The Arne Duncan reform train: when ‘all’ really means ‘some’

The Secretary of Education calls on teachers and their unions to reform their ways.  He asks others to commit to education only superficially.  


by Christopher Paslay


In recent weeks, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has outlined his plans for reforming America’s public schools in a series of high profile speeches. 


Although many of the proposals contained in these speeches make sense, Duncan still seems to oversimplify the problems facing our public school system.   


Education is much broader than teachers and schools.  Granted, a good teacher and a successful school are necessary for a child to learn, but by no means does education stop there.  There are numerous components to the education equation, relevant factors that have a significant impact on a child’s overall ability to learn (and on a teacher’s and school’s ability to be successful).


You have education policy writers, and their ability to develop practical and effective teaching strategies; you have colleges and universities, and their ability to properly prepare and train quality teachers; you have parents, and their responsibility to nurture their child’s thirst for knowledge by helping with homework and getting involved in their school; you have social service organizations, and their ability to provide the basics—such as asthma medicine and eyeglasses—to children without health care; you have the community, and its responsibility to instill in youth the values needed to be a good citizen.                  


Unfortunately, Secretary Duncan’s speeches have for the most part ignored the complexities of the factors mentioned above, and focused on one piece of the pie—teachers and schools—as if teachers and schools exist in a vacuum and are not interconnected to the whole.  He equates education reform to a moving train, and calls for everyoneall people—to get on board. 


“The education reform movement is not a table where we all sit around and talk,” Duncan told the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference on June 22 in Washington D.C.  “It’s a train that is leaving the station, gaining speed, momentum and direction. It is time for everyone—everywhere—to get on board.”    


But it doesn’t appear that Duncan’s definition of “everyone” really means everyone.    


A quick recap of all four of Duncan’s recent speeches might reveal this truth.     


On June 8th, Duncan addressed the Institute of Education Sciences research conference in Washington, D.C.  He focused on the need for a comprehensive data system to track student achievement and teacher effectiveness.   


“But to somehow suggest that we should not link student achievement and teacher effectiveness, it’s like suggesting we judge a sports team without looking at the box score,” Duncan told the audience. 


This makes sense, to a certain extent; there are many factors that affect test data other than teacher performance, of course.


But if we’re going to introduce a comprehensive data system into our public schools, why should this data solely measure student achievement and teacher effectiveness?  Why not extend this data system to track parental involvement?  To measure the effectiveness and practicality of educational policy and those who write it?  To measure the performance of superintendents and school board members?        


On June 14th, Duncan spoke to the 2009 Governors Education Symposium in North Carolina.  He talked about raising the bar in terms of assessment, and urged all states to adopt a set of international benchmarked standards that prepare students for success in the workforce and college.


“The standards must be tied to the endpoint of making sure students are ready to succeed in college or in the workplace,” Duncan said. “You must resist the temptation to make these standards too easy. Our children deserve to graduate from high school prepared for college and the jobs of the future.”


Again, why should these “higher” standards stop with students and teachers?  Why not raise the standards when it comes to the credentials needed to hold the office of Secretary of Education?  Shouldn’t candidates need at least some experience teaching in a public school classroom (yes, I’m referring to you, Mr. Duncan).  How about superintendents?  Education professors and writers of curriculum? 


On June 22, Duncan addressed the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference in Washington D.C.  He talked about ways to turn around failing schools. 


He had four basic models in mind.


The first involved stripping teachers of seniority, and giving principals full autonomy to pick their own teaching staffs.    


“Under this model, the children stay and the staff leaves,” Duncan said.  “Teachers can reapply for their jobs and some get rehired, but most go elsewhere. A few leave the profession, which is not all bad. Not everyone is cut out for teaching. Like every profession, people burn out.”


Duncan’s second option also involved replacing the teachers and principals.  The plan called for turning schools into charters, or handing them over to for-profit management organizations. 


Apparently, Secretary Duncan hasn’t been paying much attention to the for-profit management experiment in the Philadelphia School District.  Numerous studies have shown that these private managers do not raise academic performance. 


In fact, 16 out of the 20 elementary and middle schools currently being run by outside managers in Philadelphia performed lower than the city’s traditional public schools (this of course didn’t stop their contracts from being renewed this year at the cost of $9 million).      


As for charters:  How is it that some charters fail to raise academic achievement, embezzle millions of taxpayer dollars and still remain in operation? 


Duncan said his third turnaround model for failing schools keeps most of the existing staff but they must establish a rigorous performance evaluation system.  The school must also increase learning time for kids during afternoons, weekends, and in the summer, among other things.


Duncan’s last turnaround model: Close under-performing schools and reenroll students in better ones.


On July 2nd, Duncan addressed the National Education Association at their annual convention in San Diego.  His focus this time was on improving the quality of the education workforce—teachers, principals and education support personnel.


In this speech he immediately put the role of unions in the spotlight.


“I came here today to challenge you to think differently about the role of unions in public education,” Duncan said.  “When thousands of schools are chronically failing and millions of children are dropping out each year—we all must think differently.”


He urged “dramatic change” in education and insinuated that unions and their policies were standing in the way of that change. 


“We created seniority rules that protect teachers from arbitrary and capricious management,” he said, “and that’s a good goal. But sometimes those rules place teachers in schools and communities where they won’t succeed—and that’s wrong.  We created tenure rules to make sure that a struggling teacher gets a fair opportunity to improve—and that’s a good goal. But when an ineffective teacher gets a chance to improve and doesn’t—and when the tenure system keeps that teacher in the classroom anyway—then the system is protecting jobs rather than children. That’s not a good thing. We need to work together to change that.”


When it comes to unions protecting struggling teachers, Duncan may have a point; and I say this as a member of a teachers union myself. 


However, let’s back up a minute and talk about real teacher supports.  One of the biggest reasons teachers struggle is because of classroom management issues—you must have order before you can teach.  What are two big causes of management problems?  Class size, and the lack of alternative placements for troubled students. 


How long have unions been asking (begging, pleading) for smaller class sizes?  How long have teachers been held hostage by violent or unruly students who are kept in the classroom because there is no where to put them, or by laws that prevent their expulsion? 


Why don’t we cut class sizes or build more alternative schools?  Because it costs too much money!  And when it comes to money, everyone isn’t on board the reform train.  Money is going here, there, everywhere, but too little of it finds its way into the classroom for direct instruction.


So where is the hands-on support for the struggling teachers?  Where are the resources for the teachers who have 33 teenagers in their classroom, some with ADD, others with physical and behavior health issues, and no parental involvement? 


Real education reform is possible in American.  Teachers do have room to improve, and unions must learn to be more open minded and flexible.  But if real reform is going to happen, we all must truly get on board, and reform cannot stop with teachers and schools. 


To quote Arne Duncan:  “There is simply no more important work in our society than education. The President understands that, parents understand that, America understands that. Now we—all of us together—must act on that understanding and move forward.”


Now if only we could get Arne Duncan to expand his definition of “all” to truly include everybody.       


11 thoughts on “The Arne Duncan reform train: when ‘all’ really means ‘some’

  1. He’s just another so-called educational “expert” whose main qualification is that he attended school. His model for educational reform didn’t work in Chicago and it won’t work anywhere else, either. Sadly, I would not encourage any young person to become a teacher today.

  2. “It’s a train that is leaving the station, gaining speed, momentum and direction. It is time for everyone—everywhere—to get on board.” > Duncan

    We’re already on board, so why would you want to take us “in another direction” when you can improve on what we have? Why indeed?

  3. Arne Duncan played basketball while attending Harvard. Harvard’s basketball team never made the NCAA basketball tournament while he was there. In fact, Harvard hasn’t “gone dancing” since 1946. Maybe the NCAA should put a stop to their failure on the court and shut their basketball program down.
    Of course I am using Arne’s logic here.
    Maybe the NCAA shouldn’t be so severe. Keep the program, but get rid of the AD, coaching staff, concession stand ladies, the kid who wipes the sweat of the court during time-outs, etc. Get rid of them. Keep the fans, get rid of everyone else. The children of Cambridge, Mass. shouldn’t be subjected to anything short of basketball perfection.

  4. Arne Duncan is really just another yes-man, rain maker with no real ideas. The models that he’s ripping off don’t work (see Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere), and he’s never been a student at a public school… Oh, that’s right, he went a University of Chicago lab school. Something that’s as selective as a friends school. Let him teach year in an urban public school, and let’s see how his policies change. He doesn’t want reform, he just wants to break the backs of the teachers, and turn them into convenience store clerks. Get ready for associates degrees in k-6.

  5. Here is another blog on the same topic, our failing schools, but it focuses on curriculum:

    “What I Learned This Year.”

    Check the response by Dick Schutz, as he agrees with you, teachers get all the blame but have none of the power to make changes. Administrators do and get little blame.

    Teachers are an easy target but blaming society and parents is also an easy target. We can’t change the lives of the kids but we can change our instructional techniques.

    Reading, my main focus, remains in all districts including the suburbs to be dominated by balanced literacy strategies. These fail many kids especially low SES kids. No one is talking about this.

    Until we look at our instruction we will continue to blame each other and no progress will be made. Arne Duncan has the power to make the needed changes. Too bad he is looking to blame instead of solve.

    I would like to see this blog focus some time on instructional issues in all subjects. I have posted many links in past posts on the reading mess in grade schools.


    • Kathy,

      You make valid points. Sometimes when we get frustrated, we get caught up in the blame-game. I always try to outline some kinds of solutions in my posts (however vague), which is why I spoke about ALL people stepping-up and taking their part when it comes to improving education (we must make it more HOLISTIC).

      Others have talked about using this blog to dialogue about instructional issues, and I agree totally. This forum is wide open to all folks looking to better education, and most subjects are welcome. If you’d like, why don’t you write a brief commentary about the ideas you have in mind, and send it to

      I’ll post it here on Chalk and Talk (on the main board), and we can start a discussion. The offer is on the table if you want it.

      As always, thanks for writing.

      Chris Paslay

  6. Hi Chris:

    I have posted responses in the past that contained many links and resources for your readers to learn about reading instruction.

    The sources I listed have done a much better job on this topic than I could ever do in a post.

    I don’t see a search feature on your blog or I would have listed my old post again.

    I would also send folks to DeRosa’s site as he has covered instructional topics many times. His current post is about the DRA which we use in our grade schools.

    If folks want to do anything they should read, Why Our Children Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It by Diane McGuinness.

    Since our language is a code reading instruction must focus primarily on teaching the children the alphabetic code. Balanced literacy teaches all sorts of defective strategies for reading. One such strategy is using picture to “guess” at words. The child looks at the first letter and tries to figure out the rest of the word by using the pictures in the book. Why not just teach the child the meaning of all the symbols in that word before asking him to read the word?

    I have yet to figure out why, if the language is a code, we just don’t provide students with all the information they need to read the code. Instead we provide many strategies that do not help kids to learn all the code. We expect them to read words with incomplete information. Another strategy we give kids when stuck on a word is to skip the unknown word and read the rest of the sentence. Maybe then they will “‘figure” out the word. Why not just give them all the code information to read the word?

    Let’s look at another code, Morse Code. If you are learning this code you will be taught the meaning of each and every piece of the code. You will not have to read a word in code and only be taught the first symbol of that word. You will not be told to skip words in the coded messages and guess at them from using context. This is what we do everyday in balanced literacy. Many kids are left scratching their heads. They simply do not have enough information to read the alphabetic code.

    Kids need explicit reading instruction beginning in kindergarten. They do not need bits and pieces of information and they do not need to read books with words that they have no idea how to read. This starts poor reading strategies that are hard to change. Some students then never learn to read correctly because of our methods of reading instruction. It has nothing to do with their parents or society. It has everything to do with our flawed reading instruction.

    Many argue that kids learn to read everyday in our schools. Yes this is true, many learn to read even though the instruction is flawed. These kids break code easily. Others however do not. Many of these kids end up with LD labels when the instruction is the problem. Give kids complete code information from the start, provide them with books containing only taught code and bingo, kids learn to read. I do it everyday in my tutoring program. It is not a hard problem to fix and does not need a boatload of folks all coming together. It just needs someone who has the power to change the reading instruction to do it.

    I will try to put this in a full post and send it to you.


  7. Kathy,

    Very interesting information on reading instruction. If you do decide to send this to me in a post, could you provide some examples of the strategies you mentioned above? What do you mean when you say we need to provide students with ” all the information they need to read the code”? How do you do this? Could you explain this in more detail, or give an example?



  8. Duncan:

    “We created seniority rules that protect teachers from arbitrary and capricious management,” he said, “and that’s a good goal. But sometimes those rules place teachers in schools and communities where they won’t succeed—and that’s wrong.

    I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out this line of thought. IF he was more specific, maybe I’d have gotten it by now.

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