Education Stimulus Package: In Duncan’s Hands, Hope is on a Tightrope

On January 30, 2009, CNN’s Campbell Brown interviewed Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the President’s $140 billion increase in federal money for education.

If the rest of the stimulus package proposed by the President and approved by Congress (the Senate is debating the package) is handled the way Secretary Duncan discussed the $140 billion increase in federal money for education we are in for a difficult ride. Duncan (University of Chicago Laboratory Schools / Harvard) is long on hyperbole, short on any understanding of the challenges facing education.

Duncan begins by trying to mirror Obama’s own rhetoric. “This is an extraordinary opportunity and if we want to become a strong economy again, the best thing we can do is have an educated work force.”

But how do we do this ? How are we going to meet the needs and challenges of our diverse society?

Says Duncan, “So the stimulus package is going to do a number of things. It’s going to help us [word missing in transcript here] a tremendous unmet capital needs and so it’s really going to be a huge opportunity to invest in infrastructure and several ready projects that we want to get to work on very early on, late spring and through the summer.

We want to save literally hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs. We’re very, very worried about tremendous cuts, devastating cuts in school districts and states around the country. We want to stay those off going into the fall. We want to continue to raise the bar academically, raise standards, raise expectations, and there’s opportunities in the stimulus package to do that.”

Wait. Capital needs, invest in infrastructure, ready projects, raise standards and expectations–what does all this mean?

It means that the Obama Administration is assuming that what we have to do is pour money into existing buildings, programs and the old ways of doing business in education without first spending some needed money to try and create an atmosphere of inquiry and critical assessment.  We have to save teachers’ jobs, even if some of these teachers, like bankers and Wall Street types, don’t merit the jobs they hold. That is, the early money for the education stimulus package is going to be spent on bolstering what we already have without first trying to understand–and realizing–that what we have has gotten us into the pickle we’re in now.

When a society is in crisis, as is ours, it means that education has been in crisis for far longer.

Let’s not forget that highly educated people created the mortgage crisis, the disintegration of our financial systems and two wars. The educated people in our society argued for Weapons of Mass Destruction that didn’t exist–and they new it. Never before have so many highly educated people in America been without work and there’s none to be had in the not so distant future.

On the other end of the scale, in New York City, for instance, less than half of its students graduate high school. I asked New York City teachers why and the most resounding answer is that for over 50% of the students, the curriculum is totally irrelevant. They can’t identify with it at all. Add to that segregation, rampant in urban schools, family problems, health care problems, unemployment and no investment in capital needs is going to alleviate the suffering and move these people from a cycle of self-doubt, depression and hopelessness.

When Ms. Brown asked Duncan about No Child Left Behind, something he says he knows quite a bit about, he was tongue tied, unable to respond in any meaningful way about either the pluses or the minuses of the law.

“Well obviously,” said Duncan, “I’ve lived on the other side of the law for the past seven-and-a-half years so I have lots of strong opinions about it. But what I want to do is really get out this and travel the country, and I’ve about frequently as has President Obama [word missing from trranscript] that the philosophy behind it makes a lot of sense. We need to raise the bar, I would argue, we need to raise the bar even more and have high expectations. We want to hold people accountable.”

Is Duncan kidding? This is Bush rhetoric disguised in the Obama aura. Ms. Brown pushed harder. She asked Duncan to be specific.

CB: But be specific. I mean you certainly know about it, about No Child Left Behind and what it entails to have formed an opinion on whether it’s the right way to go.

DUNCAN: Yeah well again, philosophically, directionally, it’s the right way, but there’s many things in the invitation that we think we can improve on moving forward.

CB: Like what?

DUNCAN: There’s a number of things. I’m very interested in graduation rates, and we want to make sure more of our students are graduating from high school and prepared with college-ready, career-ready skills. I’m interested in raising the bar and having high standards. I’m also interested in growth towards those standards, how much a student is gaining each year. But again, I really want to get out…

Duncan here shows incredible hubris, appearing on CNN totally unprepared, reliant solely on the notion that the Obama magic carpet would carry. This tack is right out of the Bush White House playbook.

Campbell Brown was clearly frustrated and insisted. “Let me stop you because there’s specific complaints here, and the President has talked about them. He certainly did on the campaign trail. We have teachers saying that the reality of No Child Left Behind, is that because it uses testing to grade a school’s performance that many teachers find themselves teaching for the test. And again, the President has talked about this. Now, I assume that’s not what we think is best for the kids so how do you fix that?”

This was a unique opportunity for Duncan to address at least one reality of No Child Left Behind: for children in schools in socioeconomically deprived areas, the conditions set forth by this law stack up against  success. For instance, in the past ten years we’ve moved aggressively against Brown v. the Board of Education. Schools today are more segregated than they were in 1954. Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, in the prestigious Lincoln Center neighborhood, has not attracted a single student from that community. They all go elsewhere so the high school is completely segregated, a hub of color among the affluent who walk around it and ignore it.

How do we raise standards and create an environment of accountability where the odds are always already against the most vulnerable?  Secretary Duncan doesn’t demonstrate any understanding of this very real problem.

What we are in fact doing continuing down this mindless path, as cogently and elegantly discussed by Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, is returning to 1896 and the “separate but equal’ rationale found in Plessy v. Ferguson. Blindly and without much imagination, Duncan is advocating a rationale “for the perpetuation of a dual system in American society”(Kozol 34). This goes all the way through to college and beyond, to how we live in our communities deeply divided by the haves and the have nots. A segregated education system creates a segregated society, regardless of the color of the President. We are far from a post-race America.

“Higher standards, higher expectations, are insistently demanded of these urban principles, and of their teachers and the students in their schools, but far lower standards certainly in ethical respects appear to be expected of the dominant society that isolates these children in unequal institutions,” Kozol reminds us (34).

This is the heart of the matter, the most profound challenge facing our culture today. Isolation causes a feeling of inferiority and disenfranchisement. Kids and their families learn that the world of the Other is not their own. Different standards are in place. Children in the South Bronx, Newark, Washington Heights, areas of Brooklyn, as well as the South side of Chicago or Boston or Compton and South Central feel that they are not a part of the world around them; that they are indeed different, less capable, expectant eyes on them. The tools for success, as we measure it today, are hidden from them.

But Duncan has a solution, at least partially, he says. In Chicago they used money to motivate students, a program that pays kids for good grades: $50 for an A – $20 for a C and a straight-A student could earn $4,000 a year. Imagine the audacity and the extraordinary blindness of such a program. Teaching kids–and enforcing quite powerfully–the notion that the end result to all things is money. Isn’t that why we’re in the mess we’re in now? And what’s $4,000 a year? To a doubting, unmotivated young boy, for instance, existing among other cynical young boys (and I’m using boys purposefully here), watching for cops on a street corner or going down the block to pick up a nickel or dime bag will earn him three  times that. So this kid finds himself in a bleak world where everyone is trying to buy him.  He’s simply a means of exchange, not a young person with dreams and aspiration.  He’ll never be able to find out what he’s good at; he’ll never be able to pursue a dream. (on teens and money attitudes )

On the other side of the socioeconomic scale, affluent parents will spend $4,000 dollars on character building summer camps for their sons already in good, solid schools; perhaps they’ll spend even more money and have their sons go abroad, study a foreign language, gaining an advantage in the global market place of ideas.

For the children from socioeconomically challenged communities, the solution is always the same: pull up your bootstraps, work harder.

Secretary Duncan is facing daunting problems and, so far, he is clueless as to how to proceed. He isn’t even showing that he understands what the problems are.

We have crossed a threshold into an age requiring new methods of collaboration–cooperation, collective action and complex interactions. This new emerging narrative is a transdisciplinary approach to getting things done, to learning, to knowledge production. But we are stuck in a 19th Century education model facing 21st Century problems and challenges.

Education is the key for a successful and fulfilling life. Education opens doors. But the world has changed and we have to determine whether education is ready to meet the needs of tomorrow. America is no longer dominant. New powers, Brazil, China and India, will continue to grow. Challenges are evident around every corner—global warming, terrorism, and limited resources. For the first time in human history, more people live in and around urban centers. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing exponentially. The key for negotiating all these challenges depends upon global cooperation focused on knowledge production, transaction, and exchange. Education, though, is still mired in an ancient silo approach—insular departments, idiosyncratic and narrow studies, the privileging of work done in isolation.  The school isolated from the life of the community.  We need new methods for training the next generation of leaders, our students.

If every institution is going to be scrutinized, education must be also. Here are the areas we must redefine (nothing Duncan is talking about):

  • segregated communities and schools that lead to self-doubt and isolation must be challenged; revitalization of Brown v. the Board of Education
  • teachers unions that in the past have provided great benefits to teachers now also provide protection for incompetence and tie the hands of those who would discipline and re-educate and dismiss; if in other sectors of our society we can get rid of the garbage, in education we have to do the same
  • technology, lacking in all schools but which should be ubiquitous, should not merely be for communication; technology must be used to create and develop new forms of knowledge construction; OpenSource and OpenCourseware must be utilized to their full capacity, developing new ways of collaborating across disciplines and across populations
  • the role of the teacher can no longer be defined by a 19th Century model; the teacher has to be versed in new technologies, psychologies of learning, sociology and economics and how these create social constructions that pre-define our communities and our students–and be able to speak to these and challenge these in collaboration with students, community leaders and families
  • community problems need not be left outside the school’s door, but rather, be at the heart of a curriculum that is inquiry based and whose outcomes are measured not by a standardized test, but by the community’s implementation of  solutions students and teachers provide
  • in many communities suffering because of disenfranchisement, the school has to be the community center; that is, it must be the community organizing hub, the health center (emergency services, routine physicals, administration of prescriptions), job center, the place for social networking and spiritual support, this way the entire community is involved in the production of knowledge
  • the production of knowledge cannot continue to be done in silos, divided into disciplines as if the problems of a community and the  identities of its citizens are somehow outside the domain of knowledge construction; teachers must collaborate with each other, team teaching in many cases, exploiting the benefits of a transdisciplinary approach that requires the uses of technology
  • the only true test of knowledge is application–tests, particularly high stakes standardized tests are absolutely opposed to this truth; in the 21st Century, the era of cooperation and collaboration, knowledge production that requires technologies, the standardized test is obsolete, like trying to cross an ocean in a canoe
  • colleges and universities have to adopt school districts and work jointly to address the needs of their respective communities; colleges and universities have to put down their ivied walls and embrace their communities
  • the disparity in salaries between those teachers working in socioeconomically challenged communities and those that do not has to be equalized because this is one of the most profound moral inequities in our culture today

These are only some of the challenges facing us today that, I would argue, require that we in education engage in a process of re-evaluation and re-definition because continuing with the same rhetoric we’ve heard for the past 10 years, and which now Duncan is continuing, will guarantee that we not move one step forward in meeting the complex demands of the 21st Century. And if we don’t like what the Education Department is doing, then our moral imperative, taking a page from bell hooks, must be to teach to transgress.

Education is the last vestige of hope we have for a healthy society. But hope is on a tightrope.

3 thoughts on “Education Stimulus Package: In Duncan’s Hands, Hope is on a Tightrope

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