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Black Agenda Report

Eshu’s Blues: Obama and Duncan’s “Race to the Top”

Michael Hureaux Perez

The Obama administration has announced its long anticipated education plan, and it has turned out to be the usual market crapshoot approach to public education which has long distinguished this country from every other. The white "progressive" "Meritocracy" of the United States ruling class, which after standing blotto at the bankruptcy of the world by their gangster partners, now believes it has an unimpeded right to sell off what remains of the public interest, and plans to lend its own shiny finish to the Bush administration's test fetish absurdity "No Child Left Behind."

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama call their plan "Race for the Top." Duncan and Obama propose the expenditure of $4.3 billion dollars that will allegedly fund a "competition" between the states for federal grants. The hairsplitters among us (like myself) can only marvel at the grand disparity between the amount of money offered as a means of "incentivizing excellence" to every school in the country by the administration, and the hundreds of billions they handed the spectacular failures of the bankster-speculator classes last spring. But that's not a point germane to the question at hand, say supporters of Duncan and Obama. Any dissent with this education question is quickly met with the admonition, "It's about the kids."

Ah yes, the kids, how best to serve them? Oh, with little things like charter schools and merit pay. Never mind that there is absolutely no evidence that charter schools perform any more effectively than regular public schools when both kinds of school are given every sort of material resource they need. Never mind the absurdity of merit pay, which will tie teacher compensation to high stakes test results, and which belie the truth that we've known for better than a century now: testing is only one form of assessment, and one that can only in a certain number of situations be reflective of the formative development of each respective learner.

No, oh, no, we're going to continue with the social Darwinist farce, or "competition," because we need to do for public education what the HMOS have done for public health and what the automotive industry has done for public transportation. The watchword of the day is "educational excellence." Not academicproficiency, mind you, but "excellence." Well, as Thoreau used to say, it's all very well and good to build castles in the sky. Now place some foundation under them. And what sort of foundation do Duncan and Obama propose? The same game as always, or "whoever's the fastest, gets the most." It's done such wonders for the world of finance, hasn't it? And educational excellence is going to be defined as the creation of semi-enlightened technocrats who create magic academic numbers to float alongside their magic credit market dollars and mystical overseas butcheries.

Yes, semi-enlightened technocrats like Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In the August/September issue of the National Education Association's journal NEA Today, Secretary Duncan is allowed in his "discussion" with NEA members to make all sorts of claims which, in any "standard" academic setting, he would be required to back up with concrete data. For example, it is very true that there are a few schools out there wherein adequate resource has allowed some students to thrive academically, despite the enormous hurdles posed by communities trapped in more challenged areas of the economy. There can be no doubt that schools like Central Park East in East Harlem and Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School in Central Harlem have made enormous strides under some very trying circumstance for many years. But this is due to the fact that many teachers will work an extended day, volunteer many hours, and contribute funds out of their own pockets. Students have sold candy bars and fundraised, parents have found time to volunteer, and sometimes financial grants are plentiful. Attrition rates have dropped, graduation rates have risen, and students have taken incremental steps forward.

But, from isolated cases like these, Duncan makes the claim that there are "extraordinary schools where 95 per cent of children live below the poverty line, 95 per cent are graduating, and 90 per cent of those who graduate are going on to college". Where are these "extraordinary schools"? Where does he get those numbers? And how did they achieve these numbers? Through adults with "raised expectations".

Well, I believe the Education Secretary is lying through his teeth with this ninety per cent business. As an old hand with some years of dealing with school technocrats, I know that guys like Arne often make numbers up, and that very often, when filing school improvement paperwork, working programs are asked to create numbers by downtown administration. And if I know this little fact, Education Secretary Duncan knows it. The difference between him and me, however, is that he simply doesn't give a shit, and he doesn't give a shit because no one is calling him on it.

It seems to me that academic integrity is best achieved in our young by modeling it ourselves. Even in the online extended answer to this question as it appears in the printed NEAToday interview Duncan is not forced to back up his claim with concrete data. So the kind of education excellence we're getting here from Secretary Duncan is the sort that the wealthier hustlers in U.S. society have always practiced, that is to say, pure medicine show hokum. It's made them all what they are today, which is pompous, broke and living off of you and I at an even more accelerated pace and with an even more pronounced sense of entitlement, amazingly enough.

What else do Duncan and Obama have in their bag besides a possum? "Another strategy involves inviting a great nonprofit to help manage a troubled school." Well, we'll see. But the only non-profits I've seen stick their feet in the door so far are those which have a noted aversion to organized labor, for example, here in Seattle, scabby business groups have attempted the use of the Technology Access Foundation to break up a collective bargaining unit out at Rainier Beach High School in the southwest corridor of the city. The only non-profits I've seen get involved in public education in Seattle have a similar agenda, whether it's the so-called "Alliance for Education," or any of the other little birdies from the Eli Broad Foundation who speak so glibly about Saturday schools or classes during the summer. We see their editorials in the Seattle Times all the time out here. God forbid any section of the U.S. Workforce be allowed to have two months off in succession, deferred compensation, or any of the other victories that rank and file activists in the two national teacher's unions struggled a century and a half to achieve. No, it's about the kids, say these "non profit" groups. It's about the kids. That's why this country kills and starves so many children overseas. But oh yes, we're not discussing that, are we? Those are other people's children, the esteemed education theorist Lisa Delpit be damned.

The third part of the Duncan/Obama "race to the top" involves, in Obama's words, a strategy for converting a "dropout factory" into a successful charter school. "These are public schools funded by parents, teachers and civic or community organizations with a broad leeway to innovate." Do tell Mr. Prez. But isn't it interesting that when fully functional comprehensive and alternative schools are created under the public rubric, managed by educators, and create curricula which have changed the academic performance of legions of young people, that the questions of "scale and replicability" are then introduced? Dig that. "Scale and replicability," a term used by former NYC Public School Chancellor Rudy Crew, refers to the amount of product an enterprise turns out in relation to pace and costs of production.

"Scale and replicability." What a marvelously coarse piece of terminology to apply to the education of human beings, a term which usually refers to inanimate objects sold on the market. This is the triumph of the commodity fetish in the education dialogue, read: we'll create comprehensive schools, but only if they're cost effective. And how will we determine which programs are cost effective? Throw them all a handful of change, and watch them scramble to decide which end of the arts and electives programs they're cutting this year, how many extra hours they'll work, how many weekends they'll work, how many weeks in the summer they'll give up, and how many working class parents volunteer their hours away from work to keep after-school programs functioning. Duncan implies as much in his NEAToday interview, where he suggests schools be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, six, seven days a week, 11 or 12 months a year. I'm not making this up. Take a look at the article yourself (

Allah got to rest on the seventh day after forming all of creation, but education staffs won't. What typical capitalist efficiency. Save money, exhaust human creativity and dispense with someone else's hard won leisure time just because wealthy business people don't know how to live their lives away from the assembly line or the roulette wheel anymore. Let's race to the top, fellow fools.

Now, data which shows that public funded programs are workable, granted the same sort of economic resource or staffing and materials the model charter schools are allowed is swept from the table, and programs such as Middle College High School and the efforts of West Seattle High School teachers to create a four period day are dispensed with or starved out of existence. And this happens, by and large, because such programs are created by innovative teachers. I've long known of this sort of harassment here in Seattle and New York City, and I've heard many a similar story from colleagues who formerly worked in locations as diverse as Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.

The questions of scale and replicability are only brought up by the new "education reformers" when successful academic programs are created and driven by teachers and school building staff, and so it is a term that is handy when bureaucrats want to dismiss or destroy such efforts. "Scale and replicability" only applies where teachers have assumed power inside of the task of building academic proficiency among our youth, and this is mostly happening in schools which have collective bargaining contracts. And the ruling class of the United States just can't accept that kind of say in workplace decisions anymore.

So, if the Secretary of Education chooses to make broad generalizations based upon his observation of a handful of public schools here and there, and if the Secretary of Education maintains that we'll attain "educational excellence" through turning all of public education into yet another level of the rat race, well then, questions of "scale and replicability" don't apply. The house always wins, and the ruling class of the United States owns the house. As usual, the ruling class gets to gamble with everyone's future, and everyone else pays the house.

As for the leadership of the NEA and the AFT, which ought to be rallying the troops big time at this point, let's just say "Deer in the headlights." AFT President Randi Weingarten, who never met a corporate ass she couldn't kiss, says in the wake of the Obama education proposals that the "era of teacher bashing is over." Oh really, Counselor Weingarten? Anybody who remembers Randi's tenure in New York will recall her tepid underscoring of the Giuliani admin budget for city schools and her patronizing dismissals of the questions raised by the UFT's Progressive Action Caucus, whose supporters sought to put the concerns of alternative learning programs on the agenda during the NYC UFT election of 2001. And President Dennis Van Roekel of the NEA takes the line that Duncan and Obama want to "work with us, not do things to us." Right, Dennis. As advocates of merit pay and charter schools, which have been used to bust unions, Duncan and Obama aren't looking to do things to us. Very well, Dennis. God be with you, since we're going to be working longer hours than you or He do. Amen.

The truth is that both national teacher union leaderships, like much of the rest of the labor leadership these days, have been taken in by one of the most dangerous enemies of working class power, old style multi-tiered business unionism. And before this Duncan and Obama mess has even reached high tide, we will deepen and consolidate a race and class stratified education system, under which students who have always done well in traditional or "standard" settings will thrive, and students who have needed special accommodations in order to succeed will be cut out of the picture, i.e., consigned to military schools or the vast numbers of unemployed shut out of the economy by the military banking complex. Schools will reflect the ongoing class stratification of society, just as they always have. Only the depths of denial among many teachers will become deeper. And so long as Weingarten, Van Roekel, and other business union hacks have their place "at the table" as consultants, that will be fine with them.

Well, as Lyndon Johnson used to say, "I may jus' be a dumb ole country boy, but I know the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit."

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BAR columnist michael hureaux perez is a writer, musician and teacher who lives in southwest Seattle, Washington. He is a longtime contributor to small and alternative presses around the country and performs his work frequently. Email to:

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