Thursday, September 1, 2016

Duncan Stops Pretending

As the head of the United States Department of Education, Arne Duncan must have felt some pressure to be supportive of public education in this country. But now that he's a private citizen and name-for-hire, he is held by no such restraints.

That's made extraordinarily clear in his piece for Atlantic, in which he "examines the issues at the heart of the charter-school debate." It would appear that the issue at the heart of the debate is that charter schools are freaking awesome.

He can finally grow that mustache he always wanted

Duncan opens by gushing effusively about Richard Whitmire's book-length PR release for charters., saying that it helps take a stand against "the pernicious notion that high-performing schools for disadvantaged students are isolated flukes, dependent on a charismatic educator or the cherry-picking of bright students."

Duncan himself has visited lots of "gap-closing" charters in Chicagoland, and he applauds the bravery and dedication and sheer educational awesomeness that charters embody.

I have never heard a charter-school leader describe his or her school as a “miracle school” or claim to have found the silver bullet for ending educational inequity. The truth is that great charter schools are restless institutions, committed to continuous improvement. They are demanding yet caring institutions. And they are filled with a sense of urgency about the challenges that remain in boosting achievement and preparing students to succeed in life.

I feel certain that these qualities can be found in plenty of public schools, too, but Duncan's eye is on the charter prize alone. He recaps the history of charters in a couple of paragraphs, and then touts their greatest achievement:

Nevertheless, what stands out for me is that high-performing charter schools have convincingly demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels—and can do so at scale.

Scaleability has always been important to Duncan because reasons. His holy grail remains the One Size that will Fit All. If we can just make everyone in school Expect hard enough, all students will get high scores on standardized tests, and then those students will graduate and high-paying jobs will appear for them to fill. And in his heart, Duncan seems to know that only charter schools can perform this magic.

As with his devotion to Common Core, his love of charters admits no reasonable, thoughtful, evidence-based, educationally-committed opposition. No reasonable people could possibly oppose him. Where Core opponents were silly flakes who didn't want to face reality, charter opponents are ideologues and (you knew it was coming) union devotees who are not concerned about children at all, but only care about their personal political hobbyhorse:

Sadly, much of the current debate in Washington, in education schools, and in the blogosphere about high-performing charter schools is driven by ideology, not by facts on the ground. Far too often, the chief beneficiaries of high-performing charter schools—low-income families and children—are forgotten amid controversies over funding and the hiring of nonunion teachers in charter schools. Too often, the parents and children who are desperately seeking better schools are an afterthought.

People can argue about the difference between charters and public schools, but Duncan is sure that children don't care about the distinction, and neither does he. I am not sure I agree about the distinction. I think children care when their school suddenly closes and leaves them adrift, and only charters do that. I think children care when their public school cuts programs because it has lost too much money to charter schools. I think children care when their school mistreats them or won't hear them and they have nowhere to turn because a charter school board doesn't have to answer to them.

Our common enemy is academic failure. Our common goal is academic success.

For Duncan, this claim has never been true. His goal has been high scores on a single narrow standardized test. And while there are charter folks who are in it for the right reason, it would take an exceptional level of willful blindness at this point not to notice that many charter operators are simply in it to make a buck and educating children is a minor consideration at best.

Of course, Duncan does admit that some charters fail to produce academic results, and here's what he thinks about that: is absolutely incumbent on the charter sector to be vigilant about policing itself and closing down low performers.

Notice that he doesn't even go as far as admitting there are come bad actors and fraudsters in the charter sector, nor does he see a role for government in protecting students, families, and taxpayers from fraudsters. Nope-- just let the charter sector police itself.

There was never any doubt that Duncan was a charter fan, but this piece puts him in line with some of the most pie-eyed charter lovers. All pretense is gone, and in a way, it's impressive that Duncan could pretend to be even semi-supportive of public education for as long as he did. But now he can stop pretending, and be the charter-loving, public school dismissing PR flack he always wanted to be.

[Update: Gary Rubinstein caught that this is a slightly modified version of Duncan's gushing introduction for  Whitmire's book, and points out that what he removed for this Atlantic piece is itself telling. Also, be sure to visit the comments area for more illuminating linkage.]


  1. Love the graphic.

    If Duncan wants an example of a school in Chicago "committed to continuous improvement" that is "demanding yet caring" and demonstrates "that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels" -- using evidence-based practices, no less, so scalable -- he need look no further than the school Troy LaRaviere was principal of. Now there's a good candidate for Secretary of Education.

  2. In fact, I would argue that King is much worse. The climate has changed and has curtailed some of the willingness of bureaucrats to be caught near charter debacles. Unlike Duncan, who is little more than a huckster, King is a vigilante. He feels abused by his time in NYC public schools and has increased the circle of his vendetta to be all public schools.

  3. Wonder if his mother us ashamed of him?

  4. Now that his former boss will have free time (recall his comic video where he lies on a couch in the White House trying to decide what he is going to do after he is no longer in the White House), I can't help but wonder if Arne or POTUS will think that the youth of Chicago deserve some attention. I will not be surprised if they find lots of other more satisfying and lucrative things to do than to use their positions to dig in and problem solve. Since they didn't do it while it was their responsibility, maybe they will do it out of the goodness of their hearts? If I had an ounce of their clout there is no other place I would be. These kids deserve their time and commitment. Period.

  5. I agree with you 99% of the time...but there is more to this: "I think children care when their public school cuts programs because it has lost too much money to charter schools." I don't buy for a second that public schools cut programs due to funding. They funnel kids into remedial classes because of "the test" and cut electives.

  6. Peter,

    Check out these articles by Julie Woestehoff, of the anti-corp.-ed-reform, pro-public-school parents group, PURE (Parents United for Responsible Education), which is affiliated with Parents Across America, of which Julie was one of its founders. Both back in his days in Chicago, and during his tenure as Secretary of Ed, Arne was familiar enough with Julie as one of his adversaries, that during protests, he would wave to her personally.

    Julie has been keeping track of Arne Duncan's lies. In fact, she just wrote this post in August 2012:

    Julie points out how Duncan told a bizarre lie about certain high school buddies of his going to work at the "Chicago Stock Yards." The problem with that lie is that the "Chicago Stock Yards" ceased all operations when Duncan was 7 years old.

    Why tell such a stupid, easily-verifiable lie?

    Here's more posts form Julie about his lies:

    --- Duncan's lies regarding claims regarding "turnaround schools"

    --- Duncan's lies regarding charter school "successes"

    --- Duncan's track record of lying in general

    Good stuff... perhaps worthy of a separate article.

  7. Of course, no discussion about Arne Duncan would be complete without spotlighting the Dodge Renaissance Academy fiasco.

    In late 2008, just after Obama's victory over John McCain, Obama and Duncan announced Duncan's appointment at Secretary of Ed. To signal the changes Obama had in store for the nation's schools, they made this announcement at a school that exemplified the efficacy of Duncan's "corporate education reforms" in Chicago ...

    Dodge Renaissance Academy.

    During the press conference / photo op, Obama pointed out that Duncan showed great courage when he had previously closed the pre-existing school occupying the Dodge campus and serving the students now attending Dodge. He fired all the adults---principal, other administrators, teachers... right down to the guys who sweep the floors. This was difficult decision where he had get tough, as there were major protests against this move.

    However, this served as an example of how Duncan, as Secretary of Ed, won't be letting defenders of the failed status quo get in his way, or stop him.

    As a result, Dodge was transformed into a miracle charter school ...

    ... until it wasn't.

    A couple years later, the school descended into administrative and financial chaos, and parents fled, leading to the school's closure. This was a story not covered by the mainstream media, but covered by Huffington Post (Mercedes Schneider) here:

    and Dr. Ravitch here:

  8. Oh, and the Dodge charter fiasco also encompasses the whole gentrification-thru-charterization phenomenon, as well as how military schools are being --- in the words of Jonah Edelman --- being shoved down the throats of unwilling parents of poor and minority parents.

    Chicago activist and teacher George Schmidt added all this to the comments section of the Ravitch article on Dodge:
    George Schmidt
    May 10, 2013 at 6:30 am

    "We are still waiting for the Chicago papers to cover this update on the sad Dodge story, and the Arne Duncan/Barack Obama ironies around it all. I took photographs at Dodge after Duncan announced the original proposed turnaround, which that year took place in two phases. In the first phase, the school was emptied out and one year of 'planning' was supposedly implemented.

    "The kids were scattered to the winds, especially the homeless ones, and those whose families could not afford the new $200,000 townhouses that were being built down the street from Dodge. (A photograph putting Dodge in its geopolitical perspective would be taken from the United Center, less than a mile to the east, to depict accurately the displacement of poor and working class black families from the area…).

    "Fewer than half the original Dodge kids returned to the 'new' Dodge the following year. And for those who were sent hither and yon, the results were bad. The Dodge kids who tried to go to Grant Elementary School (where many of them were sent) were beaten up by the (then) Grant kids. The Grant kids didn’t want the 'Dodge Dummies' to lower their school’s scores. (That was ironic because there really wasn’t that big a difference between Grant and Dodge, but perception is reality…).

    "Eventually, Duncan’s versions of school reform got around to Grant, too. With the help of then Congressman Rahm Emanuel (who bragged he got a one million dollar earmark for the job) Grant became a 'military academy.'

    "First, the Phoenix (Army) high school was put in the Grant building. Then the 'Marine Military Academy' was put in there, too. As a result, the remaining kids who had been at Grant elementary school were scattered to the winds, just like the Dodge kids had been.

    "The ability of Duncan, Obama, and Emanuel to get away with this stuff, decade after decade, rests on the failure of the corporate news media in Chicago to cover the tragedies of the poor and working class families who become, over and over, the voiceless victims of these policies. Their voices — thousands of them — are drowned out every day by the screaming of Rahm Emanuel’s PR machinery (only part of which is the multi million dollar 'Mayor’s Press Office,' which daily issues commands to the media to cover a media event starring Rahm and some corporate chieftains). It is a choice made for more than a decade by Chicago’s corporate reporters to focus on the official party line of the 'School Reform' crowd and ignore the tragic facts, year after year, school after school and child after child.

    "And this year, we’re facing the largest and most tragic assault of all. But we can’t ever forget that this attack on children and truth was part of the program of Arne Duncan, Barack Obama and Richard M. Daley long before Rahm Emanuel returned to Chicago to purchase four years on the fifth floor of Chicago’s City Hall…"

  9. According to its 2009/2010 Annual Report, Arne Duncan was on the Board of the Broad Foundation until he became Secretary of Education. The report says,

    “The election of President Barack Obama and his appointment of Arne Duncan, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, as the U.S. secretary of education, marked the pinnacle of hope for our work in education reform. In many ways, we feel the stars have finally aligned.

    With an agenda that echoes our decade of investments—charter schools, performance pay for teachers, accountability, expanded learning time and national standards—the Obama administration is poised to cultivate and bring to fruition the seeds we and other reformers have planted.”

    The 2009/2010 report later says, "“Prior to becoming U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, where he hosted 23 Broad Residents. Duncan now has five Broad Residents and alumni working with him in the U.S. Department of Education.”

  10. The 2009/2020 Broad Annual Report is at

    The first quote is on Page 5. The second quote is on Page 10.