Monday, May 14, 2018

Spellings and Duncan Get It Wrong

Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings, two ex-secretaries of education (Obama and Bush II), teamed up to write an op-ed for the Washington Post in which they got almost nothing right, starting with the headline: "What ails education? An absence of vision, a failure of will and politics."

The very first sentence puts Duncan and Spellings deep in the weeds:

We have long benefited from a broad coalition that has advanced bold action to improve America’s education system.
Evidence that Spellings and Duncan are two different people

"We"? Which "we" is that, exactly? Politicians who used education as a way to launch and relaunch their careers? Corporations like Pearson that have profited over the parade of flawed and failed policies? Folks who wanted to get into education-flavored business of charters? Who is this "we," because it's not teachers or students or communities or taxpayers. And how "long" is "long" supposed to be, and what exactly are these alleged benefits? And what was "bold" about any of it? I get that the new Duncan script casts reformsterism as a courageous act. 

But seriously-- what was "bold" about, for instance, enlisting Bill Gates and a shadow network of reformsters and political operatives to try to enforce Common Core as a top-down reform idea. What was bold about deliberately barring teachers from the plans for rewriting the US education system?

All of this is beside the point, which is that Duncan and Spellings are sad that the coalition has "waned," (which is the way wrong word here-- the moon wanes, but coalitions splinter or separate or fall apart of dump each other when they realize that in a Trump administration nobody needs the protective cover of faux progressives to legitimize the privatization of public ed... but I digress). But their sadness seems tied to so many things that even reformsters agree are not true.

Today, education is blessed with bipartisan agreement on what works, and cursed with bipartisan complacency at every level on taking action.

Nope. Not even sort of true. There is no widespread agreement on hat works. There never has been. Teachers have always spent their entire careers trying to find more Things That Work even as each new crop of students moves the target. And I honestly have no idea what the "complacency" things is about.

Both sides recognize the need to balance strong federal accountability with local innovation; to support high standards for teachers; and to encourage choice and diversity while keeping public schools as the core focus of national policy.

First of all, if Dunclings thinks that there are only two sides in the education debates, they have even less sense than I have given them discredit for. But they have to know that the DeVosian camp does not favor strong federal accountability at all, and that lots of folks are not at all fans of choice. Meanwhile, "high standards for teachers" is a meaningless phrase, and "encourage diversity" is pretty meaning-free as well. Nor is there widespread agreement about keeping the public schools as "core focus," unless you buy the fiction that charter schools are "public" schools.

Dunclings says that ESSA encourages states to implement those "principles," which is-- no, that's not how laws and regulations work. They don't encourage principles; they tell states what rules they have to follow. But Dunclings is unhappy with what states have proposed, labeling them "underwhelming and insufficient," and I can't fault Duncan in particular for not really grasping ESSA because the law was, after all, specifically designed to specifically slap him in his specific face. But since ESSA still keeps test-centered schooling at its core, along with being a set of regulations that will be enforced by someone who had no part in creating them and no interest in enforcing them, states can be forgiven for not exactly trying to jump the fence on these.

But Dunclings is an unrepentant top-downer:

In the absence of an aggressive national push, even the best ideas lack the momentum to create effective change on the ground.

In other words, if the feds aren't pushing from the top down, all you local yahoos just won't get the job done.

But now we're getting nostalgic again:

It wasn't always like this. While we didn't always agree about the best way to get there, for years we agreed on the destination.

Again with the "we." The rest of the graf suggests that maybe "we" is "far-sighted presidential and legislative leadership, and engaged business community and an enduring civil rights movement," which you'll note is a coalition that doesn't include parents, taxpayers, or professionals who have devoted their entire adult lives to working in the actual education field. Dunclings ability to Not Learn Anything remains impressive-- it's still not clear to them that teachers and parents and education professionals need to be part of any solution.

Now a history lesson:

That alliance [see above] allowed President Ronald Reagan to oversee "A Nation at Risk," a report that made education a priority in the national consciousness.

Some carefully chosen words there, since ANAR didn't involve any actual studies so much as an attempt to craft some support for a pre-chosen conclusion. ANAR was a lie, told to stampede citizens in the politically preferred direction. But once the ball was rolling, Dunclings notes how the play of Bush to Clinton to Bush II to Obama kept the federal top-down baloney wagon moving and nudged privatization into the Overton Window.

Dunclings takes one paragraph to thump the drum of magical high expectations and the belief that education overcomes all other socio-economic factors. And then we're on to What's Wrong Today. In keeping with the rest of the piece, they will denounce vagueries. "We lack the national leadership" to make the magic happen, and the consequence, somehow, is that state plans lack vision and ambition (again the idea that without the feds to whip them into shape, the states will screw everything up).

By far the best part of this lament is the submission of NAEP scores as proof of the lack of national leadership, which-- I mean, come on, Arne. You do realize that current NAEP scores come from students who got most of their education under your watch, right? That if current NAEP scores indict anything (an arguable point), they indict the rosy reformster past that you are trying to advocate for.

Students are suffering because of an absence of vision, a failure of will and politics that values opposition over progress. There is a moral imperative to act.

That "values opposition over progress" tips the hand here-- we are sad that Trump-DeVos is pursuing a policy of "undo everything they did when that black sumbitch was in the White House." I agree that is just one of the many saddening and sucky policies currently enshrined in DC, but I'm not so sure that DeVos is pursuing actual policies that are all that removed from the policies of Dunclings et. el. Charters, privatizing, move federal money to private hands, use tests to measure everything because real accountability is hard-- other than the DeVosian desire to let any kind of bias and discrimination run rampant, I just don't see much air between current policies and previous ones. If Dunclings want to argue that the Trump-DeVos embrace of racism and discrimination to a degree never tolerated even in previous GOP administrations-- that would be a point to make. But Dunclings wants to pretend that DeVosian charter love is somehow qualitatively different that Spellings and Duncan charter love, that DeVosian hostility toward public education is somehow much different than Spellings and Duncan disregard for public education. That's a tough sell.

Now Dunclings wants to flash back to the 35th anniversary soiree for ANAR and pretend that the report reached some sort of legitimate conclusion (not to mention the problem with pretending that for 35 years, we've been told to expect an educational apocalypse "any day now" and at some point, that just gets silly). Dunclings choice of pull quote is the "unilateral disarmament" one which always puzzles me-- what arms did we put down, and what enemy were we supposed to be shooting?

Dunclings calls federal education policy "rudderless and adrift," and I wish that were true, but the fact is, DeVos has been pretty clear about her priorities even as she has also been clear that one of them is to not ty to strong-arm her priorities from DC.

At a moment when students are marching in the streets for their right to a safe, quality education; when teachers across the country are demanding attention and investment from their political leaders; when every economic indicator confirms the growing importance of a sound education in forging a full, productive life, what is our shared national vision for our children?

As was always true, Dunclings has skipped right over the question of whether a shared national vision, especially a highly specific one like, say, Common Core, is in any way useful. They're also asserting without proof-- "every economic indicator" supports the importance of education? Really? Every single one? Supports it how, exactly? And as for angry teachers and students-- again, guys, the harvest may be coming in now, but this is a crop that was sown and grown under your watch. It's not something new; it's just something you're noticing now that DC is occupied by people who don't belong to the same country club as you. Look, I will gladly agree that Trump is probably the worst President in the history of Presidents-- but to pretend that what's happening in education right this minute somehow sprang into being the day he took office is foolish.

What else does Dunclings want? High standards and high expectations. Oh, and "respect for teaching," as if they had not been instrumental in eroding that same respect with policies that assumed that teachers will suck unless threatened and punished by "accountability measures." Also, could we please have more federal oversight for colleges and universities? And just generally get national policy makers better seats at the policymaking table. Yeah, boy, it really sucks when you think you have important insights to share on what you consider important work and the people setting the table refuse to include you. Does that feel bad, Arne? Does it sting, Margaret? Because it's exactly what actual working professional educators felt for years under your administrations.

I swear we're almost done, but there's still this gem:

Education is what makes America the country it is. An educated populace, versed in civics, trained to reason and empowered to act is what safeguards our democracy. Equitable access to education — our greatest force for economic mobility, economic growth and a level playing field for all — is what underwrites the American meritocracy.

Lordy- this is a child's conception of how the country works. Everyone goes to school, and the people who do best in school are rewarded with the best jobs and the most money, because this is a meritocracy where people are rewarded for being the very best in a field and not for, say, being a President's basketball bro. Systemic racism, generational poverty, massive inequity in wealth distribution-- all of that will be wiped out if students just get high scores on the PARCC. Yet at the same time, we only need "access" to good education-- not actual good education for every single child. What else do we need?

We urgently need a new generation of business leaders who see the alignment between their corporate priorities and the national interest.

Well, I don't disagree, but I mean we need business leaders who are willing to pay their taxes and share the fruits of productivity with their workers, who occasionally put national and community interest ahead of the bottom line. I'm afraid Dunclings is speaking in the context of education, to which I say, no, we need more educational amateurs to back the hell up and let the professionals work instead of deciding that their wealth qualifies to appoint themselves education policy writers.

We also need teachers unions that want to help set standards. For what? They don't say. We need civil rights leaders to blah blah blah pretty sure they mean "get back to supporting charter schools." And we need "political leaders who know that a fair, prosperous country in forged in classrooms, not at campaign rallies" thereby absolving government of doing anything that might address these issues, especially if that government would ask corporations to pay their fair share or help make the country more prosperous and fair. No, the fact the business leaders didn't use their tax cuts to make workers more prosperous is clearly the fault of Mrs. Bilwiggen, the third grade teacher.

For the big finish, a call for the "coalition" to get back in line before we are a nation at risk again.

What a pair. Overseers of years of failed educational policies who still have nothing to offer remotely like "With the benefit of time, I can see we got A, B and C wrong." Instead they're still arguing that if they had just failed harder, and people had implemented their bad policies better, then the world would be a better place and Trump wouldn't be making them weep into their leather upholstery at their cushy new jobs. God, it's bad enough that we have to wait for Trump and DeVos to go away, but the previous failed occupants that were supposed to have gone away just keep coming back. Dear Dunclings, please just go away.


  1. We know why so many kids succeed in school. And we can list the reasons for each individual who doesn't. When is the last time a serious reformer asked for that list? Instead they tried to fix a problem that they couldn't even bother to understand. Their parade of failures surprises no one in the trenches.

  2. I love that they mentioned "versed in civics" (not well-versed?) when their policies specifically eroded Social Studies curriculum, and in no way demanded ANY civics knowledge, when that was something they could have done, rather easily.

  3. Can I use this as a lesson in biting sarcasm? Great job.