Vote “Me” for Secretary of Education

Of course I would have loved to have seen Linda Darling-Hammond become Secretary of Education in an Obama administration. She’s smart, honest, compassionate and courageous, and perhaps most striking, she actually knows schools and classrooms, curriculum and teaching, kids and child development. These have never counted for much as qualifications for the post, of course, and yet they offer a neat contrast with the four failed urban school superintendents–Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Paul Valas, and Arne Duncan–who were for weeks rumored to be her chief competition.

These four, like George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, Rod Paige of the fraudulent Texas-miracle, have little to show in terms of school improvement beyond a deeply dishonest public relations narrative. Teacher accountability, relentless standardized testing, school closings, and privatization—this is what the dogmatists and true-believers of the right call “reform.” Michelle Rhee of Washington D.C., the most ideologically-driven of the bunch, warranted a cover story in Time in early December called “How to Fix America’s Schools” in which she was praised for making more changes in a year and a half on the job than other school leaders, “even reform-minded ones,” make in five: closing 21 schools (15% of the total), firing 100 central office personnel, 270 teachers, and 36 principals. These are all policy moves that are held on faith to stand for improvement; not a word on kids’ learning or engagement with schools, not even a nod at evidence that might connect these moves with student progress. But of course evidence is always the enemy of dogma, and this is faith-based, fact-free school policy at its purest.

So I would have picked Darling-Hammond, but then again I would have picked Noam Chomsky for state, Naomi Klein for defense, Bernardine Dohrn for Attorney General, Bill Fletcher for commerce, James Thindwa for labor, Barbara Ransby for human services, Paul Krugman for treasury, and Amy Goodman for press secretary. So what do I know?

Darling-Hammond would not have been a smart pick for Obama. She was steadily demonized in a concerted campaign to undermine her effectiveness, and she would surely have had great difficulty getting any traction whatsoever for progressive policy change in this environment. Arne Duncan was the smart choice, the unity choice—the least driven by ideology, the most open to working with teachers and unions, the smartest by a mile– and let’s wish him well.

But there’s a deeper point: since the Obama victory, many people seem to be suffering a kind of post-partum depression: unable to find any polls to obsess over, we read the tea-leaves and try to penetrate the president-elect’s mind. What do his moves portend? What magic or disaster awaits us? With due respect, this is a matter of looking entirely in the wrong direction.

Obama is not a monarch— Arne Duncan is not education czar– and we are not his subjects. If we want a foreign policy based on justice, for example, we ought to get busy organizing a robust anti-imperialist peace movement; if we want to end the death penalty we better get smart about changing the dominant narrative concerning crime and punishment. We are not allowed to sit quietly in a democracy awaiting salvation from above. We are all equal, and we all need to speak up and speak out right now.

During Arne Duncan’s tenure in Chicago, a group of hunger-striking mothers organized city-wide support and won the construction of a new high school in a community that had been underserved and denied for years. Another group of parents, teachers, and students mobilized to push military recruiters out of their high school; Duncan didn’t support them and he certainly didn’t lead the charge, but they won anyway. If they’d waited for Duncan to act they’d likely be waiting still. Teachers at another school refused to give one of the endless standardized tests, arguing that this was one test too many, and they organized deep support for their protest; Duncan didn’t support them either, but they won anyway. If they’d waited for Duncan, they’d be waiting still. Why would anyone sit around waiting for Arne now? Stop whining; get busy.

In the realm of education, there is nothing preventing any of us from pressing to change the dominant discourse that has controlled the discussion for many years. It’s reasonable to assume that education in a democracy is distinct from education under a dictatorship or a monarchy, but how? Surely school leaders in fascist Germany or communist Albania or medieval Saudi Arabia all agreed, for example, that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, do their homework, study hard, and master the subject matters, so those things don’t differentiate a democratic education from any other.

What makes education in a democracy distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal, and that is a belief that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.

Democracy, after all, is geared toward participation and engagement, and it’s based on a common faith: every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and creative force. Every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights, each is endowed with reason and conscience, and deserves, then, a sense of solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect.

We want our students to be able to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their own. We want them to ask fundamental questions—Who in the world am I? How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my choices? How in the world shall I proceed? — and to pursue answers wherever they might take them. Democratic educators focus their efforts, not on the production of things so much as on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in civic life.

Democratic teaching encourages students to develop initiative and imagination, the capacity to name the world, to identify the obstacles to their full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. Education in a democracy should be characteristically eye-popping and mind-blowing—always about opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways into a wider world.

How do our schools here and now measure up to the democratic ideal?

Much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls off meaningful choice-making. Much of it is based on obedience and conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime. Much of it banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox, hides the unpleasant. There’s no space for skepticism, irreverence, or even doubt. While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested and often false bits of information. This is a recipe for disaster in the long run.

Educators, students, and citizens must press now for an education worthy of a democracy, including an end to sorting people into winners and losers through expensive standardized tests which act as pseudo-scientific forms of surveillance; an end to starving schools of needed resources and then blaming teachers and their unions for dismal outcomes; and an end to the rapidly accumulating “educational debt,” the resources due to communities historically segregated, under-funded and under-served. All children and youth in a democracy, regardless of economic circumstance, deserve full access to richly-resourced classrooms led by caring, qualified and generously compensated teachers. So let’s push for that, and let’s make it happen before Arne Duncan or anyone else grants us permission.


7 Responses to Vote “Me” for Secretary of Education

  1. Cynthia Oster says:

    Truth stands on its own merit – and everything you articulated is true. What I don’t get – is why so few people have the ability to recognize truth anymore. And I question whether it’s even possible to open their eyes to the reality of what it takes to move, inspire, and help transform a life.

    I wish you well.

    Cynthia Oster
    Cleveland, Ohio

  2. Jeanette says:

    I was not especially surprised, but was deeply disappointed, to see Linda Darling-Hammond overlooked. I would have liked seeing someone in the Cabinet who understood how outdated current visions of education are. In a nation where repeated testing and creeping encroachment of computer assessment have become the norm, children are left with the understanding that they’re just performing monkeys for the benefit of adults who can’t even be bothered to examine their work before passing judgment.

    I agree that L D-H would have been, in some ways, an impolitic choice. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. It would have, to me, been the indicator of the change I wanted to see. Letting financial people be the guardians of education seems to me an awful lot like letting foxes guard the henhouse. These are people who are fully inculcated in the winner-take-all capitalistic system that is so antithetical to real education as a democratic citizen.

    While Cynthia’s point is well made, and Milton would certainly have agreed, I don’t know for sure that it’s true. Does the truth stand on its own merit? If people don’t recognize truth when they see it, then clearly, in some way, truth doesn’t out itself. In order to see truth, people need to have learned, in some way, that their own thoughts are valuable, that their own assessment of truth is worthwhile, that they are capable of determining meaning. If they have been brainwashed away from believing these things, then they will take “truth” from trusted sources only, and those sources do not need to earn trust — whether it’s a teacher who teaches incorrect facts or a television news anchor who distributes propaganda in lieu of truth.

  3. Blueskyboris says:

    Not only the inability to recognize the truth, but the inability to critize one’s own theories or to recognize when one’s point has been refuted. Libertarians are the worst. They’ve clearly been refuted, but they continue to make the same points over and over again.

  4. Bil, I really thought your article about our educational dilemma is right on. And could you please suggest where I should send this summary of my research that is directly relevant to the now infamous NCLB?
    Ann Boggiano Ph.D

    Putting Children in Harm’s Way: The No Child Left Behind Act

    President-Elect Obama, addressing the National Education Association in July 2007, called the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) “one of the emptiest slogans in the history of American politics.” He has also said that the law is “so narrowly focused on standardized tests that it has pushed out a lot of important learning that needs to take place.” He was also cited as saying the law left the money and common sense behind.

    Professor Linda Darling Hammond, currently head of Obama’s transition team on education policy also points to the flaws in NCLB in an article in the May 22nd 2007 edition of the Nation. The law, she writes, erroneously assumes that what is needed in schools are more carrots and sticks (a combination of positive and negative incentives including rewards and pressure), as opposed to structural changes which promote high-quality teaching and student assessment that evaluates the development of students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

    Although we have not directly addressed all components of high-quality teaching, many studies in different laboratories demonstrate that teachers labeled “autonomy-oriented” generally do not use carrots and sticks. Instead, they support students in making choices about aspects of their curriculum, and encourage independent learning as opposed to total reliance on their teachers. They promote an atmosphere where students feel trusted and more like origins rather than pawns. Autonomy-oriented teachers encourage critical thinking and problem-solving skills, provide interesting activities and promote the opportunity for mastery over increasingly challenging tasks.

    The law’s advocates may have expected that pressure by teachers would spur students’ motivation, enable them to excel at tests, and thereby become more effective learners. Not so. There is an array of unintended consequences for pupils exposed to carrots and sticks. These advocates ignored empirical data published in peer-reviewed articles and books indicating that carrots and sticks have a negative impact on at least three important goals of any educational system concerned with promoting excellence in schools. First, one ironic effect is that data indicate that pupils’ scores on standardized tests falter as a function of the use of carrots and sticks. Second, data show that the law has a negative impact on students’ self-motivation and overall learning. Finally, students motivated by carrots and sticks show the emotional, cognitive and behavioral deficits of learned helplessness. Data supporting these conclusions as well as reasons for the erroneous belief in the beneficial effects of the carrot and stick approach will be described below.

    We examined the effect of teacher-preferred methods to teach, i.e. use of the carrots and sticks versus more autonomy directed method, on students’ standardized test scores. We found that teachers reporting a preference for the carrot and stick method predicted students who were less interested in learning for its own sake which, in turn, predicted lower standardized test scores for these students in comparison to their counterparts in classrooms where teachers used more autonomy oriented methods. These data provide a compelling argument that extrinsic and evaluative techniques do not encourage children to learn. Such a claim is controversial because it questions assumptions that lie at the very heart of behavioral psychology: appropriate responses such as learning can be conditioned and retained.

    We replicated these findings in a series of experiments. As an example, an experimenter asked teachers in their actual classrooms to help 267 fourth graders in fifteen classes learn two lessons involving novel and difficult tasks. Some teachers were told it was their responsibility to help pupils learn and ensure that their pupils performed well; the others were told only to help pupils learn. Students, of course, were not informed about the instructions provided to their teachers by the experimenter and the teachers were assured that all test scores would remain anonymous.

    We found that students of teachers pressured to have their student perform well performed significantly worse than students whose teachers were not pressured. Teachers and students were videotaped throughout the teaching session and rated by coders blind to conditions. Interestingly, pressured teachers were more likely to use “controlling” strategies -policing youngsters, offering tangible rewards and providing nonverbal feedback, such as disapproving looks, etc. In other words, teachers who feel they are under the gun somehow inadvertently transmit their anxiety more effectively than they transmit the content of their lesson. The teachers who were not told to ensure that their students perform well allowed more independent work, and gave less criticism and praise. Surprisingly, 6 additional observers, also blind to condition, rated the pressured teachers as more enthusiastic, interested and competent, based on teachers’ videotaped performances. Needless to say, teachers pressuring students to perform well may get them a better evaluation, which only reinforces the continued pressuring of students (This experiment was summarized in USA Today, Dec. 17th, 1990).

    In an additional experiment, pressure to perform well impaired complex problem solving skills in college-students. And, again, though they performed worse than control subjects, students rated their teachers as more helpful in learning to solve the analytic learning problem and more effective overall than teachers not using pressure.

    Studies in other laboratories reveal that carrots and sticks restrict creativity. And these techniques produce what has been termed the mini-max principle: students expend the least amount of effort on an academic task to reap the carrot or avoid the stick. Interest in integrating complex material and critical thinking then falls by the wayside.

    In addition to achievement, it is reasonable to assume that our educational system should foster the development of well-adjusted children who are content and hopeful about their success in school. As several prominent theorists and researchers have noted, emotional IQ is more important in predicting success and emotional well being than a traditional measure of IQ. Therefore, the time has come to stop fretting about test results and start fostering an emotional climate conducive to learning.

    But our data reveal that our schools impair many of our students’ emotional IQ. Students who do their schoolwork primarily because of concerns over tests develop a helpless response pattern that has negative effects on their emotional well-being.
    Why do they feel helpless? They sometimes receive the approval they anticipated for performing the requested behavior: at other times they don’t. Like the animals in experimental research, students unable to predict an appropriate response to their effort begin to feel helpless. They essentially give up, assuming they will experience failure before they even try (cited in the New York Times, 1990). They also report feeling incompetent as well as depressed. Depressed children are less likely to be popular with their peers, which may exacerbate the problem.

    On the other hand, students who are self-motivated who were in classrooms whose teachers predominantly used autonomy-promoting techniques showed strong perseverance when confronted with challenging tasks. They typically performed better when confronted with initial failure and tried harder to succeed. In fact, after an experience of failure, they performed better than they would have if they hadn’t made mistakes. In addition, these students experienced higher self-esteem than their extrinsically motivated counterparts and probably experienced better peer relationships as a result.

    There may be even more dramatic consequences for students who develop an extrinsic motivational orientation. When these students were induced to just “think” about possible failure, they reported feelings of self-blame, hopelessness, and lower expectations of success. Such self-deprecating thoughts can produce underachievement, which, in turn, can produce a deeper sense of depression. It is hard to believe that carrots and sticks -among the very building blocks of our educational system -ultimately cost children their sense of self-worth.

    A corollary, of course, is that teachers who provide a challenging classroom climate that does not rely on extrinsic and evaluative techniques are more likely to turn out students interested in learning for its own sake. These teachers provide autonomy and choice to their students who then become resistant to failure, hopeful rather than depressed, and score higher on standardized tests. Our task may well be to convince administrators and school boards to encourage use of autonomy-oriented techniques in classrooms.

    In the educational arena, we’ve conditioned ourselves to Skinner’s operant methodology. We assume that the short-term positive effect of incentives will continue to have beneficial effects. Not so. Many studies show that such incentives undermine children’s interest in learning in the long run, as well as impairing their ability to think in a deep, conceptual manner. Students who are depressed and are threatened by pressure from teachers may well comprise the majority of our dropouts.

    Why don’t well-intentioned parents and teachers notice the negative effects of carrots and sticks on children’s interest in learning? We conducted a series of seven studies to examine the basis of people’s steadfast belief that the promise of carrots and sticks will have positive effects on learning (e.g., reading). We asked parents to rate hypothetical techniques provided that they believed would optimize their children’s motivation to learn. We paired the use of rewards, as well as other social control techniques such as reasoning, punishment and non-interference, with the behavior in question: “Tell Susan that if she spends some time each day on her reading, you’ll add 50% extra to her allowance.” To other participants, we said, “Try not to interfere in the situation and leave things to themselves or “Tell Jim that if he doesn’t spend some time on his computer you’ll keep 50% of his allowance.”

    Our data showed a whopping preference for rewards, which were preferred over all other techniques in spite of the overwhelming evidence that rewards are detrimental to long-term interest in activities. And this preference was maintained, regardless of students’ initial interest in school-related subjects. Even when presented with visual evidence showing that rewards had an adverse effect on performance on reading, our subjects were not able to override their preconceptions and saw a positive relation even when the data disconfirmed their expectations. We termed this phenomenon an “illusory relationship” – people invent a relation that simply isn’t there, while ignoring the real relationship between reward and maladaptive achievement patterns. Because of our erroneous perceptions, we simply can’t see what’s before our eyes. So it is not surprising that parents and teachers balk when the suggestion is made that the use of incentives and tests may not be in the students’ best interest.

    What does the optimal classroom look like? Certainly, directives and limit setting are essential components of effective classroom management. However, a core ingredient for an environment conducive to learning includes the opportunity for students to make periodic choices about activities undertaken in the curriculum. A sense of autonomy and trust is important for students’ emotional well-being. Indeed, teachers reporting a preference for student autonomy, as opposed to evaluative, controlling techniques, were significantly more likely to have students develop a desire for mastery over challenge, a component of an intrinsically motivated set, which, across studies and experiments, predicts higher test scores and integrated learning styles. As Meier puts it, “students are both happier and achieve more in environments that are hospitable and welcoming and where students feel empowered, motivated and supported.” Students’ interests should without question, have a role in developing their curriculum.

    Because students and all of us who have been schooled have virtually had as our primary experience the carrot and stick approach, it is not surprising, as our data show, that we applaud teachers who use these techniques in spite of the adverse effects they have on learning and emotional well-being. We may want to be cautious about anecdotal reports of “highly qualified” teachers. It is virtually axiomatic that this approach has proliferated since NCLB and that very well educated teachers espouse this approach. Subsequently, as our students become our future teachers, the cycle will be perpetuated. Our educational system as it is currently structured as per NCLB
    is inherently flawed and our mode of student assessment needs fundamental revisions. Our data support Obama’s and Darling-Hammond’s assumption that teacher quality is a primary determinant of student achievement; pressuring teachers and students with the law of carrots and sticks undermines that goal.

  5. lsm says:

    No Child Left Behind was a Teddy Kennedy, democratic idea, which democrat George Bush signed onto. It had nothing to do with “right wing” ideology. Conservatives want the government OUT of our schools, since the government has never run ANYTHING effectively. Why are you guys so afraid of Private education???

  6. Eddie B says:

    Ann B. Phd…

    No child Left Behind–Ted Kennedy’s baby. And the blog entry by Ism is right on.

  7. Jeanette says:


    This is the right’s modus operandi, isn’t it? Destroy government projects with unfunded mandates and programs that haven’t been shown to work (abstinence-only education, anyone?), then to claim that it shows government programs, as a whole, don’t work. The real lesson is that government programs directed by people with a vested interest in their failure tend to fail.

    At the end of the day, institutions do what they are designed to do. At the moment, what education is designed to do is outdated, based on factory tasks. But that is not what’s being argued against by conservatives. No. Instead, the conservative goal seems to be to throw schools deeper and deeper into the industrialism model, churning out the biggest number of barely adequate future workers for the least cost. When people try to make the point that these methods are old, that we need to teach inquiry and creative thought, conservatives respond with more “standards-based” education, more standardized testing, more computer scoring of student assessments, more factory production of students. Conservatives aren’t interested in educational solutions outside of the clarion call: Privatize, corporatize, monetize! And when people don’t agree with that, it’s: Local control!

    Now, what do local control and privatization have in common? Just one thing: they keep people in their place very nicely. They create permanent underclasses. They keep people like you, lsm, people who want this privatization, on top. You want to rule, you want to be in charge, so just say so. Just tell us so. Be more honest. I still will virulently dislike you for it, but at least I’ll respect your honesty. If you want to make sure your children don’t have to go to school with “those” children, tell us that. If you want to make sure you can stay on top of the hierarchical structures you were handed by being born as a privileged person in a privileged society, go ahead, have the courage of your convictions and tell us so. But don’t pretend it’s for the good of everyone. Don’t pretend your real motivation is getting government out. You’re more than happy to let government in when it suits you. Tell us how you really feel. I’d rather you were an honest terrible person than a deceitful one.

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