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Schooling Arne Duncan

Jesse Hagopian

"Hi, Arne. My name is Jesse Hagopian."

As I locked eyes and firmly shook hands, I wondered if my years of
teaching would be enough to help the freshman Secretary of Education
gain the knowledge and skills he would need.

Arne Duncan had come to the Seattle area on July 9 to address
Aviation High School, and his visit happened to coincide with the
American Federation of Teachers (AFT) convention taking place in
Seattle. I joined the picket of teachers from the AFT who had journeyed
to the high school with signs such as "Race to the Top: First place
business, last place students."

As we rallied outside the high school, the event planners grew
nervous that we would disrupt this stage-managed affair. They offered us
a meeting with one of Duncan's aides in exchange for our polite
behavior during his address. We agreed, and after the event were
escorted to a nearby classroom for the meeting.

When an aide entered the room and told us, "The Secretary will come
meet with you soon," I assumed he meant one of Duncan's clerical
assistants would come write down our concerns. But a few minutes later,
Secretary Duncan himself entered the classroom and took a seat in the
center of the room, with us educators fanned out around him.

WE TEACHERS pooled our collective experience that day to construct,
on the fly, what turned out to be a comprehensive "lesson plan" for the
schooling of Arne Duncan, driven by the essential question: "What is a
quality education?" Our lesson was complete with a pre-assessment, a
multi-stage lesson plan targeted at Arne's deficiencies, a concluding
summative assessment and an intervention plan for follow-up
assistance--not unlike what we would do with any other student at risk
of failure.

Our pre-assessment of Arne's skills was based on years of following
Arne's speeches, writings and public policies--all of which have
culminated in his "Race to the Top" initiative (RTTT) and his national
"turnaround plan."

RTTT is tied to a $4.3 billion fund to make states compete for
desperately needed education money by using eligibility requirements to
push for charter schools--schools publicly funded by taxpayers, yet run
privately, outside the control of local school boards--and merit pay
schemes where teachers are paid according student test scores. Arne's
turnaround plan proposes closing some 5,000 schools across the county
and firing entire teaching staffs at schools perceived to be failing.

These national initiatives were first developed by Arne in his role
as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (where he served from 2001-2008)
for his "Renaissance 2010" program that consisted of closing down dozens
of schools, predominately in Black neighborhoods, and converting many
to charter schools or military academies.

At numerous school board meetings and protests, teachers, students
and community members warned Duncan that the reckless closing of schools
would have dire consequences--from the loss of cherished neighborhood
schools and union teachers to an increase in gang violence.

Predictably, these education advocates were proven right. Student
achievement stagnated, and deadly violence soared in the schools--with
some 34 deaths and 290 shootings in 2009 as a result of students being
transported to schools across gang boundaries.

A
study by the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School
Research
released in October 2009 examined the academic effects of
the closings on students at 18 elementary schools shut down between 2001
and 2006. The study concluded that the vast majority of students went
from one low-performing school to another, with no achievement
gains--and in fact, even saw temporary decreases in test scores during
the stressful period when the announcement of their school being slated
for closing was made.

Moreover, a massive study by Stanford University, looking at data
covering some 70 percent of all charter school students nationally,
found that bad charter schools outnumber good ones by a ratio of roughly
2 to 1--and an astonishing 83 percent of charter schools were either no
better, or worse than, traditional public schools.

The performance pay experiment that Duncan imposed on the Chicago
Public Schools, known as the "Teacher Advancement Program," had equally
dismal results.

Merit pay schemes have long been criticized by teachers' unions and
education advocates for driving teachers to narrow the curriculum to
cover only what is assessed on tests--and for pitting teachers against
each other for a limited pool of money, thus breaking down teacher
collaboration and creating disincentives for educators to share
effective teaching techniques.

A report issued last May by Mathematica Policy Research on the
merit-pay program that Arne initiated in Chicago reveals that paying
teachers according to test scores didn't increase student achievement
whatsoever.

Thus, every major initiative that Arne Duncan is currently advocating
on a national level has been shown by non-partisan research
institutions to be ineffective at best.

ONE TEACHER from Detroit opened our meeting with Arne by summarizing
the results of our "pre-assessment," saying, "What you are doing is
stepping up privatization, charterization, and segregation and
inequality...and you know that."

Our "lesson" then began by providing context to our essential
question: What is a quality education?

I explained that I was a seventh-grade humanities teacher in the
Seattle Public Schools until the budget cuts hit, and I was laid off. I
then expressed my displeasure with his decision to reject a call from
Congress to tap some of the Race to the Top funds in order to save some
of the projected 200,000 to 300,000 teaching jobs that will be cut in
the upcoming school year.

What follows is the transcription (taken from my audio recording) of
our exchange. Note that I use the "Socratic seminar" teaching method
that stresses asking open-ended questions to allow for the student to
develop High Order Thinking skills, such as analysis, evaluation and
creativity:

Mr. Hagopian: I really need an answer to my questions
about the recent Stanford study that was funded by the Walton Family. As
soon as that study showed that charters underperformed public schools, I
don't know why you didn't change policy.

Arne: There is a real mix of charter schools. You
have good charter schools, you have medium charter schools, you have bad
charter schools. And so I just think we need more good schools in this
country...I have said good charter schools are part of the solution and
bad charter schools are part of the problem. So you can't tar or paint
everyone with one brush. The reality is much more complex than that.

Mr. Hagopian: I've heard that response that you have
given, but what still doesn't make sense to me is...that the problem
with charters is that you put public funds under private control. So if
public schools on the whole are outperforming charter schools on the
whole, then why don't we use the system where public funds stay under
public control, and then we bring in innovation and resources to the
public schools?...What is the advantage of charters?

Arne: There is nothing inherently good or bad about
charters...

As I looked around the room, I noticed my educator colleagues taking
mental note that Arne clearly hadn't done his homework on the charter
school issue--and thus provided an incomplete answer that could impact
his overall grade for the lesson. I realized then that I needed to step
in with some facts to help scaffold this activity for Arne.

Mr. Hagopian: I [have also] taught in Washington
D.C....I taught 10 minutes from the White House--I would drive by the
White House, and then I'm in a school with a hole in the ceiling, and it
rains into the class.

Then I would get charter school students who were kicked out of their
school come November. But what happened? When they get kicked out of
their school, the funds don't follow them. The funds stay in the
privatized charter school, but my class size rises. That is a flawed
system that has to change.

Our lesson concluded with an informal summative assessment of Arne's
analysis of our essential question about "What is a quality education?"
Chicago teacher Danielle Ciesielski began the assessment by questioning
Arne about his support for scripted lessons in Chicago that eliminated
teacher creativity, ended project-based learning and narrowed the
curriculum to pre-approved seminars.

Arne: To be clear, we [the Department of Education]
want curriculum to be driven by the local level, pushing that. We are by
law prohibited from directing curriculum. We don't have a curriculum
department.

Mr. Hagopian: I have to interject on that point.
Because I think that merit pay...

Arne: Let me finish, let me finish...

Mr. Hagopian: ...Directly influences curriculum.
When you have teachers scrambling and pitted against each other for a
small amount of money [based on how their students perform on a test],
what it does is narrow the curriculum to what's on the test, even if you
don't set curriculum specifically. So I think you have to address that.

Arne: I will. No one is mandating merit pay.

Mr. Hagopian: But you support it though?

Arne: I do, I do...

Mr. Hagopian: So you support narrowing the
curriculum.

Arne: Can I finish? It's a voluntary program.
Schools and districts and unions are working together on some really
innovative things.

Mr. Hagopian: Merit pay isn't part of Race to the
Top?

ARNE'S NON-answer to my direct question was troubling, and I hoped my
rhetorical question at the end of this exchange would push him to a
deeper understanding of our topic.

While Arne's performance during our lesson was disappointing, none of
us educators were surprised, given his chronic absenteeism from the
realm of pedagogy. As a spokesperson for Arne
recently admitted to the media
, his only instructional experience
came as a youngster when "his mother ran an after-school program for
underprivileged kids in a church basement, and he was both a student
there and a tutor."

At the end of our lesson, we had to acknowledge that we failed in our
objective to help Arne develop the concept of a quality education, and
my belief that all students can succeed was truly tested. Determined not
to give up even on the most challenging of students, however, we
recommend Arne meet with the following specialists for these targeted
interventions:

Parents: Don't let Arne close your child's school.
If the federal government can bail out the banks and find the money to
bomb children in Afghanistan, then we know there is enough money to
build a world-class education system in your neighborhood. Demonstrate
and speak out for the funding your school deserves rather than let it be
shut down or privatized.

Students: You are not a number generated by a
Scantron machine. You are a passionate, creative young person who can
change the world. Refuse to be categorized solely by a test score and
demand an education that speaks to who you are and what is important to
your community.

Teachers: Unions brought us the weekend. They are
indispensable, don't let Arne bust your union. Fight to make your union
stronger. Replicate the success of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators
in Chicago--the reform caucus newly elected to run the Chicago Teachers
Union--with its vision of social justice education and social movement
unionism in unflinching opposition to those who would seek to profit off
of the public schools.

With this action plan of parents, students and teachers finding
common cause in building their own vision of a quality education apart
from that of Corporate America, Arne Duncan may, despite himself, get
the education he so desperately needs.


Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian is a high school teacher in Seattle, and the author of the forthcoming book, Teach Truth: The Attack on Critical Race Theory and the Struggle for Antiracist Education. Jesse is editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, a founding member of Black Lives Matter at School, a campaign organizer for the Zinn Education Project's "Teach the Black Freedom Struggle," the co-editor of the books, Black Lives Matter At School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, Teaching for Black Lives, Teacher Unions and Social Justice, and the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing. You can connect with him on Twitter at, @jessedhagopian, or his blog, www.IAmAnEducator.com.

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