Friday, March 27, 2009

Duncan the pragmatist

Mark Bergin at World Magazine ("The Schools that Arne Built") gives us the two sides of Arne Duncan. There's Duncan the pragmatist, taught by his parents to adopt a "whatever works" philosophy. Bergin notes that Duncan, whose mother was a community-oriented teacher, helped start one of Chicago's first small (non-charter) schools, Ariel Community Academy. Bergin also helps spread the myth of Duncan's Chicago miracle ("a legacy of innovation, choice, and accountability") which helped propel the mayor's education chief into the Sec. of Education job.

Then there's Duncan the top-down reformer, operating without telling us exactly what "works" means or works-for-whom. That's left open to interpretation from the right and left. Conservatives like Bergin and George Will, like Duncan's drift towards privatization and his concessions to D.C.'s discredited voucher program. But does he go far enough? Many on the left see Duncan's pragmatism as simply a continuation of the Bush years.

Duncan's also portrayed as a school closer like D.C.'s ruthless school boss, Michelle Rhee, committed to shutting down neighborhood schools and turning them over to private companies like Chicago's AUSL, and purging teachers arbitrarily, en masse. Writes Bergin:
What if the worst schools in Chicago could be gutted of every last vestige of their former selves? What if every teacher, staff member, and administrator could be fired and replaced in the course of one summer vacation? What if the same students who left in the summer could return in the fall to new paint, new teachers, new culture? Duncan embraced the idea.

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