HOW SCHOOLS WORK

If you pick up Arne Duncan’s How Schools Work hoping to learn something about, well, unsurprisingly I suppose, about “how schools work,” you’ll be sorely disappointed. There’s no policy prescription here, no substantive analysis whatsoever, and no actual accounts or examples of how schools work. Instead we’re treated to random stories that circulate around several stuttering themes: Duncan’s dismay and then anger when poor kids are told they’re doing OK by school people when in reality they don’t have the skills to go to college; his encounters with enraged parents that happily end when they chill out after he shows them that his heart is true and his intentions pure; and his insistent defense of “big data” and high stakes standardized tests when promoting his preferred school “reform” goals.

The subtitle isn’t especially helpful either: “An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.” That might have proved useful, but the reader searches in vain for fresh  perspectives or insights, for some discovery or surprise, contradiction or conflict, for an inquiring  mind thinking out loud as it engages a conversation with itself—anything at all that might be generative. What’s on offer instead is untroubled categories and settled conclusions. Arne Duncan learns nothing at all—neither in his many years at the helm of Chicago’s and then the nation’s schools, nor in the process of writing this personal account. 

Failure and success? An inside account? A good memoir might fruitfully explore all of that, but it would have to be free from the brutality of dogma and self-righteousness, which Duncan can’t quite manage. He’s a dedicated corporate reformer, avidly endorsing the underlying thesis that education is a product to be sold at the market place rather than a fundamental human right and community responsibility, and embracing the entire triple threat: reducing the definition of school success (for other people’s children) to a single metric on a standardized test; marginalizing or crushing the collective voice of teachers; and auctioning off the public space to private managers and entrepreneurs. None of this is up for discussion or review, and that makes the entire account tedious and entirely predictable.

Duncan’s opening sentence is a calculated attention-getter: “Education runs on lies.” Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post points out that that sentence begs for the services of a good editor—education doesn’t run on lies, she says, so perhaps he means that the school system runs on lies; but since there’s no single school system in this country, perhaps he means specific schools run on lies. Whatever. It turns out “lies” is deployed as an all-purpose metaphor: the big lie (which he returns to again and again) is “social promotion,” moving kids along when they aren’t up to par or college-ready; other lies include the lie that poor kids can’t learn, manifest through low expectations by school people and politicians for children of the poor; the lie that self-serving teachers unions tell when they pretend to care more than a fig for the success of public school students; the lie spread by teacher educators that colleges of education effectively prepare teachers for classroom life. All lies according to Duncan. In support of the larger corporate reform agenda, Duncan dutifully side-steps any link (although well-established by authentic research and loads of data) between poverty or racial segregation and school success. Again and again he makes the dubious claim that test scores “don’t lie” and that the solutions to our various problems can be found in “big data”—selectively harvested to be sure.

The only “failure” Duncan will admit to is the classic “failure to communicate:” “Race to the Top” was “misunderstood,” parents and teachers didn’t understand the incredible value for their kids of regular standardized testing, and sometimes he “jammed my foot in my mouth.” He repeats this disingenuous self-criticism so often that it brings to mind the stuttering exchange between the Captain and the prisoner in the classic film “Cool Hand Luke”—every substantive conflict is dismissed with the Captain’s signature line uttered with utter contempt: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” The phrase is consistently issued by power to dodge the import of any conflict, and as prelude to doubling down on harsher sanctions and brutal punishments. 

Arne Duncan’s children have always attended schools that work—public schools in the suburbs of Washington, elite private schools in Chicago— and these are schools with small class sizes, full arts programs, excellent facilities, and unionized teachers. Each of his kids is, of course, more than a score. Nothing wrong with any of that. The hypocrisy comes when he sets policy for other people’s children that never mentions class size or the value of the arts or the importance of teachers’ voices when it comes to school policy and practice. Duncan’s prescription for the rest of us is an anemic curriculum and a single-minded obsession with standardized tests.

We need to resist as we insist that in a democracy equality in education is a first principle, and that means that whatever the privileged and the powerful have for their children must become the baseline for what we as a community demand for all of our children. Nothing less.

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