Arne Duncan is talking, but who is listening?

Sep 8, 2014 by

An Interview with Alan J. Singer: Arne Duncan is talking, but who is listening?


Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Alan, Arne Duncan recently posted some stuff on his “HomeRoom” Blog – what basically did he have to say?

First, I want to make it clear that when Arnie Duncan speaks or writes in his position as United States Secretary of Education I believe he is presenting views on education not only of himself but also of President Barack Obama. “Homeroom” is the official site of the United States Department of Education ( Duncan, I am not sure if he actually writes them, has been posting blogs on the site since March 2009. In alphabetical order, there have been blogs on the data used to evaluate schools and teachers, literacy, reform, STEM (Science and Math) programs, student financial aid, technology, and turnaround schools.

In the blog I wrote about in a recent Huffington Post column, “Arne Duncan Declares Victory in War on Schools and Teachers” (, Duncan celebrated that “America’s students have posted some unprecedented achievements in the last year” as well as “America’s teachers, principals, and students and their families.” I found Duncan’s blog especially ironic because for the previous six years he has continually decried the inadequacy of education in the United States often placing the blame on teachers, teacher unions, teacher tenure, and the seniority system. Duncan, who has championed the high-stakes tests demanded by the federal Race to the Top program also conceded that “in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support” and “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” Of course nowhere in the blog did he take any responsibility for this or lay it on the doorstep of Obama administration policies.

2. Arne talks “ flexibility “ – but is it seen in the schools?

Arne Duncan wrote about the Obama Administration’s “spirit of flexibility.” I think Race to the Top has promoted the antithesis of flexibility in schools. The key for me has been the “Common Core” aligned high-stakes assessments that Duncan agrees “are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” In the blog he did not commit the Department of Education or the federal government to reconsidering Race to the Top or Common Core. All he agreed to do, and I am assuming all Obama agreed to do, was to allow states to request a one year delay on the implementation of questionable goals. Curiously, one of Duncan’s major partners in pushing Race to the Top, Common Core, and high-stakes testing, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, called for a two year moratorium on using tests to evaluate teachers and students while we learn whether the testing policy actually makes sense. Maybe you see a “spirit of flexibility” here, but I don’t, especially in the classrooms I visit where teachers are constantly imploring students, not to learn, but to do better on the tests.

3. How much credibility does Duncan have after all this time?

For me, none at all. Before he was Secretary of Education, Duncan was Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools. Before that he helped administer a charter school in Chicago and an afterschool tutoring program. In none of these jobs was Duncan particularly successful at improving education. According to an article by Chicago area educators in the May 29, 2009 issue of the journal Rethinking Schools (, the Duncan legacy in Chicago was “thousands of children displaced by school closings, spiked violence as they transferred to other schools, and the deterioration of public education in many neighborhoods into a crisis situation.” At the same time, it appears that while Duncan was Chicago school chief he had an assistant maintain a top-secret list of the well connected whose children were helped to get into the best schools. According to a March 23, 2010 Chicago Tribune article (–20100322_1_schools-chief-arne-duncan-principals-david-pickens), the initials “AD” appeared on the list forty times next to the names of people seeking special favors.

Duncan reforms in Chicago mirrored Race to the Top reform. They were top down, ignored input from communities and teachers. Duncan was particularly negative toward teachers and teacher unions, positions that finally ended up in producing a major teacher strike in Chicago in September 2012.

4. Often we hear politicians talking about something — and it just seems to be a distraction from something else. Am I off on this?

I think you are right-on and in this case the distraction is P-Tech. Obama and Duncan have both championed technology education as a solution to the problems of inner-city education and as a solution to persistent youth and technological unemployment in the United States. In one of his blog, Duncan wrote about the Bracken STEAM Academy in Las Vegas, Nevada  ( It is a school that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, with the largest emphasis on engineering. I think art was only added so the acronym could be STEAM and they did not want to use armaments or aardvarks. According to the Duncan blog, it is also a school “placing a renewed focus on holding all students to rigorous, college- and career-ready standards.” Bracken has received two grants from the U.S. Department of Education to support its program and an extra $27,000 a year in a Title I money to keep the computer labs open before and after school. But what is most amazing about this school, amazing used in a sarcastic sense, is that Bracken STEAM Academy (, a national blue ribbon school, is only a pre-K through fifth grade school. I am sure it is a wonderful pre-K through fifth grade school, but no one leaves Bracken college or career ready.

Meanwhile, President Obama has been promoting and visiting P-Tech High School in Brooklyn, New York. In his 2013 State of the Union Address Obama singled out P-Tech (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) as the wave of the future. But at the time, the school was only in its second year of operation with 230 students and no graduates or working alumni. According to a New York Times report in October 2012 ( which included an interviews with an IBM official, “The objective is to prepare students for entry-level technology jobs paying around $40,000 a year, like software specialists who answer questions from I.B.M.’s business customers or ‘deskside support’ workers who answer calls from PC users, with opportunities for advancement.” However, as anyone who has called computer support knows, those jobs are already being done at a much cheaper rate by outsourced techies in third world countries. It does not really seem like an avenue to the American middle class. The IBM official also made clear that “no positions at I.B.M. could be guaranteed six years in the future.

5. Actions seem to speak louder than words . . . What is Duncan doing, and what does he seem to be saying?

So far, I only know about words. Duncan likes to give speeches and convene meetings. Obama tends to place nice, but Duncan’s speeches are often insulting. In November 2013, Duncan told a group of state schools superintendents that he found it “fascinating to me that some of the pushback” against Common Core is coming from “white suburban moms” who  are discovering “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

( He also told the National Press Club in Washington that opposition to the Core standards had been fueled by “political silliness” and dismissed opponents as “fringe groups.”

However, it is the meetings I really worry about. In March 2012, Duncan convened a meeting on the future of digital textbooks and invited the CEO of Pearson Education (, one of the major digital textbook publishers, to be part of a working group.  I felt this was like giving the fox the keys to the hen house.

6. Testing is one of those issues that everyone talks about – but few are doing anything about. What does Duncan have to say, but what does he continue to advocate?

This is another issue of talk and do. Duncan now acknowledges “Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress,” but that did not lead to a suspension of the high-stakes Common Core aligned testing regime. He also expressed concern that “adults are gaming tests, rather than using them to help students,” which assumes the tests actually help students. But isn’t gaming the system what politicians and business do in the United States? Why should teachers and parents be any different? Perhaps Duncan should pay more attention to speeches by President Obama? In July 2014 Obama called for a new “economic patriotism” and denounced “corporate deserters” who game the tax code by renouncing their United States “citizenship to shield profits.” Since the 1980s over 40 U.S. corporations have switched their addresses to low-tax nations without really moving and according to Bloomberg News at least eight more companies are in the process of gaming the tax system.

7. Alan, you have followed Duncan for years – has he ever once proposed a longer school day or longer school year?

In a December 2012 blog, Duncan praised Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee for using federal and state funds to expand the school day

( He claimed increased learning time had been a priority during the Obama Administration. Unfortunately, like other Obama priorities, this one has yet to produce very much “fruit.” Maybe like immigration reform, it is just being postponed until after the next election cycle. I also think the comments on this blog were interesting, especially because very critical comments never get posted. As some of the commentators pointed out, doing the same things over and over again for a longer period of time does not ensure any kind of improved performance.

8. Looking back – does he have any accomplishments to be really proud of?

Hofstra University where I teach sponsors a presidential conference and March 24-26, 2015 ( scholars will be examining the accomplishments of the Bush administration. I will be on a panel discussing Bush educational policy. The more I look at it, the harder it is to define a coherent Bush educational policy. No Child Left Behind declared mandates that could never be reached, provided no additional federal funding to achieve them, and basically left the states alone to define success or failure by themselves. But one thing that stands out is that Bush’s non-policy was less destructive to education in the United States than the Obama/Duncan Race to the Top which used the promise of federal money to force states to adopt a high-stakes “Common Core” aligned testing regime based on ill-defined academic goals that includes the repeated testing of both students and teachers and the transformation of many schools into test prep academies. Duncan and Obama have been talking about ensuring all students are college and career ready for six years but have never defined what college ready actually means or what 21st century careers will look like. Teachers and schools are left to guess. In the end, I do not believe Obama or Duncan have very much to be proud of in education.

9. What have I neglected to ask about Arne Duncan latest diatribe?

In July 2014, delegates to the National Education Association’s annual convention passed a new business item July 4 calling for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign. The resolution originated with the California Teachers Association, which was outraged by Duncan’s support of a court decision that struck down job protections in the state ( Duncan called the Vergara decision an “opportunity to set a meaningful bar for teacher tenure.” He then posted his blog thanking the same teachers for their excellent work. The American Federation of Teachers passed a similar resolution calling on President Barack Obama to put U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on an “improvement plan,” and demand his resignation if he doesn’t change positions the union believes are harmful to students and teachers. The real question, which I have no answer to is why President Obama keeps Duncan in office.

10. Education Flashpoints – tell us about this in closing?

Education Flashpoints (Routledge is a collection of essays from my Huffington Post blog (, which is rated by Teach 100 as one of the top educational blogs in the United States.

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