Friday, September 18, 2015

Duncan Still Oblivious

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.


  1. Thank God for Duncan. Now that he's transformed education, America can become a superpower. We can build large cities, launch new companies, invent lots of stuff - things we've never been able to do before our students were college and career ready....

  2. Yeah, how did we ever manage before. We only saved the world from the Nazi's, put a man on the moon, and developed countless new innovations with a bunch of idiots. We are so bright now we buy everything from China and are watching business sell our souls. But, as you noted Dienne, it is now a brave new world, who knows what we can do now (provided the corporate overlords approve).

  3. I don't care if he means well. He's incompetent and totally unfit for his position.

    "No one is that focused on scores." Pathetic.

  4. "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."

    Are states customers of the Federsl Govermment?

  5. I don't think Arne (or his boss) mean well.

    Tell the voters what they want to hear, do what the big money boys want done.

    And reap your rewards from the private sector when you're through "serving the public."

  6. Dear Mr. Greene and commentators:

    Well, first, those 44 people who Arne Duncan declares are happy with the waivers? They work for Pearson.

    Now seriously: Arne Duncan's job is the equivalent of some guy who gets his son-in-law a position with one of his business friends. The son-in-law has not been hired because he has any talent or even interest in the position. He does what he's told. The real work is done by assistants assigned to help him. He's really there because the guy, his associate, the business friend and the son-in-law are a golf foursome. The son-in-law plays a great game. After a shower and a change of clothes, they meet their wives for diner at the clubhouse.

    In Arne Duncan's case he's there to play basketball with the President. He has no talent or interest in education. He does what he's told. The real work is done by assistants assigned to help him. His family and the Obama family might even have dinner and watch a movie at the White House from time to time. That's it. That's why he's there. The Department of Education was chosen as the place he could do the least amount of harm to the Obama Administration. And while I suppose we should all be glad no one thought he'd be good as Secretary of State, this is a huge insult to every school, every principal, every teacher, and every student. We deserved better.


  7. During an interview on C-SPAN, when asked about Florida’s intense emphasis on standardized testing, Harvard Economics Professor—and the privatization industry’s bought-paid-for theorist—-Roland Fryer bloviates the hypocrisy of the elite… (which, after growing up in poverty, Fryer has joined and now sadly parrots their specious, elitist cant).

    When it comes to testing requirements, Fryer wants a two-tiered system —

    TIER ONE: The elite kids in the suburbs—including his own—should be excused from the whole testing and test prep regime, and in its place, get Shakespeare, art, drama, music, and other enriching electives.

    TIER TWO: Meanwhile, the urban kids in failing schools should get TEST PREP… followed by TESTING… followed by more TEST PREP… followed by MORE TESTING… followed by MORE TEST PREP…. and on and on and on…

    He says urban children in “failing schools”…” ought to be tested every day” in lieu of the rich curriculum that their peers in suburbs—again, including Fryer’s own children— receive and enjoy.

    Fryer has it exactly backwards… a big part of the reason the kids in the suburbs are “high-performing” is that, from DAY ONE, they have a rich curriculum devoid of constant test prep and testing, and that’s due to massive advantages in funding that they enjoy over urban schools.
    Watch the video:

    (it’s somewhere between 48:00 and 50:00… it varies every time I try to find it)
    (somewhere between 48:00 and 50:00)
    MODERATOR: “Well, as a follow-up to that, this question from the audience is:

    ” ‘What would you say to Governor Scott of Florida regarding his emphasis on standardized tests as a way to rate all of our schools? And that’s what’s happening in Florida right now.’ ”

    ROLAND FRYER: “Yeah, ya know… I… I think… uhmm… I haven’t figured out why no one has tried out a two-tier system for standardized testing, soooo, you know… if you’re-… I live in Concord, Massachusetts, which is a wonderful suburb of Boston. My wife and I just moved there, annnnd… ya know, I actually don’t want standardized testing in Concord because it will crowd out my kids learning Shakespeare and those types of things, things that I never really read…. uhmm…

    “However, in the schools that are… failing, we really do need standardized tests, because at least, we know… where they are, and that’s really, really important. Just because we don’t test them, doesn’t mean they’re not failing.

    “And so I would actually say if schools are high-performing—high-performing suburban schools, or high-performing schools—ought to be able to say,

    ” ‘You know that? 90% of our kids have passed the test in 2008. Let’s not take the test for two or three years, so that we can focus on more different and more wholistic types of instruction.’

    “For schools who are in the bottom, I think that you oughta test those kids every day. I think we just need to be (unintelligible) to be (unintelligible)”

    MODERATOR: “Well this (next question) is something… be careful what you ask for… you asked for this… but…

    ” ‘Would you expand on the reasons for those differences between Math and Reading on standardized tests (between socio-economic groups). and the reasons for those differences?’ ”

    FRYER: “I have no idea. Uhhm.. That’s the great thing about being a professor. You can say you don’t know and keep talking…. ”


    This was an opening for Fryer to acknowledge the difficulties in education posed by poverty, but because he’s following the corporate reform playbook, Fryer won’t go there. Even given his own first-hand experiences with poverty, he’s totally bought the corporate reform agenda. Someone at the HARVARD CRIMSON should do a take-down of Fryer based on the above quote.

    1. Regarding the effects of poverty in education---the issue Fryer runs from---here’s an answer from Ravitch’s “REIGN OF ERROR”:

      RAVITCH (p. 55-56) : “Poverty is not an excuse. It’s a harsh reality. Poverty matters. Poverty affects children’s health and well-being. It affects their emotional lives an their attention spans, their attendance, and their academic performance. Poverty affects their motivation and their ability to concentrate on anything other than day-to-day survival. In a society of abundance, poverty is degrading and humiliating.

      “… it is easy for people who enjoy lives of economic ease to say that poverty doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to THEM. It is an abstraction. For them, it is a hurdle to overcome, like having a bad day, or a headache, or an ill-fitting jacket.”

      “After more than a decade of No Child Left Behind, we now know that a program of more testing and more accountability leaves millions of children behind and does not eliminate poverty or close achievement gaps. The growing demand for more testing and more accountability in the wake of NCLB is akin to bringing a blowtorch to put out a fire.

      “More of the same is not change. The testing, accountability, and choice strategies after the illusion of change while changing nothing. They mask the inequity and injustice that are now so apparent in our social order. They do nothing to alter the status quo. They preserve the status quo. They are the status quo.”

      Speaking of parents like Fryer. Ravitch says,

      RAVITCH: “An educated parent will not accept a school where many weeks of every school year were spent preparing for state tests. An educated parent would not tolerate a school that cut back or eliminated the arts to spend more time preparing for state tests.”