Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Arne Duncan as Education Secretary: Reflections on Obama's Cabinet Choices

I’ve been ho-hum about most of Mr. Obama’s cabinet appointments. But the choice of Arne Duncan as education secretary interests me and even gives me reason for muted hope. It’s not that any of the previous selections have struck me as particularly bad. They have just been unexciting.

Most seem sound enough, if weighted a bit more on the side of centrist expertise than I’d have hoped. And by “centrist,” I’m referring not only to the ideological orientation of the cabinet choices. I’m referring as well to the provenance of those being selected. They’re from the usual power centers of American society; they have the predictable educational pedigree of such selections. They represent, in other words, the very folks who have led us right to the brink of economic collapse—and that concerns me.

The appointment of Arne Duncan does grab my attention, though. I knew next to nothing about Duncan before the appointment. What I’m reading strikes me as hopeful. I like that he has managed to maintain positive ties to the teachers’ union in Chicago while running a major metropolitan school system. He supported the failed plan to start a high school for gay-lesbian youth in Chicago—a good plan for a valuable project, which should have been implemented.

And, according to today’s New York Times, Duncan is a strong advocate for an initiative dear to the new president’s heart—an enhanced early childhood education program for youth across the nation ( This is an initiative we sorely need.

It’s no secret that the American educational system is in trouble—dire trouble. And at all levels. What seems to escape the attention of a public infatuated with scores “proving” that pupils can read, write, and cipher adequately (or proving the opposite, which is, unfortunately, more often the case) is that a good education is about more than acquiring basic skills.

It’s about entrée. It’s about ability to contribute in a participatory democracy. It’s about access to power and privilege in a society in which power and privilege (and the world’s goods) are inequitably distributed.

The most scandalous failure of our current educational system is its apparent inability to level the playing field by drawing the youth of marginalized communities inside. We have spent several decades lamenting the lack of basic skills among American students, and punishing educators and schools that work hard to inculcate those skills, while ignoring the most salient—the central and glaring—fact about our schools’ shortcomings. This is their inability to begin the process of educating youth on the margins at the critical early-childhood threshold—to begin the educational process in a way that draws these young folks into education and into the participatory structures of democracy for their entire lives.

Too many of our citizens are left outside. Too many of us not only live on the margins: we are left on the margins. We are left there by an educational system that does almost nothing to educate us, even when it graduates us and offers us degrees.

Early childhood education is critical because the early childhood phase is the make-or-break moment in the educational process. Fail to induct a youngster into the educational system at this threshold moment, and you’ve lost him or her for life. Society has lost this valuable citizen, and the talents this citizen brings to us, forever.

What strikes me as particularly promising about the choice of Arne Duncan for secretary of education is not so much his potential to address the manifold problems of our educational system. It’s his focus on what is the problem of the system, the core problem: its failure to reach children on the margins, particularly at the key moment of early childhood education.

The various educational reforms of recent neoconservative administrations have been, frankly, shell games. They have been shell games because they begin with the assumption that the most significant thing wrong with our educational system is its failure to teach basic skills. From there, they move to the punitive (and polarizing) assumption that schools should be rewarded or penalized on the basis of students’ scores on standardized tests.

What this neoconservative strategy entirely misses is the fact that many American students will never get to the point of meeting society's benchmarks in the areas of reading, writing, and doing math because they have not been reached at all by the educational system. Not, that is, in any way that counts, in any way that allows them to understand the importance of education to their entire lives. Not in any way that allows them to become educated.

They were not reached at the moment when reaching out and drawing in is most important: at the very beginning of their schooling. They will never be adequately taught, these students left behind, because our society and its schools have not cared enough to demonstrate to these marginalized young people their importance to all of us, as they begin their educations.

Until we address that social assumption—the assumption that we can live with marginality and do nothing about it—we will not being educating the majority of our citizens. Not adequately, that is.

And addressing that assumption is definitely going to take reform of how we train those who teach. The education departments of too many of our universities are, frankly, laughable. They are too often staffed by people too woefully uneducated themselves to educate any other human being.

And they are staffed that way from the top down. There are wonderful educators in many of our education departments. There are people in those departments who are willing to wear themselves out trying to reach students.

But these educators rarely control or even exercise much influence over the direction of schools of education. Instead, “professional” “educators” tend to predominate at the top of such departments—and at the helms of universities that sponsor schools of education. “Professional” as in trained—trained bureaucrats.

Many of those heading education departments and entire universities are people with doctorates in fields like education who are shockingly devoid of even the basics of education—of the depth and breadth of a liberal education that comprises wide reading, of interaction with educated people from many different schools of thought, and so forth. Too many professional educators approach the task of education as an administrative game. Too few understand it as what it is when it is done right: the challenge of reaching out and drawing in, particularly of reaching to and drawing in those on the margins.

Too many educators lack this perspective on what education is all about because their educational “training” has taught them to create nifty slide presentations or to crunch numbers in salary scales or how to craft a memo to avoid legal entanglements. But it has not taught them to understand how social structures work or how the human mind and heart function. The education of far too many educational bureaucrats is simply not education at all, in the classic sense of that term.

I hope that Obama and Duncan begin addressing these problems. It is high time that they do so. It is imperative that they do so, if we’re going to begin recovering our democracy.

Doing so will not be easy, however. It will require that they go up against the most powerful and least educated elites in our educational system—folks like the presidents and boards of trustees who run the universities. The folks who command the high salaries while assigning the hard work of education to shockingly underpaid and exploited faculty members such as those Gina Nahai discusses in a Huffington Post article earlier this week ( (Here's where the good relationship with the Chicago teachers' union will be valuable: the "professional" educators at the top are there because, on the whole, they resist adequate pay for the real educators beneath them.)

As long as the system producing the "educators" who have failed to educate several generations of American youth remains in place, not much is going to change. Nothing much has changed as we have allowed—forced is a better word—our schools to play the numbers game with standardized scores while failing to reach scads of our youngsters in any meaningful way.

And nothing at all will change as long as we allow grossly overpaid, soulless—and yes, corrupt; corrupted by their privilege and power over others—educational “experts” to run our educational shows. How can someone who does not understand or value what his or her own soul says—who does not have the tools to do that, tools provided by a real education—touch the souls of others?