Paul Greenberg / September 7, 2010

An Evening with Arne Duncan

Dear Diary – Went to hear Arne Duncan the other evening at Little Rock’s convention center. It’s always good to have a member of the Cabinet come to town, one who’s making a difference instead of just an appearance.

Dear Diary –

Went to hear Arne Duncan the other evening at Little Rock’s convention center. It’s always good to have a member of the Cabinet come to town, one who’s making a difference instead of just an appearance.

But first the well-bred visitor must pay his respects. And if he’s a politician, pay his compliments. Lots of them. To everybody in sight. To bigs near and far, well known or well forgotten. It’d been years since I’d heard anybody mention Bill Clinton’s forgettable secretary of education, good old what’s-his-name. But Arne Duncan did as he went down his list of must-mentionables. Manners is manners.

The politician’s equivalent of the bread-and-butter gift is flattery, and our guest slathered it on. It is a truth universally acknowledged that dignitaries – high, low or in-between – love it. And our visitor dished it out with a shovel. As my mother would say in her less than perfect but heartfelt English on hearing a particularly smooth salesman, “He’ll do well in America.” Arne Duncan has.


It was Mark Twain who, always considerate of his audience, informed Gentle Reader that he’d taken all the weather out of his latest book and collected it in a separate section. That way, it wouldn’t impede the flow of the narrative, as so often happens in the works of inferior authors. Instead, he explained, references to the weather “will be found over in the back part of the book, out of the way. See Appendix. The reader is requested to turn over and help himself from time to time as he goes along.” How convenient.

In keeping with Mr. Clemens’ practice, I have taken the liberty of culling a number of current catch phrases about education from Mr. Duncan’s speech and listed them right here. Feel free to dip into them whenever you feel the need for a good cliché when discussing public policy about education. Mr. Duncan offered his listeners a wide assortment to choose from. No platitude went untouched. For example:

Critical thinking skills, culture shift, problem-solving, creativity, incentivize, bold new strategies, autonomous life-long learning, data-driven decision-making, content knowledge, “an absolute game-changer,” and, yes, “no school is an island operating in isolation.”

There. That ought to hold even the most rapacious cliché-collector for a while. Just sprinkle any or all of them over your prose when the spirit moves you, and you, too, can pass for an expert in education policy.


Now on to the good parts:

Secretary Duncan noted that the administration’s Race to the Top competition for federal money – $4.3 billion of it – had attracted entries from 46 states and the District of Columbia, all of which geared up their educational programs to apply for a share of the dough. It’s good, it’s positively refreshing, to realize that this administration can indeed recognize the power of competition. Even the losers in this contest won, having enacted all those reforms in the process of preparing their applications.

Let it be noted that Mr. Duncan is for more charter schools. He shouldn’t have had to add that he was in favor only of the good ones. That much should be understood. But, of course, he had to spell things out for this suspicious crowd, which was largely composed of pubic school teachers.

The secretary of education is also for publicizing how well individual schools, even individual teachers, do at improving their students’ test scores from the beginning to the end of the school year. He didn’t explain why he didn’t dare release that information when he was superintendent of Chicago’s public schools, but you can guess. Hint: teachers’ unions. But at least he’s now found the courage to advocate making test scores public. He even had a good word for the Los Angeles Times, which deserves a Pulitzer for doing just that.

How long, oh, how long, before any mom and dad in any state in the Union can just fill in the name of a school and teacher, and find out how much progress that teacher’s students have made over the course of a school year? That day can’t come too soon.

Secretary Duncan said it was time parents were held accountable, too. Then why not give them the information they need to take responsibility for their kids’ education?

The secretary said he was for a longer school day and a longer school year. Good idea. Because good things – like education – take time.

He’s also for paying those teachers most who are most in demand, like good math and science teachers. Who says this administration doesn’t understand how a free market works?

Secretary Duncan even had a good word – I could scarcely believe my ears – for the No Child Left Behind act, and its emphasis on transparency in the schools. He evoked applause when he borrowed a theme from the Bush presidency (without attribution) about education’s being the civil-rights issue of our times. As, of course, it is the civil-rights issue of any time. See Washington, Booker T.

At one point he even had a good word for – hold on to your hat – George W. Bush himself when it came to education. Instead of blaming the last president for all the current one’s troubles. Wow. Maybe somebody ought to put up an historical plaque.


On the other side of the ledger:

Our guest had well-deserved words of praise for the Harlem Children’s Zone and its Geoffrey Canada – an enterprise refreshingly free of educanto that offers long hours and hard work, and emphasizes attention and intention. Much like the KIPP program. Labor omnia vincit. Hard work conquers all. Again, see Washington, Booker T. Even if he’s now persona non grata with our educational elite.

But the secretary of education restrained his enthusiasm when the subject was Michelle Rhee, the school superintendent in Washington, D.C., who’s fired hundreds of teachers who badly needed firing. How explain that? Hint: those teachers’ unions again. This administration is (a) indebted to them, and (b) runs up more debt to them every election year.

The secretary noted that schools of education need to be held accountable for the teachers they’re turning/churning out, but he didn’t point out that, until those schools and departments of education are completely changed, or just abolished, there is little hope for improving the starting level of American teachers, and therefore the level of American education.

Note how both the KIPP program and Teach for America, by recruiting liberal-arts graduates from some of the country’s most prestigious schools, have improved the level of American education. Recommended reading: “The Miseducation of American Teachers,” the classic by James D. Koerner that’s now half a century old. It’s not as if the deterioration of American education is something that just happened. We were warned. And told what the root of the problem was – and remains.

The secretary emphasized the importance of increasing the number of college graduates in this country – so many entering students never get their degrees – but he didn’t have much to say, indeed he didn’t have anything to say, about the quality of the education those graduates are getting. His silence on the subject spoke mournful volumes.

For a degree is not an education. Any more than the map is the road. It would have been exhilarating to have the country’s well-respected secretary of education put in a word not just for the credentials but the substance of education. Instead, he seemed to approach education as if it were just another kind of vocational training. Like shop or driver “education.”

Ah, well, can you think of another secretary of education who’s been so popular and so influential, too? It’s no easy accomplishment to be both politician and achiever. Just achieve, Mr. Secretary, just usher in a new era of educational achievement, and all the politics will be happily forgiven.


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