Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently held a press briefing in which he went after “armchair pundits” such as myself who are critical of his efforts to standardize education across the United States. Here’s a partial excerpt:
Also inhabiting this bubble are some arm chair pundits who insist our efforts to improve public education are somehow doomed to fail, either because they believe the government is incapable of meaningfully improving education or because they think education reform can’t possibly work since the real problem with schools is that so many children are born poor. In blogs, in books, in tweets, some pundits even say our schools are performing just fine and that fundamental change isn’t needed or that we have to address poverty first before schools can improve student achievement. Too many inhabitants of this alternative universe are so supremely confident in their perspective that they have simply stopped listening to people with a different viewpoint.
When I read this for the first time, I actually laughed out loud because Arne reminds me of Baghdad Bob:
Let’s start by thinking about who these “armchair pundits” really are. When you are finished reading this post, I encourage you to hit Google up for a search of education blogs related to CCSS and standardized testing. You will essentially find two different kinds of blogs. The first will be written by right wing Tea Party types who believe that CCSS is an attempt by Obama and Duncan to indoctrinate our children into socialism. These claims are ridiculous and are based more on hatred for all things liberal rather than logic or facts. The second type of blog you will find will be more like this one. EduSanity was started by two life-long public educators in the hope that we can help restore SANITY to the conversation about education in this country. There are many other blogs out there just like this one.
By calling me and others like me, “armchair pundits”, Arne is essentially telling you not to worry about what anybody but the government and a select group of corporate sponsored organizations (such as the NGA or CCSSO) say about education. Minister Duncan is using a well-worn rhetorical trick to bundle critics like those at Public School Shakedown with the misinformed and politically motivated basement bloggers so you will believe that all opposition to his destructive efforts at educational reform comes from extremists and amateurs.
I can’t speak personally for all of my blogger brethren who oppose corporate and federal government controlled educational reform, but I am neither amateur or extremist. First, I voted for President Obama – twice unfortunately. I vote for both Democrats and Republicans depending on the election and the candidates, and have little patience for extremism on either side of the aisle.
But politics aren’t really what is important here – credentials are. So let’s take another moment to think about whom Duncan is calling an “armchair pundit”. I am a lifelong public educator who has been working in schools in one capacity or another since 1998. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education as well as a MS and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. I am certified to teach K-12 in three states. My colleague, Dr. Goering, is National Board Certified. He is certified to teach wherever he pleases. I taught in a public middle school before becoming a teacher educator at the university level. I visit schools, conduct professional development and train future teachers. I conduct and publish education research in academic journals. I currently co-teach a graduate level course with my EduSanity colleague called “Reclaiming the Conversation on Education” in which we read widely on issues related to educational reform. Many of the other “armchair” pundits are people exactly like us – current teachers, professors, parents… etc.
Here’s what Arne has to say about people like us:
They are clearly not focusing on children and students. They are focusing, instead, on false debates. Fortunately, many people in the real world, outside the beltway and blogosphere, have tuned out this debate. They are too busy actually getting real work done. They’re focusing on students, whether they’re three years old, 13, or 33. All across America, states and districts are moving forward with courageous reforms. States are raising standards and expectations for students, and are piloting new and better assessments to show what students know and can do.
How ridiculously hypocritical is it for Arne Duncan to refer to people in the “real world”? The only time he actually ventures into a classroom is to hold up a book and take advantage of a photo opportunity with students. Hell, he probably doesn’t even bother to read the book to them. In the “real world” Minister Duncan doesn’t even have a background in education. Duncan became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools because he’s from Chicago and played basketball with Barack Obama back in the day. He hasn’t taught a single public school child – rich or poor – in his life. It takes some serious gumption to stand on his soapbox filled with no experience and tell others like me what the “real world” of education is like.
Duncan then takes hypocrisy to all new heights when he accuses us of focusing on “false debates”, because as Education Secretary he doesn’t actually engage ANYBODY in a substantive debate. He appears on friendly television shows and fields softball questions from fawning reporters. He answers questions on Twitter for an hour each week – picking only those questions that allow him to spew his rhetorical propaganda while he ignores questions that require substance. He stands behind the podium and laughs like Baghdad Bob at the silliness of those who oppose him and the power of the federal government. He refuses to actually engage in any sort of substantive debate with anybody who is actually qualified to question his reforms. This I can promise you: Put Arne Duncan on camera with me and a moderator and this armchair pundit would make him look like Sarah Palin looking for Russia out her window. It will never happen.
Arne the Education Secretary is playing the role of Arne the politician. If you look at his quotes above with a critical rhetorical eye you will see that Arne is not trying to bring American citizens and American educators together, he is trying to divide us. Many of the so-called “armchair pundits” he is referring to are practicing classroom teachers. These are the “courageous” educators who risk their jobs to stand up to the classist, racist and divisive education policies that Duncan and his corporate cronies have foisted on American school children. These “armchair pundits” are busy filling backpacks with bags of cereal and granola bars on Friday afternoons because their students may not get a meal over the weekend. These “armchair pundits” know that poverty is not an excuse – it is a reason. These “armchair pundits” know that a standardized corporate curriculum and a new onslaught of standardized tests don’t mean a damn thing when the children taking the test are sleeping in a car at night. These are not excuses. Poverty is a SOCIETAL problem, not a strictly educational one. Duncan would have you believe that poor performing schools are the reason children are poor. This is a flat out lie.
Arne also wants you to believe that schools and districts are “courageously” moving forward with reforms as though they actually have a choice. They have no choice. They must move forward with Duncan’s reforms or they will face the wrath of the federal government under NCLB. Duncan’s tactics are standard rhetorical trickery. He wants to divide and conquer by convincing the American people that states and schools are on his reform bandwagon while those who oppose his empty reforms are no better than educational insurgents – causing trouble for those who are toeing the company line. Duncan’s reforms have created a culture of fear in the upper levels of school districts and schools that would make George Orwell blush. I know this because I spend my time moving around the real world of education, while Arne moves between corporate boardrooms and government buildings. I see the effects of his reforms first hand, while he pretends all is well.
Our current circumstances are a direct consequence of giving a politician unprecedented power. My hope is that the American people are perceptive enough to see Arne Duncan for the amateur armchair educator he is.