Secretary of Education

          January 2009

Dear readers,

I kept reminding myself before the election that Obama’s victory—if we were so lucky—was not the end, but just the beginning of our work. But, actually, some part of me was expecting otherwise. I’m getting a wee bit tired of swimming against the stream.

The choice of Arne Duncan came not as a surprise, but a disappointment. I watched the “campaign” as it pitted “reformers” against “the status quo” placing Klein/Rhee/Vallas/Duncan in the former category and folks like Linda Darling-Hammond (Christenson, Walters and, I guess, me) in the latter. At first I didn’t think they could get away with such a starkly biased classification system. But said often enough it probably set the stage for the choice of Duncan—who’s probably the best of the infamous four.

Maybe the story really reflects the way Obama sees the world of education, maybe because he feels comfortable with Chicagoans, maybe because he feels he has to “rule from the center-right” as some argue. Maybe, maybe.

But the mindset that has now been reified as “Reform” is what scares me. It borrows the worst from the market-place world of business. We have much to learn about how to make schools work better on a large scale, but one thing we ought to have learned from the events post-Enron is that the current business-model of accountability is dangerous. And it’s dangerous because it’s built on glorifying greed, and has few penalties for distortion and corruption of data. Instead of tending to the shop, the “business” class now tends to “the data.” At heart it’s a modified Ponzi scheme that’s always promising, but can’t deliver, the real goods. “Goods” are, in fact, now part of the “old economy.”

The data quoted by Obama in announcing Duncan’s appointment is entirely without merit. He didn’t raise scores—except by changing the method of testing and scoring! That’s a fact. On the only reliable measure, even assuming “better” test scores are what we’re seeking, it’s been flat, flat, flat. NAEP scores (the one national test we can use to see real change over time) have remained stable since Duncan took over from Vallas –who had already rescued Chicago. How many knights on a white horse claiming victory can save the same city? (Remember Ron Paige and the Houston miracle?)

Ditto for graduation rates, even if we trust that the Chicago style retention policy hasn’t “disappeared” thousands of youngsters before they even get to high school. (Graduation rates rest on the 9th grade headcount.) And – I have to check this – less than 5% of those graduates who go to college apparently don’t complete a 4-year education. They are, as Mike Rose reminded us, totally “unprepared” for college work—or the work of democracy or decent jobs in the economy. They’ve been prepared instead for taking dumbed-down tests, unless they’re lucky enough to be rich and to go to schools like Chicago’s Lab School or Sitwell Friends in D.C.

There’s a possibility that some of the new small schools are better for kids. I tend to think so regardless of their test scores. And there are more selective schools that have wooed back some of the middle class—but not in ways that benefit the rest I fear.

It’s hard to blame Duncan—and in many ways I don’t. He’s not an educator and he’s just going along with conventional wisdom and the political thrust of the Mayor’s who now control our urban schools. I hear nice things about him “as a person.”

Maybe in a new position, under different forms of pressure he’ll start taking a closer look at what really must be done. Maybe he’ll hire some interesting educators to think through some of these dilemmas. But, these “maybes” probably also depend on the kind of pressure and response he gets not just from educators, but from everyone else who cares—parents, for example, just smart citizens, and employers who know that what they’re looking for won’t be “produced” this way. As for democrats…12 plus years of the kind of compliance thinking that tests reward are a poor prescription for the shaky future of democracy.

–Deborah

© 2009 Deborah Meier

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