HOW SCHOOLS WORK: AN INSIDE ACCOUNT OF FAILURE AND SUCCESS FROM ONE OF THE NATION’S LONGEST-SERVING SECRETARIES OF EDUCATION
By Arne Duncan
Simon & Schuster, $26.95, 256 pages
Arne Duncan’s memoir of his experience as U.S. secretary of Education under President Barack Obama draws you in because he acknowledges that K-12 education in America is built on a tissue of lies. His opening sentence is: “Education runs on lies.” But all too often he himself falls into misstatements, delusions and omissions of needed facts. Blinders made out of his beliefs block him from facing reality.
Mr. Duncan’s memoir contains valuable insights about the importance of good teachers, effective spending and accountability for results. But his beliefs — as opposed to sound analysis — lead him on several wrong paths.
He sets forth Progressive Education shibboleths — touting group work and cooperative learning. He mocks rote memorization (in truth, necessary for learning material like the multiplication tables). He eloquently praises drill and repetitive practice in basketball in one part of the book, while elsewhere saying we don’t need “rote knowledge” in education.
Mr. Duncan gets a key fact wrong. He thinks that in the years before the Obama administration there was a “race to the bottom” by states in what they expected of students. Because he gets this fact wrong, he says that the way to fix American education is a centrally planned “race to the top,” run from Washington. His Education Department supported Common Core, the national curriculum-content standards, as part of that central-planning effort.
In truth, a major pro-Common Core think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, studied the question of whether there had been a “race to the bottom” and found instead a more benign drift to the middle.
Social scientists have long said that in a federal system of states, as we have in the United States, it is better for the states to act as laboratories of democracy and to be able to compete by offering different programs. Mr. Duncan himself correctly says that governors want their states to be more competitive. Common Core, however, tends instead to nationalize curriculum and dampens interstate competition that would come from different curriculum approaches.
Mr. Duncan says he wanted classrooms in El Paso, Nashville, Boston and every other locality to be on the same page. But his goal of national uniformity provoked a grass-roots backlash. As a consequence, Mr. Duncan’s dream of a national testing system — readily comparable and unified in terms of subject-matter content — has been shattered by states turning away from the national tests that Mr. Duncan’s Education Department subsidized.
Mr. Duncan also goes down a wrong path on improving teacher quality. He says that we should make it much harder to become a teacher. He wants to restrict entry. He proposes much more difficult and selective teacher training, like medical school. He also wants one- or two-year “residencies” for prospective teachers, like those for prospective doctors.
Instead, for better teacher quality, we should make it easier to fire ineffective teachers. At the same time, we should lower barriers to entry and make it easier (rather than harder) to become a teacher. As a 1999 manifesto on teacher quality argued: We need to simplify the entry and hiring process. We need to dispose of “most hoops and hurdles.” Rather than requiring that prospective teachers have “a long list of courses and degrees,” we should test future teachers on their knowledge and skills.
But we should fire teachers who aren’t advancing students’ learning.
Mr. Duncan correctly stresses that we should be focused on students’ success at school and in their later lives. As Mr. Duncan says, we shouldn’t be endeavoring to protect existing streams of funding or safeguarding the jobs of adults employed in the existing public school system. Yet Mr. Duncan himself isn’t consistent in upholding this focus on students’ welfare. He believes that the existing public system is threatened by all-school vouchers. So he opposes vouchers, despite the fact that the evidence shows that they help students.
Despite a generally upbeat tone in the book, Mr. Duncan is clearly bitter that Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, refused to back the Common Core standards. Mr. Duncan accuses Mr. Alexander of just playing politics and opposing what he knew to be in the best interests of children in order to oppose an Obama policy in an election year. Yet Mr. Alexander voiced a substantive concern when he called Mr. Obama’s education policy “federal overreach” and said Mr. Duncan’s Education Department was acting like a “National School Board.”
Mr. Duncan says critics of Common Core were uninformed and had not read the standards. He never indicates that he seriously considered the possibly that critics might be knowledgeable and acting out of good motives.
Mr. Duncan is right that, in education, lies are there because they serve the interests of those who currently hold power and disperse money. But he needs to check his facts more thoroughly and consider the possibility that some of his own beliefs may be misguided.
• Bill Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was U.S. assistant secretary of education during the George W. Bush administration and headed the Trump transition for the U.S. Department of Education.
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