Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My #Whatif for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently posted this tweet on Twitter:

In response educators and parents everywhere are posting their own “Whatifs” using the hashtag, #whatif,” and attaching @arneduncan. Judging by the #whatif stream, I suspect many educators are expressing quite a bit of frustration regarding Duncan’s education policies. But I wanted to just take a moment and look at what’s problematic about Duncan’s tweet.

First of all, it clearly indicates that he is still in “silver-bullet” search mode. He thinks that out there somewhere are some magical measures that will magically transform schools from being “unsuccessful” to “successful.” Time and again, his entire career as a secretary of education has been one long search for the magic of school reform. What he has never uunderstood was that reform on a national scale can’t be imposed from his office. He should have taken those lessons from No Child Left Behind; instead, he’s imposed a much more severe “measure and punish” tactics that have elevated testing above everything else that matters in public education. Schools are struggling for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons aren’t due to education policy; they’re due to economic policies that are leaving many in this country behind in income. When Duncan asks the question about identifying what made 5 best schools successful, he automatically assumes that what those schools did to make them successful will automatically apply to all schools. That is at the heart of his “silver-bullet” search, and that’s why there has been nothing out of this Department of Education that will survive once they vacate the premises. Duncan has only searched for quick-fixes without really helping school districts get down to the hard work of improving education.

Secondly, I suspect, Duncan identifies “successful” as those schools with the highest test scores. For the length of Duncan’s tenure, he and his department have repeatedly made it known that high test scores and value-added measures equal success, so why would we believe he would suggest anything different? The problem is that Duncan’s definition of success requires reducing teaching and learning to statistics, when everything we know about learning as educators tells us that tests only measure a miniscule portion of what students learn. Duncan’s Twitter question is actually a statement of his faith. We all know what his “identify” entails. It entails subjecting kids at all levels to tests and then using those tests to judge the quality of everything in a school. Once again, Duncan failed to see the lessons of No Child Left Behind.

Perhaps Duncan was attempting to truly rally educators with his Tweet, but unfortunately, this late in his tenure that’s not going to happen. There are too many educators who have absolutely no confidence in his ability to lead. Judging by all the #whatifs posted since Duncan’s, there are a great deal of educators angry about his education policy. His federal mandates, though he avoids calling them that, have forced states to do more testing than ever. Perhaps Duncan’s tweet should be:

“What if I have been wrong about all this testing? What if my measure and punish education culture I’ve created has actually harmed schools?"

I won’t wait to see this Tweet; however, because it will not happen. Duncan believes in everything he’s done. Why else would someone tour the country and spend so much time promoting what they’ve done? He has repeatedly made the mistake of thinking himself a salesman instead of an education leader.

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