Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Arne Duncan: The Darling of the Disruptors and Preserver of the Status Quo

This morning the Washington Post is trying on another false dichotomy in its editorial to turn the debate over K-12 education into another mindless meme that will function to distill a complex discussion into a single drop of meaninglessness. Now we have the "disruptors and the incrementalists" to replace the "reformers and unions," respectively.

In case you have forgotten who is on which side, the disruptors are the guys who created NCLB as the ultimate improvised explosive device that would be used to blow up, i. e,. "disrupt" public education--at least that part of public education in urban areas for now, where the percieved urgency for social control and a population suited to mindless labor helped form a bipartisan coalition aimed at replacing city schools with small manageable work camps based on stringent behavior modification, scripted instruction, and cognitive decapitation. It had bipartisan support, even in its creation: Sandy Kress (D) and Margaret Spellings (R).

The other side, the incrementalists, is comprised of everyone else, anyone, in fact, who may stand in the way of the agenda of the "disruptors" to blow up public education, starting, as noted, with the cities. Now because the President of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, has prostituted the principles of the union for her own advancement and for a few dollars for members who can grind out higher test scores, and in so doing has had sweet things to say about Arne "No Bid" Duncan, Mr. Duncan is now presented by the corporate media as the neutral candidate, the peacemaker, who can work both sides of the false dichotomy.

Now as Myles Horton reminded us years ago, neutrality is a just a code word for the existing system, and Mr. Obama's appeal yesterday to not let ideology get in the way of progress is the perfect example of a mealy-mouthed capitulation to the past eight years of "reformers," "disruptors," or whatever you will call the all-out assault on the public space, on pedagogical reason, and on the ethical practice of schooling. Arne Duncan represents the same crap you can't believe, rather than the change we are supposed to believe in.

From George Schmidt, editor of Substance:
Briefly, here are some of the major policy actions Arne Duncan has led since he was appointed Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Chicago Public Schools in July 2001 by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

1. NO BID CRONY CONTRACTS. Expansion of no-bid contracts. With an annual budget (operations and capital) in excess of $5.5 billion (this fiscal year), the Chicago Board of Education is one of the largest public purchasers of goods and services in the State of Illinois. At the present time, the Board meets once
a month to discuss its business. Each meeting has an agenda of between 150 and 300 pages, most of which are for the purchase of goods and services (ranging from individual consultant contracts for a few hundreds thousand dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars in bond issues for school construction and re

During the five years before Arne Duncan became CEO, the expansion of "no bid" contracts had begun. However, under Duncan's administration, the number of no bid contracts has escalated. Duncan recommends the contracts to the seven-member Board of Education (also appointed by Mayor Daley), and the Board approves those recommendations unanimously, without discussion or debate.

For example, on November 19, 2008, the Board voted to approve a Duncan recommendation that it pay $2,424,000 to two firms for "enterprise information asset management." According to the Board Report (08-1119-PR7): "Consultant were selected on a non-competitive basis to leverage current resources and realize significant cost savings..." Similar language has appeared, with wording changed to suit the purpose of the contract, in hundreds of contracts during the years since Duncan became "CEO" of Chicago's public schools. I have covered almost every meeting of the Chicago Board of Education since Duncan's 2001 appointment as CEO, and have never heard any discussion in the public poritions of the meetings of any of these huge contracts. Furthermore, the Board of Education has illegally voted for the past 13 years to maintain in secret the proceedings of its "executive sessions," which are held out of sight of the public.

2. MILITARIZATION OF CHICAGO'S HIGH SCHOOLS. As others have written more eloquently, under the smokescreen of providing "choice" for high school age students, Arne Duncan has presided over the greatest expansion of military programs in the high schools in history. We are not only talking here about the JROTC programs which exist in many cities across the USA, but of entire high schools devoted to military studies. Chicago today has three "military academies" devoted to the U.S. Army (Bronzeville; Phoenix; and Carver); one devoted to the U.S. Navy (Rickover, inside Senn High School); one devoted to the U.S. Marine Corps (the Marine Corps Military Academy High School on the city's west side), and, this year, a new "Air Force" high school. The overwhelming majority of students at these high schools are minority students.

Since Arne Duncan became CEO of CPS in 2001, the Chicago Board of Education has spent more than $2 million on lawyers and consultants to get itself freed from a federal desegregation consent decree originally entered into in the early 1980s. Despite the fact that CPS has the greatest number of all-black (i.e., 90 percent or more black students) public schools of any school district in the USA, Duncan has tried to maintain that CPS has done all it can to desegregate and, as required by law, compensate the majority of minority students who remain in segregated all-black or all-minority public schools. Today, CPS has more than 300 segegated all-black public schools, and an additional 40 or more all-Latino public schools.

4. OPPOSITION TO FEDERAL OVERSIGHT OF SPECIAL EDUCATION PROGRAMS. At the same time CPS has been attempting to get itself removed from federal court oversight of its desegregation programs, Duncan has tried equally hard to remove court oversight of the system's special education programs. For the past three
years, CPS spent more than $1 million on lawyers (staff and outside counsel) attempting to get the "Corey H" consent decree lifted. Despite a ruling from the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals continuing Corey H last summer, CPS (Duncan) continues to maximize violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Basically, parents and the families of children with disabilities are told to find a good lawyer to force compliance when their rights are violated, while CPS staff generally are either forced to evade and violate IDEA regulations or are directly ordered to implement policies which result inmassive violations.

5. CHARTER SCHOOLS SEGREGATION. While much will be written in reviewing Arne Duncan's record regarding the massive expansion of charter schools, the most telling fact is that under Duncan, Chicago has created a new semi-private school system within a system, and that system is now the second largest school district in Illinois. The vast majority of Chicago's nearly 100 charter schools and "campuses" (a legal fiction which Duncan used to evade a state law capping the number of charters in Chicago) are segregated, and all minority. Fewer than ten percent of Chicago's charter schools are integrated, and Duncan has systematically allowed the expansion of segregation through charterization.

George N. Schmidt
Editor, Substance

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Meanwhile, we can already lapse into a fading wistfulness about the hope expressed in the Alfie Kohn's endorsement of Darling-Hammond a few days ago in The Nation.
December 10, 2008

If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet. --Linda Darling-Hammond

Progressives are in short supply on the president-elect's list of cabinet nominees. When he turns his attention to the Education Department, what are the chances he'll choose someone who is educationally progressive?
In fact, just such a person is said to be in the running and, perhaps for that very reason, has been singled out for scorn in Washington Post and Chicago Tribune editorials, a New York Times column by David Brooks and a New Republic article, all published almost simultaneously this month. The thrust of the articles, using eerily similar language, is that we must reject the "forces of the status quo" which are "allied with the teachers' unions" and choose someone who represents "serious education reform."

To decode how that last word is being used here, recall its meaning in the context of welfare (under Clinton) or environmental laws (under Reagan and Bush). For Republicans education "reform" typically includes support for vouchers and other forms of privatization. But groups with names like Democrats for Education Reform--along with many mainstream publications--are disconcertingly allied with conservatives in just about every other respect. To be a school "reformer" is to support:

§  a heavy reliance on fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests to evaluate students and schools, generally in place of more authentic forms of assessment;

§ the imposition of prescriptive, top-down teaching stand-ards and curriculum mandates;

§ a disproportionate emphasis on rote learning--memorizing facts and practicing skills--particularly for poor kids;

§  a behaviorist model of motivation in which rewards (notably money) and punishments are used on teachers and students to compel compliance or raise test scores;

§ a corporate sensibility and an economic rationale for schooling, the point being to prepare children to "compete" as future employees; and

§ charter schools, many run by for-profit companies.

Notice that these features are already pervasive, which means "reform" actually signals more of the same--or, perhaps, intensification of the status quo with variations like one-size-fits-all national curriculum standards or longer school days (or years). Almost never questioned, meanwhile, are the core elements of traditional schooling, such as lectures, worksheets, quizzes, grades, homework, punitive discipline and competition. That would require real reform, which of course is off the table.

Sadly, all but one of the people reportedly being considered for Education secretary are reformers only in this Orwellian sense of the word. The exception is Linda Darling-Hammond, a former teacher, expert on teacher quality and professor of education at Stanford. The favored contenders include assorted governors and two corporate-style school chiefs: Arne Duncan, whose all-too-apt title is "chief executive officer" of Chicago Public Schools, and his counterpart in New York City, former CEO and high-powered lawyer Joel Klein.

Duncan, a basketball buddy of Obama's, has been called a "budding hero in the education business" by Bush's former Education secretary, Rod Paige. Just as the test-crazy nightmare of Paige's Houston served as a national model (when it should have been a cautionary tale) in 2001, so Duncan would bring to Washington an agenda based on Renaissance 2010, which Chicago education activist Michael Klonsky describes as a blend of "more standardized testing, closing neighborhood schools, militarization, and the privatization of school management."

Duncan's philosophy is shared by Klein, who is despised by educators and parents in his district perhaps more than any superintendent in the nation [see Lynnell Hancock, "School's Out," July 9, 2007]. In a survey of 62,000 New York City teachers this past summer, roughly 80 percent disapproved of his approach. Indeed, talk of his candidacy has prompted three separate anti-Klein petitions that rapidly collected thousands of signatures. One, at, describes his administration as "a public relations exercise camouflaging the systematic elimination of parental involvement; an obsessively test-driven culture; a growing atmosphere of fear, disillusionment, and intimidation experienced by professionals; and a flagrant manipulation of school data." (The only petition I know of to promote an Education secretary candidate is one for Darling-Hammond, at

Duncan and Klein pride themselves on new programs that pay students for higher grades or scores. Both champion the practice of forcing low-scoring students to repeat a grade--a strategy that research overwhelmingly finds counterproductive. Coincidentally, Darling-Hammond wrote in 2001 about just such campaigns against "social promotion" in New York and Chicago, pointing out that politicians keep trotting out the same failed get-tough strategies "with no sense of irony or institutional memory." In that same essay, she also showed how earlier experiments with high-stakes testing have mostly served to increase the dropout rate.

Duncan and Klein, along with virulently antiprogressive DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, are celebrated by politicians and pundits. Darling-Hammond, meanwhile, tends to be the choice of people who understand how children learn. Consider her wry comment that introduces this article: it's impossible to imagine a comparable insight coming from any of the spreadsheet-oriented, pump-up-the-scores "reformers" (or, for that matter, from any previous Education secretary). Darling-Hammond knows how all the talk of "rigor" and "raising the bar" has produced sterile, scripted curriculums that have been imposed disproportionately on children of color. Her viewpoint is that of an educator, not a corporate manager.

Imagine--an educator running the Education Department.

About Alfie Kohn Alfie Kohn is the author of eleven books, including The Schools Our Children Deserve, The Case Against Standardized Testing and What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? more...


  1. I'm gonna put my comment over at:

  2. An interesting post. How much of what you mention is really unique to Chicago. I would imagine meetings in other large cities with an enormous public school system function in a similar way. Most of the budget items are probably predetermined by committees and then sent to the board with most of the discussion having already taken place.

    I like your take on charter schools as often producing segregation. It seems those with the proper means and connections end up at the premier schools while the poorer struggling school only becomes worse off.