Arne Duncan and the Challenge of School Reform

February 27, 2010

Carlo Rotella’s flattering portrait of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (“Class Warrior,” the New Yorker, February 1, 2010) claims that in today’s school reform battles “there are, roughly speaking, two major camps.” The first he calls “the free-market reformers,” the second, “the liberal traditionalists.” This unfortunate caricature leaves out a huge range of approaches and actors, including people Rotella himself interviewed for his story (Diane Ravitch, Tim Knowles, Kenneth Saltman). Most notably it omits those who argue, as John Dewey did, that in a democracy, whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a baseline standard for what the community wants for all of its children. Rotella notes that Duncan as well as the Obama children attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (as did our three sons), where they had small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the furthest limits. Oh, and a respected and unionized teacher corps as well. Good enough for the Obamas and Duncans, good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere. Any other ideal for our schools, in Dewey’s words, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”