Friday, July 25, 2014

Arne Duncan Needs an Education in Education

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Harvard. His education ended there. After playing professional basketball in Australia, he returned home to become the leader of a philanthropic organization in Chicago (which later started a charter school) and he was eventually appointed as a leader and later head of the Chicago Public Schools. As most people know, Arne Duncan was never a teacher and he holds no degrees in education. To most educators, this is painfully clear when he gives speeches or discusses teaching, curriculum, or assessment. When educational experts analyze Race to the Top (RTTT), they see the many missed opportunities and some incredibly harmful policies in this $4 billion dollar portion of the Stimulus Package. As his signature policy, RTTT was a market-based school reform effort, which had states compete for money and prioritized standardized curriculum and associated testing, as well encouraging the proliferation of charter schools. It has been criticized not only by teachers unions, but also civil rights groups and some members of the American Educational Research Association. This has been at the heart of many educators’ desire that Linda Darling-Hammond was the Obama nominee back in 2008 and continues to fuel petitions and resolutions for Arne Duncan's resignation.

Not only does Arne Duncan lack the general understanding of educational theory and research, he continues to make incredibly uninformed statements in editorials and public appearances. For instance, in an editorial earlier this year he called Tennessee and Washington, D.C. “standout” education systems (despite the fact that their NAEP scores showed declines in the upper grades and an overall performance below the national average, as well as a general lack of improvement by most DC students and widespread concerns from Tennessee superintendents about their state's educational leadership). Last fall he depicted some parents’ concerns over the design and implementation of the Common Core as “white suburban moms” who are realizing their children are not brilliant. Perhaps his worst comment dates back to 2010, when he described Hurricane Katrina as “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

I am sure that Arne Duncan cares deeply for public education and has good intentions. He strongly believes that his policies will improve the nation’s school systems. His problem is actually a lack of education in education. If Arne Duncan went through teacher preparation and had a chance to teach children, he probably would have developed a much stronger understanding of teaching and learning. If he had studied education, he would have presumably learned about educational research and gained a broader understanding of the historic debates between the curriculum theorists. This would have helped him see that the early 21st century movement of education reform (supported by him, as well as an interesting group of neoliberals and conservatives) was really just a reiteration of that early 20th century “social efficiency” movement, which never found much success in improving education and eventually fueled many of the progressive reforms of the mid-20th century. In fact, Arne Duncan would realize that his own education (which he often cites as excellent) at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools was based on the first iteration of progressive education in the late 19th century. A close reading of the work of Franklin Bobbitt and other social efficiency supporters reveal the stark similarities to Race to the Top and the policies supported by Arne Duncan:

• An educational movement influenced by the needs of business and industry (at that time, education was to prepare factory workers)
• Over-reliance on measurement and testing outputs to determine educational quality
• Heavy focus on modifying student and teacher behaviors to improve education

Today, Arne Duncan advocates for “rigorous standards” with expanded testing and the use of large-scale data sets to guide educational decisions and he certainly does not hide his very close relationship with the business world, which generally advocates for educational privatization through "choice, competition, and deregulation."

Lacking knowledge about education is not a new phenomenon for a secretary of education. The U.S. has a long history of education secretaries with little education or experience in education. Since the creation of this cabinet-level position in the 1970s, there have been only two education secretaries with K-12 teaching experience and those same two were the only to hold a degree in education (both had a Ph.D.). Furthermore, there is an apparent growing movement to have more district superintendents (especially in urban districts) without degrees in education (see Michelle Rhee in D.C., Joel Klein in NYC, Paul Vallas in various urban districts). Even here in Boston (the “Athens of America”), Mayor Marty Walsh recently said that he wanted to appoint a new school superintendent “who isn’t necessarily an educator first but is actually an administrator first,” implying someone with managerial skills would be preferred over knowledge about education.

Arne Duncan's tenure as Secretary of Education should be a warning cry to future presidents. He is a perfect example of what can happen when the top education official (and educational leaders in general) lack both a strong background in education and substantial practical experience in schools. In fact, most of the high performing nations on international education assessments (e.g. Singapore, Finland, South Korea) would never appoint someone as their minister of education without substantial experience in schools. Even here in the U.S. there are certain cabinet secretaries that we would be appalled to find out did not have a background in their field. Could you imagine an Attorney General without a law degree? Or a Secretary of Defense without military experience (see Dick Cheney)? What makes this even more unusual is Arne Duncan’s seeming pride in not having an education degree. For example, he has publicly stated that degrees in education are a waste of money and has implied their uselessness.

With a stronger education in education, Arne Duncan might have avoided repeating so many past education mistakes, especially those made by reformers who relied heavily on social efficiency for their ideas. He would have seen that these ideas were tried once before, generally failed, and later abandoned. Despite this, it seems that we will be stuck with more of this social efficiency-oriented education policy for the next two years. My hope is that the next president will appoint someone who has both practical and academic knowledge of education. This is vital in helping us actually improve education for all students.