Friday, June 10, 2016

Thought Leader Duncan Has Another New Job

Arne Duncan continues to build that resume. He was already signed on with Emerson Collective, the philanthropic mish-mash of Steve Jobs widow; in that position, he is poised to work on the youth unemployment problems of Chicago.

Now comes word that Duncan has joined the board of directors for Pluralsign.

If you aren't a tech professional, you may not recognize Pluralsign's name, but they've been in business for a while. Started in 2004 by four partners who each kicked in $5K, the company started out as a classroom training company. They shifted quickly to an on-line video model, simple and neat. You or your company sign up, pay a subscription fee, watch the trainings. The author-presenters who create the training are paid a royalty per view. By 2011, the company was expanding rapidly based pretty much entirely on a training library of highly technical programming and software development training courses.

By 2013, they were ready to seek outside money, and the venture capitalists came a-calling. By 2014, they were telling Business Insider that they had 3,000 courses, 9,900 hours of content, and 600 experts. Observers estimated $85 to $100 million in revenue, and co-founder Aaron Skonnard said that in two years the company had increased its value by a factor of ten, making it worth about a billion dollars.

Look at their front page now and you see more than just software development-- they offer courses in architecture, manufacture and design, and even "creative professional."

Duncan comes on board as part of a quartet of newbies. His new co-board guys include Tim Mauldin (a former CPA and "proven authority in leading web-based companies"), Gary Crittendon (Palo Alto private equity guy), and Brad Rencher (Adobe’s executive vice president and general manager of marketing cloud). This may seem like odd company for the Duncanator, but look at how breathlessly Business Wire (or the Pluralsign press release) describes him:

Having served as the U.S. Secretary of Education from 2009 to 2016, Duncan is one of the most notable and highly-regarded thought leaders of twenty-first century education. One of the longest-serving education secretaries and arguably the most influential, he guided a rapid expansion of the federal role in the nation’s 100,000 public schools and saw 40 states adopt key policies. Aligning with Pluralsight’s mission to democratize professional learning for all, Duncan championed significant education causes to equalize learning opportunities while a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, including Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that preserved 350,000 teachings jobs through $100 billion in stimulus funds.

Arne Duncan-- Highly Regarded Thought Leader. Holy smokes. I mean, holy frickin' smokes. Duncan was not even a particularly apt Thought Sayer, and I can't remember a single time that Duncan stood up to speak and folks from all across the nation fell in behind him, excited by his vision and his leaderliness. Not to be mean, but I'm not sure that Duncan ever proved to be a Thought Haver. Is there a Duncan policy that didn't come from somewhere else? Anything? Test-and-punish, charter schools, data mining, Common Core-- pretty sure that someone else did the thinking on those.

He certainly did expand federal reach, but he did it through the artful use of blackmail (apply for a waiver or face the consequences of being in violation of NCLB). It is true that the stimulus money saved some jobs, but are we going to give Duncan credit for that? How about pissing off Congress so badly that they united in the historic stripping of power from a cabinet-level department? Or the complete bungling of Common Core? Or the demoralization and alienation of public school teachers? I don't want to rehash the whole question of Duncan's legacy again, but this is a spirited rewrite of history indeed.

What exactly is Duncan going to do for Pluralsign? That's not entirely clear:

"The pace at which people need to acquire new knowledge is only going to grow," Duncan says. Pluralsight, which develops online courses for technology professionals, is well positioned to take advantage of that new reality. For Duncan, it's a natural fit. "I’ve talked all the time about cradle to career, this idea of folks being life-long learners," he says. "The idea that learning stops at [age] 22, that’s a death sentence today."

And as a board member, he doesn't really have to do anything. Just, you know, stop by occasionally and lead some thoughts around the office. Maybe bring along a suitcase full of gravitas. Shoot some hoops. Cash his check. As long as they keep him from talking about white suburban moms, maybe he'll be okay. Meanwhile, some perfectly good teachers are out of work, and John King is Secretary of Education. Sometimes I don't understand this world.


  1. He was a virtual nobody until his basketball buddy made him a somebody. And we spent decades mocking the Soviets for having a completely rigged system. Now our politicians need to budget time to reach the public via late night comedy shows and other goofy videos. No wonder we end up with "thought leaders" like Duncan at the helm of education...for seven years. Who are we?

    Meanwhile, young people are entering and exiting the world of pre-packaged education. Millions have spent spent 12 years in that context. We older folks cannot imagine what it must be like. I am sadder today than yesterday.

  2. When you call the doltish Duncan a "thought leader", you meant in the sense of the phrase right?