Dump Duncan

Instead of a quick post highlighting the latest efforts to garner signatures for an open letter to President Obama, I spent all day writing this post.  The open letter asks that President Obama remove Arne Duncan as his secretary of education given Duncan’s overemphasis on high-stakes testing, and its negative impacts on student achievement and learning. [1]

Once I started writing, and googling references to support my statements, a panoply of issues and concerns rushed to the fore, both from my mind and the world-wide web, which led to a lengthier post than for which I have the time.  Such is the state of affairs for a first year teacher with a keen interest in national education policy.

Interested parties with limited time can respond to my call to action now by signing the petition at: http://dumpduncan.org/  Those who can read further, please do.

The “Dump Duncan” effort follows those of many others, such as the national and international movements to have parents opt out their children from standardized testing. [2]   Last year,  a New York City principal issued this letter, which was published in the Washington Post in July 2011, as was one from John Kuhn, a Texas superintendent of schools who lambasted No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”) and its over-emphasis on standardized tests.  All of these efforts aim to let President Obama know that those who voted for him due to commitments he made towards improving education as a presidential candidate are dissatisfied with his efforts as directed by Arne Duncan.  As Ginsberg (2011) notes: “Students need to [sic. be led to] stop thinking of everything they do as a competition and quest for personal advancement, and to find ways to work collaboratively with an ethic of care, respect, and concern for others less fortunate.”  Competition may help Apple deliver the best products and services to market, but it does not make sure that every child receives the education best suited to his or her needs.

Duncan’s, and thus President Obama’s, Race to the Top (“RTTT”) initiative may seem as if it is all about the care, respect, and concern for the less fortunate; but a closer look reveals it is rather about federal dominance and the federal government’s ability to assert control over free citizens.  It does this by withholding needed federal funds from states so that the policies advocated by the elite few dominate the national agenda over the needs of our country’s diverse student body.  Policies such as RTTT and NCLB further perpetuate the fear provoking message of A Nation at Risk, giving fodder for the expansion of charter schools that often siphon federal, state, and local tax revenues into private coffers under the guise of choice, open access, and education reform.  These policies also embolden the use of a “No Excuses” mindset in charters and public schools alike, where everyone is held accountable, e.g. punished, if they do not meet the unrealistic expectations in the mandates.

Furthermore, NCLB and RTTT simply opens the immense education budget wider to strip-mining by the wealthy elite as they seek to expand their already burgeoning coffers.  Even the Common Core standards efforts, while innocuous sounding, and believed to be a necessity by many in education, significantly overextends the influence of the department of education, especially as they are a key requirement for a waiver from the punitive aspects of NCLB, which over 80% of schools will fail to meet according to Duncan.  The primary beneficiaries of Common Core seem to be textbook publishers and the standardized testing industries, although organizations such as the National Council of La Raza (“NCLR”) support it as an opportunity to level the playing field.  For their constituents’ sake, I hope it delivers on its promises.  A report released by the Brown Center on Education at the Brookings Institution concludes there are serious flaws in the Common Core calling claims that they will improve academic achievement dubious causality.

From my perspective, as a parent of an elementary school and a middle school child, as well as that of a first year high school mathematics teacher, our national obsession with high-stakes standardized testing is misguided since it:

  1. detracts from quality teaching time;
  2. limits time for the development of creative thinking, problem solving, and other key skills required in our society;
  3. narrows the curriculum, especially in urban, rural, and low-income districts;
  4. denigrates students, teachers, administrators, schools, and districts;
  5. is irrational given that these tests are not designed for many of their current uses, such as is required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB);
  6. serves primarily to enrich the testing industry to include consultants, test prep centers, test developers & scorers, and publishers; and
  7. diverts precious dollars from programs such as full-service health clinics and other solutions advocated by the Broader Bolder Approach to Education campaign that asserts that the “fundamental challenge facing America’s education policy makers is weakening the powerful association between social and economic disadvantage and low student achievement;” in other words, poverty matters as it affects behavior and academic performance.  [3]

It is time to change the policies of the US Department of Education and take back our local schools where local communities have more say in how their schools are run, to include having a say in the curricula, pedagogy, staffing, resources, and assessments employed.   While the department purportedly has the best interests of our nation in mind, and I am being very generous here, they should not be able to hold states and districts hostage by withholding much needed federal funding guaranteed by Title I and other regulations.  Federal funds are all too necessary today for public education in most states given significant budgetary shortfalls, and the growing use of funds on both an absolute and percentage basis for services other than education by legislators and governors alike.  As an example, California’s mismatch in tax revenues and its commitments results in the repeated raiding of education funds by governors.  Furthermore, Proposition 13 shifted a majority of school funding from local property taxes to state sources setting up the ability for education funds to be directed to uses other than for education.

Duncan, and President Obama, should not require states and districts to adopt the unproven and potentially destructive policies simply because it is believed by select segments such as the corporate education reform movement, who will profit mightily from the policies, that introducing open market theories into public service will result in the most efficient delivery of services.  While I am a believer in the efficient market hypothesis, in financial markets, and in competition in many industries, I do not believe these principles guide public service delivery effectively, or humanely, as the profit motive all too often clouds the judgement of even the best intentioned companies and peoples. [5]  Just look at Apple and Foxconn regarding supply chain cost management decisions that maximize profits while sacrificing humane working conditions of laborers in China.  Fortunately, Apple heard the outcry from its customers and is making efforts to improve conditions at Foxconn.

This level of scrutiny and visibility is not always possible, feasible, or cost-effective within schools, whether privately run such as charters, or publicly run; nonetheless, local communities should hold their schools to the highest standards through frequent, active involvement in all aspects of school operations.  More importantly, equitable treatment and open access for all students, regardless of socioeconomic status or the necessity for special services, seems to suffer greatly when schools are privatized, or held to narrow measures such as prescribed by NCLB and RTTT.

Thank goodness advocates for public education such as Diane Ravitch work tirelessly to keep the public informed about Duncan’s, and his courtiers’, sleights of hand.

[1] Note that the website StandardizedTests – ProCon.org offers many pros for standardized testing, which may be true.  However, I do not believe that they mitigate the cons, which are many.

[2] A word of caution from the opting out site.  Federal Law on Opting Out:  Parents and students considering opting out of tests should understand relevant federal law and regulations.

  • NCLB requires schools to test at least 95% of students each year. Not doing so is just one of many ways to fail. If a school is not making Adequate Yearly Progress for other reasons, the 95% participation mandate may not be a priority.
  • If a school fails to make AYP for two years, a portion of federal Title I funds must be spent on transportation to enable students to attend another school that is making AYP, if such a school exists. After three years of not making AYP, funds must go to tutoring. In other words, opting out has an indirect effect on federal funding.
  • For a more detailed explanation of federal law on opting out, click here.

[3] As a tactic to instill “FUD” (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) around the efforts of those who oppose the destructive elements of corporate ed reform, many education reformers, and politicians, decry any mention of poverty or other socioeconomic factors as defending the status quo.

[4] I am not alone in this belief.  See “When is the profit motive wrong?

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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2 Responses to Dump Duncan

  1. Bob Valiant says:

    Wonderful post, Dave. I will link to it in the Docs section of Dump Duncan and other appropriate spots. Thanks for the extra effort!
    Bob V.


    • You’re welcome, Bob. I am crazy busy as a first year teacher, and shirked my daddy duties tonight by not cooking dinner (PBJ, anyone?), but I could not hold myself back from writing this…I hope it drives signature count a bit.


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