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Posted at 10:20 AM ET, 05/10/2010

Say what, Secretary Duncan?

By Valerie Strauss

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said something in an interview with the New York Times that was so scary wrong that it leaves me hoping he was kidding. The alternative--that he really means it-- is even scarier.

In an article about how activist an education secretary he is, Duncan said that his far-reaching efforts to change public schools are facing no opposition from the public.

“Zero,” he was quoted as saying. “And as hard as we’re pushing everybody else to change, we’re pushing the department to change even more. There’s just an outpouring of support for the common-sense changes and the unprecedented investments we’re making.”

Say what, Secretary Duncan?

The national education landscape is littered with efforts to oppose Duncan's vision of education reform.

Take his $4 billion Race to the Top contest, the one in which states are trying to beat each other (up) for a share of the funding. States win by showing that they are pursuing school reform in the way Duncan wants them to do better than the next state.

What does he want? Among the tenets of Duncan’s philosophy are:

*More charter schools, even though repeated studies show that charter schools are no better, at least in terms of test scores, than traditional public schools.

*Linking scores on student standardized tests to teacher evaluations and pay, even though assessment experts say this isn’t a valid use of the test, and even though everybody and their brother--except, apparently, Duncan and his allies-- knows that a lot of kids don’t do well on standardized tests for reasons that go beyond the ability of their teacher. Kids know this, by the way.

One-fifth of the states chose not to participate in the first round of Race to the Top--in which Tennessee and Delaware won--and others have dropped out for the current second round.

A refusal to try to win millions of dollars does not constitute opposition to Duncan? See why I say he’s got to be kidding?

A letter from 14 states to Duncan, posted by Jim Horn on the blog Schools Matter, , makes plain some of the opposition to his grand plans. The letter says that some of the primary requirements to win Race to the Top money are impossible for rural school districts to implement. A push for charter schools is one of them.

Here’s some of the letter, and you can go to Schools Matter to see the rest.

Our rural states, like all of America, have been hit hard by this recession. Our state agencies budgets were already small, but with recent further cuts, we have lost significant portions of our staffing, and school budgets continue to shrink. By forcing our already stretched agencies to participate in such a rigorous competitive grant application, Race to the Top is detracting from the very real issues that need our immediate attention, and actually takes away from the services our students and schools need and deserve.

We want one thing to be perfectly clear. We rural states are NOT trying to shirk our responsibilities or avoid being held accountable. Quite the opposite: We know that if we do not fight for access and opportunities for our students at this critical time in our nation’s history, no one else will. Therefore we will continue to press your administration to truly consider what is best for all students, across America, rural and urban, regardless of what competition their SEA [state education agency] wins.

That sounds like opposition to me, but maybe Duncan view state officials as being part of the public.

All Duncan has to do is read some of the latest books on education to understand the opposition to his proposals.
Those would include Diane Ravitch’s "The Death and Life of the Great American School System", and Linda Darling-Hammond’s “The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future.

Taken together, the books effectively skewer Duncan’s vision of education reform with actual evidence.

Of course, it can be hard to see things as they really are when you flip flop on your core beliefs.

That’s what Duncan appears to be doing with what he considers important in Race to the Top.

Early on, Duncan said that it was important for states to win consensus from stakeholders, which would include teachers who are the adults most affected by his plans. In fact, Florida didn’t win money in the first round because, the judges said, the state didn’t have enough buy-in from teachers.

But in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, he gave a different impression.

"Watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won’t win," he said. "And proposals that drive real reform will win."

Huh? Does “lots of consensus” inherently mean to Duncan that the proposal is watered-down?

What is a proposal that drives real reform?

It would not look like the education secretary's vision. It would involve the creation of a learning environment in which teachers and administrators were adequately supported and had real collaboration so they could do their best work for kids, where school officials worked with health care workers to make sure that students were healthy enough to learn, and where standardized tests did not drive work in the classroom.

There are existing models. The James Comer’s School Development Program, also known as the Comer Process, for example, has been helping poor minority youth in schools for years by concentrating on the things that really help achievement. (I’ll be writing more about this soon.)

Do you think that Duncan or Obama have spoken to Comer about his program?

If you said yes, you would be wrong.

So, is Duncan not actually seeing the opposition, or seeing it but ignoring it? What, do you think, is going on?

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 10, 2010; 10:20 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Race to the Top  | Tags:  Education Secretary Duncan, Race to the Top, Race to the Top opposition, Wall Street Journal and Duncan, public opposition to reform, race to the top proposals, states pull out of race to the top  
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"So, is Duncan not actually seeing the opposition, or seeing it but ignoring it? What, do you think, is going on?"

Duncan is in the power seat with his big bucks, money starved educational system, and Obama as his cheerleader. He doesn't have to utilize logic nor really address opposition. But really, perhaps it is just as simple as, delusional thinking.

Just that simple....delusional.

Posted by: shadwell1 | May 10, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Chairman Mao didn't find anyone who would oppose him.

Posted by: edlharris | May 10, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

The people in Chicago absolutely hated Arne Duncan. Now the country can learn to hate him as much as Chicago does.

Posted by: jlp19 | May 10, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Arne Duncan is going to say and do anything that will turn education money over to Big Business. People have to get used to this. He want to make education people profit from, not a place where children learn.

Posted by: jlp19 | May 10, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

When Duncan visits schools, he only goes to see the pony and cart shows at CHARTERS. He has yet to talk to public school teachers, let alone go to public schools. It is the same for Obama - but then Obama is a private school baby and so by default is clueless (just like my older, private school educated sisters and all others that have had their experience). Obama and Duncan have been seduced (and perhaps bought) by the Broads, Wassermans, Gates, etc., who are financing the privatization of public schools, and are deaf to critics. At some point it will blow up in their faces - preferably sooner than later.

Posted by: Care1 | May 10, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for another wonderful post.

It was apparent long ago that Duncan has no capacity for self-critical reflection. Zero. None. It is a trait shared with other education deform superindentants of his ilk like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee. These people do not use evidence to discover the truth; they distort evidence to fit their version of reality. Frankly, it's disgusting that such people -- who rely purely on power and money to push their agendas -- should be driving our education system, whose mission is to teach children to use evidence and logic to persuade.

Posted by: dz159 | May 10, 2010 10:18 PM | Report abuse

Great reporting Valerie...

There are many sustainable (long-term) education strategies that seldom seem to as salable to the public as "Pop-Ed" gimmicks like "Race To The Top". Your blog and columns have been the most valuable clearinghouse for introducing readers to important voices of true education progress and reform.

Please let me know if the term "Pop-Ed" has been trademarked, and if it hasn't... I claim "Pop-Ed" Trademark Pending.

The conversations I have had with so many concerned citizens who have a balanced perspective and knowledge of education issues have usually ended with agreement that these Pop-Ed movements will run their course, be discredited, and finally abandoned.

The hope is that this process will happen sooner rather than later, as the harm to our children will have a long lasting impact on almost every aspect of our culture and economy. To use a current pop-analogy, repairing the damage to our school systems will be like cleaning up a bad oil spill; sticky, dirty, smelly and hiding under every rock. There is no easy way to get rid of it.

But, let us not stop the important work of illuminating good ideas and shining the the light on Pop-Ed illusions... so that we can better recognize constructive directions for education, and then move more confidently towards these shared goals.

Thank you so very much.

Posted by: AGAAIA | May 11, 2010 12:45 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps Secretary Duncan hasn't received a copy of letter from parents in opposition to "The Blueprint". You can find it here...

Thanks for reporting on this important issue.

Posted by: Beyerland | May 11, 2010 6:24 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Duncan,


Malcolm Forbes reminds us, "Democracy is not a business."

Mr. Duncan, You are low performer and need a test on Jeffersonian Principles.

Mr. Duncan, You are underachiever in your thinking of how Public Education and the notion of a Democracy are connected.

There are still very great researchers at Harvard. See: David Perkins, Ron Ritchart. They remind us that,

"[L]earning is a consequence of thinking."

...not test taking.

Harvard should do something to change the damaging policies and anti-democratic rhetoric of Arne Duncan.

Posted by: olas10 | May 11, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

You're right, either way it's scary. Unfortunately your column is one of the few to tell it like you see it. For too many years the national media has pandered to reporting what will sell to the public instead of investigating what is really going on. It happened with the war in Iraq and it's been happening with public education.

The public is frightened by dissension or uncertainty in their leadership because it means they, the public, might actually have to think, and that's hard work. So instead the media provides entertaining and easy to digest pap, it's what sells. Our D.C. powerbrokers know this also. Never admit you don't know, you were wrong, or question what the rest of the team is doing because it's perceived as weakness, and heaven forbid you should be labeled weak.

Posted by: speakuplouder | May 11, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Duncan is absolutely ridiculous. He put a nail in the coffin of the almost dead public schools here in Chicago. Since leaving Chicago, studies have shown that charters here are no better - or in some cases worse - than the neighborhood public schools. He only succeeded in dislocated thousands of children, relocating them to schools that aren't any better than the schools they left. Once the schools were closed, Arne turned many of the buildings over to the highest "bidder" and turned them into charter schools for his friends. Please read Juan Gonzalez's article on Democracy Now and in the NY Daily News. Now he and Obama want to ruin schools across the country. I can't tell you how sorry I am to have voted for Obama.

Posted by: chialtap | May 11, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry I voted for Obama also.

Posted by: resc | May 11, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

It seems as though your readers use logic about as well as you do. He said public opinion. You point out things that you believe are wrong with his policies and beliefs of politicians. He never said he hasn't had any political opposition. He said he hasn't had public opposition. Are there public opinion polls that contradict his statement? That would be proof.

Posted by: thearifeldman | May 11, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Arne acts like a common street bully. He lacks both leadership and integrity. He is scared of teachers in public schools. Chicago Public Schools was and is run like any department in City Hall in Chicago. The Department of Education is morally bankrupt under Arne Duncan. His department works for the big vendors now. Nothing his department does has a basis in solid qualitative or quantitative educational research, as noted in article. I feel bad that the public can't see through Duncan's shallow thinking.

Posted by: edtechlab | May 11, 2010 11:54 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for this piece. Obama and Duncan have been on the same team for years, and know who they are serving. They know exactly what they are doing to public education, on whose behalf, and why. They are corporate hacks, and Americans were all bamboozled by their PR machine. The biggest tip off is Obama's alignment with, and protection of, Goldman-Sachs.

Say bye-bye to the days of democracy and public education and hello to plutocratic fascism.

Posted by: pondoora | May 12, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

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