Friday, September 10, 2021

Arne Duncan and Pedagogical Badger Hats

Arne Duncan was at it again, popping up on Fareed Zakaria's CNN show to talk about post-covid education (looking kind of Herman Munster-ish on his Zoom screen). 

Much of his shtick was predictable. Students are months behind (which actually means, of course, scores on the Big Standardized Test are down, we think). We have to meet their social emotional needs, as we accelerate learning (just, you know, teach faster, because teachers have been holding back all these years). 

Zakaria says/asks, the "digital economy" did awesome in most sectors, but in education learning-through-a-screen didn't really deliver. Howcum?

Whatever else his failings, Arne could often say the right thing, and he does that here. Students are social beings, and being unable to have a personal connection with friends and teachers was rough on them. He's also worried about the "missing" 2.5 million students, which he suggests could be a lost generation, and that strikes me as a bit over the top, but reflective of a government bureaucrat attitude that if we don't have official paperwork on a person, they don't exist. But his idea of mobilizing teachers, social workers, etc to go out and find these children and make sure they're okay--that's not a terrible impulse. High touch, not high tech, says Arne of the solution.

Zakaria says that it sounds like there's no room for hybrid or virtually school in Duncan's vision, so now Arne will pivot and pretty much take back what he just said. And this is the part you may have seen quoted.

Duncan suggests, as an example, that we've got all these algebra teachers across the country, teaching just 100-125 kids. 

I think if we figured out who the best, who the Albert Einstein algebra teachers were in our country and rather than teaching 100 students each day, think about if they were teaching 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000, and then we could use that class time the in person time, for tutorials and small group instruction. So there are some lessons that we can take and run with.

This is a dumb idea. It's not a new idea--reformsters have dreamed of this world where we pay fewer teachers to teach more students. But this precisely the sort of thing that sounds good to somebody who doesn't really understand teaching at all. I mean, what person imagines that teaching 15 kids in person and teaching 100,000 online are basically the same thing, that any teacher who's good at one will also be good at the other. It's the Duncan crowds same old idea-- teaching is a human engineering problem and once you figure out what buttons to press on the student module, that (plus expectations) will just cause the student modules to learn. 

Duncan says we'll have to make access to equipment and wifi as ubiquitous as electricity and running water (oops--I have some places for him to visit). He nods at "anytime anywhere" learning, but then he pivots back and says that being in a physical school is the way to go. 

Fareed asks what the hope is, and Duncan says we can't go back to normal because normal didn't serve tens of millions of students and I'm now yelling at the screen to remind Duncan that he and his cronies created that normal and this is one of my least favorite Duncan moves--decrying policies that he pretends he didn't have a hand in creating. Gah. Also, he wants to accelerate learning somehow--maybe do away with three months of summer vacation (he's going to blame it on the agrarian economy which is incorrect), or maybe some children get 9 months a year and other children get 11, and longer days and I can't even start on how many ways this is dumb-- NCLB and RttT already gave us the treat of students with low test scores being punished by losing arts and science and recess, but sure, let's take their family time and after school play and summer vacations, too. Great idea, Arne.

After a stop at food, Duncan is on the old "Let's flip this on its head" and make time the variable and learning the constant. "Let's give every child exactly what they need to be successful," says Arne, and "successful" is doing a lot of work there, but not as much as "what they need" because mostly we don't really know--unless we pick a meagre, cramped definition of "successful" like, say, "gets a certain score on the Big Standardized Test."

He's going to bear down on the time thing, saying that "basically" you pass algebra by sitting in a desk five days a week for nine months, and I can personally guarantee you that is NOT how you pass algebra. Arne just wants you to sit there till you "learn algebra" which might be three, four, nine or fifteen months and while I get the mastery learning arguments and agree with many, Arne is unintentionally highlighting some of the structural and tactical issues in trying to make his outcome based/competency based/proficiency centered school actually work. But Duncan wants to take these ideas "to scale" because they could really accelerate progress (except, presumably, for the student who's spending 15 months in algebra class). 

The sardine superteacher, dispensing smartitude over a class of thousands (who can clock out once they pass a check test) is an old favorite. Fans have been pointing to many students who did just fine under the cobbled-together patchwork kluge of virtual learning that schools used last year, and certainly some did (just as a few students do well in cyberschool). But in education we have to be careful about the "some students do well" argument. Really careful.

Some students will always do well. Regardless (or even in spite of) what teachers do, these students will learn. I could tell every student in the classroom to wear a badger on their head, and some students would do just fine. They're bright, and they're motivated. That's why many teachers love to have them in class. It's why colleges and universities are such a fertile source of terrible teaching--because students are there on purpose and mostly motivated to learn (or at least get grades) whatever Dr. Dimbulb is doing up there at the front of the 500-person classroomitorium. 

Duncan is right when he says that human connection is critical to education, in this and in any other fall. But his idea about putting some "Einstein" on a 100,000 student internet hookup is deeply, deeply dumb. But man--the man can still make me yell at a screen. 


  1. Someone should give him an Ambassadorship to N. Korea to get him out of the country for a while.

  2. His comments aren't dumb. Dumb people say things that amount to nothing. People with political power end up affecting others' lives. His comments are reckless.

    Why does he have a voice in education at all? That's the question we should be asking. Why does Fareed interview him? Why does he get all that time on CNN? Why is he so thrilled about "digital education"? The overwhelming majority of people were very dissatisfied with on-line learning. Does he not read the news?

    These two people apparently feel very qualified to discuss education in order to enlighten the American public on "whatever". We thought we were done with him when he resigned before the end of his second term. He is now a managing partner with a non-profit called Did Fareed ask him if he plans to help all the young people with Einstein math teachers on-line? One thousand of them?
    Something doesn't work here. Maybe Fareed was interviewing him on the wrong subject? Every once in a while Arne pops up with his faux benign smile and tries to talk shop and instead sounds like a career politician. If the shoe fits...