Why Arne Duncan Has Been a Monumental Flop as Education Secretary

Jeff Bryant

For some years now, the term “The Village” has circulated throughout the Internet blogosphere as a shorthand description of the insular life of the Washington, D.C. policy makers and media mavens. As Heather “Digby” Parton explained in 2009, the term is a metaphor for how Beltway folks in policy circles and the press speak with great assurance about what is understood by “average Americans” without ever actually consulting anyone outside a tight circle of anointed “experts” or dipping their toes into the experiential waters of communities very different from their own.

Although thoughts attributed to The Village are most apt to be shared in discussions about economic policy, there is a form of Village narrowcasting in education policy discussions, too.

That’s why, for instance, you almost always see news articles about education policy liberally salted with quotes by operatives from a very select few right-wing and politically centrist Beltway policy shops, such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Education Trust, or Democrats for Education Reform.

When reporters want to “balance” that wonkery with another point of view, they might get a statement from a teachers’ union representative such as American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. But what’s extremely rare is to encounter arguments being made by people of color in communities such as New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, or New York City – you know, the people actually most affected by the kinds of policies being talked about.

Maybe journalists believe ordinary citizens with firsthand experiences can’t be regarded as “experts.” But even when these reporters look for validated expertise, their gaze rarely goes beyond the banks of the Potomac.

This is not to say that those inhabiting the education wing of The Village are dishonest people, lack credibility, or have any bad intentions – or that it may be arguable that people who report about education generally have more journalistic integrity than reporters on other beats. It’s just that when conversations about something as important as public education seem extraordinarily closed off to but an elite few, there are bound to be some completely unsubstantiated claims and atrocious misperceptions being reported by who normally would be considered reliable sources.

That’s likely the dynamic that caused Lindsey Layton, a normally super-competent education journalist for The Washington Post, to lay this Brontosaurus egg in that outlet.

The subject of Layton’s reporting, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, was the bipartisan stud when the Obama administration’s debuted but has now devolved into the bipartisan flop as new bills in Congress seek to do all they can to neuter the secretary and make sure future secretaries never do what he did ever again.

Nevertheless, Layton does all she can to prop up assumptions of Duncan’s accomplishments and laud him as a bastion of qualities most people agree he has never had.

The result of her off-target report is that not only does she mischaracterize the painful flaws of the Obama administration’s education policies – and the consequences of those flaws for public school children and teachers – but she also misses the most important story about what this failed policy leader leaves in his wake.

What Good Did Duncan Do?

First, let’s look at some grand assumptions Layton makes about what Duncan has accomplished. Because of Duncan, she seems to imply, “Most Americans now accept public charter schools as an alternative to neighborhood schools, most teachers expect to be judged in some measure on how well their students perform on standardized tests, and most states are using more demanding K-12 math and reading standards.”

Each of these conclusions would be true only if you ignore a whole lot of context around them.

First, regarding Americans’ supposed acceptance of charter schools, let’s be clear that because surveys showing people generally have a favorable opinion of charter schools, that does not mean most people consider them “an alternative.” The main conclusion of most polling data about charter schools is that most people don’t know what the hell they are. After all, only 6 percent of the nation’s school children attend charter schools, and vast swaths of the country are still relatively charter-free.

So while it’s true Duncan’s pro-charter policies have certainly led to more Americans being aware of charter schools, that’s a far cry from concluding Americans actually see charters as viable alternatives. In the meantime, as the torrent of bad publicity about charter schools continues to grow and spread, favorability of these institutions is likely to head downward.

Second, it’s true that more teachers than ever before are having student test scores used in their performance evaluations. But Layton’s own contention that teachers “expect” this is refuted in her own reporting that Washington state “rejected Duncan’s requirement that it use student test results to evaluate teachers, which experts increasingly say is not a reliable way to identify good and bad teachers.”

Even in those states where the policy has become the norm, as Education Week’s Alyson Klein reports, it has often not been fully embraced and will be quickly dispensed with once Duncan has lost the power he has had to grant waivers to the No Child Left Behind law. In fact, both versions of a revised NCLB currently being considered in the House and the Senate, forbid the federal government to enforce this requirement.

Last, while Duncan was instrumental in pressuring states to adopt new Common Core State Standards, there’s not really any evidence the standards are “more demanding” than what states already had. While that might be true in Mississippi, others have argued it’s not true for Massachusetts. As an article in The Huffington Post recaps, some authoritative reviews of the new standards agree completely they are an improvement over what existed before, while others find older standards in some states, such as those in California and Florida, were better than the Common Core.

The fact is no one really knows what the imposition of new standards will lead to. The first consequence already observed is that student scores on tests related to the standards decline precipitously and will likely continue to do so. But this doesn’t prove the new standards are more demanding. It just proves they are different.

Who Was The Real Arne Duncan?

Where Layton is most off-base is in her reporting about how Duncan conducted his job and the widespread perception of him by those who most closely follow education policy.

The first howler is the contention that “unfiltered, direct contact has been key in shaping” the way Duncan views the world. Layton finds this quality in evidence of his routine of keeping up with a network of “strivers” he has come to known over the years. But it’s hard to see how regular phone calls to a handpicked cadre of acquaintances who are already predisposed to agree with him is the same thing as “unfiltered, direct contact.”

In fact, one of the chief ongoing criticisms of Duncan has been his tendency to proceed through every encounter with the public by reciting prepared remarks – an “impenetrable wall of talking points” – as education media critic Alexander Russo described it on his blog.

When education journalist Valerie Strauss watched Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart try to have a conversation with Arne Duncan, she observed on her blog at The Washington Post, “The effort was an exercise in the futility of conversing with someone who won’t deviate from his talking points.”

It’s really hard to reconcile this image of a caring and considerate Arne Duncan with the same man who called his critics “armchair pundits” and said education historian Diane Ravitch, a critic of his, “is in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country.”

This is the man, after all, who derided parents who dared criticize his imposed testing regime as “white suburban moms.”

An even more unreal image of Duncan Layton conveys in her article is that, “In a town where many like to talk, Duncan is regarded as a good listener.”

When classroom teacher and frequent Duncan critic Anthony Cody had what was supposed to be a sit-down with the secretary, what he described was a carefully scripted phone call where Duncan himself consumed half the allotted time, and Cody and his colleagues were unable to squeeze in what they planned to talk about.

“The funny thing about the conversation,” Cody recalls, “was that the whole time, they seemed to think we had questions, and their job was to answer them. We had actually approached the conversation from a different place. We thought perhaps they might want to ask us questions, or hear our ideas about how to improve schools.”

More recently, Duncan showed off his tin ear again during a Twitter chat. As one participant in that dialogue observed on her blog, the chat was entitled “Parental engagement,” but “he didn’t ‘engage’ much with the parents who were asking him the tough questions regarding his education policy that affect their kids. In fact, Duncan didn’t say much.”

But more serious than these personal interactions, Duncan’s tendency to ignore critics, regardless of their stature, was a significant reason why his policies ultimately failed.

When the Obama administration introduced its “Education Blueprint” in 2010, research experts at the National Education Policy Center immediately warned the policies guiding the Department of Education were poorly grounded in research or not based on any objective studies at all. Later in his tenure, Duncan was warned numerous times that using student test scores to evaluate teachers was inaccurate and unfair, yet he persisted in ignoring these warnings. Every time experienced educators challenged Duncan to question his agenda and reconsider policy directions, he responded by … continuing down the same course.

This deafness to expertise, more than any of his deficiencies, is likely why, as Ravitch concludes in her response to Layton’s piece, “It will take years to recover from the damage that Arne Duncan’s policies have inflicted on public education. He exceeded the authority of his office to promote a failed agenda, one that had no evidence behind it. The next president and the next Secretary of Education will have an enormous job to do to restore our nation’s public education system from the damage done.”

The Biggest Failure Of All

Among the “damage” Ravitch refers to is what Duncan has done to affect meaningful, positive legislation in the future.

If Layton happened upon the New York Times report on what is currently happening to education policy in Congress, she would have seen the ultimate legacy Duncan leaves behind in the headline, “Lawmakers Move to Limit Government’s Role in Education.”

As the article explains, Congress, in its efforts to rewrite NCLB, has “moved to substantially scale back the federal government’s role in education.” The impetus for this scaling back is bipartisan and shared in both the House and the Senate. And should a new version of NCLB pass, it will limit the federal government’s role in our nation’s schools.

What’s particularly unfortunate about that policy direction is that the federal government historically has had a mostly positive influence in public schools. As the articles reminds, what we now call NCLB was “initially passed in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” a law that “was originally designed to protect the nation’s neediest students, and that the federal government must play a significant enforcement role to ensure that poor students, racial minorities and students with disabilities all receive an equal education.”

Because of that act, millions upon millions of impoverished children have had resources funneled to their schools through programs like Title I. Students who do not speak English as their first language have had funds sent to their schools to pay for specialists. Students who have physical disabilities, social or emotional problems, and trouble with their learning and intellectual development have had more access to education opportunities and better supports in their schools. More girls and young women have been provided opportunities to play sports and experience a full curriculum.

Sure, this federal mission has not always been fully funded or adequately implemented. But that was the goal, and it was the goal NCLB took our attention away from and the goal this blundering oaf of a secretary refused to take up as his primary job, even though everyone outside his inner circle clamored he do so.

So the biggest tragedy of Arne Duncan is not only the millions of students and families ill-served under his tenure but the millions that will likely be ill-served in the future because it looks like his self-righteous, narrow-minded zeal will leave the federal government’s role in education marginalized for the immediate and foreseeable future.

You would think people who work in Washington, D.C. would get that.

This article was originally published at Salon.

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