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Obama’s Choice for Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, Seen as Compromise Between Divided Strands

StoryDecember 18, 2008
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As chief executive officer of the Chicago public school system, the third largest in the country, Education Secretary-designate Arne Duncan expanded charter schools and launched a performance pay plan for teachers. Duncan was seen as a compromise pick between progressive and conservative education advocates. We speak to Michael Klonsky, professor of education and longtime school reform activist in Chicago, and Deborah Meier, a well-known teacher, writer and public advocate. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Tuesday, President-elect Obama announced Chicago School Superintendent Arne Duncan as his nominee for Secretary of Education. Obama formally named him at a news conference at a Chicago school, where he outlined some of the challenges ahead.

    PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: If we want to out-compete the world tomorrow, then we’re going to have to out-educate the world today. Unfortunately, when our high school dropout rate is one of the highest in the industrialized world, when a third of all fourth graders can’t do basic math, when more and more Americans are getting priced out of attending college, we’re falling far short of that goal.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As chief executive officer of the Chicago public school system, the third largest in the country, Arne Duncan expanded charter schools and launched a performance pay plan for teachers. In 2006, he called on Congress to double funding for the No Child Left Behind Act. At the news conference Tuesday, Obama praised Duncan as a reformer.

    PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners. For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book; it’s the cause of his life.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Duncan served as Obama’s education adviser during his presidential campaign and helped shape his education platform. After Obama formally named him, Duncan outlined part of the vision for the coming four years.

    ARNE DUNCAN: Our children have just one chance to get a quality education, and they need and deserve the absolute best. While there are no simple answers, I know from experience that when you focus on basics, like reading and math, and when you embrace innovative new approaches and when you create a professional climate to attract great teachers, you can create great schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Klonsky is a professor of education and a longtime school reform activist in Chicago. He is the director of the Small Schools Workshop and author of Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society. He is joining us from Washington, D.C. — from actually Chicago.

We’re also joined on Skype by Deborah Meier, spent more than four decades working in public education as a teacher, writer and public advocate. She is currently senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University.

Let’s begin with Michael Klonsky in Chicago. Your assessment of Arne Duncan as the next Education Secretary?

MICHAEL KLONSKY: Yes. Hi. You know, I think people on the left and progressive educators and school activists aren’t really thrilled about the pick of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. I think part of the reason, though, is that he’s — I think he’s been too closely associated over the years with the Daley machine here in Chicago and with the No Child Left Behind policies coming out of the present Department of Education.

But I think Arne Duncan has the potential to be a good Secretary of Education, and I think he has some real positives going for him. So I kind of have a — I kind of see this whole thing as contested territory, and I don’t think we should — like most of Obama’s picks, I don’t think we should be dependent too much on, you know, this issue of this individual heading the department.

But I think — you know, I’ve had a lot of struggle and a lot of issues with Duncan over the years, and I think my main criticism is his relationship too much with the Daley machine and with No Child Left Behind and the fact that he is one of the people responsible for bringing in this wave of privatization and ownership society politics here in Chicago.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Michael, the way that this has been portrayed over the last few weeks in several of the national publications was this raging battle and pressure from educators, the more progressive ones supporting Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor out at Stanford and involved in school reform, the more conservative pressing for someone like Joel Klein, the chancellor here at the New York City schools. And Obama appears to have chosen a centrist candidate, in effect, to basically to avoid major criticism from both sides. Is that assessment accurate, in your view?

MICHAEL KLONSKY: Yeah, I think it is. I think Duncan was kind of a safe pick, a middle ground pick, somewhere in between the most — more conservative union-busting types like Klein and — but I think that’s pretty typical of the way cabinet picks and the way Obama’s choices have been being made so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Deborah Meier, you’re a well-known school reform activist, currently a senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU. What are your thoughts on Arne Duncan and where you want to see education going in this country?

DEBORAH MEIER: Well, first of all, can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: We can. We can hear you. And for those people who are watching on TV, they can see you, as well. Just look directly into the lens of the Skype, as opposed to our picture.

DEBORAH MEIER: Alright. This is a new age. We spent an hour last night trying to make this thing work, and I don’t know that we quite got it right.

So, first of all, I think we’re — it’s not two sides. It’s sort of a — it’s different views about the purpose of education, and there are different views about how human beings learn well. And I think there’s a very predominant view right now that gets — has been called by the name of reform and that has nothing to do with red and blue. It’s a kind of market view of education, though. And I think there are a lot of people on the red side who are more close to my views and a lot of people of the blue side who are more close to Arne Duncan’s views. And that part does worry me, maybe even more than it does Klonsky, my friend Mike Klonsky, because it’s — I think we need a different discussion about what the point of education is.

And I was thinking about the data there is about how few kids graduate, even graduate. After all, less than half or half graduate, at best, from Chicago schools, and that’s excluding the number who never make it into high school in Chicago. But even those who graduate, how few manage to get to four-year schools or get a B.A. I think it’s three or four percent. And it’s that they’re not prepared for the kind of intellectual flexibility, the kind of tough-minded intellectual perseverance, really asking questions, thinking critically, that I think is essential for a democratic society. And I suspect it’s even going to be good for the economy, partly because politics and the economy overlap so much, as we can see these days.

But I think we’ve bought into, and Arne Duncan has bought into, the worst parts of the business mentality or the business model. I think there are things we can learn from the business world, but accountability is not one of them. And I think we’ve bought into some of the shoddiest accountability mindset, in which everybody is forced to lie. You know, high-stakes numbers means you play with the numbers. There’s something, I think, in sociology called Campbell’s Law: the higher the stakes, the more corrupt the data. And Obama, I think, quotes data about Chicago’s success, which I can’t expect him to be an expert on, but I’m enough of an expert to tell you it’s nonsense. And the test scores, NAEP test scores, which are the only test scores that are consistent around the nation, which shows no progress in the last seven, eight years in Chicago.

If you remember, we were preceded by another miracle worker in Chicago, Vallas, who is now producing miracles in New Orleans. And that’s — we had one after another superintendent comes in and produces a miracle, just as the previous Secretary of Education before Spellings, Rod Paige, came in from Houston claiming that there was a Houston miracle and, before that, there was a Texas miracle. And closer look at the data turned out to simply say it was somewhere between shoddy bookkeeping and lies. And I’ve engaged in that myself in the school business, because it’s so easy to do when we have such a narrow way of looking at school accountability.

I mean, kids who graduate our high school need to be kids who have learned to play with ideas — and that starts in kindergarten — who learn to ask uncomfortable questions, who are in the presence of adults who are used to asking uncomfortable questions and persevering.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Debbie Meier, I’d like to ask you whether you were surprised both — in terms of the teachers union, both Randi Weingarten, the head of the AFT, and the head of the Chicago Teachers Union both praised Duncan as somebody who at least is accessible and willing to hear them out.

DEBORAH MEIER: I think they’re being politically smart, which I don’t have to be. And maybe they see something in these people that I don’t know about. I mean, they’re both possible, that I’m wrong, and there’s a possibility that they’re being political. Are you still seeing me? Hello?


AMY GOODMAN: We see you just fine.

DEBORAH MEIER: OK, OK. My screen went off.

So, part of that is, once you’ve posed the issue as being union lackeys or reformers — and the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, a variety of magazines, as you mentioned earlier, have said there are two sides: unions lackeys, people who want to — who are worrying — you know, who are dependent upon the union, and on the other side are real reformers. I think it made it hard for the union to speak for its own membership on this question.

And the history of reform has almost nothing to do — I shouldn’t say that. There has always been a struggle between these two wings in reform. But they have posed me as an anti-reformer, as though there are — since I’m not for market-style reforms, this testing mania, this narrow focus on prepping kids for a small selection of skills, that makes me a dupe of the union and an anti-reformer and someone who doesn’t care for the future of the economy or democracy. I think it’s been posed that way for so many years now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Michael Klonsky for a minute, again, speaking to us from Chicago, where Arne Duncan is head of the schools there, now been picked as Education Secretary nominee by President-elect Obama. He’s a strong supporter of No Child Left Behind Act, called in 2006 for a doubling of the funds for it. What are your thoughts on that? And for people who really don’t follow education policy issues, what’s your assessment of No Child Left Behind?

MICHAEL KLONSKY: Well, I don’t think Duncan is really a strong supporter of No Child Left Behind. I remember when President Bush came out to Chicago and kind of cut a deal with Mayor Daley and got some kind of a tentative support for No Child. But I think Duncan has been pushing more for, like most big city superintendents, pushing more for kind of a loose application of No Child’s most punitive aspects. In other words, he’s been trying to get waivers for Chicago. He’s been trying to get rid of the — I mean, he’s really rejected the idea of moving kids out of schools. And so, I have to give him that.

Look, I think the real point is that we have an opportunity here to do something that the Bush administration has stopped us from doing. We need to put public back in public education. And I think Duncan, once he’s kind of liberated from Chicago, I think could be a person who could do that. I think he’s got to use the bully pulpit of the Department of Education to really promote support for urban public schools and for teachers. And I think we’ve got to get rid of No Child Left Behind’s approach, which has been to really turn the Department of Education into a cash cow for politically aligned companies and that have gone into the education business.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Michael Klonsky. I want to thank you for being with us, professor of education and director of the Small Schools Workshop and author of Small Schools. Deborah Meier, longtime school reform activist, now at the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU.

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