Arne Duncan: the winds of educational change?

by David Safier
When Obama chose Arne Duncan as his Ed Sec, he chose someone who straddles lots of educational camps. Obama is a blank educational slate in lots of ways as well.

So the question isn't, will they get their agenda through? The question is, what's their agenda?

Today's article about Duncan's talk to a group of students concerns me, not so much for the ideas as for the tone. Too much "I eat nails for breakfast," not enough nuance.

American schoolchildren need to be in class more — six days a week, at least 11 months a year — if they are to compete with students abroad, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.

Sure. Let's have more class time for students. But the tough-guy tone — the tough-love tone — doesn't sit well with me.

The former Chicago schools superintendent praised Denver schools for allowing schools to apply for almost complete autonomy, which allows them to waive union contracts so teachers can stay for after-school tutoring or Saturday school.

He also lauded Denver's pay-for-performance teacher pay system, which some Democrats and teachers' groups oppose.

Union bashing?

Then I see an article in Education Week, Obama Echoes Bush on Education Ideas.

Mr. Obama is sounding themes of accountability based on standards and assessments. He’s delivering tough talk on teacher quality, including a call for performance-based pay. And he’s promoting an expanded charter school sector.

To be sure, his economic-stimulus package shows he is ready to pump far more money into education than Mr. Bush did. And Mr. Obama says he opposes private school vouchers, a consistent Bush agenda item.

Still, some observers see little difference between the two so far—and aren’t happy at the similarities.

Duncan is working to get a little media attention by talking tough instead of squishy. There's a "man bites dog" quality to Duncan sounding like a holdover from the Bush administration, which earns him some press. I get that. And the ideas themselves are OK, so long as they're fleshed out in reasonable ways. But if this signals the direction of Obama's educational agenda, I'm not going to be happy.

Like everything else with this new administration, this is a work in progress, and education certainly doesn't have the urgency of averting economic collapse. Duncan is floating some trial balloons here. And maybe he's hoping to ease the fears of educational conservatives before he launches into a more progressive educational agenda. Then again . . .

We'll see. We'll see.

0 responses to “Arne Duncan: the winds of educational change?

  1. At least 11 months/year? No! Children need unstructured time in order to grow up. Summer school for kids who need extra help, for learning English or to repair a failing grade should be mandatory.

    Six days? Maybe, if Saturday is reserved for other activities like field trips, time in the library, celebrating holidays, etc. Speaking of holidays: winter break, spring break and Thanksgiving is enough. Everything else, including teacher grading days, in service days, etc is just disrupting the learning process.

  2. I hate to say this. Whenever teachers are in the news these days, it’s usually because they were caught sleeping with a student.

    I’m trying to think of popular teacher archetypes in film & TV. The ones that stick out are people like “Crazy Joe” Clark & the ex-marine teacher from Dangerous Minds. The popular notion is that tougher teachers who drive students hard to succeed are the ones who are the most effective.

    You’ve also got a lot of voices on the right portraying public school teachers as lazy or disinterested. The weird argument is that because the pay is so bad for teachers, that they must not be ambitious or would fail in private industry. “Those who can’t do, teach.”

    Teachers will always get the blame for students who don’t do well. Parents can’t accept that their kids are average or below average (if so it must be a “learning disability”). Parents will not accept any blame that they are not involved enough or that their kids are undisciplined. They think that if their kids are not doing well, it’s because the teachers are not working hard enough.

    “Teach harder!” 😉

    Liberal or conservative, one thing we should all admire about President Reagan and learn from is that he elevated a teacher to heroic status even before she lost her life in the Challenger explosion. I don’t think the current tone is going to change until we start seeing more exceptional teachers like that again instead of the bad teachers we get each day in the news.

  3. Maybe Arne can come here to Arizona with his tough guy act.

    He could slap a ruler across Russell Pearce’s and Jan Brewer’s knuckles and say, “What’s wrong with you two? Stop the craziness, you have to fully fund education.”

  4. It is always a wise idea to not trust any politician (or politically paid for charter school) any farther than one could throw him (or it). I sure don’t mind when they surpass my expectations but hoping for the best has a way of oftentimes not working out.

  5. David Safier

    Actually, your second paragraph nails a lot of what I would call the progressive agenda, and Obama has spoken about a lot of those ideas. Another is an understanding of the importance of education that goes beyond teaching the basics, the idea that reading and test scores are not the alpha and omega of education.

    When I say I’m concerned about Duncan’s tone, I’m serious. As a teacher, I learned that how I said something was nearly as important as what I said. You can adopt the tone of the teacher with a ruler in his hand ready to rap students’ knuckles when they misbehave, or the warmer teacher who celebrates diversity of thought and learning patterns. It’s not an either/or, of course. There has to be a mixture of both, in various measures. But all I heard from Duncan was the guy with the ruler in his hand. The tough cop.

    That’s why I didn’t condemn him, why I said I’d wait and see. If this is part of the message, that’s fine. If this is the message, not so fine.

  6. What exactly is the progressive educational agenda?

    (Ignoring the partisan issues like safe-sex education & evolution.)

    I’m not a conservative. Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m being honest in that I haven’t heard many progressive proposals except rolling back NCLB & paying teachers more money.

    There’s no “big” progressive education proposals out there. No pushes for free higher education for everyone, expanding/increasing pell grants, student loan forgiveness, restoring & expanding arts/music programs, high-tech in the classrooms, adult continuing-education programs, early foreign language education, immersion programs, expanded foreign exchange, etc, etc.

    This isn’t conservative stuff he’s putting out there. I heard all of these proposals from President Obama during the campaign. He spoke several times about performance pay & longer school years/hours. He recently gave the speech about his mother tutoring him before school. “This is no picnic for me either buster.” He’s consistently called for longer hours and saying the school calendar is outdated. He’s given a lot of “tough talk” on education including saying that parents have to be accountable. Turn off the TV, put down the video games, read to your children, etc…..