5 inadvertent lessons from former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s memoir

Arne Duncan, President Obama’s long-serving secretary of education, has just released a memoir about his time in Washington, DC, and, before that, in Chicago. (If you’re interested, you can find my review here.) As I observed in the review, Duncan’s tenure was a rough go for the sort of reform he championed:

When Arne Duncan was named the ninth U.S. secretary of education in early 2009, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had shown a decade of substantial growth, efforts to launch the Common Core and reform teacher evaluation were getting under way with ample support and little opposition, and education seemed a bipartisan bright spot in an increasingly polarized political climate. Seven years later, when Duncan stepped down, NAEP scores had stagnated, the Common Core was a poisoned brand, research on new teacher-evaluation systems painted a picture of failure, and it was hard to find anyone who would still argue that education reform was a bipartisan cause.

Whatever one thinks of the volume’s merits, it offers an (inadvertently) revealing look at why education reform seemed to lose its way during Duncan’s tenure. Given that, here are five lessons that would-be school reformers would do well to take to heart.

Much more can already be done to improve schools than is commonly thought. Duncan has a heartening story from his time in Chicago, when it appeared that a promising after-school program would be stymied because of contractual language requiring an engineer to be in the building, which made it just too costly to keep the schools open. Working with the school system’s general counsel, though, Duncan discovered that what everyone thought to be true wasn’t — that nothing prohibited schools from being open with another staffer, rather than an engineer. Such situations are dishearteningly common in public education, with sensible measures smothered by urban myths, misremembered procedures, and an energy-sapping “culture of can’t.” But it’s all too easy for education reformers to get so caught up in political combat and the exciting push for new policies that they overlook what’s already possible, letting lethargic leaders off the hook along the way. Indeed, so much of the reform agenda in the past decade focused on changing policy that these practical opportunities were routinely overlooked or derided as penny ante.

Just because people disagree with you doesn’t mean that they’re “not for the kids.” A generation of school reformers has suffered mightily from the tendency to vow that they’re “for the kids” — and that anyone who disagrees with them is not. Perhaps not surprisingly, this strategy has proven divisive and politically disastrous, especially when reformers imply that huge swaths of the nation must not care about kids. And yet, Duncan seems remarkably eager to continue to view those who take issue with his agenda as villains motivated by obvious malice. Indeed, he blasts U.S. Senator (and former U.S. Secretary of Education) Lamar Alexander for having reservations about Duncan’s efforts on behalf of the Common Core and teacher evaluation. Rather than allow for Alexander’s civic-mindedness and goodwill, Duncan tells readers that Alexander’s doubts marked him as an unprincipled coward who “had taken the easy road and done nothing to help kids while doing everything to help adults, all in the name of power.” It’s hard to find workable middle ground or grow your coalition when you insist that those who have doubts about your agenda are “anti-kid,” or that thoughtful skeptics are willing to sacrifice the kids “in the name of power” — simply because they reject your strategy for promoting teacher evaluation.

It’s tough to persuade people who sense that you despise them. In the book, Duncan alludes to his having famously shrugged off anxieties about the Common Core as the product of “white suburban moms who, all of a sudden, [fear] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.” Duncan half-heartedly concedes his phrasing could have been better. But he ignores the central point — the issue is his caricature of these parents, not his syntax. After all, Duncan could have viewed these moms as sympathetic and suggested that they had legitimate concerns; he could have talked about them with empathy. Instead, his emphasis on “white” and “brilliant” was telling. It reflected an inclination to label these parents, put them in a box, and dismiss them. His words signaled to them that he wasn’t their ally, and didn’t want to be. It’s hard to persuade people or win their trust when it’s clear that you see them as a problem.

It’s easy to blind ourselves to inconvenient realities. The peculiar thing about Duncan’s response to those “suburban moms” is that his stereotype implies that those same moms are pretty good about taking their darling kids to the doctor or the dentist for routine examinations — even when they’d prefer to avoid the hassle and might not like what they hear. The real question, which Duncan might have asked if he’d been more inclined to listen than to lash out, is why these same parents were so opposed to these supposedly state-of-the-art tests and standards. The answer, of course, is that they didn’t believe that these tests were good or useful for their children. They thought the tests were overlong and more focused on evaluating schools and measuring performance than on improving their child’s instruction. And, these parents were mostly right — especially when it came to test results that didn’t show up until the following fall, four or five months after the exam, and without anything to help parents make sense of them. If advocates had been more interested in understanding the parents’ apprehensions, it might have illuminated problems worth addressing. Instead, blinded by the assurance that they were “for the kids,” reformers tuned these parents out, let problems fester, and were consistently blindsided for their trouble.

It’s easy to blame every failure on “bad messaging.” The memoir may be most striking for just how much trouble Duncan has thinking of anything he might have done differently, despite his tenure’s rocky record. Time after time, he assures the reader that it all would’ve worked out if only he’d had better messaging and PR. Along the way, Duncan betrays an uncanny conviction that all of his stumbles and setbacks weren’t a matter of mindset, flawed proposals, or execution — but only as evidence of the need for a better sales job.

Come to think of it, with that, Duncan may have offered the perfect epitaph for where twenty-first-century school reform lost its way.