Archive for August, 2010

Arne Duncan’s Flying Circus

August 12, 2010

If anyone needed additional evidence that Arne Duncan and Barack Obama are as clueless about education as they are contemptuous of teachers, an article in yesterday’s New York Times provides plenty.

( Inexperienced Companies Chase U.S. School Funds/

The article was as noteworthy and revealing for what it did not say as much as what it did.    What it said was this: as part of their ever expanding education reform package,  the Obama administration has increased federal funding for  “school turnarounds” to $3.8 billion dollars,  an astounding 28 times more than it was a mere three years ago. What it did not say was that the administration had no idea of  how to do what they claim they want to do.

In the not so distant past, news of such massive funding would have been happily received by  teachers in cash  starved schools.   Of course, such teachers were still, in the  main, respected figures and had yet to be  somehow transformed  into the scapegoats for a desperate,  infantilized, fragmented and delusional nation increasingly characterized by  magical thinking.  (Yes, Virgina there is a Santa Claus, Alan Greenspan is a genius,  Barack Obama is a progressive, cancer can be cured by  positive thinking, standardized test scores are an accurate measure of  student achievement,  and businessmen are the brightest bulbs in the history  of sunshine! )

At this  point, after a decade of  reckless and irresponsible experimentation on  children and teachers by  businessmen and politician “reformers” that has led to no improvement  whatsoever in  education but  immense dislocation across the land — and immense government  contracts to a handful of corporations–      any one who  knows or cares anything about the subject  at all would have to be extremely naïve to greet such news with anything  other than extreme caution.

Place it in the wrong hands and you can ruin a whole lot of lives with a war chest of  $3.8 billion dollars and the backing of the federal government.

The phrase  “school  turnaround ”  is  edu-babble for the incredibly difficult and long term process of turning a lousy school into a good one.

It’s Duncan’s idea   to dish out the  $3.5 billion dollars to those persons or companies who win contracts to do just that.

Seen from afar this might idea might be seen as something to applaud.

After all, even if the idea does go directly against the unspoken,  elitist message of Duncan’s  Race to the Top, every child in this nation does deserves to go to a decent school and there are too many schools that are lousy.

Indeed, no sensible or  decent person would argue against  the notion of turning lousy schools into good ones.  At the same time, no knowledgeable and responsible person would even begin to undertake such an extraordinarily layered and complex issue without a plan or plans —  or at the very least some sort of criteria. Such plans would include but not be limited to consultation with community leaders and elected officials, demographics studies (including levels of poverty, immigration, homelessness, etc )  and all the elusive elements that make up a school.

Above all, such a plan would at the very least include consultation with the people who know and deal  with the problems of said school on a daily basis: parents and teachers. Anyone who has ever actually worked in a school knows that the  problems of  a particular school are   as unique as the students who are served by it.   They know, that is, that a school is as much an organism  as it is an institution.

But alas, alas, there is  an extremely serious problem with Duncan’s   scenario. No one, least of all our non-educator Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has any idea of how it is you turn lousy  schools into  good  schools — and the last people in the world such a man is  going to consult are parents and teachers.  As for a criteria …who knows ?  Let’s call it a work in progress.

Other than summarily firing the entire staff and turning lousy school into a charter school ( which may well  turn into a lousy charter school of which there are legion )  Duncan simply has no plan and   no idea  how to do what he  is demanding be  done.

But then again why should he ?  Like so many of the fine folk who have  busied  themselves transforming our education system into  a muti-billiondollar -data collecting,- test taking-ignorance machine, Arne Duncan  is not and has never been  not an educator.  He is therefore, quite logically, clueless. (Sadly, cluelessness is not only not an anecdote for arrogance; it seems, in fact, to enlarge it.)

So, faced with such a conundrum what’s a crusading non-educator-Secretary of Education to do?  Why turn to the free market, of course,  and let Adam Smith’s invisible hand find the solution!   Judging from Duncan’s track record, especially  the grotesque Race to the Top, I cannot help but think he’s  hoping  for an invisible hand swinging an invisible  sledgehammer, the better  to smash the visible teacher unions  to  smithereens —   just as long, that is, as the invisible fingerprints on the invisible sledge hammer cannot too  easily be traced back to the White House.

In the past year and half, Duncan and the Obama administration was able to get away with implementing the unbelievably Ronald Reaganesque policy of demanding teachers be stripped of all manner of hard earned rights for their schools to be even eligible for the billions of dollars of federal “grants” their revenue starved school systems need to survive.    Indeed, this IMF style neo-extortion tactic forms the basis of the Obama administration’s wildly successful, union busting Race to the Top campaign.  Tragically, it doesn’t  seem to concern many Americans that the very same economic strategies the World Bank and the IMF use to bring Third World nations to their knees —  bend to  our will or  we will starve you  to death — are now used to undermine labor unions in their own country.

The promise of Duncan’s “turnaround” billions has produced something equally grotesque if, as yet, harmless.


Out of the woodwork comes company after company of “turnaround experts” hungry to get their share of the federal greenbacks.   Rest assured, given half a chance, these folk will be bursting with “strategy” after ‘strategy” that they cannot wait to impose upon teacher after teacher and student after student.    Rest assured these edu-alchemists will be armed with foolproof metrics and technological wizardry assuring total teacher “accountability” and student compliance.  Rest assured that all this will add  to the insidious and incremental degradation of teachers that began with No Child Left Behind and has been growing ever since.

Some things are all but certain:  the $3.8 billion has been earmarked and that money — and the federal authority that goes with —  will be given to whoever or whatever convinces federal or state authorities that, outside of transforming or transplanting entire communities, they know how to   achieve what no one knows how to achieve: they know how to take a lousy school and make it a good one.

This kind of magical thinking will be rewarded by the  granting of extraordinary powers over teachers and students. There will no end of happy talk and/ or tough guy talk. Test scores will magically rise or teachers will be magically removed.  Everyone will be held accountable excepting the jackasses who authorized the  foolishness.

But, much sooner than later, the silly ideation that leads to seeking simple, fast, one-size-fits-all solutions to enormously complex, deeply human problems of the sort that create the tragedy of   lousy schools will crack under the weight of its own arrogance and lies.  When that happens  the project will be quietly abandoned and  the teachers and students whose lives were cheapened or worse by the exercise in pure hubris will be forgotten as soon as humanly possible.

And you can rest assured, if the current climate of contempt continues, the blame for such failure will be laid completely on the teachers.

I’m bracing for the worst.