Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s powerful education secretary for seven years, is on a book tour, talking about his new tome, “How Schools Work” (which is really about how he thinks they don’t work). And if you consider yourself anything close to being progressive, he sure sounds good.
At least he did to the crowd at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington this past weekend, where he spoke on a rainy Sunday afternoon to a packed crowd, which at the end formed an unusually long line to have him sign their books. He was a hit.
The conversation he had with a staff writer for the Atlantic magazine was friendly, and nobody in the audience challenged him about his record as education secretary (though the man who introduced Duncan did note how controversial Duncan had become while in office).
That wouldn’t be significant if his seven-year run hadn’t ended in December 2015 with his major education initiatives under attack. One of the teachers unions that had backed Obama was calling for Duncan’s resignation; the other major teachers union said he should quit if he didn’t change his policies. Then there was the birth of a national grassroots movement opposing standardized testing. And Congress had passed a K-12 education law (eight years late) that deliberately cut federal power over education policy because of what Duncan had done.
Duncan used $4.3 billion in federal money to coerce states into implementing reforms he liked in his initiative called Race to the Top (how’s that for provoking anxiety?). Those reforms included using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, a practice that assessment experts frowned upon; the expansion of charter schools; and the creation and adoption by states of the Common Core State Standards. He also exercised power, pushing these reforms on states, by granting waivers to states from the most onerous parts of the K-12 No Child Left Behind law, which was supposed to be rewritten in 2007.
That was his big push in Obama’s first term.
These are some of the highlights of his talk at Politics and Prose:
“It is irrefutable that early childhood education changes lives,” and, “I would argue that’s the best investment you can make.”
“If your stomach is growling, you can’t learn. . . . I will argue, and I’m the guy pushing academics, that social-emotional needs, those are more important than the academic side. If that foundation is not solid, we are kidding ourselves on the other stuff.”
“We say we value teachers . . . [but] we don’t treat them like anything close to the nation builders that they really are.”
“As a nation, we value our guns more than our kids.”
Duncan sounded like a progressive who, as secretary of education, focused from the start on early childhood education, students’ social-emotional needs and teacher pay.
Except as a secretary of education, he didn’t.
Early childhood education was not a priority in the first four years of Obama’s presidency. Though Obama called for an expansion in his State of the Union address in 2013, there was little federal money to bestow on states, and Congress was not interested in paying for his plans.
As for addressing the social-emotional needs of children, Duncan critics say his policies were pretty much the opposite of that, however much he would protest that sentiment. His push for teacher evaluation based in part on test scores led not only to plummeting teacher morale but also to narrowed curriculum in many schools, with art, music, science, history and recess being cut. Schools had pep rallies to get kids “excited” about taking standardized tests, and teachers were sometimes evaluated by students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach because only math and English Language arts tests counted.
When Duncan was asked what factors should go into teacher evaluation, he talked about supporting “multiple measures,” and said of testing, “I don’t want to overblow it,” which is exactly what his policies did.
What he didn’t do, which some in the education world argue is the most important thing he could have attacked, is this: attempt to change the way the United States funds its public schools. School districts rely in large part on property taxes, which guarantees that poor communities have schools with fewer resources. Federal funding aimed at closing the gap doesn’t come close, and, so, in this country, standardized test scores tell us only where a child lives, making reforms that place high stakes on the scores nonsensical.
At Politics and Prose, Duncan repeated one of his common themes: that schools lie to kids and parents about how well children are doing academically, and this time he blamed voters for not caring enough about education to vote on the issue and put in people who, presumably, support his kind of reform.
Duncan, as he has done repeatedly, also attacked the quality of U.S. public schools, saying: “We rank about 30th internationally. We should be ashamed.” That’s a reference to international tests such as PISA, on which American kids generally rank about average, as they always have (even when U.S. public schools weren’t being bashed).
Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University, who served as a statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics in the Education Department, reviewed Duncan’s book here for the nonprofit and independent Hechinger Report. Pallas also found contradictions between Duncan’s rhetoric and reality:
I don’t doubt that Duncan cares about children and youth, and his attention to their well-being in this account is much more persuasive than those in the memoirs of Joel Klein or Michelle Rhee, colorful school reformers often mentioned in the same breath as Duncan. The chapter of his book devoted to gun violence and gun control is particularly compelling. But the personal travelogue he recounts, tracing his origins in Chicago through his tenure as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and then U.S. Secretary of Education, and into the present day, doesn’t add up to much.
Regrets? He’s had a few, but not too many. And even these lack much self-reflection. He’s not a politician, he admits, but he has strong opinions about public policy, bolstered mainly by vignettes and anecdotes. A good story goes a long way, and issues often rise or fall on the policy agenda as much on the basis of stories as on hard evidence.
This is the essential contradiction of Arne Duncan: He claims to be driven by data, but he prefers a good story.
On the one hand, Duncan asks us to acknowledge that our K-12 public education system is no better than middle-of-the-pack on key performance metrics, and that our relative standing in the world has fallen dramatically since the 1980s. Perhaps he doesn’t remember the “rising tide of mediocrity” chronicled by the National Commission on Excellence in Education in its 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk.”
On the other hand, Duncan seeks to stir up some enthusiasm for school reform, so he is obliged to argue that it is working. Over the past four decades, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have risen, even as more and more children of color populate American schools. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high, and college-going and completion rates have also risen sharply.
It’s a puzzling policy argument. Policy analysts tell us that the best way to elevate an issue on the policy agenda is to use quantitative data to demonstrate that there’s a shortfall in some desired outcome; that the problem is getting worse; that it affects a large or important fraction of the population; and that it resonates with widely held values or beliefs. Arguing that things have been getting better — in fact, improving since long before the reforms of the last decade — allows “stay the course” to be as plausible a response as something bolder.
And, finally, this:
A key Race to the Top priority was breaking down the firewall that separated teacher evaluations from direct measures of student learning. As a practical matter, this involved rating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores, often via “value-added” statistical techniques designed to isolate a teacher’s effect on student academic performance. Duncan was — and remains — persuaded that “great” teachers who raise their students’ test scores make a huge difference in their life chances. (I lost track of the number of times that Duncan describes a teacher or school as “great.” Repetition of this word, so common in the reform lexicon, is not a virtue.) It’s a small leap to conclude that a great teacher is defined by the ability to raise test scores.
But is that what makes a “great” teacher? A good chunk of “How Schools Work” is a love letter to Arne’s mother, Sue Duncan, who founded a children’s center on the South Side of Chicago in 1961 that to this day offers afterschool and summer programs to African-American children and youth. She’s an extraordinary educator, and Arne Duncan’s experience in and around the center helped mold the educator and leader he would become. Sue Duncan’s “main currency,” though, was not the teaching of literacy or mathematics, but “love.”
“Nowhere did she mention academics” in her basic motto, Arne Duncan tells us. She made a difference in kids’ lives through how she cared for them — to the point of bringing 25 pounds of apples and three pounds of cheese to the center every day so that children would not be hungry — and made them feel loved.
But there’s no evidence that Sue Duncan boosted children’s test scores. Would the value-added models that Arne Duncan finds so seductive have identified his mother as a “great” teacher? I really doubt it. And that in no way is a knock on Sue Duncan, whose personal ethic, like that of many teachers, emphasized care. Rather, it exposes the contradictions of Arne Duncan’s thinking about the work of teaching. What or whom would he believe — the data, or his lyin’ eyes?