"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Origins of Duncan: Poster Boy for New Democrats

     The New Democratic education agenda - largely established far before Obama and Duncan came to Washington - began with the so-called "Third Way" movement that pushed the Democratic Party to the center.  The most recent version of this centrist platform was described in The Plan: Big Ideas for America (book, copyright 2006),  written by Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and DLC President Bruce Reed.  It'll shed some light on how Duncan can be viewed as equal part educational idiot and and equal part puppet of the New Democrats.  The current education agenda should come as no surprise given the DLC's power in Washington and Emanuel's influence on the President.  Here are some choice snippets from the chapter in the pair's book.  You'll quickly see how some Duncan's favorite sayings and logic are shared by the New Democratic education agenda.  From the book (pages 68 - 79):  
"India produces about twice as many college grads each year as the U.S.; China graduates three times as many as we do - and their universities are becoming world-class."
Duncan used various iterations of the "competing against India and China" line on multiple occasions earlier this year. 
"Bush invested far too little in the reforms that would make No Child Left behind succeed: more and better teachers, better (not just more) tests, and state efforts to turn failing schools around."
Almost $5 billion in School Improvement Funds ($3 billion in the ARRA, $545 million in FY 2009, and another $1.5 billion in the 2009-2010 budget) - check.
"It is time to revive the standards movement with the reforms Bush forgot: attracting topflight teachers by rewarding them for performance, not just credentials, and by offering higher pay to teaching high-need areas and subjects; expanding preschool and after-school; and providing more choices within the public school system."
"The saddest indictment of our school system is that the longer American students spend in it, the father they fall behind students in other countries."

"More flexibility and resources in return for tougher accountability and rigor is the right formula for education reform at any level.  But that formula has scarcely been tried in high schools, where it is best suited and would have the greatest impact."  

"We need to increase the amount of time young people spend learning - by lengthening the school day, extending the school year, and keeping you people engaged in learning over the course of the summer."

"We should require summer school for those who fall behind - as Chicago has done - and insist that all students spend at least as much of their summers doing online exercises in basic skills like reading and math as they spend sending one another instant messages."
The conclusion of the education chapter (which is actually called "Toga Party: Universal College Access") provides an impetus for the radical changes:
"As the Hart-Rudman Commission concluded, "The inadequacy of our system of research and education poses a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter of a century than any potential conventional war."

"When the Soviets launched Sputnik into space in the 1950s, President Eisenhower challenged America to put education first.  The educational threat from our competitors today is far greater than any we faced then.  America's young people shouldn't be kept waiting any longer."
Education is treated as a threat or danger in this framework.  This kind of fearmongering brushes aside all attempts at discussion, questioning, and serious engagement (which, ironically, we no longer teach at school).  Duncan was clearly the perfect choice for implementing this kind of gameplan - after all, most of what is listed above was part of the script in Chicago.  There's no time to answer questions: some foreign country could be out-educating their way to a stronger economy.  Such is the logic of the DLC and business-minded reformers like Duncan, children be damned.
Just to clarify, the DLC's "Where We Stand on Education" summary reads as follows:
"New Democrats support efforts to radically overhaul the industrial-era, factory model of American public education into a new system premised on public school choice, high standards, and accountability, with policies that promote teacher quality, charter schools, and performance-based federal education funding."
To add a little extra depth to Duncan's assorted reform plans, the DLC education webpage shows three "must read" articles from a few years ago: one by Andrew J. Rotherham advocating for mayoral control; a pro-charter report from the Progressive Policy Institute; and a piece advocating for a "portfolio-based" system (including "free movement of dollars, students, and educators," a very concrete example of neoliberal economics applied to public education).
     The Hyde Park Declaration, a New Democrat document compiled at the turn of the century, spells out goals for the year 2010.  "Turn around every failing public school," and, "make charter schools an option in every state and community," lead the list of education reform proposals along with expanded school choice, better teachers, universal pre-K, and a "disciplined learning environment for every student."  Ten years later and these same ideas are largely embraced by the neoliberal reformers.  We're about to see these New Democrats really in action, with Duncan as their speaker in the realm of education.  

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