Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Arne Duncan's Unlearned Lessons: Review of "How Schools Work" by Arne Duncan - As reviewed by Frederick M. Hess

Arne Duncan's Unlearned Lessons: Review of "How Schools Work" by Arne Duncan - Education Next : Education Next
Arne Duncan’s Unlearned Lessons
A window into why the left-right school-reform coalition unraveled

How Schools Work:
An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education
by Arne Duncan
Simon & Schuster, 2018, $26.99; 256 pages.
As reviewed by Frederick M. Hess
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. It would be ludicrous to say any of this was Duncan’s “fault,” but it’s fair to say that his self-certitude, expansive view of his office’s role, and impatience with his critics helped bring the great school-reform crackup to pass.
Now, Duncan has written a book about his years in education. It could have been a meditation on why things went awry, what he’s learned, and how all this should inform school improvement in the years ahead. That would have been a book well worth reading. Or Duncan might have really taken on the skeptics, answering their strongest criticisms and explaining why the path he chose was the best way forward. Instead, Duncan has opted to pen a breezy exercise in straw men and self-congratulation, while taking credit for “chang[ing] the education landscape in America.” The narrative follows Duncan from his time as a Chicago schools central-office staffer, to his tenure as superintendent in Chicago, to his service in Washington during the early years of President Barack Obama’s first term (skipping the second half of Duncan’s time in Washington), before closing with his thoughts on gun violence and an eight-point education agenda.

Throughout, Duncan comes across as a nice, extraordinarily confident guy who really likes basketball and has no doubts about how to fix schools or second thoughts about his time in Washington. And readers will be enamored with his mother and role model, Sue Duncan, who is omnipresent in Duncan’s tale. Indeed, the book exudes an earnest Leave It to Beaver charm, including Duncan’s repeated insistence that employees should just “call me Arne.” He shares touching profiles of schools and educators and moving accounts of his experiences with the families of students killed by gun violence. He shows admirable verve in describing his success working with a Chicago school system lawyer to find a contractual workaround to make an afterschool program logistically feasible, and his later willingness, as superintendent, to give “Freakonomics” researcher Steven Levitt access to the city’s test data in order to flag teacher cheating.

For all that, much of the volume reads more like campaign literature than the exercise in straight talk that he promises. Duncan calls for doubling or tripling the amount America spends on education, avers that “the vast majority of teachers are heroes who are defying the odds,” and courageously insists that—no what matter what others say—“[w]e must believe in free, high-quality public education.”

When it comes to more substantive questions, Duncan suffers from the tendency to divide the world into those who are “for the kids” and those who are not. He writes that, as a young Chicago Public Schools official, “I didn’t feel beholden to the office I worked for but instead to kids first.” When he agreed to serve as secretary of education, he reports, President-elect Obama told him, “Just do what you think is right for kids and let me worry about the politics.” Duncan relates a personal call with new Ohio governor John Kasich, during which Duncan tells Kasich, “I’m here for you, to help your kids. . . . [B]elieve me when I say that I have zero interest in politics.”
In Duncan’s telling, he has spent a career facing off against those who didn’t share his commitment to the kids, battling the “vested interests that are resistant to change and absolutely beholden to the status quo.” While he Continue reading: Arne Duncan's Unlearned Lessons: Review of "How Schools Work" by Arne Duncan - Education Next : Education Next

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