School Beat: Obama’s Education Secretary Pick is a Disappointment

by Lisa Schiff on December 18, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama dealt public education supporters what is potentially the first of many blows by choosing Chicago Public Schools (CPS) head Arne Duncan as his Secretary of Education. Duncan, a lawyer by background and an educator only by virtue of assuming the tellingly named “Chief Executive Officer” position of CPS is a tremendous disappointment to all who were hoping for a dramatic change from the drastically failed policies of the Bush Administration with its destructive No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation.

Instead we’ve been given a high-powered, high-profile staffer who has reduced education to standardized test performance and who is accountable not to the parents and students of Chicago – but to his boss, Mayor Richard Daley, as Chicago’s school district has been run by the Mayor since 1995 when he was granted the authority to appoint the CEO and the membership of the school board. This is not what we hoped for, but given public education’s low-level of importance on Obama’s platform is not surprising. Once again, education is being used as political chit.

Some of us, caught up in post-election enthusiasm, were naively hopeful that Obama’s education transition team leader, Linda Darling-Hammond (whose tremendous merits have been outrageously attacked), would be recognized by the President-elect as the clear choice for making the much needed transition from a corporate, formula driven approach to education to one that is grounded in a deep understanding of child development, human variability, rigorous assessment and teaching methods, and the knowledge of how to apply theory to practice.

But perhaps we should have read Darling-Hammond’s appointing to the transition team as a sign that she was not really under consideration. It remains to be seen what the work of the transition team itself will actually mean to Obama’s future education policies, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that this was an effort to quiet those of us who have been so critical of the formulaic, one-size fits all, literally mind-numbing approach to education we’ve been resisting for these last eight years. Remember, NCLB has always been and continues to be a bi-partisan piece of legislation. That “across the aisle” support is apparently going to drag us down for some time to come.

Given penchant for the NCLB style of education, the prognosis for our schools under the leadership of Duncan is not rosy. Praised by the very questionable persons of Margaret Spelling, the current Education Secretary, as well as Rod Paige, Bush’s former Secretary of Education responsible for NCLB as well as the “Texas Miracle,” which involved kicking low-performing kids out of schools so that they wouldn’t bring down test scores.

Duncan’s record indicates someone whose eye is on the standardized test score prize. He has infamously fired all teachers at schools with low-test scores, for instance, at schools where student populations were predominantly compromised of students struggling with tremendous economic hardships.

Duncan’s claim to fame in Chicago include raising test scores, reducing the drop-out rate and the continued implementation of Mayor Richard Daly’s Renaissance 2010 program – think San Francisco’s Dream Schools on steroids. Even a quick read of the CPS education plan reveals the extreme focus on standardized testing as the only assessment tool and the organizing structure for education. While there are actually some interesting and laudable components of the plan (professional development for teachers, coordination within and across grade levels), the entire educational effort is driven by the results of standardized test scores and measures of “time on task.” The tone of the plan has an industrial assembly-line feel with eerie echoes of time-motion studies.

The much touted Renaissance 2010 program is a major effort to establish schools outside of the general operating procedures of the school district (i.e. privatize them). Right now the approach is to encourage the development of several flavors of charter schools, which at the same time limits general oversight over operations of these schools and weakens the power of the teachers’ union in the district. Tremendous resources are made available to these independently operating schools through the Renaissance 2010 program. Duncan uses reconstitution at some schools, in which the entire school staff is wiped out and replaced, a strategy San Franciscans are still smarting from as it was a favorite tool of our corrupt former Superintendent Rojas.

Such simplistic approaches are based on the assumption that if scores are extremely low, then replacing en masse the teaching staff will somehow magically solve the problem. Lack of resources, the life-issues and circumstances are carrying with them as into school, and the often bad fit of the standard curriculum and associated tests are ignored in this draconian type of calculation.

Still, Duncan can claim to have many strong supporters, and some who seem him as more than acceptable considering the other extremely worrisome candidates such as New York’s Joel Klein and Washington D.C.’s Michelle Rhee. Those applauding this selection include the national organization Coalition for Community Schools on the grounds that he shares the perspective that schools are central pieces of communities and has supported them as such by providing community services for families at reportedly 150 schools in Chicago.

Those of us dismayed by the choice of Duncan have also been reminded that he is a signer to the “Bold Approach Statement,” a very effective critique and counter-proposal to NCLB that includes such thoughtful educators as Pedro Noguera and again, Linda Darling-Hammond. This indeed is a positive sign, and one that gives pause since it is so much in conflict with the programs that Duncan is implementing and championing in his own backyard.

Others continuing to hope for the best say that Duncan has a reputation for being an advocate for parent involvement, a position he articulates well in this clip of some public testimony on his part:

However, not all Chicago public school supporters appear to believe that parent participation is prioritized by Duncan. Some parents in Chicago have been organizing for quite some time against Renaissance 2010 and don’t seem to have much positive to say about Duncan and what he has brought to Chicago’s schools. Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) is a Chicago based group organizing stronger parent voices in the Chicago public school system. They have been focusing on ramped up training for parents to be effective participants in Local School Councils (LSCs), a school-site based governing body parallel to our school site councils. LSCs are not part of the Renaissance 2010 schools, however, and despite the marketing rhetoric that speaks to community choice and community control, according to a November 2008 study by PURE, parents do not have a meaningful voice in these private/public schools. PURE has also published a critical analysis of Chicago’s reform efforts, a report which describes a school system very closely aligned with the NCLB model.

Education was never the strong point in any major candidate’s campaign platform during the election –including Obama’s. Given that, and given this latest appointment, it is difficult to know what direction we are heading. There are many scenarios that can unfold with Duncan as leader. The most optimistic is that he unfolds as an education leader in new ways and brings in people like Darling-Hammond to create an entirely revamped, meaningful set of education policies for our country that are supported politically and financially. This seems unlikely, especially with so many crises facing the nation.

Other scenarios are variations of the NCLB theme, meaning tinkering with the legislation but not changing much at its core. Full or even more complete funding is perhaps the scariest possibility, since we don’t want a bigger, more effective set of policies around standardized testing. The least damaging scenario is that we continue with NCLB more or less as is, with the slight modifications that have been discussed regarding looking at testing results over time, but with no real change in funding or program focus.

Possibly the biggest change Obama, via Duncan, is likely to bring – and it would be substantial – would be to eliminate the corruption and cronyism with which NCLB has been rife. With the ethics standard Obama is putting in place for his administration, NCLB might become less of a sales channel for education corporations. It’s certainly not much to hope for.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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