Sunday, July 29, 2018

Dammit, Arne: Duncan Has Learned Nothing

Never mind a Secretary of Education who has ever taught anything; I'm beginning to think it would be a step forward if we had a Secretary of Education who has ever learned anything.

Arne Duncan was interviewed for the pages of US News, and the resulting piece reminds us, first, that there's not nearly as much difference between Duncan and DeVos as some Democrats would like to believe, and second, that Duncan remain unrepentant and unenlightened about anything that happened under his watch. So join me in yelling fruitlessly at the computer screen as we walk through this trip down Delusion Lane.

Chicken Little's History of School

Count Duncan as a member of the Century Club-- that special group of reformsters that is certain schools haven't changed in 100 years. Arne would also like to beat the expired equine about how "other nations out-educating, out-investing, out-innovating us." Because, you know, we're competing with India and China and Singapore for jobs. That's certainly true, but at no point is it going to occur to Duncan that those countries compete by offering little or no regulation and workers who will do the job for pennies. In all the times I've heard the "we must change education to compete with China" refrain, not once have I heard an explanation of how education will help American workers better compete with people working under conditions we wouldn't accept for wages we couldn't live on. Arne wants us to now that our kids-- his kids-- are going to grow up in that world. And if you think Arne's kids, raised in privilege and comfort, are going to be competing with some Chinese smartphone assembler for work, well-- I have a bridge over a swamp to sell you.

This guy. This frickin' guy.

Oh, and we are not in the top 10 internationally. Which-- first, what does that even mean? Top 10 ranked by what? Because if, as I would guess, he means test scores, let me repeat for the gazzillionth time that we have never, ever been in the Top 10 for international test scores. Nor has Duncan ever offered a shred of evidence that being in the Top 10 of test scores translates into any sort of national achievement like higher GDP or higher standard of living or happier citizens or military might or best frozen desserts!

Duncan's Diagnosis and That Damned Status Quo

Having failed to effectively define the problem, Duncan now goes on to offer his idea about the cause.

This is not a cure for cancer, this is not rocket science. It's total lack of political will. And I think the politics of the left and the right stand in the way of what's best for kids.

Well, actually, it is too rocket science. Duncan's thesis is that fixing schools is actually quite easy; we're just not willing to do it, because after all this time, he still doesn't realize how complex and complicated it is to run an entire educational system. And Duncan doesn't seem to know what he's trying to change because he also notes "There's a small number of  political leaders willing to challenge the status quo."

Dammit, Arne.

First, the status quo in education right now is the status quo you help make. Common Core, in its various bastardized forms and under its various assumed names, is the status freakin' quo, and an ugly obnoxious one it is, too. Schools and teachers being evaluated based on bad uses of bad data generated by bad tests-- that's status quo, too. As is the draining of resources from public schools by private charterized schools. These are all problems, these are all status quo, and these are all a legacy in part of your administration.

Second, the idea that you need political leaders to change the educational system shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the education system (and, for that matter, the political system) works. You need teachers and education leaders and actual trained professional educators to change an educational system, yet another fact we can put on the list of Things You Don't Understand. All these years, and you still treat teachers like the hired help, certain that your amateur insights are more important than anything they might have to say.

Duncan also thinks we need Republicans to challenge their base, and I'm not sure where he's coming from here, because other than a deadly aversion to the words "common core," the GOP base is in tune with most of the Duncan program. Duncan offers Obama's championing of merit pay as a profil;e in courage because "that's very hard to do" and well, yes, it's hard to do because we have lots of evidence that merit pay doesn't work. There's nothing courageous about standing up for a bad idea.

Advice for Future Administrations

This is a generous question to ask, and an honest answer would be, "It doesn't matter, because my name is mud in DC. I mean, did you see ESSA pass? I personally created a consensus that me, my department, and my successors should have little or no say in all future education policy."

But Duncan still takes the pass and drives for the basket. And he has some goals that he thinks transcend party politics.

First, more "high quality" pre-K, which unfortunately is usually code for imposing the mistakes of K-12 policy on very small children. Because what the US needs is more four-year-olds sitting in seats to complete worksheets so they're ready for their standardized tests.

Second, let's get the graduation rate up. Duncan is proud of the 84% his administration hit, and I guess that pride precludes any discussion of how much fraud went into that figure, including the fraud right in DC itself. But that has always been a hallmark of the Duncan approach-- go for good numbers, but never ask what the numbers actually mean.

Third, 100% of graduates should be college ready. Gahh! [Takes moment to wipe spittle off screen]. "College ready" is a meaningless phrase-- ready for what college? what field of study? in the hopes of what job? And in the meantime, who is going to weld stuff? (Note that US News also has a great article about "25 Jobs That Don't Require a College Degree").

Fourth, we should lead world in college completion. See above rant.

Those are goals that keep high-wage, high-skill jobs in our country. Those are jobs that grow the middle class, those are jobs that keep our civic democracy healthy.

That's not how it works. These are goals that give businesses the luxury of having a deeper pool to choose from (and consequently pay less for), but business does not say, "Look, there are a hundred graduates in Computer Wafflery! We'd better come up with 100 jobs for them! And pay them super-well." I have no idea what he thinks these have to do with a healthy civic democracy.

Duncan argues for vigorous discussion and lots of different local solutions, because no one has a monopoly on good ideas. True. Hell, some people don't even have a piece of good idea market at all.

What About The Feds?

What role should the feds play? Duncan ducks this question so hard I think his chin scraped some carpet off the floor. He mentions the i3 fund, a couple hundred million to "scale what works" in innovation (defining what works of course as what makes test score numbers go up). The feds are supposed to be backing innovation, he says.

Here are some things he doesn't say:

That his administration had the School Improvement Grants that turned out to be a complete bust. That part of the problem was most likely that rather than saying "Go forth and innovate," the administration said "Here's a list of the handful of acceptable ways to spend this money." As with Race to the Top and the waiver program, the Duncan approach was always to prescribe what schools should do to Fix Things. All this talk about innovation and local flexibility is swell, but Duncan never, ever backed that up on a policy level. Instead, it was always, "We know what you need to do, and we will give you funds only if you do things our way." And that approach failed. Failed, failed, failed.

Bad Teachers

Gabrielle Levy asks a loaded question that presumes we're awash in bad teachers and nobody is doing anything about it.  Duncan runs his old one-two of "We should respect teaching but currently most teachers start out sucking." We should train them like professionals and compensate them like professionals, he says in one breath, before qualifying it with "great teachers," as if professional doctors and lawyers live on merit pay. Fine. Whatever. He likes the residency model, and I won't beef with that, but then he's back to the Century Club, as if education only just changed recently and teachers haven't caught on yet.

Can You Explain the Big Teacher Walkouts in Oklahoma and West Virginia and Arizona?

Short answer: Not really. Long answer: those damned Republicans are starving education in their states, cutting funding over and over, which doesn't serve anyone. And that's not wrong, but I have to point out that the guy saying it is the same guy that presided over programs where only the "best" states got money and those lagging just had to try harder. This is the same guy who believes that marketplace competition will spur schools to greatness. So these red state austerity programs are just the logical extension of his policies-- the less you give people, the more they will strive for excellence to win the zero-sum game. This is how it works. First, some people lose. Eventually everybody loses.

Also, this: "Jobs will go where knowledge workers are." No. Jobs will go where workers are good enough and costs are lower than elsewhere.

Why Doesn't It Seem As If Education Is A Priority In This Country?

"The challenge is that no one votes based upon education." So nobody values it because nobody values it? South Korea, he says, kicks our education butt because people care so much. Here in the US, politicians can do lip service and photo ops, but nothing else.


Hey, Duncan did learn something. Like many of us, he learned the Sandy Hook lesson, which is that if we can let twenty white babies and five teachers be killed, there really isn't anything that will create enough outrage for us to do anything about guns. We care about guns more than children, and that's who we are.

So In The End...

Duncan is of course out promoting his book, which means we'll likely be subjected to more of this.

I'll go ahead and accept the oft-painted picture of Duncan as a nice guy. But man-- I cannot think of a single moment in the last decade when he has said anything remotely like, "You know, I've look at the actual results and listened to some of my critics and examined some data and talked to actual teachers, and I've concluded that I made a mistake with this policy or that statement." He is like a guy who douses the porch in kerosene, throws a match, and then stands in the street and says, "Well, this house is on fire! That's a real problem-- somebody needs to do something about that." Then later he starts telling the fire department how best to fight the fire. And while Disney's brain is rumored to frozen in a chest somewhere, Duncan's brain is frozen but still wired up in his head, its views and ideas unchanged and unalterable, every experience or detail that might cause cognitive dissonance bouncing off the solid surface.

I won't read the book; I can't support selling one more copy of the damned thing. Duncan is not only an educational amateur, but one who has had experiences from which he could have learned-- but he didn't. He may be a nice guy, but the sooner he just gets the hell away from education, the better it will be for all of us.


  1. What's most infuriating to me is how Duncan still lauds SKorea schools, saying their education system "kicks our butts" despite fact that Korean parents send their kids w/pillows to sleep in school, are driven into debt by spending up to 70% disposable income on private tutoring & their children have sky-high suicide rates. US should really should emulate that system?

  2. Really enjoyed your figurative language.

  3. Like all leadership from Chicago, Arne has "selective seeing". You have to be from Chicago to appreciate the concept. The problems are so vast, so deep, so shocking that people are fleeing. You can expect Betsy DeVos to be clueless based on her record, and she lives up to her credentials. But Arne? Isn't he supposed to be wired from his childhood to care, to have a brain, to have the "top of the line" education to know how to recognize obvious problems when he sees them?

    While there are some aspects of education that are definitely universal, it is clear that different districts have very different realities they must address, and obviously they have varying cultures. Western Pennsylvania, even with its dysfunctional underbelly, is not like Chicago. I know because have lived in both places. Chicago is its own story in US history, and it is a very tragic story. You can't fully understand how Arne got to be where he is without understanding Chicago. I don't recommend digging into it because you will be very depressed.

  4. Duncan's mind almost certainly resembles the highly polished, impenetrable maple wood that he used to bounce basketballs off of, as do the minds of the NY-Times-Liberals who voted for Barack Obama (not that I didn't) and think of his education legacy as positive. They seem to short-circuit every time I explain that his education policies were as toxic as a paper mill's local river in 1972.

  5. On the contrary, he has learned that you can say anything and it doesn't have to be true or based on actual facts, you don't ever have to be accountable for anything because you never admit mistakes and anything negative is fake news.