it supposed to give journalists something to cover? Because there's nothing either new or strikingly quotable here. I will bet you dollars to donuts that I am at this moment writing the longest response to the piece that is ever going to be written.

The basic point of writing is that you have something you want to say and somebody you want to say it to. Arne's essay appears to fail on both points.

I take it as the intersection of Arne in particular and politics in general-- a pointless, empty exercise in talking to the air to signify, at a minimum, that you are still doing something, and that nothing has changed (just in case anybody was wondering). Devoid of personality, purpose or passion, it hints at a bureaucrat who has simply lost his moorings and any particular contact with actual human beings and the world they live in, but who may not realize that he's even adrift.

Arne opens with the observation that the best ideas come from outside Washington, DC, which is of course the kind of thing said only by people soaked in DC culture (or its outposts in places like, say, Chicago). Just add that to list of things that Arne hasn't learned. As a summative self-assessment, this is not top notch work. Perhaps, rather than trying to advance on merit, Arne is counting on one more social promotion.


  1. I love the way you think and write. Thank you for being a voice for all of us. Here in Indiana, I feel so helpless to save public education. Even though, through bipartisan effort, a real educator was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, because she is a teacher, she is disrespected and dismissed by the governor. As a newly retired teacher (guess why I retired), I would like to do whatever I could to help, but you're right, you can't teach reformers because they are not willing to learn.

  2. Touche, Peter, you are exactly on point. Arne is an empty suit, perhaps a perfect example of the epitome of what the CC$$ in ELA are envisioning for our best global competitors--great at spewing talking points, not so great at examining the source or applying reason to come to independent conclusions. And as for empathy--who needs it?

  3. Who is going to assess his learning? Probably Pearson

  4. "You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say." - F. Scott Fitzgerald. (You know, a real writer.)