Arne Duncan: Not the Change I Hoped For, Not the Change I Can Believe In

I wrote this last year and thought I would rerun it because of Arne Duncan’s visit today. -cpg

I have to say during the lead up to the ’08 election, I allowed myself to be hopeful. Then Senator Obama was saying all the right things. “No child left behind” was a failed experiment that would become a thing of the past and education would finally (after much lip service) become a priority. If only I would have read the fine print as (fast forward two years) things have become worse since he was elected. Teachers now have all the responsibility but none of the authority to teach our children and have had creativity and flexibility stripped from them all in the name of data. Instead of doing what’s right for our children, we have turned to “in vogue solutions”, like charter schools and merit pay that both rob public schools of valuable resources that, incongruently, the “data” says work no better than not doing them.

I was very disheartened the other day when now President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan came to town to visit the new KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) school. The KIPP school is truly a formidable beast. Kids go to school longer, on Saturdays and all year long. They have to wear uniforms and parental involvement is mandatory. It also has resources far above and beyond the resources that local neighborhood schools have including a $500,000 grant to support its music program. That’s right, folks – this pseudo private school gets money from the government for a music program just as music programs in most middle schools are being slashed. Hey, Mr. President and Mr. Secretary of Education – how about helping the kids at P.S. this or P.S. that so they can have a music program too, before you fund one at the KIPP school. I mean aren’t the kids in public school worth it as well?

You know what scares me the most? It’s what’s going to happen when the KIPP school succeeds and the man on the street says, look there, why can’t they do it at PS this or PS that. Public school teachers must be terrible. Then the powers that be in their far off ivory towers are going to have the excuses they need to further rob teachers of flexibility and creativity and buy them with even more paper work. They are going to have one more reason to take money out of the coffers of the already struggling public schools and steer money to more charter schools and voucher programs. Arne Duncan, by showing up and patting backs, has just given them tacit approval to do so.

Arne Duncan also talked about every kid going to college and this is a sentiment that his boss President Obama has echoed on many occasions, further showing us just how out of touch they are with the reality of the situation. I would just like to remind them and anybody reading that we don’t have the students and parental involvement we wish we had, we have the students and parents that we do and it’s time we made realistic plans to service their needs as well. The truth is the way we are doing things now with a one size fits all everybody is going to college mentality, regardless of ability, desire, and family support, curriculum, stacks the deck against the public school. It practically ensures failure. We need to change things so that in six or seven years from now when two sixth graders graduate, (one from the KIPP school who goes to college and one from PS that graduates with a skill and gets a steady job with room for advancement) we should applaud both. To me, that’s much better than dooming one to a life of public assistance and hopelessness, (that’s the public school kid, by the way).

In the end, however, other than a shiny bow, the KIPP school can’t make any promises that the public school can’t and their principal admits it. On the to the public school I work at, I heard him on the radio. He said, if the kids try hard and stick with the program, we’ll see them through. Well you know what – I am going to go ahead and make the same promise to all the kids in the county at all the public schools. Kids, stick with it and try hard and we will get you through, as well.

Unless you are teaching rocket science, education is not rocket science. Instead of trying extraordinary measures, charter schools and merit pay, (by the way, most teachers teach at the challenged schools because they love the kids there – not because they were bribed to do so) let’s do what we should be doing anyway.

Let’s put discipline in the classroom; let’s not pass kids along until they have the skills to be successful at the next level; let’s put in safety nets like social workers, counselors and legitimate summer school opportunities; let’s have multiple curriculums that play to kid’s strengths and desires, even if that means they don’t go to college right after they graduate and let’s do so by making the teaching of trades and the arts as important as the teaching of math and science; let’s not make school drudgery, (it’s no stretch of the imagination that if a kid doesn’t like school they aren’t going to do well); let’s bring back rigor and slow things down; let’s make sure they master the subjects even if that means they learn fewer subjects (we went through 157 pages in a nine week period in one of my classes as I was at the mercy of the pacing guide), and most importantly, instead of dumping on teachers and making them the scapegoats for all that’s wrong in education, we give them some autonomy – don’t overburden them with task after task that has little to do with education, and allow them to use creativity and flexibility even if it means they use data a little less.

I wish the staff and students at the KIPP school nothing but success. They have a long and hard road ahead of them, but at the same time I urge the powers that be not to forget about the neighborhood schools and the students and teachers there. I urge them that instead of funding pseudo private schools that really can’t be fairly compared to the typical public school, that where noble at the same time go to extraordinary lengths, how about they do what’s right by the student and teachers at the neighborhood schools first. Then if that didn’t work, though I believe with all my heart it would, then well of course we would have to try something different.

Think about it, shouldn’t we be doing what we should be doing first and then only if that doesn’t work try something else after. Isn’t that how you do, say, everything?

Arne Duncan and his boss do not represent the change I hoped for. I hoped we would take education seriously and realistically. I hoped we would play to children’s strengths and start respecting teachers. If extraordinary charter schools is the change they are selling, it is not a change I can believe in and it’s not a change that will work for most children.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *