Let's Meet Arne Duncan

President-elect Obama chose Chicago's superintendent of public instruction, Arne Duncan, to be his Secretary of Education.

Mr. Duncan is the son of educators - his father is a college professor and his mother ran a school for African-American youth - although he himself was never a teacher. He attended Harvard where his thesis was "Values, aspirations and opportunities of the Urban Underclass". (I'll see if I can find it and see what he thinks.) He himself aspired to play professional basketball (and thus Obama continues to round out the White House basketball team with the count now at 4 including Obama). He did play professionally in Australia where he met his wife. They have two children.

In 1992 he was tapped as director of the Ariel Elementary Initiative in Chicago's tough South Side. In 2006, the City Club of Chicago named Duncan Citizen of the Year. In 1998, he was selected as Deputy Chief of Staff for then-superintendent Paul Vallas (who is now running New Orleans public schools and is quite the charter, alternative and magnet advocate). Mayor Richard Daley selected him as superintendent of Chicago Public Schools in 2001. He helped draft Mr. Obama's education platform during Obama's presidential campaign.

This story appeared in the NY Times. From the story:

"In June, rival nationwide groups of educators circulated competing educational manifestos, with one group espousing a get-tough policy based on pushing teachers and administrators harder to raise achievement, and another arguing that schools alone could not close the racial achievement gap and urging new investments in school-based health clinics and other social programs to help poor students learn.

Mr. Duncan was the only big-city superintendent to sign both manifestos.

He argued that the nation’s schools needed to be held accountable for student progress, but also needed major new investments, new talent and new teacher-training efforts.

In straddling the two camps, Mr. Duncan seemed to reflect Mr. Obama’s own impatience with what he has called “tired educational debates.”

In his last major educational speech of the campaign, Mr. Obama said: “It’s been Democrat versus Republican, vouchers versus the status quo, more money versus more reform. There’s partisanship and there’s bickering, but no understanding that both sides have good ideas.”

I do agree with Mr. Obama on the circular nature of education discussion in this country. I would go farther and say that, based on the comments of many citizens, particularly in the online versions of the local newspapers, that there is this belief that teachers are either saints or lazy, greedy people who will cover for poor teachers to keep their own benefits. Neither statement is accurate, of course, but the swing between them is astonishing.

Mr. Duncan will have his hands full with decisions on NCLB snapping at his heels. The direction it goes will likely determine the direction and emphasis for education in the U.S. But, it seems that both Mr. Duncan and Mr. Obama share similar outllooks in other areas. From a Chicago Tribune editorial of December 19, 2008:

"One reason for Duncan's selection, highlighted by Mr. Obama, is his support for charter public schools. These charter schools are tuition free and open to all students, regardless of income, test scores, or background. Both Mr. Duncan and the president-elect have worked to ensure that charter schools are a part of the mix in improving our public education system. As a state senator, Obama helped pass a law to double the number of charter public schools in Chicago; and as a United States Senator, Obama advocated for the opening of Chicago's Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men--the country's first charter public high school for boys. He has also proposed doubling federal support for such charters across the nation."

From an article in the Huffington Post:

"In an Obama administration, Duncan just might prove to be a Secretary who can bridge the gap between the efficiency hawks and the broader/bolder reform advocates whom the hawks have attacked as status quo protectors. If he can, he could help facilitate the next generation of major federal education reforms."

"Duncan ought to push for changes to let schools and districts be judged on year-to-year improvement, especially among kids with the lowest performance. (The Dept. of Education has already launched a pilot program on this.) "

I am personally not for charters. In concept, as with assessment tests, I don't have a problem. But the evidence on charters is wildly mixed and you come out with them doing no better, overall, than public schools. But that doesn't mean that we can't learn from their successes and possibly apply that. I would have to see what Mr. Duncan and President-elect Obama say they are proposing before I could buy into it on charters.

But the Chicago Tribune editorial sees good things based on Illinois' experience:

"According to CPS' own 2006-07 report, charter schools and campuses outperformed their relative neighborhood schools on 83.9 percent of the relative student performance measures. A similar study published in May, conducted by independent experts at RAND and Mathematica Policy Research, determined that students in Chicago's public charter schools are making gains at greater rates than at traditional public schools."

They also say:

"The success of charters is attributable to their greater flexibility and innovation in the operation of schools, direct accountability for educational results, and more opportunity for parental involvement."

I think that's a laudable goal for ALL schools. I worry about the first point because it goes back to the old "principals as CEOs" which we have tried here in SPS and it hasn't worked. Maybe I can research what "direct accountability for educational results" means in Illinois for its charter schools.

Indeed, Mr. Obama said this( also in the Huffington Post):

"Finally, the basketball buddies also need to deliver on a key Obama campaign promise -- reiterated in his remarks introducing Duncan. In addition, to holding teachers and schools accountable for improving student achievement, Obama asserted that we must hold the government accountable too ("even me" he said on the trail)."

Really? And how do we hold government accountable for individual acts in different areas? If Obama does pull the economy together but is lackluster in education, would we vote him out? Sigh. It is so easy to use words like "transparent", "accountable", and "achievement" without defining them or their measurement.

But I can only see better things ahead for public education in this country given Mr. Duncan's support of pre-school education and a pragmatism that will carry him far in the many groups clamoring for his ear.


Mark Ahlness said…
Another view from Susan Ohanian is here. There are many progressive educators shaking their heads in disbelief over this appointment. - Mark
MathTeacher42 said…
Mr. Ahlness

Some comments from a high school math teacher who, by the way, thought Ronnie RayGun was a fascist when I was 20 in 1980, making 4 bucks an hour as a heavily indebted welfare family college drop out cook:

1. I do NOT understand the 'teaching to the test' criticsm. IF you are wealthy or you're not, AND you want to be competitive, THEN you make sure your kids do well on the AP Calculus exam.

Want to change the world we live in? Fine - WHERE are the details of the changes, and the money to pay for hte changes?

2. This is my 4th year getting paid to teach. I've had over 1000 hours of 'training' to get my credential to teach, and less than 50 of it has been useful to help kids ... like in 10 days when I'll be back in front of 156 students. The education bureaucracies seem to best at coming up with really useless theoretical strategies whcih are then used to blame teachers for failure as the unreal strategies failed in reality.

3. there is a LOT about this arne guy that makes me nervous - his polcies basically looks like he'll be bringing in MORE / NEW / DIFFERENT nonsense from some theoretical unreality.

4. finally - there are 6++ billion people in the world. How are we going to create a world where everyone going to have a place to go to the bathroom, a roof and walls to sleep under away from bugs and rain and snow, clothing, safe food and safe water, transportation, education, help raising their young, help when they're old, health care, job retraining, means of exhange for goods and services, ...

HOW are we going to create this world without VERY strong technical eduations, so that EVERYONE can at least understand business calculus and some college physics / chemistry / biology ... ???

Other than a few sectors of our education system, most of it seems directed at creating robber barons, or bureaucrats, or people with HUGE debts and no skills to contribute to change or to create change.

Arne does NOT float my boat, but, I'm NOT seeing alternatives that make sense in a world of 6+++ billion where a few of us have a lot and what we have is VERY shaky, and billions have squalor.
Sue said…
Ah yes, progressive educators. The ones who brought us "Every Day Math" , "Connected Math", "Integrated Math", "Guess and go" spelling and whole language.

That all worked out really well, didn't it? But then progressive educators wouldn't care. They have a job for life, no matter what kind of "new, progressive" curriculum they put forth.

I for one am ready for change I can believe in, in respect to public education in this country.
LouiseM said…
MathTeacher42 wrote "This is my 4th year getting paid to teach. I've had over 1000 hours of 'training' to get my credential to teach, and less than 50 of it has been useful to help kids".

I'm assuming there are many teachers like you out there. Is there some way you can all gather and bring the issue to a higher level of attention?

This seems like a huge issue to me. And as a parent of 4 elementary school children who have had teachers of varying skills and a person who just started a school, I know how important it is that teachers have the right training and tools so students are successful.

Seems to me that the NEA on down should be championing this issue. Have they?

I'd be willing to bet that teacher training is much like the textbook industry--it employs too many people to consider flipping the script and doing something that actually makes a difference for kids.
Kathy Barker said…
The interview "Did Barack Obama Just Appoint an Underqualified Political Hack & Privatizer to be Secretary of Education?", below, is with a long-time Chicago educator who details the union-busting and charter school promotion course of Arne Duncan.

Arne Duncan and Chicago are famous in anti-war groups for having turned several public high schools into military schools. These are not "just" ROTC programs, but are actually run by the military. Here in Seattle we have fought to limit aggressive recuiter action in public high schools: Duncan has taken the collaboration of education with the military to a new low and has given the poverty draft a great boost.

Audio Version:

By: bruce.dixon Tuesday December 23, 2008 6:38 pm (This is a
transcript of a 24 minute interview broadcast on WRFG Atlanta 89.3
December 22, 2008)

BD: Our next guest George Schmidt was a Chicago Public School
teacher for 28 years. A longtime union activist, he was once a
candidate for presidency of the 28,000 member Chicago Teachers
Union, one of the largest union locals of any kind in the nation.
He is a founding member of Substance and Substance News, an
organization and a newspaper originally founded to represent the
views of Chicago's substitute teachers. Substance News, which you
can find online at substancenews.net is still required reading for
anybody who wants an unfiltered view of the road public education
has taken in Chicago and nationwide over the last two decades. How
you doin' Mr. Schmidt?

GS: It's been a fun week, to be sure.

BD: We've got a lot to cover. Can you tell us about your own
background for the first minute or so of this?

GS: Well, I spent almost all my public school teaching career in
the inner city high schools of Chicago, starting at Dusable in the
upper grade center, and teaching at schools like Manley, Marshall,
Collins and Tilden. My last years of teaching were at Bowen High
School on the city's far south side near the Indiana border where
I taught English and where I also served as union delegate and
what we called the school security coordinator. During those years
I was also very active in the union, as you pointed out. At one
point I got over 40% of the vote in a race for president of the
Chicago Teachers Union, but I didn't win.

BD: Yeah, it takes a little more than 40%. Well, we're talking to
Mr. Schmidt because last week president-elect Barack Obama tapped
Arne Duncan, who heads the Chicago Public Schools to be his
Secretary of Education. Now Chicago has the third largest school
system in the nation, so if you can make it work for the citizens
of Chicago maybe you ought to get a chance to do it nationwide. So
how's it workin' in Chicago, man?

GS: Basically, it's not. It's not working for the majority of
children in the city and it's certainly not working for the
majority of teachers. In order to understand how that particular
sentence can be nuanced, you have to understand two things. The
first is the dominance of the corporate narrative of “school
reform”. In 1995 democratic control of the Chicago Public Schools
was taken out of the hands of parents, teachers and citizens and
put into the hands of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley. A new law
which was passed by the all-Republican state government at the
time gave Mayor Daley the power to appoint a seven member school
board eventually --- at first he appointed a five member thing
that was called the School Reform Board of Trustees --- and the
power to appoint a newly created chief executive officer based on
the corporate model to run the Chicago Public Schools. Daley was
also given power over the entire school system's budget, and for
the first time in 17 years, the school system was freed from the
oversight of an outside entity called the School Finance

What Daley did since then was basically massively increase the
public relations spin that was put on every activity performed in
Chicago, to the point where the gap between the reality of the
public schools we have in our city and the claims that have been
made about them is as great as any between fact and fiction
anywhere on the planet.

BD: We hear a lot about “reforming education.” I'm from Chicago,
and back in the 80s when I was involved in school reform, school
reform meant giving more power to parents and to rank and file
teachers, power to determine curriculum, even to let parents
evaluate the performance of teachers and programs and principals.
You talked about the corporate narrative of school reform. Just
what is that?

GS: The corporate narrative is the dictatorial model that you get
in any corporation under a chief executive officer or CEO. And
just as it's failed now miserably in corporate America, with the
collapse of Wall Street and the finance industry, it's failed in
the public schools as well. But just as a year ago you would find
very few dissenters on the private sector analogy so today we
still find not a loud enough voice for those who dissent against
the claims that the corporate model (of education reform) has
succeeded. Basically what you're talking about by the late 1980s
we had one of the most democratic models – with a small d – of
school improvement anywhere in the United States. In 1988 Illinois
passed a law which gave an elected Local School council of ten or
eleven members the power at every school to hire and fire the
principal to set curriculum and to have an enormous say over the
budget. The majority of those Local School Council members were
parents. Those of us who were active at the time participated in
those elections and those processes.

BD: So that was school reform in the eighties.

GS: That was school reform in the eighties, and that grew
primarily out of the work of Harold Washington who we elected
mayor of the city of Chicago in 1983 in a mass movement that
locally rivaled the mass movement which just elected Barack Obama
president of the United States.

BD: So now we've replaced democratic school reform that gave
parents the power with what exactly? I understand one of Arne's
pet things is giving public high schools over to the US military.

GS: Yeah, that's one example of several and it's a very good one.
Beginning in the first days of the 21st century, literally Chicago
instituted military high schools. And we're not talking about high
schools that have ROTC programs, we're talking about high schools
that are run by and for the military. The first of those was
established in the heart of Bronzeville, the south side community
at 35th and Giles, in the old armory there. It's now the Chicago
Military Academy. Since then they've set up two more army high
schools. Carver and Phoenix, a Marine high school and a naval
academy which is named the Hyman Rickover Naval Academy inside
Senn High School.

BD: Except for the naval academy operation inside Senn High School
all of these are in African American communities, are they not?
[Senn is racially diverse: 40% black, 40 Latino, 15% Asian, 5%

GS: Yes they are.

HG: George this is Heather Gray. Is this a model that's in other
parts of the country as well? Are other cities doing this?

GS: No.

HG: So this is unique to Chicago.

GS: This is unique to Chicago.

GS: Most places where you have more democracy, even where you have
this CEO type dictatorship now, the citizens are better positioned
to resist it than we are here in Chicago.

BD: In chicago, for the benefit of our audience, we're in Atlanta
GA now, the mayor is Richard Daley. 2009 marks his 20th year in
office. His father was the mayor too for almost as long, from
about 1956 if I remember right to 1975, I think, eighteen or
ninetten years. So out of the last fifty or so years, for forty of
them the city of Chicago has been run by the Daley clicque, the
Daley Regime, or as we call it in Chicago, the Machine. Arne
Duncan, is he a product of the Machine.

GS: Exactly, Daley as I pointed out, in 1995 was given dictatorial
power over the ChicagoPublic School system. It was based upon the
lie that the system as a whole had failed, and the repetition of
that lie from the eighties on. Daley has appointed two CEOs and
roughly two school boards since then. Both of the CEOs have been
white non-educators who replaced African American educators. Both
of the CEOs had no experience in education or in corporate
America. This is an important point since it's supposedly a
corporate model. They were funamentally political puppets who
would do his bidding.

BD: The predecessor to Mr. Duncan (in Chicago) he's a guy named
Paul Vallas, isn't he?

GS: That's true. Mr. Vallas came to the chief education job in
Chicago through his position as budget director at City Hall under
Mayor Daley.

HG: George, just going back to the military model (of education)
again. What have been Barack Obama's comments about this, if any
at all.

GS: I haven't heard comment from Barack Obama himself, and I've
known him since he was in the Illinois State Senate, and I was
working for the Chicago Teachers Union. Never to my knowledge, and
that may be contradicted by something on the record did he comment
on this assault on the openness of Chicago high schools. But his
newly incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuael has been a proud
proponent of the military academies and even bragged on one
occasion I was covering a press conference and he was with Mayor
Daley that he got a million dollar earmakr speicifically for the
military academies while he was in the US House of Representatives
as my congressman.

BD: So it does say something that out of all the superintendents
of school systems, CEOs or whatever nationwide, Barack Obama
reached around and found one that not only liked the corporate
model but liked the military model too. Since we're talking about
Chicago's unique contribution to education on the national stage,
let's stick with Paul Vallas. You said Paul Vallas got his start
just an average guy on the budget team on the City Hall budget
team, where did Mr. Vallas go after leaving the Chicago Public

GS: After Daley dumped Vallas in 2001, he was picked up by Tom
Ridge, the governor of Pennsylvania who was trying to privatize
the Philadelphia school system. Vallas was made head of the
Philadelphia school system in mid 2002 after a failed attempt to
get himself elected governor of Illinois. He ran Philadelphia for
four years I believe, the chronology may be a little off.
Presently he's been sent to New Orleans where the public school
system has been obliterated after Hurricane Katrina and replaced
by a system of primarily charter schools, many of which have been
modeled on the charter school privatization plans originally
hatched here in Chicago.

BD: Arne Duncan is going to be the nation's number one guy on
education. Surely this guy must have years and years of classroom
and administrative experience,

GS: Wrong. He has none.

BD: So he's never been in a classroom?

GS: No.

BD: Except as a student, perhaps.

GS: He talks now, as he tries to brush over his resume, about how
when he was a student at the very privileged University of Chicago
Lab School where his father was a professor at the University of
Chicago, that after school he would go to a tutoring program his
mother ran in that area north of the University of Chicago called
Kenwood, where he apparently, according to Arne's narrative helped
poor black children with their homework. That's the extent of Arne
Duncan's actual educational experience or praxis. His career after
Harvard, where he supposedly got a BA in Sociology, I've never got
to see a resume, was in professional basketball...

HG: What do you mean you haven't been allowed to see a resume? Why
do you say that? You've asked for a resume and you've never seen

GS: For the past 14 years we've asked for the curriculum vitaes
and resumes of top officials of the Chicago Public Schools under
the Freedom of Information Act. And the answer we get every time
we repeat this request is that this is classified privileged
personnel information.

BD: Of course the new Obama administration is pledged to openess
and transparency everywhere, so I'm sure that Arne's resumes and
cv's and all that will surface really soon.

GS: If that's the case, people are going to find out that he spent
most of his adult life either playing basketball or working with
some very wealthy financiers from his old neighborhood of Hyde
Park in Chicago.

BD: Since we are talking about applying this Chicago model of
public education nationwide, what has the regime of high stakes
testing and closing schools that don't meet testing goals which is
now national policy thanks to No Child Left Behind meant to
Chicago – oh, and one other thing I'd like to see if I can get
your comment on is that Hillary Clinton at one point said let's
repeal No Child Left Behind while Barack was saying, well, he
didn't quite say mend it but don't end it, but something like
that. So what has the regime of high stakes testing done for
African Americans in Chicago and public education in Chicago?

GS: Basically the vast majority of the schools that have been
closed for supposed academic failure, which means low test scores,
have been those schools which served a populaiton of 100% poor
black children via a staff that was almost always majority black
teachers and usually a black principal. Since Arne Duncan took
over in 2001, he has closed over 20 elementary schools. Most of
them have been privatized into charter schools, and he's closed
six high schools. In all the cases I know of, the majority of the
staffs of those schools who were then kicked out of union jobs and
forced on the rooad to try to get new jobs, were majority black
teachers and principals, many of which I knew personally. The six
high schools he closed, Austin HS, Calumet HS, Collins HS,
Englewood HS, Orr HS, and Harper HS, were either all black, in the
case of five of them, or majority black and Latino in the case of
Orr. That's the active record of what Arne Duncan has done in his
school closings for which Barack Obama has praised him. .

BD: We're not seeing much of any criticism of Barack Obama's
nominations, especially not this nomination...I understand there
was a meeting of the Chicago Board of Education soon after the
nomination was announced, and some people who were at that meeting
took issue with the nomination. Can you tell us about that?

GS: If you don't mind I'll give you a six day backup of that. The
teaser stories began on December 11. On that day, Margaret
Spelling, who's George Bush's Secretary of Education came to
Chicago to stand on stage with Arne Duncan and Mayor Daley and
praise the (teacher) merit pay plan that they'd introduced
jointly, and to say that Arne Duncan was the same type of
educational leader that she and George Bush favored. By Monday the
15th, word was out around Chicago that Duncan was probably the
front runner for the Secretary of Education...

BD: He plays ball with the president-elect

GS: Exactly. On the night of the 15th it was made official. Barack
Obama held a press conference with Joe Biden at Dodge School on
the 16th. On the 17th, the Board of Education had its regular
monthly meeting scheduled for downtown Chicago. Even though they
apparently, expected it to be a love fest for Arne Duncan, what
happened was that more than a dozen teachers and community
activists from seven schools got up and exposed Duncan's public
record of sabotaging public education, of privatizing schools, of
union busting, and of fraudulently cooking the educational
statistics books. By the middle of the meeting Duncan had walked
out for an hour and these testimonies continued to go on. By the
end of the meeting members of the board were heatedly arguing with
the teachers, and after the meeting two of the teachers were
threatened. Members of Duncan's staff called their principals
demanding to know why they had been allowed to take the day off
work to talk about Arne Duncan's crimes (against public education)
before a school board meeting.

BD: Now I haven't been to a meeting of the Chicago Board of
Education in a long time, but it's hard to believe that the day
after Duncan had been tapped to be Secretary of Education, it's
hard to believe that room wasn't full of corporate media. We
haven't seen or heard anything about this. Have we? Or did I miss

GS: No, the dog and pony shows were on the 16th, at Dodge School
where Barack Obama made the announcement with Duncan sitting
there. At the Board of Education (meeting), one of the most
interesting things that happened... was that not one of the TV
stations was there to film or video any of this activity during
the board meeting. The only photographer there besides me, because
I cover every board meeting for Substance, was a woman from the
Chicago Tribune and the only photograph the Tribune did was of
Barbara Easton Watkins, who according to speculation here is in
line to succeed Duncan here in Chicago. The TV stations boycotted
the meeting completely, the story in the Tribune was a wacky one
that ignored most of what happened in the meeting. The Sun-Times
which is our other major daily newspaper covered the meeting
slightly accurately, and NPR had a reporter there who missed 98%
of what was actually going on, typical for the way Chicago Public
Radio has been covering this type of story.

BD: The regime of high stakes testing and closing schools that
came into national prominence which became national policy with No
Child Left Behind, then is going to be with us for a while. What
does that do to public education? Does it work?

GS: First of all, it has gradients. As soon as I say this you'll
know what I am talking about. Public education in the United
States is not a unified system of equal access for all children.
It's a highly stratified system of at least four or five
components. In the wealthy suburbs of any major city you'll find
some of the best public schools anywhere on the planet. In Chicago
we're talking about Wilmette, Winetka, the north shore, Glen Ellyn
in the western suburbs, where the high schools are just everything
you could want for your children if you could only afford a home
in those areas.


GS: You move from there and you have rural schools in some of the
most challenging schools in some of the most desolate parts of
rural North Dakota or Montana. When you get to our cities and the
immediate suburbs which have declined industrially too, right now
what we have is a three part system, Chicago is the exemplar of
that. We have a magnet school system which selects kids on the
basis of IQ scores and test scores in kindergarten or the first
grade, and keeps them in that magnet school system for twelve
years, and that's one of the best school systems you'll find
anywhere. Michelle Obama is a graduate of Whitney Young High
School which is a part of that system, the magnet and elite
schools in Chicago...

BD: We're down to our last minute and a half...

GS: Well then, basically... the place where the impact of high
stakes testing has been most devastating has been in those schools
which serve the poorest children with the fewest resources and in
the most challenging environments. In that area, the schools have
not been improved, but instead the teachers and schools have been
under attack for failing at things the society has never taken
responsibility for.

BD: Last question, if you can do this in ten or twenty seconds or
so, people in their millions or tens of millions voted for change.
Insofar as education goes, are we gonna get it?

GS: If this the kind of change we needed, then I am still glad I
voted for Barack Obama. I'm proud I was able to publish pictures
of him and our colleagues. But this is not the kind of change we
needed or we hoped for here in Chicago, we the people who
supported that man, and who've known him and his wife for years
and years

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