With guest, Louder Than a Bomb poet Nate Marshall

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Duncan at the Govs' Conference

Arne Duncan had some interesting things to say at the National Governors Conference this past weekend. Lots of his usual business-model, testing/standards madness. But also lots of ambiguity and mixed messages. It's clear to me that this isn't simply a Bush/neocon rehash. Some things better. Some may even be worse. But Duncan's speech leaves some openings. Since many (including myself) have been focusing on the negatives--and there are plenty--I picked out a few areas where there appears to be a break from the past 8 years or where there's at least some room to struggle.

Here's a few:
  • I also appreciate that the primary focus of the Recovery Act is to save and create jobs and we're deeply grateful that states across America are helping save hundreds of thousands of teaching and other education-related jobs.
  • Nothing is more important than getting great teachers into our classrooms and great principals into our schools. And there are millions of hard-working, dedicated teachers in schools all across America.
  • I understand that teachers are concerned about the fairness of performance pay. I share those concerns – but I am confident that if we sit down with the unions – instead of forcing it on them -- we can find ways to reward excellence in the classroom.
  • But many of you have charter schools in your state that, frankly, are not getting the job done. If they are failing, they should close and the children should have another option.
  • I also think that we need to break through the dynamic that positions charters against unions.Albert Shanker, the legendary union leader, was an early advocate of charters. The AFT represents something like 70 charters and the NEA represents another 40. So we should stop fighting over charter caps and unite behind charter accountability.
  • Teachers scramble to cover everything – a little of this – a little of that – and not enough of what’s really important. They can’t dig deeper on a challenging subject that excites their students. And students can’t master material when they are racing through it. We must limit standards to the essential knowledge and skills our kids need so teachers can focus in depth on the most important things their kids should know.
  • This is a growth area for the testing industry, which may worry that assessments used across multiple states will be bad for business, even if it’s the right thing for kids. However, it’s not my job to worry about their business. My job is to worry about kids and I know that our kids not only need to be challenged but they want to be challenged.


  1. Mike, I wish I could be as optimistic as you seem to be about Duncan's good intentions. My take on these quotes is that it's pure triangulation and rhetorical positioning.

    It's of a piece with him signing on to both EEP and the Bolder Approach. He has covered all his political bases, and can come off as a reasonable man who is seeking to build bridges, but that's not how I see it:

    - His talk of the Recovery Act saving jobs in education- true, and a good thing - masks the administrations reported intention of using stimulous funds to compel a forced march to charterization, by making access to funds dependent on removing statewide charter caps.

    - His compliments to teachers, which even Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein find the need to choke out of their mouths occasionally, is belied by the anti-teacher garbage they more often emit. Just recently Duncan blamed teachers for poverty , and also had the inmitigated gall to not only slander us but include himself, who's never so much as had a cup of coffee in the classroom, as being a teacher.

    - His talk about getting teachers to sign on to performance pay is pure cooptation, based on the prison-management theory of getting the inmates to help you manage the jail.

    - As for Al Shanker, it's time for teachers to recognize that his best days as a trade unionist were over forty-five years ago, that whatever he felt about charters has been made irrelevant by their evolution into a form of stealth privatization, and the fact that on broader issues (Vietnam, intervention in the affairs of other nations) he was downright awful.

    - Duncan's talk about delving deeper in to curriculum and material, and his professed lack of concern for the profits of the testing companies is belied by his actions in Chicago and proposals as Education Secretary.

    Sorry, but I don't rely on what these people say; I observe what they do. And on that count, the man deserves little but rejection.

  2. Even when Duncan tries to be progressive, he sticks his foot in his own mouth. My favorite is when he tells the govs that their state tests are awful. Yet he has been pushing for these awful tests to be used as the measure for everything from teachers pay to judging schools to the point of shutting them down. Now, after the cows are out of the barn, he says he wants to spend millions on new tests. Hello! Anybody home in there?

  3. Mike F.,

    The question isn't rejection or not of Mr.Duncan. Nor is it about optimism or pessimism. The question is how do progressive educators, policy people, and activists move given all this ambiguity and mixed messaging? Any ideas?


  4. Now see, every time I point out inconsistencies in Duncan double-talk, there's always someone who's going to accuse me of being "optimistic" about Duncan and his "good intentions." Well Mike, I really don't give a wit about Duncan's intentions. I'm much more interested in what kind of rifts are occurring (and there are plenty of them) over there at the DOE and how to make good use of them. Any ideas? Any thoughts about strategy/tactics on the policy front? Standing on the sidelines barking at Duncan and Weingarten, or equating Obama with the neocons (as some are doing), just won't do.

  5. "Optimistic"? Don't worry Mike, I think you're as dark and gloomy as the next guy.

  6. Michael FiorilloJune 17, 2009 at 5:21 PM


    My ideas are nothing new or original: try to reach and inform the increasing numbers of public school stakeholders who are being negatively affected by the corporate ed regime, organize them, mobilize them on as many fronts and with as many people doing as many different things as possible to defend public education, the public sector and the public good. In NYC that's what the Grassroots Educational Movement (GEM), a coalition of teacher organizations and dissident UFT caucuses is trying to do, along with many other groups. Right now, given the oligarchical slant of the institutions, I personally see the best results coming from pushing the system from outside.


    Some comments:

    - My original point was that Duncan's and others' "inconsistencies" are much more likely to be tactical rhetorical devices, meant to distract and divert, rather than indicating any fundamental disagreements within the master discourse about education. Those folks may disagree about the final decor of the house, but they're building the foundation together.

    I used the word "optimism" to describe your take on Duncan because when he says something bad I take him at his word, and when he says something "good" that is belied by his actions, I am skeptical. It was not meant as a personal attack on you, and if you took it that way, I apologize.

    As for "rifts" in the (I presume you mean federal, not NYC) DOE, please inform so I might stand corrected. Until then, I will stand by my statement that it's rhetorical triangulation.

    - As for "standing on the sidelines barking," I am a NYC public school parent and elected Chapter Leader in my high school, where I have taught for 12 years. I have been an activist on education, labor, and social justice for many years. So much for the "sidelines."

    As for "barking," I disagree, but readers will have to make up their own minds about my tone and content.

    - Finally, your comment about equating Obama with neocons is a red herring: I never said anything about neocons. Although, as long as you've brought it up, hasn't Diane Ravitch said that this is shaping up as Bush's third term in regard to education? I guess I'm not the only paranoid in the house.

    What we're seeing, with the likes of Democrats for Education Reform, the use of foundation money to buy policy, the Orwellian use of reformist and progressive rhetoric in the service of privatization and attacks on teachers, is a ruling class consensus and coalition.

    If it were only limited to the neocons, our worries would be over.

    Unlike you, I've not witnessed Duncan up close. Having done so over the years may give you a more charitable view of him. I hear it said that he's a "nice guy," for whatever that's worth. But observing him from afar in recent years, and based on the directions things appear to be going in Washington, I just can't be too optimistic about his intentions or actions. Until proven wrong, I'll think and act upon that perception.

  7. Mike F.,

    Thanks for your response. No need to apologize.
    I wasn't really offended by being called an "optimist." Not so bad, after all. I've been called a lot worse lately. It's me who shouldn't have made the "sidelines" and "barking" remarks. Sometimes, here on the blog, I've been know to get carried away with my own rhetoric. It easy to do. They certainly weren't aimed a you. Nor was the comment about equating Obama with the neocons--which you pegged correctly as Ravitch's assessment. Of course she's entitled to her opinion and I like her recent stuff on NY and her break from the wing-nut foundations (there I go again).

    As for your approach--it's great and the GEM coalition here has played the leading role in opposing local school closings. And as far as Duncan goes, you aren't saying anything that hasn't been said squared, right here at SmallTalk. Nor do I have any deep or brilliant insights on Duncan. Nor do I give a toot about him being a "nice guy."

    But it sounds like you've chosen to stand outside the national policy struggle and its manifestations inside and outside the Democratic Party (although you mention DFER). You say you are,"pushing the system from outside." That's fine by me. But I also respect those who are pushing the debate inside nationally, like the Forum on Ed & Democracy, BBA and FairTest. For them to be successful, they will have to make use of small openings or "triangulations" (implies three, not two sides) as you call them. Lumping everyone who disagrees, ie. Bush, Obama, Dems & neocons, into one big reactionary mass takes away lots of options for progressives. Don't you think?

  8. Mike(s),

    If you need an example of that "rift" just watch the fight over the re-authorization of NO CHILD. If they can even pass a K-12 bill this year, it will be a miracle. That's even with a strong Democratic majority.


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.